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The RPG Files: The End of Bioware’s Never-Ending RPG

By Christopher Coke on February 13, 2015 | Columns | Comments

The End of Bioware’s Never-Ending RPG

Bioware made it official this week: Shadow Realms has been cancelled. The promising idea -- a never-ending 4-versus-1 RPG -- wasn’t enough to keep the tide from turning at Bioware Austin and now a wide swath of hopeful fans are disappointed. But should we be? Read on as we  look at what might have happened and the gilding on this otherwise sorrowful lily.

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Few of us here at MMORPG weren’t excited when Bioware made the announcement in August of last year. The game promised a return to Bioware’s roots, but just as importantly, innovation. For a studio so well known for it single-player, dialogue driven adventures, the idea of an always-online, cooperative, 4-on-1 PVP game, was almost mind-blowing, not even considering the rich story Bioware also planned to deliver. Shadow Realms was also tread into urban fantasy which is all too under-used in video game fiction.

Some of those ideas were puzzling: decades old roleplay values with months old design ideals? (Meaning, of course, the 4-on-1 assymetric multiplayer). Interesting, but not impossible. Heck, it seemed a little bit like one of those ideas we should have stumbled on sooner. Dungeons and Dragons has always been a group of players squaring off against the wiles of the Dungeon Master. Why not make the player the big bad, plotting out the fall of the heroes’ party?

But as the old adage goes, if it seems to good to be true, it probably is. The first sign of trouble came in the silent wake of the debut. We saw it at trade shows, talked to developers, read the website updates, and then things went dark. Alpha invites were supposed to go out in September and never did. In October, we heard that the alpha was being delayed to make incorporate player feedback.

It didn’t take much squinting to read between the lines. Bioware claimed that players “really liked the game!” while simultaneously refusing to invite fans to play. It was redirection at its finest. Like many multiplayer games, it seems likely that it showed well on convention floors but stumbled in its ideal setting: the home.

Last month, Kotaku reported that the game was being rebooted entirely. Worse, their source drew a direct connection between the scrapping of the current project and a new plan to integrate the game with EA’s Origin service, which was said to provide more funding for any studio willing to adopt it. Now, Bioware falls into the category of “more money than God,” so a few extra bucks probably wasn’t the issue. Re-designing the presumably free to play game to push “social,” alongside a clasp to Origin? That sounds more like 2015.

And now it’s over. The team who dreamed big has been disbanded to dream inside the boxes of other creators and existing projects. The official announcement makes it clear: Bioware has bigger fish to fry, including a new IP and yet another safe-bet sequel, Mass Effect 4, and, even more pressing, the ramped up development of Star Wars: The Old Republic. I’ve yet to find more than a scattering of players not disappointed at that bullet in SR’s closure.

If I sound disappointed, I am. If there was any company poised to pull off a “never-ending” RPG and have it be good, it was Bioware. To see them yank the plug and not even go back to the drawing board, just disband the team... that’s a crying shame. Shadow Realms was a good idea that needed more time to bake, not abandon.

But let’s look on the bright side, because coming off of 2014: The Year of Broken Disappointing Games That Should Not Have Been, it’s almost applause-worthy to have a company own up to something that just wasn’t working. No, Shadow Realms shouldn’t have been abandoned, but Bioware has handled this situation well. They’ve said from Day One, they wanted the game to be good. Pre-alpha, it wasn’t, so we had to wait. Now, months down the line, it still wasn’t, so they’re cutting their losses and putting their staff on games they feel confident will deliver. I would rather have one good game than two mediocre ones -- even if I wish the legalities would allow them to share what was really behind all of this.

If there is anything good that can come from otherwise disappointing news, it’s that multiple good games are likely to come from it. Mass Effect 4 and the unnamed new IP are more likely to deliver because the Shadow Realms team is lifting them up with their unique talents. Star Wars: The Old Republic, the second biggest MMO on the market, now has more support to become an even better free to play MMORPG.

The closure of Shadow Realms means the end of a promising game, but it may also mean the end of a trend which abuses consumers to save a quick development buck. I applaud Bioware, even as a former Shadow Realms hopeful, for moving developers to deliver quality games that do more than sound good on paper.

Quick Hits

This may be the year of Fallout 4. For the first time ever, Bethesda is hosting its own press conference at the Electronic Entertainment Expo (E3). Since the company has never saw fit to carve a section of the industry defining expo for itself, it seems very likely that a big announcement is forthcoming. With Elder Scrolls Online just hitting consoles, it’s unlikely an Elder Scrolls announcement is forthcoming. Massachusetts, anyone?

Ready for a live-action Legend of Zelda? If the Wall Street Journal is to be believed -- and they really should be -- Nintendo is partnering with Netflix to produce a series that is “Game of Thrones for a family audience.” What exactly that means (or how it even makes sense) is to be determined as Netflix is still hiring writers to take on the task.

Dying Light is getting harder. The team at Techland has revealed that a hard mode will be coming to the game, increasing night time play, bumping the difficulty, and raising the need for stealth. Which begs the question, did they even read my review? Night time play is already hard, Techland! Then again, if Fifty Shades of Grey and the Dark Souls series have taught us anything, it’s that there are always players ready for abuse.

That’s all for this week. Let us know what you think in the comments below?

Christopher Coke / Chris has been a fan of MMOs since the mid-1990s when he cut his teeth on MUDs. These days he scours the internet for the latest and greatest multiplayer gaming experiences.