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Michael Bitton: A BioWare Without 'The Doctors'

Column By Michael Bitton on September 19, 2012

BioWare was originally founded in 1995 by Drs. Ray Muzyka, Greg Zeschuk, and Augustine Yip. It’s an interesting story of a few doctors who pooled together their money in pursuit of turning their passion for video games into a business. Fast-forward 17 years and many critically acclaimed titles later and ‘the doctors’, as they’re known, have announced their retirement from BioWare and the industry as a whole.

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Before we get into that, let’s take a trip down memory lane. BioWare was founded during a decline in the popularity of western RPGs. In fact, it was at this time that Japanese RPGs were really coming to the forefront. Heck, I was nearly oblivious to the western RPG at the time and found myself fully absorbed into the JRPG revolution. The western RPG was set for resurgence in the late 90’s, however, and BioWare’s contribution to said resurgence with their first RPG, Baldur’s Gate, was nothing short of monumental. Baldur’s Gate set the standard for other AD&D based RPGs to follow, such as Icewind Dale and Planescape: Torment. And for me, personally? It was where the PC RPG started altogether.

Only a few short years later, BioWare gave us Neverwinter Nights, another highly acclaimed D&D-based RPG that allowed for players to create robust modules and tell their own stories using the tools provided by BioWare. While Neverwinter Nights was an amazing game in its own right, it was really these tools and the user-created modules that represent the title’s true legacy. The Aurora Toolset provided with Neverwinter Nights is still used to this day, most notably by students in a number of game design courses.  Heck, much of Star Wars: The Old Republic’s content was conceptualized first using NWN’s toolset.

The same year that BioWare gave us Neverwinter Nights, we were also treated to one of the best Star Wars games to grace the PC and console: Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic. Easily one of BioWare’s most memorable titles, the game’s success lead to a sequel, a series of comics, a novel, and eventually even an MMORPG.

During the ‘next gen’ era of the XBOX 360 and PlayStation 3, BioWare upped the ante with a new epic sci-fi RPG trilogy, Mass Effect, and what I considered to be a love letter to the western PC RPG, Dragon Age: Origins.

Needless to say, BioWare’s been busy over the last 17 years, and it’s honestly hard to argue the western RPG would be as strong as it is today without the studio’s many contributions to the genre. And while BioWare is nowhere near finished in terms of creating new RPGs for gamers to enjoy, unfortunately, the end of the road has come for its founders, Drs. Ray Muzyka and Greg Zeschuk.

In a trio of updates to the official BioWare blog, Drs. Ray Muzyka and Greg Zeschuk detailed the reasons for their departures and where they intend to go from here. Meanwhile, Aaryn Flynn, general manager of BioWare’s Edmonton and Montreal studios took a moment to discuss the company’s history, his own history with BioWare, and offer some details on where things go from here.

Both Dr. Muzyka and Dr. Zeschuk’s stories are similar in tone. The two have achieved a great deal in the video games industry and are now looking forward to the next chapter of their lives. For Dr. Muzyka, this lies in social impact investment and entrepreneurship and for Dr. Zeschuk, it’s a pursuit of personal projects related to craft beer. It’s clear that these two men will be heading down different paths, but what is to come for BioWare?

To even a casual observer, it’s abundantly clear that there have been changes at the company since BioWare was sold to EA in 2007, and not all of them for the better. I recently watched a video with Wedbush Securities analyst Michael Pachter. In the video, Mr. Pachter fielded a question regarding the long length of development for many Japanese games. Mr. Pachter explained that there are essentially two schools of thought on game development and it comes down to profit vs. art. According to Mr. Pachter, some developers, including many Japanese developers, or even American developers such as Rockstar, will take their time developing their game until they feel it is essentially as perfect as can be. As awesome as these games often end up being, the potential return-on-investment is not nearly as strong as it would be had those developers stuck to shorter development cycles and produced more titles in the same period of time, but that's fine with these developers.

Where am I going with this? Well, I’ve always felt that BioWare was on the “art” side of the spectrum and that EA was more on the “profit” side. I feel the culture of EA and the culture of BioWare have been trying to reconcile these differences over the past couple of years and nothing better encapsulates these differences than the release of Dragon Age: Origins and its sequel Dragon Age II. Dragon Age was in development long before the acquisition of BioWare by EA, and it showed. As I mentioned earlier, the original Dragon Age could be viewed as a love-letter to the western PC RPG. The game was unashamedly a PC game with little in the way of compromise made for console audiences. It was a success, mostly on PC, but a success nonetheless.

Fast forward less than two years later and gamers were inexplicably given a full-on sequel to Dragon Age that ended up being controversial with PC and console gamers alike. Suffice it to say, the quality of the game wasn’t nearly on par with its predecessor or even with what gamers expected from any BioWare release. To many gamers, it looked like a cash grab. It definitely didn’t look like a move made by the BioWare we had all known and loved up to that point.

I don’t have an insider point of view on what happened there, but as an outside observer, it was becoming increasingly clear to me that the philosophy of Electronic Arts was indeed making its mark on the BioWare I knew and there frankly aren’t any clearer examples to me than the Dragon Age vs. Dragon Age II debacle.

I bring this up because the departure of Drs. Ray Muzyka and Greg Zeschuk makes me feel a bit uneasy with regards to the preservation of the BioWare brand and culture going forward. While BioWare has always been more than the good doctors at the helm of the ship, I can’t help but view the effects of the doctors’ departure as having more potential for continued dilution of the BioWare brand as a result of misguided EA influence. At the same time, I remain hopeful due to the absolutely ridiculous amount of talented people that still work at BioWare’s various studios. Heck, the fan-driven company that BioWare has always been came through in the recent announcement of Dragon Age III: Inquisition. I think BioWare experienced a bit of a wake-up call following the events of Dragon Age II, and the studio is hopefully looking to make amends with a great game in Dragon Age III: Inquisition. 

It’s also a critical moment for Star Wars: The Old Republic, the latest BioWare project to fall short of expectations for fans of the developer. EA and BioWare fortunately have had the foresight in pursuing some major course correction with a free-to-play relaunch this fall, but the future of the game remains unclear, and its controversial reputation amongst fans has no doubt sullied the brand a bit more.

With that said, I do feel there is some potentially great stuff coming down the pipe and BioWare’s Aaryn Flynn clued us into some of possibilities in his blog update. For one, Mr. Flynn’s blog confirmed Casey Hudson and his team are at work on another new, full game set in the Mass Effect universe. Mass Effect fans won’t have to wait that long, though, as the long-speculated Omega DLC (and additional multiplayer DLC) has been confirmed for release sometime this fall.

If you don’t care for either of these franchises, BioWare’s also cooking up a brand new game set in a fictional universe. That’s all we know about it at this point, but it’s good to hear that BioWare is at work on some new ideas. As much as I now love the Mass Effect series, I didn’t know how much I’d love it until I played the game, and I’m excited to feel that way about a new game or series from the folks at BioWare.

In short, I’m confident in the talent at BioWare to continue making games worthy of the BioWare brand, but I’m a bit uneasy given recent events, and now the departure of Drs. Ray and Greg, that EA may be too slow to learn its lessons before the reputation of the BioWare brand is completely tarnished. Many gamers are understandably disillusioned with BioWare right now, and I hope that the leadership at the various studios and EA will allow the creativity and artistry of the talented folks working there to shine as brightly as it once did.

How do you feel about the departures of Dr. Ray Muzyka and Greg Zeschuk? What do you think it all means for the future of BioWare? Let us know in the comments below!

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