According to BioWare founders Drs. Ray Musica and Greg Zeshek, they determined the success of their games by answering three key questions:
- «How fun is the game?» Is she able to drag the player so that he could not help but share his impressions with friends?
- «How accessible is the game for perception?». Is it possible, looking for five minutes, still have time to enjoy the process?
- And finally, «How rich and detailed is the game?». Did the developers manage to create a world filled with charismatic characters and exciting adventures? Is the player able to influence what is happening around him and feel like a part of this world?
Despite the company’s twenty years of successful experience in RPG development, it’s safe to say that BioWare’s aforementioned principles culminated in its biggest effort, the Mass Effect space trilogy.
Mass Effect (2007)
A couple of months before the release of the masterpiece Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic in 2003, BioWare began to think about their next step. In an alien universe, they managed to make a really good RPG, and the company was eager to try their hand at a completely new world.
Despite the fact that they started from scratch, the developers understood that they still needed a number of settings on which the further story would be built. One of these moments was the Normandy, a huge spaceship with a full crew. The writers of Mass Effect deliberately avoided the lone adventurer image, and instead made Captain Shepard the ship’s commander, thereby giving meaning to all his adventures. For the same reasons, almost immediately the main character is given the title of «Spectre» and endowed with all sorts of privileges, no worse than that of James Bond.
BioWare’s signature storytelling with multiple dialogue options and building a character’s reputation by earning Hero and Renegade points, along with the overall cinematic feel of the game, were immediately identified as the trump card of the franchise.
Cut-scenes director Shane Welborn: “The most important thing for me is how the story is told. If you do it haphazardly, then you’re just wasting the audience’s time. Your main task is to be able to transfer a person to where he has not yet been.
The main project designer Casey Hudson decided that unlike most sci-fi projects of the time, which were most often shown in gloomy colors, Mass Effect should take the player into a «polished», brilliant universe filled with bright colors. To create the desired setting, the developers were inspired by films such as «Red Planet» and «Solaris», as well as futuristic art from the 70s.
Another feature of Mass Effect was the customization of weapons and armor. At first glance, the system was quite diverse and well-developed, but as the developers themselves later admitted, in fact, the player manipulated the same objects, and the process itself was buried in an inconvenient inventory, which got tired of digging very quickly. The skirmishes themselves, despite the seemingly bulging action, were built with an emphasis on long distances. Initially, it was possible to switch between characters, as was the case in KOTOR, but this idea was later abandoned and the gameplay centered around giving instructions to the team.
Bioware has tried to give players an entire galaxy to explore, but it should be noted that the naked eye can see the costs of such a large-scale approach. Driving around on the Mako all-terrain vehicle, the thought does not leave that the locations could be much more detailed, and periodically attacking giant earthworms did not change the situation. Most of the buildings on the planets repeat each other, and, having passed one room, you understand how the rest are arranged.
At first, the developers’ ambitions also included the online component of the game, and specifically, the equipment trade. It was planned to include special locations in Mass Effect where players could communicate and exchange items with each other. Moreover, in the earliest stages of development, internal trading was seen by BioWare as one of the most important elements of the game, which was supposed to rally the franchise’s fan base.
Proper lighting was another important focus in development. Once the main design was complete, the team spent a huge amount of time making sure that the colors were presented in the right light, and most importantly, that they matched the intended style.
To create sounds, engineers tried to experiment with sources and adhered to the principle of minimal post-processing. This led to interesting results. For example, the growling heavy sound of the Reapers is actually an octave lowered sound of a garbage can.
Several composers worked on the music under the direction of industry veteran Jack Wall (Myst IV, Jade Empire), and, according to the musicians, they were inspired by the soundtracks of films from the 80s, such as Blade Runner, Risky Business, and » Inflammable look.»
As a result, Mass Effect fulfilled its main function — it declared itself in the industry as a completely new unfamiliar universe with great potential, albeit with its own shortcomings, which should not be passed by.
Mass Effect 2 (2010)
Instead of releasing an edited clone of the last installment, BioWare decided to try to make a small revolution with each title, at least within the genre, or at least within the franchise. To do this, the company objectively assessed its past experience and ruthlessly got rid of non-working elements.
The entire combat system was the first to go under the knife. Having removed the RPG component almost completely, the team spent about three months leveling and balancing the entire combat. If the firefights from the first part were reminiscent of KOTOR in terms of dynamics, then for Mass Effect 2 it was decided to make the battles continuous and remove the need to press “pause” every minute to build a chain of special moves. Ammunition appeared, and therefore the accuracy of shots became relevant, unlike the first part, where everything was decided by chance. This time it was impossible to run ahead with the key pressed until the weapon overheated. Mako rides were also removed, and part of the game was reduced to a mini-game of scanning planets for minerals.
Another significant and, in a sense, innovative moment was the ability to transfer saves from the first part to the second. BioWare originally conceived of Mass Effect as a trilogy, and they wanted the player to experience one whole adventure, not three different ones. All decisions of the player regarding the plot, or the chosen class, could be transferred to the sequel and continue to develop exactly their story. If the player chose to start all over from scratch, then the dialogues changed in such a way as to briefly talk about the previous events of the series.
The plot leitmotif of Mass Effect 2 was the gathering of the team to be sent on the final mission. At the same time, almost the entire scenario is tied around finding out the stories of all team members in turn and gaining their trust. Unlike the first Mass Effect, the tonnage of the setting has become much darker, conveying the atmosphere of the position in which the game’s heroes are.
Greg Zeschek says: “For Mass Effect 2, we developed the dialogue system so that the player can act according to his emotions and change the narrative in the direction he wants. At the same time, Shepard remains a mystery to the end, and at any moment he can surprise you with a completely unexpected act, thereby leaving room for unpredictability.
BioWare was very pleased with the result. According to the developers, the game came out even better than they had planned. And despite the fact that during development, all the problems fell on them at once, from the swine flu epidemic, team reduction and the global economic crisis, followed by budget cuts.
All this did not prevent the sequel from gaining much more laudatory reviews, both from critics and from ordinary players. Mass Effect 2 is still considered the best installment in the franchise, despite being nearly a decade old. Now, BioWare faced the task of a new complexity, because having accelerated properly, it was by no means possible to lower the bar of quality in the final part of the trilogy.
Mass Effect 3 (2012)
Development of Mass Effect 3 began as soon as the previous one ended. The team studied the feedback as it should and went into battle for the third time.
By this point, BioWare had a pretty clear picture of the perfect Mass Effect, as did fans of the franchise, and the developers wanted to bring the two versions together.
Casey Hudson recalls: “We were in a position where if you bring something new to the series — characters or fresh mechanics — the fans will immediately begin to scream that they don’t need anything new, and they want all the same things, but more. However, if a developer goes along with the public, he will definitely get back criticism for taking no risks and acting at a safe distance, so to speak.
So the development of Mass Effect 3 was more like polishing what had already been found with careful innovation than reinventing the wheel. Once again, the combat system of the game has undergone a correction, which has become even more convenient, this time supplemented by different melee attacks for each class. Jumping and climbing, Shepard became more agile, able to roll in any direction, and in general, he became much more intuitive to control. For the third part, some RPG elements were also returned: character leveling has become more detailed, and weapon customization is much more diverse.
In addition, BioWare finally carried out a long-standing idea and implemented the ability to play online in the game. The «Galaxy at War» mode is the capture of territories together with other three players, and the passage of these missions increases the chances of participants to get the so-called «Perfect Ending» in the final of the single company.
By the way, it was thanks to the scandal with the endings that Mass Effect 3 caused the most sensation. The franchise’s signature element, its player-driven storytelling system, should have blossomed into the most epic ending possible, but, unfortunately, the players weren’t happy. The range of claims was very wide. According to fans, the influence of the player’s actions on the choice of ending was reduced to zero, and the last hours of the game contained too many logical inconsistencies. In addition, an attentive fan eye did not miss the fact that, in general, the endings of all parts of the trilogy resembled one another.
It got to the point that the players completely refused to believe that all this was the work of the developers and even brought out the «Theory of Dope». According to the theory, all events that occur after Shepard’s attack by the Harbinger are nothing more than visions created by the Reapers. The main character himself is actually unconscious on Earth.
In the end, BioWare decided to give in, and released the free Extended Cut add-on three months later. In the DLC, the developers expanded the variability of the endings and chewed up some inaccuracies in the plot, but still failed to please the players.
It’s worth pointing out that while the last hours of Mass Effect 3 have upset a lot of fans of the franchise, it’s only because they really enjoyed everything that came before. Unfortunately, it was the opinion that gained popularity that with such an ending, everything else loses its meaning.
After completing work on the trilogy, Casey Hudson and the founders of BioWare left the company. Hudson is now a creative director at Microsoft, while Zeszek and Muzyka have moved on to brewing beer and investing in new technology, respectively. However, despite the departure of key BioWare employees, the history of Mass Effect, as you know, does not end there. Electronic Arts, which owns both the company and Mass Effect itself, decided that the potential of the franchise has not been exhausted and on March 21, 2017 released Mass Effect: Andromeda.
The events of the game are placed in the same universe, but 600 years after the main trilogy. The concept of the series has undergone significant changes, a serious emphasis on planetary exploration has returned, and in general Andromeda is more like a reboot of the franchise than its continuation. According to project director Mac Walters, this time they wanted to make a game in which, moving away from the main plot line, the player will not have the feeling that he is thereby leaving the universe to its fate.
Judging by the ratings already given and most of the reviews, the game did not make a splash to match the previous parts. Perhaps Andromeda could not surprise the players as before due to the presence of strong competitors in the face of the same Horizon Zero Down. Maybe it’s the lighter tone of the game compared to the previous parts and the excessive similarity of some elements with the ambiguously accepted Dragon Age: Inquisition.
One way or another, you should not put an end to the franchise just because it could not make a noise as it should the first time. After all, if Andromeda is really a restart, then it is possible that, as in the case of the original trilogy, the first part acts as a dispersal, and the series will truly reveal itself in the sequel. I would like to hope.