Dragon Age II: Mark of the Assassin Features for Xbox 360

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In 1995 Greg Zeschuk and Ray Muzyka had two passions: medicine and role-playing games. If the two young doctors weren't tending to Alberta's sick they were playing table-top adventures or talking about translating them into video games. When they co-founded BioWare with fellow doctor Augustine Yip, medicine still represented Muzyka and Zeschuk's day jobs as they tried to balance their passions.

Four years later, with the aid of publisher Interplay's D&D license, the doctors made the second best-selling PC game of 1998 - Baldur's Gate, universally hailed as a seamless marriage of D&D mechanics and interactive storytelling. BioWare was now a close-knit 65-man studio, its halls lined with prototype sketches of fantasy worlds to come. For all the success, Muzyka and Zeschuk remained humble. They still practised medicine when they could. Neither saw BioWare ever completely taking over their lives.

Today BioWare has roughly 800 employees across six studios. Each studio ultimately reports to Muzyka, while Zeschuk is in charge of BioWare Austin and responsible for The Old Republic. As for medicine, that balancing act is over. There hasn't been time for it in roughly a decade.

But some fans now believe the doctors struggle with a whole new balancing act, that of EA and BioWare. When EA put up $860 million to acquire BioWare/Pandemic from VG Holding Corp in January 2008, public cynicism wasn't so heavy. The publisher had worked hard to lessen its reputation of chewing up small studios for easy bucks. Brand new IPs like Dead Space and Mirror's Edge had sparked interest while partnerships with Valve and Crytek cemented a seeming shift in mindset. But there were still cynics.

Dan Fedor worked at BioWare for seven years and was one of the 300 or so employed during the EA buyout. "Day-to-day work proceeded pretty much as it always had," Fedor recalls – he was a lead technical artist on Dragon Age: Origins at the time.

"I'd say the most obvious changes I can recall were actually positive ones: improved compensation for employees, and improved infrastructure. EA made it a point to standardise compensation across its studios, and for BioWare that actually meant bringing many developers' compensation packages up. And EA's vast size meant we had its many resources at our disposal, including localization, QA, and several technology initiatives for improving workflows."

There was, inevitably, tension.

"I can't deny that many employees were fearful at the announcement of the merger. Many of us expected EA would drastically change the culture at BioWare. As time passed, though, it became clear that what EA wanted was for BioWare to keep being BioWare. Despite popular bombast, no storm troopers breached our airlocks and started imposing martial law."

Dragon Age: Origins screenshot

Drew Karpyshyn recently announced that he's leaving BioWare to concentrate on his novels. During his 12 years at the studio, Karpyshyn served as lead writer for Knights of the Old Republic and Mass Effect, among others. Like Fedor, he says that the EA buyout brought few significant changes in day-to-day operations.

"EA really wanted to let BioWare do what it does best, so they were smart enough not to try and change things that were already working," he agrees.

"They did give us more resources - bigger budgets, more advertising support, a greater presence at various conventions and expos, the ability to open studios in Austin and Montreal so we could work on multiple titles effectively - but beyond that BioWare was still BioWare."

Fedor's work at BioWare included both Dragon Age games. While the first received great acclaim from fans and critics, Dragon Age II notoriously prompted a huge backlash from disillusioned BioWare fans through low Metacritic user scores, many of which were posted before the game was even released.

Most user reviews lambasted the game's "aerodynamic" design as patronisingly dumbed-down, especially for a game in a series billed as the spiritual successor to Baldur's Gate, and the blame was laid firmly at EA's doorstep. EA's reputation for acquiring talented independent studios like Westwood and Bullfrog and burying them dead had come back to haunt them, and fans weren't assuaged by EA CEO John Riccitiello's assurances that this time it was different.

One fan posted on the BioWare forums that the developer had "sold their soul to the EA devil", only to have his account locked and access to Dragon Age II taken away for 72 hours. While the ban was later revoked by EA, some fans began to feel betrayed.

"I can understand where fans are coming from, but I don't think EA are the meddlesome overlords that many are making them out to be," says Fedor "EA just make a convenient target. Sure, EA has had some black eyes in the past, and probably deserved some of them, but I never got the sense they were forcing us to do things we didn't want to do."

Fedor left BioWare this time last year, taking the decision to give up his salary and move into the risky world of indie development. He's close to releasing his first solo title, N.E.O. Scavenger – predictably an RPG, albeit one that mixes Civ-like turn-based play with post-apocalyptic survival. Creating his own game has perhaps given him perspective on the difficulties of game development.

"BioWare makes decisions too, both at senior leadership and team levels. Even lucky idiots like me, frankly. And sometimes we make bad calls," he admits.

"Hi, I'm Dan Fedor, and if you wonder why players can't have cloaks in Dragon Age: Origins that was my fault. Sorry dudes, I couldn't make them work well enough. I screwed up. We all screw up, despite our best efforts."

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Bercilak's Avatar

Bercilak

It seems pretty clear to me that EA has changed--and continues to change--Bioware.

1. After EA acquired Bioware, Bioware implemented EA's "Project Ten Dollar" where they provided day one DLC for free to people who bought the standard edition of the game new, but they sold the same DLC for $10 to make it available to people who bought the game used. Presumably, it was intended to help recoup some of the losses they realized because people bought their games second-hand. Fair enough.

2. "Project Ten Dollar" (not so quietly) went away. Now, when people buy the new standard edition of a Bioware game, they no longer get day one DLC included, but have to pay extra for it (recall that people who bought a new standard edition of Dragon Age got the DLC free). With Bioware's newest game, Mass Effect 3, if people want the DLC included with the game, they have to buy the Collectors' Edition, which is $20 more than the standard one. I predict that Bioware games will never again include day one DLC with the standard edition of a game. And before EA acquired Bioware, they never released any day one DLC.

3. Bioware released an incredibly buggy and subpar expansion pack for Dragon Age, Awakenings. It was clear that this expansion was released without having the quality control that it needed. This implies that it was pushed out the door before it was ready in order to capitalize on the sales success of Dragon Age.

4. Bioware released Dragon Age 2, which also proved buggy and often contained the exact same environments throughout the game. According to the article, lead designer Mike Laidlaw said that the reason for this was "to expand content". The length of Dragon Age 2 doesn't support his statement; it's shorter than the first game. More likely, environments were reused to shorten production times in order to meet an externally imposed deadline. As Fedor says in the article:

"I guess I could lament the pressures of delivering a product within a certain fiscal quarter, but delivering a product on time and on budget is just good business. If the schedule is hampering the quality of the product, then it was as much our fault for not planning timeline and budget effectively enough. So it sucks, but it's not something I could exclusively blame EA for."

Yes, delivering a product on time IS good business--if the product is of sufficiently high quality and you get to decide when "on time" actually is. Bioware no longer does either. As a wholly owned subsidiary of EA, EA dictates release dates, mandates the use of its own QA standards and ultimately determines if a game is "good enough" to release in a particular fiscal quarter. The sloppiness of DA: Awakenings and DA2 seem to show that pretty clearly when these games are compared to pre-EA Bioware releases.

5. I could add more but real life intrudes so I'll end with a final point on why Bioware games suffered after they were acquired by EA: look at the picture of John Riccitello on page 2 of the article.

Would YOU buy a used car from this man?
Posted 00:35 on 10 March 2012
Clockpunk's Avatar

Clockpunk

What an interesting read. However, I don't think EA are entirely as hands-off as suggested in the piece - one only need look at the 'seasons pass' of ME2 and the multiplayer component of ME3 for evidence of that.

At the end of the day, so long as they games they put out are fun and engaging, surely that is what matters? Yes, current franchises might be different than earlier titles, such as KotOR 1 and 2, but that is an entirely separate debate.
Posted 16:52 on 09 March 2012
FantasyMeister's Avatar

FantasyMeister

Brilliant article, thank you! I think EA are coming up to 30 years in the business as of May 28th 2012 and they've come a long way since Trip Hawkins founded the company.

Little known fact about the CEO of EA - he's a gamer too!
Posted 15:28 on 09 March 2012

Game Stats

Release Date: 11/10/2011
Developer: Bioware
Publisher: Electronic Arts
Genre: RPG
Rating: TBC
Site Rank: 3,040 39
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