In 1998, a virtually unknown Canadian development team suddenly became a major player in the gaming world when their Dungeons & Dragons licensed role-playing game (RPG) sold almost two million copies. The unprecedented level of gameplay fluidity and the stunningly rendered backgrounds instantly made “Baldur’s Gate” the best RPG on the market. The outfit responsible for this incredible success was none other than the now-legendary developer BioWare.
Following Baldur’s Gate, BioWare maintained their momentum through the turn of the century. They leveraged the popularity of the Dungeons & Dragons license to create more amazing RPGs like “Baldur’s Gate II” and “Neverwinter Nights”. As 2003 rolled around, BioWare was being faced with their most trying task to date. The studio would have to leave the familiar safety of the Forgotten Realms (they sold their D&D license to Atari) to take on the beloved Star Wars franchise. The resulting game was, of course, “Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic” which received universal acclaim and proved beyond a shadow of a doubt that BioWare makes damn good RPGs.
However, something happened in late 2007 that would irreversibly change the dynamic of the Edmonton based developers. Through the forces of capitalism, BioWare was joined with fellow developers Pandemic Studios with both studios maintaining their individual brands. But a late twist to the tale came when industry giants Electronic Arts (EA) were revealed to have bought out the newly organised partnership. EA had not yet acquired the title of “the worst company in America” but they did already have the dubious reputation of acquiring studios, destabilizing them and shutting them down shortly after.
By 2007, EA had already bought out and shut down Bullfrog Productions, famous for their “Dungeon Keeper” series, Westwood Studios (“Command & Conquer”), Origin Systems (“Ultima”) and NuFX (“NBA Street”). Each studio had a similar story: once acquired by EA they began to experience internal struggles and after several cancelled projects, were either closed completely or were absorbed by other arms of the publisher. However, there were also studies operating happily under the EA umbrella which made the fate of BioWare and Pandemic unpredictable.
Shortly after the takeover, BioWare earned more plaudits from the gaming world for their newest action role-playing game, “Mass Effect”. This riveting space opera would go on to become one of BioWare’s flagship franchises, players loved fighting side-by-side with their alien buddies against the backdrop of galactic extermination. As long as BioWare continued to deliver quality games, they needn’t fear the wrath of their corporate overlords.
However, not everyone was so lucky. Pandemic Studios had floundered since being bought out. Due to the fact that the studio was now owned by Electronic Arts, LucasArts no longer allowed the studio to make games set in the Star Wars universe. This completely derailed the development of “Star Wars Battlefront III”, the third game in the studio’s most popular series. After the studio released two consecutive lackluster titles in “Mercenaries 2: World in Flames” and “Lord of the Rings: Conquest”, EA laid off the majority of Pandemic employees throughout the course of 2009. The studio was officially closed in November.
Meanwhile, BioWare continued to prove a good investment. “Dragon Age: Origins”, a fantasy role-playing game released in late 2009, was another commercial success. The studio now had two popular RPG franchises to build on, one sci-fi and one fantasy. Two years after the release of Origins, “Mass Effect 2” hit store shelves. BioWare had really outdone themselves this time, it was everything good about the original game but so much sleeker and on a grander scale. Suddenly everyone wanted to play as the now-iconic protagonist Commander Shepard. It was around this time that EA’s negative influence began to become apparent. At the behest of EA, the unholy monetisation trinity of day-one-downloadable content, pre-order bonuses and a season pass were included with Mass Effect 2.
This wasn’t the last time EA would put BioWare in a tough spot, the bumpy release of “Dragon Age 2” in 2011 was another disaster caused by the publisher. EA reportedly insisted that the studio release a sequel to Origins just 18 months after its release. Making a good RPG in such a short length of time would be a monumental task for BioWare. For comparison, Dragon Age: Origins spent eight years in development before being released. The sequel came out to a mixed response, while many critics seemed to enjoy the game, hardcore fans were quick to voice their displeasure. Due to their need to release the game quickly, BioWare decided to base the game solely in one city and its surrounding hinterland which allowed them to reuse assets and maps throughout the game, saving time in the process. The regression of many mechanics from the original angered fans greatly but BioWare was clearly put in a tough spot by EA.
A big release was on the horizon for BioWare, however, “Mass Effect 3”, the highly anticipated conclusion to Shepard’s trilogy was due. In March of 2012, Mass Effect 3 was released to swarms of hungry fans who were eager to find out if Shepard could succeed in his quest to stop the Reapers. First impressions started to filter through the grapevine, Mass Effect 3 was an amazing experience; grander than anything BioWare had ever done before. The response to the game was very positive, that was until players reached the ending.
The Mass Effect 3 ending controversy sabotaged an amazing series of games. Negativity regarding the ending of the game reached a fever-pitch as players took to social media to slam the plot-hole ridden mess of a conclusion that BioWare had written. Despite Mass Effect 3 being a very good game overall, fans that had been playing the series religiously over the previous five years felt cheated by the outcome of Shepard’s story. BioWare had released an underwhelming sequel to one of its beloved series and had botched the ending of the other. Their minds must have wandered to Pandemic, their brief partners that met an untimely end.
“Dragon Age: Inquisition” released just in time for the Christmas season of 2014. In fact, it was a Christmas miracle that the game was finished at all. By all accounts, the development cycle of Inquisition was nightmarish, and the game only magically came together at the very last minute. The game’s wide-open world map, exciting plot and heavily customisable protagonist did a lot to wash the bad taste out of the mouth of fans who were burned by Dragon Age II. Meanwhile, the spectre that is Electronic Arts had begun shutting down studios once more. BlackBox Games (“Need for Speed”), DreamWorks Interactive (“Medal of Honor”), Phenomic (“SpellForce”), Mythic (“Dark Age of Camelot”) and Maxis Software (“The Sims”) all got the axe between 2013-2014. BioWare had dodged a bullet, but could they keep it up?
The answer was no. “Mass Effect: Andromeda”, released in 2017, was supposed to usher the franchise into a new generation but the reality was a bug-ridden mess of a game. Andromeda was laden with technical issues and was prone to freezing unexpectedly and crashing. The very strange and stiff facial animations of the characters is an aspect that almost every critic cited as being a serious problem. And above all else, the game is just boring. Meaningless quests and robotic characters is the opposite of what Mass Effect fans had come to expect. Andromeda was BioWare’s biggest mistake yet and Electronic Arts had just shut down the esteemed studio Visceral Games, famous for the “Dead Space” series. BioWare needed to bounce back quickly.
Unfortunately, they didn’t. With “Anthem”, BioWare attempted to deviate from their bread-and-butter by creating a multiplayer action shooter. The result was not pleasant. Gaming media reported another development cycle disaster from BioWare as they struggled through brutal crunches to complete the game on-time. The result was a laughable Frankenstein’s monster of a game that simply lacked meaningful content. In order to keep players playing their “multiplayer experience”, BioWare made the progression system tedious and repetitive which actually drove most of the player base away. Two high-profile blunders would have been enough for Electronic Arts to shut down most studios so BioWare is luckier than most. They have one last shot at redemption.
The only relatively untarnished series that BioWare has left is Dragon Age. The second game was a minor slip-up, but the general consensus is that Inquisition was enough to preserve Dragon Age’s reputation. Not much is known about the upcoming “Dragon Age: The Dread Wolf Rises” except that it’s a direct sequel to the events of Inquisition that BioWare is currently working on. You have to imagine that if the game isn’t outstanding, it may be all she wrote for the legendary developer. Good luck BioWare, everyone is rooting for you.