Game Boy

    The grad behind the success of megahit video game Mass Effect

    By Ileiren Poon on September 1, 2010

    A grad combines real life and virtual reality to Mass Effect

    If you’re going to invent a brand new universe, it helps to have a handle on how this one works. Casey Hudson’s curiosity about how the universe works led him to a degree in mechanical engineering and from there to building worlds with video game giant BioWare.

    Hudson, ’98 BSc(Eng), is being honoured at this year’s Alumni Recognition Awards with an Horizon Award, which celebrates the outstanding achievements of U of A alumni early in their careers. The last 12 years have seen Hudson move up in the Edmonton company from junior artist to executive producer of BioWare’s multi-award-winning Mass Effect game. In his time of creating vivid realities for games like the classic fantasy role-playing game Neverwinter Nights or the highly acclaimed Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic, Hudson drew on his engineering background.

    “That’s the great thing about making games — you’re trying to re-create the world,” he says. “By definition, that world you’re trying to create has everything that the real world has. It has moving vehicles, machines, computers and the physics and chemistry that are the basis for all of those things. The more you know about it, the more you can make it accurate or come up with ideas for how things work.”

    Hudson originally went into engineering because he was interested in aviation, and mechanical engineering was one of the degrees recommended for those who wanted to be military pilots.

    “But I was also always interested in art and music and computer programming,” he says. “So, when I was graduating I was exploring employment possibilities in each of these areas.”

    Developing relationships with shipmates is a key element of storytelling in the Mass Effect series.

    He heard about the then three-year-old BioWare as being a company, that, although new to the industry, was about to finish a highly anticipated game.

    “Ultimately,” says Hudson, “it came down to the fact that I was excited about a career in engineering, but I felt like I wouldn’t be able to use everything that I was interested in — all the skills that I had developed. Likewise with becoming a pilot — what do I do with my interests in music and art? So, when I thought about games — even though it felt like a more risky thing to go into — I just felt like there was more of an opportunity to do all of the things that I loved and apply all the things that I’d learned.”

    That combination of science, art and passion grabbed the attention of his bosses, BioWare founders Ray Muzyka, ’90 BSc(Med), ’92 MD, and Greg Zeschuk, ’90 BSc(Med), ’92 MD.

    “He’s absolutely brilliant. I learn from him in every interaction,” says Muzyka, about Hudson. “Casey is one of the people I’m most proud of working with. He has a spark. You can see that in some people, a spark of creativity, intelligence and passion. He takes a really great approach to creating games — a really scientific approach, but also a really qualitative and humanistic approach. He has a vision and then applies scientific and engineering principles to that vision.”

    That combination is important to a company like BioWare that emphasises the narrative quality of their games alongside technical innovation — something that had already piqued Hudson’s interest as someone who played computer games.

    “I was interested in games, but mostly I was interested in how they were done,” he says. “So, if I played a game that really had an impact on me, what I was most interested in was how they were able to make something that inspired my imagination and felt so real and so interesting, given that it’s ultimately a computer program, a piece of art.”

    But he also found himself drawn to games that packed an emotional wallop, like Planetfall, released in 1983 — one of the first games to incorporate elements of friendship and sacrifice into the narrative.

    “It’s like what you get in movies and books, but it’s different because you’ve interacted with something, and you feel like you’re responsible for the way things turned out,” says Hudson. “There’s a different kind of emotional engagement there that I’m always interested in recapturing.”

    The Mass Effect franchise has branched off into novels, comic books and an upcoming feature film.

    Another early game that caught his attention was Starflight, released in 1986. “On two little floppy disks, they basically created an entire galaxy that had hundreds of stars, and each star had planets, and each planet had its own ecosystems. The technical achievement of that, in 1986, was something I’ve always thought of as groundbreaking, and I’ve always looked for what the equivalent achievement would be in today’s technology.”

    There are few industries that change as quickly as the video game industry, with leaps in technology every year. But for Hudson, it’s all about finding better ways to tell that emotionally engaging story. In his time with BioWare, gamers have gone from 2D images and text-based conversations, to basically controlling a fully animated computer- generated movie.

    “Now you can make choices in a game where you really feel like you’ve reached out and touched someone — pushed them away or said something that hurt their feelings — and you can see it, not because of what they say they feel, but because you can actually just read their facial expression and feel a swell of empathy.

    “A good story is a good story, but we do get better at telling it. The medium itself does have a lot to do with it, and how well you use the medium.”

    The constant change in technology doesn’t worry Hudson. “There are challenges to it, but it’s exciting,” he says. “Change is part of this business. What we’re experienced at and trained for is coming up with an idea for our next product or our next line of products that has never been done before. Analysts will always say, ‘Oh, the industry is changing,’ like that’s a spectre for us to be afraid of, but really, the industry changing is the constant that we’re used to.”

    Hudson’s role in the video game industry is changing, too. With one game left to produce in the Mass Effect trilogy, he’s taken on the leadership role of executive producer of the franchise, which now includes novels, comic books and an upcoming live-action movie.

    “I think Mass Effect is doing this in a way that no one else is really doing. I guess you’d call it trans-media storytelling,” he says.

    As for his interest in aviation, Hudson did become a pilot and flies his own four-seater plane. Even that, however, gets incorporated into the worlds he’s building. He says flying a real plane helps him create the virtual experience, the motion, of ships moving through space. “That kind of experience,” he says, “is invaluable to anyone who wants to make video games.”

    For more information about the 2010 Alumni Recognition Awards and to secure your complimentary tickets, visit: www.ualberta.ca/alumni/recognition.