"As a designer working on a sequel, I feel I have a responsibility to [the] fans," says Christina Norman, Lead Gameplay Designer for Mass Effect 2. "Fans are more than just sales. On some level we're all involved in [game] design because we want to make games that will make people happy. So those really hardcore fans are ... the reason I like making games."
Norman says that in spite of the outpouring of love from fans and critics alike about Mass Effect 1, the team at Bioware knew they could have done better with the game and wanted to make improvements with the sequel.
According to Norman, the biggest issue with Mass Effect 1 was that players were often confused by the vagaries of the RPG-inspired combat system. In other shooter-like games, a player could pick up a rifle and shoot things right away, but Mass Effect, borrowing a trope from Bioware's bread and butter, RPGs, started players as a "level one character," meaning that when the player picked up a rifle at the beginning of the game that player was a "level one rifle shooter" and couldn't hit the broad side of a barn. Not until the player leveled up, after a considerable amount of time in the game, did the player's ability to aim and hit improve.
From an RPG perspective, this mechanic makes perfect sense. But, as Norman says, Mass Effect is more than an RPG.
"Looking at [Mass Effect 1] gameplay footage," she says, "it looks like a shooter, but it's a shooter where you can't hit anything."
Norman's team spent three months on the front end of Mass Effect 2's design cycle re-working just the shooter aspects of the game. She says they wanted to get the shooter feel right and not attempt to re-invent the wheel by re-writing the rules of shooter game play.
For Bioware, she says, as a studio that had built their reputation on making ground-breaking RPGs, making a shooter was surprisingly challenging, and Norman encouraged them to be honest with themselves about it.
"We knew that shooter combat was the biggest risk for us," she says. "What I didn't want to say was 'Mass Effect 2 is a fun game in spite of the shooter combat."
Norman and her team prototyped their proposed changes using the Mass Effect 1 engine, and tried re-creating weapons and other elements from other shooter-type games, like Halo, just to find out the limits of their own systems, and whether or not they could even make good shooter combat.
"If you're trying [to do something] where your team doesn't have a lot of expertise," she says, "it's really important to acknowledge that and say 'hey we need to learn here, guys.'
"Sure, at Bioware we have this amazing history ... but we're not a shooter studio so we've got to learn from all of the people out there who are making amazing shooters. We should start by making shooter combat that's inspired by the combat that's already out there and exceptional and then if we want to innovate, innovate in small areas where there's a really big win."
Creating a global cooldown of biotic powers, refining the weapons and introducing the ammo system in the form of "heat sinks" are just some of the myriad ways Norman and her team revitalized Mass Effect 2's shooter elements. The result? More copies sold and higher review scores. In other words: Really big win.
Norman does, however, acknowledge one area where the company made a significant change to Mass Effect that went over like a lead zeppelin:
"Oh, the mining game," she says. "No one likes the mining game."