What Happened At The Mass Effect 2 Panel

I'd been dreading writing up what happened at the last GDC panel I attended, and not because it was boring to sit through.

Far from it – BioWare showed off a couple Mass Effect 2 videos with combat and cut scenes; two journalists I admire almost got in a fight about the illicit recording of said videos; and I got to use the panel as a case study to present to my ethics professor. Long story short: there was drama; and until the drama died down, I was hesitant to do the write-up.

But it's dead now, so here's the rundown of the last GDC panel I attended:

Unlike the development of the first Mass Effect, BioWare has changed tactics to identify problems (like long elevator rides) earlier in the development process. To pull this off, the devs make sure each level they design is always playable throughout the creation cycle.

Playable, not pretty. That first video we saw starts off with nothing but an ME1 character model dropped into a white room with lines marking where stuff should go. This looks like what other developers call a "white box" level – except this is way more detailed with actual pop-up dialogue boxes to tell the player what plot points are going on where.

Most of the level changing goes on during this phase and then they move on to phase two where they add collision and combat and even music (because to BioWare, music relates to fun and if you can't see the fun by phase two, it's time to go back to the drawing board). They also do a first pass of dialogue to screen for cheesiness and text errors.

Phases three and four are all about making it fun. Combat is upgraded to "silver" and then "gold" such that you could actually kill somebody and it would look right. The dialogue gets sent off for voice recording and when it's all in place, they move on to stage five, which is: "Can you feel the awesome?"

By keeping the levels playable at all times in development, BioWare saved themselves a lot of pain and suffering in the long run. They even sent the entire ME2 team home with a playable build over their Christmas break so they could play through it on their holiday. That extra step alone showed them that their endgame was boring; they chucked it when they came back from the break and started over.

The last video shown at the panel was a cut scene from phases one to four (it sounds like phase five hasn't been completed on any of the levels yet). In this cinematic, Serena drops you off on a bridge and explains that you've got to go to the second tower and cross to the penthouse to kill… somebody. The whole thing was out of context, but it sounds like there's actually two separate baddies Shepard has to deal with: somebody called Nassans (not sure on the spelling – I was sitting way too far back to read the subtitles) and this assassin person who may or may not be in the penthouse.

The lesson GDC goers were supposed to leave the panel with was this: Do only the work that you have to do and do it in the right order.

Then they talked about business models for developers – and that part was definitely boring. But it looks like Mass Effect 2 will be anything but.