Say what you will about BioWare's more recent efforts, but for fans of role-playing games, the studio and its co-founders Drs. Ray Muzyka and Greg Zeschuk are all-stars, having created some of the most engrossing RPG titles of the last two decades. The fact that these two pioneers have decided to step away not only from the company they founded but from the entire business of games is disheartening.
"I no longer have the passion that I once did for the company, for the games, and for the challenge of creation," wrote Dr. Zeschuk.
That says a lot. When a person of Zeschuk's caliber has lost his passion for games, and indeed for BioWare in its current form, many questions have to be asked. Will BioWare ever be the same? Did Ray and Greg lose creative control and get too tied to management? Did the corporate culture of Electronic Arts partially spoil the passion for Ray and Greg? And is the traditional PC/console video game industry doing something wrong if it keeps losing top talent to other forms of game development or other industries entirely?
Whenever big names walk away from a company completely, there's an issue. And while Ray and Greg each made very personal decisions to move on with their lives, we can't help but wonder what some of the contributing factors have been to ultimately lead them down this path.
In this special roundtable, the staff of GamesIndustry International examines the state of BioWare and reminisces about the wonderful experiences the doctors provided for us all.
Meeting the doctors for an interview was like bumping into that one decent guy at your cousin's wedding. In a sea of media training and jaded company lines, they seemed to genuinely care about the games they were making. They were funny, charming, had all the vision and passion it takes to create epic games, without any of the unbearable arrogance that so often comes with that sort of talent.That's what makes it so sad that they're gone. You have to feel that if people like that can't find satisfaction in the industry, then there's little hope for it.
"While I'm sure Dr. Ray will do great things in the future, and Dr. Greg's beers will be delicious, I doubt they'll lead to me having a meaningful sexual relationship with an alien"
It's not even as if they've fled the corporate death grip of EA to start a small indie company; they want out of making games altogether. And while I'm sure Dr. Ray will do great things in the future, and Dr. Greg's beers will be delicious, I doubt they'll lead to me having a meaningful sexual relationship with an alien.
What is it about the industry that means two of its best and brightest give up after 20 years? Walk away from the company they created? The people they mentored? The franchises that they dreamed up? I don't know the answer, but as an industry we need to start working on finding out, and fixing it.
Dr. Ray and Dr. Greg have left the building. And while they are on to write exciting new chapters in their lives, I'm actually more interested in the building they leave behind.
BioWare has enjoyed one of the most passionate fanbases in the industry for years, but "passionate" does not mean "unconditionally appreciative," and I think we're already seeing what happens when the fans' passion for something is still there, but the end product isn't everything they imagined. Just look at the anger/outrage/harassment BioWare developers endured over Mass Effect 3's ending, or Dragon Age II, or the (entirely justified) cynicism about EA folding Command & Conquer and Warhammer Online into the BioWare brand.
And all of that happened under Muzyka and Zeschuk's watch, a years-long gauntlet of negativity that could easily cause someone to, hypothetically, "no longer have the passion that I once did for the company, for the games, and for the challenge of creation" (as Zeschuk said in his farewell note). Now imagine what happens when the next Mass Effect comes out and it turns out to be just like the others, or possibly worse, distinctly unlike the others!
So my congratulations to Ray and Greg, and my condolences to those left behind at BioWare.
The doctors, or more specifically Ray Muzyka, will always have a special significance for me. Not just because I so avidly consumed so much BioWare content, but because Dr. Ray was one of my first major interviews as a professional games journalist, at Gamescom in 2008.
It was the first time I'd met one of the real pillars of the industry, a person whose name I'd seen scroll by on innumerable credit rolls, in a thousand headlines. Here was a smart, successful man who really, genuinely cared about what he was doing, whose passion had kept me entertained for countless hours - one of the good guys.
I was terrified. I arrived, as is often the case on the last day of working a show, shattered, ill and slightly hungover. I sweated, I mumbled, I fluffed half my questions.
He took it all in his stride, patient and oddly encouraging, considering the oddly cosy yet adversarial nature of these things. That day I learned that Dr. Ray wasn't just a legend and a name on a box, but a genuinely decent guy. I've discovered since that the same is true of a lot of the best and brightest in this industry, and I'm consistently thankful for it.
"The true test of a good leader is being able to create an organization that lasts after they're gone"
For me, Muzyka and Zeschuk defined BioWare, not just as founders but as figureheads. They took games incredibly seriously, had given up careers in medicine to make things which fascinated and entertained. Even as a teenager, their games had made me feel like I was doing something grown up, something worthwhile.
They're not the only ones, but they will be missed. Wherever they find themselves next is likely to be much richer for their presence.
My first exposure to BioWare was Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic, so the company as it exists now feels like an extension of what came before. KOTOR, Jade Empire, Mass Effect, and Dragon Age all feel like they're based on the same BioWare formula. Even when the company missteps - in the cases of Dragon Age II, Mass Effect 3's ending, and the poor reception of Star Wars: The Old Republic - the games are still enjoyable and moving experiences.
Am I sad to see Drs. Ray Muzyka and Greg Zeschuk leave the company? Sure, but the true test of a good leader is being able to create an organization that lasts after they're gone.
How much creative control did the Doctors still exhibit at the company? How much of Mass Effect and Dragon Age was from their input versus the creative drive of the teams they put in charge of those franchises? The closer it gets to the latter part, the more we should view their departure with some sense of joy. Both men succeeded beyond their wildest dreams and decided to go play in a new sandbox. Isn't that better than shackling them to organization that they've moved beyond?
It shouldn't be any surprise when founders of a studio sell their business and move on some years later, but clearly Ray and Greg enjoyed their work at BioWare longer than their contractual obligations. Will they leave games forever? I doubt two people who enjoyed games creation will stay away much longer than their non-competes allow and it'll be an encouraging return when they do.
"The cliché is it's the end of an era at BioWare, but the truth is it's been an era ending across the whole games business"
It's difficult not to think there's a bigger problem at Electronic Arts. Frank Gibeau had nerve when he tastelessly compared staff leaving Zynga to the Syrian crisis. EA has seen multiple exec and creative talent walk out the doors, from 12-year veteran Will Wright, Playfish co-founders and EA DICE staff, to execs such as the well-liked Gerhard Florin, John Pleasants and John Schappert - who at this point probably wishes he still had some of that EA blood running through his veins. Despite EA's rise in digital and push into mobile, it's clearly not turning the boat around quick enough for some staff.
And where does that leave BioWare? At some point down the line it went from being a studio to a label within EA, something that probably sucked some identity out of the room. I'm sure there's plenty of talent within those teams, but it's not unexpected that more will follow the doctors out of the building. When you lose figureheads that are the studio, perceptions change entirely. Just ask Maxis, Lionhead or Team Ninja.
The cliché is it's the end of an era at BioWare, but the truth is it's been an era ending across the whole games business. I want to write 'during this generation' but it's pointless to define this generation in terms of time or hardware, where Mass Effect 2 on the Xbox 360 has been just as important to me as Zen Pinball on iOS. Whatever the next generation of gaming is, I just sincerely hope BioWare still has a big part to play in it.