The final part of the Mass Effect trilogy is almost with us - within less than a month's time we'll found out whether the universe can stand up to the might of the Reapers, and draw Commander Shepard's story to its conclusion. We talk to BioWare producer Michael Gamble about how prior choices shape the game, why it starts with the fall of Earth and the steps taken to make it approachable to newcomers.
Mass Effect 3 was delayed from November to March - what has this allowed you to do?
"Like most of our BioWare games, and actually like most of our Mass Effect games, it's just allowed us to add that level of polish to all the things that we've done. I wouldn't say that we've been able to add x, y and z levels of whatever, but what it's done is let us dig a lot deeper into the things that I think are core to our games, so the relationships, a lot of the great voice acting, a lot of that kind of stuff, and polish it and make sure it's a more complete experience for the end user."
The game starts with the fall of Earth - why start there? Because it sounds like a great climax.
"The setting for the game is the attack. We were building it up for a number of years now, and we felt that if you started on Earth and the player sees what's happening to Earth, It makes it personal like most things in Mass Effect. Most of us, being earthlings, we would know what it would feel like for something cataclysmic to happen.
"I think tying it back that way kinda brings that connection where, OK, we've been building this war for these previous two games, but now it's something that the citizens of Earth have finally seen. We've also wanted to show Earth for quite some time now, so it was quite a good opportunity. In terms of climaxes and things like that, don't worry we have many more in the game. So, you know, you'll be in for a surprise or two."
Mass Effect 2's structure was really enjoyable, in the way you recruit members of your squad, gain their loyalty, then you have this big payoff at the end in whether they survived. Is that how Mass Effect 3 plays out as well?
"With Mass Effect 3, it is the war. In a single word, that's why we're about. That's the theme of that. Because of that, everything we've done in the game ties back to that overall theme in its own way, shape or form. It doesn't feel tangential, that you're off doing this, this and this, and that it feeds into the end. It's all the things that you do to affect the thread of this ongoing war, and we just chose a structure that way because it works."
So it's perhaps a bit more linear?
"I would stay away from the word linear, for sure, because there's a lot of exploration that can be done within the galaxy. But I would say that all those things tie back to a similar theme. Where it's not like you must do this for one group of people, and you must do this. It's not that simple because everything ties back to the war. You can do it in different orders, of course, like you could do before, but there's that tying thread."
Is there a countdown where you have to do certain things by a certain time?
"I wouldn't say it's a countdown. Not like a literal timer countdown. Obviously there's impending doom for the galaxy, that's what you're working towards stopping, right?"
But players will have the freedom to take their time...
"Yeah, yeah. We didn't want to limit the player in terms of how quickly they wanted to do things, but at the same time, you know that when you have to do something, you should be engaged as a player to want to go to it to save whatever and whatever, and right the Reapers, right?"
You can't talk specifics about the choices you've made previously and how they effect Mass Effect 3, but are those choices amplified because there's this end game, and the stakes are higher?
"So we took two approaches from the very beginning. So to directly answer the question: yes, the stakes that have happened in the past do have a direct and real implication on how Mass Effect turns out. But, at the same time, for new players and players that maybe aren't happy with the choices they made in the past, we didn't want to punish.
"There's another way of playing where if you don't import a save or are new to the franchise, you can essentially gleen and understand additional back-story items from different dialogue options, because it's changed on whether you've imported something or not. If you haven't, things are a bit more explanatory, things are a bit more general. But if you have, then of course, you will pay the price for the decisions that you've made, or you'll benefit from the decisions you've made."
A more specific case would be the end of Mass Effect 2, where certain characters can die and others can survive. What sort of impact does that have? Do certain quest lines close, perhaps their cameos won't appear?
"It really depends. It depends on the situation. In some cases you'll miss out on a cameo or something like that; in other cases, the way the plot threat is woven together it changes very, very differently depending on characters, just like real life. You can still go to the store and buy something but if you go with a friend, or if you go with a stranger, you still go there but you have a different experience along the way. And the narrative is basically tied to that, and that's the way we chose to do it."
Talking about Mass Effect as a whole, do you know where you were going to go? That by the third game that you'd have this end with the Reapers coming, and characters would have certain roles?
"So we knew the overall story arc and the story we wanted to tell, and that we wanted to tell it across all three of the games. So from Mass Effect 1 with Sovereign and Mass Effect 2 with the Collectors, and now Mass Effect 3 with the Reapers. Obviously the impending thread being pulled throughout being the Reapers, and we knew that the implementation details in terms of character progression from a high level we also knew, but in each game we were given the freedom to basically expand and detail out how we wanted each thing to do, and obviously make changes where appropriate."
Each game it seems that you've been happy to change things as you go, such as with combat. Even though it's one series with one cohesive story, why have you decided to do that?
"I think if you're going to do a sequel to an existing game and you're going to make the next iteration, you have to do two things. You have to make sure that the current game that you're doing is accessible to all people who want to pick up the series or are interested in a game like that. That was, from the outset, one of our big goals, because we want to make sure that people who haven't played don't get punished or feel as if they're alienated.
"But at the same time, we just want to make sure that every single thing we do is a little better than the past. We look at the feedback from the costumers and the fanbase, and every single time we've been afforded enough people and time to polish everything we've done. So, from the amazingly deep romances and dialogue in Mass Effect 2, we just upped the ante in Mass Effect 3 and made it deeper and more fleshed out. In 3, same with the combat, the transition from Mass Effect 1 and Mass Effect 2 in terms of the combat, big steps there.
"But 2 to 3, again, polishing it and making it feel more fluid, making it work well with the game. And of course then if you start with Mass Effect 3 as your first Mass Effect game, you're instantly thrown into that amazing experience. That was kind of our goal from the beginning."
Mass Effect 3 is obviously the third game in a series and you want to introduce new players - such as adding multiplayer, the RPG mode, action mode and so on. Is that an easy thing to do, to think that this is the third game and yet we need to make sure it's really applicable to all players?
"It's not easy, but it's doable if you make the right decisions, if you come back to it with the right approach. Respecting our core fanbase and making sure all their things in their hopes and dreams for Mass Effect 3 are fulfilled that... we go that extra mile for them. That's something we have to do.
"But at the same time, again, attracting new players and stuff like that, we just have to make sure that when we design our game from the beginning, we understand that you might be coming from a previous game but you might not, so it essentially kinda doubles the work in many cases.
"For example, we have a conversation and you knew Ashley previously and you knew Kaiden had died, and the conversation with Ashley is very different. I never had played Mass Effect before and Ashley is talking to me and she explains a little bit about what happened in the past, and it's like, 'Oh OK, I understand that as a new player'. But on the development side, that's two entirely different dialogues that we have to make, so it takes time and effort but I think it's worth it."
Do you think BioWare will continue making games this way, having such vast choices across multiple games?
"I don't know, actually, to be honest with you. We don't really have... we haven't really thought about our plan for whatever comes after Mass Effect 3. Obviously I know that, at BioWare, creating those really impactful and emotional and engaging games is important. Sharing stories across multiple games is one way to do that, but there are many more as well."
> Mass Effect 3 preview: Hands-on with the opening 90 minutes
> Read our hands-on preview with Mass Effect 3's multiplayer
Mass Effect 3 will be available on Xbox 360, PlayStation 3 and PC from March 6 in North America and March 9 in Europe.