Andromeda Part 25: BioWare is Dead

By Shamus Posted Tuesday Apr 9, 2019

Filed under: Mass Effect 121 comments

If you’re reading this series, then you’ve probably already heard the news that BioWare says they’re not done with Mass Effect. Of course, they listed Mass Effect 3 and Andromeda as possible launching off points for future stories. Their first instinct is to build on the games with the weakest stories, which probably indicates that any future titles would be more of the same.

Guys! Mass Effect 2 is the fan favorite! Sure, story dorks like me would whine all the way through it, but it’s the strongest in terms of fan support. If you’re going to copy a previous game, copy the popular one!

I think it’s safe to say that BioWare is now completely divorced from their brand as developers. Andromeda was their big chance to start over with a clean slate, and it was a sad imitation that missed the point on every level. This is a company that banks on their reputation as storytellers that no longer knows how to tell a story.

But Shamus, this game came from a new studio! This shouldn’t reflect on the rest of BioWare!

If anything, that’s the most damning fact of all.

Blame Goes Uphill


The Andromeda team was led by people from the main BioWare studio, and by necessity the blame for this trainwreck belongs to those people. Maybe the leadership hired incompetent people when filling out this new studio. Maybe they hired good people but forced them to make a game based on this incompetent story. Maybe they hired a mix of people but management had no idea how to differentiate good work from bad work.

It’s not like this story was a good idea with a couple of bad spots, or something could have been saved with more polish. This story was atrocious. This is a moronic story concept with an infantile villain and a shallow understanding of the sci-fi genre. This story couldn’t even rise to the level of shallow action schlock, much less the level of brainy details-oriented science fiction. We had two plots in this gameFinding Meridian to stop the Archon and terraforming planets by doing vaults., both of them were dumb, neither of them fit the established setting, and they were fundamentally at odds with each other.

Maybe with more time and money you could have fixed the bugs, the animations, the audio, the game balance, and all the other technical problems this game had, but none of that would change the fact that the entire game was built atop this terrible narrative foundation. There’s no escaping it. The blame for this has to land in the lap of the creative leads.

I realize I’m very close to breaking my own protocol by making this personal. Elsewhere in this series I refer to the writing and design staff as “the writer” so that we don’t focus on single people, because I’m more interested in diagnosing problems than identifying culprits. But when we start talking about “the leadership”, we’re talking about a much smaller and more specific group of individuals. At this point we’re pretty close to pointing fingers.

The Oblivion quest is fully animated and voiced. It wasn't made by a lone maverick. At some point a manager looked at this completely nonsensical quest script and said, 'Yup. Looks good. Put it into the production pipeline.'
The Oblivion quest is fully animated and voiced. It wasn't made by a lone maverick. At some point a manager looked at this completely nonsensical quest script and said, 'Yup. Looks good. Put it into the production pipeline.'

On the other hand, blame needs to go uphill. The leadership either mandated terrible ideas, or they approved of terrible ideas from other people, or they sat back and allowed terrible ideas to take root. At the start of this series I linked to The Story Behind Mass Effect: Andromeda’s Troubled Five-Year Development. It’s a long, grim article that gives us a glimpse into Andromeda‘s troubled development. There were a lot of problems, but almost all of them are the result of poor leadership in one way or another. This game wasn’t sabotaged from above by corporate politics, or the victim of bad timing in the market, or rushed out the doorYes, the game was half-baked at release, but the team had five years. They had enough time to make a AAA game, but that time wasn’t used properly.. It didn’t run out of money. Certainly EA’s mandate to use the Frostbite game engine didn’t do Andromeda any favors, but that doesn’t explain why the villain is so embarrassing or why nothing makes any narrative sense. Someone approved of all of these incoherent sidequests, lame characters, and unsatisfying choices. The blame for that has to land in the laps of the BioWare leadership.

I realize that a lot of people poured years of their lives into this project. That list of people includes the leadership I’m criticizing. Maybe I’m being a jerk by calling out the guilty in public, but it doesn’t feel right to dance around this topic. I feel bad for the talented people who saw their hard work turned into a bad game, but the first step in making sure that doesn’t happen again is holding the right people accountable. Maybe I’m being cruel, but having the same leadership try again with the same terrible approach would be even more cruel.

Tone at the Top

Link (YouTube)

In the past I’ve talked about things like “corporate culture” and “creative priorities”. In accounting they call it Tone at the Top. It’s the idea that, since most people want to keep their boss happy and that boss wants to keep their boss happy, the highest people in a company have tremendous influence over the attitudes and behaviors of the people far below them. If the leaders are duplicitous, sneaky, ruthless, and calculating, then their accounting staff will gradually lean towards being more duplicitous, sneaky, ruthless, and calculating. People that dislike that sort of environment will leave and people that thrive in those conditions will get promotions. Likewise if the leadership is scrupulous, cautious, and bureaucratic, then the accountants will tend to lean that way as well.

While this theory is mostly concerned with the prevention of accounting fraud, it can easily be expanded to encompass all sorts of corporate behavior, including creative endeavors. When you spin up a new studio, the existing leadership is in charge of hiring the new staff, setting the tone of the office, and making the studio priorities clear. If you hire people with a background in speculative fiction and tell them to make you a game that captures the spirit of Bradbury, Asimov, and Roddenberry, then that’s what the team will try to do. They might not succeed, but you’ll have a shot at making the kind of product you value. On the other hand if you hire a bunch of people who enjoy shooters and you tell them you want an action game that contains a laundry list of popular shooter features, then that’s what they’ll try to make.

Looking at the state of Mass Effect Andromeda, I think it’s safe to assume that there’s nobody in the BioWare management that knows how to create a studio to tell a story. It’s not that the designers are bad at worldbuilding, it’s that they went to ridiculous lengths to avoid doing it altogether. This story takes place in a setting with one new alien species and one conflict.  The world constantly references alien technology and local history without ever adding details to either one. This is the narrative equivalent of a Mario-style platformer that takes place entirely on a flat plane with no hazards. There’s nothing to engage with here.

Imagine that Call of Duty gets handed off to a new studio, and the resulting game has almost no shooting in it. Instead it has cutscenes, minigames, lever puzzles, driving sections, romances, jumping puzzles, skateboarding, brawling mechanics, tower defense and chocobo racing. The developer bent over backwards to put anything in the game that wasn’t shooter gameplay, and they only included as much shooting as required to justify the title. I would say that is a developer that is ill-suited for the material. And yet that’s what BioWare has become. A company ill-suited to create the kind of content they’re known for.

Maybe it’s tempting to imagine that Andromeda was just plagued by technology problems and that if they just had a little more time and money this could have been a return to form for the studio, but the rot goes deep. This isn’t a diamond in the rough. This is a simple story with nothing to say and a childish bore of a villain, shot through with mangled tropes and suffering from a pervasive lack of narrative ambition… in the rough.

Re-Creating the Magic of Mass Effect

I really do miss these folks. And no, that doesn't mean I want them to have cameos in new games. I want NEW characters like them.
I really do miss these folks. And no, that doesn't mean I want them to have cameos in new games. I want NEW characters like them.

I’ll admit they tried. The team went out of their way to capture as many aspects of the franchise as they could, with a special effort made to copy the first game. The imitation is so deliberate it almost forms a New Hope / Force Awakens situation where it becomes distracting.

    1. Squad members: Male and female human squaddies for our straight romance options. One is a biotic prodigy and the other comes from a military background. (Kaiden+Ashley / Cora+LiamFor the purposes of this comparison, I’m assuming that “ex-space cop” counts as “military background”.)
    2. Squad member: A Turian maverick (Garrus / Vetra)
    3. Squad member: A young Asari studying ancient alien technology. (Liara / Peebee)
    4. Squad member: An old Krogan warrior. (Wrex / Drack)
    5. Squad member: A purple / blue alien that comes from a very successful family and suffers from the high expectations that come with that. (Tali / Jaal)
    6. A father figure that exits the story so the player can take over. (Anderson / Your actual dad)
    7. A bouncy space-tank. (Mako / Nomad)
    8. A one-of-a-kind stealth ship with a black-and-white paint job. (Normandy / Tempest)
    9. A mystery involving ancient alien technology. (Protheans / Remnant)
    10. The hero mastering ancient alien knowledge. (The Cypher / Ryder’s Remnant Magic)
    11. A ginormous space station as the seat of power. (Citadel / Nexus)
    12. On the space station is a difficult bureaucrat you have to tangle with. (Udina / Tann)
    13. A chapter where you have to assault an enemy installation (Virmire / Kett conversion base) and nuke it, which leads to a moral choice at the end.
    14. A moment in act 3 where the political leaders oppose you and advise inaction, obliging the hero to go rogue.
    15. A search for a mystery world where we walk through ancient alien ruins and discover big plot-twisty things. (Ilos, Fake Meridian.)
    16. There’s an important thing at the end called “The Conduit”. (The mystery gateway to the Citadel from Ilos / The final boss monster.)
    17. A moment in act 3 where your team does a combat drop in your space tank on a strange new alien world, and then has to chase the villain to the final showdown where you fight over a control panel. (The chase on Iilos through the conduit to the controls on the Citadel / the chase on Meridian and into the vault for control of the vault network.)
    18. A choice at the end that allows you to shape the future government. (Save the council / Choose the Nexus leader.)

The problem wasn’t budget, the game engine, or a lack of respect for the source material. The problem was that the designer had no idea what parts of the original game were important. They looked at this universe bursting with history, nuance, intrigue, mystery, depth, and culture and they concluded the key features the audience wanted to see were a space tank and a Turian that doesn’t play by the rules. That’s like writing new material for the Harry Potter universe and concluding that the most important detail is to have a little boy with a forehead scar that lives under a staircase. Those are the details you shouldn’t keep!

After copying all of these superficial things, they completely whiffed on the important stuff. They whiffed so badly I don’t think they even understood it was important. It’s extraordinary the lengths they went to in order to avoid doing worldbuilding and telling stories. We arrive in a galaxy and meet ONE alien species. There’s no history or political intrigue. Even the events of the recent past (like the rebellions) are left completely vague. Quests come from datapads, are directed mechanically by an ever-present semi-omniscient narrator AI, offer nonsensical binary choices, and end with curt acknowledgement rather than dialog. The planets don’t have story arcs, but are rather a series of mechanical challenges involving driving, shooting, and jumping puzzles.

Full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.

You know you never get to fire a single bullet at this guy? You never interact with him in gameplay at all.
You know you never get to fire a single bullet at this guy? You never interact with him in gameplay at all.

Everything in Andromeda is constructed backwards. Instead of saying, “Here are the events of the past, what sorts of situations and stories would come from that?” the writer says, “I want the player to drive up this hill and shoot all the dudes at the top. What’s the simplest possible scenario I could use to justify that?”And then they’d bungle that scenario so it didn’t make sense anyway.

The player choices are few, arbitrary, poorly depicted, and lacking in interesting options. Dialogs are rare, linear, and lacking in player expression. The few characters you meet in the open world are shallow and bland. The villain is a sophomoric one-note bore. The worlds are, by design, a mostly empty wasteland with no history, culture, or wonder. Exploration of these alien worlds consists of driving around on pre-existing dirt roadsWhich are usually surrounded by cliffs, because we don’t want our explorer to get too far from the road, do we? so you can gun down clusters of mooks.

The developer’s perception of what made the source material interesting is so wrongheaded that this project was in trouble before it ever left the dry-erase board. This team was not equipped to tell a space story on this scale. I don’t care if you’re talking about details-first or drama-first, this is not a storytelling team in any form. This storyteller might do an okay job if you want a linear shooter with fixed cutscenes and no player agency, but they’re completely unqualified to design a world to support dozens of hours of exploration, exposition, and player expression.

Hey Shamus, if blame goes uphill then shouldn’t the blame for this mess belong to EA?

There’s plenty of truth in that. I don’t mean to imply that EA is blameless in all of this. The reason the current leadership is running things is because the original leadership left, and they probably left because they didn’t like working for EA. But still, it’s not like this terrible story was demanded by EA. I’m sure EA doesn’t care about the story one way or the other, as long as the game sells. With a different leadership in charge of this studio, they could have slipped a smartOr at least, non-moronic. sci-fi story into this tentpole shooter.

I come to bury BioWare, not to praise them.

This company has lost its identity. Maybe they’ll solidify around a new identity and find success making some other kind of game, but waiting for BioWare to become BioWare again is like waiting for Mark Wahlberg to put out another hip-hop album with the Funky Bunch.

The dream is over. It’s time to move on.

But Shamus, the studio that made Andromeda was shut down. BioWare still has their Edmonton studio, and another one in Austin!

Their Edmonton studio just finished Anthem, a game specifically copying the style of Destiny. A studio that built its reputation on solid stories just entered a genre where gameplay is king and story is an afterthought. Like Andromeda, Anthem works very hard to avoid doing any worldbuilding. The world of Bastion is not one that invites curiosity and speculation or stirs the imagination. It’s a big canyon where you can shoot mooks for epic loot. It’s sort of a fun game, but it’s the opposite of everything BioWare was once known for.

BioWare Austin is still working on The Old Republic. I don’t think they’re going to be making us any story-based single-player experiences anytime soon, and I’m willing to bet on EA closing them down when TOR stops making money.

Over the last 10 years there’s been an incredible turnover in the leadership of BioWare. The old guard is gone, and that old guard is what gave the company its identity. Yes, I’m sure there are many bright minds and talented creative people at BioWare. In fact, I know there must be. There are some genuinely endearing moments and spectacular visuals in Andromeda, and those things are obviously the product of talent and hard work. But a handful of brilliant artists can’t change the direction of a company any more than a footsoldier can make changes to foreign policy.

So Long, and Thanks for all the Selkath

Everything will be fine.
Everything will be fine.

So BioWare is, in the sense of creating more games in the style of KOTOR or the original Mass Effect, dead. That’s a shame. Maybe it was unavoidable. Maybe there aren’t enough worldbuilding nerds out there to support these big-budget games. Maybe you have to appeal to the mainstream shooter crowd to make your money back, and maybe doing that will inevitably pull your game away from Tolkien-style runaway worldbuilding.

Maybe instead of pinning all our hopes on BioWare, we should put our hopes on some other studio, or perhaps even some future indie team. Maybe someone out there needs to scrape together five million bucks on Kickstarter and make a retro lo-fi RPG.

Yes, I know inXile did Wasteland 2 and Obsidian did stuff like Pillars of Eternity. But those are top-down number-crunchy games based on RTWP, and that’s not really my jam. I’m thinking of stuff more along the lines of KOTOR, Jade Empire, the first Mass Effect, and Dragon Age Origins. There’s a shift in narrative focus and visual presentation as you move from top-down to third-person that makes things a little more focused on characters and the personality of the central protagonist. Maybe that shift is what makes the game cost so much and pulls it away from its RPG roots towards the mainstream, but KOTOR made money back in 2003, and I’d like to think that sort of thing would still have a chance today as a mid-budget title.

It’s not like the genre is without hope. We’ve even got some AAA games to look forward to.  We’ve got The Outer Worlds from the folks at Obsidian. Bethesda is working on Starfield. I know Cyberpunk isn’t the same as Trek-flavored sci-fi, but if you’re into worldbuilding then Cyberpunk 2077 is looking really good. I’m not crazy about Ubisoft these days, but they’ve apparently got some sort of sci-fi project called Pioneer in the works. They’ve also got Beyond Good and Evil 2 in development if you like your sci-fi to be less nerdy Trek and more campy Fifth Element. BioWare might be done telling stories and building worlds, but games with science fiction storytelling will continue to exist.

The genre has a future, even if BioWare won’t be a part of it. I’m sad to see the studio fall apart, but this has been a long time coming.

As a reminder, retrospectives like this are roughly novel-sized, and I put them up so we can all commiserate together. If you’d like to support my efforts, please consider joining my Patreon. Thanks so much for reading.



[1] Finding Meridian to stop the Archon and terraforming planets by doing vaults.

[2] Yes, the game was half-baked at release, but the team had five years. They had enough time to make a AAA game, but that time wasn’t used properly.

[3] For the purposes of this comparison, I’m assuming that “ex-space cop” counts as “military background”.

[4] And then they’d bungle that scenario so it didn’t make sense anyway.

[5] Which are usually surrounded by cliffs, because we don’t want our explorer to get too far from the road, do we?

[6] Or at least, non-moronic.

From The Archives:

121 thoughts on “Andromeda Part 25: BioWare is Dead

  1. Nelly says:

    The dependency on ‘BioWare magic’ highlighted in Kotaku’s piece on Anthem probably plays here as well – how on earth can a company expect people to create a good story with actual world building when corporate culture is such that employees are going down with stress, anxiety and depression so often the company has taken to using a term more usually used in relation to combat troops? No one does good work under those circumstances and conditions, let alone people trying to generate high concept speculative fiction from whole cloth.

    1. Ivan says:

      I’m guessing you mean the ‘stress casualties’ thing, when you were talking “a term more usually used in relation to combat troops”? Cos if you meant ‘BioWare magic’, then I doubt many real world militaries use that term.

      1. DerJungerLudendorff says:

        Which they totally should, for the record.

      2. Echo Tango says:

        It’s used by the bionic commando shock troops. Duh. :P

    2. Tizzy says:

      Maybe it’s called “Bioware magic” because all of the leaders who knew what they were doing have already left Bioware, leaving behind some cluless dorks who think that only magic can explain Bioware’s past successes?

      1. FluffySquirrel says:

        Bioware Magic (compulsion) [mind-affecting, evil]

        1. GoStu says:

          Developers with good Wisdom saves escape it, as their Wisdom makes them exit the studio first.

      2. Nessus says:

        Basically how I read it as well. The way they described it, “Bioware Magic” = not actually understanding how or why their process has resulted in good games in the past, just repeating it out of cargo cult superstition.

        What’s really scary is they kinda imply it’s always been that way, rather than this being a new development. Meaning Bioware was maybe never actually good at this stuff as a skill, they just had a statistical lucky streak.

        A sportsball team can have a lucky streak and everyone knows it’s luck (in the sense that no one knew what the critical behaviors were enough to be deliberately creating them at the time), because there’s hundreds of sportsball matches in a year, with every individual team playing dozens in that time. That’s a lot of churn in a relatively short time frame, so statistical streaks are commonplace enough to be a known thing. Thing is, the same situation can apply to video games and game studios, but people are less likely to spot it as such, because the numbers are more spread out (each “match” takes years instead of hours). Bioware has produced only a handful of releases in the past twenty years: that’s like the equivalent of just one month of matches out of one season for one sportsball team, so it’s actually very plausible for their track record to be purely a lucky streak that they themselves could never explain or replicate even at their best.

        Of course, it IS possible that Bioware DID to know what they were doing back when, and the reason the current management thinks of it as “magic” is because the people who understood how stuff worked all left over time, and now the only OGs remaining from ye olde Bioware days are the ones who never understood and are too egotistical or Dunning-Kruger to understand that anyone else understood it or even that there were things to understand, so the company is left with this cargo-cult of “Bioware Magic” being summoned through the ritual application of a project management template.

        The only way to really know would be by following the people who left Bioware, rather than the people who stayed, but even there, the waters would be unclear. Any of those people might have their knowledge diluted into irrelevance if stuck in a team that didn’t know what they were doing, making it impossible to recognize said knowledge from their work record. And without an insider view of the current Bioware, the ones who left might not be any more able to diagnose its internal failures than we are (and for professional/political reasons would probably be reticent to share such insight even if they had it).

    3. RFS-81 says:

      I cringed when I read about the “BioWare magic”. So apparently in this company, expecting magic to happen during the crunch before the deadline is standard procedure. It’s seriously surprising that they were doing relatively well so far. I’m morbidly curious how long this has been going on. Was it like that already when they made Baldur’s Gate or KOTOR?

  2. Chad Miller says:

    Re: Starfield – As someone who was led to your site because of your Fallout posts, I have a hard time holding out any hope for Bethesda anything at this point. As bad as Fallout 76 was, one of my favorite things about it was that it made me realize how thoroughly I had stopped caring about that franchise or company after Fallout 4.

    Re: Pillars and Wasteland 2 – Wasteland 2 is actually pure turn-based, though this is probably beside the point you were making and it’s not like I would recommend that game. Personally out of that wave of isometric nostalgia titles my favorites are the Shadowrun Returns games followed by Torment: Tides of Numenera (incidentally, both also turn-based; I don’t like RTWP either).

    1. Joshua says:

      That’s what I came here to say. Wasteland 2 is completely turned based*. I read the original reference article and Shamus was complaining about the constant interruptions of needing to react instead of reading important and immersive information, and that’s not the case for Wasteland 2.

      *With the two exceptions of trying to get a first strike in with a Sniper/Grenadier/etc. to start the combat and the inability to easily stop your squad from gleefully walking over a landmine/trap when one of them spots it. The first is fine due to game balance issues, as first strikes are a bit OP, but the second is really annoying. It would be really nice to have a “STOP MOVING!” button.

      1. Chad Miller says:

        FWIW, one thing I would like to clarify is that while Wasteland 2 is turn-based, it actually has a different problem that has the same effect that RTWP has on me: it obliterates my immersion.

        The real reason I don’t like RTWP in RPGs is that it’s impossible for me to stay in the mindset of my character when playing it. In a real-time game where I only control one character, any “party members” stay separate from me even though I can take them into account in combat. When Boone snipes legionaries or Liara psychically lifts Cerberus goons, it’s understood that I am my character and these are “other people”. Even in a turn-based game where I control everyone in combat, I can generally relax enough through combat that while the combat itself doesn’t always feel like part of my character’s story, it also doesn’t detract from it.

        RTWP generally means I’m scrambling to control all my characters; which means it engages me, and does it in a way that forces me to stop thinking of my character and thinking of myself as controlling a squad. In this I’m no longer the hero of a story, or any character in the story at all, but a disembodied entity sitting at my computer playing a watered-down RTS.

        So why do I say Wasteland 2 is just as bad? It doesn’t even have a protagonist! I feel like this should be, like, a rock-bottom minimum standard before you’re allowed to call a game an RPG. You start the game by picking your squad, meaning it all but lost me at the New Game screen. Even in dialog, switching between characters is allowed and even encouraged.

        Pillars of Eternity actually commits a lesser version of this same sin; you can hire party members at the tavern, and when you choose to do so it takes you to a character select process identical to that of creating a new character. This means I’m expected to choose all these options like backstory that I know will have no effect on the plot because these are nobody randos, and it retroactively makes those same options on my own character feel less meaningful. This was an eye-opening experience for me; upon discovering this feature I actually shut the game off and didn’t play it again for over a year. During that time, I couldn’t even articulate why I didn’t like it.

        Shadowrun Returns has a much better version of this in that most of your party members are also nobody randos, but they’re pregenerated nobody randos that don’t interfere in any way with your own character or your ability to identify with it (the sequels gave you story-relevant party members but still let you think of them as separate from yourself). Tides of Numenera kind of petered out, to the point where it feels like they released something like 3/4 of a video game, but at least they used that 3/4 to give you a reasonably interesting character with a relevant backstory to discover. I understand that PoE 2 is also turn-based and that Numenera was built on the same technology, so maybe this RTWP RPG thing is a passing fad, even if the isometric WRPG continues to exist at all.

        1. Joshua says:

          “It doesn’t even have a protagonist! I feel like this should be, like, a rock-bottom minimum standard before you’re allowed to call a game an RPG.”

          While you certainly may have that preference for your RPGs (which is certainly understandable), that’s a very, very odd statement to make that games without a central protagonist don’t qualify as RPGs. That certainly wasn’t true for nearly the first decade plus of RPGs on the computer and consoles, and it wasn’t until maybe Final Fantasy IV and Phantasy Star that video game RPGs really started having a pre-written character as the PC avatar. Ultima III, Bard’s Tale, Wizardry, all of the classic SSI Gold/Silver Box games, the first few Final Fantasy games, Icewind Dale, etc. all had you creating squads of characters. Any role-playing choices were assumed to be decided by the party as a whole rather than singular individuals.

          Wasteland 2 is simply a Retro Game in that respect. If you want, you could simply start the game with a single blank-slate character, and fill your party up with nothing but NPCs, which would put you into a pretty similar experience as Dragon Age or Divinity: Original Sin 2, which have plenty of role-playing choices.

          1. krellen says:

            I note that the concept of a singular Protagonist is also largely antithetical to the tabletop RPG. Every player is part of the story.

            1. Chad Miller says:

              Truth be told, I actually agree with you; what I should have said is that Wasteland 2 doesn’t have a player character. That’s my real problem with it. I wouldn’t insist every single-player RPG needs the player to be the center of things, but in Wasteland 2 there is no way a character can be said to be “you” unless you’re head-canoning it to be so.

            2. Joshua says:

              To be fair, I think that’s more of everyone playing an individual, and then working together as a team. It’s certainly different than when one individual plays multiple characters (my first tabletop experience was D&D Basic around 1990 or so and I rolled up and played all 6 PCs in my party, as it was just the DM and myself. Amazingly enough, there were no personality conflicts, lol).

              You can have singular protagonist with a backstory, a singular protagonist who’s a blank-slate, a group of multiple protagonists (the leader is usually, but not always something of a blank-slate that lets you react to the quirky individuals in your group), and finally, the entire group of blank-slate characters. All are valid for RPGs, depending upon what the developer is going for.

          2. Chad Miller says:

            Re: RPGs and nomenclature; I honestly don’t think the original Final Fantasy should be considered an RPG unless we’re all admitting that “RPG” = “D&D clone” (D&D-like?), but this isn’t the time or place for me to argue that point further, so I won’t. In fact this discussion may be the last kick in the pants I needed to go start my own blog.

            But whether you agree with me or not, here’s why I’m grinding this particular axe on this particular post. When Shamus talks about “stuff like Pillars of Eternity”, he’s talking about games that aren’t even in the same category for me. Has he played these other games “like” Pillars of Eternity and Wasteland 2? Or did he bounce off those two particular examples and end up missing games he would have enjoyed?

            And lest it sound like I’m pushing some purely personal agenda: I only discovered this site within the last year and started archive diving because of how often the points here resonate with my own tastes in games. I recently bookmarked this page from Spoiler Warning’s playthrough of KOTOR because of how closely it mirrors my own thoughts:


            One undercurrent of this post, and this entire series, is how hard it is to find the kind of games we want. It’s really unfortunate if Shamus, or other people reading this with similar preferences, missed out on the likes of Shadowrun: Hong Kong because someone told them Wasteland 2 is the same type of game.

      2. BlueHorus says:

        the inability to easily stop your squad from gleefully walking over a landmine/trap when one of them spots it.

        Or several! Even after they’ve stepped one one already! Those suckers’ll happily run into a minefield without stopping for anything.
        Seriously, you’d be scrolling the camera over the map, looking for where to send your squad next, and there’d be this BOOM BOOM BOOM BOOM BOOM from somewhere behind you. Then a message:

        “[Character] has died and will always be remembered.”

        Yeah, remembered for his overwhelming stupidity. You were at the front to SPOT the mines, genius, not ABSORB them.

    2. Abnaxis says:

      Wait, you liked T:TON? I found it severely disappointing, and it’s in fact the reason why I will never back a Kickstarter again.

      Not saying you’re wrong, just that it’s kind of interesting.

      1. Chad Miller says:

        That’s fair. It´s a flawed game. In a different comment I called it “3/4 of a game” as it really feels like they ran out of runway before they could finish it. As far as how I ended up overall positive on it, I think it comes down to a combination of:

        * What I want out of RPGs is so hard to come by that I’m willing to put up with a lot of failures to get even pieces of it

        * As a matter of personal taste I prefer “Flawed but hits enough of the right notes to not be boring” to “Bland but has no egregious flaws”. TON lands in the first category for me.

        It’s entirely possible that I agree with you about what’s wrong with the game but forgave it for these reasons.

  3. Ivan says:

    Just a heads up; the essay below leads nowhere. I just felt like stating my feelings on Bioware and their games.

    I like Mass Effect 1 enough to put it probably in my top 6 games of all time. Mass Effect 2 I actually dropped about 1.5ish hours in, due to hating it a lot. I have never tried playing it again. Thankfully, at the time I bought ME1&2 (I bought them simultaneusly), ME 3 was not being sold on Steam, so I put off buying it until later. And then I never did.

    Other than the above, all I know about Mass Effect as a whole comes from other people talking about it, but nothing I ever heard suggested 3 and Andromeda were even close to games I wanted. I would have liked them to be, but they weren’t.

    Regarding other Bioware series, liked KoTOR well enough, as well as Dragon Age 1, and Jade Empire, but I have never finished any of those games for various reasons.

    So, I can’t say I am especially sad regarding the recent stuff with Anthem. Bioware made 1 game I loved, and followed it up with a game I hated. Tangentially to those two they made a bunch of games I liked that didn’t compel me enough to finish them. To me, Bioware has never had a halo, or some expectations or confidence, to be let down from.

    Having said all that, I really loved Mass Effect 1. I loved it so much that I only played it once. I mean that. I was so compelled, so engaged and comitted to that one singular run through the story, mistakes and all, that I never wanted to spoil it by playing again and doing things differently. My Mass Effect story was just that one playthrough, and it’s still, as I said, one of my favourite games ever.

    Hopefully the people who actually made it, none of whom have worked at Bioware for years and years, can do as well again.

    1. Gargamel Le Noir says:

      You’re really, really, REALLY missing out on ME2. Its beginning is awful but most of the game is absolutely stellar. I can’t recommend enough you try again later on.

      1. Daimbert says:

        I tried playing ME2 once first — I didn’t have ME1 — and quit after or even during the first mission. I then played it after ME1 and managed to get through it. I’m not going to say that it’s that great, but it was at least tolerable after the first part.

      2. tmtvl says:

        Speaking as someone who finished ME2 I can not imagine why you’re spreading such lies. ME2 is really, really, REALLY bad. So bad I decided to just give up on Bioware.

        1. shoeboxjeddy says:

          Why are you calling people’s personal tastes “lies”? That’s just foolishness in and of itself. Why not say “From my perspective, it was just as bad as you thought it would be.”?

      3. krellen says:

        Depending on what one loved about ME1, ME2 either offers more of the same (if it’s quirky character moments and getting to know your squad) or absolutely nothing (if it’s worldbuilding, tone, and depth of story).

      4. tremor3258 says:

        I’m half agreeing here.

        There’s a lot of things ME2 does well – the combat is night and day more responsive is the most obvious – there’s a technically stronger focus on squad personalities to the first game, etc. The pressure of the suicide mission gives a different focus than ME1, where the stakes aren’t obvious until the final planet.

        But going from ME1 straight to ME2 feels like you accidentally opened another studio’s game that got mislabelled on your desktop.

      5. Fabrimuch says:

        Mass Effect 2 has great writing when it comes to characters but atrocious writing when it comes to plot and worldbuilding. It expands on your squad from ME1 just as much as it destroys the universe from the previous game. It’s a very divisive game and your enjoyment of it largely depends on whether you tend to primarily connect to stories emotionally (you will probably like it) or intellectually (you probably you won’t)

        1. Daimbert says:

          Yeah, my overall impression of it was that the story was nothing more than an excuse to get you to recruit characters, and is best treated as such.

          1. BlueHorus says:

            Eh, I appreciated the structure of the Suicide Mission in a way. It’s a simple, straightforward idea done well. Here is a hard task, and why you need to do it.
            Most of the game is spent preparing for the task, then at the end of the game, you go and do it, and how well you succeed depends (in part) on your preparations beforehand. It’s a neat idea.

            Though yes, it’s a shame about all the nonsense plot surrounding said task, and Cerberus, and the way Shepard is constricted.

            1. Sleeping Dragon says:

              It is a neat idea and mechanically I really liked the suicide mission, the characters you do not have in your party still play a role, there is an interesting aspect of assigning characters to tasks which requires you to know their strength (it’s not a puzzle by any means and fairly obvious if you’ve been paying any attention at all but still) and if you’ve ignored a character and didn’t prepare them someone else can die for it. The idea is way better than having three characters in your party and the rest of them… sitting back on a ship? Or contributing entirely off screen with no consequences at all. I’m honestly kind of surprised nobody tried to imitate this specific solution.

              Which doesn’t change the fact that pretty much everything during the mission that is connected to the main plot is moronic.

  4. Tizzy says:

    I have to say, the article title is not even trying to soften the blow, now is it?

    WIth the Anthem story now out, it looks more and more like Bioware has been crumbling under the weight of expectations. The brain drain that Paul and Shamus mentioned in the podcast is probably real. But surely the studio has some talented youngsters who could take over from the departing established stars. Reading the Kotaku story, I get such a strong sense that the lack of firm direction in recent projects comes from the studio trying too hard to craft a vision around what sells. If you’re going to spend 5+ years in pre-production, you’re going to see a lot of gaming trends come and go, and only a strong core vision will protect the integrity of your project.

    1. Cubic says:

      How often are talented youngsters promoted internally into senior roles these days? (I know it used to happen.)

      That is, I get the impression that these big companies instead prefer to churn a lot of middle managers, internally and externally. Always the path to surpassing excellence and eternal glory.

    2. Abnaxis says:

      Honestly though, from the Kotaku article I feel like there’s a lot more “lack of direction” that can be laid at EA’s feet than people are giving credit for.

      Not only did Bioware get Frostbite foisted on them, they did not get support from the centralized Frostbite resources because apparently EA is fine and dandy with treating all their subsidiaries like jealous children and making them fight each other or starve. The relationships between the various studios is one where you try to become the favorite, because if you don’t have favorite status critical resources will be withdrawn from you and given to another studio as if the whole organization is one big zero sum game.

      Is it really any surprise, then, when Bioware’s upper management doesn’t commit to a concrete design doc, instead choosing to string along their superiors with the vague promises and bullshit? Because that’s the best way to elevate their image among their peers who can only get what they need by pushing them down.

      1. If the problem was merely one of technical resources or mechanical problems, you’d expect to get a game like KotORII, with amazing moments bracketed by unfinished, buggy filler.

        This is not a technology problem (although technology problems may contribute). This is a vision and leadership problem.

        I’m more interested in Dragon Age 4 than I ever was in Anthem or Mass Effect, and that team still does have some people like Patrick Weekes and Mark Darrah. From the sound of things, Mark Darrah was an important factor in the Anthem team ever producing ANYTHING, so he at least knows how to crack the whip and ship a product.

        1. Abnaxis says:

          I mean, I’m explicitly saying that it’s a leadership problem. I’m just saying that as much as the leadership at the developer is dropping the ball, I think they’re probably making decisions poorly because the publisher has created a toxic environment where they can’t really lead.

          If any particular decision you make can result in support being yanked from your team, and all the other subsidiaries are just waiting for you to fuck up because they get those resources after they’re yanked, you procrastinate making decisions as long as possible and you keep your design as pie-in-the-sky vague as possible for as long as possible.

  5. Asdasd says:

    Might I suggest – without wanting to be pushy! – that this might be a perfect time to play Baldur’s Gate 2, to experience an example of when the developers were at the top of their game? I just.. I just really think you would enjoy it!

    1. Joshua says:

      You must gather your party before venturing forth.

  6. John says:

    I haven’t played a Bioware game since Knights of the Old Republic, so I have nothing particularly constructive to say about Andromeda, Mass Effect more generally, or contemporary Bioware.

    Instead, I’d just like to note that “So long and thanks for all the Selkath” made me giggle. I had a rough night and I’m having a rough morning and that giggle has been the high point of the last five hours of my life. Thank you.

  7. Gargamel Le Noir says:

    I’m amazed that you’re in any way optimistic about Starfield. As a creative studio Bethesda is now a complete and utter failure, and show no sign of improving or even realizing something’s wrong.

    1. Volvagia says:

      Bethesda the PUBLISHER is doing surprisingly well, at least in terms of quality. Bethesda the DEVELOPER is sinking into a quagmire.

      1. Mortuorum says:


        I am hopeful, but not optimistic, that they can still turn around. Todd Howard and the other leadership at Bethesda has to be aware of how badly Fallout 76 was received by their core base. Start by putting down the online multiplayer Kool-Aid and focus on single-player storytelling, setting, exploration, mechanics and character advancement.

        Maybe give Ken Rolston a call? I’m not sure what he’s up to since The Long Dark.

        1. Ciennas says:

          I would love to see Starfield as a multiplayer optional title, like Saints Row or Borderlands was.

          The only difficulty that would engender would absolutely decimate most forms kf mod.

          1. Sleeping Dragon says:

            I think both BL and SR style client-to-client multiplayer should be capable of supporting mods (in fact I remember when playing SR2 with a friend we had to mod the client because of an issue with the in-game clock), the problem is when multiplayer is going through a server and involves obligatory randos. In fact I know of mods that are supposed to add multiplayer to Morrowind (I haven’t tested it but it’s supposedly super clunky) and Skyrim (in the works, there was recently a bit of an issue with code they supposedly lifted from another modding project).

  8. BlueBlazeSpear says:

    The story about Anthem’s struggles felt very much like the story of the death of BioWare. It seemed to speak just as much about how Andromeda turned out as it did as it did about how Anthem turned out.

    It painted a story of mismanagement and rampant indecision, of the talent being pushed to (and often past) the breaking point, and of a trend toward more action and less story in their games. One of the many eye-opening things I saw in the Anthem article is when they brought in David Gaider to write a story for it and he seemed to meet with hostility and resistance from multiple people because he was attempting to give the game something that resembled a narrative. And as far as I can tell, he left shortly after without any story being in place. If there was ever more proof that BioWare is dead, I don’t know where it’s to be found.

    I actually thought that the premise of travelling to the Andromeda Galaxy to be interesting. I like it. It lets us have another Mass Effect game without having to undo any decisions from the trilogy. Theoretically, it’s a fine way of having our cake and eating it too. But they took this basic premise, then seemed to make every wrong decision about it that was possible. They flew to another galaxy for a laugh and not because they were fleeing Reapers? Even if it was getting secret funding from someone who was afraid of Reapers, the Initiative was still full of people who basically thought it would be a gas to travel some ridiculous distance for no reason in particular. And then, of course, virtually every narrative choice they made past this already-bad one appeared to be wrong-headed in one way or another.

    I find myself among the people who have suggested that the ending to Mass Effect 3 is what doomed any sequel because it broke the future so thoroughly that it sabotaged any sequel that could’ve taken place in the Milky Way without some significant fiddling. But even having said that, I suspect that BioWare has gone through so much change that they would’ve botched any sequel, no matter what galaxy it would’ve taken place in.

    They just can’t make good stories or engaging characters anymore. The people who primarily did that have moved on and they’ve been replaced by people who were hired by a company that puts most of its value in FIFA games.

    For some reason, people are still holding out hope that the next Dragon Age game will right the ship and I don’t know why. It’s being made by the same people who have made the last few BioWare games that have increasingly been stinkers. And they threw out the single-player codebase they were working on and restarted with a codebase in which the “live service” aspects are foundational. What good can come of this? Probably not much if you’re a classic BioWare fan.

    1. Geebs says:

      Well, after Mass Effect 3 you have all of the various different galactic races stuck in the Sol system and the Relays have all blown up. You could easily make a Mass Effect 4 about everybody (grudgingly) cooperating to survive. They have to terraform every last worthless rock they can find because there’s too many people for one system to hold.

      You’d have the player be a Space Sheriff again, solving all of the interwsting interpersonal problems that scenario brings with it. Then at the end of the game they invent another form of FTL travel, and Mass Effect 5 is about travelling around the galaxy discovering all of the weird and wacky civilisations who have sprung up in the ashes.

      Oh, and everybody just *believed* that they’d become half organic and half synthetic because they got full-body green glowy tattoos as a result of the Relays blowing up. Actually, those wore off after a week, everyone is exactly the same as they were before and the issue is never spoken of again.

      1. shoeboxjeddy says:

        Some stories lend themselves to being continued. For example, at the end of Halo 3, Master Chief tells Cortana to wake him up again “if he’s needed.” So a sequel would obviously be about a time in the future when he’s needed again, that works. Some stories don’t lend themselves so easily to a new story. At the end of Gears of War 3, the series enemies (Locust and Lambent) have BOTH been destroyed by the same epic mission. The surviving heroes drop their weapons and prepare to see what kind of lives they can have, in a suddenly peaceful world. To keep the story going, they had to invent new threats and contrive a way to revive some of the old ones.

        The end of Mass Effect 3 allows players to create 3 fundamentally very different world states, with thousands of minor differences underneath. Even if you FORCED everyone to accept that synthesis was the true ending, there’s still various other things that are VERY important, but different depending on which player ended the story. Are the Quarian and Geth allies? Or was one of them wiped out of existence by the other? If the latter, how does everyone else feel about that? Is the Krogan race thriving again, or was their last hope wiped out? The degree of difficulty of continuing is to the point where the only possible sequel that would fit EVERY player is one that’s like a million years in the future to where the setting is essentially a completely different one. And if you decide to satisfy only some players… which ones? Will you get buy in from the players you deliberately chose to exclude?

        1. Syal says:

          The Quarians and the Geth have been merged into a single entity. Nobody is comfortable with the new hybridization.

          The Krogan Genophage no longer applies, but has been replaced with a galaxy-wide bottleneck; all reproduction requires computer assistance now, which has led to a pseudo arms race on acquiring the materials to build more breeding machines before the other species get control of them.

          …Also Kai Leng is a Reaper now.

          1. Matthew Collins says:

            Does he still wield a sword? What am I even asking, of course he does. Or two swords, maybe.

            1. Geebs says:

              ……..this hurts me

          2. MelTorefas says:

            @Syal: I want this game to exist, so that I can read Shamus’ write up of it.

    2. Liessa says:

      My eyes actually misted up a little when reading the ‘I come to bury Bioware’ section, because… yeah, I agree. Bioware is dead, and deep down, most of us have known this for a long time now. Schreier’s latest article on Dragon Age 4 just hammers the nail in even further: apparently they were originally making a more tightly-focussed, heavily reactive, narrative-driven game – in other words, exactly the kind of game everyone wants them to make – and have now pivoted away from that in yet another attempt at ‘live services’. (A useful reminder that though EA aren’t responsible for everything that’s gone down at Bioware, there’s a good reason why everyone blames them anyway.)

  9. Crokus Younghand says:

    There’s a shift in narrative focus and visual presentation as you move from top-down to third-person that makes things a little more focused on characters and the personality of the central protagonist.

    Question for Shamus (and everyone else too)- would you be interested in 3D RPGs with sprite based graphics (like Doom, Marathon or Daggerfall)? I ask because while creating huge 3D worlds is not an easy task (and might require “five million bucks on Kickstarter” as Shamus put it), having a 3D (with slight proc-gen) world populated with 2D sprite characters and props would be relatively easy to pull off; especially if you have enough of a talent to make an isometric RPG. Plus, that art style (pixel-art sprites and textures) looks busy and lessens the need for additional clutter, thus reducing the asset load even further. Thoughts?

    (Shamus, feel free to address this question in the next podcast if you are interested.)

    1. Leipävelho says:

      Graphics are, at least in my opinion, unimportant as long as there is a strong visual style with competent art direction, like Doom and Daggerfall had.

    2. Leocruta says:

      You mean like Call of Saregnar?


    3. Syal says:

      As long as it’s still got dramatic zooms on character portraits during conversations.

    4. Sleeping Dragon says:

      I really liked Might & Magic VI-VIII and I’ve played them contemporarily so I’m going to say I don’t mind that style.

  10. Ander says:

    Mmmm, the real problem goes back to Mass Effect 1 when they made Mass Effect 1 instead of Jade Empire 2.
    Just kidding. No one cares about Jade Empire.

    1. Henson says:

      You know, I just recently replayed Jade Empire myself, and while I don’t much care about the game, I do care about the idea of the game. RPG goodness meets ‘Journey to the West’? Eastern philosophy, kung-fu gameplay, mischievous animal diety spirits? Sign me up!

      Now just make a game where I’m not constantly shouting ‘get on with it!’ at the screen.

    2. Mortuorum says:

      Jade Empire was amazing. The gameplay was solid and the characters were loads of fun, but the real star was the story, which is one of the best Bioware ever created, including one of the best plot twists ever.

      1. Mattias42 says:

        Jade Empire is indeed amazing.

        Darn shame that the whole ‘Open Palm & Closed Fist are not good & evil’ thing didn’t quite work out in practice all the time, but since JE was Bio-Ware’s first ever try at those type of opposing philosophies some baby miss-steps were to be expected.

        Still, that flaw aside… Yeah, it’s a darn shame that game has been so forgotten by time. Never hear anybody talk about it, outside this site, and it’s… well, just a darn shame, you know?

        1. CloverMan-88 says:

          I, for one, replayed it around 5 times over the years. It somehow manages to push many of my buttons, from the initial choice of cool premade characters that look way better than anything I could come up with using a character editor to a series of exclusive choices when it comes to fighting styles that make every replay meaningfully different.

  11. Ninety-Three says:

    It’s funny that you use Andromeda to conclude Bioware is dead, because I take the death point to be Anthem. Andromeda is a terrible Bioware game, but it is very recognizably a Bioware game, you yourself went through the checklist of ME1 items it apes. Anthem, on the other hand: if you showed Anthem to someone who had somehow never heard Bioware were behind it, do you think there’s any chance they’d say “this feels like a Bioware game”?

    In Andromeda, Bioware is bad. You could argue that they lost their ability to make good games. But in Anthem, they’re gone. They lost either the ability or the inclination to make Bioware games.

    1. Crokus Younghand says:

      I would say that in Andromeda, Bioware is trying to pretend it is still Bioware. In Anthem, it has given up on that delusion/illusion/both.

      But Bioware indeed was dead by the time Andromeda rolled around.

      1. Chad Miller says:

        This whole conversation calls to mind my feelings about the Fallout series.

        Fallout 76 gets all the bad press, but for my money it stopped being Fallout as of Fallout 4. Fallout 76 isn’t when Bethesda stopped trying to make RPGs, it’s just when they stopped pretending to try.

        1. DeadlyDark says:

          *Something-something-something about Fallout 3*

          I remember those discussions back in ’07/08

          1. BlueHorus says:

            Hah, so do I.

            Not that that doesn’t stop me agreeing that Fallout 3 was the beginning of the end. A ‘Bethesda’ Fallout game is just such a different creature from the original 2 games (and New Vegas) that it should be called something else.

        2. coolwali says:

          I ask how Fallout 4 shows Bethesda not pretending to try? Because there’s a lot to show otherwise. Fallout 4 tried to have a more engaging main plot than its predecessors while still trying to better integrate stuff like factions and better combat.

          1. Chad+Miller says:

            You’re misreading slightly; I said that Fallout 76 was when Bethesda stopped pretending to try to make Fallout an RPG (with the implication that they were still “pretending to try” as of Fallout 4)

            That is, it goes:

            * Fallout 3 was trying to be a Fallout RPG
            * Fallout 4 put forth the appearance of trying to be a Fallout RPG
            * Fallout 76 didn’t bother with appearances

            Now, at the time the comment was written, Fallout 76 didn’t even have human NPCs so I’m not bothering to elaborate on that one any further.

            Fallout 3 had the karma meter, and companions who would decide whether to join or not based on it. It had an ending that varied based on what you did throughout the game and some degree of reactivity based on all of these things, particularly in Three-Dog’s attitude toward you. There are plenty of arguments to be made that the implementation was bad, and I’ll even agree with most of them, but I will still defend it as an honest effort.

            So why do I classify Fallout 4 as “pretending to try”? Because the game is full of systems that feel like roleplaying vestigial tails without actually letting you roleplay.

            The Karma meter has been replaced with companion affinity. This is fine in a vacuum, but since there are very few opportunities for your character to express any personality or ethos of any kind, companion affinity gain mostly comes down to things like picking locks or wearing power armor. And since those are generally things everybody can do, you pretty much end up easily maxing out any companion except Strong who is infamous for hating almost everything useful.

            Dialogue trees still exist, but someone decided there should always be exactly four dialogue options. Fallout 3 actually got kinda close to this unofficially (nearly always starting with “Paragon option” and ending with “Sarcastic dick option”)…but at least that meant that Fallout 3 was putting *some* thought into what you might want your character to be. Fallout 4’s dialog options often make it obvious that someone was just desperate to fill in four options. SARCASTIC, for all its infamy/stupidity, at least represented some attempt to add flavor; the rest are basically “I will do your quest” or “give me whatever exposition you plan to give me”. Even passing and failing speech checks often has little to no bearing on what the other character is going to say, to the point where there are some occasions where I honestly may not notice the difference between a passed and failed speech check without the pop up notification telling me why it passed or failed.

            The main quest has its ham-handed bits of railroading, from having your early directions come from *literally a psychic* to the way the Kellogg dialog forces *you* to start the fight with him during an interrogation that isn’t really finished, to the fact that you can’t, say, betray the Institute at several points where a reasonable person would want to do so.

            To really see all of this come to a head, consider the Diamond City Blues sidequest. Here’s the quest as I experienced it:

            I witness a fight in a bar. Some guy tries to get his wife to leave the bar, gets in a fistfight with the bartender and then loses.

            The guy who lost the fight approaches me on the street later and tells me the bartender is banging his wife and we should go stop them. I pass some speech checks and convince him that I’ll just go talk to bartender on my own. Great.

            So then I go to the bartender, tell him, “Hey, stop banging that dude’s wife.” I pass some speech checks and he agrees. Great.

            EXCEPT, my dialog options don’t let me end the conversation! It turns out this was supposed to lead into another quest, but since there’s no transition that makes any fucking sense here, I basically have to say something like “I’ll need more than that” (a.k.a, the next quest objective)

            So the bartender tells me he’s setting up a drug heist. By just blatantly murdering and stealing from local drug runners. This doesn’t really have anything to do with stopping adultery, and I really don’t see any reason why I’d want to go heist drugs, but my dialog options are now: “Let’s go heist drugs”, “I have some questions before we heist drugs”, something else about heisting drugs, and “I think I’ll kill you and go heist the drugs on my own.” Hilariously, one of the questions I can ask is “why do people even smuggle drugs into this town if they’re legal” and he tells me it’s to avoid tariffs. So, to make this clear, asking a bartender to stop openly committing adultery means I must automatically be on board with *murdering strangers for committing tax evasion*.

            I grudgingly pick the “heist drugs” option. Literally the first person I see after leaving the bar is the father of the person I’m supposed to go kill. I open dialog with him and find that, no, I can’t tell him about it. I follow jerk bartender out of town. The people he’s trying to steal from end up killing him, but I manage to survive and just keep the take for myself.

            It turns out this turns the local drug traders against me, which, kinda fair (too bad I literally couldn’t say “no” to this job, huh?) They’re headed by a guy named Marowski. You can go talk to Marowski in Goodneighbor. And you can’t say anything to him about any of this.

            Later, the bartender’s daughter confronts me in town. She accuses me of killing her father and my only options all involve either lying or admitting fault. The option I wanted was I didn’t kill your father. He died to his own bad decisions. I literally couldn’t even ask him not to start that fight. Eventually she ends up attacking me out of “revenge”. My companion fights back, which aggros the entire town. And I really do mean the entire town; I ran away rather than fight this ridiculous fight and even Takahashi the noodle robot made his way into the downtown streets.

            I uninstall the game. Seriously.

            Now, that was long but there are two major points to make here: one is that this quest actually seems expertly programmed, particularly by the standards of a Bethesda game. I’m serious. Looking the quest up on the wiki you can see a lot of branching paths. You’re actually allowed to kill many of these jerks at any time, or you can get an ending where the three of you all go together on the heist and all three of you live.

            Also, I’m not picking on some random sidequest. Here’s a talk where you can find Emil Pagliarulo doting on it. Specifically calling it out as a great example of this game’s writing.

            So the problem here isn’t that they weren’t willing to put in the occasional quest with different paths, possible outcomes, etc. The problem is that literally no one was thinking in terms of what the player’s motivation would be or even why they would take part in this quest at all. They came up with a task and made that task branch, but with no thought as to what those branches are for. They put in speech checks without realizing that the kind of person who invests the points to pass all the speech checks doesn’t want to be “rewarded” with a plot hole leading to the mandatory combat. They tie all this in with local NPCs who will attack you for taking part in this whole plot but without considering the possibility that the player may actually rather rat the plot out to those characters.

            That’s where my “pretending to try” assessment comes in. You can argue that the choices in, say, the The Power of the Atom quest were stupid but at least it was letting you decide between Lawful Good and Stupid Evil. Karma-meter style decisions are often jokingly framed as things like “save the baby vs. eat the baby”, but this is more like “eat a baby with ketchup vs. eat a baby with barbecue sauce”.

            This similar lukewarm attitude also irritated me in the main campaign. In Fallout 3, the Enclave were cartoon villains but at least the game treated them that way. In Fallout 4, the Institute were still cartoon villains who do even more overt evil than the Enclave did but since you’re able to join them (and the plot twist, but the things wrong with that part is wandering off-topic at this point) the game then acts like they don’t. The end result thus feels less like being offered a meaningful choice and more like being constantly gaslit by the narrative. They’re not offering the option to join the faction because they thought up cool story or roleplaying reasons why you would want to; they’re throwing that in because they heard you want decisions so here’s a decision.

            So maybe a more explicit way of putting my sentiment would be:

            * Fallout 3: You have decisions based on questionable philosophy
            * Fallout 4: You have decisions, but no philosophy
            * Fallout 76: What are decisions?

    2. krellen says:

      Bioware died with ME2, as far as I’m concerned. The studio was doomed from the moment EA bought it; it’s been bleeding out ever since, and most of us just didn’t realise it was already dead. We’ve been dating a zombie.

      1. Chris says:

        ME2 was the first sign of illness. ME3 was when it became clear that the disease was life-threatening. ME:A was the death, and Anthem is the obituary.

        1. Geebs says:

          In this analogy, Dragon Age Inquisition was sitting around in the hospital waiting room playing match-three games on your phone to kill time.

    3. Karma The Alligator says:

      but it is very recognizably a Bioware game

      You sure? Especially when the most common Bioware defence is that it was made by their C-team? If anything that tells me that people don’t recognise it as a Bioware game.

  12. Jenkins says:

    Thank you for another excellent retrospective Shamus. I, as I’m sure many others did as well, found your blog through your lengthy retrospective on the Mass Effect trilogy. It’s somewhat poignant then, that your most recent and possibly final retrospective on a Bioware game has come to an end at a time when the future of the studio itself is in flux.

    I’m fond of almost every game in Bioware’s gameography (is that even a term?), with the lone exceptions being Mass Effect: Andromeda and Dragon Age 2 (I’ve not played Anthem or Jade Empire). It was therefore immeasurably disappointing to read Bioware’s tone-deaf response to one of the best pieces of video game journalism I’ve had the pleasure to read. This odiously cynical barb particularly stuck in my craw:

    We don’t see the value in tearing down one another, or one another’s work. We don’t believe articles that do that are making our industry and craft better.

    Good criticism (for criticism is an art) absolutely improves one’s craft. Likewise, honest journalism can play an imperative role in improving industry standards. That these facts must be pointed out to a studio led by creatives in an immensely creative industry is disheartening in the extreme.

    Even if, as Shamus himself alluded to, they no longer make games that appeal to their original audience, I hope Bioware can turn the ship around. For my part, I’ve grown increasingly uncomfortable with the business practices that surround their titles, and that concern isn’t simply limited to The Crunch (which is a plague across the entire industry, and not something which is squarely Bioware’s fault). In a genre which, I’d wager, takes more pride in their craft than most others in the industry, it’s becoming depressingly familar for key elements of narrative and worldbuilding to be gated behind downloadable content. Sure, someone new to Mass Effect 3 might be able to enjoy the game perfectly fine without having access to Javik, but discovering the last-living Prothean should be a huge deal to the person who has played every game in the trilogy. Now a likely retort would be that it isn’t a big deal, as clearly shown by the fact that a person can play through Mass Effect 3 with or without From Ashes and the end result is exactly the same. But it’s precisely because access to Javik is gated behind downloadable content that his impact on the narrative is severely reduced, if not elimated completely. Downloadable content in a story-heavy game adds a Schrödingerian element to the narrative: the narrative must take into account that a certain character may or may not exist, or an event may or may not occur, but in doing so it dooms characters and events stuck behind downloadable content to irrelevancy (see: ME2’s Arrival and Shadow Broker DLC, ME3’s Javik and Leviathan DLC), because nobody would like to be told they couldn’t finish a game unless they paid an additional fee. I thought Dragon Age Inquisition was particularly egregious in that regard, because although the game’s narrative heft wasn’t gated behind downloadable content, I certainly felt its emotional heft was. My enjoyment of Dragon Age Inquisition as a whole (I only played it after all the DLC came out) would have certainly been reduced were it not for Trespasser. In particular, I believed the final conversation with Solas (possibly the best written and most well-animated scene Bioware has ever produced) and the decision that followed to be hugely important in defining who my Inquisitor was, what their role in events was to be, and what their values were – the very essence of roleplaying, the reason why we play these games in the first place. Given these pitfalls are similarly apparent in the choices we make (See Kashley’s role in the Mass Effect series after Virmire) while playing, perhaps it’s the regrettable price that comes along with giving the player the illusion of choice.

    The King is dead, and all that.

    1. Lino says:

      I only ever played Mass Effect 2, and I really liked it at the time – to me, it was a very good shooter. However, I never played Mass Effect 3 – initially, I was turned off when they announced that Javik was going to be DLC, and I said to myself: “Alright, I’ll just wait for the GOTY Edition”. Then, the ending controversy happened, and I decided to never touch the game again.
      Years later, I read Shamus’ retrospective, and I’m genuinely at a loss how such a great company could have fallen so low…

  13. Thomas says:

    Anthem and Andromeda both had leadership who couldn’t even commit to the game they were making for years.

    Maybe something can come from the ashes – not real Bioware, but the name and reputation will still attract people who wished they were making KOTOR3. Some trust and more decisive management might help that cohere into a hit.

    But old Bioware is dead. There influence is in games like Firewatch and Gone Home, and in the homogenisation of ‘RPG aspects’

  14. Robbert Ambrose B. Stopple says:

    With regards to the Mass Effect games I happen to fall in that narrow spectrum were I belive both the original Mass effect as Mass Effect 2 are equally good games. If I were to describe my difference in appreciation between the two it would be that Mass Effect 2 stands as the best game when all individual componements come together wheres the strenght of the first Mass Effect is derrived from the fact that the whole is more than the sum of its parts.

    The weakness I experienced in Mass Effect 3 wasn’t the result of the now infamous ending but rather because of the noticeable downgrade in it’s presentation style, combined with a story that felt too contrived in how it wanted to get the various story elements in places were it needed them.

    Andromeda’s iffy, I didn’t hate it, but nearly everything it does was seen in a better form in the original trilogy.

  15. TLN says:

    I think over the past decade or so we’ve all learned that the name of the studio means next to nothing if it’s all made up of new people. There are no “bioware games” anymore, but I think the bigger truth is that maybe there never were any “bioware games” to begin with. Bioware made mostly good games while the Bioware doctors ran things, but then they left in 2012 and (I assume) EA took a more active role. From what I’ve read and heard the vast majority of people who worked on the Bioware games of old that everyone loved are long gone (Casey Hudson being the main exception I can think of). I wish I could blame EA but honestly even without them, how many people are actually still around at Bioware that you’d trust to make a decent game?

  16. Echo Tango says:

    I totally want to play Cyberpunk 2077 now. Down with classes; Up with skill-points! Also, titties! :P

  17. Marcellus Magnus says:

    BioWare Austin is still working on The Old Republic. I don’t think they’re going to be making us any story-based single-player experiences anytime soon, and I’m willing to bet on EA closing them down when TOR stops making money.

    Oddly enough, the story missions of the last few SWTOR expansions have all been designed as singleplayer experiences where your friends can tag along, but they’re never even shown in the cutscenes. Which just feels wrong to me because the multiplayer conversations were the only unique storytelling tool that kinda justified the MMO format for a KOTOR sequel, and they basically stopped using them after the first expansion.

  18. ccesarano says:

    I’m curious if the recent Kotaku article will result in a new essay or column in a week or two to address the new revelations. It seems not much will change given your final point here, though, save for the notion they were blatantly imitating Destiny. Turns out, they were trying to shut their ears off to any comparisons, which means they were free to make all the same mistakes.

    Interestingly, I wonder if my preference for Japanese games gives me more optimism due to seeing companies take negative turns only to recover. During the Xbox 360 and PS3 generation, Capcom was trying to make these big, expensive blockbusters and was getting Western developers to try and get their IP to appeal to the bigger market. It was looking really iffy for them, in fact, and I feel like a lot of us were wondering if Capcom would even be around still. Around the time of Street Fighter V’s announcement and exclusivity to PlayStation 4, there were rumors Sony was looking to purchase Capcom. Then Resident Evil VII happened, Monster Hunter World managed to be the biggest title in franchise history, and this year alone we’ve seen Resident Evil 2 remake and Devil May Cry 5 do very well critically and commercially. That a niche game like Devil May Cry 5 could release years after the last “proper” entry and look to be on its way to selling the best of the whole series is phenomenal. We were able to see a company change course.

    Similarly, Square Enix was not planning on releasing Bravely Default in America because, even on a niche platform like 3DS, they were skeptical a turn-based RPG would sell in America. Nintendo ended up bringing it over to America, and while the big budget Final Fantasy XIII: Lightning Returns under-performed, Bravely Default exceeded expectations and turned a major profit. While Square Enix continues to be a mixed bag, the past several years have seen them slowly adjusting to expectations and releasing a game like Octopath Traveler at full price and selling well.

    Now, once again there’s that “tone from the top”, and Square Enix has former developers now working as Executive Officers. Yoshinori Kitase is perhaps one of the most prominent, who was at Square Enix in its founding and directed a major hit like Final Fantasy VI. Clearly, he’s got a better love and understanding for the medium than Andrew Wilson, and thus when Octopath Traveler sells a million units he’s going to see it as a success, where Andrew Wilson would wonder what the point was if the only revenue gained is from those million units sold. “Niche” is a foreign word to the man, and he no doubt has no idea why you’d try to sell to such an audience.

    Nevertheless, even though no one who liked Dead Space wanted co-op, I still think the need to please corporate overlords can still result in a good game with a good team. Dead Space 3 may have had its issues, but my friend and I absolutely loved some of the co-op bits where each player saw something different. It resulted in some of my favorite gaming memories, each of us shouting over our head sets at the other while things went belly up. “Where are you?! We gotta shoot the Marker!” “What Marker?! Why aren’t you moving?! We’re getting attacked!” The developers at Visceral may have been forced to throw in co-op (which they were exploring the possibility anyway, so it’s not entirely EA’s “fault”), but they still did their best to make sure it would fit the game they were making.

    My point in all of this is to say that BioWare may be dead for now, but there’s reason to be optimistic. I don’t think Andrew Wilson will remain in his position for that much longer, though Apex Legends and the crew at Respawn may be able to keep his career on life support (because, really, without Apex, can you imagine what sort of shape EA would be in right now?). Plus, Casey Hudson has publicly stated (after the prior tone-deaf response to the Kotaku piece) that BioWare is looking into how to fix many issues addressed in Schrier’s exposé.

    Will it make a difference? Who knows. We have plenty of reason to be skeptical. But never say never. It’s possible Bioware could come together and figure themselves out again. Even if the original studio leads aren’t there, it’s possible some of the younger talent are invested in capturing the magic of titles like Jade Empire and KotOR again.

    1. John says:

      I’m not too sure about Square Enix. It’s great for them that a couple of smaller titles have done well, but my impression is that there are still issues with their bigger titles. Final Fantasy XV was in development hell for over a decade. While it was reasonably well-received at launch, they cancelled most of the planned story DLC and the game’s director quit the company.

      1. shoeboxjeddy says:

        They didn’t cancel “most” of the story DLC. They released most of it (one to dramatically alter the mid-part of the game, one per each side character on the team, plus comrades (the multiplayer DLC), plus the villain DLC, plus various short term tie-ins) and cancelled three planned entries. The latter is due to the one exec leaving and not having a successor with the same plans.

      2. ccesarano says:

        Gah, I’m so bad at keeping up with comments on these.

        shoeboxjeddy is right regarding most of the story DLC being released, and honestly none of the DLC would fix that game’s problems anyway. As someone that enjoyed Final Fantasy XV, I also find it to be the most fascinating and enjoyable broken, incomplete title I’ve ever played. It wears its problematic development on its sleeve as clearly as Duke Nukem Forever, but I’d say FFXV managed to at least be an enjoyable enough experience. Hajime Tabata did a phenomenal job saving that project from Tetsuya Nomura’s indecisive nature.

        Which is why FFXV is a sign that Square Enix is working on changing, at least on the Eastern half of the company. Final Fantasy XIII, XIV’s initial release, and XV were all mishandled projects that were a complete development nightmare. Like many companies in the HD era (and especially in Japan), Square Enix was just not ready for the sudden leap in development requirements. Tetsuya Nomura did great things for Square Enix in the PS2 era and thus was given a lot of freedom, but in time Square Enix learned they had to change the way things were being done. Yoshi-P was brought in to fix FFXIV and turn it into A Realm Reborn, Square-Enix’s most profitable product as far as I’m aware. Hajime Tabata had shipped Final Fantasy VII: Crisis Core and Final Fantasy Type-0 in a reasonable amount of time and with a reasonable budget while showing talent in game direction, and thus Final Fantasy XV was forcibly removed from Nomura and handed over to Tabata in order to get it out the door. Both Kingdom Hearts III and Final Fantasy VII Remake have been given co-directors, signifying that Square Enix no longer trusts Nomura to direct a project by himself. Effectively, he’s given someone to keep him in check (and if you don’t understand what I mean, Nomura walked into the FFXV offices and sincerely put forth the idea to rebuild FFXV as a musical after having seen Les Miserables in theaters).

        Right now Square Enix is in a state of transition, where all of their teams are being structured in a fashion to more effectively deliver product rather than have more disasters sitting in development Hell for ten years… not entirely successfully, given the FFVII remake, but hey, a company as massive as them isn’t about to change overnight.

        Now, how successful will that shift be? Who knows. Dragon Quest XI is doing decently well in the West for a franchise that never saw much market penetration out this way. They’ve partnered with PlatinumGames for whatever Babylon’s Fall is. Unlike EA, Ubisoft, or Activision, Square Enix isn’t looking at their most profitable products (like, again, FFXIV), and then trying to make all their games like that… in Japan, at least.

        Their Eidos half is what feels a bit more inconsistent, because their Eidos half feels precisely like you’d expect a Western publisher to run. Why? I dunno. I mean, really, I’m just speculating on what I’ve been reading given the company. Still, I do feel like Square Enix is one of the heftiest publishers of the world right now, and seeing them adapt and shift in ways the other Big Three aren’t has me trusting them more (though not wholly) than I would typically trust a publisher.

  19. Mako says:

    So it ends.

    Sort of. Personally I buried BioWare a long time ago, at some point between 2013 and 2015, after getting over “ME3” (in no small part thanks to you, Shamus!).

    Still, a very satisfying read.

  20. Baron Tanks says:

    So… I’m glad you’re not mincing words. As you put it, BioWare is thoroughly gone. Depending on who you ask, their last well liked and/or loved game is a long time ago (for me it was Mass Effect 2, with the already mentioned caveat that this is restricted to the gameplay and character driven part of the game, but it was highly enjoyable for me for that). That game was released in 2010. As alien as that may sound, that’s 9 years ago. While I disliked ME3 at first and only grew more sour as time passed, for a while I held that as a potential misstep, rather than the result of a disastrous change of course. For me it was Inquisition that buried the BioWare of old. While there were aspects to be liked, these were separated by an endless stream of dull and uninspired parts of the game, both in gameplay and writing. The sheer inanity was so offensive to me personally that every BioWare game became a wait and see. And we all saw what happened.

    In the lead up to ME: Andromeda I was sceptical from day one, as the whole thing just reeked of investor mandated sequelitis. Even when details were sparse, everything about the project felt contrived and unexpired. So I was in no way excited for this to come out. I’d talk about the end result but we’re here at part 25 so we’re all well aware. This just confirmed my personal notion of, BioWare is gone and this is just a developer putting things out under the same name.

    So leading up to Anthem I figured it would only be fair to judge the game as if it was made by a new studio, one had nothing to do with the BioWare of old. But even from this point of view, there’s nothing redeeming about Anthem as a product. It has an interesting, perhaps inspired, visual design, something which has come to be standard in the market of big budget games. Other than that there is nothing here, everything is derivative, uninspired or incomplete. Apparently there isn’t even enough to do, although I wouldn’t know from personal experience, the last product I bought from BioWare was the above mentioned purchase of DA: I which I regretted enough already. There is no empirical evidence to be excited for the upcoming Dragon Age 4, if they will be allowed to make it. They may surprise us, as surprises can always happen, but there is nothing in the past 5 (or perhaps for some 10 years), that would suggest that the end result will be a qualitatively enjoyable game.

  21. Carlos García says:

    On the facial animations of Andromeda, they were epic bad, but I wouldn’t say they were good in ME1. One reason I think I never managed to get past the first post getting Normandy planet is how jarring I found the faces and their animations. I made a char, got too cringy at the ugly face and besides bad build, start another and still being weirded by the face and animations of my character… getting through the same scenes for the nth time… DAO, Jade Empire and KOTOR face animations are fine with me. I also was fine with SWTOR’s face animations until like a year or a bit more ago that they updated them to make the faces wrinkle with expressions and they’ve made them look weird. You make a young looking human that turns a nonagenarian when frowning. Yuck.

    By the way SWTOR should be renamed Star Wars: Beyond Your Comprehension, goddammint how much do they love to have their characters say that line lately.

    And as I said in an older entry, I find they getting lazier with the storytelling there (though I referenced something about a stupid line that didn’t make sense as if they were bombing and not intercepting enemy forces, but I replayed the JUS recently and they were also doing bombings on the enemy’s base. I’m not sure if when you play a loyal Rep instead of a double agent cutscenes change a bit or I played late in the first time and sleepiness made me miss the point).

    P.S. – I recommended Pathfinder: Kingmaker in the past, warning of very slow loading screen and a bunch of bugs, it’s vastly improved after some more patches. Loading screens for me have stopped being too long with chances of getting frustrating and are quite reasonable, some times even short. There also seems to have been a lot of bug squashing and now it’s a very recommendable state.

  22. shoeboxjeddy says:

    Andromeda had a pretty impressively bad start for me. They changed how saving worked (and I don’t know if they ever changed it back). Basically, it was back to Mass Effect 1 style no auto saves + no manual saves in combat. And vast portions of the exploration planets were seen as “combat.” Long story short, in my first play session, I lost nearly 25 minutes of gameplay due to a single death in EARLY combat when I wasn’t used to the game. It deleted massive quest progress and while at first I was like, “Oh, I should have saved”, I quickly realized I really… couldn’t save?

    Well, that stinks, but I can’t wait to try the multiplayer. ME3 multiplayer was my favorite multiplayer game until Destiny took over, and this one has jetpacks! Oh wow… the starting equipment is shockingly bad. And the enemies are hitscan and shoot you out of the air? And cover in this new game works impressively worse?? And the enemies are also bad and spawn from mysterious places? And I can’t get a match made within TEN MINUTES on launch week? Wha………….

    I have not gone back to it. Such a waste of $60. I feel like eventually I want to give the whole game a college try with all the patches and updates and such. But after reading this, it seems the plot is worse than I ever imagined AND it’s not going anywhere interesting. Going back to Dragon Age Inquisition is probably the much better option (a game I quit out of frustrated puzzlement to why Rogues played so much worse than they did in 2. It turns out, class features break regularly on the new terrain system…)

  23. Jason says:

    Instead it has cutscenes, minigames, lever puzzles, driving sections, romances, jumping puzzles, skateboarding, brawling mechanics, tower defense and chocobo racing.

    What is this mythical game and where can I get a copy of it?

    1. shoeboxjeddy says:

      That’s… literally just Final Fantasy VII. The only iffy one is that there’s snowboarding instead of skateboarding.

      1. Jason says:

        True. Except also grinding. Lots and lots of grinding.
        And squatting. Although I guess that falls under minigames.

        1. BlueHorus says:

          Don’t forget the cross-dressing and the sauna room! Or the slapping minigame.

  24. Scampi says:

    Yes, I know inXile did Wasteland 2 and Obsidian did stuff like Pillars of Eternity. But those are top-down number-crunchy games based on RTWP, and that’s not really my jam. I’m thinking of stuff more along the lines of KOTOR, Jade Empire, the first Mass Effect, and Dragon Age Origins.

    I can’t help but realize that Dragon Age Origins was, if I’m not mistaken, a number-crunchy game based on…top-down RTWP.
    At least that’s how I experienced it.

  25. Sven says:

    I’m by no means a huge BioWare fan (ME is really the only series of theirs I’ve played). I fell in love with Mass Effect when I played the first one. I let myself be blinded to most of ME2 and ME3’s flaws and enjoyed those games based on the characters, the side stories (the quarian/geth and krogan genophage stories, in particular), and the improved gameplay. I played all three games many times, and recorded a full Let’s Play series on them despite the fact that I usually Let’s Play 80s/90s adventure games. I sank well over 500 hours into the Mass Effect 3 Multiplayer, exploring different classes, races and styles of play. Then I replayed the trilogy applying my improved skills, and finished all three games on insanity.

    I got Andromeda when it was on sale for 20 bucks, not wanting to buy it full price based on what I’d heard. I played it for maybe ten hours before I realized I just really, really, didn’t care about the story, the characters, the setting, or even the gameplay (which was okay but since I’m not a shooter person, without the story/characters to keep me invested I don’t care enough to spend the time to learn the ins and outs), and I stopped playing and never went back. Nothing I’ve seen in this retrospective has made me question that decision.

    Here’s hoping we get something similar to Mass Effect 1 again at some point. Its approach to world building and details-first sci-fi was unique among games, and rare even among any sci-fi outside of literature. It was unique, I loved it, and am deeply saddened by how badly its legacy has been bungled.

  26. N/A says:

    Bioware Austin might be okay, actually. TOR might not have the popular presence of, say, Elder Scrolls Online, but contrary to popular wisdom it’s apparently chugging along well enough that the team feels comfortable taking an off-year to work on an ambitious expansion for later this year.

    1. Rollory says:

      SWTOR’s playerbase is a quarter of what it was two years ago.

      Source: I was playing the game regularly until I uninstalled last month and the decline has been very visible. Also, I had been as a sort of hobby project keeping tabs on logged-in player numbers at various times through the day, for several months each year. My guesstimate is that they had 300K semi-regular users (including free to play users) across all servers in 2015, and are in the 20K-50K semi-regular users now.

      The one thing keeping it going is the erotic roleplayers dropping huge piles of cash on the slutwear in the cash shop.

  27. Retsam says:

    Of course, they listed Mass Effect 3 and Andromeda as possible launching off points for future stories. Their first instinct is to build on the games with the weakest stories, which probably indicates that any future titles would be more of the same.

    Guys! Mass Effect 2 is the fan favorite! Sure, story dorks like me would whine all the way through it, but it’s the strongest in terms of fan support. If you’re going to copy a previous game, copy the popular one!

    I don’t really understand this point. It doesn’t sound like they were saying which games they’d emulate, just saying where in the timeline a new story could fit, narratively. And those seem like the two obvious options: either it’ll continue the narrative from Mass Effect 3, or continue the narrative from Andromeda.

    They aren’t the only options, (they could do a prequel, or another side-story’ like Andromeda), but I’m not sure how they’d “use the story threads from Mass Effect 2”, unless they were just planning on retconning Mass Effect 3 out of existence and redoing it.

  28. Decius says:

    Consider Wasteland 2 and DA:O

    Which one of those used Realtime with pause, and which one was turn based?

  29. Tizzy says:

    Apologies if this has been posted already, but on the day this post went up, Jason Schreier posted a new article on Kotaku about Dragon Age 4. In a throwaway comment, he suggests that the Mass Effect franchise is being revived. I would not take it to mean that another game will make it all the way to release, given the long development time and the high uncertainty. But the franchise appears more alive than one could reasonably expect.

  30. Soylent Dave says:

    To be fair to the current team (however many of them remain from the various dissections Bioware has suffered), Bioware have been making basically the same game with the same characters and the same key plot points for an awfully long time – Mass Effect was only the mid-point of their formula, but ME itself was already awfully familiar to players of KOTOR…

    It’s just that with each iteration, rather than refining and building on some winning ideas, the good bits are getting fewer (or left out entirely), and we’re increasingly left with the formulaic tat.

  31. Fabrimuch says:

    The case of the Mass Effect franchise is a curious one indeed. The story quality and the gameplay quality are inversely proportional to one another: the first game has one of my favorite sci-fi stories I have ever experienced but the combat is complete ass, while 2 and 3 have a really solid and engaging gameplay loop but the story quality takes a nosedive into Space R’lyeh. As a result, I can’t really recommend this franchise I love to anyone because the only game with a story worth seeing is painful to play through and the games that are fun to play run the story you care about through the ground.

    After the ME3 ending, I lost all trust I had in Bioware and EA as a whole. I haven’t played or even looked at any EA-published game since that notorious conversation with the Starchild. When Andromeda got announced, I could only think “why would anyone get hyped about this game after how thoroughly they destroyed the ME universe the last game?” Mass Effect was dead to me and I could not fathom how there were still people out there who would willingly buy into it after seeing the previous game’s conclusion.

    I never played Andromeda or Anthem, and apparently I was right about my assumptions. Though I wish I wasn’t

  32. wswordsmen says:

    But a handful of brilliant artists can’t change the direction of a company any more than a footsoldier can make changes to foreign policy.

    So you are saying there is a chance?

  33. Drathnoxis says:

    I’d love to see you do a retrospective on the Dragon Age series. I feel like there’s a lot of parallels that can be drawn between it and the downfall of the Mass Effect series.

  34. Sardonic says:

    Shamus, I’m a (former) game developer, who watched all the talent and goodwill of a team go to waste as the leadership fumbled on the basics of a game for years. As the game kept failing to come together due to utter mismanagement and lack of direction, it became clear to everyone that the difference in productive output would be coming from the rank-and-file developers in the form of long-term, last-minute crunch. The game released and is a pale shadow of what it could have been, if the leadership had known what they were doing a tenth as well as the developers did.

    The hardest part of the whole process was watching the incompetent directors and producers go on regular PR tours and spin the game to make it sound like it would be the next big thing. We would watch the marketing events on stream, as we worked long hours to get something, anything out the door. At the end of the project, every developer who didn’t have a history with the company quit, and many left game development altogether. It was a tragedy in slow motion.

    What’s disconcerting to me is the regularity with which stories like this are coming to the surface. You linked the Kotaku article behind Andromeda’s development in the article. There is also, of course, the Kotaku article on Anthem’s troubled development. I would bet everything I have that the development of Fallout 76 followed a similar pattern (in fact, I knew that was exactly what was going on the moment I read that pre-release PR message that seemed so cryptic to so many — it read exactly like the same kind of PR nonsense any of the leadership on my team would have pushed). The development cycles that produce these games that are brimming with wasted potential are becoming all too common. I’m sick of reading about these horrible practices that stem from a leadership that is asleep at the wheel, while the rest of the development team scrambles to make something that will make them feel like they didn’t completely waste years of their life. The most troubling part is hearing the same story from so many different companies (I worked for neither Bethesda nor BioWare).

    So, from the bottom of my heart, thank you for refusing to pull punches when it comes to critiquing incompetent leadership in game development. I have personally seen the damage it can do, even in a case as relatively minor as mine was, and it can be extremely frustrating to read articles written by people who are too cowardly to call out the bad behavior when they see it.

  35. GoStu says:

    Andromeda’s similarities to the original game are analogous to someone tracing over a piece of really good art. The lines are in the same or similar places; but the colour, contrast, emphasis, and details are all wrong. They parrot the broad strokes without understanding the subtleties that elevate from a merely “completed” piece of work to a masterpiece.

    It’s a shame that so much of the criticism of this game centered on easily meme’d wonky screenshots. I’m adamant that if there’d been interesting worldbuilding, characters, and the like that we’d have glossed smoothly over the occasional graphical hiccup. Sadly, without any of that to really engage, it just becomes a race to take the derpiest screenshots and highlight the technical difficulties.

    I’m worried that the misplaced criticism will lead to misdirected solutions. Combing through forums and reddit and other sources of internet discontent, someone might go “oh, we’ll just release another one on the Frostbite engine: we know what we’re doing now!”. Meanwhile the problems in the writer’s room will never be addressed, because fewer people are talking about them.

    If you’re out to bury Bioware, I volunteer as a pallbearer.

  36. Yrcrazypa says:

    This pretty much sums up my thoughts on Bioware, except I would draw the line further back then you did as to when Bioware started losing the magic. I thought even Mass Effect 1 was a sign that Bioware was really starting to change, and Dragon Age: Origins bored me to the point that I didn’t finish it, unlike every other game they released up until that point aside from Shattered Steel, which I never played. Mass Effect 2 combined with DA:O was enough for me to stop buying their games altogether, and it seems that was the correct choice given the opinions of all the people who share similar tastes to mine thinking all their games after that point weren’t very good.

    The EA buyout really did change them, since even if you grant that EA has given them a lot of leeway to make whatever games they want without interference, there was still a departure of a lot of people that used to make that studio great, along with diluting them heavily by making not just one extra Bioware studio, but two extra.

    1. Brian N. says:

      The typical AAA game’s budget is only 25-50% dev. The lion’s share goes to marketing.

    2. GoStu says:

      I’ve got to dispute on of the claims in that second screenshot.

      The budgets for games are ballooning [causing developers to play safe instead of risky games]. The easiest solution is to raise the price of games […].

      It’s been discussed on this very site before; sixty bucks is what the consumer is prepared to pay for a game. Some “premium” or special edition games can sell above that but the baseline price is about sixty bucks; I think the sticker shock from seeing a $90 on the box would drive away more buyers. Consumers are starting to really resent the model of $60++ where they attempt to hit you with microtransactions.

      If the poster isn’t just talking out his ass, then I think it’s a matter of who’s going to manage to bring production cost down. I don’t think the consumer is prepared to spread cheeks and accept a 50% price markup, nor endless badgering for more microtransactions. Whoever finds a cost-saving way to make more off the $60/game is going to make a killing.

  37. SkySC says:

    I recently replayed Dragon Age Origins, and I thought to myself, “if they just kept this engine exactly the same and used it to tell other stories of similar quality to this one, I’d play every game they made.” (not that DA:O has an incredible story, but it’s solid, the narrative presentation is good, and the character interactions are great). I’m sure it was a very technically difficult thing to accomplish at the time, but I wonder if something on that level of graphics would be more economical to produce these days. Clearly there’s a market for the isometric RPGs big enough to fund their much lower costs, but it seems like story-heavy branching-narrative 3D games are difficult to make a profit on. I’ve been playing Pillars of Eternity, and while the story and world are much deeper and more interesting than Dragon Age’s, it’s hard to feel the same connection to characters who are represented by tiny featureless models and unmoving portraits.

  38. Lun says:

    I think the last real story-driven rpg I’ve played was Dragon Age: Origins. After that, I haven’t found any real rpg game…. those games which tell stories and have a lot of dialogues and have you interact and develop relationships with characters, all while fighting enemies more or less strategically.
    Yeah there was Dragon Age 2, but I found it boring, it already felt like it wasn’t so focused on the story and characters.
    Mass Effect too started as a shooter/rpg, then the series become more shooter and less rpg.

    However, there’s other ways to tell stories. It’s by sneaking them into action games that aren’t rpg. For example: Far Cry 5 is a huge open world with cheesy characters and an easy let’s-shoot-bad-guys mass appeal. But it’s also a game with really cool scenes and characters and dialogues. I played that game because I wanted to know what would happen next. I formed a connection with the villains, finding clever that this is a game where the characters you get to know are not your party members, but the bad guys.
    Then, the Arkham series, despite never ever saying anything remotely deep or thought-provoking, had strong moments. It’s still a form of narration when you get so immersed in what is happening or what the character says.
    Heck, even Mortal Kombat is getting a long story mode now. It’s just a thoughtless action flick, but it’s still hours of narration that the devs took care to carefully put and narrate and animate.

    And then for full-on, complete, 100% narration, we have the rare occasion of games like Detroit: Become Human, who exist only to tell a story, not to provide complex gameplay, and who offer a deep, thought-provoking narrative.
    And we have those “walking simulators” like Everybody’s Gone To The Rapture.

    …..This comment became a sort of stream of thought, but essentially what I’m saying is: we lost the real narrative videogame genre (classic rpg). But at the same time we can find solace in knowing that narrative has well sneaked its way into other videogame genres. And now even a simple shooter game is more likely to have at least some moments of fairly decent narration.

  39. Craig says:

    Me personally, I’ve never liked mass effect as much as most people seem to. It always felt to me as if the series’ ambition far exceed the reach of it’s engine and format. I mean, for a game about space and sweeping conflicts between space civilizations, space ships somehow play an extremely minor role in the story and everything is generally resolved by punching/shooting people in the face. Obviously, it’s because a console third personal shooter has to be this way but it really drags the story down. Like a good part of ME3
    involves enlisting krogans because ‘they’re really tough infantries’, but it made no sense why fighting reapers, a race of evil spaceships would entail much infantry fighting at all. They’d just shoot you down in space or bomb you from orbit!

  40. 1. (Kaiden+Ashley / Cora+Liam)
    I never liked Kaiden, Liam was okay but the rasta thing did not do it for me. Cora was okayish, Ashley was a tad annoying at first but grew on me over the trilogy.

    2. (Garrus / Vetra)
    Garrus was a fun homie, but I liked Vetra better.

    3. (Liara / Peebee)
    Peebee should have been dialed back some, Liara is not without issues either. I kinda wish they’d had gone with something inbetween the two.

    4. (Wrex / Drack)
    They’re both cool IMO, but I like Wrex more.

    5. (Tali / Jaal)
    While Jaal is interesting… tali’s ma girl, the way she consistently grows across the trilogy is very well done (unlike Liara).

    6. (Anderson / Your actual dad)
    Anderson for sure, Ryder’s dad is just a mess.

    7. (Mako / Nomad)
    Oh, you forgot the hover tank. And while the Mako hols an annoying place in my heart I gotta say I find the Nomad much better.

    8. (Normandy / Tempest)
    The Tempest hands down, whomever designed the ship did real well (despite a few inside does not match outside issues)

    9. (Protheans / Remnant)
    I find the Remnant more mysterious (and more technologically advanced/powerful), then again we discovered the Protheans across 3 games + a DLC.

    10. (The Cypher / Ryder’s Remnant Magic)
    I think I prefer The Cypher, it made “the player” special/unique, the Ryder AI implant thingy was just that (with mutated software) a thing all pathfinders/candidates had(?).

    11 (Citadel / Nexus)
    Hmm. A tough one. There where still things we did not know about The Citadel. The Nexus was more fleshed out and felt more lived in, it’s a same we did not get to travel to all it’s other parts (the lakes/forests etc we see).

    12. (Udina / Tann)
    I could really do without either, I guess Udina was better as he felt as a antagonist. Tann could have been cool if he turned out to be a spy for the big bad or something.

    13 (Virmire / Kett conversion base) and nuke it, which leads to a moral choice at the end.
    The Kett base was annoying but did not feel as on rails as Virmire.

    14 A moment in act 3 where the political leaders oppose you and advise inaction, obliging the hero to go rogue.
    I was about to say how unrealistic it would be to have so dumb leaders, then I realised what year we are living in. Again as mentioned with Tann, if they where spies/plants/turned it would be much more interesting than incompetence/stupidity.

    15 (Ilos, Fake Meridian.)
    I wish Ilos could have been explored more, no clue what the rest of the planet is like, or the other Prothean stuff underground. I did like the fake Meridian design though, the space base (command ship?) thingy felt big.

    16 (The mystery gateway to the Citadel from Ilos / The final boss monster.)
    Yeah, Ilos thing was much better here and a nice surprise.

    17 A moment in act 3 where your team does a combat drop in your space tank on a strange new alien world, and then has to chase the villain to the final showdown where you fight over a control panel. (The chase on Iilos through the conduit to the controls on the Citadel / the chase on Meridian and into the vault for control of the vault network.)
    Here ME1 was way better, it felt more personal and up close. While the scenery in Andromeda at this point was great outside, ME1 gameplay (gamedesign?) just felt better.

    18 A choice at the end that allows you to shape the future government. (Save the council / Choose the Nexus leader.)
    This actually goes in favour of Andromeda, I could hardly care less about the council, but the Nexus staff etc. the player gets more familiar with.

    The takeaway from all this that I get is that the staff that did Andromeda but under the leadership of the Mass Effect 1 (lead writer/game director etc.) would have been amazing. But all those people left BioWare or the few left got stuck working on the mess that was Anthem.

  41. BioWare seized to be a “game studio” and became a “game factory”.

    1. Henson says:

      I hate to be that guy, but…

      ‘Ceased’. Not ‘seized’.

  42. Lil says:

    Anthem is one of 2019’s best-selling games, and BioWare is hiring more staff for the game in both Edmonton and Austin. Dragon Age 4 has been announced, with huge hype. The next Mass Effect has been teased by everyone at BioWare.

    BioWare is far from dead. They’ll be making great experiences people will enjoy for many years to come. Meanwhile, you’ll be doing nothing but selling your soul, trying to tear down the hard work of people with actual talent and creativity in order to appeal to a vocal minority you know are a bunch of horrible, awful people.

    Enjoy being on the losing side of life. Enjoy knowing that BioWare will continue to brighten the world while you do nothing of value to anyone with your life.

    1. EA rep says:

      Thanks for your kind comment!
      10 credits have been deposited to your Origin account!

    2. Andromeda and Anthem sold 'below expectations' says:

      Haha, is this a troll or a Bioware employee? It’s difficult to imagine an actual human genuinely having these thoughts.

    3. EOW says:

      Comments that didn’t age well.

  43. a retrospective on the retrospective says:

    It’s pretty spectacular how badly all of the hope of those final paragraphs has aged….

    Pioneer? Cancelled.
    BG&E2? Development hell.
    Starfield? TBD, 3 and a half years later, with Bethesda having lost their storytelling cred as thoroughly as Bioware.

    Cyberpunk 2077’s launch looked like Andromeda’s on meth, and was marred by much of the same confused plotting and lackluster quest design that fills Andromeda. It may have damaged CDPR’s reputation as thoroughly as Andromeda + Anthem destroyed Bioware’s.

    The Outer Worlds is the only one of the bunch to have had what any rational person could call a successful release, and even that game seems like it faded into obscurity in less than a year.


    1. Lino says:

      Well, on the bright side CDPR managed to fix most of the issues with Cyberpunk, and after Edgerunners came out, the game saw such a sales spike that it is now the most played single-player game of 2022.

      But yeah, apart from that ray of hope, things are looking pretty grim. I guess the games-as-a-service model is so profitable that it just doesn’t make sense to create good games anymore :/

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