The future is uncertain for longtime fans of game development company Bioware. Best known for their work with branching narratives and player choice in single-player RPGs, this studio has held a solid fanbase for nearly two decades, and their flagship franchises, Dragon Age and Mass Effect, still draw in new players to this day. Their semi-recent team-up with publisher Electronic Arts (EA), however, has put a serious strain on production and has put that relationship with fans in jeopardy. With two subsequent commercial flops under their belt, they’re hoping to break the cycle with their latest installment, Dragon Age 4, and pull themselves out of economic quicksand and back into the public’s good graces.
The problems Bioware has faced in recent years, however, aren’t apparent on the surface, leaving many fans to place unfair blame on the studio. The real culprits, however, are the ones who are pulling the strings and signing the paychecks, the ones who decide what gets made and how in order to make them the most money; their publishers, EA.
What most fans may not understand about the quagmire that is Bioware at the moment, is that the studio itself doesn’t get to make a lot of the development decisions, and they certainly don’t get the final say. The reason they’ve been churning out live-service (online) MMO (massively multiplayer online) games as of late is because of pushes from shareholders at Electronic Arts. The people who hold the financial reigns are banking on the examples of success they’ve seen from other studios in the past, from franchises like Halo, Overwatch and Call of Duty. All are amazing game series, but they are games that were inherently built on the premise of multiplayer online gameplay.
The ‘Player’ Problem
The struggle they’re facing right now is trying to mold once-single-player experiences into online services, complete with loot box purchases and subscription fees that explode upon release and sustain themselves from continued developer support. Instead of having a burst of sales spanning a couple of years after the release of a single-player, self-contained game, they hope that longer term planning and scheduled content over a period of time will spread that income out a bit longer. This model isn’t proving as successful as they’d hoped, however, as more and more fans are becoming jaded by the influx of MMOs and battle royales that have flooded the industry in recent years. Between that and player burnout from repetitive, sometimes seemingly fruitless gameplay, many fans are shying away from online games in favor of more single-player, personal experiences. It can be exhausting for players to always be online and interacting with other players, and playing the same kind of games over and over again is boring, which is why smaller developers are gaining momentum with their indie games while AAA titles are dominating the online market. Essentially, this is a bad business model due to market oversaturation. It might have worked better if they were one of the only publishers doing it, but that’s not the case, and EA is having a hard time setting their games apart from the pack in order to truly compete.
The ‘Engine’ Problem
As if the paper-chasing wasn’t enough of a challenge, EA also has a problem with playing to their developers’ strengths. As stated earlier, they seem to be taking existing franchises and trying to capitalize on their fanbase while morphing them into live-service products. In case the problem here wasn’t evident, this would mean changing the core mechanics of an existing franchise, and turning a game that was once a single-player, story-driven experience into an MMO, or worse, a competitive online shooter. This sounds insane until you realize the motivations behind it aren’t solely monetary. Well, not in terms of expected profits. See, before EA stepped in, Bioware was working off a series of in-house and previously licensed gaming engines, which are essentially the programs and tools used to create games. Before being purchased by EA, Bioware’s most recent titles were created using the Unreal engine, which was developed and owned by Epic Games. Bioware paid a licensing fee to Epic Games in order to use their product, much like you might pay Adobe a subscription fee in order to access programs like Photoshop. When EA purchase Bioware, they realized they could save themselves and the studios money by having them use their own in-house engine, Frostbite. Now, contrary to popular belief, they didn’t make the use of their in-house engine an ultimatum for all studios under their umbrella, but instead “highly encouraged” it. To paraphrase, they essentially told their studios “you can use our engine and only pay us 10 percent, plus you get in-house support when things go wrong, OR, you can pay 30 percent to cover licensing and receive less tech support from us.” It feels a bit like extortion, but when it comes to money, it becomes a lot less about choice and a lot more about making ends meet.
You may be thinking, why would the engine matter? They can still make their story-driven games and their MMOs on the same engine, right? Isn’t it just a matter of code? Well, you’re partly right, but it’s never that simple. It’s not just a matter of a different face or different symbols for the different tools in the program, It’s like asking an artist to draw you a portrait using a pen versus a pencil. Both tools can do the job, but due to their inherent design and abilities, the final product is going to look drastically different. And sure, you can modify either tool to do more than it was designed, you can open up the pen to adjust the flow of ink, or sharpen the pencil into unique shapes for unique strokes, but you won’t get the exact same effects from them both, no matter how much you adjust.
This was exactly the case for Bioware when they took on the task of adjusting to the Frostbite engine, an engine geared more toward competitive and online play, rather than story-driven gameplay. For a lot of core Bioware mechanics, like branching narratives and thirdperson cameras, they had to code their own tools and adjust existing programs within the engine, which may explain why many of Bioware’s recent titles have launched with massive bugs and painful glitches. They had to build a lot of core elements from the ground up, and under tight deadlines, it can be hard to perfect something you’ve never used before and don’t have the time to test. On top of that, they needed to go through EA for support when they had issues with the engine while developing these new tools and features, and unfortunately, they had to share their support team with every other EA studio and franchise many of which were prioritized over Bioware’s titles for monetary reasons. This chiefly meant fighting for attention from the support teams, and the back-and-forth waiting games we experience from calling customer services are only made worse by a looming deadline and teams of people below you waiting for your piece in the puzzle in order to do their own jobs.
The engine debacle isn’t any one sides fault, and the blame should be shared equally between EA’s business practices and Bioware’s leadership decisions, but for now, the damage is done, and we can only hope they’ve seen the errors of their ways and are considering alternative procedures, or engines, in the future.
The ‘People’ Problem
Mechanics politics aside, how EA is treating their employees is also coming under scrutiny. Employee burnout is becoming terrifyingly common in the video game industry today but is especially prevalent at Bioware. Thanks to a recent expose by Jason Schreier over at Kotaku, we’ve learned that business practices under EA’s management have been negligent at best and downright abusive at worst. Between requiring extensive overtime hours to meet deadlines, to changing the title and main premise of the game 2/3rds of the way through development, “stress casualties” have become alarmingly common in recent years. Depression and anxiety have driven many employees to quit and simply walk away, for the sake of their own well-being, and those that have stayed have even gone so far as to admit they hoped that some of their titles would fail, just so management would realize their mistakes, and potentially learn from them. No such luck, however, as the practice has continued through all three of Bioware’s most recent titles, and continues to this day.
What the shareholders at EA may not realize is that draining your creative resources to the point of insanity does more harm to your products than any good might come from the potential payout. When employees are motivated by passion and fulfillment rather than necessity and desperation, they produce better content, and their longevity at the company increases exponentially. Running your own employees into the ground, however, all but guarantees financial and long-term ruin. It’s not sustainable, and it’s inhumane and the only proposed solution, outside of getting the company to change its ways, is for employees to unionize, but that’s no simple task either.
The Union Solution
After major layoffs from industry starlets like Telltale Games, and reported similar abuses from studios like Rockstar Games, the need for labor unions tailored to the gaming industry are needed now more than ever, and according to an insider source, organizations such as Game Workers Unite are growing in numbers and followings, and gaining serious momentum. The implementation of a unionized games industry would solve a lot of the industry’s current problems, and would prevent employees like those at Bioware from being forced to work 60-80 hour work weeks without overtime pay, and provide them with much-needed benefits their employers might not otherwise provide, like protected sick leave, insurance, and regulated and potentially increased pay rates.
This all sounds too good to be true, but it isn’t an impossible dream, just an unpopular one amongst the industry’s elites. This may come as no surprise to some, but the people at the top, the ones who stand to make the most and lose the least amount of money regardless of a game’s success, are fighting tooth and nail against unions in the technology and creative industries, purely so they can keep pocketing the profits. They instead try to foster “team spirit” and bump employee morale with free food and merchandise, as though these cheap gifts can replace a living wage and personal health and well-being. At its core, it sounds like something out of a dystopian novel, but for developers around the world, it’s very real.
In summary, industry burnout is a major problem that we as fans and consumers are only now becoming aware of, and while there doesn’t seem to be a lot we can do to help, you’d be surprised to learn that there actually is. It might seem to come out of left field, but being involved in your local and national politics can help to make some difference in future union success, especially if you or someone you love works in the tech or creative industry. See, the real pushes against unions are the laws and bureaucratic red tape that prevent them from gaining any sort of foothold, and it might not shock you to learn that major tech companies, including video game industry leaders, are major backers of Republican legislators that back union-weakening policies nationwide. Being conscious of this during election times, and watching out for public votes on items that pertain to union rights and funding, can help contribute to long term change for unions everywhere, not just in the gaming industry.
All hope is not lost for our the gaming industry. As of a study performed by Marie-Josée Legault and Johanna Weststar in 2017, 66 percent of game developers stated they would endorse a union in their workplace, and 82 percent supported the idea of a nationwide union organization. If nothing else, it seems the recent turmoil under Electronic Arts’ umbrella has sparked industrywide discussions, and the example they’re setting for the industry as a whole is not one that’s likely to be repeated. We can only look to the future and hope that this is as rock bottom as it gets and that the only way left to go is up.
Sarah Nowack is a senior professional writing major who is minoring in graphic design. Her days are spent haunting the local library, consuming copious amounts of coffee, playing unpopular video games, and making terrible puns. She can be found at @battlerouge on Twitter and @shiverbound on Instagram.