Moving From BioWare to Beer
This is not the first time I’ve interviewed Greg Zeschuk. Years ago, sequestered in some harshly lit conference room above the buzzing E3 show floor, I grilled the BioWare co-founder about his studio’s latest project — Dragon Age: Origins — along with day-one DLC, the future of Mass Effect, and any other BioWare-related minutia I could possibly come up with. Now we’re standing together in the cozy lobby of Austin’s Alamo Drafthouse theater, beers in hand, casually discussing his latest project: a web series about independent microbreweries called The Beer Diaries. The Mass Effect saga has long since concluded. Day One DLC has become an industry standard. And Dr. Zeschuk has checked out of the game-making business, possibly for good.
My first question is obvious: what happened?
“Once you’ve done something for so long, at some point it’s just not that exciting anymore,” Zeschuk confesses. “I had trouble looking down the road at something that was just incredibly interesting and challenging and new and unique that stretched me personally. I think video games, for me…it was very clear what the future held. It was more of the same.” It’s a reply we’ve heard before, one that closely mirrors the message of the retirement letter he posted last September when he and partner Ray Muzyka stepped down. Naturally the gaming community was quick to offer other explanations — including the controversy surrounding Mass Effect 3’s unsatisfying ending and BioWare’s merger with mega-publisher EA — but when I question him, Zeschuk calmly maintains that his reasons were purely personal.
“The passion and level of engagement was so high that it makes it very hard to solve every scenario you wanted to solve at the end of it,” Zeschuk says of Mass Effect 3. “I always still sincerely think it’s because [the fans] really really care about what we make. It’s not random. It’s like, they may be disappointed when they can’t get the choice they want because they’re so intimate with their story or their character or their game. If it’s not just the way they want it, it’s not right. So it’s a very hard thing to reconcile, but the reality is, I can understand completely where it can come from.”
What he clearly has a harder time understanding, however, is why people refuse to believe that BioWare’s partnership with EA wasn’t a death sentence for creativity. “The reality is that we chose things,” Zeschuk explains adamantly. “We were the ones that were driving the ship. We were the ones that decided what we wanted to do and how we wanted to do it, and EA never forced us to do anything. That’s actually the funny thing that’s very hard for the people at large to understand.” It’s clear from his voice that Zeschuk poured a great deal of passion into his work and, consequently, still takes all of this very personally on some level.
“We all were trying our best,” Zeschuk insists, referencing both Mass Effect 3 and BioWare’s underperforming MMORPG, Star Wars: The Old Republic. “It’s not like we were not working hard and trying to do the best thing and trying to be successful. I think, if you really look closely at the business at a very high level, the business is not in a great position right now. Like, you know, every month for the last three years, the console business has pretty much shrunk. That’s a hard environment to work in. It’s challenging. So you sometimes try and do things that make things work, and if they don’t work, then people get mad at you.”
Regardless of how deeply each of these factors contributed to his decision to leave game development, his new career as the creator and host of his very own beer show should result in less stress and scrutiny from the public at large. Still, Zeschuk says that gaming is “still part of me,” and the parallels between his new position as a scrappy, independent content creator and the increasing prominence of indie developers aren’t lost on either of us.
“The reality is, the business is transitioning,” Zeschuk asserts. “I think it’s not even a publisher/not publisher thing. Like the whole retail boxed product…you gotta bust out of that. The scary position that all the publishing companies are in is where you’ve got these new upstarts who are just grabbing real estate like nobody’s business: they’re making tons of money, they’re highly profitable — it’s just a different dynamic. I think it’s very hard for a traditional company to kind of look at these new guys and go, ‘We’re gonna be like them!’ But culturally, there’s no similarity whatsoever.”
As uncertain as the future may seem, Zeschuk tempers his forecast with a great deal of optimism, especially for the progress of independent game makers. “I read an article about [Minecraft creator] Notch recently. Minecraft obviously, I think, is just an incredible production, so it’s interesting to learn where he came from, and he never thought about making a profit. Like, he didn’t think that his goal was to make gazillions of dollars, his goal was to do something fun. And that’s to be respected, in my mind. I think of that as very, very noble.”
“I think what’s amazing about indie games is they can do things that we could never do in big games,” he continues. “Like, if I went and pitched [to a publisher], ‘Hey, I’ve got this crazy game idea, this big multi-million dollar production about, like, this really bizarre topic,’ they’d be like, ‘Are you crazy? Get the hell out of here!’ Whereas in indie, you can do it and sometimes be really successful. I think, to be fair, most games are still lovingly crafted, like a BioShock or a Mass Effect or whatever. They’re lovingly produced, right? But they’re just a big production, and any big production has certain realities it’s gotta live with.”
Given his views on the evolving nature of the business, I decide to ask him, “What advice would you give someone just getting out of school who wants to pursue a career in game development?” He looks me straight in the eyes and, with great emphasis, says, “Make stuff. Make stuff. Make stuff. Just see what sticks, and keep making stuff. And I mean, figure it out. If you need a day job, maybe get a day job, but just make stuff. In a broader societal level, the days of, you know, you get out of college and your job is waiting for you — those days are over, over, over for all of us. So the reality is, you’ve gotta make your own [job]. The guys who are successful just make things and make things and make things, and, you know, 10 years later they’re an overnight success. And maybe that’s where gaming’s going.”
Anytime anyone writes about Greg Zeschuk, they’re always quick to point out one compelling piece of his personal history: before starting BioWare, Zeschuk was a licensed, practicing medical doctor. His choice to abandon years of training in order to make video games might seem brilliant now, but at the time, it surely felt like an insane risk. Speaking with him now, however, his decision somehow feels like the only one he possibly could have made. “It’s actually a personal philosophy of mine,” Zeschuk says. “For me at least, the secret to being happy, in a way, is just doing stuff. If I’m not doing stuff, I’m not happy. I think from a philosophical perspective, people kind of owe it to themselves to try to do things nowadays. There’s very little reason not to try to do stuff.”
Stuff like, say, quitting your job as an award-winning developer in order to pursue a new passion. While The Beer Diaries may not be the next Mass Effect or Dragon Age, it all makes perfect sense given Zeschuk’s mentality. “At the end of the day, at the very least, we did something,” he states. “Maybe we made some people angry, made some people happy… You can live your life without doing anything. The reality, though, is simply, having done something is really, really rewarding.” I think we can all drink to that.
Scott is a former editor turned word mercenary who is in no way related to the syrup empire. Monitor his downward spiral on Twitter at @Butterwomp.