R.I.P, Bioware

October 29th, 2007 by Adrian

When I first heard about the EA acquisition of Bioware/Pandemic back on the 11th, I knew I had to say something about the deal.  The news hit me (and a lot of other gamers) like a punch in the gut.  But then came the ALCS playoffs and the World Series, and I promptly forgot all about it.  So has a solid two weeks of hindsight and a beautiful 4-0 BoSox sweep of the Rockies brightned my perspective?  Nope, not really.

Here’s the problem: Bioware has been one of a very small handful of studios that consistently turned out solid, traditional RPG’s with high production values.  With the release of Baldur’s Gate in 1998, Bioware revitalized the AD&D brand and set the new standard for computer role-playing adaptations.  Over the next decade, the company became kind of like a little Disney of CRPG’s, introducing and cementing a number of gameplay elements (e.g. optional plot sidelines exploring the background of party NPC’s, parallel storylines for both “good” and “evil” PCs) that grew to define the genre.

Although some of their recent games felt a little stale in their realization of the “Bioware formula,” the company’s support for their fan community has always been exemplary.  In 2002, the long-anticipated Neverwinter Nights finally shipped, providing not just a packaged product experience but also a robust platform for the development of user-created content.  The toolset included with the Neverwinter Nights game gave hobbyists the chance to develop compelling their own compelling modules using the same Aurora Engine that powers the official campaign title.

This was a huge milestone for CRPG’s.  Although customization and 3rd-party level design has been a staple of first-person shooters (e.g. Unreal Tournament, Half-Life) since the initial shareware release of Doom in 1993, there wasn’t anything equivalent in the RPG realm until Neverwinter Nights (and Morrowind, which was released by Bethesda just about a month earlier).  Five years after the game’s release, hobbyists and amateur game developers are still investing hundreds of hours of development in producing custom content for these game platforms, and a vibrant community of gamers is still eager to download, play, and discuss these titles.

It’s hard to over-emphasize how big a deal Bioware’s commitment to nurturing this community has been.  Not only have they continued to fix bugs in the game engine and implement new features that the community has clamored for, the company also took a gamble that the demand for high-quality post-release content was strong enough to warrant developing “premium modules” for distribution online.

These premium modules were produced in-house with the aim of delivering gameplay that met the same standards as the original packaged product games, priced at a point that reflected the amortization of the engine development costs in the retail title alone.  Whereas a full-fledged retail box “expansion pack” might cost USD$30, a premium content module would run somewhere between USD$3 and USD$15.

Instead of competing with or cannibalizing the community of amateur game developers, Bioware’s testing the waters with premium content strengthened the community in a couple of ways.  First, community authors were able to incorporate the additional artwork, character models, and exterior tile sets of these mini-titles into their own works, giving even greater variety to the universe of home-grown game releases.  And second, Bioware made a practice of selectively recruiting employees from the pool of talented community designers, creating a sort of AAA farm league for CRPG development.

Electronic Arts, on the other hand, is a poster child for profit driven development of mass-market games.  (Like Microsoft, EA is also a mammoth publisher of other studios’ work, but that’s not the issue here.)  Sports games are EA’s meat and potatoes.

Every year, they overhaul the graphics, update the stats, and get millions of gamers to line up and buy the latest versions of Madden NFL, Tiger Woods PGA, and NCAA Football.  It’s just like Microsoft coming out with the next version of Office – a staple product that’s ubiquitous enough for previous versions to be its own biggest competition.   In both cases, enough customers upgrade each year to bankroll a huge percentage of the company’s net sales.

The Microsoft analogy is a good one in other ways, too.  To say that EA isn’t known for innovative game design would be an understatement.  Waaaaay back in the day, when the Apple II was the reigning champ of the home PC market, the talent at EA was responsible for developing some truly incredible games like Archon and M.U.L.E.  But that’s ancient history now.  If you’re looking for a serial sports title or a by-the-numbers adaptation of a big license property (e.g. “Harry Potter,”) EA’s in-house studios has what you need.   Anything else and you’re out of luck.

It’s no picnic to work at EA either.  Back in 2005, EA grabbed headlines for a set of lawsuits filed by California employees protesting brutal, prolonged overtime schedules without any additional compensation.  (And if you’re wondering how working on a video game could ever be fairly described as “brutal,” imagine work in your cubicle from 9 AM until 10 PM, six days a week, for 6+ months at a time without vacation or sick leave to compensate you for the inevitable RSI, vision problems and chronic headaches…  not even a “thank you.”)

So when you add it all up, you have to wonder: will EA really allow Bioware to continue along more or less autonomously, developing great titles and supporting and nurturing the gaming community as it has to date?  I’d like to think so.  It’s just good business to not kill the goose even if you’ve got a couple of golden eggs in your back pocket, right?  But unfortunately there’s no iron-clad proof that, say, the strength of sales for “Neverwinter Nights: Diamond Edition” nearly four years after the retail release of any product in that bundle is due more to the continued availability of fresh 3rd party content as it is to the game belatedly finding a new fan base.  And knowing EA’s track record, I’m not crossing my fingers that this deal will really leave Bioware unscathed.

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