Before we get into what to do we have to get into what not to do. There are several ideas that I bet the head honchos at Bioware are currently considering, and before I do anything else I have to talk them out of them, because they’re bad. Let’s go through them in order.
“Let’s reboot Mass Effect and make it an MMO/MOBA/Battle Royale/whatever”: Let’s do this one first, because I know you have to be thinking about it. Your thinking is probably a combination of “if the problem is the ending, let’s just rewind the timeline” and “MMO’s make lots of money.” First of all, the ending isn’t really the problem. You sent players to a whole other galaxy in Andromeda and the game was still a disappointment. We’ll try to nail down the real problem later, but it’s not the ending. Second, World of Warcraft made a lot of money. League of Legends makes a lot of money, Fortnite makes a lot of money. And for every one of those, there are a half-dozen flops.
You should know this. The Old Republic wasn’t exactly a flop, but it didn’t make the dent in the market you hoped it would, even with the Star Wars license. Anthem did worse. Announce a Mass Effect MMO and everyone will brace themselves for disappointment, including me. Instead, I declare that you must spend forty years in the wilderness of single-player, to rediscover the virtues of peasant labor. Or if not forty years maybe thirty-six months or so.
“Let’s hire a bunch of twentysomething writers for cheap”: You really have to stop doing this so much. You know I’ve noticed about Bioware’s writers, and game industry writers more generally? They’re young. Patrick Weekes was one of the writers on Mass Effect (he now works on Dragon Age I believe). He’s older now, obviously, but I remember seeing a picture of him back during the ME2 days. He looked like he would get carded at a Starbucks, and he’s not alone. The industry habit is to hire a bunch of fresh-out-of-their-creative-writing-majors, because they’re so eager and they’ll work for peanuts. You can hire some of those, but you need to also hire some people experienced enough to get hangovers, and pay them a fair salary too.
This is important. The assembly-line, do-it-for-cheap approach to games writing is a direct contributor to its overall poor quality industrywide. I’m a fiction writer myself, in that I write fanfiction and show it to no one, and I can tell you that I often wince when I read things I wrote in my twenties. Writing is like any other skill, you get better with practice. You understand this in other parts of game development; programming leads seem like the types of people who know about high-end scotch or use standing desks for their back problems. And you know what? I’d say the quality of programming in the industry is pretty good overall. Games are sometimes buggy sure, but they generally work. I wish I could say “games are generally well written,” but the truth is they aren’t, and I doubt they ever will be if you keep trying to write games on the cheap.
Don’t think of it as spending, think of it as investment. There’s a game columnist called “The Spy” (they don’t reveal their real name) who summarized the Mass Effect formula as “space plus feelings equals dollars.” Half that equation is feelings! Invest extra into writing, and you’ll get good returns. Keep in mind that if you don’t I’m not legally liable, but still.
“Let’s spend years in preproduction!”: I’m not entirely sure how something like this happens, but apparently it does for some reason. If, after one year, you’re still not sure what kind of game you want to make, you probably never will be.
“Let’s crunch!”: And now for the opposite problem. Stop fucking crunching so much! Are you not aware that that overworking your employees will backfire in the end? It’s not just me saying this, it’s the Harvard Business Review. They’re not the only ones either. I found that article by googling “studies on overwork,” I could probably find five similar ones in just a few minutes. The consensus is pretty strong: overworking doesn’t. It leads to burnout and turnover, and offices staffed almost entirely by the equivalent of entry-level employees. If you’re going to ask to people to do a complicated, difficult thing like making a videogame, you need to make sure they have some room on their schedule for sleeping and downtime. Also, EA: aren’t you at least a little bit sick of people not liking you? Start treating your employees better and you may be surprised at how much good publicity you get.
Downtime is not wasted time in a creative endeavor, and game development is a creative endeavor. Even things like programming and managing a pipeline are creative endeavors on some level. Ease off on the crunch, and give your people full time and a half for it to keep yourselves honest.
If you don’t, you’ll keep having Andromeda-style polish problems like the near-identical alien faces described here by a poster called “biscuitsntea.” Look upon the wages of crunch, and despair.
“Let’s go back to what works. We’ll just do all the stuff fans haven’t complained about yet over again.”: This is a dangerous game to play. The Mass Effect formula is starting to creak. You’re even running out of names. You keep using “conduit” for things and it’s only a matter of time before you call something a “catalyst” or a “crucible” again, hoping we won’t noticeWhat is it with Bioware and c words?. “Meridian” made me roll me eyes a little and I’m pretty sure it’s the first time you’ve used it.
I can already picture the protagonist in my head: a power fantasyAt one point in ME3 Shepard headbutts a Krogan and it works. with a two-syllable last name or nicknameShepard, Ryder, the Warden, I guess Hawke was only one syllable so he’s off the hook. who gets some kind of technobabble sci-fi based powerThe Prothean Cipher, the Darkspawn Taint, SAM. in the first act. I can go on. Cass Marshall of Polygon wrote about Anthem:
“…an endless stream of incoherent lore. I’m a Freelancer, working with Cyphers who are aboard Striders heading into a Cataclysm caused by Shaper technology that harnesses the Anthem of Creation. I must get past the Titans to find the Cenotaph at the center of the Heart of Rage. Later, I will have to contend with Scars, Arcanists, the Monitor, and Corvus.”
This leads nicely into the next thing you shouldn’t do, which is:
“Let’s make everything bigger and more epic”: Us nerds don’t want big and epic as much as you think we do. Over the last ten years I’ve been utterly bombarded with epic. The Hobbit trilogy is one of the most epic things I’ve ever seen. It ain’t any good though. The Marvel people snapped away half the damn universe trying to get me to feel something, and I only cared a little bit because I knew there was no way Spider-Man was actually dead. Only copyright disputes can kill a character that lucrative. Thanos never stood a chance.
Unless you’re willing to get ridiculous with it, like the Fast and the Furious movies, epic is a quality whose returns diminish sharply the more you use them.
So I think that covers all the major things you shouldn’t be doing, though I’m sure more will come to me as I write. Next we talk about opportunity. Did you know that the Chinese character for “opportunity” is a combination of the characters for “stopping” and “IP depreciation”?
 What is it with Bioware and c words?
 At one point in ME3 Shepard headbutts a Krogan and it works.
 Shepard, Ryder, the Warden, I guess Hawke was only one syllable so he’s off the hook.
 The Prothean Cipher, the Darkspawn Taint, SAM.
Two minutes of fun at the expense of a badly-run theme park.
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