GDC 2011: Interview With Mass Effect 3 Gameplay Designer Christina Norman

GDC 2011 Interview With Christina Norman

If you're not familiar with the name Christina Norman, you should be. She was the lead gameplay designer for the popular space opera BioWare game, Mass Effect 2 and will also be working on the highly anticipated Mass Effect 3. We've managed to gather everything there is to know about Mass Effect 3, but there's nothing like talking to those developing it to get a sense of the game's direction.

We were able to catch Christina while she was waiting in line for one of the (many) talks going on during GDC 2011 and interviewed her regarding designing Mass Effect 2 and its influence on Mass Effect 3.

The interview might give a bit of insight into the kinds of things to expect in the last game of the Mass Effect trilogy.

Game Rant: When you addressed design concerns going from Mass Effect 1 to Mass Effect 2, how did you start? What influenced the changes?

Christina Norman: A couple of major factors. First of all, we always had a vision for the game. The vision evolves, it never stays exactly the same but from the very start, there was the vision of the game. We knew at the point when Mass Effect 1 came out that there were certain aspects of the original vision of Mass Effect that we had not addressed. In addition, we looked at feedback from both reviewers and fans and we were lucky. If people had been all over of the map and everyone said something different then it wouldn't have been useful.

There were a lot of themes that emerged that seemed really consistent and resulted in kind of like a critical, hardcore gamer feedback and there were also people who would just say things like, "I find this game confusing," "I try to play it and my gun isn't hitting anybody and I don't know what's going on," and other sort of things. So there were certain aspects of the gameplay that were making the game inaccessable to players.

The way I like to put that is, Mass Effect has always looked like a shooter, but Mass Effect 1 didn't really play like one. It could play like a shooter, if you were a smart gamer and you understood what we were doing and you did all the RPG stuff in just the right way, you could have a pretty good shooter experience.

We wanted to make sure every gamer who have already played a shooter could have a good experience in Mass Effect 2 and look at the RPG stuff as not being the barrier to entry, like you don't get to play a shooter if you don't do this RPG stuff and make it more like "You can play it like a shooter, but if you want to be really awesome, if you want to just destroy everything, you really have to engage that RPG stuff." And that becomes sort of a competitive edge to a gamer when you engage those RPG mechanics.

GR: Will players who opted to stay romantically involved with Liara or Ashley Williams from ME1 be rewarded for staying loyal?

CN: I can't talk about any of the specific decisions or what they actually do. But what I can say is that decisions through all of the Mass Effect games, including the DLC, will matter for Mass Effect 3. And it's not just like decisions that carried over from ME1 to ME2 will matter in ME3, they'll be decisions in ME1 that did not visibly impact ME2 that will have an impact in ME3. What we looked at is the total story, everything that happened in Mass Effect 1 and Mass Effect 2 is real and matters, we let the writers draw on that as much as they want to customize the experience and to be pretty much without limits.

GR: Since the design differences between 1 and 2 were so prevalent, are you taking an approach to the third game of "if it ain't broke, don't fix it?"

CN: Sure. This is the metaphor you can think of it in. I can tell you the overall arcing design for 1, 2, and 3. With ME1, we wanted to build Mass Effect and we did our best to do that and we succeeded in a lot of areas, but we didn't reach where we wanted to do in some areas. Mass Effect 2 was like, "OK, now we have time to take what we did and fully sort of realize the vision we had for Mass Effect." And we've done that, but now what we can do is add another layer on top of that in terms of "now that we have something that we think really represents the Mass Effect experience, let's build on that."

There really is infinite possibilities now that we have that really, really solid Mass Effect 2 core. What you'll probably not see in Mass Effect 3 is a lot of major, complete reinventions, because we don't have those things where we'll shift it and all that. That is not actually what we wanted to do. There will still be things that are in ME2 that won't be in ME3 and that's just because we're looking at the overall play experience of "does this make sense to have in both games?" Sometimes there's something and we'll say "this is great for one game, but we don't want to do it again in another game, because once was enough." And instead we want to put in something new to replace it.

GR: Like planet scanning?

CN: I can't comment on anything specifically, but there will be elements that are in ME2 that are not in ME3.

Players of Mass Effect 1 may have noticed that very important decisions had a direct impact on the experience of Mass Effect 2, like choosing to save the Council or kill the Rachni queen. They were part of 700 different plot points that also carried over, not every single one was immediately noticeable during the play experience, but as Norman points out, those decisions may be seen in Mass Effect 3. She and her team are hard at work creating a ME game that will not simply be an upgraded version of the second title.

Gameplay changes aren't going to be the only thing that make the third game a high-profile title. Fans are eagerly anticipating the story completion and continued journey of Commander Shepard (that is, if he/she made it during the suicide mission). Mass Effect 2 did win the GDC "Best Writing" award this year and while some have their objections to the plot of the game, the mythology and characters did a wonderful job of bringing the story to life.

Here's hoping that ME3, and the Mass Effect games after Shepard will deliver an experience that will blow ME2 out of the water.

Mass Effect 3 releases Q4 2011 for Xbox 360, PlayStation 3, and PC.

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