Specials: Interviews:

Interview with Chris Priestly and Jessica Merizan (BioWare)

Adventure Corner [AC]: Hello to Chris Priestly and Jessica Merizan from BioWare. Thanks for taking the time to talk to us. Maybe we could start with a short introduction and you could tell us and our readers a little bit about yourselves and your roles at BioWare?

Chris: Hi, I am Chris Priestly, BioWare’s Community Specialist. I’ve been with BioWare, well, I’m in my 12th year now. I’ve worked on pretty much everything BioWare made since the end of “Throne of Bhaal” for the Baldur’s Gate franchise. Soo all thhe 'Neverwinter Nights' games, 'Jade Empire', 'Knights of the Old Republic', the 'Mass Effect' franchise and the 'Dragon Age' franchise. I work with Jessica who will, of course, introduce herself and we cover all the community- related issues. I spend a lot of my time on the BioWare social network, our message boards, I help plan a lot of our conventions and I get to talk to lots of our fans.

Jess: I’m Jessica Merizan, my official title is Community and New Media Manager. I’ve been with BioWare a year now. I started out as a marketing contractor doing social media for them and then after 'Mass Effect' shipped I must have either impressed someone or known where a body was hidden, because they decided to hire me fulltime. I pretty much work in the online development department, heading up the community team. Chris and I do everything from planning our events, we do our twitter, facebook, social media strategy and then I work with our new social media coordinator, who’s fantastic, his name is David and he executes on those (strategies). I get to do a lot of thinking about what our vision is for the community for the next year, what we want to be doing and we really want to change the way people think about communities. Because it’s not just a place that is a forum where you go, but really as an extension of the game and as a space for people to actually care about their characters and their experience. So often the social aspect of community is taken out entirely because people write their own comments and then leave or aren’t willing to accept if someone else has a different opinion. So we’re really trying to change the way people think about community and that it is made more inclusive and that it doesn’t matter how much of a fan you are, you can play whatever games you like, you don’t even necessarily have to play any of our games. Maybe you just really enjoy the look of a character or a storyline. All those people should be welcome. So we’re doings a lot of cool things to figure out how to keep expanding that and how to make our fans feel like this is a place they can be to enjoy and experience the IP and the universe of 'Dragon Age' and 'Mass Effect' all throughout the year and not just during a game launch.

AC: What would you say are the biggest challenges doing that? Both on the down- and on the upside?

Chris: Oh, that’s two different questions.

AC: Yeah *grins*.

Jess: So challenges are definitely, well, there’s been a lot of media around geek culture being exclusive. The questions “What is a geek?” “Who is a geek?” ‘”What defines geeks?” have been thrown around a lot and that is something that translates into our space. The question “Who is a BioWare fan?” is something that will get you very different answers depending on who you are going to ask, a developer, marketing or the actual community itself. Just like when you’re asking what it means to be a fan or what it means to enjoy something, often you’ll get two different answers. One will be saying that, if you like something, you like it. End of story. And on the other hand you’ll have people who want to categorize it. For us one of the biggest challenges is to bring those two camps together and make things more inclusive. This isn’t a secret club or an organization. I feel like all of us are interested in that because it is a space where we feel like we can belong or we feel like these characters that we play in the game are friends. They’re people we care about and so I don’t think that one of the biggest challenges is to make sure that that translates well to our fans and the community. We want our community to be just as accepting as they want others to be towards them.
In terms of what is amazing to do it’s a lot about going to events and meeting people in real life, getting to talk to people. I’m a huge cosplayer, so I love making costumes and I love meeting with that subsection of our fandom who are also making costumes and talking about techniques and different things. Or we’ve got such creative fanartists that it’s just amazing to go online and find something on reddit or deviantart. That’s just such a rewarding aspect of my job, to be able to meet those people and keep them creating more amazing stuff.

AC: Has there been a change in climate between BioWare and the fans?

Chris: Well, possibly, part of it though is the elevation and just the growth of the company and the evolution of gaming as a whole. When I broke into gaming we made PC games. That was all you could really make games for because there were no Xboxes or Playstations and handheld games and cellphone games and so on. So we definitely have larger and larger audiences every year and I think that overall culture is constantly evolving. Not just “nerd culture” but all the different fan groups or interest groups are all evolving with new people coming in, reaching out to new segments, new gamers and new experiences. You don’t just have your initial products anymore, but you have people who read books or comics or play boardgames that are based on a videogame or a movie or whatever it might be.
Recently with 'Dragon Age: Origins' and 'Mass Effect' they’re probably the biggest franchises BioWare has created, arguably 'Star Wars', you know, working with LucasArts for both 'Knights of the Old Republic' and 'The old Republic' but those are still LucasArts products that we helped make, but 'Mass Effect' and 'Dragon Age' belong to BioWare. And they’ve definitely grown from the release of 'Dragon Age: Origins' to 'Dragon Age 2' and throughout the 'Mass Effect' series, and we’re not quite finished with 'Mass Effect 3'. We stil have DLC’s and everything still to come, we’ve got 'Mass Effect 3' coming out on WiiU, which is a completely new platform and again a whole new community that we are looking at. It definitely changes from time to time and there are always hills and valleys when things are really good and then times when they aren’t. But even in bad times, you know, when people from the development teams or marketing are complaining that the fans are really angry or somebody didn’t like this or that, I usually say: “Well, they’re angry because they care.” And that is, at the end of the day, good. It would be better for us, obviously, if they weren’t angry and they loved everything we did and everything was perfect, but that’s probably never going to happen. We sell millions of copies of our games and it’s almost impossible that everyone will like them and like every aspect of them completely. There will always be some people complaining that it was good, but could have been better here and there, or who wished it could have been more like this and that. But the more we can cultivate positive feedback, it is because people care. They might be angry at us or yell at us, or whatever it may be, but it is because they care so much about their characters, their romances, their stories, their game and that’s a very good thing to have.

AC: Do you think people care more about BioWare games because of the stories and the stories you can create for yourself?

Chris: Yeah, I think that’s a lot of it. Definitely by leaving a lot of the choice in the hands of the player. They can choose their backstory, whether they’re spaceborn, whether they’re from earth, whether they romanced Tali or Garrus, that kind of thing. For good or bad, our games aren’t very short, there can be a lot of content in there for players who really enjoy the game. So I talk with fans and they tell me that from the first time they’ve played 'Mass Effect' until they finished
'Mass Effect 3' they’ve played this game for 100 to 150 hours, and that’s not counting the times they’ve replayed it. If you think about it, that’s a lot of time to devote to something as “frivolous” as a game. Of course for our teams that’s fantastic, because they’re working so hard to make those characters work. It is the combination of so many so talented and creative people, from the writers to the designers to the voice cast that really draws the players in.

Jess: Totally. There are a lot of RPG’s out there and story-based gaming is getting more and more elevated in terms of priority in the videogame industry and a lot of companies that weren’t hiring writers are staffing writers now. They do see that an important aspect of games is to be able to escape and feel the excitement of an action adventure, maybe solve a few puzzles along the way. And while there are a lot of RPG’s out there, there aren’t as many RPG’s out there that focus on character- driven stories the way BioWare does. You know, BioWare has great stories, but you could say that about a lot of companies, but what many of those don’t have is that personal connection between your players and your characters. Even if you’re not into romancing or going out and doing every sidequest or every dialogue or loyalty mission, we still get feedback from fans with more of a shooter- background and they’d established these friendships where they were saying, you know “Garrus was my bro.” That’s just something every player intrinsically walks away with, even if they didn’t think they would, they leave caring a lot about the characters. It gets harder and harder to separate between “fake” people and “real” people, because you have this emotional investment for 60- 80- 120 hours and that’s just as valid as a relationship you have out there in the real world.

AC: Could you tell us something more about the upcoming 'Mass Effect' DLC 'Leviathan'?

Chris: Yeah, it comes out August 28th and August 29th for European PS3. It’s a really solid add-on adventure for commander Shepard that essentially reveals the origins and history of the reapers. Even after 'Mass Effect 3' and the Extended Cut people have still been asking where the reapers came from, how they first showed up and everything. And instead of spoiling anything, let me tell you, that you’ll understand a lot better by the end of 'Leviathan'.

Jess: Some of those questions that people were asking us after the game first came out in march were all about the reapers. Back then we couldn’t do much more than give them a wink and tell them to wait and see.

Chris: This is the wait.

Jess: We have a great singleplayer DLC plan and we intentionally did not answer all the questions that we knew our core community would have and we think that the DLC is a great adventure. It shows you some new areas to explore, there’s some interesting gameplay where the team kind of took a risk and tried out something different. I’m really excited that with every DLC it’s not just more of the same, but they keep pushing the limit and keep doing interesting things in development to see how they can change the space of gaming. So in 'Leviathan' you’ll see a lot of interesting gameplay techniques we haven’t delved that much into before and it’s a really great story and for people who like lore it’s got some really hardy elements in there.

Chris: There are new worlds to explore, a new area is opened up on the Citadel for the first time. A lot of people really like to re-visit the Citadel, they’ll definitely like that. I think we can say now that there’s an underwater segment in there that’s quite interesting and, as Jessica mentioned, there’s a lot of new features in the DLC and we’re confident the fans are going to enjoy it.

AC: Can you explain when this DLC is set? Do people have to re-visit old savegames after the ending or something like that?

Chris: The DLC takes place during the story of 'Mass Effect 3'. So it’s not after the ending. Depending on what you have done throughout 'Mass Effect 3', the characters you have met for example. If you play the DLC very early on in the game, there will be characters you have not yet encountered that appear later in the game. But it all plays directly into the story. So if you have Liara in your party already, she’ll be part of the DLC (probably not the best example), if you have EDI in your party, she’ll be part of the DLC, that sort of thing. It’s not a romance- specific DLC, a lot of the fans have told us that they’d just like to romance Thane or Tali or Miranda or so, but this blends directly into the story of 'Mass Effect 3'.

Jess: There will be new dialogue and different conversations that you can have with your party members and your love interest. It’s added completely seamless into the main story, so if you play the DLC on your first playthrough you probably won’t even notice. If you have finished the game, however, you reload to before the last Cerberus mission to play the DLC and enjoy!
How long do you think players are going to take finishing the DLC?

Jess: It depends on your playing style, but it’s a good adventure that we compared to “a fun night out”. For me, I’d spend ages on it, just stop and go back and read every single codex entry and have every possible dialogue.

Chris: (chuckles) It’s true. If we tell the fans “Oh the game is 30 hours long.” Somebody will come and say: “But it only took me 20 hours, you guys lied!”

Jess: The DLC is not 30 hours though!

Chris: It depends on how much you want to explore, how good you are in combat. People who are versed in the combat system will, of course, be faster.

Jess: Or if you play in story mode. Then you just feel like a god and blast right through it.
Chris: It took me about 3 hours to get through and I like to think that I’m pretty good at 'Mass Effect 3'. So, different people, different gameplay times.

AC: Now for something slightly different, can you tell us something about 'Dragon Age 3'?

Chris: Well, we asked Mark Darrah, who is the project director of the 'Dragon Age' franchise and we told them that we’re coming to GamesCom, that we’ll be meeting a lot of fans, talk to some press and that they are going to ask about 'Dragon Age'. So we asked what we could tell and Mark answered: “Well, you can tell them we’re working on our next project.”
(everyone laughs)
So the 'Dragon Age' team is working on their new project, that’s really all we can say. They’re obviously working very hard and although we’re not announcing anything here at GamesCom we will reveal what we can as soon as we can.

Jess: Well I was in a panel at PAX east last march and the team were showing some fun screenshots and ideas they were throwing around all of which with the annotation: “Remember, this is stuff we’re still actively working on. So we might talk about things you might never see again.” But we’re not really the type of people who hype something up and then not show you anything. We want to be able to show you what we’re talking about instead of just talking about the different things we’re working on.

AC: How did you like Cologne? Did you get a chance to take a tour of the cathedral?

Jess: Actually we’re staying right by the cathedral and I was listening to the bell chimes in my room. It was really beautiful. I took German for six years, somehow I’m still awful at it, but I do enjoy coming here and meeting German people is absolutely amazing. Germany is definitely one of my favorite countries in the whole world. This is my first GamesCom and I’m having a blast. I’m looking forward to maybe getting some sightseeing in , if even just to walk to a restaurant.

Chris: This is my fourth or fifth GamesCom now, the first one was back in Leipzig before it came to Cologne when it was still called Games Convention. But I love coming here. I’d pretty much go anywhere. If somebody asked me to go talk to people in Peru, I’d go to Peru and talk to the fans there. But I love Germany. We have a huge audience here of people who play BioWare games. Getting to come out here is always a wonderful time. I’ve been to the Dom and I always plan on visiting it at least once a year. But it’s really hard to squeeze something in after the Convention, we don’t have a lot of time naturally. We love coming here, even if we don’t have a new game to show right now, but it’s still very important for BioWare to have us here because we have so many great fans.

AC: How important are conventions like this for your work?

Jess: I think we’ve been trying to get to more conventions and events than we have in the past. In Chris’ early days of community, they went everywhere and then things slowed down a lot and we went into a cycle of going to certain events and we’re currently trying to break out of that and start going to more things. It’s such an important way for us to come and talk to people face to face. We’re actively trying to change the scope of what it means to be a community and part of what we’re doing here is talking to people in our community. We ask them what sites they visit, if they use forums, twitter, where we can improve and what they love about what we’re doing. For me that’s a huge project that’s so much more personal than doing surveys and polls, which we’ll do as well, but there is something to be said about talking to people face to face about the games they love and the community they’re active in. It’s also really great for the developers who don’t get to come to all of these events to hear people talk about their games and meet people who are really passionate about their projects. Or when they’re showing a demo and get to see people play their game, that’s just such an overwhelmingly rewarding experience for them. We’re always trying to improve the experience for everyone and these conventions are immensely important to us.

AC: Thank you so much for the interview, you two!

Interview by Ulrika Tegtmeier and Maren Keitel
Transcript by Ulrika Tegtmeier

geschrieben am 05.10.2012, Team Adventure Corner

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