Friday, January 26, 2018

Playing Buzzword Bingo

I read with great interest the Kotaku article Bioware Doubles Down on Anthem as Pressure Mounts by Jason Schreier. Basically, Bioware is devoting a ton of resources to make Anthem, their equivalent of Bungie's Destiny, with only a few small development teams working on Dragon Age 4 and SWTOR. The overall feel within Bioware is that the success of Anthem is a make-or-break moment for the company, and if it isn't a success this might be the end of Bioware as we know it.*
Remember, the fate of hundreds of employees
is riding on your ability to write bug free code.

The sense of a single release having so much of an impact on a game company's fortunes isn't exactly unheard of. Some people were looking at Zelda: Breath of the Wild as Nintendo's last chance to remain relevant in the console wars with the Switch's launch fortunes tied up with the game's release. On the flip side, Microprose's Darklands release back in the early 90s was such a gigantic disaster that it nearly destroyed the company that released Sid Meier's seminal games.
Remember when people were saying that
Nintendo should get out of the console market
entirely after the "failure" of the Wii U?
Yeah, I don't hear that anymore either.

Still, it sounds like the struggles with the EA imposed "single solution" of the DICE Frostbyte Engine haven't ended for Bioware. Compared to Unreal, Frostbyte is the muscle car of Engines in that it does one thing well but has... issues... when being expanded into areas where Bioware excels: RPGs. They had issues with Dragon Age: Inquisition and Mass Effect: Andromeda, and it seems that these issues are now continuing in Anthem.**

To MMO players, the fact that Bioware is keeping development of SWTOR going in the face of the "all hands on deck" approach to Anthem is a good thing, but the fact that they had a discussion about putting the game in maintenance mode isn't.

But I made the mistake in reading the comments in Jason's article, and that got me annoyed.


A lot of the comments center on a few key points:

  • EA is Evil (as in Disney Villain Evil)
  • Bioware isn't what it once was
  • Anthem will suck because of microtransactions and lootboxes
A lot of the negative comments really break down into variations of "EA is Evil", even when they're talking about the superiority of CD Projekt Red over Bioware in creating RPGs they're basically saying "EA ruined Bioware and EA is Evil!" 

But the thing is, EA isn't Evil in the standpoint of being purely malicious, but rather EA is doing what it does because of their own external pressures. 

Every publicly traded corporation has to deal with the pressure of "what have you done for me lately?" sooner or later. Sure, you get that from your customers --gamers in particular are a prickly lot-- but far more stress comes from investors. If you have a breakout hit, investors will expect you to continue your streak. If a competitor does something that breaks new ground and rakes in a ton of profit, investors will expect you to respond. And not just in a year or two, but yesterday.***

In that vein, the rise of mobile games and the F2P cash shop haven't exactly been helpful to more traditional video game companies. The volume of money made by microtransactions in the mobile arena has inspired Wall Street to push for more monetization of games, while the cash shop has demonstrated that it can keep MMOs afloat in a F2P/post-subscriber world.**** RPGs and MMOs are more expensive to create than this year's edition of Madden, and if they don't make a huge splash the development corporation is left holding the bag. And believe me, Wall Street knows it.
Yes, here's the obligatory quote from Gordon Gecko
in Wall Street (1987). And remember, even more people
agree with this now than they did 30 years ago.
Isn't that a real kick in the ass? 

The reality that Wall Street and the pursuit of short term profits are driving the monetization of games and pressuring developers to release on a tight schedule doesn't let corporate management off the hook. People aren't exactly going to be crying for EA's management or Activision Blizzard's Bobby Kotick, and you can make a pretty damn good arguement that good games are released in spite of them rather than because of them. But this is the new way of doing things in corporate development houses. If you're not under extreme pressure to release a buggy product early,***** it could be that your development house is a wholly owned subsidiary of a console maker (such as Horizon: Zero Dawn's Guerilla Games or Nintendo itself) or that your development house doesn't get the spotlight shone upon it by Wall Street, NASDAQ, or the Tokyo Stock Exchange (such as CD Projekt Red, which is on the Warsaw Stock Exchange).

Does that mean that we have to like it when EA gets DICE to slip in microtransactions like they did in Star Wars Battlefield 2? No, but it also doesn't mean that they're tools of Satan, either. Until the economics driving the video game industry change, don't expect video game activism to suddenly convert these corporations into the second coming of Ben and Jerry's. Besides, even Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield sold their socially responsible ice cream company to Unilever.

Video game companies can change the way how they do things and tell Wall Street they're not going to chase the last dollar or euro but instead invest for the long term and release when they're ready to do so. You know, like Blizzard does.

But it certainly helps to be able to print money like Blizzard can with WoW (and to a lesser extent Overwatch). Oh, and remember that WoW and the MMOs that preceded it convinced a gamer community that it was okay to actually subscribe to a game rather than simply play it offline like almost all other games that came before. That monetization can be a real bitch, sometimes.
Remember these guys? Mr. Redbeard does.

*Some would argue that the Bioware as we knew it was already gone after ME2 and Dragon Age: Origins, but I don't quite buy that. Bioware still wants to go all in on RPGs as much as they can, but external pressures are forcing them in other directions.

**And I thought that the engine used in SWTOR was considered clunky and difficult to work with!

***When you hear corporate speak about "agility", this is what they mean. In my experience, however, the other corporate standby, "lean and mean", doesn't mesh well with "agility". You need bodies to be agile enough to change direction, and corporations that typically operate as "lean and mean" don't have any spare bodies out there to spearhead that change. (OOO!! Spearhead!! Another corporate slang term! Has anybody won Buzzword Bingo yet?)

****See: SWTOR, LOTRO, Star Trek Online, etc.

*****Or release with tons of microtransactions and other monetization schemes.


  1. Interesting that EA and BioWare are so interested in courting those dedicate and passionate MMO players. Potentially high rewards, but there are attendant headaches. But maybe they are like Bungie and don't believe they are making an MMO. Heh.

    And don't get me started about businessspeak...

    1. The acronym "MMO" is pretty loaded these days, given how SWTOR garnered such bad press from the "endgame is everything" people on launch, not to mention all of the failed attempts to make a WoW-killer ever since WoW came out. Better to not say those three letters together than admit it, I suppose.

      But they likely see Anthem as something a lot closer to Call of Duty or Gears of War, but with more story and some MMO elements. After all, games like League and Overwatch have left MMOs in the dust in terms of players, and CoD garners tons more interest from the general public than MMOs do. In terms of the "obsessives vs. casuals" debate, CoD is considered far more casual than MMOs are, even though obsessives are where the monetization is really at.

      Yeah, I hate business lingo with a passion. Whenever I have to run a meeting I make a point of avoiding all of those weasel words as much as possible. Sometimes it can't be avoided, but I despise every time I have to use those words. And that's coming from a guy who was in Model UN in college.