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BioWare: "We haven't had a breakthrough success"

BioWare: "We haven't had a breakthrough success"

Thu 07 Jun 2012 12:43pm GMT / 8:43am EDT / 5:43am PDT
Development

Dorian Kieken on where BioWare differs from Blizzard and Valve, and the changing relationship with its fans

EA BioWare

BioWare develops high quality console, PC and online role-playing games, focused on rich stories, unforgettable...

bioware.com

For longstanding fans of Bioware, this console generation has been decidedly ambiguous. On the surface, at least, the Canadian RPG specilialist is a very different beast to the studio that created the Baldur's Gate and Neverwinter Nights franchises: bigger, wealthier, and seemingly more focused on hitting the widest possible audience with every new release. For some, the BioWare of 2012 is the most vital developer in the industry; for others, it is a diluted version of a vintage that reached its peak in 2001.

As development director of Bioware's Montreal studio, Dorian Kieken is never going to agree with the sceptics, but he cannot deny that certain aspects of the company have changed immeasurably - and very much for the better. The days when a game as significant as Knights Of The Old Republic would ship after two delays and a year behind schedule are gone. BioWare's creative prowess is as potent as ever, but it is now also a well oiled and highly efficient machine.

"For Bioware, originally, making the game was just about the people making the game, and that has a lot of merit - I have a lot of belief in team self-organisation," he says. "But it was to such an extreme that the games were not very well organised in a lot of ways. The first Mass Effect took five years to make and had one production person for most of the project, and a second by the very end. Mass Effect 2 had twelve or thirteen production people."

"The first Mass Effect took five years to make and had one production person for most of the project. Mass Effect 2 had twelve or thirteen"

Kieken joined Bioware in September 2007, right on the brink of a new era for the company: the following month, Electronic Arts' acquisition was officially announced; the month after that, Mass Effect was released. Since then, BioWare has reached new heights of commercial success, becoming so vital to EA's plans that, in 2011, it was installed as one of the publisher's four core "labels". According to Kieken, the company's current status has granted it unprecedented control over its products, and the only proof that EA requires is the number on the bottom line.

"For the very first time we have control of things that we've never had control of before, things like marketing. Marketing used to be a department we were always negotiating with, but that is part of our group now," he says.

"Ultimately, EA comes to the BioWare boardroom and says. 'Here is the amount of money you have, and here is the amount of money you need to generate in X years. The way you do it is your problem.' So the growth of Bioware Montreal is in the context of the other Bioware studios. It's because we're successful with the Mass Effect series that we can grow a studio. It's all within the Bioware label strategy.

"[The trust] is something very new... I have a lot of respect for John Riccitiello. He is trying to move the company towards a vision that is very smart, with a sort of city-state culture. Basically, you're accountable only to generate revenue. I like that relationship of responsibility."

1

And BioWare takes that responsibility seriously. The autonomy the company enjoys is enviable and all too rare, but its arrangement with EA is designed around success. Every penny the company spends needs to be justified by the revenue it returns, and unlike some of its peers from back in the days of Baldur's Gate, BioWare has no guarantee of financial stability.

"In Bioware we need to have that level of discipline," he says. "Don't get me wrong, our games are doing well, but we didn't have a crazy breakthrough success that saved us from not being organised, like Valve and Blizzard did.

"Valve, Blizzard and Bioware all had a very similar profile over a decade ago: they were all doing very high quality games that people appreciated a lot, but at a huge cost and really not selling that much. Before World of Warcraft, Blizzard as a company really wasn't doing well. They were very expensive, and their revenue didn't match how expensive they were. Valve, before the huge success of Steam, really wasn't doing well financially either.

"They had the sort of breakthroughs that allowed them not to worry about money any more - they still do, of course, but to a lesser extent. We don't have that yet at Bioware. If we have two games in a row, as expensive as we are, that don't do well at all... we need to be careful."

Ultimately, this uncertainty has created an internal culture built upon pushing at its own limitations. In the last few years BioWare has developed and launched an MMO, implemented a cross-platform strategy encompassing mobile games and social networks, and, with Mass Effect 3, made its first attempt at an online multiplayer mode. These are experiments and learning experiences, some more successful than others, but if BioWare is to keep refining its core competency of making high-end RPGs it needs to mitigate risk by expanding its business in other directions.

"We didn't have a crazy breakthrough success that saved us from not being organised, like Valve and Blizzard did"

However, while such experiments help to improve the future stability of the company, they also seem to inform the growing feeling of dissent in its core fan-base. From Mass Effect 2's stripped down mechanics to Dragon Age 2's static location to Mass Effect 3's controversial ending, the notion that BioWare has somehow lost touch with its roots has been on the rise. And with the company still reliant on each new product being successful it cannot afford to ignore what its fans are saying, however reactionary that might be.

That's why the Dragon Age 3 team turned to the BioWare forums to ask what the fans wanted from the finished game. That's why you will soon be able to play free DLC that alters the ending of Mass Effect 3. And Kieken refutes the idea that either is evidence of BioWare simply pandering to the vocal minority and undermining its creative vision. Rather, he sees it is an indication of BioWare's greater respect for the relationship between games and their players, and its growing skill for finding and filtering balanced criticism.

"If someone gives a well thought out criticism, something that is tangible, those are the people that we try to reward as much as possible. And we want to reward them, because that feedback is how we make better games," he says. "On the opposite side, opinion that is too emotional, we won't reward that in the same way. The more you put that as your philosophy, the more you start to have a culture where people are trying to be more analytical with their feedback.

"Fan feedback and fan reaction has always been really important top us when doing our games, so taking the stance that this is our art is something that Bioware has never done in the past anyway. The further you go into listening to criticism and how you should change, and you take that to its extreme, you will start to lose your vision and your integrity. But we're not taking that road.

"I believe in a balanced approach. It's a fine line with dangers on one side or the other, but it's the healthy one. And I think it's representative of what gaming is. It's not a two-hour art-form that's imposed upon you. It's interactive, so you're going to have your say on it."

22 Comments

If the transition between ME1 to ME3 defines the new EA/BioWare, then I'm really concerned as a gamer.

Posted:2 years ago

#1

Morville O'Driscoll Blogger & Critic

1,584 1,438 0.9
The days when a game as significant as Knights Of The Old Republic would ship after two delays and a year behind schedule are gone
But is that good? Does that make a better game? KoTOR is held up as not only one the best RPGs on the PC, but one of the best games on the PC, full stop. No doubt it's financially dangerous (if not ruinous) to release a game a year behind schedule, but tying yourself too closely to a schedule more often than not either results in a bad game, or a game that isn't as good as it could've been.

Dragon Age 2 was pushed out on schedule (just in time for financial year 2010), and its flawed. Ask a BioWare fan if they would rather have KoTOR over DA2 and the answer will be obvious. Ask EA's CFO the same question and the answer will be equally obvious, in the opposite direction. The release of DA2 alone puts doubt into how "the company's current status has granted it unprecedented control over its products".
These are experiments and learning experiences, some more successful than others, but if BioWare is to keep refining its core competency of making high-end RPGs it needs to mitigate risk by expanding its business in other directions.
Or it could not. It could downsize; it could be a pure RPG developer again. CDProjeckt Red has shown the value in that. Double Fine has shown the value in producing quirky games that play to its strengths as a developer. Just because you can broaden your developmental horizons, does not mean you'll produce quality products, and nor does it mean its financially sensible to do so.

Edited 3 times. Last edit by Morville O'Driscoll on 7th June 2012 2:36pm

Posted:2 years ago

#2

Rick Lopez Illustrator, Graphic Designer

1,269 942 0.7
@Bioware... just dont rush a product through the door... because I want to buy your products. I love both dragon age and mass effect... i felt dragon age 2 was rushed for a story thats went across 10 years it sure felt dull being in the same place. Mass effect 3 could have been more polished, that ending sucked. No closure and very little changed no matter what you chose. Take your time making your games because i will buy them.

Edited 1 times. Last edit by Rick Lopez on 7th June 2012 2:55pm

Posted:2 years ago

#3

Kevin Patterson musician

187 103 0.6
I love Bioware and their games, They are one of my favorite developers.

Some of their decisions on their flagship games though were odd though. I never understand why a developer/publisher changes a successful IP enough that it's not really like the games that came before it. If the game was successful, why make drastic changes when the fans loved the games that came before?
There is nothing wrong with improving the games, but major changes on a previously successful game's mechanics is not something the fans want.
Major changes would be better placed in a offshoot game rather than the sequel.

Dragon Age:origins was an amazing game, Dragon Age 2 was a good game, but most DA:O fans disliked the changes made in the sequel. Mass effect is an amazing series, but they dumbed down the RPG elements in ME2 and more in ME3, WHY?
Everyone chastises Bioware for the re-used locations in DA2, why did they expect they could get away with that?

Sometimes devs get this idea "I know you loved the original, but the drastic changes we are making are good for you" and that mostly doesn't end well. Making those changes works better when the IP has sold poor to average, not on a very successful and critically acclaimed IP.

Edited 1 times. Last edit by Kevin Patterson on 7th June 2012 5:51pm

Posted:2 years ago

#4

Richard Gardner Artist, Crytek

123 32 0.3
Touching on comments about Dragon Age 2 I think the main problem with the game was EA's philosophy of 18 month sequels. As a consumer I played Dragon Age and really liked it, when news of Dragon Age 2 came around I was super excited. Looking at it and seeing the changes it felt like the development team had done a fantastic job. But once reviews starting coming out my mind changed completely. I can only assume things would have being a lot different where they given enough time to produce a game on that scale. The thing that confuses me is EA know the predicted metacritics for their games, I would assume they have whole departments devoted to the subject. Not to mention external company's who provide the service, they must have known it was not going to reach its expectations. But yet they released it anyway. My guess is decisions like that are based on expectations of share holders and yearly projected revenues.

Posted:2 years ago

#5
One has to wonder what their next batch of IPs will be like, and whether producing one singular IP is enough, which does not require direct sequels but can evolve with time as a living saga.

Posted:2 years ago

#6

Richard Gardner Artist, Crytek

123 32 0.3
You make a great point Chee, when was the last time an EA studio invested in new IP? In fact even with there more creative ventures with independents the IP doesn't belong to them.

In contrast to that you have the stellar showing of Ubisoft this E3. They had ZombiU, Watch Dogs and Assassins Creed I felt they nailed each aspect of the market perfectly.

ZombiU is targeted at the zombie trend, yet its being bold and giving the consumer exactly what they have being asking for, the timing is laughable perfect with DayZ taking Arrowhead sales to the top of the charts recently. Then you have Watch Dogs which feels targeted at consumers, yet fresh and new. Last but not least you have Assassins Creed which feels like it is reinventing itself enough to keep moving forward, again perfect timing when the franchise was just about to feel a little repetitive.

Posted:2 years ago

#7
When I heard of Zombie U, I thought. Hmm another Zombie apocalypse game. But when I saw what they were up to, i smiled and thought well done. Bet the queen would have a slight laugh if she saw the trailer indeed! The second thought was , dang wish we could have contributed to the zombification of the local scenery in some way!

Posted:2 years ago

#8

Greg Wilcox Creator, Destroy All Fanboys!

2,193 1,170 0.5
I think BioWare needs to get back to doing a tightly focused fantasy RPG like they did back in the 90's and up to Neverwinter Nights.

As for Dragon Age. my ancient idea was to call the third game Dragon Age: Empires, thrown in as many characters from the previous games that would make sense, let you pick one and play through a story for each of them in an open world setting. This would allow people who wanted to be a certain character do so, but the game would also have a character creator as well as a separate story for that guy or gal that had him or her crossing paths with some favorites from previous games.

No multiplayer (unless it's story-centered, OPTIONAL and makes sense for it to be there) or online, no recycled indoor and outdoor maps. Just make the world big and let us carve our own path through it, dipping in and out of the story as we like.

Off topic: I personally think Zombi U and Lollipop Chainsaw are the end of the zombie game as far as relevance goes, as where can you go from a game that goes rogue-like in its approach (lovely and awesome, thanks Ubisoft!) and another with "Sparkle Hunting!"? Of course, Call of Duty will churn out a new Zombies element every year (they should have spun it off into a separate Call of the Dead franchise, which would have been cool work for a bunch of actors), but other than that, I can't see much going on with anything new with the undead.

Posted:2 years ago

#9

Peter Dwyer Games Designer/Developer

482 293 0.6
Given bioware's ability to butcher it's own IP with inconsistant and blatantly bad decisions it's not suprising they haven't had a break through franchise.

Examples:-

Mass Effect 1 = great and promising story
Mass Effect 2 = Wha? i.e. story seems to be derailing.
Mass Effect 3 = Utter tosh story re-write made up five minutes before release.

It's as if they don't get their own plot or I should say have no confidence in them!

Edited 1 times. Last edit by Peter Dwyer on 8th June 2012 1:53pm

Posted:2 years ago

#10

Morville O'Driscoll Blogger & Critic

1,584 1,438 0.9
ME3's... "failings", shall we say, might be due to Drew Karpyshyn's resignation ( http://www.strategyinformer.com/news/17086/mass-effect-writer-drew-karpyshyn-reveals-original-mass-effect-3-endings ).

And, indeed, it'll be interesting how the story and writing of future BioWare products will compare to titles that Drew worked on.

Posted:2 years ago

#11

Rick Lopez Illustrator, Graphic Designer

1,269 942 0.7
ME3 dissapointed me. that was my feeling. It felt incomplete. I never waited for a game like this my entire life and when it came out I pre ordered and bought 2 collectors editions 1 for me and my girlfriends kid. Ultimatly after so much hype and excitment I was let down the last few moments of the game. The ending needed more closure, the ending needed to reflect on players choices and i didnt like that alot of the ME2 characters took a backseat. It would have been nice to see characters from ME1 and ME2 together.

DA2 failed that they expected to release the game in 18 month development cycles. It went the call of duty route churning up sequels every set amount of time. And for this type a game, its done when its done. It was rushed out the door to meet a deadline with, enhancements that actually took away from the already excellent combat. And a story concept that limited it in both graphics and character development. The story took place in a confined setting reusing the same graphical assets and limiting character interaction, such as make a deeper story in which characters from the previouse game could play a larger role. All in all DA2 felt incomplete and rushed. And flemeth in this game had little resemblance to flemmeth in the previouse game and her role was minor.

Posted:2 years ago

#12
Drew Karpyshyn is put on a pedestal he does not deserve. Unlike what some people might want to say, he does not have a golden touch and everything he writes is amazing.

This is totally beside the point if I thought endings of ME3 were good or not.

Putting the quality of writing in games on the shoulders of ONE person on the writing team is ridiculous, and I am pretty sure Drew would be the first to agree to that.

Also, on topic: BioWare obviously has made some questionable decisions. But to say they lost their touch would be to deny the fact that the majority of fans agreed that ME3 (as an example) was an amazing game up to the end.

I do think they should keep at least one studio focused on core RPG development. Therfe is nothing wrong with having other branches devoted to other things, but there should be a core team for the one thing BioWare grew on.

Edited 1 times. Last edit by Nikolas Kolm on 9th June 2012 10:41am

Posted:2 years ago

#13
"No multiplayer (unless it's story-centered, OPTIONAL and makes sense for it to be there) or online, no recycled indoor and outdoor maps. Just make the world big and let us carve our own path through it, dipping in and out of the story as we like."
I disagree strongly with this. NWN was awesome and lasted so long for fans because of the multiplayer component. Just let us design our own servers with the Toolset again, that's what I would love.

Not to mention that I wonder where you get the notion about a big world and your own path from BioWare games. Far as I can remember, that was never what BioWare did. That's more Bethesda's approach.

Posted:2 years ago

#14

Morville O'Driscoll Blogger & Critic

1,584 1,438 0.9
@ Nikolas

Hence the "might", in my post. :p

That said, the story idea that he had for the ending of ME3 (as linked to in my comment) does seem better than the actual ending ME3 had, so it's swings-and-roundabouts. He isn't the be-all-and-end-all for writing, but he did have a better concept for the ending than the writers who mashed together stuff for the final product.

Posted:2 years ago

#15

Nick McCrea Gentleman, Pocket Starship

191 300 1.6
Obviously Bioware are a very talented (set of) studio(s), but to be frank I thought KOTOR was the last truly great game they made. Everything since then has been built on a set of assumptions that I just don't agree with - namely that RPGs are inherantly too beardy to be mainstream, and that by combining RPG-like story with action mechanics, you can pull in the majority of both audiences.

The sales figures just don't seem to support that - DA2 did not improve on the original's sales, and ME2 and 3 didn't do gangbusters, either, despite being continually 'streamlined' in an effort to pull in a wider audience. In fact, VGChartz seems to suggest ME3 failed to outsell either of its predecessors.

I know it's all de rigueur to indulge in the Jobsian 'less is more' design aesthetic, but it's no surprise to me that all the best selling RPGs on the consoles are Bethesda's (plus Fable). Bioware are gradually losing their core audience, and they're failing to win the Call-of-Duty crowd they're so eagerly going after.

I don't envy them, though - when your parent company pays hundreds of millions of dollars to acquire you, there's huge pressure to widen your audience, and I think it's really showing in their designs, IMO. Bottom line, you just don't get Call of Duty or Halo numbers unless you're a massive, blockbuster, 'event' shooter. Bioware would be better aiming to topple Bethesda for the console RPG throne, and you don't do that by constantly removing features and making your games more linear.

Posted:2 years ago

#16

Roberto Bruno Curious Person

104 69 0.7
Bottom line, you just don't get Call of Duty or Halo numbers unless you're a massive, blockbuster, 'event' shooter.
And yet, Skyrim's success disproves exactly that (and I'm saying despise the fact that I'm not a fan of the game).
Bioware would be better aiming to topple Bethesda for the console RPG throne, and you don't do that by constantly removing features and making your games more linear.
I absolutely agree on this. Their assumption that they need to move away from the RPG genre to broad their audience is -in my opinion- simply wrong.

Posted:2 years ago

#17

James Prendergast Research Chemist

735 432 0.6
Also, on topic: BioWare obviously has made some questionable decisions. But to say they lost their touch would be to deny the fact that the majority of fans agreed that ME3 (as an example) was an amazing game up to the end.

@Nikolas:

I'd agree to that if the statement was narrowed down slightly: I think that the majority of fans felt that the characterisation of companions and their related companion missions was good - but it was also specifically what was good about ME2 as well so it wasn't a development but a continuation. The companion missions were great. The main missions, not so much.... and didn't really make much sense. E.g. Shepard dodging a doomsday weapon's laser beam....

Posted:2 years ago

#18

Nick McCrea Gentleman, Pocket Starship

191 300 1.6
@Robert

Skyrim was a massive hit by any measure, but I put Call of Duty, Halo and GTA in a sales category of their own.

Leaving aside Kinect Adventures (who knew?) - the top selling games on the 360 to date are (just using the 360, imperfect figures etc etc) :

2 Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3 14.07
3. Call of Duty: Black Ops 13.33
4. Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 12.78
5. Halo 3 11.52
6. Grand Theft Auto IV 9.63
7. Halo: Reach 9.01
8. Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare 8.64
9. Call of Duty: World at War 6.73
10. Gears of War 2 2008 6.49
11. Halo 3: ODST 2009 6.04
12. The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim 5.95

Granted, who knows was Skyrim made on the PC (probably a lot), but I was just trying to make the point (that I *think* is valid), that there's something inherently accessible about these blockbuster themed FPS games that means they just sell bigger, and that you can't actually reach these numbers unless you're one of them, i.e. giving your RPG a shooter skin and trying to remove extraneous elements doesn't get you an automatic invite to double digit million sales.

Posted:2 years ago

#19
I'd agree to that if the statement was narrowed down slightly: I think that the majority of fans felt that the characterisation of companions and their related companion missions was good - but it was also specifically what was good about ME2 as well so it wasn't a development but a continuation. The companion missions were great. The main missions, not so much.... and didn't really make much sense. E.g. Shepard dodging a doomsday weapon's laser beam....
I'd love to discuss this further here, but this article isn't about the ups and downs of ME2/3. ;) I have my very own views on ME3 and what went wrong a lot of which are not shared by many people. Oh well. ;)

Regarding other things, I stand by my belief that BioWare should NOT change their focus. Especially the Edmonton studio should continue to focus on core RPG's with an even tighter focus on Choice Based, Linear Storytelling, cause that is what they are excellent at.

Other parts of BioWare may meddle in other things, but I firmly believe that they should keep a core focus on what made them big and what garnered all their fans.

And as a personal favor, I'd love it if Dragon Age 3 came with a Toolset that allowed for Persistant World Mod creation. Best part of NWN and it will keep your fans happy for years to come.

Posted:2 years ago

#20

Wayne Gibson UK Marketing Manager for GameKrib.com

69 8 0.1
Trying making excellent high quality games and not just decent ones. The bigger you try to make your demographic net the more that slips through it. It's like your trying to make a pizza with about 20 different toppings bundled on it. Try lifting a slice of that up and you end up with most/all the topping slipping off. What your then left with is a very bland slice of cheese and tomato pizza which loads of people will eat but no one really enjoys.

Edited 1 times. Last edit by Wayne Gibson on 13th June 2012 3:59pm

Posted:2 years ago

#21

Craig Page Programmer

384 220 0.6
Mass Effect should be Bioware's breakthrough success, they just need to release a new one every year, and somehow work in co-op so that when one of your friends buys it on release day for $60 you have no choice but to buy it too. Instead of waiting for a price drop to $30, $20, or $9.99. Which is what I paid for 3, 2, and 1.

SWTOR also could have been a breakthrough success, but they should have waited another 6-12 months before releasing that and polished it up better.

Posted:2 years ago

#22

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