Various Show personnel, yours truly included, have sung the praises of one software developer over and over. Bioware. For over two decades, producers of amazing games. Risk-taking pioneers, talented, brilliant people who almost never failed to leave you satisfied with your experience. Even the occasional misstep was more in the territory of mediocrity than actual badness. It was not for nothing I once declared them the Pixar of the gaming world.
The sad fact is, the analogy may fail to hold up in one, very important regard. Pixar was bought out by Disney, but continued to be able to produce great films… some of their best, like Wall-E, are solidly in the post-Disney era. John Lasseter is still its chief creative officer, and the creative team, to my knowledge, is still largely intact.
Bioware was bought out by Electronic Arts, and while I hoped for a Pixar-like situation, as 2012 draws to a close I’m not nearly as optimistic about its future. The decay wasn’t immediate, because both Mass Effect 2 and Dragon Age: Origins were released after the acquisition and held up to the standard, but I feel like Dragon Age 2 might have started to show some cracks with all the reused environments, and then of course there was the debacle with Mass Effect 3′s conclusion. The Old Republic released with what seemed like a lot of the Bioware goodness intact, but took a somewhat stunning step backwards in making all NPC romance options once again heterosexual.
Minor bits? Perhaps, but some voice in the back of my head couldn’t be silenced that some level of executive meddling was occurring (it doesn’t help that the video games entry under that trope has an entire section devoted to EA, including confirmations Dragon Age 2 and ME 3 were rushed to meet deadlines). How else to explain the time wasted on including an online multiplayer component with Mass Effect 3 that felt nothing more than tacked-on. Sure, it had some bullshit positive effect on your “readiness” rating in the main game, but you had to keep it up constantly or it decayed, and in the end it really didn’t matter. There are two reasons why multiplayer was included in ME3:
- It required a code, so that people renting the game or buying it used couldn’t access it.
- It’s conventional wisdom in the gaming industry that multiplayer is where the money is.
Bioware never bothered with FPS-style multiplayer until ME3, and yet time and energy that could have been spent on making sure the ending of a three game saga at least had different cutscenes for the universe-shaking final choice you were called on to make, was instead spent on a side option where you repeatedly fight waves of Cerberus troops within a set time limit. Yay. It can be ignored if it doesn’t float your boat, but the very fact it exists when the main single-player game felt unfinished is not a good sign.
You know what else isn’t a good sign? The founders of the company quitting. One of whom leaves behind a statement that “I’ve reached an unexpected point in my life where I no longer have the passion that I once did for the company, for the games, and for the challenge of creation”. Both maintained they felt they were leaving their baby in good hands, but Rich Vogel also moved on. Serious downsizing occurred over the summer. And just this month, TOR’s creative director Daniel Erickson confirmed he’s between jobs.
Why did Erickson leave? I don’t know, but I do know one of his job hunt tweets was quite pointed: “If you think a monetisation approach is the same thing as a game idea I don’t know why we’re talking.”
In response to the news earlier this year that TOR was going freemium, I came down on the side of inevitability rather than implosion. Now? I ain’t so sure. It seems like a lot of the people at the top who made Bioware what it is are ditching the ship, and those farther down the ladder are getting laid off. Was the whole Free-To-Play mandate a final executive decision that made the Bioware veterans throw up their hands and walk away? Are immediate profit considerations now coming before all else? What’s going to be left when the dust settles?
I’m not canceling my TOR account just yet, but like I said, I’m not optimistic. I know it’s easy to blame the corporate megalith for all the problems, and oversimplify things as the scrappy, brilliant independents being swallowed and gutted by faceless, senseless avatars of greed. But dang if I can’t shake the feeling that’s exactly what’s happened here.
The world isn’t going to end this year. But something else I loved may have, or at least will never be the same.