Summary: Ray Muzyka and Greg Zeschuk of BioWare were kind enough to spare some time from their hectic management schedules to answer some of Jakub's questions about BioWare. This in-depth interview goes into BioWare's past, present and especially the future. In addition, the two joint CEOs of BioWare offer their thoughts on the console vs. PC debate, from their unique perspective as elite developers on both kinds of platforms.
Ray Muzyka: Definitely the success is attributable to the smarts and hard work of our creative, passionate group of employees, now over 175 strong as of February 2004.
Greg Zeschuk: We’re very fortunate to have some of the best game developers in the world working at BioWare. The opportunity to work with the amazing people at BioWare is very exciting for us – Ray and I really relish the chance to help build both a great company environment and great games.
FiringSquad: Being located in Edmonton, despite initial impressions, actually seems like a boon. Although you may not have as much local talent as in California, you also don't have the competition or the inflated wages due to extreme living costs. In fact, Edmonton might just be the most economical place in the world to do business, without losing standard of living, and will help keep BioWare competitive against competition from eastern Europe. Would you agree with this assessment or have anything to add?
Ray Muzyka: Edmonton and Alberta’s economies have been booming over the past decade so the cost of living has definitely gone up a fair amount recently, but it’s still a great place to live and we’re very happy here. Taxes are low, the universal health care and government sponsored educational systems are appealing to families, and we have some world-class educational institutions here as well. We’re able to attract and retain great staff from all over the world.
FiringSquad: Despite the advantages of living and working from Edmonton, do you worry about employee emigration to American companies - for the California climate and pay?
Greg Zeschuk: Our two core values are quality in our products and quality in our workplace. We try our best make the best video games in the world, each one better than the last, and also try very hard to make a great place for our talented staff to work, so that they feel like they can make a career at BioWare. They’ve been very loyal (we had no one leave during the entire year of 2003) and our turnover rate over the past ten years is only about 3 percent per year, annualized.
SIDEBAR: I'd like to thank Tom Ohle, PR man extraordinaire, for extracting this interview from the two very busy co-CEOs.
How have you dealt with them? How big do you think you can get, or want to get for that matter?
Ray Muzyka: We’re not seeking growth for the sake of growth. Rather, we always try hard to increase the value of the company over time; we recognize that the demands of the discerning audience for our games continue to increase over time as they seek higher and higher quality games to play. Essentially, video game fans can only fit in a certain number of games in their limited time and entertainment budgets. As well, the costs of video game content have continued to escalate over time as more and more complex content is required for creating higher poly characters, more complex animation and game systems, and new rendering systems like normal mapping. Both of these factors together mean that team sizes continue to rise. As we are a multi-team company (working on 3-5 titles internally plus some external engine licensure partnerships) this means that our number of employees continues to rise over time.
FiringSquad: Do you see BioWare making an attempt at becoming a publisher, like Maxis tried in the early '90s? Perhaps you'll try the Rockstar route - acquiring developers and solidifying them under one brand?
Greg Zeschuk: While we’re interested in pursuing digital distribution where we sell high-quality content online directly to our loyal community of more than 1.6 million registered users, we’re not planning to become a traditional retail publisher. We have great partnerships with publishers like Atari (Neverwinter Nights), LucasArts (Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic) and Microsoft (Jade Empire) and we respect their expertise in retailed package goods, distribution and retail marketing. Even though we’re kept very busy making great games we find the chance to create a new digital distribution model very exciting!
FiringSquad: Ray Muzyka and Greg Zeschuk are, without doubt, the two most motivated individuals I have ever met. Everything from picking up potential employees in Greg's old beater at the airport ("all it needs is a push to start"), through remembering the names and faces of an endless list of press members and close fans, to managing the everyday details of the company - how do you do it? More importantly, how do you stay motivated despite your success? What keeps you at work, rather than buying a house and Benz S-class in Barbados?
Ray Muzyka: That does sound tempting (laughs) but really, we love what we do here at BioWare. We’re incredibly lucky to be able to work at our dream jobs, with great people like the employees of BioWare – all of them are smart, creative, passionate and hard-working and it’s an honor to represent them as BioWare’s Joint CEOs. Our fans and the press are great as well so it’s a real pleasure to be able to interact with them. I always find it a great honor - amazing and surreal - meeting fans who have played games we have developed like Baldur’s Gate, Neverwinter Nights, Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic, MDK2 etc. and enjoyed them, and hopefully we can continue to make even greater games in the future at BioWare. Both Greg and I could certainly be working as medical doctors now still (our original profession and training was as medical doctors; we both stopped practicing medicine about 4-5 years ago once BioWare became too busy to allow us to practice part time on the weekends [we did this mainly ‘for fun’]) but frankly, we like what we do now (making video games) a whole lot more.
SIDEBAR: I caved and bought KOTOR on the Xbox first, I couldn't wait for PC.
Ray Muzyka: Microsoft has been a great partner both for Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic (published by LucasArts for Xbox as well as PC in 2003) and for our upcoming action-RPG Jade Empire (also for Xbox, to be published by Microsoft in Q4 2004; in Jade Empire you get to roleplay as a martial arts master in a BioWare-created world based on the myths and legends of ancient China). Microsoft has been very supportive and helpful to us on both projects, and they seem to really value BioWare as a key partner in the role-playing genre. The Xbox as a system has been great as well – it’s a fantastic system to develop on in terms of its technology and it’s great to see it emerging as a solid #2 behind Sony’s PS2. We’re certainly interested in working again with Microsoft and possibly other great publishers as well in the future on our upcoming titles.
FiringSquad: BioWare has always made PC games, or PC and console games. Now this will change with Jade Empire. Do you have concerns of a community backlash?
Greg Zeschuk: We definitely plan to support both PC and console in our future titles. While Jade Empire (a BioWare-owned IP) is currently slated as an Xbox-exclusive title, we might consider porting it to PC some time after it launches on Xbox, after discussing this further with our publisher Microsoft. We definitely plan to support our PC community with some awesome future titles, details on which are not yet announced – we can say, however, that some of these titles are currently planned as PC-exclusive, others are console-exclusive, while others will be co-developed for both console and PC, similar to how Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic was developed for PC and Xbox.
FiringSquad: Do you think the PC can survive as a viable gaming platform? The fight against warez was very public in the late 90s, with the release of CD burners and incoming propagation of broadband. Yet now, with apps like Kazaa and Bearshare, a free game is a click and a few hours at work or napping away. How serious is the problem, in your mind, and what do you think we can do to stop it?
Ray Muzyka: Piracy is definitely a problem, not only on PC but also on console (e.g. through the rentals market). We have some ideas in mind to help keep piracy in check, such as the CD-key-check system and online community registration for extra features which we put into Neverwinter Nights. Ultimately, we depend on our fans to support us as a developer – hopefully the quality of our titles will continue to persuade them to buy our games rather than pirate them. We really value the support of our fans, and it allows us to stay in business and build new games.
SIDEBAR: Pongky hates it when I say 'This is the end, my only friend' in Random Facts.
Greg Zeschuk: Both systems (PC and console) definitely have their advantages, and we plan to develop both for PC as well as console in the future. The Xbox Live features have caught on at a higher rate than the corresponding features on PS2, and the fact that the broadband capability is built into the Xbox probably helped a lot with this. Given the closed nature of the Xbox, it would be very hard to create a game like Neverwinter Nights on the system, where a huge amount of content is developed by the community and traded among various players. The PC can certainly do some very interesting things with connecting people – that’s the benefit of the open system, but it certainly comes at a significant cost.
FiringSquad: There are rumors than Xbox 2 won't have a hard drive, and in fact none of the upcoming consoles will. From a developer's perspective, do you think it's wise for a console manufacturer to remove such a source of large, permanent storage?
Ray Muzyka: Developers would figure out how to make great titles on almost any system given time, but removal of the Xbox hard drive would certainly make creation of large-content games like RPGs more challenging. BioWare would certainly be up for the challenge to make even better games in the future though!
Greg Zeschuk: It’s also worth noting that the cost-to-size ratio for other sources of data storage has been rapidly dropping over the years thanks to devices like digital cameras and PDAs. It’s hard to tell what the future might hold for data storage on the next generation of consoles, but they’ll certainly have a number of options at their disposal.
FiringSquad: BioWare makes RPGs, and crafts them well - arguably better than anyone. MDK2 was not the financial success one could have hoped despite being well-received by critics. Has this soured BioWare permanently on non-RPGs? Do you believe that specializing in RPGs leaves the company more open to financial hardship due to unexpected turns in gamer tastes? Are you concerned that BioWare might go the way of SSI after RPGs and turn-based strategy games slumped?
Ray Muzyka: We’re quite interested in merging some of the features of different genres in with those of “traditional” RPGs. For example, the upcoming Jade Empire martial arts action-RPG includes features which will appeal to RPG fans, action-RPG fans, and action-adventure fans. We think that by including features of different genres in our games, we’ll broaden our fan base and continue to appeal to a large group of both hard-core and mainstream game fans.
SIDEBAR: I first visited BioWare in late 1998 to see Baldur's Gate, at the invitation of concept artist John Gallagher, long before I had a job writing about games.
Ray Muzyka: The key to success, particularly in the RPG or action-RPG genres, is quality. Our fans are very discerning and smart about which games are good and which ones are not – the word of mouth made possible through the internet communities ensures that fans know about which games to buy very soon after they are released. Quality is extremely important to our fans – they have limited budgets both in terms of cash and time, and I think that we (as developers and also our publishers) have an obligation to our fans to continue to push the bar on the quality of our games. If we continue to do this at BioWare (and we definitely plan to!), they’ll continue to buy BioWare games in the millions. I would go further to talk about the industry as a whole; I’d suggest that video games as an entertainment medium have the potential to continue to edge out television and film as our audience gets older and new users enter the video game fan-base, and I think that video games (i.e. interactive electronic entertainment) have the potential to ultimately become the dominant entertainment format, though probably not for 10 years or more in the future.
FiringSquad: Thanks for your time, and good luck with Jade Empire and
your as-yet-unannounced PC game!
Ray Muzyka: Thanks – we appreciate the opportunity to talk with you! We actually have three BioWare-created Intellectual Properties (IPs) in development – Jade Empire (an action-RPG where you get to roleplay as a martial arts master, to be published for Xbox in Q4 2004 by Microsoft) is one of them, but we have two others which are not yet announced!
SIDEBAR: Brett Todd and I disagreed over his Baldur's Gate review, again, long before I was writing professionally. He was writing for Games Domain at the time.
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