on Oct 15, 2007
I see in the news that Electronic Arts is buying my beloved Bioware. Some people solicited my opinion on the matter, which was a mistake. This is like asking Paris Hilton what she thinks of AMD’s transition to 65nm process technology. The answer may or may not be amusing, but you will be in no way enlightened at the end. I’m not a business expert, and I’m really too much of a Bioware fan to be objective about it. I could even be a Bioware fanboi. I just don’t know. I can, however, engage in uninformed speculation along with everyone else. If this sounds like the sort of endeavor which will make you happy then by all means, let’s do this:
I can’t really broach the subject without excoriating EA a bit first. A few years ago there was the EA Spouse controversy, where a woman talked about the brutal working hours and defective company culture within EA. Lots of debate rose up around it. Slashdot debates ensued. Forum fights emerged. Teenagers on FARK speculated on whether or not EA Spouse might be a hot chick. Positions ranged from “EA is a slave pit and must be destroyed!” to “If the place is so bad, don’t work there, idiot!” But the thing that bugged me most is that this is just an appallingly stupid and ineffective way to make games. People can’t be energetic and creative about their work when they put in seventy hours a week, every week, all the time. You can’t operate in crunch mode for months or years and expect to have a quality product at the end. A company with the resources of EA shouldn’t need to behave this way. They aren’t in survival mode. They’re doing just fine, so creating miserable conditions with high turnover is senseless.
Bioware falls at the opposite end of the spectrum. I don’t know anyone from Bioware (although somebody there reads my site. Hi There!) so I don’t know what the place is like inside. But they are not a conveyor belt development house. They focus on a game, do it very well, release it when it’s good and ready, and move on. A lot of love goes into their games. It shows.
So what does the buyout mean? They have just acquired the goose that lays the Golden Eggs. The question is, are they planning on collecting more eggs or just roasting the goose? I guess it depends on what EA is after. A few items come to mind:
- They want the people at Bioware. Or at least, they want control of the talent at Bioware so that they may aim it in a particular direction. This might not be too bad. They might (for example) oblige the team to focus on a particular platform, or to go multi-platform when Bioware would rather focus on XBox / PC. Mass Effect 2 on the Playstation 3 and such. In any case, unless EA is comprised of complete idiots (which is plausible) they would otherwise leave the Bioware team, their design philosophy, and their corporate culture as they found it. Bioware could still make great games, but they might come out of different platforms or be based on different IP than we might expect.
- They want the IP of Bioware. They want the rights to things like KOTOR, Jade Empire, or Neverwinter Nights so they can port those games to other platforms, turn them into an MMO, make expansion packs, create spinoff titles, or otherwise put them to use elsewhere. In this scenario, the talent pool at Bioware would become a major liability. If all they want are the rights to sequels and such, then the staff at Bioware is of little direct use. Why pay this amicable, talented, creative guy a decent salary when we can hire some desperate kid fresh out of game college for a fraction of the cost? Why not change the culture of the place and crank up the development schedule so we can get a buggy cookie-cutter game every 18 months instead of an excellent one every three years?
- They want a cut of those Bioware profits. Again, I’m clueless when it comes to business, but I can’t imagine this is the case. The Bioware profits (while hopefully large) are most likely peanuts to a creature like EA, and buying a successful company like this one is expensive. It would take them a long time to start getting any kind of a return on their investment.
Beats me. Like I said, I’m coming at this as a consumer, not an insider. The only reason to buy out another company is to change whatever it is they are doing, and since Bioware makes outstanding games I’m not all that eager to see them “changed”. Assuming the team doesn’t leave and form a new company, it will probably be a couple of years before we’re able to see what really happened here and why.
Note to the fine people at Bioware: Good luck.
Shamus Young is an old-school OpenGL programmer, author, and composer. He runs this site and if anything is broken you should probably blame him.