Long before the announcement came down from the higher-ups, long before the “Deceived” trailer launched to entice Star Wars fans everywhere and before this year's PAX East actually allowed anticipating fans to play a portion of the game, all we knew was that BioWare was starting to lay the groundwork to build a full blown MMORPG.
At E3, 2006, Dana Massey sat down with Richard Vogel and Gordon Walton to discuss the future of the company who, at the time, hadn't yet dropped the first Mass Effect game, but seemed to be assembling a large development team to handle a new MMO. Check out what the two had to say, long before Star Wars: The Old Republic was one of the most highly anticipated forthcoming MMOs.
“[We] can’t discuss what we’re doing,” said Richard Vogel, BioWare Austin’s Studio Director of Operations. It was a glum beginning to an engaging interview. The setting, style and gameplay mechanics remain shrouded in mystery and will be there until the folks at BioWare decide to pull back the curtain. That said, we were able to talk to Vogel and Gordon Walton, Studio Director of Technology, about the company’s culture, their high-level goals and more.
“[There is] nothing like working for a company that’s all about quality,” explained Walton. The biggest thing they could stress was that no matter what, they are well funded, well organized and will be given all the time required to make their game the way they wanted to. BioWare, like Blizzard, does not rush things.
At this stage, BioWare Austin is a core team of a couple dozen developers who are hard at work designing and prototyping their game, a process which began late last year. It seemed as if Vogel and Walton would have been happier had no one knew so early, but the realities of hiring opened up the windows and let everyone know something was in the works. The duo said they have no plans to scale up to a full sized development team until they’re sure of what they’re building and their tools are done.
To help bring the game’s vision into focus, James Ohlen has moved to their Austin office. The ten-year BioWare veteran is the Creative Director for the entire studio. He worked on all the classics, like Baldur’s Gate, and will combine that single-player RPG experience with the MMO know-how of Vogel and Walton. He brings the signature BioWare design and storytelling to their project.
The primary high-level goal of BioWare Austin’s project is to apply that brand of storytelling to an MMORPG. They want NPCs to be more than “pez dispensers” and players to feel “epic”. Whatever they produce, it will be a story driven game.
Part of the problem for Vogel and Walton in the current crop of games is that a certain MMORPG developer clique seems to control all the major projects. By no means not a part of that clique, the two see BioWare as a chance to step outside the narrow MMORPG mindset and reevaluate everything about these games. In that spirit, they’re hiring mostly non-MMORPG developers in their Austin offices, which is not unlike what Blizzard did.
“[MMORPGs are] too MUD driven,” said Vogel, who was part of the original Ultima Online design team. “MMOs publish people way too much… I think MMOs are too hardcore.”
Vogel and Walton believe that the BioWare brand, combined with the quality of products they produce, can continue to expand the MMORPG market. Talking to the two, they seem to firmly believe that they have all the pieces in place to achieve mass-market success.
That’s not to say the two veterans are totally burnt out on this genre. The major asset MMORPGs have, according to both men, are their communities. They also noted things like crafting and economies as extremely interesting to them.
The two have been around a long time. Vogel said his favorite time was the first year of Ultima Online. It was a point when the genre was new and no one truly knew what would happen. The way the players broke the intended gameplay was actual where much of the fun was found. They also liked what Mythic did with realm vs. realm combat in Dark Age of Camelot, a PvP mechanic that they think no other MMO has topped to date.
“We want a global game,” they said, before adding that their initial focus will be North America. Walton added that MMORPGs in Asia were approximately four years ahead of North America in terms of penetration (the number of people willing to play) and technical infrastructure (connection speeds).
The big story of E3 was the consoles. Both men seemed excited by all three major offerings. “[We’re] extremely open,” they said to the idea of offering their games on consoles. However, they stressed that a simple port of their game won’t work.
To them, the PlayStation 3 is an option, but they do not yet know enough about it. The Xbox 360, being launched, is obviously a more known commodity, but there it comes down to whether or not they can make the right business deal. The Nintendo Wii won’t be ruled out either, but would present its own unique design challenges.
When discussing the Wii, they told us something that really hit home for their product as well. “Innovation has a high cost… failure.” It’s too early to get any grasp of what they’re doing, but if they follow the high level goals they discussed, it would appear that a major game company is finally willing to go out on that limb and take that risk, just as Nintendo has doing.
It's funny to me to look back on this article now. It's so hard to believe that a title, so shrouded in secrecy when it was first coming to fruition, is now so aggressively at the forefront of most MMO discussion. When a major release is in the works, the tiptoeing is different. Heck, rumours of a new MMO from Blizzard have been floating around the internet for years now, but we haven't heard word one of detail, or even firm confirmation. Funny, the way this business works sometimes.