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Mass Effect: Andromeda Michael Gamble Interview

  • Written by Gamespot

The latest in GameSpot's documentary series explores the story behind Mass Effect: Andromeda and its developer BioWare Montreal. As part of this video feature, we travelled to Boston and spoke to various members of the development team, ranging from studio executives and writers, to designers and creative directors.

While some of these interviews are featured in The Story of Mass Effect: Andromeda, a great deal of the interview material was unused. In light of this, we decided to publish each of the interviews in full and make them available to anyone interested in reading more about the development of the game.

The interview below features Michael Gamble, a producer at BioWare. Further interviews are available through the links.

Mass Effect: Andromeda Interviews

GameSpot: Can you just introduce yourself and tell us a bit about your history with the Mass Effect franchise?

Michael Gamble: Sure. My name's Michael Gamble. I'm a producer at BioWare. I've been with BioWare for going on eight years now. Been there since Mass Effect 2. Joined during Mass Effect 2 as it was in production. Finished out that. Did a lot of DLC for Mass Effect 2. Moved on to Mass Effect 3. Finished out the trilogy. Did DLC for that too. And then moved over to Andromeda after that.

So you joined with Mass Effect which means you got to experience Mass Effect 1 from an outside perspective. What were your memories of Mass Effect 1 and what was your feeling about that game?

So I bought Mass Effect 1 on launch day. And, you know, I'd always wanted a massive space opera type RPG to play. And I'd always been a fan of the BioWare guys before that. Before I ever worked at BioWare I was a huge fan. Played Baldur's Gate, Neverwinter. I was just Jade Empire everything. But I was always a science fiction nerd. So I loved that.

And so when Mass Effect 1 was announced I remember it just being on the top of my radar, playing it, just getting into it. It was changing for me. It changed how I looked at sci-fi video games. The amount of inspiration that I drew from being able to meet all these new aliens for the first time in a galaxy, I think, was awesome. That was the major thing, really feeling like you're telling a human story but in this brand new area of all these different species I had never met before. It kind of invoked a lot of the feelings I had with Star Wars and properties like that before.

Pictured: Michael Gamble
Pictured: Michael Gamble

What was it about Mass Effect specifically that elevated it above other games, RPGs, and also science fiction games?

Well, I mean, I don't think it was any particular one thing. It was a lot of different things that kind of came together, your ability to make choice, your ability to see consequence in those choices, your ability to assemble a really cool interesting squad, the art style, the clean idyllic look. It was all very, I mean, it all kind of came together and really made it magic for me.

Right.

Yeah. I wouldn't say it was any one particular thing, but definitely the choices that sold me on it.

Okay. Can you talk a bit about how you went from being a fan to being someone that's working on the games and kind of like what that meant to you.

Yeah. It was interesting. Whenever you see something as a fan and then you see how it's made it really changes your perspective on it. Some of the magic goes away essentially in how these things are constructed, the mathematics behind the choices and how things are basically put together, how the QA is done, how the production is done. It changes some of the magic of it, but then again, you have the ability to look at it and say, "Oh, cool, I understand why they did that" or, "Wow, I totally see how this was so hard to do." Whereas, you know, as a player you think it's so easy to put together. And you see, man, they must have spent months and years to put this idea together. So you earn respect for it even more of a respect than before.

When I finished playing it and stepped away from the first Mass Effect, the second Mass Effect, and the third, each time it kind of blew my mind that entire galaxy of people and places were contained on this tiny, little disk. There was just this magic to it. Did you feel the same way when you were playing the series? What was your take on the expansiveness of the game?

Yeah. You know, it's like any IP. Well, it's not like any IP actually. Some IPs capture this, like you said, it's like a magic, right? And you wonder how did they come up with all this stuff. How long did it, how many people in a room for how long did it take them to think up what a Thorian looks like or, you know, why the Genophage affected the Krogans. You come in and you look at it and you say, okay, well, there's very intelligent minds behind that.

And one of the things that I noticed while I worked at BioWare, is that unlike any game company that I worked at before, people were more passionate and creative about what they were putting together because they had an opportunity to reinvent something, to make something new for the first time. And I think that shows in the product. And with Mass 2 and Mass 3 it just continued it. And it finessed the story more and it made it tighter in nearly every way, right?

Mass Effect came out in 2007 among some of the best games of all time like Call of Duty 4 and BioShock. What do you think the impact of Mass Effect was on the industry?

Oh, I think it changed RPGs. I mean, there's a couple a of major take aways for me as a player anyway when I saw it. So the Dialogue Wheel fundamentally I think changed how an RPG can be conveyed, so the ability to have different types of choice, show that choice in different ways, have your squads reflect your decisions and what they say, things like Paragons and Renegades and Interrupts, which came later. The whole wheel itself made the player feel like they were making more choice, better choice, better thought out choice. That was a major thing for me.

Also, during that time, you know, RPGs have always been a, I guess you can call fairly niche market depending on who you are, right? Mass Effect, in my opinion, was one of the ones that brought it to the mainstream, right? A lot of people were talking about Mass Effect, myself included at that time.

You know, you mention a couple of the other games in that window. None of them quite hit that RPG, that role-playing element quite like Mass Effect, I think.

Right. You can look at the popularity of stuff like Dragon Age coming after that, and the way that was being enjoyed on a level like far greater than previous fantasy RPGs and trace that back to Mass Effect almost.

Totally. Yep.

It kind of became the gateway to an entire genre.

Yeah. And the other cool thing about those is BioWare was making this for numbers, years and years before that, right? They were developing the RPG craft. They were getting better and better at telling stories. And with Mass Effect and Dragon Age origins, as you mentioned, I think that was kind of just a watershed moment for BioWare. Okay, we finally have the technology. We finally have the teams. We finally have the IPs that we know to make these things great. And it just all came together, right?

Yeah. And it's quite surprising that they did it coming so soon after Star Wars as well.

Yeah. Yeah. Yeah.

You go from working on a sci-fi game to being like, alright, we're going to make our on universe. Star Wars took years to reach the point where it had all that lore. But the first Mass Effect game, by the time you're done you're done, has an overwhelming amount of history and lore.

Yeah.

It's like almost rivaling Star Wars at the time.

Yeah. Well, that's great to hear. I mean, we have a talented team. If they know how to work together. And many of those folks did work together on Knights of the Old Republic before that. Making a game the most important currency that you have is a team who's made a game together. If you have a team who's made a game together and they can roll onto another game, whether it's a new IP or whether it's, you know, something from an existing IP, there's magic in those relationships between the people. And they can create awesomeness. Whereas, if you have a new team, you know, you gather together the most talented people from across the world, put them in a room, you just might not get that magic, right? But the Knights of the Old Republic team before that were able to bring that to Mass Effect.

Where does the Andromeda team fall then? Because it seems like it's a little bit of both. You've got new people and you've got people that worked together before.

Yeah. Andromeda was actually a good opportunity to build a new team because, first, we had the established IP, right? So we had Mass Effect 1, 2, and 3. Then we were going to Frostbite. That was the other big thing where, folks might not know, but changing engines, whenever you're doing that in a game, is a pretty big deal, right, because you've got all the tools that you're used to working with. I mentioned the Dialogue Wheel earlier. The ability to write and project that stuff on screen takes an entire set of tools to move that over to Frostbite.

So doing the Frostbite thing, having the existing IP, and wanting to have Montreal as a huge part of this game made it a perfect opportunity to have a big team and a new team. So we have a number of people who've worked on Mass 2, 3, 1. So that's kind of the folks who know and love the IP and want to help bring that into a new generation of players.

Then you have this team of amazing people who've come from all over who are very talented at what they do and were fans just like me coming into it, which can bring that level of passion, that new kind of blood into the franchise. And combining both of those, it's not easy. It never is especially over multiple locations. But the Mass Effect team on Andromeda is one of the biggest Mass Effect teams we've done and I think has the most, the freshest new ideas. We have people who worked on Halo. We have people who worked on Reckoning. We have people from all over, right? So taking those ideas and working with those ideas and creating something awesome is what we've been trying to do for the last five years.

So you came into the project as a fan. What were your feelings as you were coming on to work on Mass Effect 2?

Intimidation, really. You know, I got to work with these greats like Casey Hudson, Preston Watamaniuk, Derek Watts, like the guys who invented this IP, trusting me and others to kind of help, you know, continue on that. It was a big thing. And I'm forever grateful for the opportunities that they gave me, but it wasn't easy. It certainly wasn't easy.

And there's a high expectation bar in terms of quality that BioWare's always had. And when something's not good enough you have to keep going and doing it over and over again until it is, right? That was something new that I hadn't seen before.

Do you have a personal moment from the game that has stuck with you?

It's hard having worked on it and seen these things. For me, actually, this is more of a employee type answer, not as a fan. But when I saw how complicated it was for who lives and dies, so basically, you know, at the end, the math and the charts behind that and the things that you have to do and not do in order to make sure that people live or die, that blew my mind after I saw how that was architected because it's a lot more complicated than you might think. And when I saw that, like, wow, wow. There's so much to this. And then, of course, continuing that on afterwards with all the DLC with Kasumi and Zaeed and stuff like that. For me, as a producers, that was probably one of my prouder moments where we started to really flesh out the universe for nearly a full year after that adding to the whole dirty dozen concept with Kasumi and Zaeed and putting out more adventures. I thought that was pretty cool to be able to continue to magic throughout the next year.

Similar to what I asked about Mass Effect 1, as someone who now worked on Mass Effect 2 what do you think the legacy of the second game is?

For me I think Mass 2 was able to take something that was very heavily steeped in RPGs like Mass Effect 1 was and make the combat system work in a great way with that RPG backing. You have the RPGs which were like, okay. So this is clearly an RPG. Everything is kind of turn-based behind the veil and that's how combat works.

Mass 2 basically brought the shooter into the shooter hybrid thing. That was a big thing for us because we put a lot of work into it. We saw a lot of the feedback from Mass Effect 1 and we figured we had to change it. And we did. And so looking back on it, that was one of the biggest moments in being able to make that the cool shooter RPG hybrid that it was.

So you've done Mass Effect 2 now and you're going into a Mass Effect 3. What was the mood in moving into the concluding chapter of the story?

Nervous. Nervous, because any time you finish any sort of story arc you have a lot of things to do. You have a lot of loose ends to tie off. You have a lot of people who have a lot of invested time in this. And regardless of what you say about the ending it was a lot of pressure on us. And we put a lot of time and a lot into tying off those story threads. But you never know, right? You never know. What we think is like, oh, that's going to nail it, that's going to be awesome, everyone's going to love this, some people might not.

Yeah.

Right? And you don't really know until you put the game out. So that was the feeling kind of going into it. But we had a plan. And, like I said before, we had a really solid team who'd worked for now three games together. We had a really great engine. We had a lot of support there. EA and Bioware Studio put their backing behind us. So the cards were stacked in our favor, but you're just nervous. That's all.

What were your feelings after Mass Effect 3 shipped?

Well, depends on when. So two days after it shipped, after the things that were happening, there was a little bit of, oh, we weren't happy. We weren't happy because this was our baby as much as it was anyone else's, right, wanting to send it off and make it the satisfying thing that people wanted. But as time went on and as things died down a little bit and we looked back and we continued with some of DLC in the Citadel, we're still very, very proud of it.

We're still very happy with what we did. And I think it set the stage for the future because it formalized for us that Shepard's story was done.

And that we told all we wanted to tell in that universe. So it kind of prompted us to look forward and say, okay, well, what's next from Mass Effect. Do people want another Mass Effect? Yes, they do. All right. Okay. Good. So how can we start, how can we bring Mass Effect to something new? And then we go from there.

Andromeda has a lot of fresh starts. It's developed in a new location in Montreal. It's a new galaxy. It's a whole new team. What did that fresh start kind of mean for you guys? Was it like a blank canvas of opportunity or was there mounting pressure to sort of make something that lives up to the legacy of the trilogy?

It's more actually of the former. The fresh start, I mean, because we didn't have to release another Mass Effect game, right? We did it because we think that people would love it and that we wanted to. So being able to kind of be free of that in the very beginning from the ground up and build this thing and conceptualize and on where and when and how, that was liberating for sure. We weren't tide into any previous sequels. We didn't have anything that we had to do. We were able to start fresh. So it was good.

Of course, I mean, people love the trilogy and they always will. And there's some pressure there to make sure it feels like Mass Effect, but we don't want it to feel like Shepard's story. We want it to feel like Ryder's story, right?

Right.

So that's liberating in itself, right?

Having that full stop for a lot of people would, for many, be an opportunity to say, "I'm going to step away from this now. I'm going to think about something different. I've immersed my entire life into this one story, one universe. I'll maybe go and work on another IP or try and find some."

Yep.

What was it about Mass Effect that made you think I'm going to commit another four or five years maybe even longer if it carries on?

Well, like I said before, I came into it as a fan. And I still am. Personally Mass Effect means a lot to me. Like we say, when we create something, we put it out, it is like putting your own child out there, right? That feeling still exists. I mean, eventually I'll move on to another IP, I'm sure, eventually. And I had the choice even previous to this, right? But for now, Mass Effect, it's too special to me. And it's too important, I think, to RPGers in the gaming community. I mean, who wouldn't take that opportunity to do that, right?

And, like I said previously, I mean, starting fresh, starting new, there's a lot of fun in doing that, right? I mean, this is Mass Effect, but at the same time, well, our imaginations are the limit of the new stuff that we can add, right? So there was a lot of cool new things that we could have done, too, right?

Do you feel like it's an opportunity to kind of rekindle that kind of love and create kind of a comeback story for Mass Effect? The way 3 ended, for better or for worse, people now have this sentiment towards the entire franchise that's, "Yeah, it was great for two games, but that last game was like..."

Yeah. Sure. I mean, in a way. Okay. So I actually wouldn't call it a comeback at all. I'm very happy with how the trilogy was. I just call it a continuation of something awesome. So that's not to say that we did everything that we wanted to do on the trilogy because a lot of stuff we didn't, but I feel like it ended in place we were happy with.

What was the mood generally from the studio and the different people working and going into Andromeda? Was it like trepidation or were you exited?

Something that we always kind of band around the studio and the office through the numerous long nights and years of development. It was always how much people wanted the game. Any tidbit of information or news would gain traction, anything about the game because they're so hungry for another Mass Effect. That in itself fuelled a lot of people, myself included.

If you have a property that has a very small audience or that people don't know about yet because it's a new IP you don't get that feeling of, you know, rabidness from the gaming community, but for something like Mass Effect we're lucky. We do. We see it. And that fuels us. Be like, oh, people are going to love this. Oh, they're just going to love this. And we have to get this done. And we have the finish this. And we have to make sure this is awesome quality because of all the people out there. That makes it easier. And so that brings a general sense of excitement, anticipation to the team.

And I'm sure, you know, people wouldn't be working on this franchise if it didn't mean something to them.

I don't know anyone that I work with that is on the Mass Effect franchise to get a paycheck. They're there to create something. From the programming team to the artists, the designers, the production team, everyone on the team wants to create it. And that just helps fuel the constant creativity that we go through all the time.

You always read a lot of things that people say, you know, Mass Effect helped me come to terms with my sexuality or some other real life issue.

Yeah. Yeah.

What's the most memorable sort of fan encounter like that you've had?

Again, there's so many of them that it's hard to pin one. People have gotten married based on meeting each other in Mass Effect Multiplayer. They've, you know, gotten numerous tattoos because, you know, we've given them confidence to be able to come out to their parents or things like that. I hear stories like that all the time at conventions, like PAX, and it makes it worthwhile.

Specifically for me, I do a like the ones where people, they met online in Multiplayer or their love of Mass Effect brought them together. And then they have like a big Mass Effect theme wedding. That's cool. We share pictures around the studio of stuff like that. People get really jazzed about it.

Yeah. So for me it was seeing Zaeed and connect on a little more of a personal level. And the same with Thane and his religious beliefs.

Yeah.

And for Andromeda most of my time was spent talking to Suvi.

Good.

Because she was talking entirely about her religion and that kind of stuff. And then you released the trailer recently and revealed her name, Suvi Anwar.

Yeah.

She was like another Middle Eastern name. And I'm like, yes. They did it again. There's more of us in here. So it's like moments like that are kind of like really impactful. But from your perspective, the pressure to have that must be just overwhelming--knowing that there's so many people that are deriving some personal value from it. Your game potentially has the ability to help someone through some depression or make them rethink a political ideology. Do you think about that when you're making the game and how does that pressure weigh on you as a team?

Yeah, we definitely know about it. We definitely think about it. All I can say is that we do the best that we can. We know what it means to people. We know what it's like to be excluded. We know that our game helps people feel included in many ways. And then we just kind of go with that.

We do make specific actions to help be more inclusive, right? And we've been even better with Andromeda on that than we were on the trilogy. We can't make everyone a hundred percent happy all the time because that's kind of impossible, but at the very least we start out knowing that it means a lot to people. And we plan accordingly for that, right? We have a lot of people at BioWare who care very much about inclusivity.

The writers, for example, they make it so that everyone gets included in romances. And they kind of make sure that that's spread throughout the game. And it's not done in a cheap, half cocked manner, that everyone is given the same amount of time and love and effort and lines to bring their things to life. So that kind of just ebbs and flows throughout the entire team. But it is special to us. And so we hope the people continue to trust us with that kind of stuff. All we can say is we do our best.

And how do you kind of approach it when, for example, when you're releasing your game at a time when, you know, there's a lot of strife in the political world, real word, and there's people who are being excluded, do you approach it and be like, "Let's just work on it naturally and whatever happens happens," or is there an opinion that, "We should try and give something to these people, maybe some solace for these people within the world that we know are currently going through something"?

Yeah. I wouldn't say we try to put a political message in. I would say that, and if you talk to one or two of the writers they can probably tell you their creative process around it.

But what's important to an individual creator, whether it's a designer or writer or producer, whoever, they put a little bit of themselves into that. So if a writer, for example, is going through some hardship in a certain way they'll write a character to maybe be more inclusive in that, right?

What I think makes a BioWare writer different is they're not afraid to reflect that in the game. And we encourage that kind of reflection to be put into the writing and the design. And so I think when it naturally just comes out in the game people are happy. And people see it and they're like, oh, oh, you were clearly thinking about me. Like no, we were trying to make it so that everyone can feel like they can be part of this, so.

So what do you bring from the original trilogy into Andromeda? What were the big lessons that you were looking at from back there and bringing forward to your new game?

Well, there's a couple things that we learned. I mean, we did learn from the ending issue. We learned about, well, creating a compelling ending. And hopefully people look at Andromeda and they like what they see.

We learned about the importance of characters. Also remember, you know, that when you play Mass Effect 1, when you play Mass Effect 3 you've had three games of Garrus. And you're like, yeah, I went through so many things with Garrus. Garrus is my buddy. But back in Mass Effect 1 Garrus was like a random Thorian, right? So we understood the hardships of being able to have to build those characters up from the ground again because they're all new characters, right? But we do realize the importance of characters and we try and put extra special care into them especially since this is the first one.

Couple very easy things. Exploration in Mass Effect 1. That was cool but it just wasn't done the way that we wanted to do it in the end.

Andromeda, I think we were able to learn a lot, build that out. Loyalty missions, same deal from Mass Effect 2. People love those. And that's why we brought them into Andromeda. So there's a lot of bits and pieces from the franchise that I think when you bring over and you kind of connect them in a cool way they can create that magic again.

So one of the things that you mentioned was having characters that progress all the time. They kind of developed into what everyone loves over to course of three games. How do you approach making a character as memorable within one game now?

Well, I mean, it's tough, right? You don't really know. You don't really know, but we try to make our characters varied enough where we think that each of them add a little bit to the overall mix.

So, for example, Drack, he's very Krogan but he's very old and wise and sage. And he's got, he's been through some stuff. And he brings that to the table. But then you've got PeeBee who's, you know, lighthearted, playful. Two very different characters. And some people, they'll appreciate Peebee and not appreciate Drack. And some people will appreciate Drack and not PeeBee. And so that dynamic is important to us. If we give that from the very beginning I think you'll find a lot of people liking the characters more and more. And, of course, you know, we hadn't said that you'll never see these characters again after Andromeda. So we do have an opportunity to evolve their personalities throughout games, too, should we want to do that.

You guys had an impossible task ending that franchise. The more I think about it the more overwhelming it becomes because it's a series about allowing the player to define their own story.

Uh huh.

And as a fan, my worry is what if that happens again? I'm looking at Andromeda and seeing everything you're trying to allow us to do, but is it on the same trajectory as the original trilogy where you're like, "How do we bring all these decision back together so we can put a full stop on this story?"

Yeah. To tell you how I'm approaching it's probably going to involve some story spoilers line Andromeda. So I don't want to do that too much. Once you play Andromeda and you see Andromeda ends you'll see that we've taken a couple things away from how the trilogy ended. And it puts us on a nice forward trajectory to be able to tell more stories in Andromeda.

I would agree with you that it is a very, very hard task, right? Because, you know, in any other type of medium, film, for example, you control the player journey completely, right? You control everything they see and they don't see, but in a game you don't. So it's more than just about variables, right? It's also about satisfying. So if we look at satisfying as the most important thing you can still create a satisfying ending regardless of how many variables there are. And that's where we're going with Andromeda.

Okay. So how, you talked earlier about releasing a tiny bit of information and the world just going absolutely mental for it. What kind of level of intimidation must you feel right now as to kind of have to live up to the original trilogy? How are you guys feeling in terms of looking back at your legacy and also trying to plot a new feature from the franchise?

Yeah. This is the absolute worst time because the game is done. And now we're just waiting for it to come out, right? So, you know, review copies are going out. Fans are starting to see more and more. It's a normal hesitation that you get before launch.

The living up to the trilogy, I think we all feel pretty good about that. Most if not all people who play it say this feels like Mass Effect. This feels like a game that is Mass Effect and it has new stuff. So that's good enough. We feel like we're good.

We know that Shepard and his story's done. We've been very outspoken about that. So I think it's a good place. It's just we don't know yet. You never know before you launch a game.

What do you hope people take away from Andromeda?

For me, I hope that they, it breeds new life into Mass Effect for the next however many years, right? I hope that people see this as, oh, this is a really cool property that I didn't see before because I thought maybe I had to play all the other games and I couldn't get into it. I hope Andromeda is like, okay, well, good. So if you really want to start start now because there's new everything, new characters, new space. Everything's different. So I hope they take that away. And it kind of, we get a whole bunch of new fans and they can, we can be having these same conversations in ten years from now about Mass Effect.

If Andromeda is laying the foundation for a future for Mass Effect where do you hope it goes from here? And where do you hope to see the series maybe in five or six years time?

Well, if people like Andromeda I'd like to see more Andromeda or maybe another area of space. I mean, to be honest, we haven't dug too far into the, whoa, what's the future look like for Mass Effect, but at the same time, if I know these fan and if I know people, they're going to love it. And they're going to want more. And we just have to maintain a balance between kind of adding new and cool unique things to the franchise and still making it feel like Mass Effect. And that's a challenge for another day.

It's comforting to see that you guys are confident about what you got.

Well, do you know what helps? The fans. And I'm not just saying that to be producery. It's like, no, if you go to the PAX show floor tomorrow you will see tons of Mass Effect Cosplay. You will see hundreds of people who care desperately about the franchise. Most other developers can't say that they have a magic like that built into their fan base. So they kind of lift us up, right? It's them who make the possibilities for the future. It's not, you know, us or the money or anything like that.

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