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.
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
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’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.
- 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”.)
- Squad member: A Turian maverick (Garrus / Vetra)
- Squad member: A young Asari studying ancient alien technology. (Liara / Peebee)
- Squad member: An old Krogan warrior. (Wrex / Drack)
- 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)
- A father figure that exits the story so the player can take over. (Anderson / Your actual dad)
- A bouncy space-tank. (Mako / Nomad)
- A one-of-a-kind stealth ship with a black-and-white paint job. (Normandy / Tempest)
- A mystery involving ancient alien technology. (Protheans / Remnant)
- The hero mastering ancient alien knowledge. (The Cypher / Ryder’s Remnant Magic)
- A ginormous space station as the seat of power. (Citadel / Nexus)
- On the space station is a difficult bureaucrat you have to tangle with. (Udina / Tann)
- 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.
- A moment in act 3 where the political leaders oppose you and advise inaction, obliging the hero to go rogue.
- A search for a mystery world where we walk through ancient alien ruins and discover big plot-twisty things. (Ilos, Fake Meridian.)
- There’s an important thing at the end called “The Conduit”. (The mystery gateway to the Citadel from Ilos / The final boss monster.)
- 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.)
- 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.
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
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.
 Finding Meridian to stop the Archon and terraforming planets by doing vaults.
 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.
 For the purposes of this comparison, I’m assuming that “ex-space cop” counts as “military background”.
 And then they’d bungle that scenario so it didn’t make sense anyway.
 Which are usually surrounded by cliffs, because we don’t want our explorer to get too far from the road, do we?
 Or at least, non-moronic.
The Best of 2013
My picks for what was important, awesome, or worth talking about in 2013.
Spec Ops: The Line
A videogame that judges its audience, criticizes its genre, and hates its premise. How did this thing get made?
Grand Theft Auto Retrospective
This series began as a cheap little 2D overhead game and grew into the most profitable entertainment product ever made. I have a love / hate relationship with the series.
The product of fandom run unchecked, this novel began as a short story and grew into something of a cult hit.
Revisiting a Dead Engine
I wanted to take the file format of a late 90s shooter and read it in modern-day Unity. This is the result.