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To learn more about the first game in the series, we fired several questions off to BioWare joint CEOs Ray Muzyka and Greg Zeschuk, as well as producer/project director Casey Hudson. The questions and their answers:
GB: When did development of Mass Effect first begin?
Ray: We've been working on Mass Effect for some time now looking back through my emails, the first one I could find (on a quick review) was from summer 2003, soon after we shipped Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic for Xbox. At that time we were working away on Jade Empire and the KotOR team leads were eager to work on an exciting new IP, having just come off KotOR, a project that they really poured their hearts and souls into. Greg, Casey and I spent some time talking about the vision for the project for the first few months as the rest of the team finished up the PC version of Knights. Soon after that, the core team leads started to come onto the project and project vision and design really began to take shape! We have a great team working on Mass Effect hardworking, passionate, creative, and really inspired by the project vision.
GB: Were there a lot of challenges associated with working on an Xbox 360 title well before the console system would actually debut?
Ray: There are always challenges working with early development systems of console platforms, but the great thing is that Microsoft, our publisher on Mass Effect, has been very supportive and really believes in both Mass Effect and the Jade Empire franchise. So many of the technical hurdles have been overcome thanks to their support.
GB: Can you give us a brief overview of the game's character creation system? From what we've heard so far, it sounds like you're going to be allowing for much more customization than we've seen in your past games when it comes to the overall look of a character.
Greg: Mass Effect's character creation system is fundamentally based on customization: you'll be able to customize many visual elements of your character before you start the game, and during the game your character's appearance will change based on the type of armor and equipment being used. In addition to visual customization we've got a deep role playing system in Mass Effect that players will also use to further differentiate their character because it is squad-based game we are aiming for significant differences between characters to fulfill our goal of a strongly tactical combat system where success will depend on the type of characters you're using and the actions you chose!
GB: BioWare's previous RPGs always contained a huge variety of weapons, armor, and other gear for players to equip their characters with. Do you plan on implementing a large number of items in Mass Effect, as well? If so, what sort of system will weapons and armor use to scale in power? If not, do you feel a lack of equipment might alienate some of your current RPG fans?
Greg: Mass Effect will feature a huge range of weapons, armor and items to keep even the most passionate role playing fan fully engaged. As mentioned above, your character's appearance will change based on the armor being used so you get a combat payoff as well as a visual payoff for your progression in the game.
GB: Baldur's Gate and Neverwinter Nights had sorcery, Star Wars: KotOR had force powers, and Jade Empire had mystical styles and transformations. Will we see characters with any sort of non-physical powers or abilities in Mass Effect?
Greg: The world of Mass Effect features a powerful physical force based on dark matter, and humankind's harnessing of this power is fundamental to the story of the game. Mastery of these powers is one of the paths that characters can follow through the game.
GB: Will players be able to directly control any of their squad members on the fly? If so, what options will players have for the AI of the other two squad members that are not under direct control?
Casey: Yes, players will be able switch over to control either of the other two squad members in real-time. We're not talking in much detail about squad control yet, but you'll be able to set the weapons and tactics of your squad members so that they can fight on their own while you press the battle.
GB: Tell us about the game's planets. How will we travel to them and what sort of landscapes, environments, and species can we expect to encounter while exploring them?
Casey: Mass Effect is an IP of tremendous scope. Each planet or quest is, in a sense, an (episode) of Mass Effect with a surprising and original theme. Over the course of the entire game, you will have experienced a wide range of strange and exciting locations and experiences. You'll travel around the galaxy in a state-of-the-art starship. Inside, you'll be able to explore several different decks and talk with crewmembers about your mission.
The locations for the main story are actually set within an even larger exploreable part of the galaxy. We were looking forward to creating our own IP for a number of reasons, one of them being the possibility to expand the scope of player experience beyond what we've been able to do previously. In Mass Effect, one of the most exciting new features is the ability to truly explore the galaxy that surrounds the main story. Without going into too much detail (yet!), you'll be able to navigate through deep space to a large number of star systems, then orbit uncharted planets and even explore their surfaces on foot. This is a completely non-linear exploration experience for the player, which ties into the main story in some really fun and rewarding ways.
GB: You've stated that the game will allow for planetary exploration that is not directly related to the main quest. How many gameplay hours can players expect from Mass Effect when strictly following the main quest as opposed to exploring every side quest and facet of the game?
Casey: It's difficult to give specific numbers for gameplay length until a game is complete. At this point though, we would estimate that the main story could be done faster than in Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic, but to complete all sub-quests, and explore the Uncharted Worlds, would undoubtedly take much longer. In addition, we plan on extending the main story and the exploreable worlds through downloadable content after the game is released.
GB: Since you're already planning to create a trilogy of Mass Effect games, will it be difficult to provide players with a sense of closure at the end of the first two? How much development time do you anticipate will be between each game in the series?
Casey: A deeply satisfying, emotionally powerful ending is extremely important to a great game experience especially when our focus is on a really enjoyable story. Since that's an absolute requirement for us in each game, it's something we won't consider compromising. Instead, our challenge in creating a great trilogy has more to do with how each subsequent game starts off in a way that has satisfying continuity with the player's achievements in the previous game. Part of our solution to that is in creating downloadable adventures in between games that set up a compelling situation for the start of the following game. Without giving away too many details, our goal is to allow a player to create a character for Mass Effect and play that same character across three major titles and additional downloadable adventures over the entire lifetime of Xbox 360, through the most epic science fiction adventure ever told!
Thanks for answering our questions, guys! We look forward to hearing more about the game as development continues.