GDC 09: Mass Effect 2's Evolving Design

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Posted by Brad (3009 posts) -
There aren't a lot of images to put here just yet.
As a press member, I feel a little out of place when infiltrating educational sessions at the Game Developers Conference in pursuit of information on an unreleased game. These presentations are intended for game makers to share their talent and ideas with each other, not for professional game fans such as myself to sponge sound bites we can assemble into a story. But when the session is about Mass Effect 2, can you really expect me to stay away?

So I swallowed my pride and showed up to the last session of the last day of GDC, "The Iterative Level Design Process of Bioware's Mass Effect 2." Here's what I picked up that may interest those of you waiting for the game as impatiently as I am.

For the first Mass Effect, BioWare used a sort of concurrent design process by which members of the team from different departments--level design, story, art, and so on--built their respective components of each area simultaneously and then expected all of the pieces to fit together properly into a cohesive whole.

That didn't always happen. If the level was actually playable at the end of this process--and sometimes it wasn't--it often ran into problems like a significant drop in performance (and the company wasn't proud of the frame rate drops in the original game). The team tried to address these issues where they popped up, but since doing so required reworking "entire swaths of content," time and resource constraints meant the designers often had to live with the deficiencies.

In extreme cases, large pieces of content were removed completely. Caleston, a story-related "outland" planet with refineries and industrial cartels that was intended to be a part of the game's core story arc, was deleted from the game outright. We will never get that planet back, people. Shed a tear.

In Mass Effect 2, BioWare is using a linear, phased approach to level design that builds the levels step by step, starting with only the most important parts. This method has a couple of primary requirements: from the very outset, always keep your levels playable, and always keep them at target performance. The designers should only do the minimum of necessary work to answer the important questions about each level, most of which amount to "Can you still see how this will be fun when it's finished?"

Well, this looks pretty cool and all.
Each design team starts with the simple narrative overview, then immediately moves to a barebones playable version of that framework with boxy geometry, no texture maps, placeholder set pieces, and fake dialogue. Each successive phase layers in more and more polish, such as final voiceover and surface effects. The BioWare rep giving the talk commented that he wished he could show footage from a finished section of the game, but the team hasn't reached the final phase of polish on any levels yet.

During the presentation BioWare showed a brief production video from Mass Effect 2, which I would be remiss in failing to describe to you. There was a cutscene which took place inside a flying car traveling in the airborne traffic lanes of the Citadel. The conversation here involved an Asari character named Seryna--whose speech was just a little less formal than Liara's was in the first game--and an unnamed male Spectre wearing the trademark N7 armor. Granted, you could make your character look however you wanted in the original game, but this character looked nothing like the male Shepard with the shaved head from the first game. So maybe he really is dead? I don't know what to believe anymore.

So there's your nugget of new information. There's an Asari named Seryna in Mass Effect 2--or BioWare put a little bait-and-switch in that demo video to make people like me look awfully foolish. Let's look forward to finding out which it is!

Perhaps most importantly, the company mentioned at the end of the talk that this new design process will allow the team to identify problem areas and poor performance earlier on in development, allowing them to smooth out rough frame rates and, yes, speed up those horrendously slow space elevators.
Staff
#1 Posted by Brad (3009 posts) -
There aren't a lot of images to put here just yet.
As a press member, I feel a little out of place when infiltrating educational sessions at the Game Developers Conference in pursuit of information on an unreleased game. These presentations are intended for game makers to share their talent and ideas with each other, not for professional game fans such as myself to sponge sound bites we can assemble into a story. But when the session is about Mass Effect 2, can you really expect me to stay away?

So I swallowed my pride and showed up to the last session of the last day of GDC, "The Iterative Level Design Process of Bioware's Mass Effect 2." Here's what I picked up that may interest those of you waiting for the game as impatiently as I am.

For the first Mass Effect, BioWare used a sort of concurrent design process by which members of the team from different departments--level design, story, art, and so on--built their respective components of each area simultaneously and then expected all of the pieces to fit together properly into a cohesive whole.

That didn't always happen. If the level was actually playable at the end of this process--and sometimes it wasn't--it often ran into problems like a significant drop in performance (and the company wasn't proud of the frame rate drops in the original game). The team tried to address these issues where they popped up, but since doing so required reworking "entire swaths of content," time and resource constraints meant the designers often had to live with the deficiencies.

In extreme cases, large pieces of content were removed completely. Caleston, a story-related "outland" planet with refineries and industrial cartels that was intended to be a part of the game's core story arc, was deleted from the game outright. We will never get that planet back, people. Shed a tear.

In Mass Effect 2, BioWare is using a linear, phased approach to level design that builds the levels step by step, starting with only the most important parts. This method has a couple of primary requirements: from the very outset, always keep your levels playable, and always keep them at target performance. The designers should only do the minimum of necessary work to answer the important questions about each level, most of which amount to "Can you still see how this will be fun when it's finished?"

Well, this looks pretty cool and all.
Each design team starts with the simple narrative overview, then immediately moves to a barebones playable version of that framework with boxy geometry, no texture maps, placeholder set pieces, and fake dialogue. Each successive phase layers in more and more polish, such as final voiceover and surface effects. The BioWare rep giving the talk commented that he wished he could show footage from a finished section of the game, but the team hasn't reached the final phase of polish on any levels yet.

During the presentation BioWare showed a brief production video from Mass Effect 2, which I would be remiss in failing to describe to you. There was a cutscene which took place inside a flying car traveling in the airborne traffic lanes of the Citadel. The conversation here involved an Asari character named Seryna--whose speech was just a little less formal than Liara's was in the first game--and an unnamed male Spectre wearing the trademark N7 armor. Granted, you could make your character look however you wanted in the original game, but this character looked nothing like the male Shepard with the shaved head from the first game. So maybe he really is dead? I don't know what to believe anymore.

So there's your nugget of new information. There's an Asari named Seryna in Mass Effect 2--or BioWare put a little bait-and-switch in that demo video to make people like me look awfully foolish. Let's look forward to finding out which it is!

Perhaps most importantly, the company mentioned at the end of the talk that this new design process will allow the team to identify problem areas and poor performance earlier on in development, allowing them to smooth out rough frame rates and, yes, speed up those horrendously slow space elevators.
Staff
#2 Posted by bjorno (1416 posts) -

more elevators please

#3 Posted by Earthborn (386 posts) -

Whoa snap.

#4 Posted by AuthenticM (3732 posts) -

@bjorno
Haha,

no.

#5 Posted by 2k_fish (8 posts) -

That's not really what I was expecting Bioware to address with this panel.  To me, the issue with the level design in Mass Effect 1 was that it was unbearably repetitive.  They must have recycled the same three or four level layouts for the entire game, which grew really tiresome.  It was especially bad when all they'd do to change a level is get rid of a side room...and still have it shown on the map.  Hopefully Bioware doesn't forget creativity and variety with all this focus on technical performance, which didn't seem to be a huge issue to me when I played.  I have faith though!

insanebear.com - A site about video games and video game culture.

#6 Posted by Rodiard (439 posts) -

"Caleston, a story-related "outland" planet with refineries and industrial cartels that was intended to be a part of the game's core story arc, was deleted from the game outright. We will never get that planet back, people. Shed a tear."


I always wondered about Caleston.  They mention that planet in the distress call TV spot for ME (I love that commercial).
#7 Posted by keyhunter (3207 posts) -

The elevators helped develop characters by creating awkward situations for our motley crew to be forced to talk to one another.

#8 Posted by REDRUN (1410 posts) -

Elevators agreed, even some moments in the Mako might work.

#9 Posted by TwoOneFive (9459 posts) -

i know kung-fu

#10 Posted by Mandaray (159 posts) -

Awesome. Thank you, Brad, for going after anything and everything ME2 for us!! I'm so excited for this to come out. =D

#11 Posted by AndrewB (7617 posts) -

I obviously wasn't there to see, but it seems possible that Bioware could have thrown that little bit together for that specific occasion, as a demonstration. Though if it was a whole lot more than just that scene, then that assumption could be way off.

Also speaking from the "game fan" point of view, I don't know how to feel about that statement about level linearity. If the whole game takes on a more linear approach, they would obviously lose a lot of the craft on planet exploration, which I thought was cool. Then again, a lot of the main mission and even side mission stuff in that game was absolutely linear to being with, and the land vehicle itself wasn't the easiest to navigate with, so I could go either way.

By the way, whatever happened to the Mass Effect DLC plans? They were scrapped that quickly? I could have sworn I remember them saying there were going to be multiple Mass Effect DLC releases.

#12 Posted by ArbitraryWater (11741 posts) -

Hopefully Bioware will make the levels on the random planets interesting instead of numbingly boring.

#13 Posted by Levi (21 posts) -

Hopefully they also fix the trademark Unreal 3 Engine texture popping that was littered throughout the game.

#14 Edited by Alphazero (1536 posts) -

I was there too... the guy next to me filmed the video on his phone, so you might be on the lookout for low-rez youtube videos at some point.

EDIT: Heck, they're already online.

Oddly enough, the "Shepard" they had in the video looked just like the one I made.


* SPOILERS *


You were being sent to a tower that held some "assassin" at the top you needed to deal with. You were told that there would be much resistance and that it would get stronger the closer you got to your goal. They had some other very rough gameplay video in the various stages of development with the player character popping in and out of cover and shooting what seemed to be Geth.

So... it's totally Mass Effect. Which is good!


#15 Posted by DavidM (22 posts) -

Good read Brad

#16 Posted by Cygnus_X89 (133 posts) -

I hope Shephard really is not dead. Hopefully they ditched the default Shepard look so press guys such as Brad can't confirm anything.

#17 Posted by HatKing (5953 posts) -

I bet you they lead people to believe Shepard and company are dead all the way up to the first chunk of the actual game, then maybe you as a new character discover he isn't dead and that'd be when you take over as Shepard.  This would allow for tutorial and simple missions at the begining of the game without breaking the story line as well.  I don't care if Shepard dies...no wait I DO care but I wouldn't be as hurt if he dies so long as it was in a significant and heroic way...preferably at the end of the series.

#18 Posted by Colonel_Fury (453 posts) -

They could've just not used the defualt Shepard. Looks cool regardless.

#19 Posted by Josh (61 posts) -

I wanted to attend this, but all I had was an Expo pass, god damn it.

#20 Posted by HT101 (1157 posts) -

I am so pumped for this game.  I like that they changed up how they are making the game.  I am playing through ME on Insane right now on my may to getting the full 1050 in it and I do get a little mad everytime the game takes a little while to render the scene and how long the elevators are.  Especially the one to the hangar in the Normandy is pretty freaking ridiculous.  Anyway, I have no clue what they are doing for the game and that is just fine with me because I like my games to surprise me and not be super predictable.

#21 Posted by Vorbis (2750 posts) -

Seems interesting, any info on ME2 gets me psyched.

Even though I doubt it, if Shepard does die it's not so bad, but kill off Tali and i'll weep!

#22 Posted by MordeaniisChaos (5730 posts) -

Elevators aren't SUPPOSED to be fast though.. Well, teh one on the Normandy is WAY too slow, it goes down like, 10 feet for god's sake o.o But yeah, SHOW US STUFF! I want more details on this game, and I want them YESTERDAY. lol.

And to be honest, I wish shepard had died in the first game. I really didn't like that dude. Soooo ugly, and bald? Why?? Hopefully there is a new main character, with a voice actor that can actually, you know, ACT. I am so sick of games where the main voice talent is some 2 bit idiot. Mass Effect, Assassin's Creed, and so many other games that  can't think of right this moment have horrible main characters in terms of voice talent. The funny thing is, all of the other voice actors are actually pretty good.

#23 Posted by AspiringAndy (332 posts) -

Let's just hope that the elevators have been upgraded.

#24 Posted by FlipperDesert (2087 posts) -
MordeaniisChaos said:
"I am so sick of games where the main voice talent is some 2 bit idiot. Mass Effect, Assassin's Creed, and so many other games that  can't think of right this moment have horrible main characters in terms of voice talent. The funny thing is, all of the other voice actors are actually pretty good."
"Steal from me?! I'll have your head!"

I'd like to see some very different locales, the industrial planet sounds dirty, smoggy and awesome. And Tali was my favourite too Vorbis! Her and Wrex.
#25 Edited by Duckbutter (412 posts) -

yea that seems about right. if you can make a game fun with using only rectangles and circles like the original Atari.
then adopt a storyline that reads well on its own like a novel.
then toss in audio eargasms that a blind man would get off on.
then throw in as much polish as you can till time runs out.
biggity bam. an awesome game. seems easy enough. no wonder Bioware makes the dopeness.

#26 Posted by John (828 posts) -

I didn't know people hated the elevators that much. I never really cared, better than a 40 second loading screen for sure.

#27 Posted by GTCknight (695 posts) -

I kind of hope it was some bait-and-switch. I want my Shepard (or Shepards) to be alive.

#28 Posted by Kaalinn (2 posts) -

Everytime people complain about the elevators...

 Here's an interesting tidbit: ALL but ONE are skippable. Citadel Rapid Transit just gets you wherever you want with a loading screen.

Only the Dock elevator was needed to trigger events like the interview.

So whenever you see someone complain about the elevators and how they just want loading screens instead they were too dumb to realize they could just skip them.

#29 Posted by Josh (61 posts) -
#30 Posted by Maxszy (2064 posts) -

Oh Mass Effect, what a wonderful game you were. I played you more often than I can remember.

I BioWare will grace us with more information at E3. I yearn to know what to think regarding Shepard and his fate.

#31 Posted by Venatio (4491 posts) -

Wait, your in a flying vehicle flying through one of the cities in the Citadel, that sounds so awesome, I hope they do alot more with the Citadel in ME2

#32 Posted by Agamemnon (33 posts) -

Can I have it now please.

#33 Posted by c1337us (5751 posts) -

I liked the first Mass Effect, but I thought it could have ben something a lot better then it was. Without really seeing anything new about it though, I am starting to get pretty excited about the new ME, I have a gut feeling that it is going to improve on its predecessor and become a very, very good game.

#34 Posted by CoIin (83 posts) -

I'm playing through Mass Effect 1 over again - the first time crashed and burned at the Feros elevator bug. I thought the frame rate problems were only my system, but this explains a lot. It's an amazing game and if they consider the first a screw up I can't wait for the second.

#35 Posted by creamstatic (119 posts) -

there was nothing wrong with the speed of the elevators! that's ridiculous. have some patience. lol I loved the elevators!

#36 Posted by GeekDown (1170 posts) -

The elevators was the only thing that really annoyed me in the first game

#37 Posted by selbie (1903 posts) -

Sounds like they're adopting a similar development style as Netdevil is on Jumpgate.

#38 Posted by IncredibleBulk92 (936 posts) -

Come on Bioware, just give me more Mass Effect.  I hate that I'm not going to be able to play this game by the end of the year.  As long as it still plays as well as Mass Effect did I won't mind, if it runs a lot better then that's good too.

#39 Posted by kist (203 posts) -

they should make the game just about elevators =P

#40 Posted by ElectricHaggis (630 posts) -

I don't think there's a game I'm looking forward to more than this.  Nice write up Brad.

#41 Posted by darthzew (304 posts) -

I managed to see this footage and I don't have any doubt Shepard's alive. The one they used in the cutscene is waaaaayyyy too ugly to be what they choose. Besides, he looks like they simply hashed him together in the regular character creation. 

#42 Posted by Lozz (308 posts) -

Gotta love the elevators.

#43 Posted by Doogie2K (216 posts) -
That's not really what I was expecting Bioware to address with this panel.  To me, the issue with the level design in Mass Effect 1 was that it was unbearably repetitive.  They must have recycled the same three or four level layouts for the entire game, which grew really tiresome.  It was especially bad when all they'd do to change a level is get rid of a side room...and still have it shown on the map.  Hopefully Bioware doesn't forget creativity and variety with all this focus on technical performance, which didn't seem to be a huge issue to me when I played.  I have faith though!

I would hope that a better level-design process would give them the time/technical ability to create more varied and enjoyable environments.
#44 Posted by lightwarrior179 (383 posts) -

Faster elevator rides would be appreciated. That problem has been plaguing BioWare games ever since KotOR.

And I think the new approach to level design sounds like a better way than the first. It's really disappointed that the planet with industries and refineries wasn't able to make it into the first game. :(
#45 Posted by freakydude20 (78 posts) -

they did repeat a lot of areas that weren't in the main story arc on most of the planets and it was the only part of the game that i got bored of. i gave up exploring new planets and some quests because all the places they took me were pretty much the same. but i trust in bioware :) they always improve

#46 Posted by MeatSim (10858 posts) -

I hope the next games main story is longer.

Online
#47 Posted by theMcNasty (740 posts) -

     I'm very excited for this one.

#48 Posted by Hector (3364 posts) -

Bravo Bioware! Bravo!

#49 Posted by HarrySound (234 posts) -

I don't thinkthe Asari in the video had voice work?
It sounded to me like a kinda of placeholder text to speech technology.

#50 Posted by Azrail (404 posts) -

kill of tali and ill cheer...

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