Seldomly Updated
In Defence of BioWare

 My intent in writing this is pretty self-explanatory – I feel the need to defend BioWare from some recent criticism. Now, I acknowledge that not only is this unnecessary, they don’t need it – BioWare is a highly profitable studio, owned by a huge publisher and their last two games have received massive critical acclaim. That said, gamers seem to be turning on them in droves, I recently saw somebody whose opinion I generally respect say they hope that BioWare developers start jumping ship, and was genuinely surprised. Now, I’ll briefly sum up my argument before I begin in earnest: BioWare is still doing good work, and will most likely continue to do so.

 The common criticisms levelled at BioWare stem from Dragon Age II being a disappointment, Mass Effect 3’s ending and The Old Republic not performing as well as expected. I want to identify these criticisms and attempt to rebut them. Whilst it’s obvious that I still personally like BioWare as a studio and enjoy their output I will try and be objective about these criticisms, and acknowledge them when they have merit.

 I’ll start with possibly the smallest criticism in terms of what this post is about (BioWare’s reputation) – the performance of The Old Republic. The Old Republic currently has 1.3 million subscribers, down from 1.7 in Febuary [1]. When compared with World of Warcraft’s (which MMOs invariably are) 10 million or so, that is a disappointing figure.

 I’ve previously written about TOR in glowing terms, but have since stopped playing and it’s very easy to explain why: after a certain point, questing becomes very a tedious and you eventually give up. The draw of The Old Republic is the story, and it’s good at presenting its narrative. The individuals storylines for each class are well written, there’s ample roleplaying opportunity and the side quests are very well developed. However, there are simply too many side quests on each planet, and the sheer number means that when you come right down to it means they’re all very generic. After a while you start to dread having to visit a new planet because it means more side quests and you end up spending far too long on an individual planet and become very bored.

 To improve on this, they need to focus on less but better developed side quests – perhaps between five and seven per planet, making about ten or eleven when coupled with story quests. This would infinitely improve the game and make it much more playable. Whilst this would be less content I think that have less, but better developed side quests would encourage replay ability. I can’t comment on the ability of end game content to keep people playing since I never reached the end game – this does appear to be an area they’re working on though.

 This said, let’s bear in mind that 1.3 million is exactly a low number – it’s a pretty solid player base. They obviously have a lot of plans for the game and hopefully as they keep adding content and features, the player base will begin to grow again. So, now that I’ve identified the issues with TOR, suggested possible fixes and expressed the view that things aren’t all that bleak for the fledgling MMO I’d like to move on to the stuff that has done more serious damage to BioWare’s reputation.

 Dragon Age II was a huge disappointment. I consider Dragon Age: Origins my favourite game of all time. Not only was the base game incredible, it had solid DLC and a good expansion. Combined with a growing expanding universe of a reasonable quality (the books, written by the series’ lead writer David Gaider are solid fantasy novels) things looked good for the series. Then the sequel was released.

  Dragon Age II was a mess, an absolute mess. The gameplay was a watered down version of the previous game that failed to bring in new fans and alienated the old. The level design was generic and repetitive and absolutely no effort was but into encounter design, waves of enemies mindlessly threw themselves at you with increasingly bloated health bars until you became bored. Then there was the story. The first act played like an updated version of the first part of Baldur’s Gate II, the second provided an engaging storyline that deserved its own game, but the third act was a mess. It failed to execute the Mage vs. Templar conflict that had been building through the whole game by railroading the player into a certain path and forcing characters to act in an illogical and ridiculous manner. It was also so ridiculously short you had absolutely no chance to get to care about any of the participants. I will say, however, that the companions were generally as likable and memorable as you would expect from BioWare games (bar Anders) and I’ve played the game repeatedly simply because Varric is so enjoyable.

 I cannot defend Dragon Age II. I can defend BioWare thought. The game was obviously rushed, this is easily inferred by the short development time (it came out about eighteen months after Origins) and seemingly confirmed by developer interviews. This takes some of the blame out of BioWare’s hand and places it on corporate higher ups (the grand nemesis in all things of people who aren’t corporate higher ups). Not only that, but it had a lower budget, which explains some of the issues (sadly I can’t confirm this).  The good news here is that Dragon Age II performed poorly compared to Origins: Dragon Age II has 2 million sales, Origins has 4 million. [2] This is good news since this will encourage EA to give it a longer development time and more budget, since it’s proven that it will make more money if they do so and they know they’ll get a return on their investment (at least, this is the conclusion that I draw) and it will also mean a Dragon Age III that’s closer to Origins.

 As a fan of the series, I will say that all the information so far revealed on Dragon Age III paints a promising picture of the game and I’m very excited for that. I think it will be a very important game for BioWare – if it’s well liked it will restore a great deal of their reputation, if it’s a failure it may signal dark times for the company. But, returning to defending their reputation, factors outside of the development team’s control led to Dragon Age II’s poor quality, and the future of the franchise looks promising.

 And now for the big one, Mass Effect 3’s ending. The final moments of the trilogy absolutely trashed BioWare’s reputation. Vocal fans were all over the internet for months kicking up a storm about how much they hated it, and once BioWare announced DLC to assuage people’s fans they were attacked for caving in.

 However, these fans complaining were a vocal minority. Mass Effect 3 sold four million copies [3]. There were not four million threads complaining about the ending on BioWare’s forum. There were not four million signatures on the various petitions trying to get endings changed. The majority of people who purchased the game either didn’t care enough about the ending to complain, or rather liked it (I personally enjoyed it, as I have written about previously).

 I am not of course saying that these people’s arguments had absolutely no merit. The ending didn’t provide enough closure, and unless you paid attention throughout the game and picked on several small details a great deal of it didn’t make sense. Free DLC offering closure and detail is an incredibly gracious move.

 I’ve defended the ending previous; I enjoyed it very much thematically and thought it was ambitious and interesting. I won’t go into again here in great detail; I’ll simply reiterate a statement I made on a recent podcast: if you thought the ending went against the themes of the series then you didn’t understand the series as well as you think you did.

 Mass Effect 3 was also a tremendous improvement in gameplay over the previous game and the story was excellent and was the most successful attempt to date at making your decisions over the course of several games matter (it wasn’t perfect, but it was the benchmark that all series will have to live up to). I think Mass Effect 2 will come to be viewed as the strongest of the series, but whatever you think of the ending Mass Effect 3 was an absolute joy to play for ninety-nine point five per cent of the game.

 So, to conclude this section of my argument, Mass Effect 3 was an excellent game with a divisive ending with genuine flaws which has been much maligned by the people who didn’t enjoy it. This is unfair and I personally hope the Mass Effect series continues with new characters, either as a prequel or a sequel set after the Reaper war.

 There’s my argument. BioWare are still an excellent studio that produce high quality output and clearly still care about their games. The future looks bright with DLC planned for Mass Effect 3 and a promising future for The Old Republic and Dragon Age. Even if you personally hate BioWare’s recent games you have to acknowledge their history of quality. I hope BioWare’s reputation begins to improve once of again, as they truly don’t deserve all of the hate they’ve received.  

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[1] http://www.tomshardware.com/news/star-wars-Old-Republic-Subscriptions-numbers,15573.html accessed 01/06/2012.

[2] Figures from http://gamrreview.vgchartz.com/ accessed 01/06/2012.                                       

[3] Figures from http://gamrreview.vgchartz.com/ accessed 01/06/2012.

Multiplayer in The Elder Scrolls

With the announcement of The Elder Scrolls Online multiplayer the topic of multiplayer in the Elder Scrolls series is suddenly very, very relevant. In the past I’ve always been opposed to the idea of multiplayer in the series, but recently I’ve come around to the idea. Thus, I’d like to share my opinion on how I’d like to have multiplayer implemented in the series.

I’d first like to say before I start in earnest that I’m not interested in the MMO. I’m sure it will be a perfectly good game, I just don’t like MMOs. The only one I’ve gotten into in the last few years is The Old Republic, and only because it’s a sequel to the Knights of the Old Republic games.

I think there should be two types of multiplayer within the series. The first type that I’d like to see is in the style of Fable II. In Fable II you could simply drop into a friend’s game and play in their world. Whilst this was OK, and I do have found memories of running through the Crucible (a sort of gauntlet of monsters) with a friend it had some significant flaws.

The first of which was the camera. You weren’t allowed to stray too far from the person whose world you were in and thus the camera was locked into a very awkward position to keep you both onscreen and keep you together.  As an alternative to this, I’d give the guest total freedom of movement, with the caveat that when the host moved to a different cell within the game world (such as entering a building or a dungeon) the guest would be loaded into the new cell with them. I think this would be the best way to handle this kind of multiplayer.

The other issue with Fable II’s multiplayer is that you couldn’t play as your own characters and were limited in your interactions with the host player’s world. If TES were to this kind of multiplayer it couldn’t have these flaws. The first issue is simply enough – just let you use your full character in another player’s world. The second issue is more delicate, and I think that the solution would be to implement multiplayer options for the player so it was up to them how much freedom their guest could have. These options would be simple things like how much of a share of quest rewards to give them and how much interaction they could have with NPCs.

Now that I’ve talked about drop in multiplayer, I’d like to discuss the other type that I’d like to see, which a full world that players share. Sort of like setting up your own server on Minecraft this would be a world that you’re equal partners in and advance in together. This is even more appealing than the drop in multiplayer in my opinion. This would be exactly what it sounds like, where you both start new characters and advance them together. You wouldn’t be bound to each other like in drop in mode though. You could be questing independently across the world. I’d include too ability to fast travel to each other though so that you could go from adventuring alone to adventuring together instantly.

There are two issues with this though. The first is how you access the world. One player with more free time than the other who advances much more quickly, does all the quests and outpaces their partner needs to be avoided, but on the other hand I wouldn’t  want to prohibit people from accessing their character. To solve this I’d once again use player options. It would be up to them to determine whether to allow one to play without the other. In a series all about player freedom this is the option that makes the most sense to me. I’d also add in the option to change this option at any point, so if one player loses interest and stops playing the person who shares the world can keep playing their character.

The other issue is narrative in nature. It’s the problem of how to share accolades between the two players. Simply put, you can’t BOTH be the Dragonborn. You can’t both be the Nerevarine. You can’t both share the prison cell that Uriel Septim escapes through. Similarly, you can’t both be Harbinger of the Companions and you can’t both be the Listener. This isn’t true of all factions – Ulfric can name two people Stormblade and Tullius can promote two people to Legate. I think the best option here is to allow players to decide amongst themselves who gets promoted to the top of a faction, with the other taking a second in command spot.

As for the main quest, they would have to rewrite how you enter into it. That’s the only solution I can think of. Maybe provide a different main quest for co-op players, where the designated chosen one dies during the intro sequence and it’s up to them to struggle on without them. This could be an excuse to dramatically increase the length and difficulty of the main quest to compensate for there being two players present in the world.

So those are my thoughts on how I’d like multiplayer to be implemented in future TES games. There are a couple of ways that it could be done and both could be really enjoyable. If anybody has their own take on how they’d like to see multiplayer implemented (if at all) then please tell me, I’d be interested to hear it.

Games are Art

*Huge spoilers for Dragon Age: Origins, Mass Effect 2 and Fallout: New Vegas.*

On BBC Radio 4’s today program Ekow Eshun, former director of the UK’s Institute of Contemporary Arts said this “I’d suggest that the things we really consider art are the things that allow us to ask profound questions about who we are, how we live and the state of the world around us. I think most games don’t get to that place, and it’s important to set that bar quite high.” I would like to take a moment to respond to this.

Firstly, I’m not going to be foolish and state every game I’ve ever played made me ask profound questions, but not did every book I’ve read, every film or TV show I’ve watched, every song I’ve listened to or every painting I’ve seen. But to state that no game does this is ridiculous, and suggests that Ekow Eshun hasn’t been playing the correct games.


For the purposes of my argument I will talk about three games (I discuss more, but I’d prefer to keep this a reasonable length): Dragon Age: Origins, Mass Effect 2 and Fallout: New Vegas.

First, Dragon Age: Origins. It’s my favourite game of all time, the setting is well written, fleshed out and fascinating, the characters are deep and complex and I have a damn sight more affection for my favourite Dragon Age characters than I do most people, and the plot is just epic fantasy perfectly done. Furthermore, thee gameplay is the perfect refinement of decades of tactical RPGs, the character customisation is fantastic, not to mention the capacity for some very deep roleplaying.

But, this doesn’t respond to Mr. Eshun’s assertion. At the time I played Dragon Age I was studying lots of moral philosophies, Kant, Aquinas, Mill, that type of thing. One of the games key hooks is a system of choices that affect the outcome of the game. I was able to use these choices, in combination with the ability to create a series of characters with wildly opposing moralities to approach these choices from various different points of view. The game allowed me to explore different moral philosophies in a deeply personal way and because of this I look at the world in a different way (I settled on Utilitarianism as the best way to make moral judgements, if anybody is wondering).

Next I’d like to discuss Mass Effect 2, and one moment in particular. There is a synthetic race of AIs called the Geth. The Geth are advanced enough to be, for al intents and purposes, alive. A portion of the Geth take another race of highly advanced machines known as the Reapers to be their gods. This splinter group (called ‘Heretics’ by the other group known as the ‘True Geth’) have an antagonistic relationship with organic races. In Mass Effect 2 you are given a choice; rewrite their programming so thy no longer worship the Reapers (essentially brainwashing them), or kill them all.

After a lot of introspection I chose to rewrite them. This made me realise something about myself; that I’d rather abandon a set of a beliefs and live than be killed for what I believe in.

Finally, Fallout: New Vegas. The game is set in a post-apocalyptic Mojave Desert, with various small towns scattered around it’s battered highways and the city state of New Vegas in it’s centre. At a certain point in the game your character becomes important enough to be courted by the major factions active in the Mojave, and you have to pick one to support; The New California Republic, the most successful and largest state in post-apocalyptic America, but a corrupt one that is incompetent, Caesar’s Legion, a brutal Romanesque, fascist group who nevertheless bring order the the areas they conquer and the enigmatic owner of the New Vegas Strip, Mr. House, a corrupt and power hungry man who’s robot army can provide security for New Vegas. Or, if none of those appeal, you can simply take over Vegas yourself. My character picked independence, since none of the other groups truly cared about the people of the Mojave and he believed he could do a better job.

But in reflecting on this I thought a lot about governments, nations and how I viewed them. The in game choice between an Independent Vegas and the NCR made me think about how much I valued personal freedom, and the ability to be able to do what I wish without anybody dictating the course of my life. This is what made me gravitate toward the Independent route: the freedom from the controlling forces of the NCR, House and Legion that it represented, which told me a lot about myself.

New Vegas also made me really think about letting go of the past, and whether it’s better to hold on to it it or let go and live your own way, unburdened by expectation and baggage. I came to the conclusion, based on the characters in game who couldn’t let go (one word: Ulysses) that letting go was better.

So there we go, three games that caused me to ask deep questions of society, re-evaluate my beliefs and ideals and I can honestly say changed me as a person. They caused me to ask profound questions about who I am , how I live and the state of the world around me. Therefore, Mr. Ekow Eshun games (or these three at least) don’t just have the potential to be art, but are, in fact, already art.