Pride Goeth Before a Fall: The BioWare Story

Monday , 19, June 2017 29 Comments

Look! A tribute to a game that was actually good.

Electronic Arts (video game publishing superpower) is a pretty scummy company—voted “Worst Company in America” 2 years running!—but in the quest to milk every single dollar out of an increasingly alienated and cynical fanbase, they occasionally do something not completely horrible. (Or at least something marginally useful for the purposes of researching one of my infamously inflammatory blog posts.)

Last week, for example, they gave away “free” access to several of the titles on their aging backlist, in the hopes of enticing those few gamers who hadn’t either heard of or played the titles to plunk down good money for mediocre games (or at the very least, some overpriced DLC). One of the mediocre games included was BioWare’s much reviled computer RPG, Mass Effect 3.

How to explain ME3 to people who’ve never heard of it, or at the very least just don’t care? Let’s start this way:

Remember, if you can, the original “Star Wars” trilogy, Star Wars to Return of the Jedi, Death Star, Skywalker, and all. Now imagine that, after 6 hours of awesome Space Opera and just ten minutes before the end of The Return of the Jedi, this abruptly happens: Vader is about to pick up the emperor and throw him into a pit when the movie smash cuts to Tatooine. There’s been an explosion—Luke tampered with the landspeeder’s engine and it done blewed up—and is bleeding to death from a severe head injury. The last three movies have been nothing more than a hallucination Luke experienced as he slowly died.

There was never a Death Star. Never a Princess Leia. Never a Han Solo. Darth Vader? Figment of Luke’s imagination.

In fact, there isn’t even a Galactic Empire: Palpatine is just a milquetoast Senator desperately trying to stave off the internal collapse of the generations-old Galactic Republic. The heroes weren’t heroes. The villains weren’t villains. And rebelling against the “Evil Galactic Empire” was never heroic, but instead was an act of monumental stupidity that only hastened the end of peace and order in the galaxy.

In other words, everything that Luke experienced—everything that we, as an audience, experienced—was a lie. It never happened. It was just the hallucinations of one dying farmboy, who’s overly obsessed with adventure stories.

Close up of Luke’s bloody face as he gasps his final breaths. His eyes close, forever. He dies alone. Fade to black. Thirty seconds of absolute silence over absolute black. Roll credits.

If Lucas had done that, audiences would have rioted. They’d be burning theaters to the ground, and hanging Lucas in effigy. A mob would have spontaneously formed, marched on Skywalker Ranch, and did to LucasFilm what Rome did to Carthage. Salting the very ground, my dudes, salting the very ground.

Mass Effect 3 was pretty much that. Only, instead of wasting six hours of their lives on what turned out to be a pretentious pile of garbage of a trilogy, gamers wasted two hundred hours. (That’s TWELVE SEASONS of an hour-long drama.) Fans were… a little peeved.

EA was their typical scummy selves—taking out adds that touted the fans’ passionate response to the monumentally crappy ending, as if its ability to spark absolute seething hatred among the series’ most devoted fans was a good thing—but you’d expect that. Scummy EA is scummy. It’s BioWare’s response that was interesting.

It’s our choices that define us. Most of the time they’re inconsequential, but every now and then there’s a choice so critical, it defines the rest of our life. For BioWare, their reaction to Mass Effect 3 was that choice.

Fans were (virtually) rioting. The BioWare forums were awash with (exceedingly polite) fan backlash. Fans were organizing petitions, donating to charities to show they were serious, even sending cupcakes (which gently mocked the absurdly terrible ending) to the developer. BioWare’s response?

“This is art. We ain’t changing nothing. You’re awful people we’d be happier not having as customers.”

In exactly the same circumstances—widespread fan backlash against the ending of a game—both Bethesda (with Fallout 3) and CD Projekt Red (with The Witcher 2) humbled themselves and listened. Both released expansions which corrected the problems, and even expanded the games a bit. After, Bethesda went on to make Skyrim and Fallout 4, both of which made absolute gobs of dough. CD Projekt Red’s next game—The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt—became one of the best selling and most lauded RPG’s ever. Humility and heeding fan feedback worked for both companies.

BioWare’s “screw you and the console you play on” approach? Not so much.

The two founders of BioWare built the company from the ground up, forging it into one of the foremost game design studios in the world. Yet just one month after the ME3 fiasco, one of BioWare’s founders decided to flee the company he created, and both ended up leaving within six months. Project lead Casey Hudson also unceremoniously departed (much to the consternation of nobody at all).

BioWare itself went on to release two widely reviled games, Dragon Age: Inquisition and Mass Effect: Andromeda. Made under the direction of the chief writer of Mass Effect 3, Andromeda so damaged the brand, EA shuttered the franchise because even they could see no way to milk it for more money (even with crappy little free-to-play mobile apps), except for making the previous, good games in the series free for a limited time, hoping somebody out there would actually buy the over five years old games.

Sure, BioWare is promising a great new series—Anthem, their attempt to steal Destiny’s crown—and even brought back the writer of Mass Effect 1 & 2, Drew Karpyshyn, to pen the game’s “story”, but given their recent track record, only a fool would uncritically accept their word that—This time for sure!—they’ll make a really great game, honest.

Look, EA is a pretty terrible company. But they at least pretend to care what their fans think. (Witness the launch of Star Wars: Battlefront 2, whose subtitle may as well have been “We totally listened and got it right this time! We promise!”) In the face of fan backlash against the totally terrible ending of Mass Effect 3, BioWare couldn’t be bothered to even pretend to care, preferring to cater to their own vanity and conceit at the expense of their most passionate fans.

Choices have consequences. And the consequences of choosing the path of pride, self-importance, and pretentiousness is artistic stagnation and intellectual rot. BioWare is far down that path, and shows no signs of turning aside, much less reversing course.

Jasyn Jones, better known as Daddy Warpig, is a host on the Geek Gab podcast, a regular on the Superversive SF livestreams, and blogs at Daddy Warpig’s House of Geekery. Check him out on Twitter.

  • Adam G. says:

    EA may have a lot scummy business practices to their name, but in the case of Bioware and everything they’ve done since Dragon Age: Origins, I’d say every misstep has been their fault.

    They wanted to get away from Microsoft and make bigger games, and in so doing, let their SJW dark sides take over, and what we got is post-Origins Bioware.

    Plus, there’s a famous quote from Greg Zeschuk, one of the two doctors who left Bioware, that EA ‘gives you enough rope to hag yourself with.’ I’d have to agree.

  • Kell says:

    I’d disagree with a couple of your statements there. Oh, I agree with the sentiment, but to say that Mass Effect turned out to be nothing but a hallucination as the protagonist bled out is a pretty poor analogy. Rather, I think it would be more appropriate to characterize it as 120 hours of Band of Brothers, with a smash cut at the end to the last 30 minutes of The Matrix Reloaded. I’ve always thought Mass Effect 3 showed the limited time and resources the team was permitted.

    Also, you characterization that EA listened to the fans with BF2 but BioWare continues to show hubris is a bit off. Remember, EA bought BioWare ten years ago. They’ve been involved enough with personnel management that these days BioWare IS EA. Andromeda especially has EA’s fingerprints all over it. Chaos during development, and a team that was “branded” as BioWare even though they had absolutely nothing to tie them to the core studio, presumably because BioWare’s name wasn’t total mud yet, unlike EA’s.

  • Chris L says:

    I’m just trying to figure out why they would go with that kind of ending. It’s not like they make any more money screwing over their customers. The only thing I can think of is that they spent all the ending development money on action figures and suddenly realized they were way overdue on the project. It’s the only thing that makes sense.

  • Andy says:

    I originally became interested in Mass Effect because (aside from enjoying Bioware’s work), they were hyping it as a trilogy that would bring back a concept that was somewhat common in 1980s games but which you don’t see anymore: characters that persist from one game to the next. The idea was that stuff you did in game 1 would matter in game 3. Unfortunately, it was clear by Mass Effect 2 that they were getting nervous about this feature although not completely giving up on it, but when #3 rolled around they pretty much gave up on it completely. So that was irksome, and combined with the furor over the nosedive in storytelling was enough to sour me on even bothering to play #3.

  • scoda says:

    i didnt see that ending to me3….guess they listened to fans and fixed it?

    • NARoberts says:

      Yes, they added a bit of free dlc to improve the ending, insisting that they “weren’t changing it, just clarifying it.” The concept of the ending, which was the problem, was unchanged. I thought it was ok, but I was not hugely invested in ME so I could imagine that the fans weren’t appeased.

  • Ostar says:

    Video Game Designers thinking they are creating “Art” not Entertainment has ruined more than one formerly great franchise. E.g., Chris Roberts and Wing Commander.

  • Mark says:

    It has to be said, some of the responses to the ending of ME3 were glorious.

    = + =

    @Edinboro_V: Still no word on any color blind settings for ME3 though?

    @Masseffect: Will mention color blind settings to the devs, thanks for the feedback!

    @Edinboro_V: Thanks. I was only getting one ending.

    = + =

    This is the one that most summed it up for me though:

    Just… such a missed opportunity.

  • Bioware wouldn’t know art if it facehumped them.

    Art is a work made to a standard. Artists work for their audience. If your patrons are pissed, you failed to meet the standard. Swallow your pride and make it right.

    DW’s Star Wars analogy is fitting, because TFA undid everything that the Rebels accomplished in RotJ. We’re getting this smug postmodern deconstruction and outright propagandization of beloved properties because the PTB in the media don’t understand–and even hate–we the audience.

    Let them crash and burn. There are those of us who are working to make space opera great again.

    • Andy says:

      It’s especially galling in video games because so much of the appeal is that it’s not just about characters you like because you ARE the character. That’s You saving the universe. Games over the past console generation got this crazy idea that pulling the rug out from under the player and mocking them for indulging in power fantasies was the key to artistic legitimization. The creators of Spec Ops: The Line said the best way to play their game was to not play it at all, so I took them at their word and have never felt inclined to even try it.

      • To effectively simulate the experience of playing Spec Ops: The Line, go lie down on your driveway and have a friend repeatedly drive an ATV over your pelvis.

        Extra Credits’ sycophantic pimping of that non-game destroyed their credibility with me even before they went full SJW.

        • Jasyn Jones says:

          Spec Ops: The Line was utterly wretched. No redeeming qualities whatsoever.

          • NARoberts says:

            Ehh, subversion of gameplay can work sometimes. NieR is absolutely wonderful.

            But mostly it is done badly. I like Metal Gear, but most of Kojima’s attempts at subversion were obnoxious and actively cheapened his product. The “Twists” of MGS2 and MGSV made the experience un-fun, severely misunderstanding the way to cause introspection in a player. It would be a fallacy to say that MGS’ identity is attached to subversion. It is not an accident that the straightforward Metal Gears, MGS1, MGS3 are the most respected.

          • Nathan says:

            On MGS2, it surprises me that anything so blatantly ripped off of Richard Marcinko’s SEAL novels would be introspective.

          • Jesse Lucas says:

            SO:TL had some neat imagery in it, even though it constantly reminded me I was in a game. The doom might have been alleviated by playing it on hard mode on a laptop that took two minutes every loading screen.

            Things like that graffiti of the Statue of Liberty, those shots of Dubai with the sand walls covering the skyscrapers, the one scene where the Burj Khalifa is a flaming Barad-dur, those were awesome.

            I can understand being repulsed if you identified for a second with any of the characters though.

          • IndecisiveEvidence says:

            I enjoyed SO:TL if you accept it as a tragedy where literally everyone tried to do what was right and the result was a 30 car pile up of accidental evil.

            That said it was just as ugly as Nier if you actually started thinking about it and the inherent nihilism of suggesting that all heroism is not just pointless but wrong.

            Also, the game was absolutely beautiful and full of amazing set pieces.

            I’d almost argue both Nier games are worse just because their characters don’t even have the agency SO:TL characters do. Where everyone is just a helpless child ready to scream and cry in a prolonged cutscene when the next disaster du jour arbitrarily robs them of the only thing they care about.

          • NARoberts says:

            I see NieR quite differently. NieR Gestalt/Replicant fits the pattern of a classical Greek tragedy very well: a good person is brought down by a character flaw.

            In NieR, a good honest, humble man fights for his home and his family, but his flaw–that he cannot see past his hatred of an arbitrary “enemy” whose motivations he does not understand–ends up destroying the world. It was his inability to show mercy to the Shadowlord that dooms mankind to death by disease and undoes his victory.

            I know Yoko Taro is a bit of a liberal for sure, but he accidentally created something absolutely beautiful with NieR.

            Automata was OK well, but his ideology seeped in a bit more, I think, and made it seem rather silly by comparison.

          • NARoberts says:

            In terms of pure “ugly” you can’t beat Life is Strange.

    • Man of the Atom says:

      What Brian said. +9000

    • Justin DuPont says:

      I like your comment Brain, specifically about art. I mean that’s what art is, making sure you meet your audience’s standards. I’m sure every artist would agree with you. No artist in history has ever done art their way regardless of what others thought of it. It’s why we don’t have the expression “starving artist” because they all pander to a patron who is their to pay them gobs of money.
      I get it people didn’t like the ending of ME3. Quite frankly it wasn’t the best ending but the backlash over it, in my opinion, was way over the top.
      Personally I’m indifferent to the ending and it does not ruin all the time I spent enjoying the games from 1-3. ME3’s ending is open ended which means I can choose to believe that the Shepard I crafted throughout the 3 games went on to defeat the reapers. Would I like to see a finished story? Hell yes! But the fact that BioWare didn’t go on to craft some ending doesn’t bother me. Also didn’t BioWare craft an expanded ending specifically for the fans? Yes they did. Did give them the ending they wanted but they did put out a free DLC for them.
      Honestly this authors analogy is terrible. Everything you did was not a hallucination. You still fought Sovereign and the Collectors. You still gathered all the forces in 3 to attempt the crucible project. You still moved all of those forces to earth in an attempt to retake it. Whether you succeeded or not is the part that is left open. So no his Star Wars analogy doesn’t even deserve the term crap analogy because it does a disservice to crap analogies.
      Can the ending be annoying? Yes. Is the worst ending I’ve ever seen. No. Personally from right around the same time I found Assassins Creed 3’s ending to be worse. Couldn’t stand it. The ending of God of War 3 was also worse. Did it ruin my enjoyment of the prior games, NO!
      I get it people don’t like the ending. That’s fine, you don’t have to. But it DOES NOT TAKE AWAY from the storytelling in ME1, ME2, & everything in ME3 up to your return to earth. So my question is how can it be a “pretentious pile of garbage of a trilogy” if you’re major complaint is about how the last 2 hours of the 3rd game went? Did you not enjoy playing ME1 and ME2? Or was it that the ending of ME3 turned all the hours you enjoyed in ME1 and ME2 into crap? Because I don’t get that.
      Was ME:A a bust? Yea it was. But I find that this Kotaku article: does a much better job explaining why it was a bust instead of some lame argument that BioWare hates its fans. Read an actual author who did some actual journalism to bring a coherent argument as to why ME:A failed and reasons why it did not live up to expectations. Not some drivel like this nonsense.

      • NARoberts says:

        The end of Assassins Creed 3 was worse, but I would like to offer the ending of Life is Strange as the absolute bottom of the barrel. The worst ending I’ve played.

        That’s the only bit of your slightly-angry screed that I want to respond to.

      • “I like your comment Brain”

        I like your unintentional backhanded compliment.

      • Turd Ferguson says:

        So, basically you’re saying that all of those players who invested their heart and soul in Shepard and Garrus and Wrex and Mordin Solus and Ashley and Liara, those players who spent their hard earned money to get some closure, some release from being able to save the Earth, should have just said;

        “Well, yeah, the ending was lame but the gameplay was GREAT!!!”

        Screw that S%#@.

        Bioware/EA’s Bait & Switch with ME3 with live in infamy for the ham-fisted pseudo-artiste “It was all I in his head!!!!” crap that it was. It was an insult and a cynical, twisted Post-modern pile of Krogan Feces.

        I loved playing ME, ME2 ( a little less than the first…) and ME3 ( a little less than 2, but still, OK) right up until they simultaneously (and figuratively) made me take the ice bucket challenge and kicked me in the nuts.

        Screw that and screw them.

  • Alex says:

    Wow. You don’t know much.

  • Skyler says:

    I remember the EA Wife blog from the 90’s. It’s always been a crap company.

  • Brian says:

    I think calling ME3 a mediocre game is extremely harsh. There are some awkward bits of writing for sure and the ending is abysmal, but the gameplay and most of the narrative up until that last hour was very good and got the praise it deserved. Also calling Dragon Age: Inquisition reviled is just wrong. It received critical acclaim and most fans would agree that it’s a much better game than Dragon Age 2. Of course there’s lots of problems with it, but just lumping it with Andromeda is ridiculous, that game was Ubisoft levels of bad.

  • Star Tripper says:

    I enjoyed the Mass Effect trilogy though I agree with many that ME2 was the best of the three. The ending to ME3 didn’t bother me as much as others. I understood that spinning out the myriad permutations from the first game to the last would get a bit much, kind of like the last two George R.R. Martin novels in the A Song of Fire and Ice saga. If you think about it the fact that all those personal decisions we made up to the end not making much of a difference in a vast galactic conflict that stretches over millions of years kinda makes sense.

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