BioWare's interactive space opera Mass Effect 2 is still half a year away for most PC and Xbox 360 owners, but for lead producer Casey Hudson it's happening right now. Busy as he is, we managed to grab him away from dotting i's and crossing t's as his team moves into the sequel's final feature beats. In this exhaustive interview, we discuss everything from the magic of storytelling to the lessons learned from the first game. Read on to find out everything you need to know about this hotly anticipated sequel.
PCW: How would you describe the Mass Effect series to someone who's never played it?
Casey Hudson: To me, it's a huge science fiction universe in the style of the big science fiction properties like Star Trek and Star Wars, though more targeted to an adult experience. We're trying to create something that's an entire universe people can immerse themselves in, but also something for the more mature crowd that wants an adult story. That's why we've taken a Jack Bauer approach to Commander Shepard [the series protagonist]. We've tried to present you with agonizing choices as you navigate your way through the sequel and built that into a bigger, much darker story.
PCW: Mass Effect hit for Xbox 360 and Windows in late 2007 and early 2008. How long has Mass Effect 2 been in development?
CH: Shortly before Mass Effect hit shelves, we turned to working full out on Mass Effect 2. When all's said and done, we'll have roughly two years invested in Mass Effect 2 total, so right now we're about a year and a half into it, but we've already come a long way. We had a really great starting point, meaning the entire game and universe that comprises Mass Effect, and now after a year and a half of building a ton of new content and features we have a pretty complete next game in the series.
PCWDid things ramp up more quickly as you turned to Mass Effect 2, given what you've been able to carry over in procedural familiarity, lessons learned, and shared technology? :
CH: Yeah it did, though I think one thing people are going to be surprised about is that we really didn't take the easy way out, appealing as it might have been. We didn't just make a sequel where the same features, characters and environments move around differently to tell a different story. Rather, Mass Effect 2 is a game that's absolutely packed with new ideas and places. I actually can't think of an aspect of the game or a system that we haven't overhauled and made 100% better. I think it's going to be surprising to people how much we've improved things. In fact I think it'll be a game that gets talked about a lot simply because we've gone in and touched pretty much everything, even things that were perfectly good in the first one. I think people are going to notice all sorts of huge improvements.
PCW: I've recently been replaying Mass Effect, and it's taken me almost 10 hours just to get off the Citadel [the starter space station] and out exploring the universe. At what point in Mass Effect 2 do the training wheels come off, so-to-speak, such that you're able to go anywhere?
CH: I think it has more to do with tuning the pacing and the rewards throughout the game, because the alternate experience to what you're describing is also true. Some people find the main story so compelling that even though they want to wander off the beaten path, they end up clawing as fast as they can through the core story. And then they say that the game was only 12 hours or 15 hours or whatever. Some people who rush through the story as fast as possible will say that the game was shorter than they wanted.
So it's kind of interesting, because in your case, your play style, you want to look around, you want to find everything, and the Citadel at the beginning feels too long. In the alternative case, they're trying to get through the story as fast as possible and it feels too short. I think that actually indicates that the choice is supported in the first game. You can play it for a long time, you can play it and get through the story quite quickly and it's all down to choice.
On the other hand, in your case, the reward and pacing in the Citadel probably shouldn't have made you feel like the real story hadn't gotten started yet, or that it hadn't opened up as much as you wanted. I think those kind of things, like how fast do you get a ship where you can travel where you want or broader things like do you feel the story's offering you freedom and enticing rewards where things are progressing fast enough...those are all things we're addressing significantly in Mass Effect 2.
PCW: So I'm probably inadvertently paying the game a compliment?
CH: That's why I think it comes down to pacing. Similar thing with Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic, where even though Star Wars is an established universe, in the game we still had a patch of real estate inside that property that required a certain amount of explanation. Similarly with Mass Effect, we had a new universe to get people acclimated to before we blew the whole thing wide open.
Looking at those two games and the way people played them, it was one of the big things we did before we started Mass Effect 2, to look at the way people play some of things that you're talking about. That, and whether people felt their choice to either play in a very detailed way or get through things quickly felt rewarding. All that kind of stuff.
So we've done a lot to adjust the tuning, especially in the opening, getting you into the action faster, getting you making decisions and really moving through the story faster, so that as the world opens up around you, you feel like you're still quickly advancing the high-level story.
PCW: Just to be clear, you can either start from scratch with a brand new character in Mass Effect 2, or import your character from your Mass Effect save game, right?
CH: Yeah, absolutely. I mean firstly, Mass Effect 2 is just a much better game than Mass Effect in pretty much every way. We've made a lot of improvements, and I think it's going to have a broader audience and even broader appeal. The combat plays better, the graphics are better, it has a better tutorial, all the things that make it more accessible and play into it being something a lot more people can enjoy.
To support that obviously we needed to make sure that it's a game people can jump into having never known anything about the Mass Effect universe, or that there even was a first game. At the same time, one of the really big things that we're trying to do that I think has never been done in this way before is tie together a trilogy of huge games where the entire story is one thread that's told by the player. So all of your decisions and choices really start to snowball over the course of the trilogy because it's picking up the entire record of how you've played, from the first moments of the first game all the way through to the ending of the third game. For that, we want to make sure we really reward people who've played the first Mass Effect.
Likewise, if Mass Effect 2 is your entry point and you're really getting into the story, you can still back up, pop in Mass Effect, play through, get your end save game, and come at it from that angle.