In the 14 years since its release, Mass Effect is still hailed as having one of the largest and most detailed universes ever created in gaming. This enormous space opera spans a large number of explorable planets and cosmic structures in its original trilogy, as well as an even larger amount of galactic locations documented in each game’s codex. While it’s easy to get lost in the vast expanse that is Mass Effects‘s Milky Way, it’s important to keep in mind that this level of worldbuilding doesn’t come out of nowhere.
Any writer will readily admit that creating such a huge world is far from an easy task, especially if it’s drawing from real life. Genres like fantasy and sci-fi tend to be the home of detailed worlds due to their ability to design everything from religion to physics, evident in franchises like The Elder Scrolls and Destiny, for example. However, Mass Effect lives in a very specific subgenre of sci-fi known as hard sci-fi. It’s a subgenre especially difficult for worldbuilding because its purpose is to create fictional universes that could plausibly exist by implementing real science, philosophy, and politics.
Mass Effect explores science, philosophy, and politics in various ways through the series, but the design of the Milky Way Galaxy and its map are particularly admirable. After the release of Mass Effect 3 in 2012, Sara Mitchell, an education and public outreach specialist for NASA, interviewed Executive Producer Casey Hudson about how the team built the game’s Milky Way. Her article revealed some of the interesting and surprisingly simple things BioWare did to create its iconic galaxy.
How BioWare Created Its Own Milky Way Galaxy
One of the first decisions BioWare had to make was deciding what would be real in its Milky Way. Hudson explained that they “tried to include real-life locations wherever possible,” choosing to focus on larger cosmic structures like famous nebulae and star systems. While they recreated the solar system and its planets, there are far too many exoplanets to sort through or implement in a way that allowed players to land on a planet and explore. These limitations led the team to develop a simple way to populate the galaxy.
In order to develop the variety of planets necessary for Mass Effect, Hudson created an Excel spreadsheet that acted as a planet generator. All the team had to do was fill in a cell that designated what kind of star the planet would orbit and it would generate a planet with statistics about its size, composition, atmosphere, distance from its sun, orbital period, temperature, and would even generate a name. The spreadsheet’s formula was designed using actual planetary science in order to get realistic worlds, and once the team had a handful to choose from, they would fine-tune by adding in lore elements like Reaper history, ancient civilizations, and various other details.
While these planets were realistic, the developers were aware that star systems can’t just have a bunch of random planets, due to the strength of a sun’s gravity and other factors. To make sure each star system and planet that players would fly to made sense and was scientifically sound, they appointed a single writer to act as a continuity supervisor. By the end of the series, this role was filled by Chris Hepler, and he worked with the writing team, engineer consultants, and physics consultants to ensure scientific consistency throughout the series.
When it came to bringing the galaxy to life, BioWare’s concept artists looked to the awe-inspiring images from orbiting space shuttles and the Hubble space telescope. Since those images are 2D representations of the cosmos, Mass Effect‘s team of artists took the chosen images, painted them with unique assets and perspectives, then layered and animated them in engine to create the illusion of flying through 3D structures. These kinds of tricks were essential to develop such a believable and immersive galaxy that old fans, new players, and even planetary scientists could get lost in.
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Source: Sara Mitchell, NASA