Try to view the game industry’s never-ending parade of dragons, robots and space marines from an outsider’s perspective, and it’s easy to see why many developers are growing tired of looking inward for inspiration. At first glance, BioWare seems to embody this gripe. Browse their back catalogue of games, and you’ll immediately be struck by their close involvement with the Star Wars and Dungeons & Dragons universes – epicenters for the hardcore gaming fanaticism that have been a stumbling block for the videogame industry as it strives for mainstream cultural acceptance. Yet it was with these intellectual properties that BioWare made their name as a developer, breathing new life into them and creating something uniquely their own.
Making a game larger than the sum of its intellectual property is no simple feat. But BioWare founders Ray Muzyka and Greg Zeschuk are well acquainted with looking at things from a broad perspective. Before BioWare became a respected game developer, Zeschuk and Muzyka were practicing medical doctors. It’s a background that played a major role in the development of BioWare’s uniquely empathetic attitude towards game design.
Muzyka and Zeschuk both practiced for around a decade before devoting themselves solely to game development. Says Muzyka about his speciality, “We both trained as family physicians. I did family med and primarily emergency medicine. I had over 20 different hospitals where I had practicing privileges, mainly doing ER work.” Similarly, Zeschuk practiced family medicine with a focus on geriatrics.
Medicine and game development were never really separate career phases for the BioWare founders, though. Instead, their two professions progressed in tandem, playing separate and equally important roles in the company that developed into BioWare. In medical school, seeing a gap in the educational software available to doctors, Zeschuk and Muzyka developed two pieces of software to use for training purposes, one of which was, as Zeschuk is quick to note with amusement, “the highly regarded Gastroenterology Patient Simulator.” After they became doctors, their salaries largely went towards getting the nascent BioWare up and running.
Aside from Zeschuk’s training software, medicine and gaming rarely crossed paths for the aspiring developers. However, Muzyka and Zeschuk’s experiences as doctors provided the philosophical foundation of BioWare that has been instrumental to its unique success.
“[Medicine] taught you some really valuable principles for life in general. … It teaches you the value of treating people with respect and dignity,” says Muzyka.
In this age of E.R., Grey’s Anatomy and the celebrity physician, it’s almost underwhelming that respect for other people would be one of the main things Zeschuk and Muzyka took from their years as doctors. I half expected to hear about the influence advanced surgical techniques had had on conversation trees. It was only by stepping back to survey their entire catalogue that I realized many of BioWare’s games are united by a profound sense of empathy.
“Our studio’s original mission statement was to deliver the best story-driven games and through that process to engage the world, to engage all our players emotionally in our games,” says Muzyka. Whether it was the narrative breakthroughs offered by Mass Effect or the ever-present morality systems that originated with Baldur’s Gate, these games are notable for the great lengths to which they go to emotionally invest the player in the experience. To produce games like this, deeply affecting pieces of entertainment, requires a vision well beyond the collective of overgrown adolescents that often characterize the industry at large. It demands the influence of two individuals who have had the opportunity to relate to people in a fundamentally personal way.
Muzyka and Zeschuk’s experiences in the medical field have carried over into their roles as business leaders as well. Zeschuk says that, like videogame development, “medicine is a team endeavor.” Ray also points out that crucial to both professions was “recognizing you may not know everything, but that it’s okay, you just ask for help.” Ray attributes part of BioWare’s initial success to accepting this reality from the outset. “With our first two titles no one had ever made a videogame before. We just assumed, ‘We don’t know what we’re doing, but we’re going to figure it out and try to make a great game.'”
Their medical careers also serve to keep the rigors of the game industry in perspective. “The challenges you face developing videogames aren’t life threatening like some of the medical stuff you do. So it really makes some of those game challenges seem a lot less dangerous,” says Zeschuk. There is a similar phrase that seems to have spread over much of the working world: “We’re not saving lives, it’s just [insert profession of choice]” has become a limp platitude used after stupid but forgivable mistakes. But to hear the idea confirmed by a doctor, who has lately become a leader in a particularly vital business, lends it some weight and significance. For Muzyka and Zeschuk, the process of developing a videogame is akin to practicing medicine in that they are both processes larger than one doctor’s abilities or one designer’s talent. “[Medicine] shows you how important all the stakeholders in a process are” says Muzyka.
Listening to Zeschuk and Muzyka discuss the videogames they have been playing (a list that encompasses most of the major releases from the past six months), I was struck by their overwhelming sense of confidence in the identity of BioWare. Instead of delivering a diatribe on the failings of other games, they talked about game after game that had impressed and inspired them, from Metal Gear Solid 4 to the browser RTS LEGO Mars Mission – CrystAlien Conflict. They’re keenly aware of the line between influence and imitation – BioWare’s projects will always remain in that same pantheon of games that Muzyka and Zeschuk currently enjoy.
For Muzyka and Zeschuk, individual accomplishments or particular influences for a game take a backseat to the collaborative nature of their craft. BioWare has grown far beyond their two personalities. It has developed a perspective that stays solely focused on the games while avoiding myopia and tunnel vision – an outlook with an obvious clarity that their games reflect. It’s fueled by purpose and commitment and tempered with empathy. The same traits people expect to find in the very best physicians.
Tom Endo hopes to one day visit the West Edmonton Mall and eat a Cinnabon. He’ll also visit BioWare, if they’ll have him.