An unabridged behind-the-scenes transcription of an hour-long roundtable discussion with a group of RPG gurus... part five of six.
During gamescom, I had the privilege of sitting in on what was called the RPG influencer’s breakfast. It involved a few key heavy hitters from the RPG world: Dr Ray Muzyka (BioWare co-founder), Ken Rolston (of Morrowind and Oblivion fame), Dr Greg Zeschuck (BioWare co-founder) and Eugene Evans (BioWare Mythic general manager). Pete Stewart from Edge Magazine in the UK was in the MC seat. Readers of Atomic magazine would have seen choice quotes from this breakfast in a couple of Engine Room articles, but now you can read the full transcription.
In this fifth chapter of our six-part series, the RPG maestros peer into their respective crystal balls for the future of RPGs and whether the genre always needs an evil bad guy at the end of the tale.
Pete: Sorry, we’re coming to the end so I thought that I’d very quickly, before we start the Q&A session, I just wanted to ask you all what you thought was the future of RPGs. What you thought RPGs will look like tomorrow and what the kinds of technologies and trends which will shape the RPGs that you work on next.
Ray: I think the multiplatform issue of the videogame business now and enabling players to experience the universes we create anytime, anywhere. And it’s up to us as creators to find a way to enable them to enjoy that, no matter how they want to experience it: whether they want to play it in a social setting, whether they want to play it as a mobile game or on a console or PC; long play sessions, short play sessions. It’s up to us to find a way to make that accessible and powerful and emotionally engaging so that they feel compelled to come back.
Ken: I don’t want the product to change all that much. I want the process and the production process to improve, and I want the tools to improve so that we can iterate faster. I want us to be able to polish what we intend to do faster because iteration is the way you make a better thing. I think we’ve got great profit.
Greg: Yeah, I mean, I find, y’know, with... in the online space it’s really interesting. Like, that flexibility of business models right now is probably, y’know, it’s actually fragmenting things really interestingly. Y’know, I can’t imagine someone taking a massive risk on a truly AAA free-to-play game yet, but that’s gonna happen. Someone’s gonna say, “Hey, we’re gonna spend $30-million on a free-to-play game and people’s jaws are gonna drop,” and they’re gonna go, “You're crazy!” But it may be worth it.
Eugene: Unless they’re in China where they’re already doing it.
Greg: I don’t think they’ve spent that much, yet. Then again, World of Tanks... I’m a World of Tanks addict! That sort of fragmentation is really interesting. There’s so much out there right now and it’s just getting bigger and bigger, and I think the democratisation of our platform bases is really exciting because... if you wanna play a different game every day go on your iPhone and download a different game forever. Some of those RPGs there are some really clever ideas and it’s very, very exciting to see how dynamic the space is and how the expectations as well as what your assumptions are, change completely. I think that’s actually... that’s why it’s so hard to predict, because you’re like, “Okay, a couple of years ago there was no iPhone and now it’s the dominant gaming place.” I think that the one thing that I imagine that, scary enough, isn’t too far off, is where you throw your phone down on the desk and press the button to go off that screen and have a virtual controller and be playing off that on my portable console. That’s, like, only five years ago, it’s crazy. Protoplasm consoles are 10 years off.
Eugene: No, I mean, I can only agree with everything that’s already been said. I think the most... the always-connected person, the person with the phone that’s as capable as it is now and will be in the next couple of years, means that they expect that to be part of their everyday life. We should expect that to be part of their everyday gaming life. And the opportunity to make that an extension of what they’re doing in a game, is going to be very, very powerful; both as a way to keep them engaged--because you only have so much time to play--but you do have time when you’re on the bus, you do have time when you’re waiting around for whatever. It’s a way to keep them engaged and re-engage them so that they’re going to want to get back online to play the game. They’re going to want to get back to their couch, their desk, wherever it is to play. And that’s only going to, I think, create more excitement around games, because that excitement comes from being pulled back into that universe all the time.
Ken: Another fantasy is I just spent a weekend with Brian Nevelson, an old friend of mine. And our fantasy is, wow, something… I’d really love to do, in our declining years, a role-playing game together ‘cause we bring completely different perspectives and his perspective on as the lead design at Zinga, instant iteration. Any 25 minutes we can make something new. So the places where we’re working, our access and production, is so expensive and we’re very risk averse. There [at Zinga], wow, “This week let’s go mad, let’s just do something crazy.” And I wouldn’t look there to find maybe not what is recognisably a role-playing game, but the things that can be done ‘cause they can do it and fail and then move on and then do ‘em and fail and move on a lot more faster than we can.
Ray: Y’know when you get tested, do we test instantly and then, based on player behaviours, turn around and direct which path you go down and you have a small team that create tools... it allows a lot of different concepts to come to light. One of the things... to counter all of this, y’know, lots of people ask, what’s the future? Where’s the great innovation gonna come from? I would argue, and I just read an article about this which made me remember, that a lot of the great innovations when they’re applied in industries, in videogames, have actually been things that have been around for many, many years. You just have to look at different industries, different technologies, see how people are using interface design, how they’re accessing content on the internet, how they experience their day-to-day life and see what’s there. The people are starting to embrace from a daily activity and see what can be applied to games. And I think that the next innovation in games actually often comes from observations about what people have been doing for the last 5-10 years in a different space. You just have to be creative. The realisation is looking at it in a different light and not just being stuck in the moulds of the past.
Eugene: Look at Facebook gaming. People discovered Facebook as a social phenomenon and a way to connect with friends and have gained it by ‘how many friends can I gather?’ Then they started introducing games and the successful ones played off of that collectible mentality and I want to gather things and share them with their friends and, before you know it, we had a whole group of people that were gaming who, arguably, wouldn’t’ve been in any material way before. You’d ask them, “Are you a gamer?” And they’d say, “No.” “Do you play Farmville?” “Well, yes.”
Pete: I think we’ve gotta open it up to questions as we are running out of time. So has anyone got any questions for the panel?
Random journo 3: You were talking about the importance of setting in an RPG, but in the end, we’re always fighting these great and dark evil and I was wondering if this was a requirement.
Ken: It’s a structural requirement in the same way that narrative... I mean, it has to be there. And I’ve always provided and expect experienced players or players who have the most fun to pretty much ignore that. It just helps people focus themselves.
Eugene: Utopias just aren’t that much fun.
Ken: No! But on the other hand, doing whatever you want in that Utopia ignoring the dark... yeah, look, you play for 200 hours and don’t finish Oblivion it’s because you really don’t think it’s important to close those gates ‘cause you just don’t care. We want to have fun stacking pillows in Morrowind, that’s our narrative.
Ray: It’s some point of tension, of some sort. It doesn’t have to be a big bad guy at the end, but something that creates that conflict and tension for the player. They have to know who they are, they have to know where they are, they have to know what they’re doing. They have to know, what’s their reason to believe. And if their reason to believe is that they’re saving the universe or saving the world, but there’s other ones, too. We’ve gotta be creative in how we tell stories or the narrative of the player, what’s the challenge that they’re facing. I mean, why are they there?
Eugene: Hopefully, in an MMO you can choose to become that great evil.
Greg: It’s interesting because I think it’s very genre based. I mean, because one thing, Ray and I are, of course, obsessed with martial arts movies, that’s why we came up with Jade Empire. Every single martial arts of kung fu movie is a story of revenge. And that’s it. It’s not a great evil, it’s like someone killed someone or hurt someone close to you and that’s all that entire genre... it’s always a revenge story. And it’s interesting because in Jade we tied in revenge and great evil with, ironically--because you had to have both--but most of the actual movies are simple revenge stories. But I think especially fantasy, fantasy is completely designed around... and, actually, look at sci-fi as well, typical sci-fi stories because of the lure of incredible technology suggests that everything can be destroyed so therefore that’s always exciting. And I think you can imagine the contemporary setting it’s terrorism or some other thing that could be the great evil, you can always dress it and sort of the story is always dressed in the same way.
Eugene: And wasn’t that the challenge sometimes of the contemporary, that it lacks that scope? That we want to believe in a more universal bigger fantasy than perhaps contemporary people have got? Trying to go back to the original question.
Greg: Yeah, I think if your great evil is being able to get a month’s rent, that’s not that exciting.
Ken: And if I was reading into your question that that’s a limitation, I would say that the main quest, having that super evil, is just one of the structures and, in a good game like Oblivion, there’s always other factions where you can actually enter into another narrative that suits you. It’s your fighter archetype, or your mage archetype, so you just ignore that narrow-minded typically repetitive genre thing and then you can pick the other things which don’t have the same structural constraints with the weakness of the big bad guy. Again, the intention is that you can go shopping. We don’t want you to have to play only by our big main quest.
Pete: Any other questions? Yes.
Random journo 4: You’ve obviously spoken a lot in one way or another about the concept of genre labels essentially no longer being relevant, but one of the things that’s always struck me, particularly historically, as being one of the most important elements of a decent narrative-driven RPG is that the combat doesn’t require any arcade skills. That actually one of the attractions of it was the people that saw… I mean, there’s many RPGs that, if you were controlling them in real-time, they’d be God of War or Bayonetta or an action game such as that because you’re doing that kind of special move and having that sort of influence in the world. But particularly with games like Mass Effect where, y’know, you’ve got to be good at a third-person shooter in order to make it through it. Are you not limiting some of your core audience there who would like to be involved in the narrative who would like to do the exploration and everything but they’re rubbish at shooters and, therefore presumably, there’s a large blue sky casual audience there that would be interested in doing it but they’re not very good at controlling games?
Ken: Wow, is that my problem now with trying to do a really great action role-playing thing. And the thing is you can ignore all those action brilliances that you need to have and you can just play the role-playing game; it’s got all the role-playing parts. But, on the other hand, the deliciousness for the person that doesn’t play the action games is that he can discover, by accident, it’s not important, but he can discover by accident that he can do something really cool. Number one, that’s just fun. “Oh my God, that was great!” And then he can find out that he can improve the degree to which he doesn’t get hurt per unit time by doing that, and then it’s a very simple optional thing that he can do. That’s the seductiveness. You don’t wanna make it required; you wanna make it seductive, easy and so much fun that they dribble when they’re touching the equipment. Their controller gets wet, that’s how you do it. That’s how you succeed in that kind of blending the genres.
Random journo 4: But If I had two left feed in hand terms, I could still play Baldur’s Gate and get to the end. But if I was that rubbish at games, I couldn’t get to the end of Mass Effect.
Ray: Well, we’re taking that head on, we’re trying to... I think there are people far from this spectrum that really just loathe the RPG aspects in isolation or who love the action in isolation. We’re actually trying to accommodate both of those groups by having option settings that enable you to turn on and off different things, and you’ll see some of that in Mass Effect 3 developed even further. So that you can actually approach it more in that RPG sense and more in the action sense. And we’ve always had pause modes. I think that’s something that RPG players really embrace, this ability to practically--in a single-player game you can do this, you can’t do this in an MMO-- but you can slow the action down, you can take the time to select off your radial choice menu and deploy that in a battlefield and it really empowers a lot of RPG players. It’s kind of somewhat what Ken was saying, to choose the tactic they want that has the best most... the biggest bang for buck.
Random journo 4: I mean, I guess that’s what I was getting at. Do you think there will always be an element of combat that you will be able to pause or in some way have an influence without being-
Ray: -I mean, again, for me it’s pretty much player centric, the decision. If there are players out there who are asking for that and we’re trying to make a game that’s appealing to those players as well as the other players, it’s our job to try and serve them; I mean, they’re our customers. We have to do that.
Ken: It’s also the tragedy of self-identification. Some players feel like they’re not really a gamer if they go down to casual difficulty. And I know that that’s what they should do in order to have fun. And I’m trying to figure out how to change the label of casual, or... yeah, I don’t know what the answer is to that, because to simply allow them to self-identify themselves as wanting to play differently as the hardcore mainstream player, it’s really difficult.