BioWare's futuristic games have sent players to countless planets across the galaxy, but never Earth. That will change when the third and final game in the Edmonton-based studio's hit sci-fi trilogy lands on shelves this Tuesday.
And what better place for players to finally touch down on our big blue ball than the game maker's home country? A futuristic Vancouver suffering invasion by towering black aliens known as Reapers is set to loom large in the series' final adventure – though it almost didn't.
"We thought about Hong Kong and Rio, which are surrounded by natural beauty," said Derek Watts, the game's art director, a native Edmontonian with a 13-year history at BioWare. "But then we thought: We're a Canadian company, so we should make it a Canadian city. Vancouver had just finished the Olympics, so we set it in Vancouver."
Concepts of what the coastal metropolis would look like 200 years from now began with an examination of the series' overarching narrative and visual themes.
"When we set out with Mass Effect it was with a vision of hope," said Watts. "We knew Earth wasn't going to be a bleak world overrun by pollution and graffiti. We had a clear design format, including large, sweeping curves, and a very clean style. Vancouver would be a livable city, just a lot bigger."
Watts centred his Vancouver on the city's most iconic landmark, Canada Place. His team built out from there, spreading monolithic high-rises to the North Shore, designing architecture and infrastructure to run up Mount Seymour, and adding bridges over Burrard Inlet. It became a metropolis fit to rival modern-day Manhattan and its boroughs.
However, players' exploration of Vancouver will be limited primarily to its higher districts. Watts and his team worked out what their Vancouver would look like at street level – layered avenues, outdoor malls, inlet tunnels, sky trains – but didn't have need to model these objects.
"That was actually a bit of a break for us," said Watts. "We didn't have to imagine details like how shops might have changed and moved around in the future."
Still, one gets the impression a veteran virtual world maker like Watts would welcome the challenge of designing an even more detailed city of the future.
"The great thing about video games is that we can build whatever we want."