A Deep Dive Into BioWare’s Fall From Grace

From the industry’s best storytellers to a studio that just cannot stop tripping over itself- what the hell happened?

Posted By | On 26th, Feb. 2019 Under Article, Editorials | Follow This Author @shubhankar2508


There are some studios in this industry that command a level of respect and trust just on the basis of their names, their histories, and their brand. There’s not a lot of them- these studios have built up a reputation for themselves by consistently delivering industry-defining experiences, and by specializing in a few particular areas to the extent of becoming absolute masters of their craft. Until not too long ago, BioWare was one such studio- and their marks of mastery? Story. Storytelling. Characters. World building. Lore.

Starting with Baldur’s Gate in 1998, the studio went on a run of one masterpiece after another that lasted decades. No, it wasn’t a perfect run, and there were blips here and there – some more significant than others – but by and large, during those years, when you saw the BioWare logo, you almost treated it as a guarantee of quality. In recent years, things have been very different, and the run that BioWare have been on has been a very different one- each new major game they have put out has furthered their downward trajectory.

mass effect dragon age

"A studio that for the longest time was the undisputed king of sweeping, memorable narratives and expert storytelling, and delivered more masterpieces and industry landmarks than most other single studios can claim to have done, has been caught in a cycle of disappointments and stumbles for the last few years."

2014’s Dragon Age: Inquisition? A very good game by any metric, but a significant step down from Mass Effect 3, which, barring a disappointing final fifteen minutes, was a thrilling and memorable experience. 2017’s Mass Effect AndromedaA big disappointment, and though it wasn’t a game without merits, and one that is definitely a much better experience now thanks to patches than it was when it launched, it’s still not the kind of game you’d want bearing the Mass Effect name. The recently released AnthemAn ambitious attempt at a new IP and genre, one that boasts some excellent ideas on paper, but fails to utilize them in any meaningful and memorable way, and is hampered significantly by frustrating technical issues and baffling design choices.

It’s been one misstep after another for BioWare, each more grievous than the last, and it’s absolutely heartbreaking to see. A studio that for the longest time was the undisputed king of sweeping, memorable narratives and expert storytelling, and delivered more masterpieces and industry landmarks than most other single studios can claim to have done, has been caught in a cycle of disappointments and stumbles for the last few years. They’ve gone from the likes of Baldur’s Gate 2, Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic, Dragon Age: Origins, and Mass Effect 2 – all of which are considered to be some of the greatest games ever made – to this.

It’d be easy to point at EA, and lay all the blame at their feet. It’s no secret that EA has an unfortunate talent for ruining even the best of franchises and studios, by either shutting them down, or diluting their quality to the point that they’re mere shadows of their former selves, or a one-two punch of both those things in quick succession. Just look at once-great studios like Visceral Games (now shuttered), Criterion (now merely a shell of a studio), or Maxis, or franchises such as Dead Space (dead), Burnout (dead), Command and Conquer (dead, barring a disappointing mobile entry), Medal of Honor (run into the ground), or The Sims (dead) – there’s been enough evidence throughout the years to suggest that what’s happening with BioWare might very well just be a case of history repeating itself.

But buying into that, I think, would be inaccurate by omission. Because, sure, it’s true that EA has had a huge hand in BioWare’s recent and what is hopefully a temporary fall from grace, but a deeper look at the studio’s recent history shows that BioWare themselves share a huge chunk of that responsibility as well. Ignoring that and simply blaming it all on EA would be the easy thing to do, but that would also be absolving BioWare of serious errors that they’ve made themselves, that I think they should be held responsible for.

mass effect 2

"It’s true that EA has had a huge hand in BioWare’s recent and what is hopefully a temporary fall from grace, but a deeper look at the studio’s recent history shows that BioWare themselves share a huge chunk of that responsibility as well."

Let’s take it one at a time, though- before we begin examining the mistakes BioWare have made that go far beyond EA’s influence, let’s talk about the one major way EA’s influence has negatively impacted BioWare and its games. No, I’m not talking about the need to monetize every game, or the unnecessary focus on multiplayer experiences, or being forced to rush out unfinished products. I mean, sure, those are huge issues as well- but the biggest issue of them all, I think, is the Frostbite engine. No one doubts that the DICE-developed creation toolset is an impressive piece of technology- the fact that Battlefield games never fail to impress with their technical achievements and visual fidelity is testament to that. But if there’s one thing that has become clear as day over the past few years, it’s that it’s not an all-purpose engine.

EA doesn’t seem to understand that. In recent years, the publisher has passed the mandate for its studios that internally developed games have to use the Frostbite engine whenever possible. That doesn’t just apply to DICE, who use the engine for all their products anyway- it applies to all studios owned by EA. So while Battlefield and Star Wars: Battlefront have been built on Frostbite, so too have other EA titles. FIFA? Frostbite. Need for Speed? Frostbite. Plants vs Zombies? Frostbite. Mass Effect Andromeda? Frostbite. Dragon Age: Inquisition? Frostbite.

The one notable exception to this has been the recently released Apex Legends, developed by Respawn on Valve’s Source engine. But the Source engine is quickly becoming outdated- as recently reported by Kotaku’s Jason Schreier, Respawn had been working on Titanfall 3 and were looking to push the game out as quickly as possible, fearing that, owing to the Source engine’s dated tools, the game would not look up to mark for industry standards if it arrived too late (that project would eventually turn into Apex Legends). It stands to reason, then, that Respawn will want to make their future games using an engine that can help them create a visually stunning game- put two and two together, and it’s not a stretch to assume that Frostbite will be the engine Respawn turn to.

But Frostbite would work for something like Titanfall (in the hypothetical scenario that a mainline Titanfall sequel does happen)- it’s an engine that is made for first person shooters. It’s not, however, made for cinematic, story-driven RPGs. In his book Blood, Sweat and Pixels, Jason Schreier talked about how having to develop Dragon Age: Inquisition using the Frostbite engine had proved to be a struggle, because the engine simply couldn’t do simple and basic things that any RPG would be required to do- things such as save functions, or inventory management. The same issues plagued the development of Mass Effect: Andromeda as well, a fact that has become widely and publicly known by now.

dragon age inquisition

"With both Dragon Age: Inquisition and Mass Effect Andromeda, BioWare essentially had to create games using an engine that was made for entirely different purposes, which meant that they had to create basic tools that most RPG development schedules would ordinarily take for granted."

Recently, Amy Hennig – the creator of Uncharted, who had been working on a Star Wars action-adventure title at Visceral Games before the studio was shut down and the project was cancelled – talked about her work on Project Ragtag (the internal name given to said Star Wars project), and how the game’s development had been hamstrung because of having to use the Frostbite engine.

“We obviously had to take the Frostbite Engine, because there was the internal initiative to make sure that everybody was on the same technology, but it was an engine that was made to do first-person shooters, not third-person traversal cinematic games,” she said. “So building all of that third-person platforming and climbing and cover taking and all that stuff into an engine that wasn’t made to do that. We did a lot of foundational work that I think the teams are still benefiting from because it’s a shared engine, but it’s tough when you spend a lot of time doing foundational stuff but then don’t get to go ta-da! Here’s the game!”

That is hugely emblematic of the way in which having to use the Frostbite engine has hampered the development of games on multiple occasions. With both Dragon Age: Inquisition and Mass Effect Andromeda, BioWare essentially had to create games using an engine that was made for entirely different purposes, which meant that they had to create basic tools that most RPG development schedules would ordinarily take for granted. A huge chunk of development time in both cases had to be taken up by building cursory toolsets, time which they could and would have otherwise spent on making a better game, ultimately leading to them having less time to work on the actual game itself than they would have liked (or needed). That proved to be much costlier with Mass Effect Andromeda than it did for Dragon Age Inquisition – with the latter being a legitimately good game, at the very least, and a huge improvement over its direct predecessor – but a lot of that was also due to questionable decisions made with Andromeda by BioWare themselves.

Which brings us to the other side of the coin- EA’s questionable decisions and policies have clearly had a detrimental impact on BioWare and their products, but BioWare themselves, due to internal mismanagement and their own questionable decisions (among other things), have been very much responsible for their own bad form as well.

mass effect andromeda

"With such a major part of their vision for the Andromeda scrapped, the studio had to complete development on a huge portion of the game in just eighteen months, which led to a lot of problems with the game that by now are well documented. "

Let’s stick with Mass Effect: Andromeda here for a bit. BioWare had big ambitions for the fourth Mass Effect instalment. They wanted to go bigger and better in every way imaginable than even the original trilogy, which had won plaudits with each of its entries. They wanted Andromeda to be a vast, expansive game that would allow players to explore an entire galaxy with no restrictions. Initially, they planned on doing this through hundreds of procedurally generated planets – a concept which sounds a lot like No Man’s Sky, but was one that the studio came up with internally before No Man’s Sky was even publicly announced.

BioWare stuck with this vision for a long time, but all too late, they realized that they simply did not have the resources to make it a reality- at least not in a way that would fit with the kind of game they wanted to make, where each planet you visited felt like it was different, with its own unique personality that would make it an environment that the player would want to explore and learn more about. As revealed in a Kotaku report in 2017, eighteen months before the game’s release, BioWare scrapped the idea, and decided instead to have a much smaller number of handcrafted planets that the players could explore. With such a major part of their vision for the game scrapped, the studio had to complete development on a huge portion of the game in just eighteen months, which led to a lot of problems with the game that by now are well documented.

That was not an EA mandate. It was not a decision forced on a developer by a publisher. It was BioWare who made that call- BioWare misjudged the scope of the work they would be required to do to implement their original vision for the game, BioWare were too late in realizing that that vision could never become a reality, and BioWare backed themselves into a situation where they had to build a huge open world RPG in eighteen months.

The development of Mass Effect Andromeda was also marked by several key figures leaving the studio. From game director Gérard Lehiany, to series creator Casey Hudson (who would later rejoin the studio as its general manager in 2017), to senior editor Cameron Harris, there were at least a dozen major departures from the studio during the early development years of Andromeda. A lot of this is stuff that BioWare did not and could not have any control over, and it wouldn’t be fair to criticize them for all these departures. But while a studio doesn’t always have absolute control over who leaves and who stays with them, it does have control over how it deals with those departures. Uncharted 4 suffered a tumultuous development cycle at Naughty Dog, plagued by not only the departure of series creator Amy Hennig and game director Justin Richmond, but the studio essentially having to rework a massive portion of the game halfway through development, which led to them completely rethinking what they wanted to do with the project. But Naughty Dog recovered from that, and ended up delivering a stunning experience. BioWare could not find it in themselves to recover from all the hurdles they faced with Andromeda.

mass effect andromeda

"BioWare could not find it in themselves to recover from all the hurdles they faced with Andromeda."

But there were other factors that affected Mass Effect Andromeda’s development as well. While the original Mass Effect trilogy had been developed by BioWare’s main studio over in Edmonton, development for Andromeda was handed off to their secondary studio in Montreal. A crude way to put it would be that Mass Effect Andromeda was being made by their B Team, while the A team worked on Anthem.

Anthem- a lot of defences for BioWare following the disappointing launch of Andromeda rested on that one game. Andromeda had been made by a team that, overall, did not have the required experience with the series, because the studio’s main team, the one that had worked on so many masterpieces in the past, was working on Anthem. When Anthem would launch, we thought, we would get to witness BioWare at their peak again. This was the game they’d been working on for so long, the game they had devoted the bulk of their time and resources to. A game they were internally calling Dylan during early development, to indicate that it would change the way we look at games the way Bob Dylan, whom they named the project after, had once changed the way we thought of music. Surely, Anthem would be BioWare’s moment of redemption, right?

We know now, sadly enough, that that wasn’t the case. Anthem is not the Bob Dylan of video games. It does not justify or excuse the troubled Mass Effect Andromeda. It does not represent BioWare at the peak of their powers. It does none of that. But not doing all of that could have been excusable if it were at least a good game- Anthem didn’t have to be an industry-shaking revolution. It just had to be good. Anthem is a great proof of concept, the kind of experience that can be made to sound like the most exciting thing in the world during an elevator pitch- but it’s not a good game, especially not right now at launch.

Let me explain what I mean when I say it’s a great proof of concept, but not a good game- the concept of flying around a beautiful lush environment in super-powered Iron Man-esque exosuits is a genius one. The idea of melding shared world co-op gameplay with the trademark narrative flair that BioWare is known for is mouth-watering. The thought of being treated to a live service game with all those elements that only continues to grow with more stories to tell and more new things to experience as time goes on is one that would excite anybody. But the Anthem that BioWare have launched fails to make good on any of those promises.

anthem

"Anthem is a great proof of concept, the kind of experience that can be made to sound like the most exciting thing in the world during an elevator pitch- but it’s not a good game, especially not right now at launch."

I don’t want to get into the nitty-gritties of why that is the case – our review of Anthem does an excellent job of doing just that, and I recommend you give it a read – but long story short, it’s a game that is confused about its own vision. It wants to be a story-driven game, but not only do bugs and baffling design decisions prevent you from enjoying that story fully, the game itself makes baffling choices that seem to be the exact opposite of what a story-driven game needs. No memorable characters, wildly inconsistent writing, and binary dialogue choices that have no impact on anything are just a few things that actively get in the way of enjoying the game’s story. Make no mistake, BioWare have created a rich and beautiful world here that is full of interesting and dense lore, so I’m not suggesting that the studio has just lost its touch with storytelling. But they’ve failed to evolve their techniques in a way to make them work with the kind of shared world co-op experience Anthem is.

But to criticize Anthem purely on the basis of its narrative shortcomings would not be fair- clearly, that’s not the point of the game (even though BioWare have remained adamant that Anthem doesn’t forget the studio’s legacy of ingenious storytelling). Anthem is very much about flying around like Iron Man, about using the Javelins to unleash deadly and flashy abilities, about blending its traversal and combat mechanics to create an experience unlike any other.

In October of 2018, Anthem’s creative director Jonathan Warner talked about how BioWare found it invigorating to be able to focus on gameplay while speaking of one of their upcoming games, instead of focusing on narrative, which is what they’ve usually had to do. “It’s very refreshing, it’s invigorating,” Warner said. “Usually, when you talk about a Mass Effect or a Dragon Age, people invariably end up talking about the plots or the points, and it’s very refreshing, when people talk about Anthem, they talk about flying or fighting monsters, or the gear, the Javelins, and it’s been a great opportunity for us to put gameplay first.”

It’s clear that BioWare have prioritized the systems in Anthem over the things they usually prioritze in a game- which is perfectly fine, as long as that investment pays off, right? But while the studio has clearly come up with some great ideas, and great traversal mechanics, they’ve failed to design their game in a way that leverages those excellent ideas to their zenith.

anthem

"While the studio has clearly come up with some great ideas, and great traversal mechanics, they’ve failed to design their game in a way that leverages those excellent ideas to their zenith."

Flying around in Anthem is a ton of fun- it’s super easy to control, looks and sounds excellent, and just feels incredibly satisfying and empowering. But its missions never do anything to put the flying mechanics front and centre. More often than not they boil down to “kill these waves of enemies”, which is something that can be applied wholesale to any shooter. None of it takes advantage of the game’s biggest unique strength in any way. You would expect the missions to be designed around you having to experiment with the traversal mechanics in varied and interesting ways.

But the missions are designed around experimenting with combos and abilities, right? You’d think, except even that is a mechanic that is woefully half-baked and underutilized. The most interesting part of the combat – stringing together primers and detonators – is one that the game never utilizes enough, while abilities themselves feel severely limited in comparison to what you’d expect in a game like this. Look at Diablo for comparison’s sake- those games give you endless abilities to use in combat, all of which have different effects and unique pros and cons, and mixing and matching these with their short cooldowns makes every combat encounter in Diablo an absolute blast. Anthem has many great ideas, some great mechanics, but none of them are put to use in an effective way.

A game should be built around its best aspects. Marvel’s Spider-Man knows that web-swinging is its biggest strength, and its open world and its mission design are all consistently centred around that one strength. God of War knows that its best mechanic is its incredible axe, and throwing it around and recalling it, and the game constantly keeps finding ways to use that in unique, varied, and interesting ways. The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild knows that its traversal loop of climbing and paragliding is its best aspect, and the game’s entire map is built to leverage that aspect on a constant basis. Anthem should know that traversal and combo and abilities-based combat are its biggest strengths, but if it does, it never gives you that indication. So yes- it’s a great proof of concept, in that it has a lot of great ideas, but it’s not a good game, because it never does anything with them. Not to mention the fact that for a game that is built as a live service model, right now, it is also severely lacking in content.

A lot of these issues can hypothetically be fixed. Anthem is not an unsalvageable game- Fallout 76 this is not. Patches can address the game’s most glaring technical issues. Smaller content updates can add more interesting gear and abilities. Larger content updates can add new areas to explore, interesting and new stories, and more varied missions. But that is not going to happen overnight. BioWare have been working on Anthem since 2012, and after nearly seven years of development, this is what they have come up with. All the required fixes would take a lot of time- if EA decides to stick with it, that is, and doesn’t abandon the project the way they have abandoned so many things.

Anthem

"EA’s influence on BioWare has been a detrimental one. No one can deny that. But Mass Effect Andromeda and Anthem show that the blame doesn’t rest with EA entirely."

And so we come full circle to how we started out- EA’s influence on BioWare has been a detrimental one. No one can deny that. But Mass Effect Andromeda and Anthem show that the blame doesn’t rest with EA entirely. BioWare have made questionable decisions and bad judgement calls aplenty, and they’ve failed to do justice to their ambitious vision for a game on more than one occasion now. That’s an issue with the developer, and something that goes far beyond a plain and simple “it’s all EA’s fault”.

This comes not from a place of anger, but one of disappointment- from someone who’s been a massive BioWare fan for years, and has watched the studio rapidly fall from grace in the most shocking and heartbreaking way possible. This is not a piece about doomsaying, about proclaiming the death of BioWare- this is a piece about urging the studio to take a good, long look at itself, pinpoint the errors it has been making, and get back to its peak, when it used to be, without reservations, one of the best development teams in the entire industry.

Note: The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of, and should not be attributed to, GamingBolt as an organization.


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