When we first heard that Mass Effect 3 would have multiplayer everybody scoffed, but for me personally, Mass Effect 3 has been the surprise multiplayer hit of the year. We sat down with Preston Watamaniuk, Lead Designer on the game’s multiplayer, to talk about classes, balance, loot drops and more — including what they’ve got in store for the future.
GON: For me, Mass Effect 3′s multiplayer has been the surprise hit of the year — something I never expected to say when I heard that it would be part of the package. How was the decision made to include multiplayer in ME3? Was it more of an experiment, or was it something you were determined to do and just had to figure out how?
Preston: We have always wanted to include a multiplayer element in the Mass Effect trilogy, but Mass Effect 3 was the first game where we felt it really made sense and would add to the overall quality of the experience. Once we committed to it, our team worked very hard to create a compelling experience.
GON: Is this latest overhaul with the challenges and profiles and leaderboards recognition of the fact that there is a lasting community, with the potential to rival other games?
Preston: We’re humbled by the reception our community has given Mass Effect 3 multiplayer, and we want to keep supporting the product for as long as it makes financial sense.
GON: Can you give us some player numbers on multiplayer, and what an average weekend is like? Do you see increases during the operations?
Preston: We do see nice bumps in activity during the challenge weekends.
GON: The addition of the Collectors is great — they’re obscenely hard and genuinely a lot scarier than the other opponents. Can you tell us a bit more about what is was like bringing the design concepts across from ME2 into the ME3 multiplayer and what considerations you had to make?
Preston: We used each creature from Mass Effect 2 as a starting point for what they needed to feel like within the multiplayer context. For multiplayer, each creature was redesigned from scratch and given an art upgrade. A major consideration in bringing them over was accounting for difference in play style between Mass Effect 2 and Mass Effect 3; the upgraded characters are a lot more agile and capable. We also had metrics that told us the strengths of our player base, so we worked that into the design as well.
GON: Is there any possibility of a mode with different, randomised enemies each wave? Geth one wave, Cerberus the next, then Collectors? It would be great to have this as a setting.
Preston: We’ve discussed this at the theoretical level. Right now, I’ll say “Anything is possible.”
GON: The addition of Hazards to the maps is a neat way to spice things up, and frankly I’ve always been annoyed at my inability to turn the reactor on during play. What other hazards will you be introducing in the future?
Preston: Again, we’ve had theoretical discussions about adding hazards to various maps; the main ones we feel need the boost are the Earth-based maps.
GON: You’ve just added the Volus to the mix, so we’re rapidly running out of races remaining which means — back me up on this — you’re doing the Elcor next, right? Or the Hanar? I would literally pay you money to make this happen.
Preston: Elcor and Hanar are actually very hard to add because they would require a vast amount of animation work. Looking at the work required to bring in the Volus, about 50 times that amount would be needed to add Elcor and Hanar.
GON: Speaking of literally paying money, can you explain the rationale behind the loot system? While randomised items are great, it seems like opening up a Team Fortress 2 style micro-economy where you charge $7 for, say, a Geth Plasma Shotgun V, or a Volus Engineer, would be a really great way to monetise? What’s stopping you from allowing players to pay money for items (and races) they want? I would drop a cool $15 on getting a Volus right now.
Preston: We’ve been asked this question a lot, and I think it comes down to keeping a level playing field and keeping the game accessible. Random loot creates an even playing field between the people that want to spend time and the people that want to spend money, and it keeps our store simple for everybody. It means no one is directly buying power, and invariably you will try out kits and weapons that may not be exactly what you were after, but turn out to be really good.
GON: Have you any plans to introduce more packs to the store? For example a ‘Sniper pack’ that gets you a randomised series of items, but ones designed to be useful for sniper-type players?
Preston: We are introducing new packs, but not any focused around a specific play style.
GON: Have you considered a Left 4 Dead style mode, where four players play as the constantly re-spawning enemies, and another four play as the N7 team? That would be amazing.
Preston: Right now we are focused on trying to provide an interesting co-op experience. The way our game is set up makes playing as enemies harder, and it also forces a whole new world of balance that the game is not built to handle currently.
GON: What’s it like working on a multiplayer mode that spans across three platforms with constant updates to all of them? What difficulties do you face balancing for all the platforms, and how does it affect PC players over 360 players for example when you make weapon changes?
Preston: Actually, we have a really great set of systems for making sure things are consistent across all of our platforms. We have weekly balance meetings that determine what types of issues we need to address. Changes are pushed out to all of the platforms at once through a single process.
GON: Despite all the updates, ME3′s netcode still seems to suffer the occasional problem with guns and powers not working, forcing reconnects or restarts. Can you tell us what changes you’ve got planned in future for working on issues like this and what some of the biggest challenges have been?
Preston: We’re always on the lookout for new issues, as well as the resurfacing of old issues we thought were fixed. As with any complex system, the real bugs are not found until vast numbers of people start using the product in ways we didn’t expect. Patches are very expensive, and we always need to evaluate the current state of the game versus the cost of doing another patch.
GON: During heated moments, the use of a ‘one button fits all’ system for resurrecting fallen comrades, running, AND taking cover can result in a few choice swear words when you end up repeatedly hugging the wall instead of helping out a friend, for example. Is there any scope in the future for splitting some of these functions across different inputs?
Preston: No, this would fundamentally change the way the game plays and split it from the single-player experience. However, we did learn a lot from the single-button interface that should make things better on future titles.
GON: Can you explain more about the formula used to determine points assigned for kills and assists? Sometimes it feels like headshots are worth more points for example, even if you’ve done most of the damage to an enemy and one of your friends headshots for the killing blow, they’ll get more points? Is this accurate?
Preston: Every enemy has a damage and assist budget, and a kill bonus. Doing damage takes a percentage of the particular damage budget, with a kill bonus going to the person that finishes the enemy off. This allows us to reward players for helping one another and give a satisfying bump to the person killing the enemy.
GON: Are there any plans to increase competitive functionality with an eye towards making the mode a viable eSport? Should I quit my day job and go pro? (Probably not, looking at my scores)
Preston: We’re very interested in enabling the community to do better and more interesting things with the game, such as running tournaments or even e-sports, but we’re still investigating the best way to do this.