Welcome back to the second part of the collaboration between Falcon Game Reviews and AmbiGaming Corner on what “went wrong” with the release of Mass Effect: Andromeda! When we left off last time, we had discussed some of the merits of the game, before questioning exactly what happened to make a game with so many good parts be met with such harsh criticism. I highly recommending checking out Part I if you haven’t done so already, since we’re jumping in to the middle of the conversation in this post.
Athena: I think the knee-jerk reaction is to blame EA for ruining BioWare, but like most simple solutions to complex problems, I think the actual reasons are more complex and are the result of a number of results that sort of domino’d out of control.
Shelby: One of the things that I was able to find on the subject is that the development of ME:A went through phases of losing key employees and not having focus on the project like they should have. Couple that with ideas that didn’t pan out (like having hundreds of worlds to explore) and setbacks, and you’re left with a botched game.
That “18-months of development” bit actually refers to the period of time when Bioware Montreal crunched to get the game done. Instead of them focusing on bug fixes, they were still making the game. I guess some of the key staff on the project wanted to stick in the conceptual phase, and the Frostbite engine itself presented some additional challenges.
Also, Bioware apparently needed to scrap work and start from scratch several times due to incompatibilities with Frostbite or inexperience with the software itself, like when choosing which facial animation software to use.
Athena: I think a lot of issues occurred because the team for ME:A was sort of the little team that tried, rather than the little team that could. They had a lot of big ideas, which you and I talked about before, and got so swept away with how big and grand the end product would be that they didn’t quite look at the skills, tools, and time they actually had at their disposal. And, of course, if they had to keep starting over again, that certainly wasn’t helping their cause either. I mean, if that’s what they had to do, that’s what they had to do, but still.
The Frostbite engine is sort of an interesting monkey-wrench, because Dragon Age: Inquisition used it, with varying success depending on the console, but that team was (sort of) more on top of things. They had to scramble a bit, too, because they had to make Frostbite work for an RPG, which isn’t really what that engine is designed to handle. The Montreal team took a lot of that information for ME:A but needed to build on it for the type of game they wanted and… I guess they just couldn’t?
Shelby: I know that Frostbite itself proved to be a difficult nut to crack. The engine is designed with shooters in mind, and a lot of the mechanics needed to make an RPG just weren’t present. So while BioWare Montreal may have had trouble with development, I think that the blame doesn’t necessarily rest on their shoulders alone. I think EA had a big hand in that.
I mean, the Montreal studio wasn’t the team that worked on the core franchise. They were a support studio for the most part, that worked on the multiplayer and DLC of previous games. They’re clearly talented individuals, but it seems like they were dealt a bad hand. It sounds like bad project management combined with having a small, less-experienced team working on such a large project.
The way the situation sounds, it’s almost like if you were told to build a house, but your boss told you to build it with automobile tools. Meanwhile, your supervisors are dreaming up all the cool additions they could make to the house, with neat kitchen features and a sick gazebo in the backyard, all while you’re desperately trying to put up drywall with a torque wrench.
Weird analogy, I know, but hey… It works, right?
Athena: Works for me! I hate jumping on the “blame EA” bandwagon, because I really don’t think they’re an evil company or anything like that. But I don’t think they were really aware of what they were asking this small studio to do. I know we chatted a bit about this, but it seemed like they figured a game in the Mass Effect universe could take care of itself, while they ran around creating Anthem and teasing other games as well. Games like the ones in the Mass Effect series are complex and can’t have a B-team working on them. If they do, they need support. And an engine right for the job.
Shelby: I wondered when we were going to come around to Anthem. It’s hard to not feel like EA wanted to get their star team on a Destiny competitor instead of a spinoff series of a longstanding franchise. Anthem is an investment in BioWare’s future, just like with any new IP. I can’t blame EA for wanting it to do well, but it’s hard to not feel like they shot ME:A down in the process by handing the project off to a studio with little support and a heap of challenges to overcome.
I imagine that the Montreal team pitched the idea of using procedural generation and the EA execs thought to themselves “Oh! This game is going to make itself! Well then, I guess you guys will be fine!”.
I wouldn’t be surprised, but part of me wants to hope that wasn’t the case. Vainly hope, but hope.
EA must have known/must know how important the Mass Effect franchise is, though. Even if it was to be procedurally-generated, why abandon it like that? We’ve talked about some of the mechanical bumbles, which might have been beyond BioWare Montreal’s control, but the hands-off nature of EA is baffling. Why did they think a small studio would be able to handle something like that? Why didn’t they tell them to make a smaller map? Why did they allow such an important franchise name be “thrown away” like that? EA isn’t stupid: a bad game from a beloved developer would surely end with fingers pointed at them.
Shelby: The thing is, EA and BioWare thought they were in the clear. According to Kotaku, “When the mock reviews came in for Mass Effect: Andromeda, BioWare’s leads were relieved—the Metacritic was expected to be in the low-to-mid-80s, according to two sources.” It sounds to me like they felt they were in the clear, but underestimated the reception of the game.
I kinda feel like if gamers didn’t latch onto the wonky animations and turn them into a meme, ME:A’s fate would’ve been much different. Instead, the game was panned by users, and ended up settling at around 70%.
In all honesty, I genuinely believe it deserves that score, but I don’t think a 70% is a score worthy of shelving a series. Not every game is a hit, and ME:A has a ton of potential to be a great springboard for a new series, but I don’t think that Montreal was given the tools and personnel to handle a project of that magnitude. Hell, they were taking a linear, narrative-focused series, and tried to turn it into something like Skyrim, a sprawling, open-world adventure.
If anything, it wouldn’t matter who was on the project or which publisher was footing the bill, ME:A was too large in scope for its own good.
Athena: That hits at a lot of issues. First we have the internet-wide tantrum, and then we have the behind-the-scenes issues of being a game that is just too big. I’d love to see BioWare return to its roots: designing the tight RPGs that they originally made/wanted to make. Games don’t need to be a copies of every other game. I think if they didn’t try to compete with games like Witcher 3 or Horizon: Zero Dawn or, indeed, Skyrim they’d be better off. Fans of the RPG will flock to them, and to judge from the sale of BioWare’s games, there are plenty of fans out there to rationalize that sort of design model.
I think another important point you mentioned is scores. Anything below 80 is considered an awful game, isn’t it? Except that isn’t the way it is at all, and we need to stop looking for perfection in order to say a game is good. Have we as a gaming community really become so spoiled?
I’ve already vented elsewhere about the internet tantrum… But I think it’s sort of telling that EA and BioWare might have known something was going to go down poorly with the game; when you’re expecting your game from a beloved series to be received poorly and then are surprised when it’s not “too bad,” I think that’s very telling. Hopefully BioWare and EA are able to really figure all this out, though, and not just think that if they just had better facial animations, it would be okay. That doesn’t make the backlash justified, of course.
Shelby: Yeah, to say that the facial animations are what did it in would be remarkably reductive. I’d say you hit the nail on the head regarding the aim of what they made. I would venture even further to say that EA wanted something to fit in the mold of Dragon Age: Inquisition. An open-world experience with RPG elements. While there’s nothing wrong with that, I can’t help but feel like there’s a drive in the industry to always make open-world games… Like linear narratives are dead.
I think we’re seeing a progression of that line of thinking with the closing of Visceral. We went through the trend of every game being open-world in design, to needing multiplayer and a secondary economy built it. Almost as if the publishers don’t believe in the titles they’re putting out.
I’m sure I had a point in there somewhere…
Ah, right! I’d echo that not every game needs to mimic another successful title. It’s perfectly fine to try out new things. After all, that’s how we end up with games like Wolfenstein, Journey, Abzu, and Firewatch.
Athena: The Dragon Age and Mass Effect series have been two different beasts, though. I’m not sure how to describe it. They seemed to compete or build off of each other, but still managed to stay true to their own designs. Like, ME1 and DAO had really tight, sort of linear stories with a lot of RPG elements (and I would tentatively say that DAO was slightly heavier on the RPG end of things). Then, ME2 and DAII both focused on companion characters and tried to explore the “underlying” issues that were sort of hinted at in their first games. But then things got a little weird, and ME3 came out as more of a shooter than previous titles, followed by DAI which completely jumped off the deep end with being an open-world game. It’s been this weird competition between the two franchises while they still maintain their identity.
And, as an aside, if we’re comparing to Dragon Age: Inquisition, that game had some issues with open-world bloat, too, so I have to say I wasn’t surprised by how sprawling ME:A was, based on the prior pattern. But that’s an entirely different discussion. I vainly hoped they would have learned from DAI’s mistakes, but… apparently not.
Anyway, after that unexpected side-quest, I’m not sure what the answer is. Games are incredibly expensive to make, and it’s frightening to create a new game and risk that sort of money, especially when the internet backlash can be severe and lasting. It’s nice to say that publishers should just trust developers to make good games, especially if devs have a good track record, but that’s a hard line to sell…
Before we get too off topic and try to save the video game industry, should we talk about how EA handled the release? I for one was disappointed. Goodwill and common PR sense seems to be lacking there…
Shelby: I think we definitely went off on a tangent there, though I don’t see anything wrong with saving the industry.
I’m not sure that there was anything that EA or Bioware could do to salvage the situation, honestly. They didn’t really do anything “wrong”, as far as I know. Maybe they could’ve done better to communicate with the gaming community? At the same time though, there were rumors circulating that BioWare deliberately sabotaged some of the characters’ designs, so I imagine that even if they were 100% transparent, they would’ve ended up in a similar situation.
I guess, if I were them, I would’ve downplayed the multiplayer component to focus on the main game. I feel like they unnecessarily split their focus.
Athena: Saving the industry will be another discussion! I like that idea.
I guess a lot of the mishandling did happen before release by showing off these amazing bits of gameplay, characters that moved smoothly and didn’t have creepy eyes, and tantalizing clips of things to come, and then releasing a game with stilted dialogue, weird faces, and some pretty game-breaking bugs (for some people). It seemed like a bit of a bait and switch, rightly or wrongly. Mostly wrongly, in my opinion.
Oh boy, have we come to the part where we talk about the supposed-SJWs destroying the game? I heard those rumors, too, and that’s something that actually really makes me angry. Shepard was called “too pretty” to be a soldier, so Ryder looks like a fairly normal human being and she’s called “too ugly”? I really don’t want to go off on some rant on why it’s the woman’s face that everyone cares about so much (in both games), but that’s ridiculous. Why would someone purposefully sabotage their own game?
I will agree that I think the focus should have been pulled off of multiplayer and onto the main game experience. And, honestly, I think they should have worked out a DLC to tie up the plot loose ends that were left dangling with Jien Garson, the quarian ark, and the benefactor. I think that if at least the DLC had fixed animations and a good story, people would have calmed down a bit and felt like the company had listened, rather than feel like they were sold – excuse my language – a piece of crap game and then abandoned for other projects. I’m not saying the game is crap, but to judge from social media, that seems to be the overall feeling toward it.
I’m going to go take a breath after that one…
Shelby: I would say that it’s difficult to see good in something when you’re constantly reminded about the negatives surrounding it. ME:A is certainly a victim of that. Once the criticism hit the internet, it was pretty well doomed. Similar to No Man’s Sky, there was great promise in the game, but it was not only overshadowed by its poor reception, but also a victim of its own hype.
I’ll openly admit that I was stupidly hyped about the game. Jennifer and I bought two copies in anticipation of spending weeks just absorbing it all. That’s probably where the majority of our disappointment stemmed from.
She still hasn’t finished it after all this time. Me on the other hand? I’ve finished it, but it was so unmemorable that I often forget that I played it. The Quarian Ark plot teaser at the end of ME:A made me cringe though, but I can’t decide if I’m more upset that they omitted that content to be in a later DLC, or that they cancelled what was assuredly going to be a paid expansion.
I don’t think that Bioware or EA felt it was going to be a poorly received title, but I do think they misjudged the market.
I was disappointed with the quarian ark teaser, too. It reeked of the same money-grubbing that From Ashes did, insofar as sort of important plot points were purposefully hidden behind a paywall. They seemed to forget that DLC is, in a perfect world, supposed to be another opportunity to play in the world that was created, not fill in all the plot holes purposefully left in the main story. The all-important dollar won when it came to this particular title, which is unfortunate.
So what do you think the lesson is? I’ve already said that gamers don’t always know what they want until it’s handed to them, but based on the stumbles of Mass Effect: Andromeda, what would you say the take-away messages for BioWare, EA, and other developers and publishers would be?
Shelby: My message to publishers would be: “Stop leaning on focus-testing for your games.” There’s a time and place for it, and it isn’t a tool that’s useful 100% of the time. If you want your first-person shooter to make it to the top of the charts, then by all means, focus-test the crap out of your game. But if you want your action RPG to be successful, and well loved, don’t rely on groups of 15-25 year old boys to tell you what you want to hear.
I mean, Mass Effect 1-3 worked well because they had a more linear design to them. Bioware could focus on the story that way. When you make an open-world sandbox, you have to fill that world with something. In a game like ME:A, which has a focus on exploration, you’re generally left with quest design that revolves around “find this thing” or “kill these things”. I guess it doesn’t help that I never felt that I was actually exploring.
Unless you want every game to be the same. Then we might as well just go back to 2007-2011.
What about you? What would be your message to EA and the likes of them? What would you change about ME:A in particular to make it more palatable to the audience that grew to love the franchise?
Athena: I’d agree wholeheartedly with your point about focus-testing. It has its place, but to be useful you need to be sure that you’re testing for the audience you know is going to be playing it, and RPGs do appeal to a wider demographic than some might believe.
My advice would be more philosophical, I suppose. Remember – or maybe establish – why you’re doing what you’re doing. Are you making games to make money, or are you making money so you can make more games? Turning a profit isn’t bad, but forgetting your mission can be. For every decision you make, think how it relates to your mission. Is withholding this content good for the game, or good for my wallet?
One of the aspects of ME1 that makes it stick out in my mind is the heart and love that was so obviously behind it. It wasn’t the most polished game, but the care that went into it was palpable. It was the same with Dragon Age: Origins. And what a testament that those games, with their flaws, sometimes-wonky controls, and “old” graphics, are still beloved and replayed even now. They were such loved, well-crafted experiences. Because, I think, the people behind them knew why they were doing what they were doing. They wanted to make a game. They wanted – as EA once did – for a computer to make a person cry.
Idealistic? Perhaps, but remembering ideals can keep you on the right path, too, I think.
Shelby: Mass Effect and Dragon Age: Origins took root before EA got their grips into Bioware. The original Mass Effect was a Microsoft published game after all. I think once EA decided that they could cater to a wider audience, they started coaxing Bioware into branching out. Mass Effect 2 and Dragon Age II are great examples of what happens when a publisher wants a game to appeal to a broader market.
Focusing more on action and less on the story.
Athena: I know… You’ve backed me into a corner with my advice, though! I think my not-polished advice would be to EA: stop meddling in the developer’s business and stick to publishing games. Let the developers develop, like you used to.
Shelby: Or at least don’t step in to change developer’s behavior unless you’re going to make something legitimately better.
Jennifer (enters stage right): No… Athena’s right. Your judgement obviously can’t be trusted. Just stick to publishing.
Athena: Hi Jennifer. I knew I liked you! 🙂
No, but seriously, I would agree that the publisher should only intervene if they are trying to avoid something really disastrous. Otherwise, stay out of it.
Shelby: If only it were that simple. Call me a pessimist, but I’d say that we’re likely in for many more years of catering to the lowest common denominator.
That sounds awfully pretentious…
Athena: What sounds pretentious? Lowest common denominator or telling publishers to stay out of it barring disaster?
Shelby: Lowest common denominator… Has a ring to it. I should be a critic or something.
Athena: It does have a nice ring to it. I’d totally read your critiques of games. Oh wait… haha
This article is getting way off track now. Did we miss any important points that we wanted to cover?
Shelby: Let’s see:
- Mass Effect: Andromeda’s botched development
- Mass Effect: Andromeda’s botched launch
- EA meddling
- Bioware overreaching
- Random rambling
Yep, I think we may have covered everything!
Athena: Excellent! In that case, maybe we can wrap up with some hopes for the future in regards to where we hope Mass Effect’s development and releases will go next?
Personally, I’d love to see a regrouping, in a way, to find the passion that was once in those games. Maybe that would mean EA lays off a bit, but finding the “heart” of Mass Effect – what really gives it that magic that the original game/trilogy had – and bringing that back would be high up on my wish list. Mass Effect has such rich lore, and a fantastic foundation to build on within a universe that is alive and vibrant, so seeing that magic captured again would create a truly memorable and wonderful gaming experience.
Shelby: For me, it’d be a return to storytelling. I couldn’t possibly care less if there are ten, or ten thousand worlds to explore if the story is bland or uninspired. I want to get sucked into the universe. I want to want to explore. Not because it’s a checkbox to tick, but because the worlds are interesting, and filled with interesting characters.
The original Mass Effect trilogy wasn’t great because there were sweet worlds to explore, but because you wanted to be in those worlds. I want a return to that. A return to wanting to save your character’s friends because you felt like they were your friends on some level.
If Mass Effect: Andromeda failed at anything, it’s that it was a foundation for a game, presented as the entire game. I want to see a return to a franchise that makes me want to be a part of it.
Also, don’t just make characters that are poor analogs of the first trilogy’s characters. We don’t need ME:A’s version of Kaidan, Ashley, Wrex, Tali, or Garrus…
Well… Maybe Garrus.
What about you? What do you think happened that caused the series of unfortunate Andromeda events? Is is the public’s exaggerated response, or BioWare/EA, who truly bumbled the released? Do we all share a piece of the blame? Or have Shelby and I missed some integral point? Let us know in the comments!
Thanks for stopping by, and we’ll see you soon!
~ Athena (and Shelby)
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