Five ways BioWare can save itself

Kotaku recently published an expose on Bioware called Anthem: What Went Wrong, about the troubled development process of the multiplayer loot shooter. It’s long, but worth the read. In short, Anthem’s development was plagued by creative confusion and a crunch culture that is devastating Bioware’s workforce.

Fifteen minutes after the article was published, Bioware released a tone deaf response accusing Kotaku of tearing down individual creators. Casey Hudson’s internal memo also mentioned this.

There’s an interesting bit of doublespeak happening here. Bioware abuses its workers, and then when that abuse is reported (by the workers themselves, to a credible journalistic outlet in the field), they accuse Kotaku of abusing Bioware workers. This is classic abuser behavior, and it’s pretty disappointing to see it coming out of an organization that makes games I love. It’s clear that Bioware needs to make big changes, and it needs to make them now.

But before we dive into this, we’re coming from a place of love. I’ve loved Bioware games since Baldur’s Gate. Mass Effect 3 helped me get through my mother’s death. I still feel like a jerk for cheating on Alistair with Leliana. I love Bioware games. I want to see this company succeed, but more than that, I want to see the games I love created in an ethical manner.

Stop mistreating your employees

Making games is incredibly hard work. No one goes into the games industry thinking they’re going to coast to fame and fortune. But you cannot retain devs if you work them until they get so sick that they have to leave. Even if making games is your dream job, it’s not sustainable for 60-80 hours per week for months on end.

From the Kotaku article:

Dozens of developers, many of them decade-long veterans, have left BioWare over the past two years. Some who have worked at BioWare’s longest-running office in Edmonton talk about depression and anxiety. Many say they or their co-workers had to take “stress leave”—a doctor-mandated period of weeks or even months worth of vacation for their mental health. One former BioWare developer told me they would frequently find a private room in the office, shut the door, and just cry. “People were so angry and sad all the time,” they said. Said another: “Depression and anxiety are an epidemic within Bioware.”

One of the main goals of any manager should be to attract, retain, and develop top talent. Wide-eyed young college grads who grew up on Mass Effect and Dragon Age might be willing to tolerate bad conditions for a chance to work on their favorite franchises, but continual abuse will either cure them of their naiveté or break them.

And the more talented and experienced someone becomes, the less likely they’ll be willing to tolerate a toxic work environment. If these experienced devs burn out and leave the gaming industry, then gaming as a whole becomes worse.

The International Game Developers Association (IDGA) published the results of their Developer Satisfaction Survey in 2018. The verdict is grim. More than half of devs report their jobs involve crunch time, and 44 percent reported working long hours they do not refer to as crunch. And that crunch time can involve working from 50 to more than 70 hours per week. That is devastating and horrible.

The Game Developers’ Association of Australia also published this sad bit of data in 2018. Only 24 percent of game developers would wholeheartedly recommend the game industry as a career. But given the working conditions, can you blame them?

If your company culture requires months of crunch time to put out a game, management has failed. If your employees get sick trying to meet unrealistic deadlines, management has failed. If management itself bails on the project, (as happened frequently throughout Anthem’s troubled development process) then c-suite executives have failed.

The IDGA reports that only 18 percent of devs receive paid overtime. Overworking your employees while failing to compensate them is theft. Crunch needs to have a cost. After a worker puts in 40 hours, they should be entitled to at least 1.5x overtime pay for every additional hour worked. After the number of hours worked passes a certain threshold, that overtime differential should increase to 2x.

If crunch cost Bioware/EA precious development dollars every time they had to use it, I guarantee they’d use it less, and they’d plan around the fact that they couldn’t squeeze hundreds of extra, uncompensated hours out of every employee for months on end. 

This problem isn’t limited to Bioware/EA. Crunch is a norm across the industry. Whether that’s due to the rapacity of publishers or just bad planning on the part of management, it needs to stop. Game developers need a union. The 40 hour work week, an end to child labor, sick leave, and more are all the result of the global union movement. Management didn’t give these benefits gladly; they were fought and bled for. Unionization is beginning to happen in the game industry, and not a moment too soon.

Hudson’s response mentions that he wants to create a work environment that’s “among the very best in the world.” I agree that such a thing is possible. Bioware can lead the charge, welcome Game Workers Unite into their offices, give workers a voice, make necessary changes, and serve as a beacon of economic justice for game companies everywhere. This is a tall order, but it beats releasing a flop and destroying your workforce in the process.

Upper management needs clarity and a reality check

You need to know what the hell you’re making. Both Mass Effect: Andromeda and Anthem were plagued with indecision and it shows in the final product. You can draw straight lines from upper management’s indecision to the necessity of crunch. Due to constant creative changes, Anthem was made and remade for years until time ran out. Most of Anthem’s development was jammed into a meager 18 months, and it shows. ME:A was much the same.

This needs to stop. When Bioware starts pre-production on their next game, they need to be very clear about what they’re making and how they’re making it, and they need everyone on board with that vision. Muddling through is not working, and the “Bioware magic” has long since run out. Hudson seems to get this, and mentions implementing “production changes that will provide for clearer project vision” in his internal memo. Here’s to hoping. 

Also, management needs to listen. In the Kotaku article, Bioware employees talk about how they weren’t allowed to discuss Destiny during Anthem’s development. “This isn’t Destiny!” management insisted. But Anthem was walking and quacking like a duck, and so customers called it one. The internet doesn’t care if you say it’s not. And if another company releases a hit party-based fantasy RPG with political subtext and adorable romances, you better believe we’ll be comparing it to Dragon Age.

The ironic part is that Bioware thrust itself into a crowded market segment that it was unprepared to enter and left a market of which it was the undisputed champion. For those of you who are old enough to remember, this is like when Michael Jordan quit the Chicago Bulls to play Minor League baseball. Which is to say that it’s ridiculous, and notable mainly for the bizarre spectacle.

Get back to core competencies

Say it with me now: Bioware is not a shooter company. Bioware is not a multiplayer game company. Bioware is not a “software as a service” company.

Bioware is an RPG company.

And before ME:A and Anthem, they were the premier purveyor of American-style RPGs. At their best, they create beautiful, immersive worlds full of memorable characters that players fall in love with (in- and out of game). They offer you choices (or at least a convincing illusion of choice) that provide a sense of ownership over the narrative: your playthrough feels like yours. Very few other game companies do that and do it well. That is the real Bioware magic.

Most importantly, they tell compelling stories that you remember for years and talk about with your friends. Bioware built up a massive fanbase around this kind of game experience and then ditched it like used Kleenex to make a loot shooter that no one wanted. 

Anthem managed to scare off Bioware’s diehard fans while attracting none of the Destiny / Call of Duty / battle royale crowd that they were hoping for. This is not what Bioware is good at, and jamming a square peg into a round hole while screaming “We still respect our fans! All the story happens in Fort Tarsis!” isn’t convincing anyone. Narrative is the most powerful of all human creative tools, and Anthem traded it for robot suits and a bad endgame loot system.

Bioware, please just make Dragon Age 4. No game is guaranteed to be a hit, but DA4 has a better shot than most, with a built-in audience that has been starved for content.

Stop using Frostbite

Frostbite has been an unmitigated disaster for Bioware. Not just for Anthem, but Mass Effect: Andromeda as well. It’s an engine designed for FPS, not RPGs, which meant it was missing critical systems like inventory and party management. Bioware had to build these systems from scratch, which means wasted time, money, and effort.

EA wanted to save money by using an in-house engine for all of their games. On the surface, that looks like good business sense. But if the cost is two big budget flops from one of their most prominent studios, then can EA really say this choice was worth it?

EA bought Bioware for $860M. Unreal 4 costs 5 percent royalty on gross revenue above $3000, per product. Forcing Frostbite on Bioware seems pennywise and pound foolish. If Bioware devs weren’t forced to struggle through using Frostbite, they might’ve had more time to polish both ME:A and Anthem, leading to better games, a better Metacritic score, and more sales. I doubt the licensing fees from an outside engine would’ve erased the financial benefits of a hit game.

Yes, Dragon Age: Inquisition was built on Frostbite, and it was wonderful. That experience has clearly not transferred to other franchises in Bioware’s repertoire. It’s time to leave Frostbite behind.

Get out from under EA

There is a significant chance that nothing I’m saying here will even matter because EA will just close Bioware down. They’ve done it to other studios before. Also, given EA’s well-documented toxic culture, none of my above recommended steps may even be possible. EA has its own problems with crunch.

I’m baffled by EA’s policy of buying studios making excellent products, draining them for all that they’re worth, and discarding the desiccated husks. That’s the growth philosophy of a vampire, not a game company. It might make your quarterly earnings report look good, but it will blow up in your face eventually. Given their recent layoffs, it looks like shrapnel is already in the air. Crunch isn’t working. The games aren’t selling. And more crunch isn’t the answer.

If there’s any sort of possible escape, Bioware should try to take it as soon as possible. And even if Bioware as a company can’t, its employees can, will, and have. A game company without talented and skilled workers isn’t even a company. It’s a budget line item on its way to being crossed out.

So Bioware, if it is at all possible, get out while you can.

What do you think? Given unlimited power, what steps would you take to save Bioware? Let us know in the comments below.