Inside the Games: Ray Muzyka, CEO of BioWare

Editor’s Note: We at TGR get a lot of chances to talk with people within the industry, but few of such occasions excited us as much as our interview with BioWare’s CEO, Dr. Ray Muzyka.

TGR: How did you get to be where you are?

Ray Muzyka: I believe that if you work hard and you get good people to work with you, if you remain humble and you take feedback and integrate that into your process, if you are ambitious and are always striving to figure what you are about and what your fans want and build the games for them, then you can achieve amazing things. But it takes time. The other week, or last month I guess, we built a new video for our new partners at EA, just kind of showing them what some of the sales folks are like and where we have come from as a studio. We combined all the past products together in this one video that was about 15 minutes long, and it was amazing to see that because you see the evolution. We did not have any footage of Shattered Steel, our very first game; however, we did have Baldur’s Gate and the Baldur’s Gate franchise, Knights of the Old Republic, Jade Empire, Mass Effect, and Vindicate 2.

This really helped show off our evolution as a studio, and our focus on characters and narrative and story-driven gameplay, as well as striving for emotion in games. That is what our vision as a studio is, to really have an emotional connection with our players. We believe this is an art form, and we are part of that. Our industry is an emerging art form. The big part of that is the human connection and the emotional mind with your fans. You can do that in many different ways, whether it is a sense of awe and excitement because you are going to travel new worlds or to instill fear as you are in combat. It causes you to really care about the people that are part of your company and take pride in your accomplishments and achievements. These are all emotionally valid expressions of the art. I think games have this ability to make you both the actor and the director of the experience at the same time.

TGR: What do you think about some of the critiques concerning games saying that they are almost too immersive, specifically when it comes to violence?

RM: I think, like all media in art forms, there is a range of expression. You look at movies, and it is very hard to categorize movies into one small bucket because they are such a diversity of expression. When you think about the story threads in a movie, there is one main one typically, maybe a few are interwoven, but they are also very linear. You watch it in a certain order. Most movies are like that and books are the same way. They are linear media, but they are powerful expressions of art. Games are too. I think you are starting to see a nexus of change, where there is a rapid change in the industry, as you are seeing a lot of things come together. Games are so diverse now, that it is hard to categorize them in one way. Is it this or is it that? I mean with the Wii, those are games, but they are toys as well. I think it is as much about the social interaction of the people playing the game together, as it is about the interaction of the game. That is new, right? The same with the DS, it is the interactive view, the touch screen and the various other things you can do. It’s the same with console gaming and PC gaming, it is no longer as simple as saying, “That is the shooter. That is a RTS. That is an action game. That is RPG.” There is a lot more nuance.

Mass Effect is a story driven game with combat and exploration. You are going to explore, and you tip the sphere on humanity on a galactic stage. You are fighting off a threat from aliens. It has artificial intelligence versus organics. There are a lot of themes that go through the games. There are a thousand stories interwoven, where you have an infinite amount of possibilities. Non-linear media can a lot of different things. So I think to answer your question, you really have to first answer the question, which game are you talking about and which specific aspect of that game? Because not only are there so many different types of games out there for all ages, but there are different types of gameplay, different ways of telling a narrative and story, different platforms and different ways of playing the games now, too. The control systems and interfaces are becoming so innovative that I think it is just like movies, and it is becoming a more mature industry. And with this, you are seeing a lot of nuances that you didn’t see with games like Asteroids or Pong. That was a long time ago, and games have moved well past that point. They are really in a market, and they are an emerging art form. It is a commercial art form, but definitely an art form.

To me, it almost feels like the technology and entertainment fuses together and shapes the industry. And it is an exciting time to be part of all this. It is really exciting, because every year you see something and say "Wow." You can’t imagine that they have done that, but they did. Where are we going to go in five years?

We allow people to fulfill inspirational fantasy worlds. All these things are role-playing, in a sense. I am kind of biased, but I believe everything involved in role playing, because it is all about what role you are fulfilling, and what inspirational fantasy you would enable. With the technology, you use a tool that allows you to convey a story or a narrative and emotion more clearly and more concisely and more precisely every time that you release a game. If the evolution of the technology enables that, then you can just rush people in to more and more credible compelling worlds.

TGR: Do you see yourself moving down that path with the external type of devices?

RM: I always look at it. They had this question a few times during the week on the panel I was on about how do you approach the design? You need to know who you are, and what your innovation points are. You know who you are selling to, what they want, and what you are building. And all together, the business mold falls into that as well, so does the technology and whatever apparatus or however you are delivering it. It all has to be congruent, so you have to know who wants to buy it, and why and what do they want to play. Why and what are you building, and why and what are you really good at, something you are better at than anybody else in the world. Everything else you are doing should flow out of that. If these things enable us to do it, yes, it is great, but we are not going to do them just for the sake of doing them. We wouldn’t want to do them unless they will make our games better than anything else.

It is commercial art. It is a healthy process because it means people are pulling it, you are not pushing it. It is not just sitting there empty. It is actively being consumed. I think that it is really neat to think that your game is being played by millions of people. And that it may be affecting people the same way it did when I was a kid. I have really positive memories of that. It was really fun, and if I could help my teams to help reach people in that way with things that we are developing, I mean I am really excited about that idea.

TGR: Well, I know I played your games growing up. Are you trying to attract different audiences today than you did early on?

RM: When we showed the video of all our outtakes and videos of gameplay from all our past games, people asked, “Well, where are you going?” Watch this and then you will see, because there is a very clear path of where the characters are going in the story and exploration. And even though every game is quite different, if you look at our portfolio now, both of the announced and the unannounced stuff, it is actually all over the place in terms of different audiences we are targeting. Yet there is probably a group of people who play everything we ever make, and we don’t want to lose them. We are always trying to extend that and reach a new audience with every game, as can be seen with Sonic Chronicles on DS. It is a new audience for us. But it is still going to feel like a regular game, but it is also going to be kind of different.

TGR: So how far ahead internally do you plan when it comes to games?

RM: We look at it in different levels of detail. So we plan the next two to three years in quite a bit of detail, while the next five years are in more moderate detail, and the ten years is maybe in more of a theoretical type of planning, where would we see ourselves going. Really then, there is no end point on these. The great thing about our industry is there is no point where you are done. It can always get better, right? Because even when the technology has reached the level where it is just seamless, and everyone has access to the same tools and tech, there is still a division.

Have you made something that will touch people and create that emotional connection? That is what I am most excited about. We are reaching that point now, where visual fidelity is not really the barrier anymore. It is up to us now to make the mocap, the animation, the textures, and the facial expressions all across the uncanny valley to reach something that actually touches people.

With cinema, you could watch a horse walk in, or a train coming into the station and it was so cool because it was just like events. There is a non-emotional event which then progressed into silent film, BO, color, and then special effects. But now, it is all about what is the story and the narrative, and the characters and whether you care about them. It has probably taken 100 years of cinema to get to that level. Games are maybe 30 years old, depending on what exactly you count as a game. But what is the next 30 years of games going to be like? It feels to me like we are kind of somewhere in there right? So if that is the past, what could be achieved in the future is almost unimaginable. And you also want to go to science fiction or fantasy, to try and guess what possibilities there are.

TGR: Where did your career start, and what would you recommend to people who want to get into the industry or even want to start a studio.

RM: Well I am from a Medical Doctor background, as is Greg. We loved games, but we never even talked much about forming a studio. We just had lunch one day, and we have been playing games all of our life and all through med school. Well, we both were practicing at that point. I did emergency for a while, and he did geriatric stuff. We always kind of talked about our favorite games. It was like, "Why don’t we just take whatever money we have made as doctors and put it all into a studio and just start it up." So within an hour basically it was like, “Yes, that is a good idea.” We didn’t think about it much actually, which is probably good in retrospect.

We went with our passion, and actually, the great thing is that we hired great people. And a lot of the people stayed with us over years, and with our first two games, not a single person on the team had ever made a game before Litchi Steel and Motorskate. We had 60 people, and not one had ever worked on any game, and some of the guys had never even used computers before. Our lead designer was at a comic book store, he was the best DM in his hometown for D&D. We had heard, “Hey he is a sharp mind, he has a lot of promise.” Another guy was a tech artist that carved ducks that had never used a computer before, and we figured that he had 3D skills, maybe he can translate that. So a lot of inferring about the quality of the people.

I think the key is that if you want to start out and be successful, you have to recognize it is a team effort. If you get good people around you, and you treat them with respect, they will do amazing things. Let them do their craft, do not micro-manage them. Give them goals and broad ambitions, and then let them fulfill those, because they are always going to exceed every expectation you give them. I think if you give them the freedom and the runway to do some amazing things, they can. And you know, if you have to have the fun in the process and play all of your own games before the ship to find the bugs and give some feedback and see some of that stuff actually make it into the game, well that is fine too.

That’s the fun part of the day for me, when I actually attend a triage or something and just kind of sit in the corner and maybe once every 20 minutes, I say something. It might get used or maybe it won’t. It is a matter of talking through the ideas, so if it is not a good idea, then it will not get used, basically.

TGR: What is your favorite game of all time?

RM: Well, there are five. It is probably System Shock 1. It came in 1993 or 1994, and it was a very hard game to play. It was a looking glass, and some of the stuff you have seen in BioShock and with Ken Levine’s team, which is actually in my top favorite 10 games as well. So it is like a cluster of some of them. Ultimate Underworld is up there. Woodrick 1 is probably my second or third favorite game. It was released in 1981 or 1982 or something like that on the Apple 2. But System Shock came in 1993 or 1994, I think. I played it four times start to finish. It is not a game I necessarily recommend people copy, as it is actually really hard to play, but its depth was groundbreaking. Full 3D world, with this nuanced kind of storyline, and this incredible villain that you empathized with, even though you did not like the villain. There was a lot of complexity and depth in that universe, and you are always on this trail of voice recordings. I am one step behind, and I have to save them. If you are one step behind, you have to save them. Great progression systems, great music, and very great example of a craft I think.

TGR: Well, thank you so much for your time.

RM: Thank you.

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