What's the best location you've built for the game?
Noel Lukasewich: I'd have to say Don's Earth is pretty awesome. It showed us a lot of what we wanted to do, sort of paved the way for a lot of our new stuff.
Don Arceta: Yeah, but eventually they're all going to have that same level of detail as that Earth level. We're still building the game, so there are some awesome environments right now but the scope of the levels is really big. We have this awesome Earth vista and there's just going to be tons of things going on out there. I think the thing that's going to make the levels awesome is just what happens in them.
Mass Effect is basically a world without denim - there are few things recognisable from the present. How do you make Earth feel like Earth?
NL: Well, we've had conversations about what to push and what to keep. We don't want to have the streets paved with plastic and that kind of crazy stuff but do we keep the concrete? Do we keep the road signs?
DA: It's hard finding that balance because Mass Effect is all big curves and arching structures, and you don't want famous landmarks to just stick out like a sore thumb in that sci-fi universe. That's the kind of the balance artists are looking for - making it fit but still feel like Earth. Just putting Venetian blinds on the windows makes it more familiar to the player that this is Earth. You wouldn't ever see that on an Asari planet.
What sort of interaction is there between the gameplay guys and your team?
DA: It's a lot of back and forth. We let the designers know exactly what's important to us on the art side - maybe the way the sun hits inside a room or something that we just don't want to lose - and design will work with us exactly how to keep that.
We have a lot more integrated cover, so you don't walk into a room and immediately know there's going to be a combat there. It's about making these spaces feel natural and not forced. It shouldn't ever feel forced, by gameplay or art - it really should be this perfect marriage.
NL: Yeah, you don't want to walk through a room and go, "okay nothing's going to happen here. There's no cover for me here," and then you walk around the next corner and you just see a sea of these chest-high things - you basically see the fight ahead.
That's something few cover-based shooters get right.
DA: Yeah, you play a game like Gears of War and they just have sandbags everywhere, and we really don't want to do that. We really want to get away from arbitrary things placed just for the sake of gameplay.
BioWare tend to build spaces that often feel like they exist only to have a fight in, not to live and work in. How important is it to fix that?
NL: Absolutely important. All the departments are involved now - we'll have writers and combat designers in and we'll really talk about the history of the places.
DL: We're really pushing the variety within the levels, so you're not walking into the same room just decorated differently. We're really trying to push each room as a functional space. A hallway has a function for people working there, and we're just trying to really make sense of it in the game.
NL: I'm doing something right now where I've built the environment as an undamaged structure, and then I start smashing bits up. We try to design the architecture first before we blow it up, rather than just having a box and cramming destroyed bits in it. We're really thinking about how someone from the future designed this building, and whether it functions well. Then we blow it up!
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