Is EA Killing BioWare?
The primary goal of every publicly-traded corporation is to make a profit for its shareholders. If the corporation happens to make a quality product… Well, isn’t that nice? But, really, the goal is to sell the customer the cheapest product while reaping the maximum profit possible. As any viewer of the NBC Olympics is now painfully aware, quality is not the objective.
So what happens when a company known for producing high-quality products is bought by a publicly-traded corporation?
In October, 2007, Electronic Arts (EA) announced it was acquiring BioWare through the purchase of its holding company, VG Holding Corporation. At the time, BioWare was adored in the gaming community. Yes, adored. One after the other, with rarely a misstep, BioWare was producing high-quality games that gamers loved. Baldur’s Gate, Neverwinter Nights and Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic (KOTOR) are still spoken of with reverence in the gaming community.
At the time of EA’s purchase, BioWare was set to release Mass Effect. Under the watch of their corporate overlords, BioWare has produced Dragon Age: Origins, Dragon Age II, Mass Effect 2, Mass Effect 3, and the MMO, Star Wars: The Old Republic.
Dragon Age II was generally seen as a poor follow up to the marvelous Dragon Age: Origins; it was an inferior product – especially for BioWare – seemingly rushed out to the gamers to capitalize on the Dragon Age name. Mass Effect 3 also disappointed, shipping with an ending that infuriated the gaming community. BioWare released a better ending in the form of downloadable content about a month after Mass Effect 3‘s release, but the damage was already done.
And, finally, there’s Star Wars: The Old Republic. It was supposed to be EA’s flagship MMO on a par with World of Warcraft (Aren’t they all?). It wasn’t. SWTOR, for many reasons, was a failure. It benefited from many innovations that were clearly the hallmark of BioWare, such as strong storytelling and fully-voiced interactions, but in the end the game suffered from mismanagement and an endgame that borrowed too much from WoW’s tedious gear grind.
SWTOR’s endgame is so traditional, so reminiscent of so many failed MMOs, it’s uncharacteristic of BioWare’s work. At least not the BioWare gamers once adored. But that BioWare is probably gone.
EA merges BioWare and Mythic, diluting BioWare’s quality
About a year after completing the purchase of BioWare, Electronic Arts (EA) merged BioWare with its other MMO property, Mythic Entertainment. It would take EA about a year to officially name their new division, but based on reporting from Joystiq and others, the merge began in 2009 when Mythic’s Warhammer: Age of Reckoning (WAR) was showing rapidly declining subscription numbers. EA’s rationale was to place all their role-playing assets in one division.
Mythic made its mark with the MMO Dark Age of Camelot (DAOC). DAOC was especially innovative for its strong player-versus-player (PvP) elements, but it was also a buggy game. Mythic followed DAOC with WAR, a game that suffered from staggering class imbalances and was even buggier than DAOC.
WAR released in September, 2008. WAR was the first game Mythic produced as a division of EA. Sadly, WAR was a flawed game and the game’s management team never seemed to know what to do. Problems escalated exponentially. Mythic constantly adjusted and readjusted character classes, nerfing classes into the ground and over-powering others. When players complained too loudly in the forums, their threads were shut down, not exactly endearing the management team to the community. Bugs never seemed to get fixed, but they had time to tinker endlessly with the gameplay, gradually dumbing WAR down. Management seemed to flounder, desperately looking for the magic formula that would somehow make a failing game hugely profitable rather than trying to maintain the player base they had.
WAR started out looking like a resounding success, but once its many faults became apparent players left in hordes.
The tendency was to point the finger of blame squarely at Mythic, but at this time Mythic had been an EA property since the end of EA’s second fiscal quarter in September, 2006. Mythic made an enjoyable game in DAOC while they were still independent, but under EA’s ownership they produced WAR, a game that essentially destroyed Mythic’s reputation with the gaming community.
Now, the same seems to be happening at BioWare. After years of producing high-quality products, they’ve produced 2 shoddy products – Mass Effect 3 and Dragon Age II – and one monumental failure – Star Wars: The Old Republic.
Merging BioWare’s staff with Mythic’s was probably the greatest blow to BioWare’s quality. At the time of the merger, Mythic was no longer the studio that had produced DAOC. They were always known for their bugs, but after being bought by EA it was clear their quality control and management suffered, too.
When EA merged BioWare with Mythic it was the equivalent of filling your half-empty Brita water bottle with runoff from a drainage ditch. What’s the diff? It’s all water, right? In EA’s corporate mind-think it is.
To EA, all employees are widgets
In corporate mind-think, one MMO programmer is totally replaceable by any other MMO programmer. One environment artist is the same as any other environment artist. They’re all widgets, right?
Like so many American companies, Electronic Arts (EA) cycles through employees. They keep expenses and benefit costs low by employing a lot of contractors. Even long time employees (Are there any?) are never safe, as EA has had several restructurings – hiring and firings – over the last few years. To EA, employees are as interchangeable as the batteries in your TV remote.
BioWare in Canada has been recognized six times since 2004 as one of that country’s Top 100 Employers, leading Canada “in offering exceptional working conditions and benefits.” According to develop, BioWare, Canada, provides employees with time off after completing a project, a seven-day holiday break at Christmas, three weeks annual leave and a 7-week, paid sabbatical for employees after seven years. BioWare is one of the best places to work in Canada.
BioWare in the US? Not so much.
Looking through comments from US BioWare employees who have posted reviews on glassdoor.com – a website that allows employees to rate their employers – the general consensus is that the company pays well, but management and job uncertainty undermine their product. The over-use of contractors and job uncertainty is one theme that comes up repeatedly.
“Unstable future, your job is one failure away from being removed…”
“Employs a ridiculous amount of contractors with almost no capability for advancement into full-time positions as the company is too stingy to pay for benefits.”
“Over two-thirds of the employees are contract workers.”
“The large corporate mogul of EA opens doors but closes independent thought. Only on the micro-level may creativity thrive… Long ‘assembly-line’ like production pipelines turn great ideas into watered-down results…”
“Unstable future…” “[R]idiculous amount of contractors…” “[A]ssembly-line-like production…” EA-BioWare in the US sounds more like a 20th Century car company than a 21st Century gaming company.
Developing a video game is a highly creative process. There are environment artists and animation artists and content designers and quest writers and so on. It’s a business filled to the brim with creative people, many of whom a smart company would have under contract for life.
But EA doesn’t seem to get this. Which makes you wonder if EA really understands the business they’re in.
Making a video game is not like building a car. EA seems to think anyone can stand on the video game assembly line and screw in the bumper. But all those artists, writers, and creative types are not interchangeable. Only R. A. Salvatore can write the Drizzt books and only Monet could paint those water lilies. Unlike the workers on Henry Ford’s assembly line, one creative worker can not be easily replaced by another creative worker.
EA is employing a staid, very tired, business model to the gaming industry. It’s an approach that yields mediocrity at best and failure at worse.
And what happens to people who feel like they’re just widgets? They have no loyalty to your company and they leave.
BioWare, somebody that you used to know
Imagine you’re a Wall Street suit who knows next to nothing about gaming. You’ve run other businesses and once headed up a private equity firm, but you don’t know squat about gaming and it’s suspect that you even play games. Do you think you’re qualified to run a gaming company?
Of course you are! Business is business. You don’t actually have to know anything about the company you’re running, right? That’s just silly talk.
Say hello to John Riccitiello, CEO of Electronic Arts. According to Forbes, Mr. Riccitiello has a Bachelor’s of Science in Business from the University of California, Berkeley. He’s served as President and CEO of Wilson Sporting Goods and Sara Lee Corporation, as well as co-founder and Managing Partner of the private equity fund, Elevation Partners. There’s nary a whiff of gaming in his background before taking over as the head of EA.
While Mr. Riccitello appears to be a good businessman, his gaming cred appears a tad lightweight. If you’re looking for a reason why BioWare, its properties and its employees have been treated like little more than assets on a balance sheet, you need look no farther than the man in charge. To John Riccitiello, it doesn’t matter if he’s selling basketballs, cupcakes or MMOs – they’re all just products on his spreadsheet.
They say an organization takes on the personality of those at the top. EA appears to be living this axiom.
From a purely short-sighted, quarterly-profit point-of-view, what’s been done with BioWare probably makes sense. EA’s just trading on BioWare’s name and products, making some quick quarterly bucks, while using their traditional business model to cut expenses – You know, benefits and employees.
EA has slapped BioWare’s name on everything from social media games (e.g. Dragon Age Legends) to video games to MMOs. Yes, plural. All of Mythic’s former properties, such as Dark Age of Camelot and Warhammer: Age of Reckoning, are now listed as BioWare games. You don’t have to be an industry insider to know the group that brought you Knights of the Old Republic and Mass Effect doesn’t have squat to do with Warhammer: Age of Reckoning.
Perhaps EA believes there really is magic and the BioWare name is some magical imprimatur granting quality wherever it’s used. Or perhaps EA is just making a cynical business decision to recast some of their failed products under the respected moniker of BioWare, hoping gamers won’t know the difference.
EA’s governance, their employment practices, their casual use of BioWare’s name… These business practices must be anathema to the BioWare-Canada team who had built their reputation as one of the best video game companies in the world.
It’s hard to say how much dissatisfaction with EA governance there is in the BioWare home offices, but there has been one very prominent departure – on February 15th, Drew Karpyshyn announced he was leaving BioWare. Drew Karpyshyn was a writer on many of BioWare’s most successful titles. He was a writer on Neverwinter Nights and Jade Empire, and he was the lead writer on Mass Effect, Mass Effect 2 and Star Wars: The Old Republic. He said he was going to work on writing novels and golf, but don’t you wonder why he didn’t use his sabbatical?
And now rumors are starting to swirl around BioWare’s founders, Greg Zeschuk and Ray Muzyka. On August 10th, GamersGlobal reported Ray and Greg weren’t showing up for meetings at BioWare Austin where they headed up the SWTOR team. According to GamersGlobal’s source at EA, Ray Muzyka hadn’t been seen in days and Greg Zeschuk had been absent for weeks!
The rumor was they had left the company; as it turned out, they had just fled back to Canada. The management of SWTOR had been turned over to EA executives. According to Massively, the new General Manager in Austin, replacing Ray Muzyka, is Matthew Bromberg. Ray Muzyka said he handpicked Bromberg, but Bromberg’s resume doesn’t seem up to the job. He’s the former president of Major League Gaming but he has zero MMO or video game development experience. You can almost see the former Sara Lee business boy, aka John Riccitiello, “suggesting” this one to Mr. Muzyka.
Another company might have realized BioWare’s reputation was a very valuable asset. They might have realized there was a time when gamers lined up to buy all things BioWare. Realizing how valuable that reputation is, another company would’ve protected that asset, allowing BioWare to pretty much keep doing things their way.
EA isn’t that company.
So, yes, EA is killing BioWare. When you look back over the body of evidence it’s undeniable and pretty bloody. In fact, BioWare is pretty much dead.
But perhaps there’s still some breath in the victim. Ray Muzyka and Greg Zeschuk have returned to their Fortress of Solitude in the North. Perhaps, if EA leaves them alone, they’ll still put out some products reminiscent of the old BioWare. Perhaps.*
* (The denouement of this EA-BioWare drama came a couple of weeks after the final post in this series, when Ray Muzyka and Greg Zeschuk officially left BioWare, the company they worked so hard to build: Is EA killing BioWare? The official answer is yes. So much for optomistic thinking. BioWare has been completely assimilated by EA, now, and you shouldn’t expect anything but the usual EA mediocrity from them.)