Like quite a few gamers, I cut my teeth on the early BioWare RPG staples. Baldur’s Gate, Planescape, Icewind Dale… all of them hall of fame titles. All based on the concept of character development, choice, and consequence. Baldur’s Gate 2 remains my all-time best example of an RPG with hundreds of hours soaked.
Jade Empire was a neat twist on the genre, blending action combat with RPG pieces – which was the basis for Mass Effect if you think about it. Knights of the Old Republic was a smash to play through, and dramatically opened up the possibilities for Star Wars stories. Mass Effect 1 was a near revolution in the way RPGs functioned in the west – and I argue the reason that EA purchased the company in 2007.
Following the purchase, we received Dragon Age (Bhaalspawn anyone?), which was a massive sprawling RPG. Mass Effect 2 was right around the corner, and another smash hit. Due to long production times on games, both of these were well into development before the EA purchase. I consider this the BioWare apogee.
The Downward Trend
Dragon Age 2 felt like an expansion, with the same recycled environments. DA:Inquisition had interesting characters, but played like a solo-MMO with no healing. Mass Effect 3 was technically sound, but threw it all away with a ridiculous ending. So bad, that the fan feedback caused BioWare to change it after launch. (Imagine being mad at the end of King Kong, and then on DVD he lives.)
SW:TOR launched in 2011, right at the tail end of the MMORPG bubble. Two reboots along the way – F2P and KoFE. It solidified the trend to F2P conversion, in particular what not to do (hotbars for sale!) It was tremendous in scale and took a couple years to find it’s identity.
The founding doctors quit in 2012. At the same time. Then the old guard started leaving. Long time game directors, story writers, programmers.
Shadow Realms (4v1) was announced then cancelled.
ME:Andromeda launched to lukewarm reception. So lukewarm, they shut down the studio that made it and put all future ME development on hold.
BioWare has only 2 active projects that we know of. SWTOR, which has had slow but steady updates of the years. The long term plans for this game aren’t clear, as most expected an expansion announcement by now. Not sure how that really impacts the player base mind you, since there are still some mechanical changes underway.
And Anthem. A game that appears to strongly follow in the footsteps of Destiny and The Division.
It’s fair to say that SWTOR isn’t exactly a cash cow, and Anthem must have an insane amount of pressure to deliver that the very existence of BioWare is in question. Anthem is clearly an “all hands on deck” project. Launching in 3 months.
People following the Destiny and Division clearly realize that making one of these games is extremely difficult. The leveling process is easy, but keeping people engaged long term means a serious level of understanding of grind mechanics. The good news here is that BW has some experience here with the end-game mentality in SWTOR. The bad news is that the SWTOR model isn’t drawing all the kids to the yard.
The advantage for Anthem here is that there are two clear examples from popular games on how not to do it. Destiny 1 was all about first out of the gate and learning with the community. Division took months to learn that lesson, and paid a heavy price before providing a decent experience. Destiny 2 took all the goodwill from the first game, and repeated the exact same mistakes, until a recent expansion. I won’t say it’s easy, because it isn’t. But good golly, do not repeat these same mistakes of others.
(Side Note: Activision’s earning call indicated that Destiny 2 undersold expectations. It was one of the top selling games in 2017. That’s where the bar is.)
PvE squad based games aren’t exactly popular right now. PUBG/Fornite are dominating the market – and both are insanely popular in the mobile space. That is a massive part of the market that is no longer available. It is not possible to measure trends when making games… the dev cycles are so very long. Timing is certainly key.
That said, there’s a whole lot in common with ARPGs like Diablo or Path of Exile. You’re continuously running the same areas for chances of improved stats. That positive feedback loop is the driver. The concept of it never having an end is the carrot. It’s the perception that the carrot is actually in reach that’s important.
If I was BioWare I would do everything in my power to avoid introducing PvP at launch. The market for PvP is extremely small, given the breadth of options to gamers today. PvP in Destiny/Division are side activities with the chance for rewards to be used in all other content. Rare is the player who focuses solely on PvP. Let them continue to play Fortnite/PUBG, or CoD.
The EA tarnish is hanging over everyone’s minds. It’s surreal how people hate EA more than say oil, finance, or pharmaceutical companies who have actually caused real deaths. But they do hate EA. And EA has a knack for exploiting every possible opportunity. SW:BF2 took a massive beating due to micro-transactions, enough to get actual laws passed. They take great companies and turn them into a shell of their former selves. Drug dealers have a better reputation. People will criticize the smallest piece of Anthem just because it has an EA sticker.
The game launches in late Feb 2019. It just posted about reaching Alpha. It honestly does look like alpha, since they are in the “how the game responds” feedback phase. In all honesty, that post is friggin’ solid. It’s the sort of transparency that is missing in development. But we’re also well past the time for a beta. Beta is all about optimizing the numbers, bug fixing, stress testing… A good beta is 6 months. A quick one is 3. Had this post come out in the summer…
I do hope this game has success. More than for the game’s sake, but for BioWare and the industry as a whole. Quality co-op games are not common in the AAA field – we get PvP and solo. Monster Hunter is top of mind right now, but then the list gets ultra short. Going to find out in a few short months.