BioWare plays the name game | 10 Years Ago This Month
EA tries to get the most out of the beloved studio behind… Command & Conquer?
The games industry moves pretty fast, and there's a tendency for all involved to look constantly to what's next without so much worrying about what came before. That said, even an industry so entrenched in the now can learn from its past. So to refresh our collective memory and perhaps offer some perspective on our field's history, GamesIndustry.biz runs this monthly feature highlighting happenings in gaming from exactly a decade ago.
What's in a Name?
Electronic Arts has had reputation problems for a very long time.
We can trace them back to at least the '90s, when the publisher acquired beloved developers like Origin Systems, Bullfrog Productions, and Westwood Studios. There were some post-acquisition success stories among those studios, but within a few years fans noticed that some of the talent they knew by name was leaving, games were getting cancelled, and the quality of the games that did make it to release was sometimes lacking.
All three studios were shut down or consolidated into the publisher's larger operation. Westwood was gone in five years, Bullfrog in six. Origin lasted almost a dozen years, but the last few were focused exclusively on supporting Ultima Online even as it faded in relevance compared to newer MMOs like EverQuest.
EA's reputation for ruining companies it acquires was perhaps a bit unfair -- Tiburon, Maxis, DICE, and Criterion all exist and have enjoyed some of their biggest successes since acquisition -- but Origin, Bullfrog, and Westwood had especially devoted fanbases to bemoan their fates.
While this industry has a knack for forgetting the past, it can be paradoxically great at holding grudges. And once that grudge is established, there's going to be little forgiveness for any following transgressions.
Like in 2004, when EA Spouse vastly amplified the discourse around crunch by detailing terrible labor conditions at the publisher's studios, with her partner working a mandatory 85-hour work weeks. EA Spouse herself, Erin Hoffman, would eventually work with EA on SimCityEdu, and in GDC 2013 session said the publisher didn't get enough credit for internal reforms it had quietly made over the years.
Hoffman's defense didn't do much to improve the company's standing. In 2012, an online poll on The Consumerist named EA the Worst Company in America. A couple weeks after Hoffman's GDC session, EA defended its title, beating out truly loathsome competition responsible for massive oil spills, fraudulently foreclosing on people during the global economic crisis, and Ticketmaster.
People just plain didn't like the company. But there was one exception: BioWare.
EA acquired the RPG developer in 2007, a month before the launch of the original Mass Effect.
People loved BioWare. Even before Mass Effect and Dragon Age gave EA hit RPGs on both sides of the science fiction/fantasy spectrum, people loved BioWare for making instant classics like Baldur's Gate, Neverwinter Nights, and Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic. It helped that BioWare was one of the earlier developers to lean into direct lines of communication with its players and really cultivate an enthusiastic fandom. (As is often the case, the company was eventually held hostage by that fandom, but that's a discussion for the March 2022 edition of 10 Years Ago This Month.)
The BioWare name was so powerful, its reputation so built up, that not even existing under the umbrella of EA could tarnish it. EA no doubt noticed this and looked to capitalize on it.
It started almost reasonably. In 2010, EA took another acquisition, Mythic Entertainment, and renamed it BioWare Mythic. It raised some eyebrows, but Mythic was an established MMO developer and BioWare was working on its own Star Wars MMO at the time. Given EA's lack of other RPG or MMO developers and the fact that the two studios had actually been merged into their own division of the company the prior year, it was fairly defensible. The fact that Mythic had actually already been re-branded as EA Mythic and then regained its identity by dropping the EA tag also suggested a certain distance from the larger EA operation that likely helped mute any backlash to the change.
The next move in August of 2011 might have raised some eyebrows though, as an EA restructuring split the company into four divisions: EA Games, EA Sports, EA Play, and BioWare. Any notions that BioWare would be less of an actual division and more of a one-off special case that didn't really fit elsewhere in the company took a hit days later when EA announced its Bay Area casual and browser-based development studio EA2D would henceforth be known as BioWare San Francisco.
Now, EA2D had previously worked on the Facebook game Dragon Age Legends, and BioWare co-founders Greg Zeschuk and Ray Muzyka had recently talked about their interest in emerging markets like social gaming and the need to be adaptable, so again, there was some reason to think this was less about capitalizing on the BioWare brand and more about pursuing things the studio was genuinely interested in.
But December of 2011 is when things got really dicey. EA kicked off the month by announcing the acquisition of social game developer KlickNation, which was being renamed BioWare Social.
"KlickNation's expertise in building innovative and compelling RPGs for social platforms makes them a seamless tuck-in with the BioWare team at EA," Muzyka said at the time, quickly following it with a reassurance for fans that the BioWare identity wasn't changing.
"We share the same creative values," he added. "The new BioWare Social unit will bring BioWare and EA franchises to the growing audience of core gamers who are looking for high quality, rich gameplay experiences on social platforms."
The curious expansion of BioWare hit a crescendo a little over a week later at the Spike Video Game Awards (the Geoff Keighley-hosted precursor to The Game Awards) when BioWare announced that its next game would be Command & Conquer: Generals 2. That didn't make sense for a few reasons. For one, BioWare had no expertise in the real-time strategy genre. For another, EA had just set up a new studio earlier that year, Victory Games, specifically to revamp the Command & Conquer brand.
It made slightly more sense when EA said the game was developed by "a new BioWare studio, BioWare Victory," but there was no explanation for the rebrand, and barely an acknowledgement that Victory Games had already existed prior to the announcement. It was as if EA realized nobody paid attention the first time they talked about Victory earlier that year, and hoped people would just assume it was always intended to be a BioWare operation.
In two and a half years, BioWare had grown from two studios to eight. There was the original studio in Edmonton, the Austin location behind Star Wars: The Old Republic (which we are obligated to mention launched 10 years ago this month), a Montreal expansion in 2009, the four aforementioned name changers, and LA-based Waystone Games.
I don't know if managing a small empire of BioWare studios was something BioWare Zeschuk and Muzyka signed up for, but I'll read more than a little bit into the fact that they both retired less than a year after this expansion peaked, with Muzyka saying he'd made the decision to step away in April of 2012.
Regardless, none of this really worked out for anyone. A year and a half after BioWare peaked at eight locations, BioWare San Francisco was shut down.
BioWare Victory would eventually reveal its Command & Conquer was a free-to-play title, but a poor showing in a closed alpha test would lead to the project being cancelled and the studio being closed in October of 2013. By the time it was shut down, it had dropped the BioWare branding and reverted to simply going by Victory Games.
(As a curious side note underscoring just how little big picture strategy seemed to be at play, EA announced a second free-to-play Command & Conquer game in December of 2011, Phenomic's Tiberium Alliances. That game fared considerably better, and is still up and running today.)
BioWare Mythic didn't last long either. It dropped the BioWare part of the name in 2012, and by the time it was shut down in 2014, it was simply known as Mythic.
BioWare Sacramento quietly rebranded as EA Capital Games before the 2013 launch of Heroes of Dragon Age, and is the only of the renamed studios to have survived, as it now runs the Star Wars: Galaxy of Heroes mobile game.
Waystone never changed its name, but it also never shipped a game, as it was closed after its MOBA Dawngate was cancelled in 2014.
With BioWare Montreal being folded into EA Motive after the disappointing Mass Effect Andromeda, that leaves just the original Edmonton BioWare studio and the Austin offshoot on the map.
Some successes aside -- Mass Effect 3, Dragon Age: Inquisition, and (after a rough launch) Star Wars: The Old Republic -- the past decade has clearly been difficult for BioWare. The departures of its co-founders and public faces, the closure of so many studios, the disappointing Andromeda and the abandoned Anthem.
If that was attributable to over-expansion, dilution of the brand, and a loss of focus on what BioWare games are supposed to be, then the studio may have course-corrected. It's back down to the original two studios, and it appears to be refocusing on the games that built it to its peak. While the Austin studio continues to work on The Old Republic -- the 10th anniversary Legacy of the Sith expansion is due out in February -- the Edmonton office has committed to Dragon Age 4 and a new Mass Effect game.
Fortnite lands at the Spike VGAs
We mentioned above that BioWare announced a Command & Conquer game at the Spike Video Game Awards, because that's just the kind of absurd fever dream you expect from a made-for-marketing awards show that keeps telling you how important and prestigious games are in between doling out awards for Cyber Vixen of the Year and Most Addictive Game Fueled by Mountain Dew.
But the 2011 VGAs also played host to the announcements of Naughty Dog's last new blockbuster franchise The Last of Us and Epic's industry-changing hit Fortnite.
The Fortnite reveal wasn't entirely a surprise, as Epic president Mike Capps talked about unveiling a new IP at the show in an interview with us where he called the industry "shockingly immature."
(Oh, he didn't mean "shockingly immature" in that our awards shows have acceptance speeches cut short by on-stage teabagging. He was just talking about a lack of traditional business acumen. Sorry, I can see how that would be misleading.)
In so many words, Capps basically says Fortnite came about because Epic was tired of churning out Gears of War, which some of the developers had been working on for a decade. And as one would expect with any announcement of a big new thing, there were clearly some nerves at work.
"I'm so scared that people will just say, 'Oh yeah, that looks like an Epic game, oh sure' because I want them to see it as a departure. But I don't want anyone to say 'That doesn't look anything like an Epic game, forget it, I'm not interested.' So we're actually nervous, we haven't been nervous like this for a while!
"I'm nervous, this is something I pushed for a lot and I wrote some of the script for the trailer and if everyone hates it that's it, I'm out of games for a while. [Laughs]"
I don't know if everyone hated the trailer, but Capps announced his retirement from Epic Games a year later, so he wasn't around for Fortnite's eventual launch in 2017, or the reinvention into a free-to-play battle royale game several months later that actually made it a hit.
It's interesting to go back to the trailer and see how much about it is completely different from the Fortnite that became a phenomenon. Six years of development is obviously going to bring some changes, but the Fortnite trailer's big selling points have more in common with previous phenomenon Minecraft than Fortnite as we know it today. Even so, the general tone of the zaniness has remained more or less intact to my eyes. And given the abundance of other free-to-play battle royales that have failed to manifest themselves as a metaverse, the tone and its appeal has been a non-trivial part of the game's success.
Events of note
● In a blow to the relevance of the Entertainment Software Association and its independent ratings body the Entertainment Software Rating Board, Apple and Google said they would not be using the group's newly revealed rating system for mobile games, in part because they already put in the effort to create and roll out their own app ratings systems for stores that had been set up years earlier.
A decade later, mobile gaming is more than half of the global games market, Apple and Google are the largest platform holders in the industry, and neither participates in the largest games industry trade body around.
I don't know if there was anything the ESA could have done to convince Google and Apple to join, but their absence (along with Valve's) is a continuing blow to the credibility of a group that claims to represent the games industry.
● Fumito Ueda left Sony Computer Entertainment after 14 years, signaling an end to an era and making everyone fret about the fate of The Last Guardian. Sony said Ueda would stay on to finish the game on a contract basis through his independent studio GenDesign, which he actually did. I'm not sure anybody thought it would be another five years before the game actually launched, but it's out now. Ueda's next game will be released by Epic Games Publishing, and if it takes as long to finish as The Last Guardian did, we can expect it see it arrive around 2027.
● IDG officially pulled the plug on Game Pro after a 22-year run for the US magazine. The writing appeared to have been on the wall for a while, as just four months earlier editor Jaz Rignall was promoting the magazine's switch to quarterly publications saying, "What we want to do is make the last great video game magazine. Let's go out in style, let's make something that celebrates what print does really well."
I'm on record saying the quality of game journalism is considerably higher these days, but one of the reasons this column exists is out of frustration with an industry that doesn't value or preserve its past, so it's still a shame to see institutions of old devalued and discarded by the companies that own them.
Good Call, Bad Call
BAD CALL: Microsoft Studios GM Matt Booty saying, "Xbox 360 gamers can look forward to innovative and creative games from the mind of Gore Verbinski that explore new and exciting gaming territory and take full advantage of our platforms" after signing the filmmaker behind The Pirates of the Caribbean and the Budweiser frogs commercial to a gaming deal.
Verbinski's Kinect game Matter was announced at E3 2012 and Microsoft admitted it had dropped the project in March of 2013.
GOOD CALL: Mobile Pie creative director Will Luton opened a guest editorial for us with the line, "Back in August I wrote a bullish (perhaps bullshit) piece for Develop Magazine: A bold prediction that the mobile phone will kill the console."
BETTER CALL: Deeper into the article, Luton gets a little more specific about what he means when he says that a variety of emerging technologies would create some convergent trends.
"Where I think we're ultimately headed is a mix of all those technologies (and ones we can't yet imagine)," Luton said. "All with the same content shared seamlessly across our four screens (pocket, lap, desk and wall), ubiquitously connected and delivered through the paradigm of the app."
Headlines about the death of consoles always get attention -- we're not immune, as it's one of our favorite recurring Bad Calls, after all -- but a significant number of people making that call are basically right on the development of new technologies to enable different ways of interacting with games; they've just been wrong about those new technologies replacing the old ones rather than supplementing them.
SO MANY CALLS: Bossa Studios head Henrique Olifiers gave us an article that's the equivalent of a Super Bowl halftime show medley of our favorite Calls. And not like that one Super Bowl halftime show with the Jim Belushi version of the Blues Brothers. This is more like Prince in 2007.
Olifiers plays all the hits in less than 200 words of news story. Walled gardens are coming down. Cross-platform play is happening. Consoles are going to die. Vita hasn't even launched yet and is already dead. Just amazing. The only thing missing is a declaration that we've crossed the uncanny valley, but Olifiers is apparently a consummate showman who knows to always leave 'em wanting more.
A VERY NINTENDO CALL: This actually should have been mentioned a few months ago, but this story from December of 2011 gives me an excuse to mention it here. Nintendo launched the 3DS worldwide in early 2011. In September of 2011, it decided it would like to add a second analog stick and extra shoulder buttons to the handheld, and made the entirely rational decision to create the Circle Pad Pro, a gloriously bulky cradle for the 3DS that not only looked goofy but seriously impacted the pocketability of a handheld at a time when handhelds were facing an existential threat from smartphones defined by sleek and elegant designs.
The peripheral was primarily marketed as an add-on for Monster Hunter Tri, and only sparingly supported beyond that franchise.
The additional functionality the Circle Pad Pro offered was so superfluous that when Nintendo revealed the the 3DS XL in June of 2012, the extra analog stick and shoulder buttons didn't make the cut for things that should be included in the first revamp of the 3DS.
And yet, the Circle Pad Pro functionality was still essential enough that Nintendo released another Circle Pad Pro just for the 3DS XL (and in what must have been a simple oversight, chose not to call it the 3DS XXL).
It wasn't until 2014 when Nintendo released the next iteration of the hardware, the New 3DS, that it decided to build the Circle Pad Pro functions into the hardware proper, albeit with a much smaller C-stick instead of a full analog thumb pad.
The New 3DS also had a bit more horsepower that made some games like Xenoblade Chronicles exclusive to the upgraded system, but in keeping with its Circle Pad Pro roots, very few developers actually bothered to take advantage of it.
Stay weird, Nintendo.