Worlds Untold Q&A – Ex Mass Effect Writer Gets NetEase Funding to Make a Sci-Fi Action/Adventure Game

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Today, NetEase announced it has funded Worlds Untold, a new game development studio led by Mac Walters, a BioWare veteran credited for his work as a writer on Jade Empire and the Mass Effect trilogy. More recently, Walters was Project Director on Mass Effect Legendary Edition before leaving the company.

Worlds Untold is a small but growing team already filled with other veterans, such as Audio Director Sotaro Tojima (Metal Gear Solid and HALO), Head of Production Elizabeth Lehtonen (Dragon Age, The Sims, and Angry Birds), Head of Art Ramil Sunga (Mass Effect Andromeda, Anthem, and the entire Dragon Age franchise), and Head of Technology Benjamin Goldstein (Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag, Assassin’s Creed Unity, For Honor).

The studio (which has a few career openings listed here) is looking to create a sci-fi action/adventure game. I’ve had the chance to speak for more than half an hour with Mac Walters on the partnership with NetEase, the studio’s philosophy, the overarching vision for this new project, and the impact that technologies like AI are going to have on the industry. You’ll find the edited conversation below.

‘I’ve done RPGs and I love them, but I wanted to do something that led with story. I liked the idea of something more linear’.

Mac, tell me how you got in touch with NetEase and why you chose them to found Worlds Untold.

I was just looking for what my next adventure would be, quite frankly. I had met with a lot of different people in the industry. I knew that whatever I was going to do next, it needed to be something for me that I was going to commit to for a long time.

I’ve been previously with BioWare for 19 years. That’s kind of what I want to do; I want to find a partner who I really enjoy making amazing games with and then stick with them.

I took my time and ultimately, I had a couple of calls with NetEase. I think the thing that really impressed me about our conversations, there were a couple of things.

One, they were very honest and humble about their expansion into North America and the West, what they knew and what they didn’t know and how much they wanted to look to creatives and producers like myself to bring our experience to bear in that front.

The second thing was that they had great infrastructure in place for starting up a studio, which was a big thing for me because I have been an entrepreneur in the past, I don’t shy away from all the starting up a business thing. But when you’re doing that and trying to build a team and you’re trying to build a new IP and you want to make an amazing game, all of that can start to compete with each other.

So, knowing that you have a partner who can, work with you to help build up the business side of things is crucial. That’s kind of how that process went. It’s been a wonderful partnership so far.

I read here that Worlds Untold will have a headquarters in Vancouver, but you’re also hiring remotely. Is that kind of a hybrid workplace that you have in mind?

Great question. Right now, we’re fully remote. A few of us who are in Vancouver will get together every once in a while, on a weekly basis or something like that in a work shared space to get together. But ultimately, the team is designed to function as a fully remote studio as we scale. We’ll look at what that looks like if we shift to hybrid, but our intention is to stay remote as long as possible.

I think that’s really where we’re seeing the industry trending towards in some ways, but also it affords us the ability to find the right people regardless of where they’re situated. And then not putting the onus on them to join us in a specific location.

I think this is especially meaningful nowadays with all these companies also doing layoffs. Thanks to all the remote work available, they can land on their feet right away without having to upset their whole lives.

For sure. I think there’s a different access to talent when you’re open to remote. But I think it also just speaks to the changing nature of expectations among game developers. They don’t necessarily want to have to uproot their entire lives just to join a really great project.

And, unfortunately, sometimes you get in that situation where it’s like, I love this project. It sounds great. But do I really want to move my kids and my family across the country or to another country?

Absolutely. The press release mentions World Untold already having quite a number of industry veterans. Did you know them from before and pick them personally?

I’d say for the sort of core founding group that we have, they’re certainly handpicked, but actually one of the key principles and I guess philosophies with the studio that I wanted to ingrain from the get-go was I didn’t want to just do the same thing that’s always been done, which meant I wanted to work with people I hadn’t worked with before.

Specifically, I wanted to work with people who had various experiences and could help me grow and learn things. When I started looking for that group, yes, there were some people I knew and some people who rose to the top, but I was also looking for folks who could really bring something to the table that I can’t bring to the table.

I want to build a team that doesn’t just resemble copycats of me. I want to bring in people who can really amplify my ability to do my job and help me grow and vice versa, I can do the same with them so well.

As for the core founding group, I did really put an emphasis on trying to find people with unique perspectives and backgrounds and experiences.

Do you plan to stay in an oversight role or are you going to be hands-on as a writer and/or director on the first game?

Yeah, great question. I think two things on that. Obviously, it’s a franchise that I’ve created, so there’s no way I’m not going to be hands-on.

But even from just the philosophy, we are building a studio of a single project, a single game. Everyone who comes on board, no matter what level they are, whether they’re a founder or a new grad hires, the expectation is you’re working on the project, period, obviously to different degrees.

For myself, I’m going to be heavily involved in the creative direction of the project as well. It’s about striking that right balance. You are still building out a studio and so you have to give that attention, but we’ve hired some fantastic people on the studio side who can really make that their focus.

Well, I can give attention to making sure that we have the right people and that we are building the game that we all want to build.

Do you have a studio size in mind for Worlds Untold?

It’s interesting. The goal is to certainly build a AAA quality product. But I think, when I talk about looking at new ways of doing things, that’s one of the things that we really want to examine. We don’t want to scale up to this massive size studio that becomes very untenable.

We really enjoy our agility right now. We enjoy the fact that we are tight-knit and a little bit scrappy. Of course, we’re gonna scale, but we’re gonna look at opportunities to partner with other people in other groups and teams to really help us in that scaling so that we don’t suddenly balloon to a huge size. That said, I imagine that at peak if you look at all the people everywhere, partners or otherwise internal, it’s gonna be a team size probably of 250 up upwards.

As we include other groups like publishing or QA, it’ll grow from there. But the idea is to keep the internal team size as small as possible. So definitely like less than half of that.

‘The game is science fiction, but we are looking more at the near future. And I can say it’s not going to be a space opera’.

You’ve briefly mentioned the first project in the press release. You’ve said it’s going to be an action-adventure game. Since you’ve been known mainly for RPGS, why this switch? Were you a bit tired of making roleplaying games or did you just find a greater opportunity in this genre?

It’s a good question. In the industry in general, we’ve really been seeing a merge between RPG and action adventure. There’s the whole ARPG genre now, which is probably one of the biggest markets out there. They really lend and borrow a lot from each other.

But I think ultimately what it came down to was a little bit of…. I’ve done RPGs and I love them, but I wanted to do something that led with story. It’s an action RPG but with a lot of story and as much as we were always able to blend that into the RPG choose-your-own-adventure style, I really like the idea of telling something that’s perhaps a little bit more linear. It looks at choice and consequence and things like that but in a different light.

I was also looking at some of the games that I had enjoyed recently, whether it was The Last of Us,  Uncharted, or Tomb Raider that I get kind of get swept away in. I really wanted to focus on building a game that allowed me to tell a great adventure story.

You mentioned linearity. Is the game world going to be fairly linear, too, or will it still be open world?

It’s a bit early to start talking about that. I can give you some context of where we are. We’re in the sort of concept design phase moving into prototyping. A lot of those questions about exactly where we want to go from a linearity perspective, from a world size perspective, those are all things that are still on the table and being evaluated at this point.

We want to tell incredibly immersive stories in these interactive environments and we’re going to let that be the litmus for determining what’s the best game cell to do that in.

Can you discuss whether the first game you’re making at World Untold will be single player or multiplayer?

I’m focused primarily on single player, but I am open to looking at other social avenues. How do we bring other people along in your story? I think that’s an interesting question. Again, that’s one of those questions that’s open for us to discover in the next few months coming up. But our focus will be on the single player experience.

Fair enough. I’ve been told that you’re a lot into themes like space and exploration, which is unsurprising given your work on Mass Effect. How does that inform this new project?

I’m inspired by science fiction. I’m inspired by space. In fact, a lot of the inspiration for the Worlds Untold name, but also our sort of statement of creating worlds that we dream of discovering comes from me as a kid looking up at my poster of the solar system as a kid and just wondering what’s around those worlds.

But I think it’s important from a studio perspective to look at it differently. A world to me could be a modern-day crime caper, right? The key is that we’re building more than just a story, we’re building a world in which you could tell 1000 stories in. That is our focus whenever we look at what we’re going to create. I guess what I can say about this game specifically is that it is science fiction, but we are looking more at the near future. And I can say it’s not going to be a space opera.

I loved working on space operas in the past. I grew up on that, you know, with Star Wars, but I want to try something a little bit different. The other thing I could say about it is it’s definitely not like anything I’ve made before.

Would it be fitting to call it grounded sci-fi then?

Yeah, I think grounded is more in line with what we’re looking at. But again, that’s a lot of what we’re discovering right now with the team.

Okay. The press release also mentioned that your goal at Worlds Untold is to create IPs that can span multiple games and even mediums. Does that mean you’re already interested in adaptations into novels, TV, etc.?

100%, we are. When I talk about creating worlds where you can tell limitless stories in, I think that’s part of it, too. We don’t want to also limit the medium in which we’re going to tell those stories.

We want to have opportunities to tell stories through comics, through books, through TV, or film. Our focus primarily is, let’s build the sort of origin story in our game. But from there, we want to create enough mystery and enough endless horizon and possibility in the world that we’re creating that there’s so many leaping off points that you could take into another genre or into another medium.

I think that’s important for us because it helps inform a lot of the worldbuilding work that we’re doing right now. Not to say that we are necessarily carving out specific areas of the world for film or for books. But what it does do is it prevents us from cutting ourselves off from that in the future.

And a lot of times what it lets us do is actually sort of put a pin in something and say, wow, that’s fantastic. I love this idea, but maybe not for the first game, maybe we put it somewhere else and then we can kind of put it aside. It actually works really well for us as we’re doing our worldbuilding to allow the freeform flow of ideas and not let us get bogged down.

We can stay very focused on what we’re trying to deliver now but recognize that yes, this world is growing even as we’re discussing it and there’s so many opportunities that we can then explore in the future.

You’ll need to write a lot of lore for this thing, right?

Yeah, 100%. I love lore, even the lore that doesn’t necessarily end up in the game. That’s part of the process we went through. I was working with a team of writers in July and a lot of that was lore development, right?

Like, let’s build out the world. Even if these are things that don’t eventually end up in the game, it helps the developers understand the context for things, it helps the designers and the artists understand why something matters or how it all fits together. It also almost always leads to more interesting stories or story moments and things that we want to add in later.

A huge part of the worldbuilding process is looking at all of the deep lore that goes back, but then also how we want to expand it out going forward.

One of the many great things about Mass Effect was its in-game encyclopedia that allowed users to inform themselves of the sci-fi universe you had created at BioWare. Would something like that be feasible for your game?

As a generic statement, I would say it’s important if you’re going to have that much lore in the game that you allow the player to feel like they have access to it throughout and not just that they read it once and now they have to move on. Those would be the kind of things that we’re exploring.

I would say, from my perspective, I’d love to do that in a more diegetic way where it doesn’t feel like the game’s telling you that, but more where it’s like something in-world. If we can accomplish that and figure out a way to do that, I think that’s totally on the table.

Something else that caught my eye from the Worlds Untold announcement press release is where you mentioned that NetEase shares your vision to utilize leading-edge technology to create games. What were you referring to?

I think what we’ve seen recently in general is a sort of democratization of a lot of technology, especially around some of the key engines like Unreal and Unity, where everyone has access to this and they’re advancing it even on their own. Individuals throughout the world are pushing things forward that are making using these engines either easier or they’re creating content or plug-ins for it.

NetEase has been a great part of connecting us with those people who may have already been doing some amazing work somewhere so that we don’t have to go reinventing the wheel that someone’s already done.

That’s first and foremost, but also it gets back to our general philosophy at the studio, which is we are going to hire extremely talented people, but we can’t know everything and we can’t be experts in everything. So, where are those experts? Can we get connected to them? Can we go out there and find them and can we partner with them and let them bring their skill and expertise and their passion around whatever it is that they’re working on and bring them into the Worlds Untold production process for what we’re trying to do?

That sort of perspective will really help us get farther with a smaller team because we don’t have to build up an entire R&D department just to figure out this one thing. There’s other people who are already working on this and they’re already doing amazing work on it, so why don’t we work with them instead and leverage that amazing work?

Last week, Xbox came out with an announcement that they are partnering with Inworld AI. They are going to make an AI toolset that includes a character runtime engine that can be integrated into the client to enable new narratives thanks to dynamically generated stories, quests, and dialogue. Since you’re a writer and you’ve worked on RPGs before, what’s your take on this?

If you go back, I’m a huge fan of AI, whether it’s telling stories or whether it’s the actual science of what’s going on. In fact, I’ve got an interesting story. I think it was about four years ago, after Mass Effect Andromeda. I was working a lot with this AI group back in Alberta, and I got invited to speak at a conference.

It was mostly AI scientists. Of course, I’m not an AI scientist, so what I brought to the table was a speculative version of the future. I researched and worked with them and said, here are some of the really interesting things that are happening in AI at the time. And then I said, what if? That was my presentation, painting a picture of the future.

The thing that was interesting about that, especially in hindsight, is that it was obviously a very ambitious view of the future. After the talk was over, a lot of those researchers and scientists came up and said they really liked the talk. They thought it was fun, but they were all like, that’s not gonna happen in our lifetime.

AI is good, but it’s not that good. Interestingly, AI conferences that I’ve attended this year have already in some ways surpassed some of the things I was talking about four years ago as a speculative venture. A couple of things that I take away from that. One, it’s an incredible tool and technology, it fascinates me as somebody who’s always been fascinated by that realm, both from ‘what’s gonna change in our world?’ to ‘how does it impact storytelling’?

There’s a really interesting conundrum. I could create an interesting story that maybe involves AI in it today as part of the story line, and in four years, that might be old news, it won’t be fun to talk about anymore. How do we even handle that from a fictional standpoint? I don’t know.

As far as what’s available, I think you have to just realize things are changing and shifting so fast. At the very least, you have to be aware of what’s out there and what’s available but also understand that, in two years, the thing that you think is incredible now, there might be something even more important out there. You kind of have to stay agile and be able to work with the tools that you have available today and then be open to any new tools that come in the future.

Getting back to the project, did you settle on an engine for your work at Worlds Untold?

Yes, we are using Unreal Engine 5. We did a bit of exploration before we landed on that. But ultimately, for the type of game that we’re trying to make, AAA, very cinematic where characters are important, where the world itself needs to be almost a character, a place that you really feel like you can be immersed in, and for all the reasons I said before about there being so many partners and people already working with that engine, it just made sense.

I believe you’re also familiar with the previous iterations of Unreal Engine since Mass Effect was made with UE3, correct? 

Yeah. And we just got to resurrect it for the Legendary Edition a few years ago, which was a lot of fun. It’s very interesting to see how far the engine has come since then.

Some of the other projects that NetEase has invested in, especially the multiplayer ones, are going to have early access and testing phases and whatnot, but I think that’s not going to be the case in your game, right? You’re probably going for a more traditional premium release where everyone can play at the same time.

We’ve got some exploration to do with the model. I think when I say we want to think about things differently and change the perspective on things, that is certainly the traditional model for a single player title. But I’m open to exploring what other models might be available, come a few years down the road when we’re getting ready to ship. But at this point, I would say that’s a good de facto assumption.

With triple-A development time getting longer all the time, are you going to wait until it’s closer to the release date to show gameplay and proper trailers, or do you plan to start early with the marketing cycle?

This is a great discussion that we’ll have with our marketing and publishing groups as we get there. My preference for me personally with new IP, especially with the story focus, is to wait closer to launch mostly because you want to build excitement for the franchise in the world, but if you can’t actually give people access to it, then you kind of are just teasing people unnecessarily. So, why don’t we wait until we’re much closer to allowing our fans and players to actually get hands-on with it themselves? I would say that would be the determining factor. Whenever we can figure out we can get it in players’ hands, whether it’s some form of demo, early access, or whether it’s just launch day, that will determine when we start sharing information.

I think Fallout 4 was a great example of waiting closer to launch. They showcased it and released it in the span of five or six months, and I’ve heard a lot of developers saying that’d be ideal for them.

I think things are shifting with marketing and publishing. They’re starting to realize that there’s different ways to handle different types of products.

In terms of platforms, is it fair to guess that Worlds Untold is targeting PC and consoles rather than mobile?

Oh yeah. I guess when we say AAA that’s really what we’re talking about, focusing on mainstream consoles and PC primarily. Anyone who knows me knows that I’m a huge fan of VR and there may be someday where we look at an experience that goes simultaneous, but we wouldn’t be trying to port it to VR or some of those other mediums.

Speaking of consoles, you might be in a position where your first game is maybe coming out around the start of the next generation. If that ends up being the case, would you go with a cross-generation game or would you rather take advantage of the full powers of the next generation?

It’s definitely something that we’ve actually already started having our internal conversations about, but something we’re nowhere near being able to decide on yet. We obviously need more information ourselves about the next generation and timing and all of that stuff.

I’m open to whatever works best to help us realize the vision of the game that we’re building. Ultimately that is what I’m gonna be looking towards. I don’t want it to necessarily come down to just a numbers decision. I would like to say, yep, this is the best plan for us. I’ve seen issues before where people make last-minute pivots and they change their minds too late in the process and then that’s when the product suffers. Ultimately, it’s whatever is best for the game.

Thank you for your time.

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