EA Buys Bioware

 By Shamus Oct 15, 2007 50 comments

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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?
  3. 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.

20201050 comments. It's getting crowded in here.


  1. Jeff says:

    I just hope they don’t start cranking out annual titles.

    BG 07′, BG ’08, KotOR ’09…

  2. Pederson says:

    I’m guessing something between 1 and 2, emphasis probably on 2, as it would explain why Bioware decided to work so hard at pursuing their own IP over licensed products.

    (And I don’t think EA can buy KotOR by purchasing Bioware. I’m pretty sure that LucasArts owns that one, lock, stock and barrel.)

  3. lebkin says:

    My guess is that this will be similar to buying Maxis, which really was a combination of 1 and 2. The transition from being Maxis and EA to just being EA was relatively slow, and key staff was kept on through the present day. In particular, founder and creative driving force Will Wright is still a part of the company and making games (Spore is his current project). So I would not be surprised if we do not see much change in Bioware to start with. We may be onto Mass Effect 3 or Jade Empire 2 or so before Bioware begins to disappear and become just EA.

  4. Shamus says “The only reason to buy out another company is to change whatever it is they are doing….”

    Actually, I think the only reason to buy out another company is to MAKE MONEY DAMMIT.

    And sometimes that makes better games… I don’t think the people at Bioware are *really* lamenting the sale. They are trying to pay the rent, too. Early retirement. Yeah, dude!

    You know what I regret?

    I regret selling my MINT SNES system and 50+ games (inclucing Super Mario Brothers!) for a small fortune a couple of years ago. I regret it. For gawd’s sake I have to play Super Mario World on the fargin GBA now. But I made a small fortune. Small n+ Fortune. But now I pine for the SNES… sigh.

  5. Rick Tacular says:

    I remember when EA bought Origin Systems. They took a great gaming company that made great computer games and drive them into the ground, broke them apart, and made Origin a pale shadow of what they once were, all for the Almighty Bottom Line.

    I realize that there’s much more to the story than that, but all I know is that the Ultima series used to be be great stories and then after EA they became time-sensitive, bug ridden chores instead of an entertaining game.

  6. Dr-Online says:

    Oh EA, how this will end will not be well…

    Oh Bioware. how I love thee. And loathe thine massively high job qualification requirements.

  7. xbolt says:

    Oh dear… I hope BioWare doesn’t start cranking out lousy games every year… Hopefully, it will still remain where it is, and still have all the same staff, like the Disney/Pixar merge last year. I was initially worried when they were first bought, but their movies continue to meet my high expectations.

    BioWare made MDK2, which I immediately fell in love with when I first picked it up in 2001, and to this day, it remains my favorite game of all time.

    But… What if we have a repeat of the Ritual/MumboJumbo merge… Probably not, but still… *Shudders*

  8. Avaz says:

    Hey, anyone else hoping the Bioware guys will jump ship and (re)create Black Isle?

    I miss Black Isle. :-S

  9. MaxEd says:

    Avaz,
    Yeah, right and right after that we’ll see resurrection of Troika Games. Dream on. :)

    BlueFaeMoon,
    But surely you can play using SNES emulator, like ZSNES?

  10. Nothing says:

    I suspect that there is a fourth point similar to number two. I also noticed that the EA Spouse touched on this.
    4.The game development world has a few powerhouse developers like EA, Sony, Blizzard and others. Newer companies can’t hope to match their profits and the industry is notoriously hard to break into for startups. Bioware was an established company that had a lot of potential to grow. Yes they are getting new talent and ip but they are also taking a possible future competitor out of the market. Fewer competitors means less choice for gamers who want games that only multi-year and multi-million dollar budgets can produce. That means more profit going to the newest blockbuster game from EA even if it’s just like the last one.

  11. Corsair says:

    Four is incredibly unlikely. You don’t fling $775,000,000 at somebody just to get rid of a tiny amount of competition. They ‘only’ made about three billion in ’05, that’s almost a third of their yearly revenue to get rid of a single competitor. A small one, too. Bioware’s a big name, but it hasn’t made that many titles. Also, Bioware and EA didn’t compete that much, Bioware made RPGs almost exclusively, EA’s primary Cash Crops are Need for Speed, Medal of Honor, The Sims, Command & Conquer, and Burnout. None of which are even remotely similar to RPGs.

    I’m guessing the answer is probably one right now, then some idiot at EA will pitch a Knights of the Old Republic-Mass Effect crossover MMORPG, and it’ll become two. Three is always going to factor in, but I doubt it was their prime motive. I’d say Bioware has five years before they become a cog in EA unless they escape.

  12. Davesnot says:

    Here’s a link to somebody’s Bioware tribute video.. I don’t believe they feel the future is that bright for Bioware… viva la NWN1 !!

  13. Davesnot says:

    I suppose I shoulda put in the link.. ah.. love the late nights..

    http://video.google.com/videoplay?docid=-4726605905474516491&hl=en

  14. Daemian_Lucifer says:

    *sigh*!Another one bites the dust.The mighty EA monster absorbed another one.Trully a pity.

  15. mikael h says:

    If EA knows what they’re doing they should just leave Bioware as they are, and let them finish DRAGON AGE.

  16. mikael h says:

    Oh, and EA won’t get any computer D&D licenses from buying Bioware, Atari are the ones that own them.

  17. Matt P says:

    Corsair made a good point. EA and Bioware don’t really compete. Maybe that’s the reason for the merger though. Is EA getting into the last frontier? Also, I heard Bioware was making some sort of MMORPG that was getting really hyped in some circles. Not entirely certain about that but it makes you wonder that maybe EA was trying to keep Bioware from reaching the “competitive” stage. After all Blizzard wasn’t a mammoth in the games industry until WOW.

  18. Corsair says:

    That’s a good point. MMOs appear to be the gaming industry’s frontier, whether we like it, and them, or not. EA may have acquired Bioware to use them for a new MMO project, a WoW Killer. Of course, then they’ll give it to SOE who will rape it through the pants.

  19. Dev Null says:

    The people who most likely make Bioware what it is will be gone in 6 months, having cashed in their stock options. The good news is, they’ll probably just start another company and go on making good games…

  20. mos says:

    Hell.

    I’ve boycotted EA for awhile now; I’m even planning on skipping Spore. I can’t possibly boycott Bioware games, though, can I?

  21. Rich says:

    Assuming #2 is the way it goes- then odds are that the creative types from Bioware jump ship, regroup and start a small company on their own. You essentially get Bioware back but under a different name.

  22. Spiral says:

    I estimate 6 years before we get another “real” Bioware game. 2 years for the main talent at Bioware to realize they can’t work with EA (and get some of those nice vested stock options), then they form their own studio, and have the usual Bioware timeline of 4+ years before they get a game out.

    Of course, that assumes they all form a company together, rather than go to the four winds like with some other developers this happened to.

  23. nilus says:

    I hope the Bioware teams sticks around. They are saying that Mass Effect is going to be a trilogy and the first game will end ina cliff hanger. I would hate for what looks to be a great game get turned into crap by another team. Maybe not crap, but not as good. Look at KOTOR(bioware) and KOTOR 2(some other company using there engine). KOTOR had a better story, better NPCs, better side quests. KOTOR 2 had you starting as a jedi at level 1 and gave you a huge amount of customization options, but then again its story was all over the place, huge amounts of the story were cut, there were a lot of bugs and the ending sucked.

  24. Allan says:

    To be fair to Obsidian, the developpers of KotOR 2, LucasArts did cut a year or more off their development schedule to rush the thing out the door.

  25. Morte says:

    “Hey you! Don’t you make immersive and innovative computer games?”

    “Why yes, yes I do”

    “Well here’s $35 Million to stop it”

    “OK. Deal”

  26. Fenyx says:

    RE: Rick Tacular

    Yeah, EA killing Origin is why I hate them too.

    Someone on an Ultima group recently posted this link; http://www.escapistmagazine.com/issue/14/4

    ‘Nough to make cry it is.

  27. Blackbird71 says:

    This is not good news for Bioware, or anyone who enjoys their games. EA has a long track record of this kind of thing, it typically stems from reason #2. Several years back, EA bought up Westwood for the C&C title. At the time, Westwood was working on a space-based MMO, Earth and Beyond, something completely new and unique, and a wonderful game to play. Because of this, Westwood agreed to sell with the condition that EA would support EnB for 2 years.

    Technically, EA fulfilled this contract. They didn’t bother advertising the game. They moved nearly all Westwood personnel to other projects. They gave it a skeleton staff of a bare handful of people to support the entire game. They cancelled all the future development plans that had been in the works for broadening the storyline and character options. And when the two years were up, the servers were shutdown “so the resources could be used for other projects.”

    What other projects you may ask? Sim’s Online. Yeah, that catastrophe. Good move, EA, take a brilliant game that with a little help could have been huge, and just squash every chance it has to progress. EnB went offline not because it was a failure as a game, but because EA wanted it to go offline. It wasn’t their project, so they didn’t care, and they lacked the vision to see what it could have been.

  28. Kameron says:

    Ding, ding, ding. #2 is the answer, though of the titles Shamus listed, only Jade Empire is Bioware IP. However, as mentioned in the press release, Mass Effect, Dragon Age and the as yet unnamed MMO are all IPs/market niches that EA felt were missing in their portfolio.

    A couple other corrections to some comments made. First the folks from Black Isle are now Obsidian. Second, and more important to this conversation, Bioware didn’t really profit from the sale to EA. They were previously bought by a venture capitalist group (that’s when Bioware’s co-CEOs received their cashout). That group turned around and sold Bioware/Pandemic to EA. The decision was pure profit for them, as they were looking to make back on their investment. Readying between the lines, I’d even hazard a guess that they were shopping Bioware/Pandemic around.

  29. Shamus says:

    *Bump*

    I intended this post for noon today, but messed up and fired it off last night. By the time I noticed, comments had already appeared. So, I’m now nudging this thing to put it into its intended timeslot to satisfy my blossoming case of OCD.

  30. Althanis says:

    Ahhhhh. OCD. How I love thee…….

  31. Maddyanne says:

    I was so longing for Dragon Age. And being very patient, waiting for the devs to finish it to their satisfaction.

    Sigh.

  32. Deoxy says:

    The truth, at least usually, in large acquisitions, is a combination of all 3 (actually, all 4, as someone else noted).

    There is actually a 5th point, too, but it’s not so much it’s own point as it is an enhancement and facilitator to points 3 and 4.

    5. Accounting.

    Spending a large amount of money on an acquisition can make your books look better, depending on how things are done. This CAN be its own objective, but it can also just grease the skids for 3 & 4.

    “You mean we can make our assets look over $1 billion higher, our profits look bigger, and some other useful accounting crap that gets me a bigger bonus, and all we have to do is spend $800 million? DO IT, DUH!”

    Acquisitions, mergers, spin-offs, etc. almost always have some accounting “benefits” to go along with them.

    What happens to the poor “acquisition” later is not really important (as the xamples of what EA has done to previous acquisitions shows).

  33. Krellen says:

    Considering that Blizzard went grossly downhill almost immediately after being acquired by Vivendi, I have little hope for any good coming of this deal.

  34. Bogan the Mighty says:

    There can still be hope for Bioware to not be so bad under EA. Someone mentioned Westwood earlier, CnC was probably one of my favorite series of games until EA took over. I still have nightmares over what they did with Generals, but they got CnC 3 out now and it is back to the days of old for me! So it could just take time.

  35. Darnon says:

    The progress of Dragon Age was mentioned in a Q&A on Gamespot about the buyout and according to the interviewee, it’s in a playable state as well as some MMO that Bioware had been developing. As long as they’ve been working on Dragon Age, I doubt EA would put all of that development time to the chopping block, especially since it effectively wasn’t on their bill, but stranger things have happened.

  36. Fenyx says:

    RE: Darnon

    Stranger things like this? http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ultima_Worlds_Online:_Origin

    Cancel the sequel to Ultima Online and then 3 years later do it again.

    Another 3 years have passed. They’re behind schedule on canceling Ultima Onlines perhaps they mean to catch up by canceling Dragon Age. :P

  37. Namfoodle says:

    As Kameron pointed out above, Bioware didn’t actually own itself. It was owned by a venture capital firm. That venture capital firm was started by the guy who used to run EA, left in 2004 and then came back last April.

    “It [EA] will pay $620 million to the studios’ owner, Elevation Partners of Menlo Park, founded by U2 rock star Bono and EA Chief Executive John Riccitiello. It will also pay $205 million in stock compensation, Chief Financial Officer Warren Jenson said.

    …Riccitiello, who resigned as EA’s leader in 2004 to help start the investment firm Elevation Partners, rejoined the game publisher in April as CEO.”

    So you could make the argument that EA already owned Bioware, since they were part of their CEO’s personal assets. I’m just guessing that since he was a founder, he owned a major piece of Elevation Partners, which owned Bioware. Who knows, maybe Bono owned most of it.

    So there’s your strategy. You need to appeal directly to Bono. Get him to stop worrying about HIV, Global Warming and 3rd World debt long enough to “SAVE BIOWARE!!”

  38. Davesnot says:

    Here’s one for legal folks… can EA take NWN and make it so it is no longer legal for us to distribute our modules?? Like evoke some buried clause in the liscense?

  39. Rich says:

    Davesnot: Short answer, yes. Long answer, they own it, they can do anything that they want. Thus, yes.

  40. Phlux says:

    I don’t know how EA organizes their businesses, but a lot of times when “publishers” purchase “studios” they don’t really go in and shove their own corporate culture down their throats, but instead simply have a “controlling interest” in the company. That sounds bad, but it depends on how the controlling entity behaves. If they are more like a silent partner, they’ll just be investing in the studio, providing support, etc… and then take their share of the profits when they come in.

    If they’re not so silent they can set timetables, lay off staff, cut budgets, and worst of all, force design decisions or restrictions on the team.

    Wil Wright obviously has a pretty sweet deal with EA for them to be letting him waste all this time and money on Spore, which no matter how great it is, will never make them as much money as The Sims. If Bioware puts in their time, makes a bunch of money off of Mass Effect and whatever other IPs they are workign on, they will likely get a sweet deal like that too down the road.

    It can be a real boon for developers to just sit back and let the corporate overloads handle everything that isn’t the creative part.

  41. Joshua says:

    “5. Accounting.

    Spending a large amount of money on an acquisition can make your books look better, depending on how things are done. This CAN be its own objective, but it can also just grease the skids for 3 & 4.

    “You mean we can make our assets look over $1 billion higher, our profits look bigger, and some other useful accounting crap that gets me a bigger bonus, and all we have to do is spend $800 million? DO IT, DUH!”

    Well, actually, they would have problems doing this. The Financial Accounting Standards Board cracked down on this kind of thing a few years ago after a lot of the scandals with the big-names and a lot of other lesser-known problems with mergers and acquisitions during the 90′s with the FASB Statement 142. Basically, if a company purchased another one and paid too much for it, they would have to have annual checks on the worth of their acquisition instead of being able to defer the loss over 30 or 40 years.

    This resulted in some pretty hefty losses as companies had to immediately own up to some bad purchases. The biggest was the Time Warner-AOL merger which resulted in almost $50 BILLION in losses after this change in accounting practice.

    So, basically, EA could pay too much for Bioware, but it would bite them in the butt in the real short term, not a few years down the line.

  42. Lanthanide says:

    I’m guessing 9 to 15 months before EA buys up Flagship Studios also. I called it first.

  43. Zaghadka says:

    Desperately trying to keep an open mind about this one, too. My inner gamer is crying.

  44. Namfoodle says:

    Joshua is correct. The article I read in the Contra Costa County Times said:

    “The acquisition will result in a one-time cost of 30 cents to 40 cents a share in fiscal 2008 ending in March, the company said. In addition to the purchase price, which will be financed with cash on hand, Electronic Arts will lend $35 million to Elevation’s VG Holding Corp., which manages the studios.”

    So it sounds like they will be “writing off” (an expense or loss) the difference between what they paid and the “accounting book value” of all the assets they acquired.

    Some of the assets would be things like desks and computers and such, which are fairly easy to value. But most of what they acquired is IP, talent, and work in progress, which is much harder to value in accounting terms. You only know if the IP was worth anything if you make money off of it over the next few years.

    So I think that they’re being reasonably conservative in their accounting. 30 to 40 cents a share sounds like a big charge. I suppose I could look up their number of shares and do the math. Nah.

    Anyway, after the announcement, EA’s stock price went up. So the “Market” approves of the idea. If EA continues to make money, their stock price will continue to go up and the “suits” will be happy.

  45. Blackbird71 says:

    Bogan the Mighty said:
    “There can still be hope for Bioware to not be so bad under EA. Someone mentioned Westwood earlier, CnC was probably one of my favorite series of games until EA took over. I still have nightmares over what they did with Generals, but they got CnC 3 out now and it is back to the days of old for me! So it could just take time.”

    This is very true. However, it all depends on which license EA was intent on acquiring, because anything they weren’t interested in or that doesn’t fit in with their genres usually gets tossed and forgotten, regardless of quality. So, they may have gotten CnC right, but they dumped other potentially great Westwood titles to get it.

    Phlux said:
    “I don’t know how EA organizes their businesses, but a lot of times when “publishers” purchase “studios” they don’t really go in and shove their own corporate culture down their throats, but instead simply have a “controlling interest” in the company. That sounds bad, but it depends on how the controlling entity behaves. If they are more like a silent partner, they’ll just be investing in the studio, providing support, etc… and then take their share of the profits when they come in.

    If they’re not so silent they can set timetables, lay off staff, cut budgets, and worst of all, force design decisions or restrictions on the team.”

    Unfortunately, it is not in EA’s history to be a “silent” partner. Their past performance perfectly matches your second scenario (From wikipedia article on “EA Games” under subtopic “Criticism”):

    “EA is often criticized for buying smaller development studios primarily for their intellectual property assets, and then making the developers produce mediocre games on these same franchises.”

    “EA is also criticized for shutting down its acquired studios after a poorly performing game.[11] [12][13] The historical pattern of poor sales and ratings of the first game shipped after acquisition suggests EA’s control and direction as being primarily responsible for the game’s failure rather than the studio.”

    “EA has also received harsh fire from labor groups for its dismissals of large groups of employees during the closure of a studio (see below).”

    “After releasing many products, the lack of support is notable in many games, assured by the fact that EA declared openly that it would no longer support relatively new but still buggy titles, like Need for Speed: Most Wanted, Need for Speed: Underground and some of the latest Command & Conquer[15] games.”

    The article details many examples of these and other issues, all of which serve to back up your second conclusion. Past performance speaks volumes to me. Maybe things will be different this time around, but I’m not getting my hopes up.

  46. Deoxy says:

    Joshua,

    They closed and/or modified one set of loopholes… and created others. History shows that any change to “the rules” MAY work… for a time. It takes little while for everyone to learn how to abuse the new system, that’s all. Accounting tricks still exist, they are just not the SAME tricks as before.

    Namfoodle,

    You put far too much stock in the market value of stocks. The value of a stock is entirely and utterly dependent upon PERCEPTION and nothing more (that’s not entirely true… there’s a floor, based on the physical assets of the company, beneath which the company will receive a hostile takeover and be broken up for the value of its assets).

    The value of stocks USED to be in dividends… that is, you invested in the company, and they gave you a chunk of the earnings. Now, the primary source of income on investments is selling them to someone else… who wants to sell them to someone else… who wants to sell them to someone else… every sale at a profit, forever, with nothing to actually show for it. You can see how this makes no sense.

    It leads to actions designed to raise the price of the stock, and no more – basically, mind games. Maybe that’s not the case here, but I’d be shocked if that wasn’t at least a strong influence on every part of this buy-out (even if it wasn’t the driving force).

  47. Leslee says:

    Bioware has an office right down the street from me here in Austin. Would you like for me to go down there, knock on their door, and ask them how they’re doing?

    Bioware has job openings listed here in Austin that indicate they’re currently working on an MMO of some sort. My husband applied for a job with them. Wish him luck!

  48. T-Boy says:

    Oh look, EA’s off to rape another gaming franchise.

  49. Kodi says:

    A shame.. such a great shame.
    I really hope you post something when (not if) the old Bioware reestablishes itself as a new company. Looking forward to that.

  50. Jokerman89 says:

    What have they done :(

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