Greg Zeschuk

Greg Zeschuk

My name is Greg Zeschuk. I was one of the founders of an Edmonton-based videogame company called BioWare. I was there about almost 20 years, and it's still running. It's making great games like Dragon Age and Mass Effect. Along the way we tended to focus on role-playing games, bit of action on the side, and were very fortunate to win lots of awards and sell lots of games. It was a great experience.

And you're retired from the games business?

Yeah, I retired a little over two years ago now and I've done a variety of other things mainly involving beer. But that's a whole other kettle of fish. And to be fair, I'm still in a little bit. I do a little bit of consulting and a little bit of chatting with friends, but nothing formal. I don't in my mind ever imagine myself making a game again.

I will ask a lot about that, but would you like to clarify about what you're doing with beer so people don't just think you're sitting around drinking it?

Well, I do drink beer. But I'm a certified beer judge, exec director of Alberta Small Brewers Association, and eventually I'm looking at starting my own brewpub and brewery. So, yeah, I'm very passionate about it. I find it actually intellectually stimulating as well as delicious. It's a great combination.

You can't beat that.

Yeah.

Earlier we were talking about the stakes getting higher for people with expertise and track records like yours speaking to me in a context like this. That is, not talking specifically about a title or promoting it. Just having a conversation. Can you explain why that is?

It's an interesting phenomenon. I guess the analogy I've used to describe it is the Internet as megaphone, in that everything anyone says anywhere, anytime, can be captured, cut apart, and rebroadcast in all kinds of ways. And so whereas historically -- the lead-in to our conversation was a Wired article from almost 20 years ago. You can't find that anymore. The people who physically had the magazines were the only ones who would ever see it, and that's that. Whereas today, everything is everywhere if it wants to be. Not only that, but there's this really insatiable desire for controversy and people will do all kinds of crazy clickbait headlines and everything they can do under the sun to try to get and get folks to get hits. Hits make money and money is what people want. It's a different world.

So what is the fear? What could possibly be said by someone like you?

I think it depends what you want to talk about, right? There's all sorts of hot-button issues one could jump all over. Whether it's Gamergate or sexism in games. Whatever it is, right? I think there's like -- everyone will sift through something to see if they can try and create something out of it. You just have to be thoughtful and careful what you say.

As your profile rises, you become more careful. Especially when you get to a big company, a public company -- what's interesting is we were always outspoken and willing to chat with people, whereas not to say specifically EA didn't want us to, but just the idea that they don't want anyone saying anything bad in the press, their communications guy have to then undo, and then it has an effect on the stock. The stakes get bigger and bigger and bigger, so there's this natural incentive to not want to chat in that context.

Has that always been an unspoken policy in games? Or is pretty blatant from your side? The impression I've gotten from PR people or anyone at game companies is we can only ever talk to you when it's in the context of a product.

I tend to agree with that, but the other part of that that I find interesting is some people, including BioWare, historically made games with moral points to make. So, I expanded on things or tried to make commentary. Not as direct as other types of media, necessarily, but it was always something we wanted to have: more than just quick eye candy and really simple experiences. So, trying to challenge the user on some level was always one of our goals. So you create an opportunity to step into more cow pies when you do that. [Laughs.]

Well, that's interesting. You're talking about challenging players, but we're talking about it in two different ways here.

Yeah. I think what's interesting is you almost have these two threads of gaming in some ways. You have the ones that are trying to say something to the culture and the public and you have others that are just pure fun. Historically we tried to mix those things in that we tried to do both, and I think it's when you open those conversations it's how you address those issues. For me, it was always about treating the player fairly. It's kind of a funny thing, but not putting them in any uncomfortable situations. Making games that are a little more intellectually stimulating makes people think. Sometimes that's a little scary.

I think this is a time where people want to think about games more deeply. But I think a big thing blocking meaningful progress is the industry clamping down on communication like this.

I think one thing to realize and think about is that everyone's got different fears, concerns, confidences. So, yeah, there's a huge spectrum out there. You have to be respectful out there as much as you can. Not everyone's always gonna be happy or satisfied. We learned that pretty early on when we heard someone say, "Hey! Your game's terrible!" And we were like, "But everyone loves it!" He goes, "No, I don't!" You just eventually accept that. It's probably fair to say there's no single piece of entertainment that every single person on the entire planet will love. Everything has fans. That's just the reality of the medium.

You've worked on some pretty massive titles, steering some pretty big ships. What does that actually entail? Was getting your MBA a requirement at some point for the sort of work you had to do?

BioWare was founded by three medical doctors. So none of us really had any kind of basis for what we were doing, per se. [Laughs.] One of them retired pretty early on, but me and Ray Muzyka, the other BioWare doctor from the good old days, kind of ended up running the company for almost 20 years. The MBAs were more a reflection of trying to get business knowledge because we were growing as a business. So I think that was, "Okay, if we want to work on the business we have to get more training."

And just the simple act of running the games, we kind of amped up the size over time. To be fair, Baldur's Gate was our second game and that was still pretty massive. It's just a continuous learning process. I think if anything, it's like a firm, steady hand, plus an open mind, plus learning, learning, learning, and then, finally, it's teams. No one single person can claim entire credit for anything we've ever done. It's always a bunch of people working together and I think if anything, Ray and I focused a lot on building strong teams that worked together well, and then we would help those teams succeed. That was kind of the BioWare philosophy and still is after more than 20 years.

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How big were the teams you were managing?

Three-hundred was not unusual. Star Wars: The Old Republic was probably like 500ish, maybe even 600. If you add in all kinds of contractors and everyone, we're talking hundreds upon hundreds of people. Some of these games are the size of big, giant movie productions. And so you're certainly not managing every individual, but I think Sun Tzu said it's all just a matter of division. And so that's really what you would do, is create a structure, divide the folks up into a logical structure with good management, and then try and make it. It's a pretty huge challenge. It's very different than when we started, when we were, like, 13 people in a room working on our first game. That was very different. And I like those days. They're all fun in different ways, but maintaining a consistent vision is incredibly difficult when people are spread around four locations across the globe and they're all trying to make the same game. It's not easy.

I think it's a miracle anything can be produced in that manner. It's almost like if it's good, it's a sheer bonus.

Anyone that's worked on AAA or a big project like these knows just how hard it is. That's why it's always funny, coming back to fan feedback, or when folks are unhappy about something or not satisfied -- when you're kind of patting yourself on the back for going, "At least, hey, we survived and the game out and it's pretty good." And, again, no game is ever really perfect. There's always things that can be improved. Just getting some of these gigantic, complicated games out is a massive, massive accomplishment.

I'm sure there isn't a typical day-to-day with stuff like that, but what a typical day-to-day on working on something of that scope?

I would divide it into two parts: there's an internal and an external. Contextually, if we took the last game I worked on, which was Star Wars: The Old Republic, if I was gonna split the day halfway, the first half of that day was working with the team and the key leaders and making sure stuff's going and everything's chugging nicely internally. And the other half of the day was externally. We were part of EA, we had to keep the EA folks informed, we were working with LucasArts, so we had to keep the LucasArts folks informed. It's not even the internal challenges, it's the additional external challenges of all the stakeholders and keeping them up to date. So, yeah, it was probably like a 20-hour-a-day job for quite a while and then you launch and then sort of there's always technically always interesting pressures.

The other real differentiation now is when we launched a game way, way, way in the early days there weren't even patches. We're talking in the '90s. So you'd actually go on holidays after you shipped a game. There was no such thing as DLC. You'd go, "Hey, we're done with the game, we're on holidays, and hopefully it sells!" [Laughs.] Because you couldn't do anything, right? But now for many people on the teams, the launch is is the new beginning for more work and more focus. It's pretty relentless.

That's a pretty interesting point, too, because Christmas Day last year PlayStation and Xbox had their networks taken down by hackers. So, it's almost like: Why can't you guys get a break?

Oh, no, it's hilarious. I remember on Star Wars: The Old Republic, again, we launched -- I think we launched a couple of weeks before Christmas [in 2011]. But then on Christmas evening at, like, midnight West Coast time, a bunch of South Korean hackers tried to take the game down. Like they picked the most likely opportunity to try and destroy it. The least likely we'd have people watching the ball, so to speak. This is the world we live in. I think that's the other thing. Internet warfare is a whole other thing. It's quite interesting.

I hadn't made that connection before, but was talking to a friend the other day about the 24-hour news cycle and how it's affected the Internet. But now that we talk about it, it affects games, too. You have things like PT, which I have been told by a colleague at Sony, where they plan on invisibly updating the game and changing stuff for people who will go back and replay it. I think that's super-cool, but it's also such a drain on resources: Is a game ever done?

Not anymore. I think that's the other thing, too, with these epic productions: I think stuff will launch with not necessarily every feature they wanted in. Maybe some stuff hadn't been fully tested. You'll often see things come in after the fact. That makes sense. Updates are both often both content, but they're also fixes and additions after their release. I remember I saw a hilarious one that I just laughed at. As I mentioned earlier, I was playing Dragon Age: Inquisition and the first update added -- when you search, it wouldn't show on the map where the object you found was, but then the first update was that feature. A little dot would appear on the map, a button-stick search. I'm like, "Oh, I woulda totally asked for that and I'm glad it's there." It's such an intuitive thing, and a feature they didn't quite finish, so they added it late. It filled me with confidence that the folks there still remain sharp.

It's also kinda entertaining to just read about those changelog updates. They're very funny and odd. There's a Twitter dedicated just to tweeting patch notes, out of context. Stuff like "horse granola can no longer be sold in the market."

"Pants are now steal-able." Things like that.

Mr. Domino can now be stopped.

It's silly.

But it sounds like games of a bigger scale are changing and shifting and becoming different animals. Over the course of all this transition, what is it you feel the audience for games has never understood about the way bigger games are made?

Well, I think it's the complexity and the number of decisions. What looks like an easy decision or easy change can often have monstrous repercussions of many dimensions. One thing we'd always do for games, and I think most developers would, is when we're going through buglists or fixes, we'd have these big meetings where all the leads would show up and we'd discuss all the key changes. What would often be just a little tiny thing, all of a sudden everyone's putting up their hands, and you gotta do this, and you gotta add all these other assets, and suddenly it's turning into a month-long job to make this horse run forward. Like, is this what we want? The systems have become so incredibly complex on the AAA side. It's a huge, careful undertaking to just make any changes.

I always commiserate with the folks when they're like, "Oh, I wish they did this and I wish they did that!" It's like, "So did we, but sometimes it's either impossible or technically really difficult or just out of the scope of what we can accomplish."

What do you think is the most typical thing that gets cut from bigger games?

That's an interesting question. I don't know if there's a typical thing. I think many big games will go through this content-culling period. What usually will happen is vision and ambition will hit reality. They go, "Oh, we don't need 10 worlds. We only really need six, and so let's get rid of these four." Then they'll often be put on the back-burner for an expansion pack or whatever, but it almost ends up being a content thing, I think. At least in my experience. To be fair, it was never really something that would diminish the quality of the overall experience.

Again, our games were pretty gigantic to begin with, so whatever we delivered was pretty big. You'd need 20 percent more gigantic-ness. That was always the conversation that we would all have. The other thing is it's really difficult to estimate how long players will play, how they will even play in the real world. You tend to always be surprised. So the answer is I don't think it's a set thing, but I think content is definitely one of the things that often gets reduced. It's predictably reducible, versus other things.

I mean, it makes sense. Games are content, so of course you just cut stuff from being in it. But the common reaction is just, "Well, that's stupid. Why didn't they do that?"

[Laughs.] That's funny. I have this one good friend who's a mechanical engineer. He's a huge gamer and he'll often ask me about games and go, "Well, why'd they do this?" I explain to him, and then he goes, "Oh, that makes complete sense." It's almost like a craft like anything else, there's best practices and tricks you may have in your backpack, but a lot of the general processes are quite similar.

What's weird about the game industry to you?

That's an interesting one. I would say how all-consuming it can become for some people. In other words, for some people it just becomes their everything. Work and reality is sort of secondary to their digital lives or their gaming. When I say it, it doesn't sound weird, because it's a great form of escapism. If you want to escape, it's a great way to escape. I think for some people that's something they need maybe sometimes or all the time. But just how it becomes a consuming passion for folks isn't weird but definitely pretty interesting.

This is an interesting transition into my next question, then: All these years later, what do you make of that whole Mass Effect 3 ending thing?

No, it's funny. I don't think we saw it coming. [Laughs.] It's back to that reality of some things are just unpredictable. The reality of satisfying players is really, really tough. Sometimes you try, right? Sometimes you try and push an artistic point, and sometimes it doesn't work. [Laughs.] Or sometimes you think it does work. In retrospect, I almost look at it quizzically. At that time I was working on a lot of Star Wars, so I was playing Mass and everything, but I wasn't as deep in as everyone else was.

But that said, I could feel the BioWare pain for sure when that happened. I guess part of it was living in that online world for a while, I was already kind of desensitized to the stuff that could happen there. It wasn't good but it was almost like, "Wow, that's interesting. What do we do?" It's hard to explain, but it's almost like -- every one of these things becomes another thing to work or fix or improve on. That's just my personal philosophy. I don't get down on stuff. I just kinda like, "Well, that didn't work. Let's fix it, or work on it, or figure it out or whatever."

Was there contention over doing something about the ending internally?

As a company we're very measured and thoughtful, I think. And secondarily we're very much a consensus-driven company. And not forcibly. It was always a lot of discussion and a lot of conversation about things. We really tried, both Ray and I had a real philosophy of: If you have these really great, talented people, a bunch of them, you don't want them acting out orders. You want them believing. The team got together and everyone did what they wanted to do. There was never really any contention. I think that's one of the funny things about BioWare. People have called us the hive mind at one point. Some of these really strong companies -- it's not like you don't foster conversation, but once the conversations happen, you actually foster the conflict openly so it doesn't happen in a hidden way. And then once everyone's had their piece and feels like they've been heard, you move forward. But, no, not in my mind at all. We did what we wanted to do, and that's that.

Well, but it was kinda like: "No, we don't care for that. Please fix the ending." And then you guys fixed the ending. I don't think "fix" is the right word, but that is what happened.

No, but we did a different version. I think as a company we always wanted to please the customer. They may never believe it, but we want to please the customer. But the other part of it that I think is really interesting, and there's no way you can prove or disprove this, but it kind of comes back to my "Internet as megaphone comment," because I think that's kinda where I got this. Even if there was a small percentage of people, it's still a lot of people. And they can make a lot of people and be really unhappy and make a big impact. But then you pair that with the concept of you want your customers to be unhappy, you go, "Well, if there are people who are unhappy, what can we do to make them not unhappy?"

So there's a certain earnestness to the way we approach the customer and doing things like that. That's the thing. I don't know if it was half the people, 80 percent, 20 percent. Who knows? By the end of the day it was enough that we felt we wanted to do something. So we did.

Was there a fear of not honoring people who were satisfied with the original ending, though, if you have that "customer is always right" mentality?

I don't think specifically. What I found interesting, and, again, I just sat back and watched the whole thing and went, "Wow, this is really weird." But one thing I thought was really interesting and that I distinctly remember was some of the support we got from other industry figures. I'm 99.999 percent of this, but I remember Ken Levine came up commenting on respecting the artist's vision. I think at some level, I think it's interesting because we never saw it as capitulation. One way one could view something like that is "you're capitulating to the loud folks." It's like, "No, we want to make our customers happy. We want our fans to adore what we create." I think if we see a way to do that that we're happy with and we can stand behind, that's what we do. So I think Ray and I had always had this philosophy. He started it and we all started espousing it: If we want to see ourselves or the company as artists, we are commercial artists. It was commercial art. It wasn't art-art, it was commercial art. It was artistic, it was impactful and meaningful, but with a commercial goal.

You never want to lose that piece, and that's where satisfying your fans come from, is you want them to feel like they're really valued. And we listen to them. That comes back from the philosophy Ray and I had from the beginning, really early, early on.

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Do you think there should be a statute of limitations on doing reconstructive surgery on games? What if people said, "You know what? That negative world in Mario is really hard to get to and was disappointing when I did. Can you do something about that?"

[Laughs.] I think it comes down to being realistically positioned to deal with it. It's also not what you want to be remembered for. So the other side of that was, "Hey, guess what: it was still a great game and that whole series is fabulous." I think the way that I always thought of it was maybe in the way that people who had such passion and such love for it that when it didn't end the way they wanted, they expressed it. That's not actually a bad emotion. I really remember a couple times when I read a novel as a kid. It's funny, because I think about this. If I could have, after reading a novel, send vitriolic hate mail to the author, I would have. "I can't believe you did that!" I seriously would have. But what I didn't realize was what it did was create a response, a passionate response. And whatever the case, at least your customer cares enough that they give a shit, right? If they don't care at all, then that's actually worse in a way.

We touched on this before, and I know there's a blog post up about it, but why did you decide to retire from games?

There's probably two main parts. It's funny because I wrote the blog post as I was retiring. So I almost have another dimension to it. One was I sort of felt my passion had waned, and I'm a very passion-driven person and I like to be super-engaged with what I'm doing. And what I didn't realize was at that point I was quite burnt out. It took me about a year to go, "Oh yeah! I was really burnt out last year." Because you don't see it in yourself, but I was like, "Holy cow." It's really funny because I look back at some of these photos of myself right when I'm at the pinnacle of releasing Star Wars and all this stuff and I think I weigh 45 pounds more than I do now, and I'm all doughy and pasty. And I'm like, "Oh my God, I look terrible."

And a lot of that is just the stress, the pressure. That's the physical manifestation. And then the psychological manifestation is simply a lack of desire to continue that. The other piece of it, though, because that's one whole bucket. "I just don't wanna do this anymore." The other bucket was, on a personal level, I just had really felt I had accomplished everything I wanted to accomplish. We had been doing it a long time. BioWare had been going for like 22 years, we had accomplished a lot, we worked with a lot of fabulous people over the years. I had done everything I wanted to do in it. I could continue doing it, but I didn't have to.

When someone in their life has that junction point,  it's actually an interesting decision. Like, "Okay, I have the option to do it. Like, I have the option to not do it. What do I want to do?" I think at that point I just realized I wanted to try something else and do something else and get a rest.

I totally get that. I'm coming out of a period like that myself. What I'm curious is do you feel games is a unique industry in the sense that there are very few Sid Meiers or Kojimas? Whereas, in other mediums, like in music, you have a lot of people who have been around as long as Bob Dylan. Do you think that 24-hour newscycle of content that we were talking about before dissuades or discourages people from becoming lifers or the next Sid Meier?

It's interesting. I think there's probably two factors at play. One, if you start really young and you just go for it, you never really learn to slow down. But I'm sure you can say the same about musicians. But I think somewhere along the way some people manage to find a nice balance of how you want to work and get yourself into it, create a position or some sort of position where you can control your destiny. I think that's actually where the Kojimas and Sid Meiers of the world have a great position to be in, where they actually can work the way they want to work.

The problem with games is because the productions have gotten so big, and they're kind of continuous, and now they're never-ending once you launch them, the pressure is really, really up there. I don't know. The people in games are really interesting in that, at least historically, and it's changing with the younger crowd, but when the first bunch got in, they got into games because they were into games but they had other interests. They all typically had other careers. Maybe these people had been exposed to other things and had other disciplines that they could go back to or new ones they wanted to learn that they're more open to switching.

Well, but you have an MBA and a doctorate to fall back on. Most people don't have that many options.

I'm not going to back into medicine, but if you get a medical degree or whatever, you kinda go, "Oh, well, I'm confident I can learn something if I wanted to make a change." I think the other thing, too, is there are a lot more older game-makers now. I know a bunch that are into their fifties. It's pretty cool. It's different. They take so much wisdom through them. I think it's gonna happen more in the future. I think the first of us maybe flared up in all our enthusiasm, but I think there's gonna be more that last longer in the next run.

Hopefully. It sounds tough.

Anything creative is. I don't think making a string of hit games is any harder than making a string of hit albums or making a bunch of great books. They're all uniquely difficult in their own ways.

Yeah, but with a novel you just need a computer. You really don't even need a screen.

It's a different skill set.

You mentioned this earlier, but why aren't you going to make another game again? The same is true with books or albums: You don't need computers to make a good one. So why do you think you're done, even if you could go simpler?

This may be the secret: I know the actual cost. [Laughs.] Personally and professionally and everything else. It depends on the person, right? For me, I pour everything into it, and if I'm doing something and it's the the thing I've chosen to do, it's full speed ahead. It's almost a coy way of saying, "Yeah, I just don't really want to."

The cost is great, and the payoff is the satisfaction of releasing it. It's obviously fabulous when it's super-successful. That's even better. Just seeing your game on a shelf in a store -- the first few years [of BioWare] there were only stores, there's no downloadables. You'd go to your local store and see your game there and be like, "Wow, we actually made that." It seemed so magical and so unusual. I think some of that magic is gone now because you can get a game on the weekend on iTunes if you want. But it's just different. There's almost a mythology or a magic to them that's a little different now, releasing games.

It's different but certainly what is being eroded or being discarded is the ritualistic act of serendipity of leaving your house, going to a physical space, and discovering things that involve your other senses. As opposed to, "Well, I scrolled down a lot and here's this thing and the few sentences next to it look kinda neat."

And then your sampling is free and it's quick and you're done and you're like, "Oh, it was nothing." I'd go so far as to say that whole App Store concept and the zero-priced gaming -- it's funny, I'm not one of those guys who is anti-free to play. I'm actually totally cool with free to play. But I think the App Store has devalued the value of games because I think when you're getting into free; I mean, everything is free all of a sudden. That's the only thing that works now.

It's like if I made furniture, you could take the chair out of my shop for a while before you needed to buy it, right? I actually have nothing against free to play games. I like that concept. But I don't like the fact that that's becoming almost the de facto standard for everything that's not AAA. And the problem with it is some of the cleverness of indie gaming and some of that amazing stuff that people make -- I would love to see it better financially supported so they can make more. Simple as that. It makes it really hard, the winners and losers separation is so great. I think it in some ways devalues the actual value of games.

I would agree, and I think there are some indies who are too scared or don't think it's a good idea to make the games they really want to make because it will be much harder to be discovered.

Yeah. I love the creative craziness of those games, they're wonderful. It's like any other artform or entertainment form. You've got to really differentiate and I think it's really hard to get paid for your efforts these days, which is unfortunate. I'd love to see more money flow to the development side.

I think it's anyone who wants to create these days.

It's everything. [Laughs.] We could be musicians talking about this even worse. At least they've got concerts, but that's getting squeezed, too.

We touched on what the audience doesn't understand about how bigger games are made. What do you feel the games media doesn't understand about how bigger games are made?

Probably the same thing. [Laughs.] It's funny. I think I would sort of call out that "games media" is such an insanely broad category now. At one point it was professional journalists that worked at paper magazines and newspapers and stuff, and now it's anyone. So "games media" is potentially the same as the fans. You have more professional media and maybe more official sites and all that, but someone could start up a YouTube channel and talk about games and do really well. Some people do that really well and some people don't. The concept of media in general has changed immeasurably.

Something I know you wanted to talk about was you have a teenager. What do you think as an adult who has made games, and a parent, we're losing sight of as far as games are affecting teenagers?

I actually have a funny perspective on gaming. [Laughs.] It's that classic, "Well, I gamed a lot as a teenager and I turned out great!" I think the thing is the gaming has become 24/7 as well, so if you're not playing or watching the stream or watching the YouTube video telling you how to play -- it's so all-encompassing. As a parent it's an interesting balancing act to try to figure out how to moderate that. It's interesting. Seeing the kids play, it has become more of a head-to-head competitive, cooperative -- that's what they tend to like to play. I think it's also very social, and it's so interesting how social it's become.

It's really hilarious when everyone comes back home from school and they get on Skype together and play. It's just really, really funny how much gaming is the center -- not every kid, I think you still have that whole range, but for a lot of kids, games is the main touchstone for entertainment. And then streams and everything else, the rise of the Minecraft streams. I watch way too many Minecraft streams in my day. Some of them are pretty funny, to be fair. I've had the odd chuckle at some of the stuff that I've seen.

It's become almost this common language among them. If you don't game with most of the kids, you almost feel left out. Back when we were young, I remember if you didn't get cable, you couldn't see all these cool TV shows, right? And you're like, "Please get cable so I watch Happy Days." You're missing out, you have this hole in your cultural repertoire. I think gaming is a large part of that now.

I feel like we've heard this before, though, that kids play too many videogames and don't read enough.

[Laughs.] Sort of. That's partly true. [Laughs.] But it's funny. The written word is being replaced by a streaming video.

I've also heard of this happening.

It's funny, though, because I just can't stand video stuff. I can read much faster than I can watch a video. I'm almost some kind of a reverse Luddite.

You said you've cut back on playing games as well. Which doesn't surprise me, because you've seen how the sausage is made.

[Laughs.] Yeah. I could tell the story of it and maybe this will capture [why I stopped playing]. Specifically for me, when I was burnt out, I didn't realize I was burnt out, I knew I just didn't want to touch another game. [Laughs.] I didn't have a good insight into that. Probably for an entire year I didn't touch anything. I read and did other stuff. I eventually got back into some things. I think for me to get back in, it's either playing with family or really, really, really specific experiences I have enjoyed historically.

I'm a huge Demon Souls, Dark Souls guy. So Dark Souls II was the first game I played since I finished. It was almost like a year and a half. Like, I played that, finished that, did the whole thing solo, killed every boss solo. I was like, "Okay, I'm back!" But after that I'm like, "Okay, what's next?" I was waiting for the next Dark Souls, and [Hidetaka Miyazaki] is doing [Bloodborne], and I just didn't have anything that really floated my boat. I think that's one of the really interesting challenges for a very experienced gamer: The challenge of getting you out of your seat if you're not playing is getting harder and harder because you've experienced so many things and you've done so much. Maybe VR will change that? It could be the next thing that gets me going again, but like I said: I'm playing Dragon Age: Inquisition. It's the first BioWare game that I've ever played where I don't know the entire story. I was just leaving there by the time it was just first getting formed. So I don't know the story, so it's amazing. It's fabulous.

And then of course it's true to the way we make games and the way we like to make them, so I like what was made. But after it's done, literally, as we talk, this weekend I'm gonna probably finish it after about 110 hours. I've been drawing it out, I didn't want to finish it too fast. But then, I'm not sure I'm gonna play it after. I don't really know.

I also got into League of Legends. League is funny. I remember playing it right when it came out and I just totally didn't understand it. I played it, a couple matches, and was like, "Why do my levels go away after every match? Why am I buying equipment?" I really, really was clueless. I had no idea what to do. And this was years ago, right when it came out [in 2009]. And then, again, watching the kids play I'm like, "Oh, I'll give it a try." If they deem me good enough. I just see League as a way of fast decision-making, keeping your brain kind of nimble. I just love it, I think it does a great job. Again, it's free to play, but I'll spend money on it from time to time when I feel like it. I don't feel like it's devaluing the experience by any stretch. I think it's a fabulous game. It's a different paradigm. More my speed was probably World of Tanks, the slow plodding, but I want to challenge myself, so I play a lot of League lately. But I hurt my elbow playing it, so I'm on a League elbow break. Maybe I'm not gonna come back to it. Maybe it'll be six months before I try something else, but there's nothing that calls out to me today that says I just have to do this. I think that's the challenge of gaming: So much of what's created is kinda what's been out before. I've helped a few friends' companies in the mobile space and I've looked at what's being made there, and it's like, how many different Clash of Clans clones can we make in one year and then we'll succeed? It's a really, really tough market. Again, maybe VR is gonna be it.

How would you like to see bigger AAA games to progress creatively? Because I don't think it's a given yet that VR is where they're gonna go -- or should.

I don't know because they're getting so ridiculous in a good way. They're so ridiculously fulfilling and complete and you can live in them and there's characters to hang out with and there's realized worlds. Like, it's just so amazing. I can't even imagine where it could go. They're already huge. You look at GTAV, Dragon Age: Inquisition, and they're just so big, and there's so much to do in so much time. That's why in some ways if I am playing, if you go back to something like League of Legends, it's the absolute opposite. It's finite, specific, repetitive, but boy, the variety and that challenge is so much fun.

But I donno. I got no clue. Maybe that's why I retired. I am out of ideas.

Insert

Is it hurting anyone, then, if what's out there is what's already been out there, as you said?

No, no. It's not bad. I'm not saying it in a negative way at all. Like, for me, I can't wait for the next Demon's Souls, Dark Souls derivative. I can't wait for the next Mass Effect thing. I'm waiting to see what Ken Levine does next. There's some really, really, really specific stuff that's gonna get me out of my chair. And maybe that amazing game, like Naughty Dog's next thing that's gonna blow everyone's mind. Like, there's gonna be stuff out there, but I think the challenge of this casual AAA gamer like me is it's -- because I think the other side of the coin, to be honest, is simply the time commitment.

Seriously, when I'm playing Dragon Age or Dark Souls 2, my productivity went through the floor. [Laughs.] It's really bad. I'm not answering emails. I'm not going to meetings. It's almost that funny thing: I'm getting too old to be so dominated by the passion for a game. But I still will be, with the right game. I have a better, more balanced view of the time trade-off.

When I was working in games, sure, of course I was playing an enormous amount. All the time. Everything. As much as I could. But now that it's not my job, I'll just pick and choose and be more selective.

It seems obvious why you chose to play Inquisition, but what has that been like?

It's been fabulous. It's really interesting because it's really, really, really familiar in that I know why it is the way it is. I hadn't thought about Dragon Age in ages, and then all of a sudden the mythology comes back. "Oh yeah, I remember all this!" And they do such a great job of presenting the world to the player. It's been really rewarding. I've been loving it. I honestly have this mixed feeling about finishing it. But it's time. I almost want to just check the box and see what happens, and I don't actually know. That's the best feeling of all. I don't know what's gonna happen, and that's super-exciting for a BioWare game. The first time ever.

I think if you have a strong feeling one way or the other, they'll take it into consideration.

[Laughs.] I'll tell you a little story to punctuate that. Obviously I know the guys working on it very well. I was getting groceries and I see the guy who runs the project, parked down the way from me. I'm leaving, he's coming in. He gets out of his car and I start peppering him with comments about *Dragon Age *and he's like, "What the heck's going on?" in the grocery-store parking lot. It was a funny role-reversal, which was actually kind of hilarious.

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