With Mass Effect: Andromeda scooping up mixed reactions across the board, it’s important to take stock of the situation. By no means is Andromeda a bad game, it’s just not the Mass Effect game we’d have wanted coming out of the iconic trilogy. Yet its existence raises a number of questions and concerns about Bioware. Both in how the studio is managing itself as it grows, and in how the company handles its increasing large portfolio of games.
Since being acquired by EA in 2007, Bioware has undergone a rapid growth. From working on smaller projects, the company now effectively heads up EA’s RPG division. This encompasses everything from their own IP’s in the form of Mass Effect and Dragon Age, to taking on the MMO juggernaut with Stars Wars: The Old Republic platform. This growth has changed the company beyond all recognition, and arguably helped to turn the Mass Effect franchise from a niche sci-fi thriller into a AAA-gaming titan. Yet the release of Mass Effect Andromeda showcases a company that’s struggling under the burden it’s placed under – and it’s not getting better.
The signs have been there for a while, obvious to even the most hardcore of Bioware’s fans. Going all the way back to that merger with EA, it’s clear that the company has struggled to fill its new shoes. 2011’s Dragon Age 2 was a mess when it arrived, coming under fire for its awkward content and somewhat bizarre decisions that robbed it of the cohesiveness that the original possessed. Mass Effect 3, which arrived not 18 months later, was also a notable step down in quality from its predecessor. The pressures of capping off their trilogy of titles showed with cut corners and design choices that showed a development team under strain. This wasn’t helped by the games ending being everything fans feared. It was a mess, and it’s clear the studio hasn’t fully recovered from this fallout.
Which leads us to Mass Effect: Andromeda. What for three years has been teased as the next chapter in the Mass Effect franchise has turned out to be a bit of a fumble out the gate. It’s not a bad game, but one glance at Metacritic or any Mass Effect community almost instantly reveals a huge amount of dissension. If this is the face of a new Mass Effect era, then its off to the worst of possible starts. But how did this happen?
The biggest culprit appears to be that Mass Effect Andromeda was being developed by the studio’s second string team – Bioware Montreal. Don’t get me wrong, I’m sure the team over in Montreal are a competent team, but their previous experience showcased a studio that wasn’t quite ready for the rough ride of AAA-gaming. The team was originally put together to handle Mass Effect 3’s multiplayer component – which in itself wasn’t earth shattering. Apparently over 200 developers were brought in to make Andromeda happen – most of whom hadn’t worked on any of the previous Mass Effect games. This is arguably what led to the dramatic shift in character traits and story tone – themes which were vital to the original Mass Effect games. Without the steady hand of experienced heads – the game became a meandering mess.
It raises all kinds of questions about why Mass Effect: Andromeda was handed off in such a way. Of course the main Bioware Edmonton team will have helped in parts – but the fact that they didn’t see fit to take direct control of arguably the most important Mass Effect game since the original speaks volumes about their commitment. Why not smash it out the gate then hand it off when the direction and tone of the new spin-off has been firmly established? We know they’re working on a new IP but surely, given how hugely anticipated Mass Effect: Andromeda was, they could have found the time to make it happen.
They didn’t hand off Dragon Age: Inquisition – a game that went on to received numerous Game of the Year awards in 2014. That game is considered one of the best RPG games of all time, and a hugely fitting end to the Dragon Age trilogy. It’s clear that the team can still churn out the highest calibre of games, which makes the sorry state of Mass Effect: Andromeda all the more bewildering.
For Bioware it’s a problem, because it showcases the gulf in quality between their A-team in Edmonton and their B-team over in Montreal. If the studio continues to juggle so many plates at once, this kind of handing off is only going to become more commonplace. Worse still, fans may begin to see anything made by the Montreal studio as an inferior product. Given how huge Mass Effect was in the AAA space last generation, I’m sure many fans of the franchise won’t be happy to see it relegated to such standing.
It makes me wonder if Bioware is ultimately chewing off more than it can handle right now. If in the drive to employ 200 developers to squeeze out games, the very essence that makes Bioware games special is being strangled by EA. I’d rather the studio work on one quality franchise than try to support an ever-increasing dogpile of franchises that fail to surpass each other. One of the reasons Bioware became so successful was that playing their next game felt like an evolution. Moving from Knights of the Old Republic to Jade Empire showed progress and a studio tinkering with their formula. Moving from Jade Empire to Mass Effect was the realisation of a dream – and it worked beautifully. Why squander this?
As Bioware continues to grow, I hope that they’re able to resolve these issues plaguing them. Right now we don’t know Mass Effect: Andromeda’s damage on the franchise. I suspect many could be corralled back in for another outing – Andromeda seen as a misstep. But ultimately Bioware has to work to improve their consistency. Less is more in the video game industry – and only time will tell if this simple misstep is a sign of worse to come.