Ray Muzyka’s Next Chapter

    Two careers aren’t enough for this MD-turned-game developer, a founder of BioWare. His latest project is an investment company with an eye to social good.

    By Omar Mouallem on May 12, 2014

    Ray Muzyka and Greg Zeschuk stepped onto the Princess Anne Theatre stage in London, England, to applause from 220 gaming professionals and students who had come for the British Academy of Film and Television Arts’ annual video games lecture. The topic was “Games as Art,” and who better to deliver it than the co-founders of BioWare?

    Through their upstart gaming company, the MDs-turned-game developers had helped revitalize the genre of computer role-playing games. They were among the first to show that video games could be artful — more than a grab for points, more than a battle for bragging rights, a wholly emotional experience. By the time Muzyka, ’90 BMedSc, ’92 MD, and Zeschuk, ’90 BMedSc, ’92 MD, stood onstage at the end of 2011, the BioWare brand had become one of the most beloved in the gaming industry. Not long after the lecture, its most highly anticipated title, Mass Effect 3, would sell 1.5 million units in a single month.

    So it might have come as a shock to audience members to know that “the Doctors,” as they were known in the industry, were having a change of heart about their careers.

    “Entrepreneurs can change the world in a meaningful way. They can dream and imagine, they can work at problems from different angles and they can create enduring change.”

    In a small, subtle exchange backstage as they waited for the auditorium to fill, Muzyka had turned to his best friend and business partner of 20 years. “You know,” he said, “I think this might be the last time we ever give a speech together while we’re still in the industry.” This was the first tacit understanding between them that they might each be considering retirement.

    The former University of Alberta med students had grown up parallel to the industry as it went from 16-bit cartridges to online stadiums. They had turned a gaming hobby into an industry-changing company bought up by the world’s fourth-largest gaming company, Electronic Arts, for more than half a billion dollars.

    Now, the effervescent Zeschuk, general manager of BioWare’s Austin, Texas, office and a vice-president for Electronic Arts, was losing interest in games and thinking about transferring his unbridled passion to, of all things, craft beer. Muzyka, senior vice-president and general manager of Electronic Arts’ BioWare label — spread across eight cities in three countries — was considering shifting his focus to impact investing. He wanted to put his good fortune toward for-profit social enterprise, working with socially responsible companies that would, in ways big and small, improve the world.

    New Endeavours

    “Corporations don’t have to be faceless entities driven purely by profit,” Muzyka says from his home office, his loafers resting on a leather ottoman, an espresso in his lap. “They can be driven by profit, but also aim for social goals at the same time.”

    Almost two years after the London lecture and just under a year since he and Zeschuk retired from BioWare, Muzyka’s new headquarters is a room in the basement of his south Edmonton home, plus a similar office in his second residence in Las Vegas.

    His workspace is now occupied by cat trees instead of office water coolers. No more programmers, designers and artists — just Muzyka and his wife, Leona De Boer, ’91 BSc(AgBus), a former commercial banker. She admits it was initially a little bit weird having him around the house all the time. “But it has worked out well,” she says. “We have this new endeavour to work on together.”

    The endeavour, Threshold Impact, is an investment company the couple created after Muzyka left BioWare to fund social enterprise startups that strive simultaneously for profit and social good. Muzyka is also partnering with the U of A to help develop a new program that supports entrepreneurial ventures by students and alumni, the University of Alberta Venture Mentoring Service. “Entrepreneurs can change the world in a meaningful way,” he says in his firm and measured manner. “They can dream and imagine, they can work at problems from different angles and they can create enduring change.”

    So, while his workspace has been scaled down, his dreams are anything but.

    From an early age, Muzyka showed incredible potential. His parents, both Edmonton public school teachers, instilled in him a love of learning. He did school work at home that was three grades ahead and completed the International Baccalaureate high school stream with the top mark in North America, fourth in the world. As a result, he could have skipped the first couple of years of pre-med in university. But he preferred to take the undergraduate degree to give him more free time before entering medicine.

    Muzyka’s interest in computers began in Grade 7 at Kenilworth School in Edmonton. One day after class, his math teacher, Carl Nishimura, ’63 BSc, ’65 BEd, ’71 Dip(Ed), ’72 MEd, said he wanted to show Muzyka something. Nishimura led him down the hall to a small lab where the school kept an Apple II computer. It looked like a TV atop some boxes atop a typewriter. Nishimura handed him a text adventure game on cassette tape drive. The first three times Muzyka tried loading it, the tape squealed and the screen flashed “ERROR!” but Nishimura told him to keep trying. Finally, it loaded. “I was instantly hooked,” Muzyka says.

    Years later, in 1992, Nishimura would read in a newspaper that Muzyka and two young medical students, Zeschuk and Augustine Yip, ’90 BMedSc, ’92 MD, had created a medical education software program (hence, the name BioWare) and sold it to the University of Alberta. It didn’t surprise him. “[Muzyka] caught on to things very quickly,” says the retired teacher, who predicted Muzyka would end up in the tech field. “I was more surprised to hear that he went into medicine.”

    The opposite is true for Muzyka. “I always wanted to be a doctor. It never occurred to me that I’d be doing something related to technology,” he says. “That was more a hobby.”

    He and Zeschuk didn’t know it then, but years of balancing eye-reddening hospital shifts during their residencies with a few stolen hours for game development was preparing them for the realities of entrepreneurship. “We were used to that lifestyle of working 100 hours a week. It was ingrained in the medical training, like boot camp. You did your call, and it’s just what you did. There was no time to reflect,” says Muzyka.

    Before and after hospital shifts, they’d burrow into Zeschuk’s basement to work on new software. As their coding and products got better, they incorporated a company for their inventions. “We didn’t put a lot of thought into it,” says Muzyka. “It didn’t occur to us that it would be hard or that we’d fail. We just did it.” They foresaw little impediment, other than capital. They needed enough to get their first game, Shattered Steel, a futuristic simulation on CD-ROM, to market. And the extra resources needed to build BioWare would no longer fit in a basement, so they each pitched in more than $100,000 to get the business off the ground.

    Yip exited BioWare early on, to practise medicine full time. Muzyka and Zeschuk both sustained dual careers because they enjoyed medicine, especially emergency medicine for Ray and geriatric care for Greg. Muzyka continued working as a general practitioner and filling in at emergency rooms in northern Alberta part time, usually on weekends, and dedicated the rest of his life to BioWare. Somehow, he and Zeschuk also both squeezed in executive MBAs at the Ivey School of Business at Western University (Muzyka, 2001) and Queen’s University in Ontario (Zeschuk, 2004). “It was like my career became my hobby,” Muzyka says.

    While Muzyka says his career changes have been largely “gut decisions,” he also prides himself on knowing when it’s time to make the leap and not look back. By 1998, when BioWare released Baldur’s Gate, which PC Gamer magazine called “every role-playing gamer’s dream,” Muzyka was beginning to realize he could no longer sustain dual careers. “I couldn’t give full-time medical practice the attention it was due.” He stopped practising entirely in 2001 during his MBA to focus fully on BioWare, though he continues to maintain his medical licence to this day.

    In many ways, Muzyka and Zeschuk were the general practitioners of BioWare. They knew enough about programming, story narrative and ludology (game studies) to help navigate each product to the shelf. Medicine also prepared Muzyka to cope with things that went wrong in the boardroom: as a doctor, he roved around northern Alberta hospitals — usually when the local doctor was on vacation — and dealt with matters both urgent and mundane. “Nothing fazes him,” says his wife, De Boer. “Unless our cats get sick. Then I have to take the lead.”

    De Boer met Muzyka in 1998. She was a senior banker with TD Waterhouse, in charge of a wide array of commercial accounts, which, thanks to Baldur’s Gate, now included BioWare. She remembers Muzyka then, as he is now, as exceptionally smart and very serious. Well over six feet tall, he has a broad frame, an analytical mind and a professional poker face. “He can be intimidating,” she says, “but I don’t think all people realize how incredibly soft-hearted he is.” Especially when it comes to both human social issues and environmental issues, including animal rights.

    Muzyka, a pescetarian, once stopped a BioWare employee from flushing loaches — earthworm-like fish — down the toilet. After saving them, he kept them alive in his office for 15 years, well past their normal lifespan of five years. He and De Boer have quietly supported various animal-related charities, including recently adopting a black rhino in Botswana, leading the purchase of 100 hectares of orangutan rainforest sanctuary in Borneo, and funding the development of the Sapphire & Webster Muzyka Cat Wing at the Edmonton Humane Society, named after two of their deceased cats. They also focus on philanthropy in health and education, and have donated repeatedly to multiple health and educational organizations over the years, including the Royal Alexandra Hospital, the Stollery Children’s Health Foundation, the University of Alberta and the Red Cross.

    Rise of ‘The Hive Brain’

    Zeschuk says although he and Muzyka are very different people, spending 20 years working together, often in the same room (“until two years ago, I spent more time with Ray than my wife”), has harmonized their characteristics. BioWare and other video game industry colleagues nicknamed the partners the Hive Brain because they’d often finish each other’s thoughts and sentences. In his retirement blog, Muzyka acknowledged the importance of this partnership in their success. “I could not imagine navigating the past two decades successfully without Greg’s wisdom and counsel, his keen insights and his ability to see problems from a completely different perspective,” he wrote.

    “They play well to each other,” says Aaryn Flynn, ’96 BSc(Hons), ’00 BSc(SpecCert), general manager in BioWare’s Edmonton studio, who took over Muzyka’s duties for Edmonton and Montreal after he retired.

    “At BioWare, I was helping the world in a different way, bringing people emotional engagement and happiness through story-based games. This new chapter is about trying to provide a different kind of support and help.”

    Flynn was hired at BioWare as a junior tools programmer a month before writing his finals for his U of A degree. He vividly remembers the job interview with Muzyka and Zeschuk and a couple of other seniors from the growing company. “Ray said something to me that has stuck ever since,” recalls Flynn. “He said, ‘You could do anything you want here. Everybody has this chance. And you can go as far as you want here.’ ”

    How true those words became when, later that year, BioWare got its biggest contract to that date. It came from LucasArts, the games division of the multibillion-dollar Star Wars empire. Impressed by the company’s two role-playing game franchises, Baldur’s Gate and Neverwinter Nights, LucasArts asked this upstart company, founded by three MDs in a snowy Canadian city, to create the next Star Wars game.

    But Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic was just the beginning. Critically acclaimed upon its 2003 release, it won Game of the Year from the Game Developers Choice Awards. In 2005, BioWare merged with Pandemic Studios, an independent developer in California, received significant private equity financing from Elevation Partners and released another success, Jade Empire. Then came its 2007 masterpiece, Mass Effect. Set in the year 2183, the game put the fate of the Milky Way, no less, in the hands of players, who took the role of Commander Shepard to protect all organic life from synthetic enemies. The New York Times named it Game of the Year. IGN, a gaming site with 40 million readers, declared it “a new high mark for storytelling in games.”

    That’s when Electronic Arts, the world’s fourth biggest game company, came calling, a dozen years after BioWare had launched its first game.

    The $860-million deal with Electronic Arts in 2008 took seven months to finalize. Muzyka and Zeschuk ensured that BioWare remained anchored in their hometown and that employees would have a chance to thrive. Indeed, they did. From 2007 to 2012, BioWare expanded into seven other cities: Montreal, Austin, Texas, Fairfax, Va., Sacramento, Calif., San Francisco, Los Angeles and Galway, Ireland.

    Muzyka stayed on as general manager and CEO of BioWare, overseeing its eight studio locations. At each one, he was responsible for spreading the creative and professional culture that he and Zeschuk had established at home. This was based, Muzyka says, on the “core values of quality in our products, quality in our workplace, entrepreneurship, in a context of humility and integrity.”

    Flynn was thankful for these values when he had to deliver the worst news of his career to Muzyka — that Mass Effect 3 would have to be delayed by several months past its December 2011 release date, missing the industry’s blockbuster season.

    “How come?” asked Muzyka.

    “The quality’s not there, Ray. Too many bugs and too much to do,” Flynn recalls saying.

    “Have we explored every option?” They had. Muzyka calmly asked that they sleep on it and decide on a plan the next day, which they did.

    Flynn was impressed by Muzyka’s response, but not surprised. “As a doctor, he’s had his hands in people. … You realize this isn’t life or death. At least you’re not dealing with someone’s eye hanging out.”

    “Humility,” reflects Muzyka, “is about admitting one’s mistakes and moving on.”

    ‘Just Strive’

    Muzyka has always been a self-directed learner. In addition to gaming, he has taught himself to play top-level poker in Vegas and to shoot near-professional photography. He can also wax poetic about a cigar and wine, its origin and its gastronomic notes. He doesn’t dabble in his passions; he obsesses. As long as he has time to master something, he will. That’s why he’s still putting off astronomy: not enough time to do it seriously.

    Travelling the world — from Botswana to Ecuador, Borneo to Antarctica, sometimes for weeks at a time — also became a passion for Muzyka and De Boer. Their travels helped bring Muzyka close to the many problems plaguing the planet, and he was searching for ways to make social change. His work at BioWare had started to feel a little routine. And for Muzyka, routine is antithetical to his belief in the Taoist philosophy of self-improvement. His goal, whether in joining medical school or launching a gaming company, is simple: strive to be better than he was the day before. “Don’t seek an outcome,” he says, “just strive.”

    The question, though, was strive toward what?

    “I was wondering, what am I passionate about? What am I most interested in?” He thought back to his Hippocratic oath, to the self-discovery made possible through his games, to the rush of his entrepreneurial days. The answer lay where all of these overlapped.

    Not long after the 2011 lecture in London, Muzyka got to work on his resignation letter and an even more important letter for his colleagues.

    “I feel similar now to how I felt in the early days of BioWare,” he wrote in his retirement blog. “While I was still practising as an ER physician, back when I first realized that the world of video games was my next career ‘chapter.’ ” This newest “third chapter” would be different and downright scary, he wrote, but it “stems from the simple hope of helping the world to be a better place.”

    Muzyka and Zeschuk would reunite once more before the game community, at the 2013 Game Developers Choice Awards in San Francisco, where they were honoured with lifetime achievement awards.

    By then, Zeschuk had launched his web series, The Beer Diaries. And Muzyka had found Threshold Impact’s first investment: NPO Zero, a for-profit venture that offers services such as marketing and accounting to non-profits so they can focus on their philanthropic efforts. Other Threshold Impact investments include the organic food delivery service SPUD.com (Sustainable Produce, Urban Delivery); Lenddo, a microfinancing organization operating in the developing world that helps people who are working to develop a new credit history and build banking relationships to leverage their social media reputations to obtain a loan; and Basis Science, which produces health-focused wearable technology. (In March, Intel acquired Basis for an undisclosed price.) Since October 2012, Muzyka has vetted some 200 startups through Threshold Impact. While he vets candidates for passion, humility, creativity, leadership and business and finance fundamentals, his wife, De Boer, looks primarily at the finances. “I tend to be more conservative in our investment approach,” she says.

    It’s too early to say what Threshold Impact will grow to be. Education, health care, social and animal rights, the environment, entrepreneurial mentorship, information technology and medical innovations are all interesting and important to Muzyka. For the moment, he is “data gathering,” as he has been known to call the step before deciding. He has also joined the investment team as a venture adviser at iNovia Capital, a North American venture capital firm that funds new technology, which along with his angel investing and mentorship with early-stage entrepreneurs has brought him closer to the guts and glory of entrepreneurship he has missed since leaving BioWare.

    The startup world today is a lot different from the one Muzyka and his partners entered in the early ’90s, when they had to max out their credit cards to get BioWare off the ground. Their first office was so rundown that they’d start the computers in a particular order every morning so as not to perturb the faulty electrical wiring. Today, even in a modest city like Edmonton, there is a community of venture capitalists, entrepreneurs, incubators and co-work spaces, and multiple organizations to help new companies.

    Muzyka is excited to be a part of this entrepreneurial “ecosystem.” He’s also excited to share his good fortune and experience with other entrepreneurs through the U of A’s Venture Mentoring Service, launched last fall. The VMS volunteer program pairs successful alumni of varied entrepreneurial backgrounds with alumni and students looking for guidance. Each fledgling entrepreneur is paired with several mentors to assist in pitching, fundraising, human resources, marketing, leadership or whatever daunting skill they’re lacking. As chair of the program, Muzyka helped select the first 15 entrepreneurs and the first 30 mentors — including, of course, Zeschuk.

    Ashlyn Bernier, ’06 BSc, ’11 PhD, ’13 MBA, manager of the Venture Mentoring Service, got to know Muzyka as they worked on the VMS pilot program. “Ray is surprisingly humble, considering his accomplishments,” Bernier says. “He’s going to be great as the champion of VMS.”

    The focus of the Venture Mentoring Service — which is based on a program at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology that has spawned some 40 incarnations around the world — is less on the company and more on the entrepreneur. It’s about building people. And that, in a way, includes Muzyka, in his ongoing quest for self-improvement.

    At just 45, Muzyka has had three careers: doctor, game developer and angel investor. Although each career is dramatically different, he can see how each chapter adds up to a single story — that “simple hope” of helping make the world a better place.

    “In health care, you’re administering medicine in a very personal way. At BioWare, I was helping the world in a different way, bringing people emotional engagement and happiness through story-based games. This new chapter is about trying to provide a different kind of support and help.”

    Will it be his last chapter? “I hope not,” he says. “There’s still room for one or two more.”