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Interview: Casey Hudson, Mass Effect 2 project lead

2:20 PM on 12.18.2009 // Anthony Burch

During my trip to BioWare's offices in Edmonton, Canada, I got a chance to interview Casey Hudson, the project lead for Mass Effect 2.

In it, you'll find Hudson's answers to why someone who disliked the first game should enjoy the sequel, how narrative and gameplay coexist, and exactly how Mass Effect 2's "suicide mission" finale works in relation to the rest of the game.

Hit the jump for the full interview.

DESTRUCTOID: If someone didn't like Mass Effect, what is going to attract them to the sequel?

CASEY HUDSON: Looking at the way people played the first one, I think that the people that weren't attracted to it or didn't think it was the game for them or whatever -- I think in a lot of cases it was the initial gameplay experience. The way it was maybe not as accessible, in a "pick up and play" sense. And I think that's one of the big things we've improved with Mass Effect 2. I think it's a lot easier to pick up and play, it feels better, it's more intuitive. So, that probably is the big difference. And just in general, as all of the same systems are there, the same experience is there, but as you pick it up and you start playing and fighting as a shooter, the shooter stuff is I think better than it was before.

DTOID: Has anything specific been changed from the first game that series veterans will notice?

CH: I think probably the one thing that we got the most feedback on wanting to improve was the exploration aspect of the game.  And it wasn't that people didn't like it. It was quite the opposite -- they liked the idea, anyway. People loved the idea of exploring the galaxy and finding amazing things out there. But the things that we had in the expanded galaxy to find weren't as amazing and unique as they really should be.

And so we've taken that approach with Mass Effect 2, where you have -- first of all, you have more interesting kind of interaction with how you find missions. there's a whole space exploration, planet-scanning minigame where you find the locations you're gonna land at. But when we have something for you to do as a mission on these planets, it's actually designed as a unique thing that's different from all the rest of the game. it all ties back in in a story sense, but usually it's a different gameplay concept, or you have the opportunity to do something different -- a very high-concept approach. So I think that's probably the biggest difference people will notice.


DTOID: Regarding the choices you make at the end of the first game: how big an impact are those going to have on the overall story of the sequel? Is it mostly just going to be background narrative stuff, or will it change your gameplay and your choices?

CH: It's kind of a sum of many things. Part of it is, there's decisions you make at the end where you say, "Yeah, I want Captain Anderson to be the ambassador," or I save the council or whatever -- you'll see the effects of those things and those characters, those aspects of the universe that will be different. But I think what's more interesting is just the sum of all the different things throughout the game. So many of the characters you meet or the plots that you're on are different. So it's not that a few of the choices affect the whole experience, it's more that the sum of all the many things that happen individually affect many things.

DTOID: What's your philosophy toward harmonizing story and gameplay? Should one take a backseat to the other? Are they in conflict?

CH: I always see them as kind of part of the same experience. For me, anyway, when I play a game, it doesn't really have meaning to me unless I know why I'm doing it. Not everyone is like that, some people just wanna go in and shoot stuff. But for me if I know why I'm doing it, it makes it that much more meaningful. And then likewise, I think there's an aspect of, when you feel like an experience is shared, then you know, it's one thing to go out on a trip by yourself and walk around a new city and see something amazing and tell people when you get back home, but it seems more real and more interesting when you're there with a friend or something and you share the experience. And that's why we have squad members.

You go to an amazing place, and it's not just you; you hear them reacting to it, they become -- they kind of flavor the experience. So it's those kind of things that I think, if you have a really good story and characters, makes it appealing. The gameplay things that you're doing, however minute they might be. Like if you're getting a resource, you know that's counting towards a research upgrade that you can do because Grunt can give you better armor or something like that. So it's like, "yeah, he's going to appreciate the fact that I have this extra platinum," or whatever. Otherwise it's just, "yeah, I've got extra platinum, that's gonna give me a stat bonus."


DTOID: You mentioned earlier today that it's going to be really difficult to get through the entire game without losing at least some of your squad members, but you also said it would technically be possible. In what way will it be difficult to keep these characters alive?

CH: Well, it's a combination of things. The game is really about surviving this mission at the end, and there are a bunch of things that tie into that. One thing is the number of people you recruit. And another thing is how loyal they are to you. And to get them loyal, usually it involves a mission that you do with them, where you kind of have to understand what it is that they need before they can really trust you. Then you end up doing a mission. So loyalty is important.

DTOID: It was also mentioned that the NPC's would have conflicting interests. Does that mean if I make one team member loyal, another team member might refuse to be loyal to me as a consequence? Or can I make everyone on the team loyal to me?

CH: That's another factor is that at some point there are conflicts between your squad members. So if you don't have a certain squad member, that makes your team less survivable in the end. Someone might die. But if you get, you know, your tenth squad member for example, that character might come into contact with another character and you might lose their loyalty. If that happens, there are other things that you can do to get them to be loyal again. And another factor in it is how well-equipped your ship is, so, you know, getting all the upgrade to your ships done so you can survive the ending --

DTOID: So does that mean you'll actually be piloting the Normandy during the suicide mission?

CH: No, it's more like Mass Effect 1 where there are hero scenes of the Normandy doing certain things, kinda like when the Normandy destroyed Sovereign, but now the upgrades you do to the ship will determine how well Joker's able to do those things with the ship. So all of those things kind of create a spectacularly complex logic network of how the story unfolds and who is in what position when things happen.

And the last component is decision-making in the ending, because it very much is a Dirty Dozen-style final mission where all the characters you have go on this mission and you're deciding who's doing what, who's leading what team, and those decisions are another factor. So it's kind of all of those things together. And if you're doing all those things right, then everyone survives. And if you're doing them wrong, then everyone dies. And Commander Shepard dies, too.


DTOID: So with this end mission as the focal point for all your choices and preparation, does that mean that the Mass Effect 2 will be structured differently than the first game?

I think structurally it's similar to the way people are used to BioWare games, where, you know, you have something you're going towards at the end, but you're also building up your team and as you build up your team the story is unfolding, so it's not that there's "building your team" and then there's "the end." The story does progress as you build your team, kind of like Mass Effect or KotOR in that way. But instead of getting, you know, things that are not entirely related to your story or mission, like in KotOR you're getting star maps, and if you get X number of star maps then you know how to get to the end location.

In this case it's more about, you know, building up your crew. And at some point you do have access to go on this mission, and that's kind of your critical path -- kind of like in Mass Effect, the Iolus opens up and you can choose to go on it or keep going around, stuff like that. It progresses through the middle, but it's also about building your team. And that's how the side quests are built around it, too -- most of the things tie into someone on your team or something you're trying to do or get or build up so even if you're out on the edge of the galaxy and you do a mission, it has a meaning to that overall effort.

DTOID: So if Shepard dies at the end of Mass Effect 2, how does that influence Mass Effect 3?

CH: You can't continue that particular character. Other characters that you might have, that did survive, you might pull in. Because what's going to happen is that if you got that ending, you'd go, "wow, at that point I didn't have this ship upgrade and this guy died, and here's all the things that led up to how things happened." And you go, "okay, I'm just going to go back," and you go back to the middle -- you can't just go back to some point right before the end.

Some people worried that you make a decision at the end, and then everybody dies, and you go "oh, well, I just won't do that." It's more like you go back and think, "okay, what should my team have been like? I need more people, I have to get them more loyal..."


DTOID: So in regards to who dies based on your choices -- "moral choices" have become a big thing recently, and BioWare has arguably been doing it for longer than most other studios. How does Mass Effect 2's take on "moral choices" differ from those of other games, if at all?

CH: I think one thing we try to avoid, and it's a hard pitfall to avoid, but we try to avoid it and I think we've done it better in Mass Effect 2, is the idea of having an "evil playthrough" or a "good playthrough." Like, "I'm starting a playthrough and I'm gonna be a jerk to everybody." That's not really what we're going for. What we're trying to do is give you two styles of play that are -- that both involve agonizing choicse. So you have a decision to make and you don't think, "I'm being a jerk this time, so I'm picking the jerk option."

We want you to think, "you know, there are sacrifices on both sides of the decision and this guy is making me mad, and he deserves for me to blast straight through him without regard to how he feels about it," or whatever. And there's reprecussion there. Or to say, "you know, I'm willing to compromise the overall goal here because it would be wrong to not help someone out." So it's not good or evil, but you're really facing a sacrifice and trying to sort out which sacrifice is better.

With all our games, we look back at the last game and we always have examples of, there are the cases where there was a really agonizing decision, and we think we did what we're setting out to do in the moral system. But there are always things in previous games where we can say, these are examples of things where you're just being the hero or you're just being the jerk, and it's too easy to let the player decide "I'm gonna be the hero" or "I'm gonna be the jerk."

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