We had the chance to chat with Mac Walters (Project Director), Kevin Meek (Character and Environment Director) and Crystal McCord (Producer) from BioWare last week about all things Mass Effect Legendary Edition, covering their favourite moments bringing the collection to modern consoles, what to expect from the collection and reworking Mass Effect for a modern generation.
Mass Effect is obviously the earliest entry in the series and no doubt it’s the one that has needed the most love for this remastered collection. Can you run me through some of the major changes coming to the Legendary Edition version of the game?
Mac Walters: Yeah, it’s kind of a two-prong approach, which was a lot of gameplay and input and camera control changes. I think the core thing to keep in mind there, as we were working within the existing systems, was that we wanted to maintain the essence of what Mass Effect was. But also like you said, reduce some of the friction, shave some of those rough edges off it and really make it feel closer in line with the other two offerings in the collection. And then on the art side, we also basically kind of went through and said, “The levels are the levels, but we want to be able to re-envision and take a little bit more time with set dressing, building those out.” In addition to, of course, all of the things that we’re uplifting in the entire trilogy as well.
Kevin Meek: So Mass Effect 3, if you were to look at it today, is still a really good looking game. Whereas Mass Effect just has fundamentally different visuals than what you’d see in a modern day game. So that’s the one where we spent the most amount of time, we’ve done some passes across the entire trilogy, obviously, like targeted improvements to any assets that are below a quality threshold. Mass Effect is the one where we have gone through and have done holistic, big brush world-building passes through it, though, to really try and even out the jump of quality that you would still experience between the three games.
So keeping on the subject of the original – when you’re working through and doing these changes, where do you draw the line between old meets new? What are some of the challenges behind that?
MW: It was really drawing a line in the sand early on. Our decision to stay on Unreal Engine 3 [rather than] a jump to another engine would have changed the very DNA of the game – have it change so substantively that it would cease to be the same experience. So I think those kinds of early decisions… Other things like we’re not going to change characters, plot points, story points, that’s a lot of what people remember, you have to stay true to those. But otherwise, it’s like “no, you don’t touch those.” Other than that, I think one of the key things was really involving a lot of fresh eyes throughout the course of the project.
KM: I think fundamentally as a remaster that sets us off on a very good course versus a remake like Mac said. And we do have to obviously keep in mind how narrative changes throughout the course of the game. Derek Watts was the art director on the original trilogy and he was involved throughout most of my level reviews and character reviews, but also through a lot of the paint overs that drove some of our biggest brushes.
Then we also just made sure that we really analysed what the inspiration and core art targets behind Mass Effect were to begin with. So if you are going to grab something it really pushed the quality level of that specific asset. You don’t want to be inspired necessarily by Mass Effect because you can kind of like riff on yourself — you want to be inspired by what the game was inspired by, so the art of Syd Mead, for example. There’s this one car in the Presidium that really needed a lot of work, and if we’re going to really crank on that we’d go back to the original concept and the original thought of what were they attempting to do. We’d then hold on to that as we brought it forward [to the Legendary Edition].
Crystal McCord: One other thing I just wanted to add was, like Mac said, that we talked to a lot of people and had a lot of people play the game. We did an internal beta and we had our community focus group come in and actually play the game and give us feedback. We also looked to the original forums for [the] Mass Effect [games] and made sure that if something that was continually called out, like the Mako, was worked on. It was kind of just trying to find that balance of what people are talking about the most, and then is that something that we should adjust and how can we improve it without entirely changing it.
I’d love to know some of your favourite moments bringing this collection together. Was it something that’s been cooking for a while?
MW: I’d say I’ve probably been involved in half a dozen sort of what we call like little investigations or spikes where we just go, “we’d really like to do this. Fans want to do this. How about now? How about now?” It’s just about finding that right time, and that’s the same for any game. You’ve got to find the right time.
I think with favourite moments it’s really interesting because of the way that we’ve sort of structured this team and the crazy trials that we’re all, as a planet, going through right now. It’s created a bond for me [with the team]. I haven’t had this much fun making games since the original Mass Effect. That’s the easiest way to put it. It feels like there’s a passion and a clarity of purpose behind what we’re doing and the team’s really tight knit. There’s a ton of stuff here, too, and it’s no small feat. Yet there’s somewhat of an indie feel to it, like we’re scrappy and we’re going to have to figure it out and problem solve our way through this pandemic and all the other things that come up through it.
CM: For me, like you said, it’s really unique making a game during a pandemic where we are all connected over Zoom. But the one thing about making our games is that we always have people all over the world that we are working with, and so this kind of evens the playing field. So we’re all on Zoom, we have these daily reviews where we all get together, we play the game as a whole and they’re by far some of the best times. Like Mac said, it’s really like a family — we’re all connecting, we’ve got this daily thing where we get together and evaluate the game and just have fun and enjoy it. So that would be my favourite part of it. It’s interesting how even under the restraints that we have, I feel like we are really quite connected.
KM: My favourite part is quite similar to Mac. I come from a smaller studio background and I’m very used to wearing multiple hats and being kind of scrappy – not quite indie but not a multi-hundred person team by any stretch of the imagination.
One of the main reasons I came to BioWare was because of Mass Effect. I’m a big fan. It’s quite common for a developer to go to a company because they’re the owners of an IP that they like, but generally what happens is we start working on the next game. So whether or not that IP goes in whatever direction, that’s one thing. But to get to go to the company because I love Mass Effect and then work on the games that brought me to the company… that’s pretty special!
Shifting the subject to the new consoles, can we expect any major enhancements in the Legendary Edition?
MW: Yeah, most of the enhancements are ones that are centred around the added processing power and GPU power of the [new] consoles and trying to free them up to take advantage of that – kind of like you would on PC. The game looks, feels and plays better. We started this in June-ish 2019 and we didn’t know where we’ll be and where the console generation will be, so our primary focus was to get it on the current generation of consoles and to do everything we can to make sure it’s extendible to at least be playable on the next generation of consoles, too.
Again, it’s clear that this collection is packed with content. I’m also keen to know if you’re including the little things, too – like the Genesis entries for Mass Effect 2 on PS3 and Mass Effect 3 on Wii U?
MW: Yeah. If it was a DLC pack that you could download, then it’s there. We’ve also tried to streamline certain things and the comics are a good example. You can now opt out of them or opt in depending on your preference. We didn’t want to remove the content, so we just made it an optional sort of thing.