Rebuilding The Future: How BioWare Can Bounce Back
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Once beloved by gamers on a level comparable to Nintendo’s late 80s/early 90s golden years (thanks to a string of critical and fan favs culminating in the groundbreaking Mass Effect Series), BioWare has fallen on harder times in more recent years. Recent games, most notably Dragon Age 2 and Star Wars: The Old Republic, have performed below expectations (with SWTOR facing the humiliating prospect of going FTP before it even had a year to grow.) And the infamous backlash over the ending of Mass Effect 3 is only the most famous PR clusterbomb the company has experienced since 2010.
Most recently, as the company reels from one of the biggest backlashes in gaming history, several high ranking staffers have quit, including studio founders Ray Muzyka and Greg Zeschuk, exits that look a lot like people fleeing a burning building. After a couple of years like that, it’s understandable if people think the company is at the top of a long slope, poised to begin a painful descent. But it doesn’t have to turn out like that. Despite a couple years’ worth of missteps and miscalculations, the company that made Mass Effect 3 and Dragon Age 2 is still also the company that made Mass Effect and Dragon Age: Origins. We’d like it to stay that way.
Though we don’t normally indulge in outright industry analysis, we spend a lot of time here at Game Front discussing BioWare’s trials and tribulations. With that record – and yes, that caveat – in mind, we’ve taken a deep look into the current state of BioWare, with an eye on how they can bounce back from a rough patch that has other developers proclaiming that ‘there but for the grace of god…’ and all that. It won’t be easy to do, and it’s going to require a huge right turn from where economic and creative inertia is currently pushing them, but BioWare can bounce back. And we think we know how.
Step One: Return To Your Roots
When Greg Zeschuk and Ray Muzyka announced their departure from the company they founded, my first thought was that we could go ahead and write BioWare off. It was becoming, I said at the time, just another brand name, something parent company EA will slap on certain games to class them up a bit, regardless of (and especially without) merit. For this reason alone, before BioWare does anything else, it must work diligently to reassure gamers and the industry alike that the name still means something by returning to its roots.
This means disassociating BioWare from Electronic Arts’ role playing ‘division’. In early 2010, EA renamed that Division the ‘BioWare Division’; at the time, the idea seemed to be that BioWare would now be spearheading the mass production of high quality RPG games, the sort that built their stellar reputation. EA, for its part, seemed intent on becoming known for having made the proliferation of the BioWare-Style RPG genre possible. Instead, the opposite has happened. Though some signs were evident in the years after EA first acquired them, BioWare’s output since the official christening of the BioWare Division has been defined by two things: the watering down of elements native to the BioWare RPG; and the proliferation of the name itself, rather than what that name means.
While BioWare Montreal and BioWare Austin were created prior to the EA acquisition, their fullest fruition as developers within the BioWare family occurred in the years after. Both studios were at least founded specifically by BioWare, but since the creation of the BioWare Group, Electronic Arts has renamed Mythic Entertainment as ‘BioWare Mythic’, and Victory Games as ‘BioWare Victory’. The problem is that both studios are working on projects with potentially disastrous consequences for their namesake. Mythic is currently working on Warhammer Online: Wrath of Heroes, an MMORPG largely centered around PVP arenas. Meanwhile, BioWare Victory is currently working on the upcoming Command & Conquer, a multiplayer only, free to play facsimile of the venerable series.
To put it mildly, the fact that Command & Conquer wasn’t orginally intended to have a single player option (and make no mistake, it might never have one) has not been well received. And the prospects for a Warhammer MMO are not great, particularly in light of how THQ’s attempt to make one ended up. We won’t know for certain until release, but there is a strong possibility both games will flop, and and if they do, no one is going to remember that the studios involved were only renamed BioWare to comply with EA’s branding designs. What they’ll remember is that BioWare had two bonafide failures on top of a two-year stretch of missteps, and it’ll be seen as proof that the once great studio has lost its golden touch forever. And as for the fans who are aware of the process by which these studios became part of BioWare? They’ll still be annoyed by the way BioWare seemed to have no problem soiling its name.
Luckily, there’s an easy way to avoid this fate: ditch the franchise operations. Just restore Mythic and Victory to their original names and let the games they’re working on succeed or fail on their own. It might be hard to see shrinking on such a scale as a canny move, but BioWare’s primary operations are still based in Edmonton (with Austin heading up SWTOR, and Montreal handling support duties). Making that fact official will help reassure fans that the company is once again committed to doing what it did best, and in the places at which said best was done.
Now, as for EA? I get it: In creating the BioWare Division, you were going after your own version of the old Nintendo Seal Of Approval. So why not come up with something that still suggests an approved family of titles without forcing your most prestigious acquisition to soak up the stench of barely-associated missteps? BioWare’s Renegade/Paragon system is an important innovation, so why not just use one of them to name your RPG division. Doesn’t EA Renegade has a nice ring to it? See, Problem solved.