Beware BioWare?

You can argue that the name of former gods of the gaming world BioWare is in tatters, moreso when BioWare Mythic are forced/asked to drop the BioWare bit from its name by EA. But that raises a more pertinent and important question – why would you drop the BioWare moniker unless… something bad was coming…

 

“In the wake of a new focus our studio has recently changed its name from BioWare Mythic to Mythic. Everything else stays the same — our passionate teams will continue to support and develop our existing titles as well as working on some new and exciting projects.”

That was the strange and mixed message that community manager Kai Schober left for Warhammer Online fans. Mythic is back to being just… well… Mythic. And any suggestion that they were once tagged onto BioWare is now a fleeting feather in the breeze. Not that the BioWare moniker seemed to mean much when it was tagged on, as many had worried that Mythic were undeserving of the association with one of the industries most beloved, benevolent benefactors.

But that has changed. BioWare have gone in a year from the most beloved of games companies to one of the industries most vilified pariahs. Could it be the taint that comes from their acquisition by EA? Could it be the poisoned chalice that was The Old Republic? Was it the slap-dash half-arsed finish they left on Dragon Age 2? Or was it the mass-confusion and frustration that came from the end of Mass Effect 3? No-one can pinpoint an exact and solid reason for the fall and fall of BioWare, but most of us can agree on one thing – it’s happening.

For you see, BioWare have had a string of very big public failures and PR disasters. This leaves us all looking very unfavourably on the company that once made such great games. Not all companies are going to produce great games all the time, and one can say BioWare had more than its fair share of fortune up to this point. They had rarely put a foot wrong, making games people loved and wanted to be seen to love, even Star Wars novices like me actually managed to appreciate the older Old Republic games. Jade Empire was a fantastic title, and they had done some stellar work in the past – Baldur’s Gate and Neverwinter Nights two of their most prominent success stories. Even SEGA pulled them in to hone a Sonic RPG called Sonic Chronicles: The Dark Brotherhood.

It seems inevitable to end up repeating this tired accusation, but one must point it out; for many, BioWare’s troubles began when EA entered the picture.

In 2007, EA bought BioWare through their holding partners, this was the year that the first Mass Effect had just hit and there was little to suggest that EA would need to exert any influence over a company who could create a game of such interstellar quality. I mean, you don’t fix things that aren’t broken, do you? Mass Effect 2 wasn’t as good as Mass Effect 1, but it was still a great game! And Dragon Age: Origins was a competent, old-fashioned RPG for a modern era. It was the sort of thing you’d expect from a company like BioWare – a real retro vibe but with a current, modern feel to it.

In 2009, EA announced that it was merging RPG and MMO creation into one cohesive unit – BioWare Mythic was born that day. And it didn’t seem like a very sensible idea even then, as Mythic were successful but many had felt it was falling short on its own devices. It was considered on life support even then, and here they were being bundled together with BioWare to keep development into one segment? Yeah, there’s something a little fishy about that. Which of course makes the fact that Mythic are now moving away from BioWare stink even more. This was not a choice by these companies to get together – it was from on-high that EA put them in the same room. And now one of them is moving out? Is that their choice, or is something afoot?

When your own sister companies are moving away from you, there might be a reasonable line of thought that concludes with the sudden realisation that you’ve become a massive target, and people are getting the hell out of your way to avoid being splattered by the massive explosive heading your way.

Thing is, BioWare are now a liability to EA rather than an asset. EA’s power has not been in itself – EA has always been sadistic and aggressive and that will not change. But it clads its outer shell in nice, fluffy things that cushion the impact of them ramming into you. They still do, of course, trying to knock every penny out of you. But you are being pummelled by clouds and unicorn dust, companies you like and love and have no qualms about handing your money to. It’s an elaborate but extremely clever little distraction that Activision has been doing with Blizzard for some considerable time as well. You know the puppet-masters are horrible but the show on the stage is actually rather nice and you like the characters.

Thing is, like any character in a stage show or soap, eventually they wear out. And BioWare, simply put, has made too many mistakes. It is no longer the nice fluffy pillow on the outside of EA’s hard shell. The stuffing has thinned and compacted and now it’s as hard and uninviting as an exposed part of this outer armour. It can no longer serve to jostle money out of the pockets of its customers as it is clearly losing them in their droves. The one game we all thought would be successful no matter what – The Old Republic – has floundered, and is being propped up by money that most will arguably state comes not from BioWare, but EA, thereby draining resources from the very creature it was supposed to be protecting and co-existing with. It is now parasitic, draining the life blood from the main company rather than providing a useful service and revenue for the main beast. Mass Effect 3 floundered – who would have expected that? Dragon Age 2 – no-one expected that…

It might seem a bit early to yell “Doomed! DOOOOOOOOOOOOMED!” at BioWare, but the smallest choices often suggest the biggest impact. Mythic moving away from BioWare, despite the fact it still isn’t quite as liked as BioWare, is a suggestion not of their independence – rather, a show of their guile. They know there is a massive judgement headed to BioWare. It no longer provides the service that it is expected to fill for EA. It is no longer invulnerable, the shield of community love and respect has worn away with multiple very average releases, leaving it exposed. EA have never had any qualms about shutting down some of the biggest names in the business. Some of the most respected studios that money could buy. BioWare got away with this for so long because it had its shield of industry respect and adulation. There’s no repair guy for miles around. It’s broken. And that means the next blast is going to be lethal.

It’s not likely to happen quickly, but if BioWare can’t prove itself soon, it will join a select list of companies who have demonstrated exactly how EA deals with failure.

Which is more akin to a Bond villain than an actual company.

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