Rebuilding The Future: How BioWare Can Bounce Back

26 Oct 2012

Despite the loss of co-founders Ray Muzyka and Greg Zeschuk and the lackluster reception to some of their recent games, GameFront seems to think that BioWare can bounce back if they're willing to return to their roots, rebuild their community, focus on new IP instead of sequels, and "stop counting the beans". Let's not forget who's pulling the strings, here:
Few developers have enjoyed the shut-up-and-take-my-money adoration from fans that BioWare has during the bulk of its existence. Occupying a space somewhere in between Tim Schafer and Dan Hauser, the company’s every game was greeted with the kind of fervent enthusiasm usually reserved for fans of obscure musicians, except the fanbase in this case happened to number in the millions. While it’s very common now to hear people saying that they just ‘knew’ the company was doomed the second Electronic Arts bought it, the reality is that it was in the immediate aftermath of the EA purchase that BioWare released the games that will almost certainly be forever linked to its golden age, Mass Effect and Dragon Age: Origins.

Both games contained excellent RPG mechanics, vast, explorable worlds, riveting combat, thrilling adventure, and unique takes on genres (sci fi and fantasy) that have been dominated for decades by a couple of ossified, omnipresent aesthetic frameworks. However, the setting and gameplay weren’t what made fans care. What made BioWare matter to millions of gamers is that, despite heavy themes and bleak overtones, their games also wallowed in an inclusive, optimistic view of the human – or if you prefer, alien and/or magical being – experience that expressly advocated humanism, tolerance, inclusivity, and the simple idea that it might be possible to improve the world, no matter how awful we’re capable of being.

The Mass Effect galaxy is one in which strength comes from people seeing past their differences, from sharing cultures, and from doing everything possible to avoid violence (and considering this is in service to a game containing massive destruction, that’s saying something). Dragon Age: Origins presented the possibility of overcoming systemic racism, and even rising above the class divisions imposed by smaller-minded people. Both games presented a world with far greater romantic and sexual freedom than anything seen in mainstream video games before, with same-sex, interracial, even interspecies (sapient species, you sick sick person) relationships (and in DAO’s case, orgies. No, seriously.) And at their core, they contained truly moving stories about the power of friendship and family. Think Star Trek for an era when the culture of geeks is no longer seen as something lame and mockable, and you get the way BioWare fans felt about these properties.

And BioWare loved the fans back. Over the company’s life, it made a concerted effort to engage with fans on the forums, encouraged tremendous participation from them as their games were developed, and as often as possible made the fans feel like a part of a larger community. Perhaps the best example of this aspect of company culture was the way that BioWare’s David Gaider issued this epic, wonderful smackdown to homophobic gamers complaining about the same sex relationship option in Dragon Age 2.

Unfortunately, in the last two years another troubling perception of the company began to emerge. Mass Effect 2 was widely praised, but fans expressed concern that the first game’s strong RPG elements had been watered down; this was seen as a troubling sign that BioWare was getting away from their core gameplay experience. A year later, Dragon Age 2, though critically acclaimed, received many complaints from fans who rightly noted the recycled levels, recycled enemies, and seemingly endless glitches that suggested it had been rushed out, instead of given the development it deserved. Unfortunately, a BioWare employee was caught red-handed participating in blatant sock puppetry on Metacritic, denigrating the fans who complained in language that felt personally insulting to people who only wanted to play a great game.

...

Finally, BioWare can do something simple, and relatively painless, but will significantly help them to come back strong: create new IP. A lot of it. And do so before continuing to hammer away at the things it might be breaking.

This definitely means letting Mass Effect hibernate for a while. The series is a mostly brilliant, stand alone experience almost wholly unique in the history of gaming. Releasing a sequel too soon after the controversial final chapter in the ‘Shepard trilogy’ will only risk reminding fans of the distaste they felt during that controversy. It will also almost certainly be seen at this point as the franchisization of something special. What people want is something as good as the majority of that series, not something just like a billion other games set in that universe.

Ditto Dragon Age. Dragon Age 3 is a fait accompli at this point, but once that game is finished, let the series lie fallow for a few years. There’s no reason to keep producing content for a series past its natural end, especially at the expense of new IP and especially after what has been a very creative period for BioWare. Starting with 2005′s Jade Empire, BioWare has produced more titles based on original IP than they have licensed titles. However, they haven’t created any new IP since 2009′s Dragon Age Origins. Since then, they’ve released Mass Effect 2, Dragon Age 2, Star Wars: The Old Republic, and Mass Effect 3. Confirmed for the future, they’ve got more SWTOR content, Dragon Age 3, an untitled Mass Effect game, and an unannounced, untitled new IP that probably won’t come out until after DA3 and ME4. And this doesn’t include the dreck coming from Mythic and Victory. Sensing a pattern? The company is becoming very reliant on iterating past successes and licensed titles, not a good sign for a studio once known for their risk taking.
What do you think? What could the company do to bring it back to the glory days of the late 1990s and early 2000s?