ONLINE GAMES FOCUS: BioWare

Michael French
ONLINE GAMES FOCUS: BioWare

The problem with interviewing a games firm about its new MMO is the inevitable question you must ask. So, when MCV met doctors Ray Muzyka and Greg Zeschuk, the founders of BioWare, we asked it first, to get it out of the way.

“Not at all, no,” says Muzyka. “We’re really good friends with the guys at Blizzard and have a lot of respect for them. Mutual respect.”

Zeschuk adds: “We can happily co-exist. We’re not directly worried about the competition.”

The question, of course, was the obvious one – the one about the comparing Star Wars: The Old Republic and World of Warcraft. Is it the rival game a genuine concern for them, or is it a red herring?

As the biggest, most lucrative MMO on the market WoW has a formidable reputation to live up to, let alone challenge, even if you’re BioWare. But put aside the speculation about the venerable online game starting to wane (even if it is something everyone has a view on; check out the other MMO interviews on the following pages). Because World of Warcraft has set a precedent, so The Old Republic has to live up to it in terms of success and spirit at least, if not execution.

There are some similarities – both are large, sweeping, play-for-hours-in-detailed universe offering, with large-scale click-click-click battles wrapped in the subscription model – but Zeschuk and Muzyka say the similarities end there. 

“Blizzard helped expand the marketplace and create awareness of the potential of MMOs,” says Muzyka. “But The Old Republic has a lot of points of differentiation. It’s story-driven with full voiceover, has serious elements about personal consequence, and it’s also set in the Star Wars universe – so you get to take heroic or villainous roles that are inspired by the iconic characters from the movies.”

And where they are similar, he says such features “like progression, customisation and exploration” are “best in breed”. “It’ll have everything your expecting from an epic MMO.”

Zeschuk is plainer: “The market has become big enough. There are enough people that play other MMOs who now want to play something different. And capturing the Star Wars experience will bring in a large range of players.”

A LONG TIME AGO

With that out of the way, let’s go back to the beginning for The Old Republic. But really we should go back further in the history of BioWare itself first. 

It’s not often MCV features great whacking interviews with developers, which is what Muzyka and Zeschuk are first and foremost. Usually, with three months until launch, this is where the publishing establishment takes over to talk marketing and the importance of retail.

However BioWare is the ‘establishment’ now. Just two months ago, the collection of five studios and over 800 employees was made a dedicated label at EA with Muzyka and Zeschuk its joint presidents. The pair co-founded the studio in 1995 after meeting at medical school. BioWare was first known for PC games like Baldur’s Gate before expanding to console But now BioWare is a significant operation comparable in reputation, power and organisation to Blizzard.

It’s another example of EA CEO John Riccitiello’s progressive attempts to reshape and evolve the publisher into a ‘creator-led’ digital company. (The two had worked with Riccitiello when his stint at investment firm Elevation saw the studio bought and rolled up with now-defunct outfit Pandemic.)

It’s easy to see why BioWare has become so important to EA – as well as making some the best games of all time, it has pioneered the mix of physical and digital retail that EA so keenly wants to master.

“We embrace that fully,” says Muzyka. “Frankly, it’s the evolution of the market, it’s what consumers want. They’re buying games on new platforms now, they’re buying in different ways. There’s still a really strong place for retail and we’re going to support that. But we’re evolving with what consumers want and what our fans want to do.” 

Adds Zeschuk: “Within EA, we’ve been one of the groups driving that. We’ve proven with our DLC stuff that it’s a really big business. BioWare has also made Flash games and Facebook games – at EA we are trying go, get out there and push, push, push. So whether it’s Dragon Age Origins, FIFA Ultimate Team or Battlefield, we’re pushing that envelope.” 

EMPIRE?BUILDING

Despite all the progressive ideas, December’s launch of Old Republic is shaping up to be quite traditional.

This is a vast online undertaking with all the trappings of big budget games and classic MMOs – while available to download, it will be sold via retail in a box, and after that requires a regular subscription. It’s even having a smaller opening audience built into it so that EA and BioWare can properly scale the game up. And until recently BioWare hasn’t show any gameplay footage in a serious way – all the big reveals were glossy CG trailers.

But there’s something much deeper behind all that, says Zeschuk: “You almost need to play it for 30 hours to go ‘Oh I’m starting to get it now’. By the time most games are done you haven’t learned half the stuff you’re going to learn to play this game and that’s just the nature of it.”

Old Republic’s big milestones aren’t in the run-up to launch, anyway, it’s everything that happens after it goes live on December 22nd – rightly so for something hoping to live up to both the 30 year-old Star Wars saga and the now established MMO genre.

“We can pitch [and promote] it as much as we want but we want people to come and get a sense of it. It’s very, very broad. It’s immense. It’s that variety of actions that appeal to a larger range of people.”

Last month, BioWare opened a new customer service centre in Galway, Ireland dedicated to 24/7 customer service support for The Old Republic.

Explains Muzyka: “We’ve really invested in both the launch and the long-term service aspects of the game because this is not a ‘buy and forget’ game by any means. “We will support for years.”

INSIDE STORY

But for all the talk of new audiences and new ways to sell, The Old Republic is offering an established, beloved property. Doesn’t that focus on story-driven experiences contradict with the ethos of being a publisher like EA, where it’s all about franchises and business models?

No, says Zeschuk. In fact, it’s the game’s secret weapon. “Stories are one of the best ways to make money, look at the movie business,” he remarks. “One of our fundamental premises has always been that the reason we got into this is that we though it was economically a smart place to go.  

“The great thing is that as the genres we have worked in have evolved, we’ve been able to adapt our stories, scale them up, scale them down, streamline. It’s exciting and a great way to grow – and something we’re applying to the MMO.”

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Tags: interview , bioware , muzyka , zeshuck

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