We finally got our hands-on Mass Effect: Andromeda at a recent event at EA's UK office, and while we were there we were lucky enough to grab an interview with the game's producer, Fabrice Condominas. While there was some background noise that muffled a couple of his answers, it was still an interesting and informative conversation about the upcoming sci-fi adventure, and you can read the whole interview below:
So rolling back the years, five years ago, what was the genesis for Andromeda? What was the spark that turned it from being what was presumably one of several concepts into the game that we've just played?
Exploration was really the key word. We wanted to get back to the feeling of going back to the uncharted worlds, going back to also an epic setting in space, that was the other thing that talked to us fairly quickly. Bring back the space in space opera. But if you look for really one specific thing that we said 'yeah, we need to expand on that' that was the notion of exploration. And I would say the second notion that I mentioned this morning was the idea that the player as a human, we wanted him to be the alien in the next setting, to be the intruder.
How do you go about designing a new setting so that it feels like something that we can relate to, to the point that we can engage with it, but that also feels intrinsically alien?
It's a mix of two things. The first one is fictional. So you need memorable planets, you need meaningful settings and all that to drive your story along. So you define all that. And then the second thing is actually scientific. The reason we chose that cluster is because we knew it would have enough celestial bodies and planets a certain distance from the centre, and this is from the centre of the galaxy, that life might be possible, or a form of life might be possible. And you take it from there, from the size of the planet, and then you do that mix of realism and totally fictional needs.
And then also, we're a franchise, which means there's an aesthetic that exists, there is an art direction that exists, so you make sure also that anything new, including any races, which means alien architecture for example, you still want, when you take a screenshot, people to say 'oh, this is Mass Effect'. Even if it's brand new. That's not easy, that's actually a challenge. But the way you do it really is through iteration, you go through iteration. And we always start, for example, on the aliens we start with 'what do we want to convey, what is the emotion we want to convey', and we start from there. And then the art goes, and everything goes around with it. But again, for everything, we like to say that we don't want to be a realistic game, but we want to be a credible game. So it's that mix between the fiction and reality. We try to find that balance and take it from there.
There must be a lot of science for the team to get their heads around to make it plausible.
Oh yes, and we're working with... I was three days ago with the European Space Agency, for example. And we have a scene where, at the beginning of the game the shuttle crashes and he breaks his helmet, and he uses his omni-glove to repair his helmet. And when I showed it at the European Space Agency someone in the room said 'oh, im working on that'. And it took me a couple of seconds to realise that he wasn't joking at all, he was genuinely working on that. But the point is we're working with those guys; space agencies, engineers, xeno-biologists who verify how we animate the aliens. Are they actually credible, could it be real? And at the same time we already have aliens, we have spaceships. So again it's not about reality, it's about credibility.
What would you say is the biggest element that you've left behind from the original trilogy? What aspects from those games aren't really a focus in Andromeda?
That's a tough question because a trilogy of three games that have three different focus already. I don't know, it's not really a question we ask ourselves because it goes the other way around. We ask ourselves 'what do we want to bring from each instalment from the trilogy' rather than leaving. It's three different games so it's hard to say exactly, but what we wanted to bring was definitely the strengths of each: so the exploration and the RPG mechanics of the one. The character relationships of the two. The combat system which was way the more dynamic, action-based of the three. And the problem is that those were more extreme in each of these instalments, and we wanted to find a balance between those three elements, and you end up taking five years to make a game. But that was the idea, which element we bring, not the element we don't.
Why did you take the decision to move from having one character that you pick a gender for, to picking from between two different characters? What benefits did that give you as game designers?
It's really a narrative thing. So we like to have a consistent world, and that wasn't the case with the ability to just switch the gender of a character, because suddenly fictionally the other character doesn't exist. So that's one of the reasons: consistency...
And the other reason, I mentioned [during the presentation] that we wanted to create an intimate story, and that was part of the story that we wanted to create. There's a bit of the family touch in that story, so very quickly we said 'well, we're not actually using that', and to include it in your choice of character, if you choose one or other. So for example, they're siblings, but they're not born exactly at the same time, [inaudible] and that will be mentioned in the dialogue... So you do have a little more differentiation than just gender, compared to Shepard which was pure gender. And emotionally it adds a little thing that we wanted.
So how big would you say the game is in relation to the first games?
Oh, it's bigger than any of the three... In terms of the footprint, for example, it's gigantic. One planet can be the size of Dragon Age: Inquisition as a whole. Not all of them, but some of them. But it gives you an idea of scale. But also in terms of, for example, the progression system, it's probably the deepest we ever made. So even in terms of mechanically, the crafting system is probably the one we pushed further than any in the three. So it's definitely bigger. And that's the [inaudible] of having new tools since the first one, all those new technologies that we can build more planets faster.
How have you evolved interactions with characters to make those relationships feel more plausible?
So we actually added a lot of nuance. So included in the conversation system, which is the one that defines a lot of how you relate to a lot of the characters, we went away from a binary system to a way more nuanced system that we call the 'tone choices'. And it reflects, including in romances for example, it's not just about having a love story or sex with a character. We built a number of different steps in that, and you can have flirting, one-night stands. So basically we just added several more nuanced ways to relate to a character. And again, getting away from the binary systems, even outside of romances, the pure trust system and the level of trust. Nothing is binary any more.
So how will the multiplayer work, and how will that link to the main campaign?
So there is no necessarily mechanical link to main campaign as in Mass Effect 3, so you don't need to play multiplayer to complete that. But there is different bridges to the main campaign. So we have the strike teams which are a principle that along the main campaign you can find side objectives that to accomplish you can send a team to do so, but they will succeed or fail, and you remain in single-player. Or you can say 'well I want to do that myself' and then you enter into multiplayer where you are another character and not your main character, and three of your friends, and you do that mission yourselves. That's already a specific bridge between the two. But also, obviously in a multiplayer setting, exploring that new galaxy, just like Mass Effect 3, the setting is consistent with what you are actually doing, and we decided to inject a bit more of a narrative touch also in the multiplayer campaign.
You've got 4K and HDR built in which will make the game look better on PS4 Pro, but are you planning on supporting Project Scorpio further down the line?
So Scorpio [support is] not certain, but the door is certainly not closed.
Have you also looked at whether it would work on Nintendo Switch?
Not yet. We'll see what's... again, the door isn't closed. But it's not something we're actively looking at now.
And finally, what are you most looking forward to seeing from the community when the game launches in March?
So I'll talk for myself, because this is really a personal question. But I think if we can bring that notion of more open-minded kindness in the relations you have, and bring some humility in general to us as humans, that will be what I am looking for, because this is the story we want to, emotionally, the story we [want to] convey. In terms of mechanics and actually playing the game, if people enjoy just wandering around these planets and space, that will be a huge thing for me.
And do you feel that the concept you've fleshed out, the exploration, is something that will really resonate with your audience?
I hope so, and so far so good, because this is something that people keeping bringing back as a positive. So it seems to be.
Thanks very much for your time.