Opinion: BioWare Needs To Beware

Acclaimed developer BioWare has been at the pinnacle of the Western RPG experience for years, but Mark Butler worries that the company is now in danger of alienating its core audience.

It was a preview of the colossally-anticipated Mass Effect 3 by Eurogamer in June that really set the alarm bells ringing. The final instalment in BioWare’s celebrated sci-fi series looks set to be suitably epic, packed as it is with awesome set-pieces and jaw-dropping spectacle. But it is also shaping up to be more and more like a conventional Gears of War clone, with BioWare’s trademark RPG elements apparently sidelined in favour of all-out action.

“Mass Effect 3 plays, to all intents and purposes, like a straight-up third-person shooter,” wrote Martin Robinson in his preview piece, praising the polish of the title’s gameplay and drama, but also stating that the series now seemed to have “gone from an RPG with shooter elements to a third-person shooter with light RPG touches”.

A great many BioWare fans – myself included – fell in love with games like Mass Effect precisely because they are not Gears of War. When we hear the company’s marketing chief David Silverman describe Mass Effect 3’s “action-adventury gameplay”, talk about the series “breaking out and going truly blockbuster”, and read – quite unsurprisingly – that the boss of publisher EA has spoken of “adjusting the gameplay mechanics…to address a much larger market opportunity”, we all know the score. BioWare and their partners want to broaden the series’ appeal and sell even more games. The trouble is, they are in danger of alienating their sizable and passionate audience by doing so.

The reason BioWare has built up such a strong and dedicated fanbase over the years is because its team are so skilled at creating compelling, sophisticated and expansive gameworlds, populated by complex, diverse characters, brimming with wondrous places to explore and ultimately allowing the player to build their own character’s skills and personality, making crucial decisions that shape the story along the way.

Story, characterisation and emotional investment make games like Mass Effect appeal to fans

From Baldur’s Gate to Knights Of The Old Republic, and now on to the Mass Effect games, millions of people have come to adore BioWare’s creations for their combination of awe-inspiring scale, immersive plot, moral choice systems and – crucially – their expert implementation of RPG mechanics. BioWare fans enjoy the experience of leveling up abilities, upgrading weapons and kit, and earning and spending experience points – which are always presented in a way that feels fresh, entertaining and decidedly un-geeky. Fans also relish the ability to shape their characters’ personality, skill-sets and equipment, tailoring their protagonist so specifically that he or she really does feel pure and simply their own.

However, slowly but surely BioWare have begun to dilute their successful formula in order to appeal to non-RPG fans. The key word being banded around over the past few years has been ‘streamlining’, and we have certainly seen that approach in practice.

A case in-point would be the stark differences between Mass Effect’s 1 and 2. In the second game, planet-surface exploration, experience points, inventory management and the buying and selling of equipment were all but done away with – or at least overwhelmingly simplified – meaning that the game was, at least in a gameplay sense, very much unlike an RPG.

Now, you’ll never hear me slamming Mass Effect 2 like some BioWare fans do. In my opinion the game is an extraordinary, awe-inspiring experience, and probably gets the balance between RPG elements and third-person gunplay just about right. It cuts out the more bloated and clumsy aspects of the original (including the awful and seemingly endless inventory lists) while beefing up the combat and, most importantly, retaining that classic sense of BioWare drama, and allowing the player to explore a vast and intriguing gameworld.

However, even though I adore Mass Effect 2, I maintain that the third-person shooting sequences are the bits I am the least interested in. What made the game for me was its story, characters, sub-plots, side-quests and the impact of difficult decisions – particularly those carried over from the first installment. I think it speaks volumes that many critics and fans have found ensuing DLCs which have focused on combat at the expense of story to be distinctly dull and unsatisfying.

This is what worries me then, as we look ahead to Mass Effect 3. It may well be an ultra-slick, epic, blockbuster of a shooter. It may have an incredible Clint Mansell soundtrack. But if it turns out to be little more than a GoW or COD-style exercise in impressive set-pieces and satisfying gunplay, I’ll be heart-broken. The truth is, I have come to expect more from a BioWare game than bombast and explosions.

Fear The Reapers: ME3 looks like an impressive shooter, but that's not enough for a BioWare game

I’m not saying that the Gears of War games aren’t good, by the way. They’re brilliant at what they do. But it seems that every new major release these days is a straightforward FPS or third-person shooter that tries to ape COD or GoW. There’s a real lack of variety in mainstream gaming at the moment, and we need developers like BioWare to continue their impressive track-record of offering something alternative, and standing out from the crowd.

Of course, the likes of Silverman have stressed that they’re looking to satisfy existing fans and action-hungry newcomers alike, and only time will tell as to whether the developers have thrown the baby out with the bathwater, or managed to strike an inspired compromise. My hope is that the gifted storytellers and RPG masters at the company haven’t been forced to ‘dumb down’ their work in the name of bowing to market pressures and astronomical sales projections. The series is already a huge IP, and a great action-RPG would sell bucketloads anyway, so it would be criminal if this was allowed to happen.

I’ll leave you, and BioWare, with an important cautionary tale that has been hotly debated but certainly bears repeating. For me, it illustrates that talk of ‘streamlining’ is all well and good if you are going to refine cumbersome gameplay elements, but absolutely perilous if you are talking about stripping out the very attributes that define and excel a series.

What BioWare has to take on board is the painful truth that Dragon Age II was decidedly mediocre. Not a complete disaster, as some of BioWare’s more disgruntled followers were quick to claim, but a mammoth disappointment nonetheless. Without going over all the reasons and arguments again (a quick scan of Metacritic will take you through the full gambit of opinion on this hugely divisive game), the simple truth is that Dragon Age II lacks scale, ambition and a compelling central storyline. In those senses, it utterly departs from the proud BioWare tradition.

The developers talked of it being more ‘focused’ than the original. In truth, that meant a criminally limited number of locations to explore, plus the complete lack of any ‘journey’ or overriding epic mission (in stark contrast to the brilliant plotline of the first game). Changes such as limiting the ability to define the lead character’s race, background and story, as well as the virtual absence of armour options for followers and an emphasis on revisiting the same locations, characters and side-quests, made this an absolute travesty for many BioWare devotees. And the worst thing about it? The knowledge that this had been done in order to try and widen the appeal of an already successful and high-profile IP.

Bloody Disappointment: Dragon Age II lacked scope and was accused of 'dumbing down'

If there’s one lesson that both BioWare and the money men at EA should take away from Dragon Age II, it’s that evolving a successful formula is fine, but subverting and departing from it altogether rarely is. Fans will not thank you for it, and there is a danger that seeking to widen your audience too far may result in you abandoning the very things that made you so successful in the first place.

If Mass Effect 3 is the glorious, awe-inspiring action-RPG I hope it will be, then BioWare will have shrugged off all these concerns and done their core base proud. If, however, it turns out to be nothing more than a Gears of War clone, then I fear no amount of slick action and technical excellence will be enough to mask the disappointment of BioWare fans, who are – lest we forget – the very people who have helped the company become such a key player in the gaming industry in the first place.



Comments
22 Responses to “Opinion: BioWare Needs To Beware”
  1. Sting88 says:

    I don’t agree at all. The truth is the RPG market is not as large as the FPS market and mass effect 1 was basically a first person shooter wrapped in bioware story telling. So in ME2 they simplified the RPG elements and just focused on the shooter action to critical acclaim. The real issue is quite simply games no longer sell on mechanics, they sell on cinematic excitement of the experience. And first person shooting/third person shooting lends itself well to cinematic experience that so many gamers crave.

    Biowares “core audience” will never leave bioware they will just play whatever bioware gives them just like most gamers do with most games, especially concerning FPS.

    • Shmitz says:

      In ME1, I found combat exciting and interesting as I got to observe how my choices in character growth affected squad efficiency.

      In ME2, however, I ended up putting the difficulty down to the easiest setting because the shooter gameplay bored me to tears, and I really only wanted to see more of the story.

      BioWare is quickly getting EA’d to death, and I definitely don’t have the amount of respect for them that I used to. They haven’t gone past the point of no return, however, so I do hope they can figure out that they need to turn things around soon. Otherwise they will lose their core audience. They’ll gain a new one for a time that’s shallower, less loyal, and will jump ship for the next shiny thing that comes along. And that’s when EA will do what EA does best: shut down formerly amazing developers.

    • Ragnarok6 says:

      @ sting 88 Did you even play the first mass effect? What part of that game was a FPS? it was a third person shooter rpg how could you mess that up? And your wrong about your statement The RPG market is as big as it ever was, the core fans of BioWare are getting the shaft and its not good at all. You couldent be more wrong with your post here.

  2. JustAlive says:

    This was an obvious fear that has evolved into a reality progressively from ME to ME2 and now seemingly more so to ME3.

    Such a same they haven’t stuck to their roots instead of looking at the bottom dollar.

    But that’s life and I’m ashamed to say I will begrudgely buy it knowingly lining their greedy pockets just because I do want to see how the story ends!

    Damn your marketing!

  3. grammar nerd says:

    “…banded around…” should read “…bandied around…”

    bandy -
    verb ( -dies, -died) [ trans. ] (usu. be bandied about/around)
    pass on or discuss an idea or rumor in a casual way

  4. Sadface says:

    I will not be buying Mass Effect 3. If I have a friend who has it, I’ll give it a try, but I’m not paying for another bioware game again. I don’t trust the company anymore. K.O.T.O.R., Dragon Age Origins, and Mass Effect 1, are up there with the greatest games I’ve ever played. But whenever they make a sequel, it’s either dissapointing or downright tragically awful. It’s like they have a few true geniuses working there, and they make a good game. Then some exec idiot sees dollar signs and decided to mutilate everything about those games that made them good in the hopes of even more money. As to thinking that Mass Effect 2 was a good balance, IDK what you are smoking. I couldn’t even finish that game.

    • correction! says:

      @Sadface I’d just like to point out that KoToR 2 was not a Bioware game. That is all.

    • Karl says:

      Hello I totally agree with you,Bioware have totally shat on their loyal fan base probably and hopefully to their peril,these casual FPS gamers easily get fed up and move onto to the next latest thing,then when this happens Bioware will have no one,I for one pre ordered ME 3,but won’t bother buying it now,instead I’ll be buying the witcher 2,but if EA get their way they will ruin that to.

  5. fenix says:

    Sting88, if you think Bioware fans will eat whatever Bioware will feed them, you are dead wrong. I have been a fan of Bioware since the early days, and you know what? Once ME3 is out and the story is wrapped up, I am done with this company. They have insulted their core audience many times over, especially since the whole DA2 debacle and backlash. The greatest insult was not to acknowledge our disappointment. So yeah, fuck Bioware. My last pennies spent for this company will be for ME3 and the conclusion of my Shepard’s story. After that, I am so done with these sold-outs.

  6. Aeonymus says:

    You make excellent and valid points; however, these are all things that have been discussed to death…

    The alienation of the original fans of ME and DAO won’t make a damned difference. I’m actually quite surprised ME2 received such high marks in comparison to DA2, considering they are so very similar in their focus on combat, bareboned dialogue, and meaningless actions.

  7. red son rising says:

    thank you bioware for not listening to ppl like this.

  8. lol says:

    Damn sting88, do you even know what a FIRST PERSON SHOOTER is?

    “mass effect 1 was basically a first person shooter wrapped in bioware story telling.”

    :|

  9. Forkinator says:

    I completely agree with the author of this article. I fear that Bioware is being pressured by EA to market to the mainstream while forgetting about the core fans of mass effect who helped bring the money to them. It seems like this is more about “How can we broaden our market?” than “How can we make this a great game?”.

    Unfortunately I can only hope that Bioware is doing the right thing and going back to its roots. I worry if putting my 80 dollars into this game is going to pay off.

  10. Harley says:

    @ red son rising Anyone who says they are glad Bioware do not listen to people like this are obviously just one of the ‘new’ Bioware Fans, drawn to the games since they sold-out. You have obviously not been playing these games for as long as Biowares Core Audience. I’ve been playing Bioware Games since I was 7 or 8 years old beginning with Baldur’s Gate. And I’ve played every game since. Hell, I even liked Jade Empire which most people seemed to hate. While I love DA2 and the whole Mass Effect series thus far they are no where near on par with the great games Bioware has done like BG, BG2:SoA, KoToR and NWN. Everytime Bioware releases a new game it becomes less and less like an RPG they’re core fans have come to love. Everytime it becomes more and more like some stupid Action Adventure game. I am looking forward to ME3 next year because I want to see how Shepards story ends…but thats about all I can say for Bioware anymore. Looks like CDProject Red is the new Dev to look out for for true RPG greatness, Bioware sold out. Sorry Bioware.

  11. Red says:

    Kinda meh about this article. I enjoyed Baulder’s Gate, KotOR, ME1, ME2, DA:O, and DA:2. Never once felt insulted or angry. Never once felt that they didn’t care about me, the consumer. As a matter of fact, they’re the only one out there that’s done anything to reach me. (I’m a pansexual, female, who never really wants to role play a straight white guy) So, they have my love and my support. I enjoy their games and they’re the only company I feel any fealty to.

    Moreover, their devs, writers, etc, all talk to the fans. Years ago, if you wanted improvements to a game feature? Or you had bugs or issues? You couldn’t simply walk on over to their home turf and lay the issues at their feet. They’ve gone out of their way to communicate. Directly. And they’ve been open to hearing criticism, too. Even about these things we play, but they spent upwards of years developing. It’s not easy to open yourself up to something you put a lot of yourself into.

    So, wtfever, is what I’m saying. I’m tired of people making it to be this vast EAwareconspiracy. It’s annoying. It’s also not taking into account the very reality of the Gaming Business. The limited resources companies have to deal with, the pressure they’re under to perform, and the margin of error they’re allowed.

  12. Trema says:

    You took the words right out of my mouth, Mark. I fell in love with Mass Effect for the universe it presented. I am a fan of this kind of science fiction (see Alastair Reynolds or other similar authors). In Mass Effect 2, clearly there was not nearly as much development of the overall world, but it was still acceptable. If the third goes down the drain, I will be disappointed, but I’ll still finish the game for sure. I just hope they do the right thing and take the best of both games, as opposed to blindly using linear regression. Remember in your first play through of Mass Effect when you first arrived at the citadel, its glorious architecture magnificently presenting itself to you, forcing you to realize how minuscule you are compared to the intricate web of galactic civilization, and when you come back to witness the sudden arrival of a Reaper and hundreds of Geth ships, contesting the Turian and Human forces for control over the very structure that introduced you to the vastness of the Mass Effect universe, which you valiantly defend? The Michael Bay explosion sequences of Mass Effect 2 just did not do that for me.

  13. Blakjak says:

    Thank you, Bioware/EA for evolving!! If these companies listened to whiners that don’t like change or evolution, we’d still be playing pong!

    • Mark Butler says:

      I can assure you that I actually do love originality, risk-taking and evolution when it comes to game design – assuming it is implemented well. The issue here is not that I have a problem with ‘change’ in general, but that some changes made to well-known game series or even entire genres are not necessarily for the better.

  14. Meekers says:

    I am a true Bioware fan, I’m really not all that hard to impress as a gamer. However as a female gamer, It’s a little different. Even if ME3 turns out lacking the fine tuned storyline it is known for and is essentially a FPS, I really don’t care. I’m just happy that there is a company out there that lets me be a woman playing a woman that doesn’t need rescuing and get to use a BFG.

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