Mass Effect: Andromeda Ian Frazier Interview

The latest in GameSpot’s documentary series explores the story behind Mass Effect: Andromeda and its developer BioWare Montreal. As part of this video feature, we travelled to Boston and spoke to various members of the development team, ranging from studio executives and writers, to designers and creative directors.

While some of these interviews are featured in The Story of Mass Effect: Andromeda, a great deal of the interview material was unused. In light of this, we decided to publish each of the interviews in full and make them available to anyone interested in reading more about the development of the game.

The interview below features Ian Frazier, lead designer on Mass Effect: Andromeda. Further interviews are available through the links.

Mass Effect: Andromeda Interviews

GameSpot: So can we start with just an introduction, your name, what you do on Andromeda, and your history with the series?

Ian Frazier: Yeah. My name is Ian Frazier. I’m lead designer on Mass Effect Andromeda, based out of the Montreal studio, and I’m a huge fan of the series, been playing since the first one came out. It’s actually the only game series I’ve taken time off work to play after each one has come out, and it’s been really exciting for me to get to actually make one now.

Yeah, so can you talk a little about where you were when the first one came out and what it meant to you as a game? Cause we kind of like reflect on the impact of the first Mass Effect and it would be good to hear that from someone who now works on the franchise. So what did it mean to you and what do you think it brought to gaming?

When Mass Effect 1 came out, I was actually working at a company here in the Boston area, called Iron Lore Entertainment. I was working on a medieval or, not medieval, Greek fantasy game and the game came out, and I was already a big BioWare fan at the time, any new BioWare game I wanted to pick up, and it came out, I set some time aside, and said if this was half of what Knights of the Old Republic was I’m going to be very, very happy. It came out and it was just amazing to me, because it was a new universe, and even then, new IPs come by so rarely, and new IPs that are compelling like that, it just never happens. So finding this new universe and all these different alien races, and the interesting mixture of RPG elements and more shooter elements they’d combined, it was unique, it was new. I found it really compelling.

So for my perspective, I was quite a console gamer at the time and I missed a lot of PC games, both in BioWare’s legacy and generally a lot of PC games by and large. So when I played Mass Effect it was the scale of it that really overwhelmed me. That was the kind of thing that was exclusive to MMOs at the time, that was the kind of thing that Blizzard did, so having that on a console was what blew my mind. Is that something you felt as well?

The scale was definitely impressive. Not just the physical scale, the amount of places you could go, although, yes, that was cool too, but the sense of like, no this is a whole galaxy you can actually explore that has been around a while. You have an important part to play, but this universe exists without you. It has its own history and characters have a thing going on, and I liked that even, if you remember the intro to Mass Effect 1, at the beginning, you’re a big deal in your own right, but you’re not the grand high king of everything. You were second. Someone else is captain of the ship. I thought that was really cool.

Pictured: Ian Frazier
Pictured: Ian Frazier

And then Mass Effect 2, kind of similarly, where were you at the time when that came out, and what were your feelings on it?

When Mass Effect 2 came out, I was actually working at a different studio down in the Baltimore area, and when it first came out, I had very mixed feelings actually. I started playing it, and it was like, oh they’ve changed a lot, and it shifted more toward action in a lot of ways, and I think for the first maybe five hours of the game, I was like, I don’t know, what have they done with my Mass Effect. But as I got deeper into it and really fell into love with the characters, actually, this is awesome. I thought that they took some elements that weren’t working very well in the first one, and they said we don’t have the time to take all these and make them amazing, so we’re going to remove some of these elements and what’s left is going to be outstanding.

So I loved the focus of Mass Effect 2, the character-driven focus of Mass Effect 2, the gameplay obviously improved tremendously, I think all the ideas of conflict and romance went up a whole level in Mass Effect 2, and they took characters and they really expanded them. Like in Mass Effect 1, Garas was cool, Tali was cool, but Mass Effect 2, they really come into their own and they become what we now think of as those characters. Just very memorable. And the suicide mission, the whole, spoilers, the whole setup of Mass Effect 2 and all these choices that factor in in a very meaningful way to your final mission, I thought was really cool.

And Mass Effect 3, what was your opinion of that game? Cause I’m one of the people that really loves it and I’m one of the people that, for example, doesn’t take any umbrage with the ending at all, like I remember the characters, the moments I had with them, and the kind of broader narrative and the way it kind of all shook out at the end wasn’t important to me. But as a fan, that someone on the outside and who was working on the game at the time, what were your responses to it and how did you feel with what BioWare achieved at the end of Mass Effect 3 and overall?

Mass Effect 3, I think I was still in Baltimore when that came out. It was really exciting to me because it took all those threads that had been going for closing in on a decade, and you knew those were going to finally come together, so seeing the payout of all those choices over all that time was amazing to me, because it had just never been done before. The entire trilogy where you were playing the same character, with all these continuous elements, so I was just extremely excited to see how it would pan out.

I think the gameplay, it’s funny, when I kind of stop, before working on this game, I’d stop and I’d go, oh, Mass Effect 3 gameplay was about the same as Mass Effect 2. It really isn’t. I played a lot of all three of them while working on Mass Effect: Andromeda, and you compare them side to side, Mass Effect 3 did a lot to improve the core gameplay, and then of course they did multiplayer which, I am an old school single-player RPG guy, that’s very much where I come from, I’m not much of a multiplayer gamer as a rule and saw Mass Effect 3 multiplayer and I was like, all right, okay fine, because it’s got Krogan I’ll try it. I’ll just try it a bit. And I just fell in love with it. It’s the only game that’s like that that I’ve gotten personally really invested into. I’ve spent far too much money on Mass Effect 3 before working on Mass Effect: Andromeda, and just had a great time with it with some friends, several of whom actually came over to the studio and ended up working on Andromeda with me. It was really compelling.

As far as the story panning out, I think I got the ending that I wanted, but there were some loose ends that I really wanted to get tied off and then conveniently, they did the extended cut ending, and then I went back and replayed the ending, and I was much happier after I had that whole experience. And then Leviathan, the DLCs, it filled in a lot of the different bits, and the timing was good because the Citadel DLC came out, which I think of as the real ending, it’s chronologically in the middle, but emotionally, as a catharsis, it’s very much for me the ending of the trilogy. That came out and I interviewed for this job the next week. So it was this really nice transition between really feeling Mass Effect had come to its close, and now we’re ready to start a new chapter, and oh, I get to do that. That’s cool.

So coming on to work on Andromeda, that first day, how were you feeling? Was it like really anxious, or really, really excited?

A little bit anxious. Honestly, I’ve been there four years now and it’s still, the inner fanboy, you see my hoodie here, is very much present. You talk to a lot of people that have been around for 10 years, for 20 years even with Bioware. The guy that hired me in Montreal, Dean Anderson, he actually was art director of the original Dragon Age, he worked on Baldur’s Gate 1 and 2. In fact, we had our first Christmas party, not too long after I had started, and I met his wife. I was like, she’s very familiar, why is she so familiar? His wife was the basis of Imoen, the character Imoen in Baldur’s Gate 1 and 2. They actually used her as the model for the face in the first game and you just have lots of these moments where as a long-term BioWare fan, it’s a little surreal.

I still fanboy out pretty often. It’s great working with great people, just like any other studio with really good people, but BioWare for me has always been something special. So being a part of that’s been really cool.

Did it ever dawn on you like, oh crap, the responsibility I have now, going from a fan to being a Mass Effect developer? Not only a Mass Effect developer, a developer working on a new era of Mass Effect, almost redefining it and finding a new future for it?

Sometimes it does dawn on me. It’s a big responsibility. And then I try really hard not to think about it. Sometimes I drink. And eventually you can get past it, and then completely forget. It’s great.

That’s pretty good. But as in like, you must be seeing fans, cause I know that for example, and they kind of come back to you, and be like “these are the people I’m working for and I really hope that I can meet their expectations.” Is that a thing that worries you, or fuels you?

It’s some of both. It’s always pressure and stress, as I think for all of us on the team, we wanted to make the best game we can, we want the fans on the trilogy to be excited, and to enjoy it, we want new players to have the experience that I had on Mass Effect 1, to come into and be like, this is amazing, this is unique. We want them to feel that. At the same time, because we’re trying to do something that is new, that is a new step in the universe, we can’t just cookie cutter stamp the trilogy, we have to find new elements that get people excited and get us excited. And it’s been interesting over the last few years, trying to peg that balance between the two, capturing perfectly the feeling of Mass Effect but not straight-up being the exact game you already played.

Coming to work at BioWare, were you afraid that maybe as a fan you’d kind of lose some of the magic of BioWare games because you’d discover the magician’s secret?

That was honestly my biggest reason to not take the job. Talking about it, I was like, well there’s different factors, different job opportunities, and that I’m going to spoil Mass Effect for myself. That was the biggest “Do I really want to do this?” The balance I’ve struck is that I have almost nothing to do with the Dragon Age franchise, and I am able to stay almost entirely in the dark. We have tons of people working on it in the studio, and they will try to share things with me and I won’t let them. So although I am hopefully spoiled on Mass Effect, I’m still able to experience my other BioWare love Dragon Age fresh every time one comes out.

How did you feel knowing that when you got there, okay I’m going to be working on the new Mass Effect? How did you feel about returning to Mass Effect? Cause outsiders and us fans were like, oh, they’re going back to Mass Effect? It’s easy to see what you could do now, but the worry is, there’s such a legacy there and it’s almost perfect, why would you risk that again, come back to it?

It’s fair enough. When I initially got the call, it was “Hey, would you be interested in being a lead designer on Mass Effect?” And of course I thought they were joking. Partially cause it was me, but also partially because the franchise, as you say, it was ended, it was this nice, solid thing. I was surprised that they were going to do another one at least in this timeframe. So when I interviewed, I talked to them a lot about the narrative premise of the game, what was the setup, what were we going to do?

It was interesting, because they were actually looked at, right before I got there, several different possible setups for the game, and it was solidifying right around when I interviewed. As soon as I realized what we were now doing as the setup, it was like okay, this is definitely a way to let us have something that feels like Mass Effect, is Mass Effect, has lots of carry over, but doesn’t require us to handle the 50 billion choices you may have made over the trilogy. So it can be new, but also carry over the old. Okay, I could see that working, I’ll do that.

Okay. Obviously you’ve got a long history in working in RPGs and stuff like Kingdoms of Amalur and that kind of stuff. What did you bring from that to Mass Effect Andromeda that kind of re-energizes the franchise and what is it about Andromeda that kind of distinguishes it from the previous games?

So there was a couple from previous games that not directly, but in various forms we’ve tried to bring over. Cause it’s not just me, it was a few of us from previous studies I’ve worked at. One big one you’ll see is a sense of freedom in the game. I think Mass Effect 1, you had a fair amount of that, of different places you could go, and it tapered off a bit over the trilogy. Because narratively, the world’s coming to an end, the reapers are coming, again, spoilers. So there wasn’t as much you could do as far as going out to explore.

We no longer have that problem. With the new story and the new location we’re able to open it up, and so looking at the last few games I’ve worked on, we’ve tried to focus a lot on exploration, on options for the player character. One of the big things for me with Reckoning was letting the player build whatever kind of character they wanted to. And we looked at Mass Effect and went, well, why not do that in Mass Effect? Why not let players, instead of just having that class choice in the beginning, you’re going to be a Sentinel for 60 hours or whatever, just say, no, you’re going to get to decide a thing and then morph and change and expand that over the course of the experience, and it ended up fitting really, really well.

In terms of the changes to the systems and that kind of stuff, were you ever worried that … You’ve got a fan base that is very, very attached to what they have, and doing things like shifting, it feels like more a shooter now than ever, and the big question we have or we see is, does this mean the RPG stuff is gone? Is that what’s going on here? People are reluctant to change, more so in the Mass Effect fan base than anywhere else. Was there ever a worry that, oh man, we’ve got this weird jump movement, everyone’s going to freak out when they see that.

It’s always a worry. You’re always kind of threading a needle with this stuff. It’s interesting. With aspects of game design, you do have these spectrums of like, how much is it an RPG versus how much is it an action game. If you go fullblown turn-based, you are obviously not an action game. Done. There’s this clearcut separation. With other aspects of the game’s design, it’s really not either or. You can kind of handle those things as separate vectors. And that’s what we’ve tried to do with Andromeda.

So on one hand, I think we are, as you say, more of a shooter, more of an action game than any of the previous Mass Effect games. We’ve tried to do more with your moment to moment before, with the jump, with locomotion in general, how you get around the world, with some of the gunplay, and the powers and the way you intermix them. In that way, it is more of a shooter’s shooter than it used to be. At the same time, we looked at a lot of what Mass Effect 1 wanted to do and wasn’t able to do. Mass Effect 1 was supposed to have crafting. It got mods, but they were never able to do crafting with the time they had to make the game. So we looked at things like that, like upgrading the Mako was something they wanted to do with Mass Effect 1, and we went, well, that would be pretty cool.

So it took several of those RPG elements that the trilogy never did before, and we’ve amped those as well. So rather than just having the tug of war between action and RPG, we tried to bolster both.

The guys that we spoke to yesterday mentioned similar things like bringing about things like that they attempted but were never capable of doing. What’s it like to be the people that are trying to realize the original vision for Mass Effect? What’s it like to be those people and be around the people that are watching it happen again, like Mike Walters and Mike Gamble and that kind of stuff?

It’s really interesting, because I worked on games before coming here, and what I see from a lot of the folks that have been around for the trilogy is kind of how I have been on previous games. As a creator, you get really hung up on certain things that work, certain things that don’t work, and you have a very different perspective, that authorial perspective, than the player at the end of the day. For myself, and some of the other people new to the team, new to the brand, we come in and see something like interrupts. If you remember the interrupts in Mass Effect 2 and 3, I loved them to death, a lot of my fellows who’ve joined the team love to death. A lot of the developers are like, oh, you know, this one we didn’t telegraph well enough, and that one was a pain in the butt to implement, and this, this and the other thing, so there was a lot of a feeling within the team of the folks that had been around a while of, well, I don’t know about doing those again.

And then folks like me come in and we’re like, well, yeah we’re doing those, you’re not going to get rid of that. So there’s been a lot of that. The perspective of a developer who’s suffered the pains of implementing a thing, but then the perspective of a fan who’s like, nope, that thing is awesome, that is worth keeping. And it’s been cool having that tension. Cause we learn from the folks who’ve learned what does and doesn’t work, but at the same time we bring some of that fan enthusiasm to the table.

Okay, so you can you talk a little bit about the mood in the studio, having this new team? Cause that’s one of the things that I imagine a lot of the fans are kind of anxious about, having a brand new team. Of course, from one perspective, it’s like brand-new team, brand-new ideas. But what’s it been like to have this makeup of veterans and new blood working together?

It’s been interesting, and it’s evolved over the course of development. This is actually the first BioWare game that was fully built across three different studios. We had Edmonton, Montreal and then even Austin joined later in development. Each successive wave of developers joining have been a different sort of culture and a shift in the feel in the floor. I think Montreal, we have a lot of new people, there are a lot of folks who are either new to the franchise or new to BioWare altogether. It’s generally a bit more frenetic on the floor, Edmonton is a bit more solid and stable, a little bit quieter. At least earlier in development that was the case. And then things started to calm in Montreal, and then you got the Austin folks on, and they’re the folks that are the more frenetic and passionate and energized, and you get this constant kind of loop that goes back to Edmonton and works it way back to the studios again. Successive waves of passion moving through the team.

It’s been cool, cause as we sort of gradually formed from three studios doing their own thing into one cohesive team building the game, we’ve gradually, those waves have stopped and it’s become sort of one group.

And like we mentioned earlier, we were talking to Yannick yesterday, and he was, he got the opportunity to found the studio, and has been populating it with developers that kind of stuff, and for him, this game is almost like his statement for the studio, a kind of transition from working on different projects to being like, we are the guys that now define Mass Effect. Have you been thinking about that? How does that weigh on you as a studio and a developer working within it, having that responsibility?

Absolutely. I think a lot of us, when we were hired four or five years ago, that was the talk of the times. Okay, we’ve done Omega, we’ve done some support for ME2, ME3, and we’re staffing up, we’re going to become the Mass Effect studio, the home for the franchise. That was in and of itself extremely compelling and terrifying. It’s like, Okay, how can we do that? So I think this whole project it’s never been just let’s get this game out the door, it’s always been, let’s lay a foundation that we can build on. We’re going to own the franchise now, we’re going to take this forward. So it’s been a terrifying responsibility, but at the same time exciting. It’s not a one-off, we’re building a future for sci-fi, which is weirdly cyclical.

Obviously, Mass Effect is a game about a bunch of races trying to find a new home and exploring unfamiliar territory, new responsibilities and pressures, it’s kind of like your story as well now. Is that something that you’ve thought about, the theme between you as a studio, BioWare, and the game, what’s happening in there?

Not deliberately in our design, but it really comes up as a joke sometimes. We had at one point, I can’t even remember what it was, but something that we were bickering and arguing, debating over how we were going to do something with the design of the game, and then a bunch of the same people who had been in that discussion sat down the next day, and we reviewed a mission from the game, or a piece of content from the game, where all of the people leading the nexus for the initiative are bickering and arguing over how, what the right way forward for the settlers is, and we’re like, oh, yeah, maybe we should get on the same page. Okay.

What do you think has been the biggest challenge for you in starting fresh and cutting ties to the Milky Way and Shepard and that kind of stuff? It’s easy to see why you did it, but what are the challenges that have arisen because of it?

I think the biggest challenge is just knowing how much to bring over. You want it to feel like Mass Effect, but at a certain point, its’ like, you have 48 guns in the game, and every single one of them is something you’ve seen before. Well everyone’s going to be disappointed. At the same time, you need to bring over a certain amount of the races from the trilogy or it doesn’t feel like Mass Effect. But I don’t think anybody would be happy if we came here and it was like, yep, here’s all the races you already know, there’s nobody living in Andromeda, it’s empty. Just going to settle on that rock and call it a day. So yeah, but you never have infinite time, money, budget, whatever is so … We can’t do all of everything and trying to hit that balance of how much to do of each has been a recurring challenge over development.

As a fan, if I was in your position and working on this game brand-new, I’d be like, damn I wish I could bring over Rex, or something like that, or bring over a character that I love. How hard has it been resisting that, and have you tried to do that?

We do actually have some references in the game to stuff from the trilogy. You’ll play it, you’ll see what we’ve got there. Obviously, though, we can’t have Rex, cause Rex was doing stuff in Mass Effect 3, if he was alive, so we can’t … And the whole question of if he’s alive or not is a thing we didn’t want to deal with. So couldn’t do that. I think what’s been exciting for us is that, we look at the game, we’re like, oh you know what, we’d really like to bring in Kasumi, and we can’t, and that’s sad, but we go, well why are we sad? We’re sad because Kasumi was able to be built up into this amazing character over a span of time. We get to do that. We get to make new characters that other people are going to be attached to in hopefully much the same way as they were Kasumi and Rex and Liara and so forth. And that’s compelling.

That’s an interesting thing. The first Mass Effect came out, and you had these characters that you liked, but as you said, Mass Effect 2 is when they turned into the characters that we know and love, and then Mass Effect 3 is where all the payoff happened. So now the reputation for the Mass Effect series is, it gives you characters that you fall in love with. But people forget that there was that stage where you may not have loved them all that much, they had this …

Well you didn’t know them, right?

Exactly, you didn’t know them. But they’re coming to Andromeda wanting, expecting to love the character off the bat. How do you deal with knowing that we might need more time, we might need more than one game here to figure that stuff out?:

It certainly might end up being more than one game, but within this one, first we’ve done a lot more front loading. So if you think about Mass Effect 1, you didn’t have that much content with Garrus and Rex really in the game. By the end, you did. But early on, you didn’t really know that person. We’ve tried to have more relationship moments and stuff to do or things to say with our squadmates and crewmates and other characters pretty early, so you can get to know them more early on, get over that initial hurdle.

The other thing is that the game’s just bigger. I’m not allowed to say the total number, but it is large, how many hours we have to play. It is substantially larger than any previous Mass Effect game. So it’s kind of like you’re playing two or three Mass Effect games in one, in terms of stuff to do and play time. So just intrinsically you get a lot more time with these characters within just the one game. So I think people are going to be able to build pretty good attachments to our crew.

Reflecting on the series as a whole, do you have a particular moment that stands out to you as being specifically very memorable to you or personal to you that you come back to?

Oh yeah.

What is it and why?

Obviously there’s many. But for me the biggest one has always been, again with the spoilers, the very end of Mass Effect 1. You’ve defeated Sovereign, there’s the pile of rubble. Shepard, who basically never smiles in the game, very strait-laced, and I was paragon, so very straitlaced, by the book, no smile through the entire game, limping his way out of the rubble, and then just having that little bit of a grin as he’s made it out of the victorious … I’m getting chills right now recounting this to you. Just so good.

What do you want people to take away from Andromeda as a game? When they finish playing, what do you want them to think when they’re done?

Honestly, I want them to think the same thing you were getting at with your earlier question. I want to see more of these characters, can I do more with these characters, can I continue with these people? I want people to be hungry for more, whether it’s more of Ryder, or more the crew, the squad. If you come away with this, and you’re like, more, give me more, I need to see more of these characters, then I’ll be very happy.

Similarly, where would you like to see Mass Effect five years from now, ten years from now?

So many different options. One of the things about Andromeda is that because it’s a fresh start, we’re not really locked into a particular plot line or even a particular part of space, we can explore outward from the Helius cluster. I don’t want to tell you, because we might end up doing one of the things I have in my head.

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