A lot of obituaries are going to be penned for BioWare over the next days. Anthem’s shaky release only adds to a narrative that’s taken shape over the past decade: BioWare’s best days are behind it.
Once regarded as one of the very best RPG studios in the business, BioWare’s games have drawn more and more criticism over the years. Star Wars: The Old Republic had problems with its endgame; Mass Effect 3 had problems with its ending; Dragon Age: Inquisition had problems with being shallow, and Mass Effect: Andromeda… well… Mass Effect: Andromeda just had problems. Even Mass Effect 2, still regarded by many as Peak BioWare, drew its share of grumbles from old-school RPG fans for emphasizing action over depth.
EA, being the easy target that it is, tends to catch most of the blame for BioWare’s troubles. But that’s only part of the story. The truth is that BioWare was already on its current path when EA entered the picture.
When EA purchased BioWare in October 2007, Mass Effect was only a month away from release. Its more RPG-focused systems aside, Mass Effect was notable for being BioWare’s first foray into the mainstream action space. It was praised for its storytelling, memorable cast, and setpieces, but criticized for its shooting, which still relied on stats-driven number crunching. BioWare drew two lessons from this experience. One, production values were paramount. Two, hardcore RPG elements were a poor fit for a triple-A blockbuster. These lessons would shape BioWare’s output for the next decade.
Mass Effect’s success turned BioWare into a blockbuster studio, with all of the expectations that came with it. The isometric RPGs that had made BioWare’s reputation began to fall to the wayside. Dragon Age: Origins would be the last game in the D&D mold released by BioWare; and while it was a success, it was clear the old party-based tactics formula didn’t readily translate to consoles.
The games that followed were punchier and more action-focused. Mass Effect 2 dispensed with many of the first game’s more esoteric systems in favor of straightforward shooting. Dragon Age 2 slimmed down the original’s skill trees and became more of a hack-and-slash action game. Star Wars: The Old Republic tried to emulate the success of World of WarCraft, but largely neglected hardcore MMORPG fans in favor of a more traditional story-driven experience, giving it a comparatively short shelf life.
While BioWare was more and more driven to streamline its games to satisfy mainstream audiences, it was also expected to have the highest-quality production values. Like all studios, BioWare found itself dealing with spiraling development costs and intense development schedules that left no room for error. Dragon Age 2 was the first sign that BioWare was cracking under this pressure, as it famously shipped with cut-and-paste dungeons and a ramshackle final act.
That BioWare was stretched thin by the demands of triple-A was all the more apparent in Dragon Age: Inquisition. Sensitive to the expectations that came with a blockbuster release, BioWare sought to cram it with fetch quests to ensure that it was padded out as much as possible. Its combat attempted to split the difference between hardcore and casual with a rough compromise between realtime action and the party-based mechanics of old. It even had a multiplayer mode.
A few months later, The Witcher 3 was released to near-universal acclaim. The Witcher 3 was just the sort of game people expected from BioWare: a story-driven action RPG with outstanding graphics, a deep story, and plenty of romance. It was a far more focused experience than Dragon Age: Inquisition, which found itself the victim of a sprawling scope and thinly-realized gameplay systems. The Witcher 3 felt richly realized in ways that BioWare’s games hadn’t felt in years.
Sadly, BioWare’s focus on breadth at the expense of depth would continue to be its downfall over the next few years. When its attempt to produce a procedurally-generated universe for Mass Effect: Andromeda went bust, BioWare was left with a half-baked rehash of its previous games that was roundly mocked for its poor graphics. It was a killer flop for a studio badly in need of a hit.
In BioWare’s defense, making blockbuster games is insanely hard in this day and age. The last 15 years have seen budgets skyrocket as massive teams pin all of their hopes on just a few games per year. If a core idea like Mass Effect: Andromeda’s procedural generation doesn’t work immediately, an entire project can collapse under its own weight.
And yes, it’s true, BioWare certainly hasn’t been helped by EA, which has made plenty of missteps of its own. The need to shoehorn seemingly every game into the Frostbite engine has proven a bane for FIFA and BioWare alike, as have the demands to build extensive multiplayer modes. BioWare has reportedly tried to get permission to make a new Knights of the Old Republic, only to be stubbornly rejected.
Behind the scenes, BioWare has suffered a talent drain as some of its longest-serving developers have departed for greener pastures. Founders Ray Muzyka and Greg Zeschuk went into semi-retirement; writers Mike Laidlaw and David Gaider departed after Dragon Age: Inquisition, and Mass Effect 3 director Casey Hudson left and then returned. Changes like these would have a negative impact on any studio.
But looking back, the success of Mass Effect feels more and more like a poisoned chalice. It propelled BioWare to undreamed of success, but it also robbed it of its soul. It’s hard to imagine it ever returning to the heights of Baldur’s Gate 2, when BioWare was an independent PC developer catering to a limited but ferociously loyal audience. Anthem is the natural endpoint of a process that began more than a decade ago, when BioWare decided its traditional approach was incompatible with large-scale success.
The kicker is that hardcore RPGs are in vogue right now. Witcher 3 is the best game of the generation. Divinity Original Sin 2 has proven that there’s still an audience for hardcore isometric RPGs. Even Assassin’s Creed is an RPG now.
More than ever, BioWare needs to reset, refocus, and get back to basics with a smart, focused RPG of the type that it used to make. In a perfect world, that would be Knights of the Old Republic 3, or whatever Dragon Age 4 ends up being (assuming it gets made). Sadly, Anthem’s slow start combined with EA’s intransigence makes that seem unlikely, and that leaves the future of one of gaming’s great studios very much in doubt.
Major Game Releases This Week: February 25 to March 1
Here are the major releases for the week of February 25 to March 1. Want to see the complete list? Check out our full list of video game release dates for 2019.
- Trials Rising [February 26, PC, PS4, Xbox One, Switch]: Trials Rising returns to next-generation consoles, and by all accounts it’s very good! Well, if you ignore the loot boxes anyway. Unfortunately, that doesn’t seem particularly easy.
- Dead or Alive 6 [March 1, Arcade, PC, Xbox One, PS4]: Dead or Alive returns to modern consoles after a seven year layoff. It feels like the venerable fighting game series is better known for beach volleyball these days, but it still has at least a little of a following (probably?) This one is reportedly much more violent than previous entries. Expect our full review when it comes out on Friday.
This Week’s News and Notes
- Despite the negative reviews, I went through the trouble of installing and playing Anthem over the weekend. My first thought was, « Huh! This isn’t so bad! » I mentioned this to Mike at the meeting this morning, and he said, « I’ll bet you’re still in the honeymoon phase. » That doesn’t seem promising.
- Thinking about it, Anthem’s main problem might be that it shows all of its cards too quickly. It’s so keen to get you in the door early that it runs out of surprises by the midgame. I’ve only just begun and I already feel like I have an endgame kit, absent a few more stat augments and abilities. I get the feeling it will become repetitive quickly.
- For all of the talk bout Anthem and Apex Legends, this year’s real breakout hit has been Tetris 99. I finally got my first win over the weekend, and when I was done, I dropped the controller and raised my arms like I had just finished a marathon. I have no idea how long it will last, but it sure is my favorite game of 2019 right now.
- A messy situation is unfolding as the Taiwanese horror game Devotion was pulled from both Steam and Youtube. The apparent impetus for this was a Winnie the Pooh reference intended to mock Chinese president Xi Jinping, which resulted in a review bombing campaign. It will remain offline while developer Red Candle Games is in the process of « business mediation. »
- Last week Reggie Fils-Aime surprisingly retired from his role as president/mascot of Nintendo of America. I wrote about his legacy.
- Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse unsurprisingly won the Oscar for Best Animated Picture last night. What was more surprising was that it sprang directly from the thoroughly mediocre Spider-Man: Shattered Dimensions.
- You may have noticed that we have two newsletters now! One is devoted to Axe of the Blood God, while the other focuses on rounding up the previous week’s news and articles. You can see what it looks like and subscribe here.
- Axe of the Blood God: A recording mishap has temproarily delayed this week’s podcast. Expect it later today. You can subscribe to the podcast here