BioWare Woes

Hot News!  /s

Kotaku’s Jason Schreier released a report on the development issues surrounding Anthem.  Jason has a rather large network of game development contacts, and he seems to have this magic “suggestion box” that people put trust into.  The end result is that he seems to have the best odds of having a behind the curtains look at game development.  Generally speaking, the articles tend to point out the poor development health issues, evidence that not everyone should be a manager, and that the likely end result for large gaming developers is that unions are going to be pounding at their door unless they change their practices.

Next, a recall of my previous post mentioning that the management team of Anthem should be changed.  In particular –

Each patch somehow manages to make the loot part of the game less rewarding. I firmly believe that everyone has the best of intentions, but at this point it’s abundantly clear that the leadership of Anthem has to go. I know that in 6 months, the game can find a footing – but the culture and direction up top needs to change so that fun & quality are achieved before change for the sake of change.

Back to the actual article.  There are many points made, and at a high level we see:

  • The mandatory use of Frostbite across EA hampers game development that is not designed for FPS
  • EA setting a hard delivery date of March 2019, even though the game clearly was not ready
  • The direction that they could not compare to Destiny – their #1 competitor in market.
  • The culture of crunch in BioWare that lead to significant “mental health” leave, which has a dramatic impact on available resources
  • The overall lack of quality resources that want to work in Edmonton, Canada.
  • The lack of effective management/direction on Anthem
  • That Anthem really only had 18 months of development, the majority of which happened in the last 6
  • BioWare Edmonton thought they were untouchable and ignored feedback

There are general rules in any large company.  At lower levels, you can get by pretty well with average talent, and manage the poor ones.  When you reach the management level, it gets a lot harder, but it’s possible to correct it with another group.  At the director/exec level, that’s where things go off the rails.  When you only have one lead for a major project, and that lead is not made for that project – things go bad real quick, and cascade down.

People will stay around in shitty working conditions because of other people.  People will quit a great job if they hate their boss.  People will take on tons of work if they trust their workers and boss.  Seen it countless times.  When the top performers / leaders start dropping, or losing faith… you have an avalanche of impacts.

In Anthem’s case, EA really doesn’t come off as the bad guy.  Sure, the need to use Frostbite is going to end up costing them tens of millions more than if they simply licensed Unreal (not to mention being unable to recruit talent on proprietary code).  Setting a delivery date when the product is clearly not ready is going to burn them for some time.

But the weight of the problems here are clearly on BioWare direction, or lack thereof.  The culture the doctors put in, where they made clear decisions for the entire group left when they did.  At multiple times, and through consistent feedback, it’s clear that the development teams lacked the necessary direction (even at the concept level) to do their work.  True or not, it’s clear that someone realized this and threw Mark Darrah at the problem 16 months before launch.  In effect, what we have played is the result of his direction.

Which begs the question as to what Jon Warner, Mike Gamble, and Ben Irving did in this large process.

I won’t go into details on BioWare’s tone deaf response.  It’s a self-inflicting wound, that simply re-affirms the entire article’s position that BioWare leadership isn’t actually paying attention.  My gut says this will be enough to make some staff leave.

Final Thoughts

Anthem is the main reason Origin Access Premier exists.  EA is driven on that success factor, and I highly doubt Anthem is going anywhere.

EA’s drive to push Frostbite everywhere is part of the direct failure of two high profile BioWare games.  There are no good news stories about Frostbite.  EA made a bet, and they lost.  There’s no reason to double down (or triple down in this case).

BioWare as a company is going to hemorrhage developers and have a damn hard time recruiting new talent, unless there are major (and public) shakeups with management.

Anthem requires a transparent State of the Game message from upper management, with clear and honest acceptance of the issues and a high level plan to address them.

The game industry as a whole is still reeling from the RDR2 crunch articles… this is just more push to unionize.

5 thoughts on “BioWare Woes

  1. I didn’t even bother commenting on it or making my own post, as it’s so well covered. But yeah, there are many ways they could have answered all of them would have been better. When Senior Leadership takes responsibility its a good start. I say frequently that the industry is completely backwards from a dev and sales standpoint, and as much as I am pro capitalist and open markets (including labour) I’m curious what a union made game looks like in comparison now for sure.

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    • Off-ish topic here… but capitalism only works if there’s a reasonable spread of wealth. Specifically, if there’s a generally achievable ceiling of funds to “outbid” someone. When you have a 500x wealth gap… that model just doesn’t work.

      On-topic, the exceedingly poor development conditions in the large companies is one of the major reasons we have so many smaller devs making amazing games. Celeste, Darkest Dungeon, Dead Cells, FTL, and hundreds more. If we can have something like Waframe from a small Canadian company… why work for a large sweat shop?

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  2. I mainly took three things away from that article:

    1) Hey, it makes the SWTOR devs/Austin team kinda good! They are portrayed as the guys who know their stuff but get little credit (which does match my previous outside perceptions).

    2) Clearly wanting to do “something different” without having any idea of what it is you actually want to do is a bad idea.

    3) While I think that the article is well-written and not at all mean-spirited, I can’t blame Bioware and some fans for getting somewhat defensive about it because timing-wise, it does feel like kicking a guy while he’s down. It’s not like it wasn’t obvious that things haven’t gone well for Anthem; this feels like just more fuel for the fire.

    I’m kind of surprised by how many people focused on the crunch angle, not because I disagree that it’s bad but because this particular case doesn’t strike me as a good example. When Jason wrote about RDR2, it was shocking to hear that a studio that apparently did everything right and produced a great game still needed its employees to put in crazy extra hours. This on the other hand is a case of lots of things going wrong and the last survivors trying to cobble something usable together at the very last moment. That things get unpleasant at that point is not really surprising and I doubt it’s exclusive to the gaming industry.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Far from exclusive. I’ve seen it at my work, and the idea that “things will get better” is always a driver.

      The difference between RDR and Anthem is that one is a good game, and one is not. Same as with Dragon Age: Inquisition and Mass Effect: Andromeda.

      It’s a strong north american sentiment that the ends justify the means. If the ends are money, then do whatever you need to. If the ends are ridicule… then it really begs the question as to the journey to get there.

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  3. Pingback: Anthem off the Games List – Time to Loot

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