Mac Walter, Aaryn Flynn on new protagonist, BioWare's influence on Electronic Arts and leaving Shepard behind
Mass Effect: Andromeda was technically present at E3, but mainly just in spirit. There were a few notable beats in the trailer that debuted at EA's press conference – we caught a glimpse of the new ship, were treated to the latest in cutting-edge smile technology, and even briefly met our new protagonist. Perhaps most unbelievable of all, we got a fleeting demonstration of Andromeda's answer to the the Mako, the maligned space buggy from the original Mass Effect.
Notably absent was any gameplay footage, which is weird, because it feels like it's about time we get to actually see the new Mass Effect in action. Doubly so given the recent high-profile delay that loomed over the debut.
Glixel spoke to creative director Mac Walter and BioWare general manager Aaryn Flynn about the risks involved in sending a multimillion dollar franchise on a transgalactic journey, their studio's influence on EA and the nature of Andromeda's protagonist.
Do you feel like you're taking a risk by leaving behind such an established and well-loved setting?
Mac Walters: I think there's some risk there. There's also opportunity, and one of the things we've been really focusing on is trying to be forward thinking. Mass Effect was successful originally because we weren't spending any time looking back. There was no Mass Effect, and we were asking ourselves what could it be, and what amazing things could we do with this franchise. We want to put the team in a place where they feel that they can do the same with Andromeda. That said, we know what our fans love and we take that very seriously. You will see the species that you're familiar with, you will see the art of Mass Effect, you will hear the music and the sounds of Mass Effect. It's all brought ahead a decade, but very much in the spirit of Mass Effect.
Aaryn Flynn: At its heart this game is still a third-person cover shooter. It's still going to have the tactical squad combat. But, to build on Matt's answer, we didn't want to make Lethal Weapon 4. We didn't want to just try and bring everyone back together one more time. That's probably a low risk option, but it's also the low-opportunity option. We really wanted to reestablish what we loved about Mass Effect 1, with that sense of exploration, that sense of newness, that sense of wonder. The story flows from that.
Did the way Mass Effect 3 ended necessitate that kind of dramatic departure?
Walters: We knew, and we'd been saying for a long time, that the Mass Effect trilogy was very much Commander Shepard's story, and we wanted to end it after the trilogy was over. So to a degree, that decision, which was made a long time before Mass Effect 3, certainly precipitated that. We had a lot of options for where we could go next without just doing Mass Effect 4, and Andromeda provided us with a lot of the elements that we really wanted to get back to.
It's significant that you chose to show a woman protagonist at the end of the trailer. Historically, you've earned a lot of goodwill from the community for being proactive about representation. Can you comment on that?
Flynn: For us, it's a very obvious choice. I say this a lot, but we don't have special programs or expectations of our developers to put these kinds of ideas forward, we're lucky enough that our developers have embraced a culture of inclusion and embraced a culture of diversity, so I'm very proud of that. It's always nice to see the natural consequences of that. There's no email from on high saying: "Put in a female protagonist."
Is it significant that you're alone in the trailer? Should we infer anything from that? Is everyone dead?
Walters: I think you can infer that the voyage and the effort to do this is not a task that anyone would've taken lightly. If you think about a process where you go to sleep and then 600 years later and you wake up, but for you, no time has passed, the last thing you'd think before you go to sleep is, "Are we going to make it? Am I going to survive this? Will the ship just implode somewhere along the way? So we actually wanted to capture that moment of, "Oh my god, we're here!" That's really where this story begins.
Flynn: This idea of "one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind" – phrases like that and, "we made it," are all meant to touch on a connection we have. Sure, one person is at Andromeda, but humanity really achieved something when she woke up there. We're all there with her in some sense, and yet she's intensely alone in that one shot in the trailer. What does it all mean, and what does it all tell us about our humanity? I think those are themes that are fantastic to explore, especially in interactive entertainment.
Some studios that have been absorbed into EA in the past have really struggled to maintain their identity, and in a lot of cases, it's ultimately led to their disappearance. How has BioWare managed to prevent that kind of thing from happening?
Flynn: I think credit goes to Andrew Wilson and Patrick Söderlund and the other executives at EA; they've embraced this concept that studios have their own identity and they have something that's very powerful that should be protected and preserved. At the same time, they're never afraid to encourage us to evolve and improve. That's a tough balance to strike, and we work with them to do that. Moving game engines, and getting on Frostbite, like we all are now – that's an immensely challenging thing for a group of developers to do. That challenges your identity because you're comfortable with the technology that you work in. You can do certain things, and maybe you can't do things that you want to do when the engine is new and perhaps untested. They push us to do that and they challenge us to do that, and we go for it and they help us get there.
Walters: There are also these huge advantages that we now have. In about a month, we're going to be getting together with several of the executive producers throughout EA, and we're going to be able to show them where we're at with Mass Effect and get some invaluable feedback from people that are very much outside of BioWare. They're going to see things that we completely missed because everybody has blinders on to what they're doing. Having that collaborative experience is very difficult to do when you're just in your own studio. So even simple stuff, like lessons learned from all the different groups working on Frostbite now, we can discuss that and share openly. It all helps us advance further than we could have on our own.
So the Frostbite game engine has affected BioWare and the way it makes games, but how is BioWare impacting the rest of EA?
Flynn: If you saw the FIFA story mode trailer, we actually contributed some stuff to that. That was a collaborative effort. We had developers on that initiative. They were based in the BioWare studio but they did some of that work, and we had lots of feedback sessions with them. Credit to the FIFA team – they were very receptive to the lessons we've learned about storytelling over the past two decades.
BioWare has always projected a notion of being "fan first," and that's also a big pillar of the way EA currently presents itself. Was it a case that you were a good fit because of that when they acquired the studio, or is BioWare behind that shift at EA?
Flynn: A lot of us [at EA] are getting behind this "players first" idea, and we've been doing that for a while at BioWare. A funny thing now is that, for the first time in BioWare's history, we have developers who are working on this game who started off as fans of the original Mass Effect. That's never happened in our history before. A few years ago, they were fans playing at home and loving it and maybe not liking certain parts, and then, lo and behold, they're now working on the next game and they're challenging us in ways we didn't even expect.