I’ve been expecting this news ever since Bioware announced that Mass Effect 3 would not change its ending. I’d hoped that maybe Andromeda could save the Mass Effect series, but then I played it and those hopes were dashed. So let’s cut open the still warm corpse of one of the best scifi gaming franchises and see what killed it.
The Fall of the
Roman Bioware Empire
Bioware was once one of the great companies of the video game industry, and seeing their label meant you were in for a storytelling treat. Sure, they told stories that were more traditional, and they didn’t push boundaries like Obsidian tried to do, but they were still good stories. There was a time when all I had to know was that Bioware was making it and I would instantly pre-order it, I didn’t even have to know what it was about.
Those days are long gone, so how did this empire of interactive storytelling become the hollowed out husk we see before us?
The Mass Effect 3 Ending Broke The Universe
This was something the defenders of Mass Effect 3’s ending seemed to miss… just how utterly screwed the game’s universe was post-ending. People like me, who criticized the ending, weren’t just mad because we didn’t get the ending we wanted; we were mad because we saw just how utterly the ending destroyed much of what we loved about Mass Effect’s universe. Even taking into account the Extended Cut, the amount of damage done to the Mass Relays would take decades if not centuries to be completely repaired. There were still left with a bunch of aliens on a devastated Earth where there wasn’t sufficient food to care for them.
Even ignoring all that, there was the classic Deus Ex problem of which ending would future Mass Effect games make canon? There’s a reason all of the recent Deus Ex games have been prequels, because Deus Ex: Invisible War highlighted the problems with continuing the story. Invisible War tried to circumvent the problem by creating a strange hybrid that made all the endings canon, it was actually sort of an elegant solution in its own way. Yet how would that have worked in Mass Effect, when all the endings were mutually exclusive?
The simplest solution would have been to simply erase the last ten minutes of the ending. Lose the Star-Child-AI-Whatever and that whole awful soliloquy about the Reaper “solution”, and just have the Catalyst set off a space-magic explosion and kill the Reapers. Sure, it would still have been a cheap move that negated all the choices player’s made and robbed us of a proper emotionally fulfilling ending, but it wouldn’t have irreparably damaged the Mass Effect canon.
However even with Bioware’s stubborn refusal to change the ending, all wasn’t lost. They could have just Retconned the ending. Retroactive Continuity (Retcon) means a story contradicting and changing the events of a previous story, and it’s generally frowned upon. In fact there’s such a stigma attached to it that some storytellers will go to outrageous lengths to avoid doing it. It should absolutely be a method of last resort, but Mass Effect is one instance where it would be appropriate.
In fact, if Mass Effect: Andromeda had not been dead on arrival, I have a feeling this is exactly what Bioware was planning to do. Eventually I’m sure that it would have been revealed that humanity failed to stop the Reapers and all intelligent life was snuffed out once again. Perhaps the Reapers would even pursue the survivors to Andromeda in a future sequel.
No matter how you look at it though, the ending of Mass Effect 3 left an absolute mess for Bioware to try and resolve with the next iteration. Still it wasn’t unfixable and trying to circumvent the damage by taking Mass Effect to Andromeda could have been an elegant solution. Could Andromeda have been saved if it still had the old Bioware team working on it? We’ll never know because…
Most of Bioware is Gone
Playing through Mass Effect: Andromeda, it was difficult for me to imagine that it was made by the same people who made Mass Effect 2 and Dragon Age: Origins. Other than the fact that Andromeda uses a Bioware IP, it bears very little resemblance to the games that game before it. Which makes sense, because as I researched this article, I found out that it wasn’t in fact made by the same people. Everyone, all most to a man, that worked on Bioware’s most famous titles had long since left Bioware by the time Andromeda went into production.
There’s a thought experiment called the Ship of Theseus that you’ve probably heard at some point, though probably using a car than a ship: if you replace every wooden part of a ship… is it the same ship?
Well I can’t speak for ships, but if you replace every member of a company with a new person, Andromeda definitively proves that it is not in fact the same company.
Bioware began in 1995, making the company just slightly younger than I am. Three doctors, Ray Muzyka, Greg Zeschuk, and Augustine Yip were all medical doctors who started off doing some programming in med school and playing video games to relax. Thanks to the fact that doctors make pretty good money, they were able to pool together enough capital to start their own company. And now I understand why the company is called Bioware, Bio as in Biology because they’re doctors, I finally see what you did there guys.
Along with two other founding members, Brent and Trent Oster, Bioware began turning out their first video game Shattered Steel. I never played, or had even heard of, this game myself but it was enough of a success to gain the attention of Interplay. That’s when they began working on Baldur’s Gate.
And here’s what I want to focus on: the members of the Bioware team were all huge fans of pen-and-paper RPGs and especially D&D. They were passionate about the project, and this is something that will become a theme for all of Bioware’s titles. Like all great creative minds, they weren’t in this for the money so much, they all had successful medical practices after all. They wanted to create awesome games. In pursuit of that goal, they began looking to add more talent to their company.
Bioware merged with Pandemic in 2005, and this is when Bioware would run into trouble. Using a holding company to facilitate the merger, Bioware bought Pandemic and the two merged into a single studio. Unfortunately that meant Bioware’s Ray Muzyka and Greg Zeschuk were now beholden to stock holders and venture capitalists. So when EA Games came to them with a half-a-billion dollar offer, it seemed like good business to accept? Who among us would have the fortitude to turn down that kind of money?
The buyout by Electronic Arts was completed in 2007, just prior to the release of Mass Effect. Shortly after that in 2008 EA would merge Bioware with Mythic Entertainment so that all its RPG teams would be under a single company. Still, despite all this, Bioware seemed to retain some of its autonomy, and, more importantly, its drive to create amazing video game stories. Over the years, perhaps even because of these mergers and the financial resources of EA, Bioware had managed to collect an exceptional team of talented people.
There was Drew Karpyshyn, senior writer for Knights of the Old Republic and lead writer on the first two Mass Effect games. David Gaider, who also worked on Knights of the Old Republic and was lead writer on Dragon Age: Origins and its sequel. Casey Hudson, who directed the entire Mass Effect series. Mac Walters and Patrick Weekes, who were both supporting writers on the Mass Effect series as well.
Aside from Mac Walters, who directed Andromeda, and Patrick Weekes who works on the Dragon Age series, none of those people were still working at Bioware when Andromeda was in production. (Though Casey Hudson has now returned to Bioware, for however long that lasts.)
That’s not to say the current team isn’t talented, they might very well be just as talented as those that came before. Unfortunately all the talent in the world can’t save us from…
The real problem is that EA didn’t want to make a Mass Effect RPG, they wanted to make a No Man’s Sky ripoff. In much the same way Dragon Age Inquisition was trying to copy Skyrim‘s open world mechanics, to its own detriment, Mass Effect: Andromeda tried to create a procedurally generated universe. Not because the story demanded it or because it would make a better game for their players. No, they wanted it because the corporate dipshits at EA saw how much money No Man’s Sky was making and decided it wanted a piece of that pie. Problem is that not even No Man’s Sky could deliver on its promises: the technology just isn’t there to make procedurally generated as compelling as a handcrafted experience.
More to the point though, in its chase to lure new demographics to Mass Effect, they completely screwed over its existing fans. Those that went in expecting a compelling narrative and amazing characters were left solely disappointed. Meanwhile, the people looking for an infinite procedurally-generated space adventure were left disinterested because Andromeda couldn’t get it working. Years were wasted on a random planet generator, instead of a polished script and focusing on storytelling gameplay.
This is hardly an EA exclusive mistake however, every major publisher makes this mistake. In fact it’s a problem with businesses in general.
If you’re not growing, you’re shrinking.
That’s a common refrain and it’s also a toxic mindset, because it says nothing is ever enough. Every project, every game, has to make more than it did last time. It wasn’t enough for Mass Effect Andromeda to sell as well as Mass Effect 3, it had to sell more than ever before. EA estimated, apparently based on wishful thinking, that Mass Effect: Andromeda would sell 3 million copies in a few days. Mass Effect 3 sold that many in March 2012, but that was the conclusion of a trilogy that already had a solid player base that was emotionally invested. Expecting it to match its predecessor was unrealistic, especially given the mediocre games it released in the interim.
That’s why both Dragon Age Inquisition and Mass Effect Andromeda both sought to expand their appeal, so it would sell more copies. Yet in the end all it did was sabotage itself, spreading itself so thinly that nothing satisfied anyone.
This greed for more, always more, is not only destroying video game quality but also making them much harder to afford. Just like banks making billions a year looked at ATMs and decided to charge people for accessing their own money, video game companies look at games we own and are continually looking at ways to make us keep paying for them. From absurd collectors editions to microtransactions and ridiculous real-money marketplaces in games we paid 60 for, there is seemingly no limit to what game publishers won’t do. All because raking in millions a year isn’t enough, they want to be making more millions than ever before.
I don’t want to get too much into politics, but this to me seems a problem with the world at large. I can’t imagine running a company that makes billions a year and thinking “well this is nice, but I’d really like to be making 9 billion a year instead of 8.5.” Obviously video game companies, even ones like EA, aren’t pulling in that kind of money, but my point is the same. Why is there never enough? Nothing in nature can grow indefinitely, even a star will eventually collapse in on itself if it grows too large.
Casey Hudson has said that Mass Effect will make a return some day, and I’m sure that’s true. I just doubt we’ll recognize it as Mass Effect when it comes out. Right now Bioware is working on Totally not a Destiny Ripoff Anthem, a multiplayer based shooter. They claim there will be an epic story, but of course Destiny claimed the same thing and we know how that turned out. If it’s successful, I have no doubt that Mass Effect will return as a multiplayer based shooter as well. If it isn’t, I’m sure they’ll retool Mass Effect to fit whatever the current flavor the month is in the gaming world is.
The Mass Effect we all knew? That’s gone, and I’m sorry to say that it’s probably never coming back.
Although I agree with most of the points in the article, I have to disagree with the premise. I’m sure EA’s BioWare division will keep throwing out soulless products for years to come. 😀
I think Andromeda is a good example for that, because it didn’t sell THAT bad. It just didn’t sell well enough (to warrant a direct sequel and more sp DLC). That’s a huge difference. It is like you said – even if one game sells millions of copies, they will still always expect the next game to sell millions more. And that’s where Andromeda failed. If they wouldn’t have such unrealistic goals, Andromeda would have been another huge hit for them.
btw: I opened the Origin client a few days ago and I saw that they are now selling multiplayer characters directly in Origin, it used to be strictly microtransactions in-game. So they are still not done monetizing this game, not by a long shot. Together with their new Destiny-clone game, it really shows what future BioWare titles will be from now on. Excuses for offering in-game microtransactions.
The really sad thing is, that they actually might earn more money with Andromeda this way, because all the micropayments in this game are ultimately free money for them. True singleplayer DLC costs a lot of money to make and then they sell it once to a player. But with multiplayer packs they don’t have to do/make anything and yet they get money…
As long as nothing similar happens to Obsidian, I’m good.
Oh I’m sure Bioware will continue on, it has too much brand recognition. That’s actually why I used the Roman Empire metaphor, the Byzantine Empire continued marching under the banner of the SPQR, for the senate and people of Rome, for hundreds of years after the Western Empire collapsed. But the entity that history knows as the Roman Empire died with the collapse of Western empire.
Well that figures, EA will milk Andromeda of everything cent its worth, and more, before finally leaving the desiccated corpse alone. I hate that it’s more financially rewarding to create a game filled with microtransactions and shitty multiplayer add-ons then it is to create a good story-based video game. I really do.
And yes, here’s hoping Obsidian keeps carrying on. I had a few qualms with Pillars of Eternity’s story, but at least they’re still trying to create good stories. They put in the effort, and even when it doesn’t land for me, I still admire the effort.
It’s circular, though: one of the most common responses I saw at the time to Andromeda’s middling quality was a decision to wait for story DLC – the expectation being that a “Lair of the Shadow Broker” or “Citadel”-tier expansion, or the addition of new squadmates, might smooth out some of the rough edges. By shutting that door so publicly and so definitively, EA has effectively driven off those players who might have bought the “complete” version.
It might not matter, the multiplayer part of Andromeda still seems to be packed with players. Looks to me as if business is good.
I used it for a while as my “podcast-game” (I listen to my podcasts while I play a game, easiest way for me to focus on listening).
It did sell that bad. DA2 only sold 1.45 million copies in its first year and over 600K were pre-orders.. But that was enough to continue the series.
And can also tell by what they say and don’t say. When DA:O sold over three million units, they were the first to brag about it being ‘triple platinum.’ Same with the first ME trilogy. When SWTOR had 1.6 million sold it’s first month, they bragged about that too.
ME:A. No sales figures. No revenue figures. Vague Corporate Boardroom Speak about it in the financials and a cancelled series. Those all say “bad sales.”
Mass Effect: Andromeda was a financial success https://www.pcgamesn.com/mass-effect-andromeda/mass-effect-andromeda-sales-numbers
lol. I’m a retired CPA. I know BS talking points in board meetings when managers want to BS the board about things. When sales volumes are good, they disclose them. When sales volumes are bad you get this kind of soft-pedaled BS about ‘contributions.’ The gaming press, 100% ignorant about the business side as far as I can tell, fell for it.
However, no real numbers were released. Just like when EA was lying about the SWTOR player-base. 1.6 million bought the game, which had the first month’s subscription free. Many bought 3-month passes even before they played the game. They bragged like crazy about those MMO numbers.
In the next quarter they didn’t talk about numbers and, basically, said everything was fine and talked about how the game was ‘contributing to strong revenues’ when, in fact, it was dying a fairly quick death and had lost over 2/3rds of its players in the first two months and continued to bleed until it became a complete shell of itself and went to Free-to-Play to get traffic.
By 2014 the 215 World Wide servers, all heavily populated back in the early days, fell to 17 mostly empty servers.
I honestly disagree with your sentiment.
I think the reason here is essentially, that they are done with singleplayer/offline games. EA as a whole seems to be moving away from this type of game/entertainment. Most of their newer games and announced games are multiplayer with microtransactions. Then there is the whole streaming model on top of that. Something that can only be gained access to by subscribing and paying monthly fees.
For a company it’s much more “interesting” (=lucrative) to have players subscribe to a service, who have to pay them money each month, whether they are releasing an actual game or not. If someone has a 12 months subscription, it is guaranteed income. Every time a “classic game” is released no one will even know how many people will buy it. It is a gamble.
It’s also not surprising, since Netflix and Spotify etc. have already been successful with streaming movies, series and music. So from their perspective, I’m sure, it’s only logical to now do the exact same thing with games.
I’m personally not interested in paying for games like people would pay for car or health insurance and I would hope that they aren’t successful, but sadly I fully expect this to become a thing.
Long story short: A game like Mass Effect Andromeda can never make as much cash as a piece of software that people have to pay subscription fees for alongside microtransactions – even if it sells “well enough”. With subscription fees people won’t play more, but they’ll still always pay.
My biggest problem with Andromeda was that it was clearly phoned in. But worse, several of the project members even said that they only really used the last 18 months of a 5 year project to actually develop the game. Much of the hardware wasn’t even possible with Frostbite as the engine, which they didn’t discover until the literal last minute. Kotaku wrote a really great piece on the development cycle, and I’d encourage your readers to check it, as well.
I would, however, totally agree with your points as a multiplayer cash cow. They’ll keep trying to monetize the MP series they make, as a ripoff of, you guessed it, Destiny. The truly sad part is that copies are never as successful as the original. Especially when the dissatisfaction with your product is driving your MP users straight to the new release of Destiny 2. All of my Xbox Live friends list is currently in game, as I type this. Those are all adds from ME3 and Andromeda multiplaying adventures over the years.
The originality at EA left years ago, and they sank BioWare with it.
That Kotaku article was a real eye-opener, though I wish the author had acknowledged more centrally that this is the exact same pattern of behavior EA applies to every acquisition it makes – there’s a reason it’s left behind so many burnt-out husks of game companies.
To me Bioware started dying with Dragon Age Awakenings. I had just finished the main game when it was announced and I was astonished when they said you could play again with your dead Warden and no explanation would be offered in-game. I had just made the ultimate sacrifice and thought that choice was awesome. It all came crashing down when I read about the expansion. How could they disregard such an important choice? My amazing game became hollow in an instant.
I actually remember them offering the explanation, that if the player was good with assuming the warden survived somehow anyway, then they wouldn’t stand in the way of that and block such a savegame.
I thought that was kind of okay, since a player who was opposed to this idea, could just use another character to play this expansion. They even offered a new warden character from Orlais (I think it was), to address such a scenario.
I have to admit I liked Awakening. It still had a lot of good stuff to offer. Even though it felt rushed/unpolished (too many unfixed bugs – seriously, they didn’t even bother to release a patch for the worst bugs).
I read that too. That’s what made me mad, that they did not even bother to offer an in-game explanation. I mean, I saw my Warden’s funeral. I fell they took the easy way out.
Alright I’m late as hell on this but I have to reply.
This was not the case in Awakening. If your Warden made the ultimate sacrifice you started with an Orlesian Grey Warden Commander who was sent to rebuild the Fereldan Wardens. There was no inconsistency or cop out. Awakening was decent only problem was the characters were a little shallow compared to the depth of character interaction in Origins.
If there is any lesson to take from Bioware’s decline it’s this. We as the consumer need to stop worshipping companies in producing video games including Obsidian. These companies are filled with regular humans just like us and we as the consumer need to judge these companies based on their products. One of the reasons we all felt cheated is because we associated Bioware with good story telling and once we did, we become fans blind to their flaws or misshapes. We as the consumer, need to be more vigilant in the future on where we spend our hard earned cash. Because the future for video games seems to be online gaming and micro transactions as opposed to storytelling.
I was never blind. NWN, the original campaign, was pretty mediocre and nonsensical. I didn’t even finish it it was so stupid. In fact, I found the stuff done by the community in the persistent worlds to be the only real value until the second expansion pack Hordes of the Underdark.
Gaider admitted that the original campaign they had didn’t work and what they gave us was built in just under a year which is why the story was so cardboard with some really nonsensical plot twists. .
Since we are already talking about EA, I think it seems fitting to mention this: http://www.gamesindustry.biz/articles/2017-09-12-gamings-move-away-from-ownership-model-is-inevitable-ea
Either I own it, or I don’t buy it. So they can move away from their revenue stream all they want. As it stands now I don’t but UbiSoft or EA games anymore. Everything they do in the genre’s I like are substandard in one or more areas.
Yeah I’m with you now, and honestly I don’t know how companies keep getting away with this. Just 10 years ago I spent way more money on games than I do now, because now I can’t stand all the crap they shove into games: dedicated online drm disguised as crap like Uplay, 60 dollar games including microtransactions, and absurd amounts of preorder crap… I just can’t be bothered. I don’t understand how others put up with it.
Hi John, “sadly” a great post.
In earlier times game developers were born from gamers – even if it was “only” an old, analogous board game they played. They developed from gamer for gamer.
At an age of nearly 40 I am a gamer from the very first beginning (ok, indeed there are few games older than I am). I always loved adventures due to story and long-term enjoyment. Games without Ingame-Sales and really creapy “graphics”. We used the time while gamesequences had to be loaded from floppy or disc just to get something to eat or to drink – or play analogous games interim. But games were worth waiting.
Over the years games became bigger, better, wider. From VGA to XGA. From XGA to HD. From 32 bit to 64 bit. From 19,95 DM (nowadays around 10 EUR) to 99,00 EUR (nowadays around 180 DM).
I love Mass Effect – even the last one – it helps me believing that mankind one day will leave behind the refrain you metioned…but for sure not as long as companies successfully use this naive way of thinking to boost their profits.
By the way, I think you already heard of it, but perhaps you did not.
For me – as for thousand other ME-Players – there is only one true ending of the first trilogy – and it really combines all wishes and hopes of fans who were disappointed of BioWare who has failed to fulfill our hopes and expectations: MEHEM (Mass Effect Happy End Mod –
It’s old but it’s worth to be mentioned.
So, thank you for your analyses.
Let’s hope that one day games are developed again not to enrich the wallets of some but the minds of many.
Patrick B., (German Gamer – sorry for my occasionally bad English)
Thanks for the compliments, I’m glad you enjoyed the article. Yes, the more games became a profitable enterprise, the more business interests began to guide game development. That’s not to say business doesn’t have a place in gaming though. It might be fair to say that the Mass Effect we know and love might not have come into existence without the financial resources of EA. But like all things it’s a balancing act, and has been shown by Bioware’s fall in quality, when things lean too heavily towards business things fall apart.
And yes I’ve heard of the Happy Ending mod, in fact I’ve used it as an example of just how much improved the ME3 had Bioware simply cut the final 10 minutes of the game and the horrible “catalyst” scene. End it with Captain Anderson dying, the crucible firing and roll credits. People would still have been disappointed by the lack of our choices mattering in the ending, but it would have been a serviceable ending that gave us resolution. I wouldn’t have written the huge deconstruction of ME3 had the Catalyst not made an appearance.
Thanks again Patrick, and your English is impeccable. I wouldn’t have known you weren’t a native English speaker had you not mentioned it.
Longtime BioWare employee Mike Laidlaw has left the company, he announced on Twitter today. He was creative director of the Dragon Age series, as well as a writer for Mass Effect and Jade Empire.
That, btw, is in the middle of the new Dragon Age game.
with both Laidlaw and Gaider gone, yeah, the new Dragon Age game will be unrecognizable.
Maybe it will energize the franchise?
Could be, I suppose it depends on who they hire to replace him.
I didn’t mean that to sound as if no one else could write for Dragon Age, there are literally thousands of writers out there that could do justice to the series. I just think Laidlaw’s departure is a symptom of something truly toxic at EA and Bioware if all their creative talent is abandoning ship. I hope I’m wrong though, I do love the Dragon Age universe.
Big organizations that are based on creativity generally degrade over time. Talent is not uniformly distributed and the Top-TAlent tends to carry the team. However, the top-talent also has options and tends to leave for bigger pastures, while the marginal talent tends to stay.
Over-time the over-all talent degrades until you get Jennifer Helper and other bad writers writing us bad stories. Which gets us to ME:A. I watched Many A True Nerd do his playthrough. The game was awful. There is no two ways about it. The story was stupid and incoherent (which has been detailed here and other places). And the game, well, the areas looked nice, but a lot of them were stupid too as they relied on over-whelming grandiosity instead of quality level design.
Then there’s EA… They destroy everything. They have ruined every one of the game companies I’ve liked and they’ve acquired. There is no reason, at least to me, BioWare will rise from the ashes..
BioWare is dead, sadly.
Unfortunately, EA kills the Phoenix.
Bioware has experienced a changing of the guard so to speak, but they have terrific back catalog of content with name recognition. If and I do mean if, EA Games and Bioware ever choose to galvanize their player base and even entice new players to either Mass Effect and/or Dragon Age, all they have to do is one thing. Bring back Commander Shepard or The Warden. Two iconic heroes that anchored their best original series, neither of whom in accepted canon is entirely gone. Bring them back and yes, copies will sell!
The problem is they’re telling an electrician to work on plumbing and a car. I can understand exploring new things and fields, I remember in the early 2010’s Bethesda cracked their hand at new kind of games like Rage and Blink, but these were new IP’s. They weren’t fooling around with established IP’s that have a lot of expectations with them. That is why despite Blink being a disaster it’s more of a forgotten mistake than a blight on the record of Bethesda. They never forgot what got them where they were and didn’t completely upend the formula that made The Elder Scrolls and Fallout appeal to so many gamers to try and grow their audience.
Also it’s just idiotic to try and do what everyone else is doing. It’s easy to occupy virgin soil, but it’s hard to fight for hill that is already occupied and foolhardy to do so when the hill you’re on is pretty good. Kind of reminds me the speech option in Fallout New Vegas where you convince Lanius that if he tries to take the West he’ll loose the East. Very much applies to Bioware right now. They tried to take Bethesda’s hill and they lost the one they had to CD Project Red.