BioWare co-founders Ray Muzyka and Greg Zeschuk have been quite busy answering interview questions lately, with the most recent batch surfacing over at GameInformer. For this particular Q&A, the doctors talk about building the BioWare brand, their acqusition by Electronic Arts, continuing the Mass Effect franchise beyond a trilogy, utilizing settings that aren't considered mainstream, and more. An excerpt:
What do you think is more important for a game, setting or story? Many of your games have been set in fairly traditional fantasy settings, or a traditional sci-fi settings. Jade Empire stands out in that its setting was unique and largely untapped by the video game market. Why do you think so many games are set in fairly traditional settings, and what do you think is the risk in setting a game somewhere less mainstream?
We tend to focus first on setting and then on story and character, because the setting typically forms the foundation of the game, from which you can build the story, characters, art style, and so on; setting also dictates a lot about art style and also helps define the required technology, so you need to get started on that stuff early.
This next point is going to sound a bit odd and potentially a bit in conflict to the prior point, but it seems true: we think a good story can live in almost any setting. It seems like the common element of the best stories is that they are quintessentially human in some respect, and usually feature emotionally compelling stories (there are many different emotions of course, so stories can be incredibly varied in the way they impact the audience), and as long as you've got humans, or something that approximates humanity (as Avatar has taught us) you can develop a compelling story.
Finally, the answer to the last part of your question may be the most fairly straightforward: games that take place in exceedingly unusual settings generally have a greater risk of commercial failure. People seem to tend to like things that they are familiar with - and the further you go away from known territory, the greater the commercial danger. Unfortunately the result with some projects can sometimes seem to be rehashing the same old thing time and time again. New settings can work too of course the key is retaining familiar elements even in the unfamiliar, and retaining emotionally compelling elements.