THE INTERVIEWS, PART II
The week of July 5, 2015

How two doctors created a video game dynasty

By Morgan Ramsay

The following excerpt is from Online Game Pioneers at Work, a collection of interviews with some of the most prominent people in the gaming industry. It has been edited for length and clarity.

When Ray Muzyka, Greg Zeschuk, and Augustine Yip formally incorporated BioWare in 1995, they were medical doctors, recently graduated from the University of Alberta in Canada. Although Yip left soon after, Muzyka and Zeschuk moved forward, recruiting a passionate, hard-working team to build a company that would become a living legend.

BioWare, acquired by EA in 2007, is today best known for cinematic role-playing games, such as the Dragon Age series, the Mass Effect series, and the narrative-driven MMO, Star Wars: The Old Republic.

In the beginning, however, the studio built its reputation with Baldur’s Gate in 1998, Neverwinter Nights in 2002, and Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic in 2003—all now considered not merely classic games but master classes in role-playing game design.

When this interview was conducted in early 2012, the company had just launched its MMO. Later that year, the duo retired from video games. Currently, Muzyka is an angel investor and entrepreneurial mentor, focused on information technology, medical innovations in diagnostics and therapeutics, and social entrepreneurship at Threshold Impact, while Zeschuk has been exploring craft beer through the webseries, The Beer Diaries, and building a brewery in his hometown of Edmonton.

MassEffectMass Effect

How did you two meet?

Zeschuk: Ray and I both went to the University of Alberta, and we actually met a little bit before medical school. We didn’t really hang out or get to know each other very well, but I think we were in a chemistry class together and a zoology class, so we kind of saw each other around. It was actually when we both went to the University of Alberta Medical School that we met each other. That was when we found we had these really common interests: video games were probably the biggest one, but, you know, movies, comics, the usual fun entertainment stuff. But, definitely, a passion for video games was a big driver for us. I think we both had grown up playing them and liked the same kinds of games. We got to know each other pretty well there.

Medical school? You became doctors?

Muzyka: We were both medical doctors. We graduated from the University of Alberta in 1992 and specialized in family medicine. I also did emergency medicine in small towns across northern Alberta, and Greg did geriatric medicine. We practiced as we did our residencies and afterwards in medicine for a couple of years before we started BioWare. We incorporated BioWare in 1995, and both of us continued to practice medicine part time. We just did less and less medicine, and more and more BioWare.

I would do what they call locum tenens. In Latin, that means “temporary replacement.” You go around and you fill in for other docs in small towns where you’re the only doc for 100 miles or so, and I worked in the emergency room several times a month, or on weekends. I did that until 2000, shortly after I went back and got an MBA. I think Greg stopped doing medicine a couple of years before me, but both of us worked for quite a while doing medicine, too. We didn’t leave medicine because we didn’t like it. We liked it quite a bit actually, but we loved BioWare.

Why medicine anyway?

Zeschuk: At that time, computer games weren’t even really established as career paths. We were very avid hobbyists. I don’t think we went to school yet then, so we’re talking about the mid-1980s. We never conceived of the possibility that you could have a career in video games. You know, we’re from Edmonton, Canada. There were no companies that did that. There were some in Vancouver, but I think they were just starting out, like the Distinctive Software guys who would join EA.

Academically, we were pretty strong and really wanted to be doctors. I grew up from a young age wanting to be one. I think Ray as well, but he can probably speak to that better than I can. And then we started making medical educational software while we were in school, and just played around, making games as hobbyists. When we saw what was being done in med school, we said, “Wait a minute! We can do as well as this and even better!” That’s when we actually realized we could try the game thing. That was really what led to us pursuing it.

Muzyka: Oh, it’s a similar answer for me. I always wanted to be a doctor growing up. I also enjoyed computer games quite a lot since I was maybe 9 or 10 years old when I first got an Apple II. That’s when I started to learn how to program. I taught myself programming in BASIC and assembly, and later Pascal, Fortran, and other languages. I just really enjoyed that. I found it was a really fun hobby for me.

We transitioned into BioWare from medicine because our hobbies became our careers and our careers became our hobbies. Starting out, we didn’t pay ourselves salaries for the first few years of BioWare. Medicine was how we made enough money to live on, and to get money we could invest back into the company as it was growing in the first four or five years. Video games were always our passion and they still are. You know, it’s still one of my favorite activities even today.

When you decided to get into video games while you were doing medicine, was your decision to start developing video games, or to start a company to develop video games?

Muzyka: The decision was to make video games, and the vehicle to do that was BioWare. We actually really enjoyed the business aspects as well. Right from the beginning, we didn’t have anybody who had ever made a video game before on our team until after our first two products, Shattered Steel and Baldur’s Gate, were released. Initially, we had no professional “managers,” professional financial advisors, HR experts, or anything like that; we had no operational people. It was just Greg and me, and our teams making games. And Greg and me trying to figure it out as we went.

ssscreens_1_3_large

Shattered Steel

How do you build a company and scale it to 60 or 70 people? At that point, we hired a couple of great people who are still at BioWare. One was in finance, our director of finance at the time, and another one was a director of HR. They were at BioWare going on almost 20 years in different roles. They’re awesome people, and we continued to hire great people around us.

But, yeah, the business of games was really exciting and engaging in its own right. We enjoyed the idea of creating systems, structures, and processes that would allow the teams to be successful, to communicate with them well, and incent them to deliver and feel like they were rewarded and actually part of the process. You know, I found that really engaging. I still do.

New business models, organizational structures, and thinking about marketing, PR, finance, and HR are all really interesting challenges. So, I think for us, it was probably a mix of both. We wanted to make games, and then we learned how fun it was to have a growing, vibrant company.

Did you think starting a company would be easy?

Muzyka: That’s interesting. We didn’t have an exit strategy, and we didn’t have any expectations, per se, of what success looked like. We weren’t seeking a specific outcome. We were just striving to do the best we could, hiring great people around us. Every day, you try and make every aspect of what you do better, and that’s exemplified by our core values, which BioWare still follows today. There are three of them.

One is quality in our products for our customers. We try and make the best games we can, try and be humble about it, and try and improve them. When they’re not perfect, we try and do the best we can to make them better so the next one is better than the last.

Quality in the workplace is another core value. That’s for our employees. And that’s about trying to make the workplace better every day, where you try and do something to make it better for our valued and passionate teams, and just everything you can do to make it feel like it’s not just a job. It has to be a career, something they can invest in for decades and stay with us. We actually have a lot of people who have been with us for a long time. I just did a one-on-one with somebody who was one of our very first employees back at Edmonton. He’s now down in Austin, leading the creative team there. We have a lot of people like that who continue to grow, flourish, and continue to advance and progress.

“We never conceived of the possibility that you could have a career in video games.”

And the third core value is entrepreneurship for our investors, for shareholders, for partners, and so on. In the early days of BioWare, that was us and our employees. We gave a lot of stock to our staff, so they did well through our various company sales. Now, it’s our EA parent company. We’re shareholders in that company, and obviously, there are wide holdings of that as well.

We have to try and find a balance between all these core values and make sure that the needs of our investors, our employees, and our customers are always being met. Not one at the exclusion of the others, not two at the exclusion of the other, but all three together, trying to find a sustainable environment. That has always been our philosophy of how we approached it, and that helped us a lot to make decisions and just balance things every step of the way.

And that’s been probably the most consistent thing during our journey over the last couple of decades. Everything else changes: the business, the products… they evolve, as do the people. Some stay, some go, we add new ones, you add new locations, but the things that are really the most enduring about BioWare and the things that’ll last long after we’re gone are our core values and what they mean to our brand.

Did you put together a business plan to deliver on that first value?

Muzyka: We had a business plan. I think we were seeking bank financing, grants, or things like that. We didn’t get a lot. Actually, it’s kind of funny. We were told by the bankers we dealt with that any loans we’d get would be based on the fact that we were medical doctors. They knew we would be personally good for it, if it ever came to that.

As a startup video game company in a primarily oil- and gas-rich province in Canada, video games weren’t really understood by a lot of the banking people we dealt with. They were good folks, but they really dealt with more traditional industries. We were lucky to make great games that sold well, and we were lucky to get great publishing partners who helped us to get returns, and invest back into and grow the company.

Ramsay: Did the bankers think you wouldn’t succeed?

Muzyka: I think they hoped we would. I think it was more they didn’t understand the business we were in. This was 20 years ago in a province where there wasn’t any software development, let alone video game development. It was more of a foreign concept to the locals.

Zeschuk: We also didn’t come with any obvious expertise or skills in the area, so I think banks are not in the business of lending money to anything that risky without strong collateral. We were just two young punks in our early 20s, showing up to say, “Hey, we’re going to make video games. Give us some money.” It was a bit of a stretch.

When exactly did you start BioWare?

Zeschuk: There was pre-BioWare stuff in the 1990 to 1992 timeframe, and we were definitely doing stuff in 1994. We officially incorporated in 1995, but there were a few years of exploration prior to that.

What were some of the other names that you considered?

Muzyka: The only one I know now is BioWare.

Zeschuk: Well, remember, at one point, we were going to call it Ascendant BioWare, but everyone said that’s way too long and wordy.

Muzyka: Yeah, with the software for humans concept, our first logo actually had a computer hand and a human hand. If you do a search, you’ll probably see that in some of our early logos.

When did you get your first office?

Muzyka: We worked out of Greg’s basement for a year or two before we incorporated, and we stayed there until we got the first office in 1995.

Zeschuk: Oh, yeah. 1995 was the one with the really bad circuit breaker.

Muzyka: And we had only four circuit breakers! At the end, before we totally exceeded that space requirement, we had something like 50 people in there. We moved a year or two later to a new space that was bigger and nicer, but in that early first office, there were only four plugs in the wall. We had a power-up sequence for the computers in the office so that we didn’t blow the circuit breaker for the whole building. Everybody would be like, “I’m on. I’m on. I’m on.” We had found by trial and error that if you turned them on in a certain order, it wouldn’t create a power overload. If you turned on the computers in the wrong order, for sure, it would just flip the switch and you had to run downstairs, get the key, and open up the electrical box. It was an interesting space. It was a fun time, but I’m glad we moved.

How much did you spend to get the company started?

Muzyka: I don’t know. We maxed out. I think we took everything we personally owned and invested it in the company.

Zeschuk: It was definitely tens of thousands of dollars to small hundreds of thousands.

Muzyka: Probably several hundred thousand dollars each. That was basically everything we had, and we maxed out our debt and credit cards. We just kind of went for it. It was like, whatever it took, this is what we’re doing. It never occurred to us there would be risk in that. It never really occurred to me. I think, Greg, you considered whether medicine would be something you’d go back to. For me, it was a fun hobby at that point.

Zeschuk: I thought of it as a safety net. If we blew it, I could go back.

Muzyka: I never thought of it that way. For me, it was BioWare was what we were doing, and, of course, it was going to be successful because we’re going to work hard, hire great people, make great games, and that would lead to good results. Those results might take years, but we didn’t care about that. It was about building something that was going to be awesome. It would entertain the world, and we really didn’t worry about the risk that much. It was a little stressful. Sometimes we were like, “Hey I don’t have any money. I guess I’ve got to go work as a doctor this weekend because I actually can’t pay my rent.” And there would be times where I’d be doing that and I think you as well.

Zeschuk: I was able to mooch off my wife, so I was lucky.

Muzyka: Yeah, I got married later.

Greg, you said you had a family?

Zeschuk: I had the beginning of a family when we started. My wife was also a doctor. Those were interesting times. We did a lot on the go, and certainly being a startup, it was very busy, but it was certainly a lot of fun.

“Starting out, we didn’t pay ourselves salaries for the first few years of BioWare. Medicine was how we made enough money to live on, and to get money we could invest back into the company.”

What impact did starting up BioWare have on your family life?

Zeschuk: Oh, just less of it. The reality is that any startup is an enormous draw on your time and focus. That’s a key thing: it’s not just the time, but where your mind is. What you’re thinking about all the time is a really, really big factor in that for sure.

Ray, you married later?

Muzyka: Just after I got my MBA.

Did either of you regret focusing on video games instead of practicing medicine, something you wanted to do as kids?

Muzyka: No, neither of us. I liked medicine a lot. I really liked it. I didn’t leave it because I didn’t like it. I’ve still got my license, actually. I don’t practice anymore. I’m not going to go back to it, but I just keep renewing. I’m retired formally as a doctor, but for me, I went to school for a long time, 10 years or so, and it’s something I’m proud of. I’m glad I was able to help people’s lives for the years that I did practice. I did a lot of emergency medicine in underserved areas in rural Alberta. It was really hard work, but really fun, really engaging, really exciting. For me, I realized early on that I loved BioWare. I love video games.

After securing office space, what did you do? What did you do with the hundreds of thousands of dollars you two invested?

Muzyka: We put the money in over time as we needed, but we had started a game, Shattered Steel, with some talented external contractors. We then hired the folks in, finished it up, and published it with Interplay, our first publishing partner. Then we started the second game and that was Baldur’s Gate. It was going to be a return to the role-playing games that we grew up with and loved as kids. We published that with Interplay, too, and moved on from there to MDK2. We just kept on adding more teams, trying to reach new consumers, create innovative gameplay, build games with more online modes and more different forms of interactivity, and improve the interface.

BaldursGate

Baldur’s Gate

At the same time, we were trying to improve our systems, processes, and structures. We were continually evolving, from a team-based structure to a loose matrix structure to a formalized matrix structure. When we went to MBA school, we learned more about the different kinds of operational structures, systems, and incentive systems to get people to stay with us long term. We tried to implement all those kinds of communication systems and processes.

BioWare evolved depending on where we were, who was with us, and how big we were. Meanwhile, the teams themselves were getting bigger the whole time, too. We started Shattered Steel with a team that was probably in the teens or so.

Zeschuk: Oh, 13, I think.

Muzyka: 13 peak. The peak team size for Baldur’s Gate was 60 right before we launched. That was a pretty big team for that time in the industry. We had to improvise and find a lot of what at the time were fairly innovative practices in communication, project tracking, project management, and communication asset management. There weren’t a lot of solutions available, so we had to create our own.

Later, we found there was good licensed software from enterprise companies that we could emulate, and we learned a lot from looking at Microsoft, Oracle, and other big software companies, what they did as best practices, and BioWare continued to grow from there.

Eventually, we had localized teams of a hundred people or bigger. Today, our teams consist of hundreds of people, but they’re spread across the world in different locations. It creates even more interesting challenges for management and communication, such as to try to partner with outsourcers effectively and all those good things.

Did you see yourselves as an entertainment company or a game developer?

Muzyka: We were technically a developer, so really both of those, and then we added community, public relations, and marketing functions. Now we’re a publisher as part of EA and we’re still a developer at the same time, but we also have marketing, community, online and live team services, community management, customer relationship management, customer support, and all other functions of a fully integrated online company.

Basically, all of our products now have embedded online capabilities. But from the beginning, I guess I always thought of us as more of an entertainment company. Our competitive environment wasn’t just games; it was also television, books, movies, and music. Today, BioWare’s even developing social and mobile games.

What business model did you originally conceive for BioWare?

Zeschuk: I think, primarily, we ended up towards the development side, but we actually tended to add a lot of stuff that publishers would do, just because we felt it was stronger to do things like community locally. We tended to develop, too, and then do deals to get the games published.

We worked our first one with the Interplay guys way, way back in the day. We’re still friends with a lot of those guys too. It was actually a really great relationship. Through Interplay, we had Shattered Steel, Baldur’s Gate, Neverwinter Nights, and then Atari as well. We’ve done a lot of work with LucasArts. We kind of forget that we’ve actually been working on and off for well over a decade with them, too.

Ray said we differentiated ourselves by having a really strong community of our own, and our own public relations and marketing to supplement and to support our partners and also push the BioWare message directly as well. It’s interesting that now that BioWare’s a label within EA, that’s the exact model we follow. Everything we used to do in parallel is now central to our overall business. We’re not only a developer; we are effectively a publisher at the same time.

How did Shattered Steel come about? Why did you think that would be a good flagship title for BioWare?

Zeschuk: We liked big robots. Those were the days of MechWarrior and those kinds of games. It was actually a real popular genre, so that seemed like the thing to do at the time. One of the things we still do after all these years is find out what the team’s passionate about, what they’re interested in, what they like, and work with them to do that. So, we started with the framework, saying we want this to be a 3D multiplayer big robot combat game. And then we got the team together.

“Creatively, we’ve always been in command. We make games how we want to make them.”

Did you two come up with the concept?

Zeschuk: Typically, with all of our games, there’s no one person who can say, “Hey, I did the whole thing.” There’s usually a large group of people involved. The producer, lead programmer, art director, lead designer, and the senior team would work on a concept together because we wanted everyone to collectively buy into it as a group. In this case, it was the whole team.

Did you develop Shattered Steel on spec?

Zeschuk: It was our design. Even when we did licensed titles, we would drive all of the elements, and then work with a publisher at various levels. Obviously, in the case of the Star Wars stuff, we worked very tightly in partnership with [George] Lucas. However, we were never work-for-hire developers. We always had felt the need to drive the creative process.

Interplay and BioWare. Who approached whom?

Muzyka: When we pitched our first game, we had a list of the top 10 publishers, and we divided the list into two. I called five of them, Greg called five of them, and we kept calling them until they took our calls. In the end, we got nine out of the 10 to make an offer, but initially, none wanted to talk to us because we were an unknown developer with no track record. And then we got most of them to make offers once they tried out the demo, and read the pitch, marketing plan, and the dev plan we sent them. We did something similar for Baldur’s Gate. We only sent it to five publishers though, and we got offers from, I think, three out of the five pretty quickly. We went with Interplay again because we had a good relationship working with them.

How did you get the publishers to talk to you?

Muzyka: Sheer stubbornness and persistence. We just kept calling.

Zeschuk: And when they looked at the demos, they went, “Whoa!”

Muzyka: We made a point of sending a solid demo and some other materials. You know, here’s our vision for how we’re going to build the game, here’s how we’re going to use our resources, and here’s what we anticipated people would want to see. We tried to imagine us in their seats. What would we want to see when people tried to pitch us an investment opportunity? In retrospect, it was kind of crude, but we did the best we could. I think they liked the quality of the demo, and they liked the fact that we were really stubborn. When we flew in and met them, they liked meeting us and obviously saw something they liked.

How did you identify what games to develop?

Zeschuk: The early process was whatever tickled our fancy. I wasn’t joking when I said we made Shattered Steel because “hey, we like big robots.” Ray and I both had this driving passion to make a top-down RPG. We felt there was a really good market for that.

Muzyka: But I would also clarify that we tried to think about what the market would bear, too. Even in the early days, we tried to think about the potential for our customers to like it, too.

Zeschuk: I would say that, but we shouldn’t put too much emphasis on that realm.

Muzyka: No, but it was a blend. It was a mix of passion and commercial reality. We didn’t overrate the commercial reality. If anything, we overrated the passion, but we were always cognizant of both.

Zeschuk: I think passion was probably the primary driver. Certainly, from a creative perspective, I think that was the fundamental piece where we felt we really wanted to make stuff we would like, our friends would like, and later on, it got a lot more sophisticated.

I’m kind of counter-referencing it to the way we do now, which is very different because we have this enormous amount of information at our fingertips and you can do lots of market analyses. Back then, none of that stuff was really there. It didn’t really exist, so you were left with your gut, your impressions, whatever information you could glean, and what you think of the market, and it was very hard to analyze it.

You’ve said that BioWare is an eight-location studio group with more than 1,400 staff worldwide within EA. How large did BioWare become prior to the Pandemic relationship and joining EA?

Zeschuk: We were actually in the process of starting the Austin studio right around when we entered the Pandemic-Elevation relationship. We had one location and we were fairly large at that time. We still had a few products going. I think we were probably 400 people, somewhere in that zone. That’s more or less about right, isn’t that, Ray?

Muzyka: Yeah, probably something like that. We had 400 by the early days of the Elevation partnership. As we grew, we added another location after that. Montreal probably started about five years ago when we joined EA, Mythic joined in 2009, and then some of the other studios joined in the last year or so.

What were the unique challenges of growing and running business at a much larger size than a startup?

Muzyka: When we were in the matrix structure, we at that time had five products running and probably more at various stages of completion. They were different sizes, different types of products, and that was all within the one location. And then we were starting a new studio up, so that meant a second location, and we would have people working on different products at different times moving around.

We had to figure out a way to manage resources: allocating people to products, enabling each product to get their day in the sun, and allowing them to launch and be successful. We would have regular resource planning meetings every month, and we’d have regular product updates as well. We’d do those on video conference with Austin when the Austin studio started wrapping up, and we would do them in person for the other products. We had a number of processes that were put in place over the first 10 years of BioWare that allowed us to manage different teams remotely, and to put in more production rigor, project management, and move from waterfall to agile development.

Let’s switch gears. BioWare launched a great big MMO in the Star Wars universe, but you’ve worked with LucasArts for a long time. In 2003, you released Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic. How did you get that opportunity?

Muzyka: We got a call from Simon Jeffery, who was the president of LucasArts then, out of the blue one day. We had a product opening coming up, but we hadn’t really considered a Star Wars game; we didn’t know that was a possibility. When we got the call, both of us were like, “Hell yeah! We have to talk to our teams.” We talked to our teams and asked if this was a product we should pursue. They said “hell yeah,” too.

Zeschuk: It was the easiest product decision meeting ever. We had written on a board some big stuff, some big names, and then we put Stars Wars up last. Everyone was like “why are you joking with us?” And we said, “No, that’s for real!” And so it was done.

“To see the industry develop from the inside over the last couple of decades, having grown up loving video games and then being able to make them, is such a privilege.”

Muzyka: “Gentlemen, I’m a big fan of your work. If you’re interested, I’d love to work with you.” That’s basically what Simon said. We were like “holy crap.” We were huge fans of Star Wars, and so were our teams. For us, it was a huge honor. First Star Wars RPG ever. It still is a great honor to work with LucasArts on the Star Wars franchise.

SW-KOTOR

Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic

A couple of years later, in 2005, BioWare and Pandemic Studios merged. How did that happen?

Zeschuk: A guy name Greg Richardson, who was working with Elevation Partners, spoke to us at GDC in 2005. He said, “I’m working with this company, and they’re making investments in the games business and putting games companies together.” It was far from the first time we’ve been pitched. We had been pitched many times by many people, and we’d known Greg from his time as head of EA Partners back in the early 2000s. In a lot of those meetings, you come out going “oh, it’s a crazy long shot.” But we came out of that meeting with Greg going “wow, that actually seems like it could happen!”

Muzyka: We were looking for funding at that time, too. We wanted to build an MMO. That was right when we were starting up the Austin studio. We were seeking funding, and we had this invitation of funding from a group that seemed quite interesting. When we met John Riccitiello and the other partners at Elevation, that really persuaded us that these were really smart people we could learn from. For me, that was the most compelling part.

Zeschuk: Yeah, we learned from the people. We progressed personally in an educational kind of learning a business way. Absolutely.

Muzyka: They were really good partners at the fund. And then learning that we would partner with Pandemic? It was a group we respected, and it was great to have partners on the development side who were doing different kinds of games that complemented ours. We could visit their offices and brainstorm, and vice versa. It was a really good time.

It was a good two-and-a-half-year period where we worked closely with Elevation Partners. We were directors in a new company, and we got funding that allowed us to start off the MMO, as well as to pursue some creative new funding for our own development so we could become a quasi publisher ourselves. That was the idea.

DragonAge (1)

Dragon Age

And very soon BioWare Pandemic was acquired by EA. Under EA, do you have less control over BioWare than you had?

Muzyka: I think we have control over more things, and we have the ability to do more things more powerfully than we could before, but we also had to accept that we’re part of a larger company. We’re publicly traded and all the constraints that come with that; you have to adapt.

How would you respond to critics who claim that EA forces BioWare to do only things EA would do?

Muzyka: BioWare is a part of EA now, a business within EA, and each business within EA drives their respective business. They have targets to hit, goals, and objectives; and some of those are corporate objectives and others are local business objectives. But we’re not separate from EA. We are EA, and we’re BioWare, too.

That’s a good way to look at it. I asked you about control, and usually entrepreneurs come out of acquisitions with less control, but I wonder now: Does it matter? Are you still able to do what you set out to do? Is it possible to come out of an acquisition with more independence?

Zeschuk: I think yeah. Interestingly, neither of us had worked in a big company before. We joined EA, and that’s definitely different than working as part of a group like Elevation Partners. It was very interesting for us in that EA gives you a lot of opportunity to control your destiny. I always joke that it gives you the rope you can use to hang yourself if you want. It’s a lot of independence, a lot of responsibility put onto you. For example, marketing eventually got folded into our entire org, and now marketing is part of the BioWare label. We now have more control over marketing than before.

Creatively, we’ve always been in command. We make games how we want to make them. But in terms of just working at a big company, there’s a certain amount of reporting you have to do, and rules and regulations you have to follow. Those don’t take away your independence at all, but it’s a practical thing that has to happen.

At the end of the day, we’ve been able to do things we otherwise wouldn’t have been able to do independently. The only thing that I can’t overemphasize enough is that we now have peers and other studios trying things out and learning from each other. If we have a challenging situation, we have lots of people we can talk to about it, who you can trust from a confidentiality perspective. Because you’re in the same company, you’re pulling the same direction. There are lots of benefits.

Ray said that part of the reason why BioWare did the deal with Elevation Partners, and was subsequently acquired by EA, was because you wanted to raise money for an MMO. Why did you need to go through all of that to build Star Wars: The Old Republic?

Zeschuk: MMOs are just huge Herculean undertakings. One of the analogies we give people is that it’s very much like making one of the launch games for the Xbox and not only do you have to do that, you also have to create Xbox Live at the same time and all those things have to work flawlessly together on a certain day to get out. And not only that, the game has to be great and the platform has to be great.

In my personal experience, building an MMO has been one of the bigger challenges I’ve had the pleasure of dealing with. And, again, we had a fabulous team who made that possible. I think the number of things you have to juggle, the number of people you have to interface with, and the number of items you have to keep on top of is massive. You really do need a very big team to cover all those things.

Was there any new technical expertise that you had to introduce into BioWare?

Muzyka: Definitely. There’s a whole range of different specializations. You’re required to have online expertise around server architecture, infrastructure and network operations, platform, billing capabilities, security, and on and on. There’s pretty much every aspect that you can imagine you’d need to have data flowing back and forth between computers in a secure, seamless, and stable manner. You pretty much have to stack up all those things. So, again, it’s great being part of a larger company that has online infrastructure, that has those capabilities, that has people we can draw on, and that has the knowledge and skill sets to add to the success and likelihood of a good outcome.

What do you think about your adventure, from plucky startup to major business unit of one of the largest game publishers in the world?

Zeschuk: It’s been a fun ride for sure. When we look back and really consider that when we started everything, we had no vision of where we were going to end up. We just wanted to make great games. We wanted to be successful, but we didn’t even really know what that meant.

It’s kind of unbelievable now looking back at our careers. For both me and Ray, we’ve been doing this for about 20 years, which, in the games business, puts us into the serious veteran stage. Obviously, there are some dudes out there who have been doing it longer, but 20 years is still an awfully long time. I think the amount of change in the industry has been incredible. That’s kept the industry really fresh and exciting for us. It’s flabbergasting to look back now, for me at least.

Muzyka: To see the industry develop from the inside over the last couple of decades, having grown up loving video games and then being able to make them, is such a privilege. And it has been such an honor to work with such great people, from the early years of BioWare as an independent developer to getting private equity investment with Elevation Partners to becoming part of EA and becoming a label within EA. Every stage has been just really fun, really fascinating, really memorable, and enjoyable. Hopefully, 20 years from now, BioWare and EA will still be vibrant and strong.

Online Game Pioneers at Work is available now on Apress, an imprint of Springer.

Illustration by J. Longo