Recently, Lenwood and I got the chance to interview a longtime veteran of the industry, Drew Karpyshyn. A talented writer, he worked with BioWare for 12 years on games such as Knights of the Old Republic, Jade Empire and Mass Effect. Our full interview with Drew Karpyshyn will be releasing extremely soon but in the meantime, we thought we’d give you a sample of what you have to look forward to. Here are some thoughts from Drew Karpyshyn on Mass Effect and its history.
Drew Karpyshyn on Mass Effect
One of the things we asked Drew about was how Mass Effect came to be, including whether parallels to Knights of the Old Republic were intentional and trying to understand the overall process behind creating such a huge new IP. We also asked about what it was like putting together the team for Mass Effect.
He told us that “What we usually try to do with BioWare is we try to build on what we’ve done before. So there was a lot of the same team, some of the writers, some of the artists, a lot of the production people, from KOTOR, came on to Mass Effect. We worked well together, we had done a pretty good job on KOTOR, it was a already a big success so wanted to keep a lot of that team together.”
He also talked about the nature of the conversation wheel and how things changed with having a voice protagonist.
“This idea of having multiple responses for the player to pick, we kept that but then we added this idea of full voiceover for the player and then we realized if we do that, you don’t want to read an answer and then have the character say it. It almost sounded like it was coming out twice, because you would read it in your head and the player would say the exact same thing” he says. “So then we had to come up with this whole paraphrase system where we had to give people an idea of what they were going to say in a way that would, when they picked the choice, let it flow into the voice of Shepard and still feel natural and not break up the cinematic feel of the scene.”
Creating the Universe of Mass Effect
A lot of work went into the creation of the Mass Effect universe, as the team drew elements from Aliens, Terminator, Star Wars and anything else that had the same “spiritual” feeling and getting a unique universe. In fact, the team spent over half a year just getting the outline right.
“We spent six to nine months with just a very small team planning out the universe of Mass Effect before we even started production on the game, figuring out what the different races were, the different species, what the different planets were, how the political system worked, how the technology worked, just so we had this base to build on.”
That effort definitely paid off for players like myself, who pour through the Codex soaking up all the information. There’s no denying that it was a bit of a risk though. Drew explained that spending that much time on pre-production might not have been possible in this day and age and that the publisher has to have a lot of trust with the developer in order to work on a game like that.
“That’s something that is very important in games but it’s hard to do sometimes because it can feel like you’re spending a lot of time not making the game, you’re spending six months planning and no production is being done and there’s nothing to show for it. You really need the money people or whoever’s calling the shots to trust that you’re doing this for the right reasons and that it’s going to pay off in the end,” he says. “At the time, BioWare was still owned by Ray and Greg, they were running things and they gave us that kind of freedom.
“It’s tougher now, with the big companies like EA and they’ve got so many projects going on if you spend six months and you say ‘Here, we’ve got a three page outline after six months’ they’re gonna say look at you and say ‘Well, what have you been doing? Where’s all that money going?’ Plus, they might have a hundred people in the studio waiting for you to get this done. It’s a little bit different now when you go to make a game. You still want to put that background in but there’s different pressures. Luckily, we were sort of in an era where we could take that time and do different versions.”
Mass Effect 3 and That Ending
While Drew was an integral part of the writing for Mass Effect and Mass Effect 2, he wasn’t involved with Mass Effect 3. I asked him about what it was like not being a part of the writing for the third game and why he left the Mass Effect team.
“Yeah, so, we knew it was gonna be a trilogy right from the start” he says. “The idea was, in the first game we wanted to introduce the Reapers, in the second game we wanted to expand on what the Reapers were doing, sort of build on that and in the third game you would finally get the ultimate victory or find the ultimate ending to this Reaper threat. But we didn’t have a lot of details fleshed out, you have to be flexible.”
Going in-depth on why he left after the first two games, he explained that “The reason I left was I was mostly because I was moving to Austin, I grew in Edmonton and I just was tired of the winters, they’re brutal, I was done with ice and snow, I wanted to move on. BioWare had opened a studio in Austin, Texas that was working on the Star Wars MMO, so they wanted me to come down and out help with that because of my experience with Knights of the Old Republic, so it was a good fit, that’s the reason I left Mass Effect, there wasn’t anything political about it.”
One of the major issues that faced Mass Effect 3 post-release was the ending and its infamously poor reception. Endings are extremely important for games and they’re very difficult to get right. While different ideas were tossed around before Mass Effect 3 entered production, Drew doesn’t think the team working on the game had enough time to properly refine the ending.
“You need a lot of time and I’ll be honest, I don’t know that they were given the time they needed to pull it all together. I feel like, and this is me speaking as someone who wasn’t a part of the project and didn’t see what was going on, because there’s a lot of really good stuff in Mass Effect 3, like it as a game, it’s a really great game. But the last thing you see is that ending and it didn’t work for a lot of people and I understand why.”
He goes on to say that “It’s unfortunate, because I think it overshadows all the good stuff that was in the game. Most people, if you had stopped it five hours before the game was over and said ‘What do you think so far?’ they would have said ‘Awesome!'”
So, that’s Drew Karpyshyn on Mass Effect. Our full interview with him is available right here. In it, we go over everything we’ve talked about here in addition to Knights of the Old Republic, Jade Empire and some of Drew’s opinions on changes in the industry and at BioWare.