You could tell something was different about them. After all, they were doctors. Medical doctors. They liked playing fantasy role-playing games so much that they quit those jobs to start BioWare. They created early titles like Baldur’s Gate I and II, Shattered Steel, and Neverwinter Nights. They stepped up to the big time as they made a huge bet on Microsoft’s entry into the video-game business with the Xbox. They created memorable titles like Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic and Jade Empire. As they did so, they retained the titles of co-CEOs. They kept those titles even after they sold BioWare to Elevation Partners and then remained co-CEOs until recently under EA’s management. Most of the time, they did their interviews jointly, and they didn’t engage in mean-spirited trash talk. They kept a partnership going for more than two decades. That is a remarkable feat in an industry that has seen so many developers come and go.
They bet on Microsoft in backing their young producer, Casey Hudson, on the Mass Effect trilogy, which began as an exclusive for the Xbox 360. That team stepped up to create memorable stories and characters like Commander Shepard, who always had a moral dilemma to overcome as he sought to save the galaxy at great personal sacrifice. The Mass Effect series was where BioWare came into its own as a company of crafters that could create blockbuster games that actually shipped. The ability to repeat the process of creating and shipping great games is what made BioWare so valuable, and it spurred Elevation Partners to buy a majority stake in BioWare and Pandemic Studios for $300 million in 2005. EA bought BioWare/Pandemic in 2007 for $860 million.
Pandemic proceeded to fall apart. But the BioWare side of the company thrived with the launch of titles like Mass Effect. BioWare became a material part of a publicly traded company that had investors to please and targets to hit every quarter. As BioWare grew and made more decisions based on commercial potential rather than just artistic enterprise, the good doctors no doubt ran into their own dilemmas within the walls of Electronic Arts.
If they had just worked on Mass Effect, they would have been assured their place in the video-game developer pantheon. But in parallel, BioWare began work on an extremely ambitious game, Star Wars: The Old Republic. Built in Austin, Texas, the title was aimed at expanding the massively multiplayer online game business beyond the fantasy theme of World of Warcraft, which has 10 million paying subscribers and generates more than a billion dollars a year in revenue for Activision Blizzard. The Old Republic seemed like a home run, tapping the brand that George Lucas created and mixing it with the role-playing game expertise at BioWare. It was a giant game, taking more than six years and a team of hundreds to complete. The budget was an estimated $200 million, which is up in the range of a heavy-duty Hollywood film. As the project grew and they added more responsibilities, the doctors had to manage sprawling teams. When Star Wars finally shipped in December, it seemed like gaming had passed it by, and it didn’t garner the audience that EA had hoped. It is still making money, but EA has shifted from charging subscriptions to making the game free to play. The challenge of doing that and cutting back on the size of those teams as tough times hit the studios this year undoubtedly took its toll on the BioWare founders.
About six months ago — after shipping Mass Effect 3 and Star Wars — Muzyka decided to retire. So did Zeschuk. Most of us get to live one life and have one career. These guys have already done two, as doctors and video game developers. It was discouraging for me to read Zeschuk’s own acknowledgement that, after some grueling years putting out games such as Star Wars: The Old Republic (six years in the making), he reached “an unexpected point in my life where I no longer have the passion that I once did for the company, for the games, and for the challenge of creation.” He acknowledged that he had run out of gas.