Develop 10: Zeschuk On How Bioware “Do It”

The day’s first Keynote is from Bioware, with Dr Greg Zeschuk is flying solo, as Ray is up to day 5 in the world series poker. I’ve just arrived in Brighton to find myself staring at the title: “Creative Game Development: How We Do It At Bioware”. And I’m sniggering to myself like an nine-year old, because I’m wondering whether it’s going to be a guide of how they “do it” at Bioware. Tell me about the romance options, Dr Greg!

Alas, the reality is a little more prosaic.

It’s a solid-key note, based around a single key idea. It’s basically about how you create and maintain a corporate culture – with Greg arguing that a key part of Bioware’s success is how across their fifteen years they’ve managed to keep this culture. The key idea being, they’ve deliberately tried to maintain the culture by their own deliberate actions.

Company Culture is basically created by three areas – the structures (as in, how everything is organised, whether you’re on separate teams, all mixed together), the people (as in, whoever you’re working for) and the “systems” (as in, policies and rules). Then there’s the chicken-and-egg of Values and Goals, both which facilitate one another.

Their values were codified as early as 2004, and could be listed as follows.

  • Quality Workplace
  • Quality Products
  • Entrepreneurship
  • All in a context of Humility & Integrity

The last is arguably the most interesting, but also proves the most elusive. The key quote struck me was Greg noting, almost as an aside, “You are only as good as your next game”. Games are not a medium where you can rest on your laurels – which strikes me as incredibly true for the hardcore part of the medium.

Quality Workplace is about pole-dancers in the office. No, I’m sorry. Not that sexist. Pole-dancers of both sexes in the office. No, I’m sorry again. Not objectification at all. It’s actually about making sure there’s a proper work/life balance, engaging employees interests and helping teams more than individuals. Quality product is obvious – trying to make the best story-lead games in the world and making each one better than the last. The last is – put simply – to try and be the best investment in the industry. Putting a dollar into Bioware should always lead to more than a dollar out. Greg argues that while the particular rule appeared later that the others, it was because the attitude was always there when they were a fledgling developer – because if it wasn’t there, they’d have gone bust.

The rules basically appeal to the workers, the fans and the investors respectively (though it’s worth noting that the investors would include the actual staff who’d own a stake in the company). Much of the rest of the presentation resolves how you can actually keep all those different elements happy without compromising, and some of the things they do to achieve them.

Some of the things to keep the developers happy were striking. For example, by having multiple projects, they’re able to make sure that each employee is working on a project they actually like – and if the situation means they have to stay on a project they’re now burnt out on, they talk about an exit plan (We need you to do six more months and then we can move you, etc). They also try to let the teams pick the projects they work on to make sure they’re invested. The anecdote about the Bioware Austin studio considering what to work on is illuminating. There were a mass of ideas of what they’d be working on their board. Then they get a call from Lucasarts about the Star Wars licence. Erk. They put the idea on the board alongside the other ones, and there’s mass geek excitement about doing it.

This perhaps illustrates something else – that they try and hire for the personality to fit the culture. Greg talks about turning down brilliant candidates who just don’t really fit how Bioware do things. Culture is a delicate thing and they have to fight to preserve it – while also recognising change is necessary and inevitable. When Bioware grew, Greg expresses sadness to see people leave… but they realised it was simply because the company’s goals (growth) were no longer actually compatible with the staff’s needs. It was actually a good thing they left, and both would have been hurt if they stayed.

This is all very human, but the actual interesting thing comes near the end where Greg admits how awkward a space AAA-console development is. In that if you’re in there now, you’re sorted. If you’re not there… well, it’s not the route that’s most likely to succeed. He then talks about how Bioware’s values were designed to succeed in the route they’ve taken… and by implication, the culture you should choose to build if you’re working towards the future should be different.

That puts the spin on the title: this is how Bioware do it. But, if you’re in the audience, this isn’t necessarily how you should do it. If you’re trying to make a micro-team environment of small people – an area Greg particularly finds hopeful – it’s going to require different decisions (Bioware now have micro-teams of their own working inside Bioware on smaller projects). If you’re trying to make a facebook or flash game, you’re going to want to create a different culture to support that. Just think about what you’re doing, what you’re trying to build… and what company you have to build to achieve those goals.

I’ve also just been thrown by Greg recognising me in the Develop corridor, despite the fact I haven’t seen him for the best part of a decade. I wish I had that memory for faces. Man!


  1. Wulf says:

    I’m disappointed by Bioware. They recently confirmed that the advent of the Natal would not lead to Dance Dance Krogan.

    • James G says:

      I don’t know about Krogans, but I bet Turians would be fantastic on the dancefloor. Especially if they have ‘reach.’

      Volus on the other hand would just look silly, can’t imagine the Elcor or Hannar ever even attempting it. Salarians would be like the hyperenthusastic but somewhat gangly teenager, lacking in grace, but almost certainly not self-concious about it .

    • Wulf says:

      And now I want to see Garrus dance.

    • The Sombrero Kid says:

      The only Dance in the Mass Effect universe is the awkward shuffle as evidenced by the games.

    • Jason Moyer says:

      There are way more dances in the Mass Effect games than 1.

  2. Sam says:

    “I’ve also just been thrown by Greg recognising me in the Develop corridor, despite the fact I haven’t seen him for the best part of a decade. I wish I had that memory for faces. Man!”

    Well that’s nice :)

    Thanks for this.

  3. AndrewC says:

    Bioware does it by making you complete four seperate zones in any order you wish before opening the final zone.

    • Jason Moyer says:

      I heard that they ban office romances because one of the partners will inevitably betray the other one.

  4. Chad Warden says:

    “Quality Products”

    yeah, right.

  5. Clovis says:

    Bioware do it all flashy, from different angles and stuff. Bethesda do it missionary style, staring into each other’s dead eyes.

    • terry says:

      I need some antiseptic for my mudcrabs. Loathesome creatures…

  6. BooleanBob says:

    Bioware do it by parcelling out interactions with party members every two levels, along a relationship arc that the player can comfortably recognise within the first half of the first conversation.

    This is fun!

  7. Mad Doc MacRae says:

    Bioware does it by you guys are jerks

  8. BlooDeck says:

    Bioware does it from the behind.

  9. somnolentsurfer says:

    Bioware does it in real time, pausing to give orders.

  10. The Sombrero Kid says:

    Everyone recognises Kieron Gillen.

  11. Aninhumer says:

    Bioware does it with options to Charm or Intimidate.

  12. Thelonious says:

    Bioware does it adequately at first, with a bit more later if you’re willing to pay

  13. Veret says:

    Bioware does it pretty much the same way every time, but they like to spice it up with new costumes.

  14. Baboonanza says:

    Sounds like the most boring management sim ever.

  15. Hmm says:

    How do Bioware “do it”? They copy and paste the same formula since Baldur’s Gate – over and over and over and over and over. And add some retarded, “cinematic” crap like dialogue wheels which only make their games even more shallow.

  16. Tei says:

    “You are only as good as your next game”

    Based on Bioware words, Bioware is as good as his next game.

    • Sonic Goo says:

      Now that you mention it, that is an interesting quote. Usually it’s “you’re only as good as your last game”. In other words, is he saying the hype for your next game is more important than the impression you made with your last one?

  17. MightAsWell says:

    Bioware does it in real-time with frequent pausing.

  18. kutkh says:

    BioWare does it no matter what your race or gender as long as they don’t have to say your name.

  19. Pantsman says:

    Bioware does it old school, except not anymore.

  20. Mesopocalypse says:

    Bioware does it with funny last names.

  21. Karthik says:

    “In that if you’re in there now, you’re sorted. If you’re not there… well, it’s not the route that’s most likely to succeed.”

    What does this mean?

    • Jeremy says:

      It means, if you’re doing it now, you’re making a good chunk of money and you’re set. If not, then attempting to go AAA isn’t the best path to success.

    • Karthik says:

      Ah, okay. The “sorted” threw me off.

    • Jeremy says:

      Well, in all honesty I could be wrong too, that’s just how I understood it :)

  22. Saturnine Tenshi says:

    Likely due to the marginally recent thrust into the mainstream by the video game industry, you aren’t as likely to accomplish the goal of producing an “AAA” title. This isn’t because your title may lack quality, but it’s because it may lack what a title needs to succeed in our crapfast of an industry — an established name, crazy marketing or a midnight tryst with Tymora.

  23. Melnorme says:

    Bioware does it by getting a medical degree first.

  24. The Dark One says:

    This was an interesting read. I had heard that Bioware had a friendly corporate culture- they often get featured in those ‘best places to work’ issues of Maclean’s- but not what exactly they did to keep the atmosphere positive.

    • Ashen says:

      They surely wouldn’t fit on Kotick’s bandwagon. Not only they don’t want to take the fun out of making videogames, but also don’t even insist on mandatory crunches.

  25. Xenodon says:

    Bioware does it… with a twist near the end.

  26. DeepSleeper says:

    Bioware does it, but their marketing department doesn’t understand how or why.

    • EaterOfCheese says:

      Nor should they. Marketing should service development, not the other way around.

  27. D_K_night says:

    So you have to fit in with Bioware’s established “culture” or else you’re not considered? And further, it seems to me that, this “culture” could change based on the whims of the Alphas in the company. If you don’t adapt with them, then they can nail you with “you’re no longer a good fit with our company culture”, despite that you perfectly fit in, with them before.

    This breeds all kinds of yes-men who doesn’t want to rock the boat, or those who ensure they’ve entrenched themselves nice and deep and be as chummy as possible with the right people, so they’ll always “fit in” with the culture.

    • Tei says:

      Why are you so bitter? I am sure you choise your friends as opposed to use a random number generator to choose friends. And I am curious if your definition of teamwork.

      In life, unfairness is created wen two people play the same game with different rules. Bioware could be tryiing to have people with the same (or compatible) rules. Theres nothing radical on that, hell.. I think is the default normal thing everywhere.

    • subedii says:

      Yeah, every company has their own culture, and being able to fit in with that and work well with others is a big part of the job. You’re going to be spending half your waking day there after all. Any interviewer worth his salt will make sure you’re going to be able to fit in with everyone and not, as an example, act like an abrasive jerk who’s just going to bring morale down.

      Note, this does not mean that every person has to have the same personality, which is what you seem to be equating it to. But say for example, if a company has a more informal and task oriented culture (where people from different fields join in and contribute) of getting products out, whereas you find that sloppy and can only real work with highly structured and stratified group based development methods (where say, tasks and objectives are set to fixed task groups right from the start and remain fairly rigid), then that’s something that either you’ll need to be able to adapt to, or else it’s probably not the right company for you. Or even something as simple as hiring a guy who hates RPG’s and primarily wants to make racing games. You have to bear in mind, this is just as much about making sure the new hire is also happy with his workplace, because employees who hate their work tend to bring everyone else down and do poorly at their job

      Game development is an extremely intensive, devs work on short deadlines with lots of milestones, it’s a job where people don’t tend to shy away from overtime and there’s a lot of burnout in the industry (which I feel is a huge problem with the industry, but that’s a separate post). People don’t get into it because they have to, it’s because they want to and have a desire to make something awesome. If your workplace is draining your passion for the job then that leads to burnout. A high turnover rate isn’t what anyone wants, it’s not good for the people working there, it’s not good for the project, and it’s certainly not good for the guy that just left because work practices are completely at odds with what he’s used to and he can’t work like that. It’s not really a question of right or wrong work practices, just trying to craft groups that can cohesively work together.

      A big part of job satisfaction is being able to fit in. With regards to the person doing the job, sometimes that even means that you’ll take less pay, but it pays off in terms of satisfaction with the work, being able to work on things that you want to and <i<how you want to. Or even just work-life balance, which is something large swathes of the industry still have a problem with, even in the wake of things like the whole EA Spouse thing.

  28. teo says:

    A few years back there were a lot of whispers about BioWare treating their employees like shit and people leaving as soon as they had credit for working on one of their games.