Thousands of hours, hundreds of developers, one finale.
Mass Effect 3, when it releases on March 9th, will conclude the current story arc in BioWare's galaxy-spanning epic roleplaying game series. To say it's hotly anticipated is akin to describing the Sun as hot; it's accurate, yet also a massive understatement.
But what goes into making a title of this scale? How do developers respond to the weight of expectation, when their game is clamored for by a literal legion of fans?
In search of answers, we sat down with Robyn Theberge - Associate Producer on Mass Effect 3 - and set about quizzing her on the process of concluding an epic...
Could you please give us an overview of your role on Mass effect 3?
Definitely, I am an Associate Producer. What that means is that I look after different development teams, such as the audio, graphical UI (who do the menus and 2D art assets), and visual effects teams. With these teams I am responsible for making sure these guys are delivering on schedule and are the best that they can be.
How many Associate Producers are working on Mass Effect 3?
Oooh I’d have to count, there are several, each looking after a number of different teams, let’s see, there’s Billy and myself, Nathan, Robin, Cilla, Mike Gamble, Sue… so... seven, yeah, and then there’s Corey, the Principle Project Manager, who oversees the entire production, and then there is Dwayne, who is the co-director of production, who looks after all of us.
Sounds like a pretty big team; can you give us an idea of just how many people worked on Mass Effect 3?
At our peak - including QA - we had about 300 at Montreal. It fluctuates depending on where we are in the schedule, but on average we had about 150 people on the team throughout the project.
There were significant improvements - both technically and in gameplay - between the original Mass Effect and Mass Effect 2; should fans expect a similar leap between Mass Effect 2 and Mass Effect 3?
Yeah, it’s still the same game, there’s the sense of familiarity in the story and the universe itself as well as the characters that you have encountered along the way, at the same time, it’s a really good entry point into the franchise, because it’s the beginning of the war and the galaxy, the game rewrites itself to give context to new players.
As for the combat we’ve stepped it up a notch, but it still functions similar to the gameplay mechanics functioned in ME2.
The game-rewriting system, that sounds interesting. Is that automatic? Can players with saved-games from Mass Effect 2 still choose to experience the game as if they're new to the series, should they want to?
Yeah, Players can choose to import a character or not; I’m sure some fans will like to choose not to import, to experience how the game plays out that way. You will be able to import players from ME2, and can even change your class, however gender will stay the same. But you can start ME3 with the experience gained in ME2.
Did fan feedback after the release of Mass Effect 2 have any impact on the development of Mass Effect 3?
Yeah, fan feedback is really, really important to BioWare - we monitor the forums and collect feedback data. Actually, as an example, something we took on was the creation of the iconic female Shepard appearance, as it was something our fans wanted. We hosted a competition on our Facebook page and allowed our fans to select her appearance themselves.
Now that the Mass Effect 3 demo is out there, has any of the feedback or reactions to that surprised the team?
No, I think the feedback has been good. We’ve had good stability on our servers, and we’ve had our teams monitoring the stability around the clock to make sure our servers stay up and running, so everybody around the world gets the opportunity to play in their time zones. It’s something we’re really on top of, and monitoring the forums as closely as we can, and we’re investigating [anything fans bring to our attention].
What can you tell us about the sound design this time around? One of our Facebook fans was keen to point out just how good this area was in Mass Effect 2! Has there been any more advances in this area this time around?
Definitely [laughs] I’m glad you asked!
I’m really proud of this team; we have quite a big team because of the nature of the game, which involves cinematics, and all the sound effects in the game are quite complicated. We have added all new sounds to the game, with multiple sounds added to each weapon. We’ve added a lot of dynamics and [the sound] adapts to whatever environment you are in, so if someone is firing a gun next to you or farther away it sounds a lot more dynamic, to create an immersive experience.
Multiplayer was a surprise inclusion when it was announced last October; are you able to speak to why it was included?
We have created what’s called the Galaxy War System; it’s all part of the larger scale of Mass Effect 3 - it's really all-out galactic war, and in order to get that scale we had to branch out on multiple fronts. So, beside the singleplayer campaign, you have multiplayer, the iPad app, and then we have Infiltrator - a standalone third-person shooter on iPad and iPhone which Iron Monkey helped us out with.
When you play these games and are successful, you collect ‘War Assets’ which are pretty much percentage points which you take into the singleplayer campaign and they count towards your ‘galactic readiness rating, which is your chance of success in the final battle against the reapers. So you can play lots of singleplayer , or multiplayer with your friends, or the iPhone and iPad apps, and Infiltrator to gather more War Assets to go back into the single player campaign.
In a recent interview, Mike Gamble (another Mass Effect 3 Associate Producer) suggested fans hold onto their ME3 saved games once they're done with the game. Can you elaborate on why he said that?
Yeah, we’re wrapping up the story line…well this story line; with Mass Effect 3. It was always envisioned as a trilogy since ME1, and ME3 was always going to be the last in this story. But the Mass Effect Universe and franchise is huge, with comic books and other things, so I’d definitely stay tuned for more in the franchise.
Thanks very much for your time Robyn, it's been great talking to you! We know that we speak for our readers when we say we're very much looking forward to the release of Mass Effect 3 on the 9th of March!