Wednesday, 24 January 2018

BioWare betting the farm on a game that no-one is excited about

Based on reports from Kotaku and Polygon, it sounds like the fate of BioWare, once one of the most critically-feted development studios in video games, is hanging by a thread. Everything may be resting on the fate of their next game, Anthem, an online shooter which, right now, has not done much to get people excited about it.

It has been clear for many years that BioWare has become a pale shadow of its former self. Like many developers before it, BioWare blazed a trail of innovative and interesting games which got noticed by the big publishers. Electronic Arts, the biggest of the big, swooped in and made BioWare an Offer They Couldn't Refuse back in 2007, buying out the company with grand promises that they wouldn't interfere with the company or its ethos. They almost immediately, of course, began interfering with the company and its ethos.

BioWare was originally founded in 1995 in Edmonton, Canada, and hit the jackpot with only its second game, the expansive and epic Dungeons and Dragons roleplaying game, Baldur's Gate (1998). Baldur's Gate II: Shadows of Amn (2000) confirmed the first game's promise and is regularly still cited as both BioWare's best game and one of the finest CRPGs of all time. BioWare went on to release Neverwinter Nights (2002) and Knights of the Old Republic (2003), the best Star Wars video game of all time.

At that time the company was riding high with millions of games sold and tens of millions of dollars in the bank, but it was feeling a little creatively stifled. All of its games so far had been based on pre-existing universes and worlds. BioWare couldn't really shine, they felt, unless they created their own universe. And that's what they did in 2004, moving development of Knights of the Old Republic II  and Neverwinter Nights II to their former colleagues at Interplay who had regrouped as Obsidian Entertainment and shifting course to create three brand-new worlds from scratch.

The results were Jade Empire (2005), Mass Effect (2007) and Dragon Age: Origins (2009). Jade Empire, an atmospheric beat 'em-up/RPG hybrid, is easily the most underrated game in the BioWare canon but its sales were unspectacular and plans for a sequel were shelved. Mass Effect, a shooter/RPG hybrid planned as the start of a trilogy, was a much bigger success, helping drive sales of the X-Box 360 console and convincing Electronic Arts to buy out the company. But Dragon Age: Origins was a much more ambitious game, a vast, sprawling fantasy RPG that hearkened back to the glory days of the Baldur's Gate series. Whilst Jade Empire and Mass Effect streamlined (or "dumbed down," for the less charitable) the hardcore RPG experience for consoles, Dragon Age was complex, deep and extremely long (clocking in at almost four times Mass Effect's length). Making this game was neither cheap nor fast: the game cost several tens of millions of dollars (at a time when game budgets were much lower than today) and took a startling five years to develop. Even more surprising, the game was intended to be a PC exclusive at the precise moment that PC gaming was arguably in the weakest state it has ever been in.

When Electronic Arts took over, they were less than impressed. They mandated console ports of Dragon Age, which were awkward because the game was not designed with controllers in mind, and also ordered that a sequel be put in fast turn-around on a strictly limited budget to help ameliorate the cost of the first game. They ordered that Dragon Age II drop its large and impressive (and console-straining) engine to use Mass Effect 2's engine instead, as well as its conversation wheel and other features that the Dragon Age franchise was, arguably, not a good fit for. This rolling back  (or "dumbing down," to the less charitable) of the game's design ethos saw one senior BioWare designer ragequit the company. The game was slammed by fans on release, for its small scope, tiny number of locations and overall pervading feeling of cheapness. Later retrospectives have been kinder, focusing on the very solid story and characters, but it's hard to argue that the gameplay was lacking.

Worse was to come. In 2011 BioWare released The Old Republic, an MMORPG set in the Star Wars universe. What was actually a decent multiplayer online game was roundly condemned and slated for not being a third "proper" Knights of the Old Republic single-player game. The game sold very well - by some metrics it's the second-most-successful MMORPG of all time, behind only World of WarCraft - but it later went free-to-play and the Grand Star Wars Canon shakeup of 2012 has left the game's official status in doubt (which Disney has done little to alleviate, constantly dodging the question of whether the game is canon).

In 2012 Mass Effect 3 was released, concluding BioWare's grand space opera trilogy. Although the game was very decent, its ending was enormously controversial. It didn't really make sense and removed a lot of the player agency and choice that been the cornerstone of the trilogy. Although later DLC and patches resolved some of the issues, it couldn't resolve all of them and trilogy's reputation was marred as a result (although, again, retrospectives taking into account the three games as a whole have been kinder).

In 2014 Dragon Age: Inquisition was released, and sales and criticism-wise seemed to be something of a righting of a listing ship, although not completely. The game was large and expansive, but it was also criticised for being too blatantly an attempt to cash in on the success of Bethesa's open-world RPGs, such as Skyrim and Fallout 3. BioWare games had always been focused on character and story, with optional side-stories but always an urgency to the storytelling. Inquisition was criticised for throwing this out in favour of vast zones packed with repetitive, MMORPG-style grinding and fetch quests. It was an attempt to cynically meld BioWare's signatures of great storytelling and memorable characters onto Bethesda's open world design and it was a poor fit. Worse was to come in 2015 when The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt was released and did exactly what Inquisition had tried to do - a character-focused narrative in a vast, morally murky open world with tons of side-content - and did it with seemingly effortless style, humour and warmth.

Still, the game sold well and reviews were stronger than for BioWare's two proceeding games, but these positive signs were undercut when a new RPG in development behind the scenes, Shadow Realms, was suddenly cancelled. Mass Effect: Andromeda was then released in early 2017. Riven with technical problems, unengaging characters and an unexciting storyline, the game was also set in a different galaxy to the first three Mass Effect games and none of the trilogy's characters or storylines were featured. The game sold poorly, the first genuine BioWare bomb, and suddenly the future of the company seemed in doubt.

BioWare's future now rests on three games: Anthem, Dragon Age IV and an untitled Star Wars game. Dragon Age IV is still relatively early in development and internally the game has been described as a "reboot". What that means, given that the Dragon Age franchise has always been pretty loose in terms of storytelling between games and each title has (more or less) stood alone anyway, is unclear. The Star Wars title is shrouded in secrecy but its future is doubtful, given that Visceral Games were developing a story-based, single-player-focused game that was canned and it was believed that this was also going to be the focus of the Star Wars game.

Anthem, on the other hand is in an advanced stage of development and is expected to be released in about a year. But the game has singularly failed to engage much in the way of pre-release excitement. The game is an action title with limited or no RPG elements. It's an online title without the narrative depth that BioWare is famed for. With its SF, post-apocalyptic vibe, the game also rather strongly resembles the Destiny franchise from EA's arch-rivals Activision, which has itself been rather divisive (although it has sold well). Anthem may luck out and pick up players disappointed with the rival game, but there seems to be a much greater fear at BioWare that people are simply not that excited about the game. Whilst a brand-new BioWare franchise would have once had gamers salivating in expectation, now it barely merits a shrug.

If Anthem fails to resonate, it may mean the end of BioWare, a very expensive studio which has never actually produced a mega-selling game. The entire Mass Effect series, all four games, have sold only about half the number of copies of Fallout 4 or Skyrim by themselves, for example. Dragon Age has done a bit better, but it's now been comprehensively overtaken by the Witcher franchise, a series from what was once a small Polish distribution company based on a series of novels that no-one west of Paris had heard of which has now sold 30 million copies and really does have people salivating for the follow-up, an epic SF game called Cyberpunk 2077.

BioWare's passing would be a shame, as they brought back the Western RPG from the brink of extinction, paving the way for many classic games both from their catalogue and others. Without them, it's arguable if Obsidian and CD Projekt Red (whom BioWare helped launch The Witcher back in 2007) would have taken off like they did. Even Bethesda may owe BioWare a debt of gratitude: The Elder Scrolls II: Daggerfall (1997) had not been a massive success and it was partially BioWare's resurrection of the CRPG that inspired them to revisit the series with The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind (2002), whose success led to where they are today.

Still, this may be premature. Anthem may turn out to be a fine game, EA may let them actually make a great Star Wars RPG and we could still see Dragon Age IV after all. Watch this space.


Funksoul123 said...

No mention wert of the increasing gender identity politics being inserted into Bioware games?
A big turn off for most I would argue and often so clunky as to be comically bad. "ride the bull anyone"? Never mind the actual waste of resources to add this stuff to their later games.

Ghost said...

Sad but unsurprising. Even when news of EA buying over Bioware first broke, fans had been fearing this. Like most, I'm not that excited over Anthem. From what I had seen, there's nothing about it that's we haven't seen before. The famed Bioware of old is gone and other studios like Bethesda and CD Projekt Red had taken it's place. I don't think this is a bad thing. Just like when Bioware took over from Black Isle, this is renewal and a good thing for the industry.

Mike. said...

I liked Andromeda, don't know where the hate is coming from. I do agree the original trilogy had better characters, but with ME:A I got what a I wanted, a ME type game with a decent story.

Witcher III however was a seriously kick ass game, can't wait for their cyberpunk equivalent to come out.

Kayasmus said...

KOTOR 3 I hope!

Yeebo said...

All if this news bodes very badly to me. I'd never even heard of Andromeda until these news stories broke. I find it hard to imagine what they can bring to the table over Borderlands or Destiny that is going to make it the break-out success they apparently need.

It also bodes especially badly for SWTOR. Over the last few years their management of SWTOR has slowly transitioned from "baffling ineptitude" (their strategy pretty much from launch) to active pooch screwing. Around the time I got fed up and left, there was also a pretty sharp decline in the pace of new content being introduced. If 90% of Bioware's resources have been focused on this game I've never heard of for the past year or two, that would certainly explain some things.

EA has a nasty habit of pulling the plug on MMOs with very little warning. See Sims Online, Motor City Online and Need for Speed: World. I've been hoping that SWTOR would get a real expansion some time this year that would undo some of the recent missteps, or that I'd at least have a reason to go back and check things out for a while. I'm really doubting that will happen now.