Making Mass Effect, from the birth of a trilogy to Andromeda and beyond
"I'm a person who is always dreaming up new worlds."
I wonder sometimes whether BioWare will ever do another trilogy of games again, because the more time that passes, the more I appreciate what an ambitious idea that was, with Mass Effect. Three games that would tell one story and that you could carry one hero all the way through - that's not just bold, that's borderline outrageous, especially when you consider all the choices and consequences typically in one of the studio's games. And it's only now, really, when I see no one else attempting to do the same thing - not to that degree, anyway - I realise how special it was.
Perhaps it was so hard to do, BioWare never wanted to do it again. It's a thought that leads me down a rabbit hole and to someone I've dubbed Mr Mass Effect: Mac Walters, the writer who spent 19 years at BioWare, and most of it writing and making Mass Effect. He was senior writer on ME1, lead writer on ME2 and ME3, creative director (eventually) on Andromeda, and then project director on the Legendary Edition remaster. He wrote Mass Effect books and graphic novels, and, it turns out, he was there at the very beginning, when a core group of people - project leader Casey Hudson, systems designer Preston Watamaniuk, and writer Drew Karpyshyn - dreamt Mass Effect up.
And the trilogy idea was already there then, he says. "It was definitely Casey [Hudson's] idea," Walters tells me, in a larger podcast interview you'll see embedded in this piece, and is available wherever you listen to podcasts.
"I would often sit in their office and we would [talk about], 'What is the game going to be?' But from the level of 'it was Jack Bauer in space' - that was an early thing that we talked about, and the idea of it being a trilogy of games. That was something that Casey had put a stamp on very early, even before, when I was still finishing off Jade Empire."
And the reasoning behind it being a trilogy was two-fold: one, to make it feel cinematic, in the way that the three-arc Star Wars story was. Hudson was apparently greatly inspired by Star Wars. "We often talked about Mass Effect 2 being the darker middle act, much like Empire [Strikes Back] - there was a lot of influence coming from that from day one."
Two: BioWare needed an exciting innovation to sell the series with. This was a new IP, remember - the studio had left Star Wars behind with Knights of the Old Republic, and was now striking out into space on its own. And a trilogy was exactly the kind of idea that would make people take notice of it. "Saying we're going to do three games in a franchise: okay that's challenging," says Walters. "But [saying] we're going to do three games where the choice and consequences actually carry over for you: that was the big bold innovation that we tackled."
On the very first design document, then, were sections for Mass Effect 2 and 3. Small sections, mind you. "At that time, we had maybe a generous paragraph of what we thought Mass Effect 2 might be," he says, "and literally a line on what Mass Effect 3 would be. And it would be very aspirational, like, 'Let's wrap this whole thing up!'"
The intention was to seed ideas that would grow through the series, but exactly where they'd end up or how they'd be resolved, they didn't know. The pervading feeling was, "We're not going to answer this now, and we don't know how or where or when we'll answer it, but we want to put the mystery in there and then pay it off some day going forward."
Walters remembers talking about the romance arcs a lot back then, and already there were ideas for Ashley and Kaidan to be potential romances that would stretch through the trilogy. "I remember even talking, early days, about having Ash and Kaidan - or whoever survives of course - fall away from you in the second game only to return in the third game, and this idea that if you stayed true to them there might be something different than if you didn't." And, of course, that idea made it into the final game.
But a lot of things were left open-ended simply because "we weren't sure where we wanted to take things". For instance, you've probably read about the different ideas BioWare originally had for the Reapers and what was going on there, and how it would all be wrapped up. The original lead writer, Drew Karpyshyn, had this whole Dark Energy idea that wasn't used. But he wasn't upset about that when I spoke him about it, in the wake of Mass Effect 3 being released. As he told me, "projects evolve, and you rarely end up in the place you expected when you first started".
Walters adds: "There's so much of the way that we handle story and world building in these IPs that's very organic. There's obviously things that you hash out before anyone starts really doing work to build the game, but then the actual building of the game is where I would say a majority of that world-building happens." Plus, "you don't know how the fans are going to respond". What if fans hate an idea you've really gone in on, or what if their tastes change? BioWare wasn't just committing to one game, after all, but three, stretched over a decade of development. It had to try and remain flexible.
The other benefit of putting off the worrying was it freed the team up creatively. "The fact that we created a suicide mission in Mass Effect 2, where any or all or none of the characters could survive, tells you that we weren't too daunted after [Mass Effect] One on complexity, because there couldn't be anything you could do that's more complex than that and then have to follow it up. So by the time we landed on that concept for the suicide squad," he says, "we often joked in the early days, 'Well I guess our future selves won't be too happy with this but it's a great idea so let's go ahead with it!'"
In other words, "we didn't let it hold us back", and it's an attitude Walters really loved seeing on the team. "Every once in a while we'd be like, 'Okay this is going to be challenging,' but we had that sort of 'we'll figure it out' mentality 'when the time is right'. And I'm so thankful for that, because if you think of all the things that people tend to talk about when they're referring to Mass Effect 2 [...] the suicide squad, the conflicts that you can have with your characters. All of that is, like you said, it's a spaghetti of conditionals and things like that in the background, that if we had taken too much time and said, 'Oh this is going to be hard, let's not do it,' well, Mass Effect 2 wouldn't have been what Mass Effect 2 was."
While Mass Effect 1 was in development, the team was preoccupied solely with getting Mass Effect 1 done. When Mass Effect 2 was developed and the team pulled in the conditionals from ME1, yes it was bigger than people expected, but confidence was still high, as represented by the complex suicide mission. But when work began on Mass Effect 3, it couldn't be put off any longer - team knew what it needed to do now would be tricky. "We also realised that it was going to be not just tricky but also probably more expensive," Walters says, in terms of the extra work the team would need to do.
"I think Mass Effect 3 is on par with being bigger than Mass Effect 2 and Mass Effect 1 combined"
"A lot of folk don't realise how much content is actually in Mass Effect 3 as opposed to the other games," he says, "simply because of all of those conditions. On a single playthrough, you're only going to see a fraction of what we actually created for Mass Effect 3 because all these other conditions can come into play - different people can be dead, different people can be alive, different people can like you or not like you."
In fact, he adds: "I think Mass Effect 3 is on par with being bigger than Mass Effect 2 and Mass Effect 1 combined." He saw this again recently while making the Legendary Edition of the game.
But an important detail to remember is that by that point, the team had made two Mass Effect games and were really familiar with the technology, had a template to build on, and intimately knew the characters and where their storylines were heading. BioWare could handle it because of the groundwork it laid making ME1 and ME2.
"In Mass Effect 1," Walters says, "we shipped so much content that you probably didn't see because it was meant to come out of the game. But it was actually still left in, hooked up, because we were still figuring out Unreal, we were figuring out the tools, we were figuring all that stuff. So if you actually cleaned it up and got more efficient with it, that's where we were at with ME3, and yet it was still so huge - just a massive amount of work.
"If you took Mass Effect 3," he adds, "content-wise, and said, 'Now build that but back when you're figuring everything out in Mass Effect 1,' it would have taken us ten years probably to do that, to figure it all out!"
So although resolving a trilogy with threads branching out "almost to infinity" was a daunting task, the team apparently managed it without many problems, according to Walters. "It is a feat that, because we were in it, we didn't realise how special it was," he says. "But if you just look at [it as] a work of interactive fiction across those three titles, and the fact that it holds up as a story, just that in and of itself is actually incredible.
"But the amount of work that we've done there to really let the players feel like they have autonomy, like 'it's my Shepard and it's my story', and there are so many of those versions of that story out there: even I don't have a full understanding of how crazy and complex and ultimately impressive it was that we were able to pull that off over the course of three games."
It begs the question, to come back to where I began, of why BioWare hasn't done something like the trilogy again. It certainly drew attention to the series, and I'm convinced it would do the same for any new game BioWare made now. But no, apparently it never came up. "I don't think we've ever talked about that again," Walters says. And the 'Why?' of it seems to be simply because, "We've done that - what else can we do?"
That doesn't mean all of the trilogy-linked ideas were dropped, though. The Dragon Age series has let you pull in saved-game data for a while, and although you can't play as the same character in all three existing games, you can import saved world states, and even go as far as to talk to your Hawke from DA2, in Dragon Age Inquisition, which is neat.
There's more trilogy thinking in Mass Effect Andromeda than I'd realised, too, because even though it wasn't envisaged as a new Mass Effect trilogy - and the tempatation must have been there - it was conceived from the very beginning as a linked series of games, which your choices and consequences could ripple through. "We knew that we wanted it to be a series, for sure," Walters says, "but not a trilogy per se. I think the idea of carrying plots and story and characters through the series, and choice and consequence, was actually part of it on Andromeda, but early days Andromeda, and I wasn't on the project then." (I'll come back to that last point.)
Instead, the big innovation with Andromeda was going to be a procedurally generated universe inspired by No Man's Sky - "something where you could really feel like you're actually exploring a universe", Walters says. But sadly it was one of the ideas the team could never quite make work. "Ultimately, that was too much at odds with a lot of the way that we tell stories, and the way that we create our content, which tends to be very bespoke - a lot of big set-pieces and things like that. It's hard to translate into a procedural world. But that was, at the start at least, that innovation that we were looking at, or what the teams were looking at."
"We were also in a weird phase in the industry where a lot of people were saying quantity was quality"
To come back to the 'Walters not being on the Andromeda team at the beginning point': Walters, like many others in the original Mass Effect team, had gone to work on Anthem. Andromeda, remember, was primarily a BioWare Montreal game, not an Edmonton one. Walters, then, was narrative designer of Anthem, but he was pulled over to Andromeda when Mass Effect overlord Casey Hudson left BioWare in 2014, followed by Andromeda game director Gérard Lehiany shortly after. The project needed some core leadership and Walters was it.
Much has been made of Andromeda's difficult development and how ideas like the No Man's Sky procedurally generated universe, and the new Frostbite engine - and it being made by a much newer BioWare team - held things up. So when Walters eventually took over the reins, there was a lot of work still to do.
"It wasn't so much that it was in disarray or anything like that," he says, "but it was in that pivot point, in that sort of inflection of, 'Oh we can't do both procedural - all of this stuff - and fulfil all the wishes and hopes of our fanbase who really want to see a lot of this bespoke narrative written in a certain way.'
"It wasn't just making another Mass Effect game, which the team was well on their way to doing, it was how do we do it and also innovate in more of an open-world space?"
Mass Effect Andromeda would eventually come out in 2017, but all the difficulties with development had prevented it from reaching the heights of the previous Mass Effect games. Reviews were lukewarm to disappointed, sales were weaker than before, and in response to it, the entire Mass Effect series was put "on ice". To some degree, Walters can accept that. "I don't know if people were too harsh," he says, "we had set a very high bar with Mass Effect 3, and certainly in some key areas, we didn't live up to that."
But what still bugs him about the reception is that Mass Effect 3 was a misleading yardstick to use as a comparison. As Walters mentioned earlier: by the time BioWare made ME3, the team had incrementally honed all areas of development from making Mass Effect 1 and 2. Andromeda, by comparison, was being made by a new team and on a new engine, and it had a whole roster of new characters and a new story. And okay there were some Mass Effect veterans on the team but in reality, the whole project was closer to Mass Effect 1 than Mass Effect 3.
"So you go back to what I was saying before, when I said if you tried to put all the content of Mass Effect 3 on the Mass Effect 1 team, it would have taken us ten years," Walters says. "Similarly, there were just a lot of things that we had to relearn, re-figure out, and ultimately when you do that, it's very, very challenging to come out and be as polished as your third iteration was, and we didn't hit that. And we probably should have - in hindsight - just reduced scope more and executed on what we could to [ensure] quality.
"But," he adds, "we were also in a weird phase in the industry where a lot of people were saying quantity was quality, so we were deluding ourselves internally a little bit that if it's maybe not as polished as [Mass Effect 3], it's fine - it's bigger and there's more here, and there's more to do. And we hit a point where people were like, 'No, that isn't okay.' Or, at least, 'It isn't okay for your franchise'. And that's fine, that's a lesson learned.
"I only wish we had been able to then do a second one, because then you would have really seen that polish just like we did from [ME1] to [ME2] on the original [trilogy]."
Andromeda was a low-point for BioWare at the time and a perceived step down in terms of quality. But the company's standing would fall further when Anthem launched two years later - a game that was always an odd prospect for a renowned single-player RPG studio. And sadly the final product did nothing to change people's minds. Anthem was a game that struggled to find an identity of its own, and an audience, and so, two years later, EA and BioWare effectively gave up on it.
For fans of BioWare, this meant two high profile disappointments in a row - three, sort of, if you count the backlash to the original ending of Mass Effect 3. It's not a nice position to be in, and Walters was in the middle of all of it. "Oh no we definitely felt it," he says of the negative feedback the studio received.
The studio's shortfall,as he sees it, had been in not marrying the innovation it likes to bring with "the expected BioWare experience". "And in Anthem it was even more of a dichotomy," he adds, "it almost felt like two games in one, and neither really fully fleshed out, unfortunately."
But that's what innovation sometimes costs, he says, and it's what he'd try to remind newer people at the studio of. "When I joined BioWare, we were innovative," he says. "We were always trying to push. And innovation sometimes means you don't get it right, unfortunately, and what you really hope for is that opportunity to improve upon it.
"When I joined BioWare, we were innovative. We were always trying to push"
"With Mass Effect, arguably there's lots of things that we didn't do right, but then we got to hone it and improve it on Two, and then perfect it on Three. With more time, Anthem was already trending to something that was actually pretty unique and interesting and had a really legitimate argument to be in the game space, but it just needed time to get there. And certainly had we shipped an Andromeda 2, I am a hundred percent certain we would have improved on all the things that people called out and then also been about to lean into the innovative things that we were trying to do as well."
Maybe BioWare will still get that opportunity to iterate on Andromeda with Mass Effect 5. The signs are promising: development has been moved back to BioWare HQ in Edmonton (partly because BioWare Montreal is no more - it's EA Motive) and it seems as though the problematic Frostbite engine has been ditched for Unreal Engine 5, though this hasn't been confirmed. There's even a suggestion Mass Effect 5 will pull on story threads from Andromeda, meaning those original ideas of Andromeda beginning a linked series may still be there.
Walters was involved in the vision for the Mass Effect, too. "Yeah," he says. "Again, it was more of a consulting thing. As - obviously as you said - the Mass Effect guy, I was in there with Casey [Hudson] and we were talking about where that would go, along with Mike [Gamble]. And then once Legendary [Edition] kicked off and we got that green-lit [...] it was like, 'All right, everyone, I'm going to go do this - good luck. I'm here if you need me but I'm going to focus on this.'"
But BioWare today is different to the BioWare that originated Mass Effect - even the BioWare that made Andromeda. Walters, like Casey Hudson, is no longer there, and nor are a significant number of the people who shaped the company once upon a time. Walters himself left at the end of 2022 after spending a brief period on the Dragon Age team, on the new game Dreadwolf, albeit in a production management capacity rather than creative.
"I did a lot of soul-searching at various points," he says of his decision to leave, "and usually when a game ships is a time to do that. And when I shipped Mass Effect Legendary Edition [...] I knew at the end of that that I was done, at least for the short-term, of doing anything Mass Effect. I had done a lot of Mass Effect. And I love the series but I also wanted to do something new."
Launching new IPs, or new worlds, is something that's in his blood, he says. He's one of the few people at BioWare who was there to witness the launch of three new IPs: Jade Empire (I wish they'd bring that back), Mass Effect and Anthem. "And I'm a person who is always dreaming up new worlds, so I was like, 'I think it's time to start really considering what is out there beyond Mass Effect and just adding to Mass Effect.'"
It's also time, he believes, to let someone else have a go - to let a new generation of Mass Effect belong to a new generation of developers. "There are now people who come to BioWare who are fans of the franchise before they started working on it as a developer," he says. So another part of his leaving is, "I don't want to make it sound too altruistic, but making way for the next generation to add their mark to the franchise.
"And then I was just starting to feel that itch that you feel," he says. "It's nineteen years - nineteen-plus years at BioWare. I've talked to other people who have gone on and done some other things, and it was just that point where i was like, 'If i'm going to really stay engaged in making games, and really stay fulfilled day-to-day, I need a bit more of a seismic shift and not just moving to another project internally.'
"And I looked at lots of options and other things at Electronic Arts in general that I could do, [or] 'is there something new I could do at BioWare?' But ultimately the decision was I just needed to make a clean break."
So he did. Walters took some time off to think about what he wanted to do next, and that's where he's at now, thinking about the future of interactive fiction and about where we're headed with technologies like AI, and playing around with possible worlds that might come from it - much like he once did with the Neverwinter Nights toolset, which would ultimately land him a job at BioWare. Where it will all lead him this time, he doesn't know, but if it results in anything like the Mass Effect stories he's helped bring us already, then there are exciting adventures ahead.