Greg Zeschuk has nothing against big corporations. He just doesn’t want to work for one.
In 2007, as part of an $860-million deal, video game giant Electronic Arts acquired BioWare, the company co-founded in 1995 by Zeschuk and his friend from medical school, Ray Muzyka. Having gone from a scrappy six-person start-up based in Edmonton to being just one division of a sprawling organization employing thousands in multiple locations across North America was a drastic progression to make in just 15 years. Zeschuk has no complaint against EA - it was simply doing what big companies do, he believes - but the constraints of a corporate structure did not mesh well with his own looser, less hierarchical managerial style.
He remembers once asking EA about the possibility of reinvesting more of BioWare’s profits back into the company. No, he was told, the profits go into a central pool and are redistributed. The corporate head office makes all decisions on where to allocate money for investment.
“What if we make a bunch of money? Can we use it for something?” Zeschuk would ask.
“Well, what if we make a whole bunch of money?”
“It was very hard to reconcile, because as entrepreneurs you make money and you reinvest it,” he says now. “You ceded a lot of your ability to be ambitious. Generally, they wanted the reverse, which I can respect. That’s what a big company needs to be. You can’t have 1,000 entrepreneurs all wanting to invest in things.”
Much as he still enjoyed working with many of his colleagues, he knew this environment was not ideal for him. Big companies prefer to buy existing properties to exploit, rather than taking risks on new ones. Zeschuk wanted to build new things.
Muzyka adjusted better to the corporate world than his long-time partner. He would step up to lead BioWare as a 1,500-person group within EA, while Zeschuk moved into more specialized roles, like heading up BioWare’s Austin studio (a sizable organization in its own right, with 500 people on staff). But over time Muzyka began to share his partner’s restlessness.
In 2011, backstage at the British Academy of Film and Television Awards in London, England, Muzyka leaned over to Zeschuk before walking out on stage to deliver a joint speech on video games and said, “This might be the last time we do a talk together before we retire.” Zeschuk agreed.
Looking back, Muzyka doesn’t know why he said it. The pair had never discussed retiring before, but perhaps both sensed that the timing was right.
Muzyka hesitates to use the word boredom when describing his decision to move on from the company he helped build. After all, video game development always offers fresh challenges and new opportunities to work with smart, creative people. He still found the industry exciting and interesting, he says. But the pair had also experienced some remarkable career peaks in their nearly 20 years in the business, like launching the acclaimed Mass Effect and Dragon Age franchises. They had gone from outsiders, working as doctors on the weekend to fund their young business and pestering publishers to return their calls, to executives at one of the industry’s largest companies. What more was there really left to do?
Early in 2012, in the same week - and without first telling the other of their plans - both handed in their six-month’s notice. By September of that year, they would be moving on to new chapters in their respective careers.
In May, Zeschuk and Muzyka were inducted into the Alberta Business Hall of Fame. It’s a recognition of not only the success of BioWare, but both men’s continued engagement in the province’s business community: Zeschuk is pursuing his love of craft beer as CEO of Blind Enthusiasm Brewing Company, Muzyka is exploring the world of social impact investing with his company ThresholdImpact, and they have tallied a number of board positions between them at various organizations in the public and private sectors. Still, BioWare remains their most widely known achievement. Alberta’s video game industry may be small when compared to British Columbia’s or Quebec’s, but there were 28 game studios employing over 400 people in the province in 2015, according to GameCamp Edmonton. This burgeoning industry’s big-bang moment can be traced back to BioWare’s founding in 1995.
The company made its presence known in the industry with the release in 1996 of its first game, Shattered Steel, but it was Baldur’s Gate in 1998 that firmly established its reputation as a creator of quality roleplaying games. Remarkably, no one who worked on those two projects had prior experience building video games, Muzyka says. This was part of why Alberta such an exciting, if occasionally challenging, place to build the company. BioWare had its pick of the most talented locals. It just had to figure out how to spot them first.
The two doctors developed a knack for recruiting and cultivating talent. Artists would be hired based on napkin sketches. One employee had never even worked on a computer before. He made wooden hunting decoys and did a bit of sculpting, so they figured he had the spatial skills needed to do 3-D modelling. James Ohlen, who remains with the company to this day as a creative director, was brought in from Grande Prairie, where he was running a comic book store. His Dungeons and Dragons campaigns were so popular - there was apparently a waiting list to get in - that Muzyka figured he could be trusted with world-building and story creation.
Muzyka and Zeschuk’s ability to build strong teams was a crucial component of BioWare’s early success, according to Trent Oster, who was a member of the founding group alongside his brother Brent, Greg’s cousin Marcel Zeschuk, and Dr. Augustine Yip. He worked with the company for nearly 15 years before leaving to set up his own game company, Beamdog.
A childhood friend of Zeschuk, he can recall heading over to the house of Greg’s grandparents to watch Kung Fu Theater and then going outside to play fight in the yard. Zeschuk brought that same energy and enthusiasm to his later professional career. At BioWare, he excelled at harmonizing the team and whipping up excitement for new projects, while Muzyka helped keep everyone grounded, serving as “a bastion of stubbornness,” Oster says. The company’s 2003 hit, Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic, came about only after years of careful negotiation to secure the rights with LucasArts - a lengthy process Oster attributes in part to Muzyka’s meticulous approach to every business deal.
“He would just go through the 400 pages of a contract to find the things that will be bad for our company and just keep negotiating until they’re gone,” Oster says.
The pair made for a potent combination as co-CEOs. Muzyka had a reputation as the level-headed, organized introvert, while Zeschuk was the gregarious, occasionally scattered extrovert. However, over time these distinctions would blur. Zeschuk, who always disliked meetings, learned to accept a bit more structure, while Muzyka became more outgoing and relaxed. They became known as “the hive mind” after one game developer remarked how they were finishing each other’s sentences in a meeting.
Working closely together for so long invariably affects a person, and both men picked up habits and business tricks from each other. Muzyka got lessons from his colleague in how to improve his networking skills, for example. For his part, Zeschuk recounts how in the early days of the company he would often appear at the office with an unruly pile of papers in one hand and his lunch in the other, until one day Muzyka casually suggested that he get a backpack to carry everything in. “It sounds silly, but it’s a level of organization that I didn’t have until I learned it from him,” Zeschuk says.
Muzyka agrees that the pair’s collaboration left a lasting impact: “You spend a lot of time with someone, you listen to them and respect them, and you’re going to learn things from them. I can’t emphasize enough how much I respect Greg and how valuable our collaboration has been over the years.”
That doesn’t mean they would always agree on everything. It sometimes took a bit of effort to ensure the hive mind was fully in sync. Oster remembers how, in the early years, new employees would be startled when a meeting began with a 30-minute argument between the two CEOs. Yet the pair always reached a common agreement in the end, Zeschuk notes. He cannot remember any decision where one partner disagreed but grudgingly went along the other. Like any healthy relationship, their collaboration was built around listening, frank discussion, shared values, and a willingness to compromise. So how did they solve their disputes?
“Generalized yelling,” Muzyka laughs. “We were not shy about arguing, honestly. I think we learned fairly early on not to do it in front of other people because they would freak out. I think someone told us, ‘It’s like mom and dad in front of the kids arguing!’”
The advice seems to have worked. Shauna Perry, who joined BioWare in 2003 and now works with Zeschuk as director of operations at Blind Enthusiasm Brewing, remembers the pair always put forward a unified front for the staff. If they were the parents of the company, there was never a sense that you could go to mom to get approval for something after dad said no, she says.
Perry praises the pair’s commitment to quality, not only in the games they released but for the company’s own internal culture and work environment. “Very early on when I was there, at the first Christmas party that someone said he couldn’t attend, I remember Ray asking, ‘But is he okay?’” Perry says. “He went and talked to the guy personally to make sure everything was okay and his reason for not attending wasn’t because he was unhappy.”
The lessons learned at BioWare - about building and maintaining a good team, nurturing talent, and listening to your colleagues -have served as a foundation for both men as they’ve embarked down separate career paths. Muzyka may be engaged with angel investing and Zeschuk with craft brewing, but both seem to be seeking something similar through different routes: the excitement felt during their days as young struggling entrepreneurs.
At ThresholdImpact, Muzyka has focused on supporting businesses that can make positive changes in the world. He chairs the University of Alberta Venture Mentoring Service, where he can provide young entrepreneurs with the kind of guidance and advice he would have loved to have had access to in BioWare’s early days. “I find working with entrepreneurs really stimulating, like when I worked with the folks at BioWare,” he says. “That’s the thing I enjoyed the most.”
Muzyka’s resume, like Zeschuk’s, is eclectic. He worked as a rural emergency room locum tenens before founding a video game company - an industry in which he had no prior experience, recall - and now he mentors entrepreneurs while acting as an angel investor. His life-long fascination with poker offers a key to understanding how the disparate pieces of his career fit together. It’s all about watching for opportunities and learning when to push your chips in.
“People who aren’t in the entrepreneurial world sometimes say you must like taking risks, and I shudder because I actually don’t like taking risks,” Muzyka says. “I like managing risks. I like working with teams to mitigate risks. That’s really satisfying for me. That’s the common thread that ties all of these things together and will probably tie together everything I’ll do in the future as well.”
His former business partner has also taken pleasure in reconnecting with the entrepreneurial world. Zeschuk didn’t realize it at the time, but he knows now that he was seriously burnt out when he retired from BioWare in 2012. He was splitting his time between Austin and Edmonton, where his wife and two children live. Every day, he would wake up and check his phone for the player stats on Star Wars: The Old Republic, the online roleplaying game built by BioWare Austin. He spent his time thinking about a virtual world online that ran 24 hours a day. Somewhere along the way, he started to miss reality.
“One of the challenges of living in Austin and commuting was that I wasn’t connected to anything. I lived this weird nomadic life. My mind was always on this virtual game that never stopped running. I woke up in the morning and looked at the stats, lying in bed, and I just realized it was an unhealthy way to be,” he says. “I feel now that a healthy productive life is one where you’re grounded in your community and you’re part of it.”
After all of that time spent building virtual spaces, Zeschuk decided to finally create something tangible - Ritchie Market, which houses his businesses, Blind Enthusiasm Brewing and Biera restaurant, as well as Acme Meat Market, Transcend Coffee and Roasters, and Creekside Cyclery. He was so dedicated to ensuring the market fit right into Edmonton’s Ritchie neighbourhood that he personally went door to door handing out flyers about the project before development began, talking to people and listening to their concerns. Zeschuk has gone from the upper echelons of an international corporation to slinging brews produced by his own hyper-local business, and he couldn’t be happier.
“Big companies exist for a reason. Small companies exist for a reason,” he says. “I prefer the entrepreneur’s life myself.”