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 . 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.  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 . 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.
 http://www.tomshardware.com/news/star-wars-Old-Republic-Subscriptions-numbers,15573.html accessed 01/06/2012.
 Figures from http://gamrreview.vgchartz.com/ accessed 01/06/2012.
 Figures from http://gamrreview.vgchartz.com/ accessed 01/06/2012.