Dragon Age is an odd duck. It’s captured me in unique ways that other stories and games rarely do; Dragon Age Inquisition strapped a jet pack to my love for video games and shot it to new heights I’d never dreamed of prior. I became invested in the characters I interacted with and would go so far as to consult wikis to ensure their safety.
My love for this fantasy United Nations RPG is an obsession I can hardly deny. That said, I’m also an adamant critic of the game. Strange bugs, glassy-eyed NPCs, narrative inconsistencies, and some almost painfully obvious allegory; and yet what disturbs me most is publisher EA and it’s vice grip on a studio with so much potential.
According to a LucasArts 2003 press release, the first shipment containing Xbox copies of Star Wars: Knights of The Old Republic, a BioWare story-driven RPG predating Anakin Skywalker, sold out in just four days. Reports from NPD group showed the PC release was the third best-selling title in its debut week and continued to maintain a fairly consistent appearance in their top 10 game sales for over two months. The aggregated scores are extremely high, the very lowest being the Metacritic iOS port score at 88/100; to say nothing of KotOR earning what Metacritic described as “universal acclaim” on top of the Game Developers Choice Awards’ game of the year in 2004. The sequel, Knights of the Old Republic II, while not quite as successful as its predecessor, still got top marks in the 85% range. There was always a little buzz online about hops for a KotOR III, but a quick google search these days shows any whispers about its production have gone silent…
You’ll notice, however, that EA has directed their use of the exclusive Star Wars gaming license towards the Battlefront series, which is a first and third person shooter based around warring armies throughout various periods in the Star Wars universe. Call of Duty’s success certainly brought about a huge trend of shooters, much like Players Unknown Battlegrounds and Fortnite have done the same with the latest battle royale onslaught in the industry or Overwatch, the catalyst for the Loot Box fad- the latter of which Battlefront was bent over to an almost game-breaking degree, not unlike Middle Earth: Shadow of War. The two garnered so much backlash that the loot systems had to be reworked and it became apparent they’d been shoved in at the will of EA and Warner Bros. respectively. AAA Publishers really follow the money, that’s hard to dispute, especially since that’s what most companies in general aim for.
Crunch and working yourself to death are the same highly glorified concept. I had a professor in college who always gushed over Osamu Tezuka (widely considered “the father of manga” and creator of Astro-Boy, among others) for having created “100 comic pages a day! He worked so much he only saw his wife on the weekends!” He always told us to sacrifice sleep to make our comics great and, not having the guts to say anything since my confidence was still growing from nothing, I didn’t get to tell him that he was perpetuating a very dangerous lifestyle.
Everyone has their own limits. It’s important to test them occasionally and in certain places! But most of us don’t want to sacrifice our entire lives to any one thing. Most artists can tell you about how at least one potential client wanted them to work for free. Typically “work for exposure” is justified by these characters for a myriad of reasons; the one that game developers get shouldered with is “if you love your work, you’ll never work a day in your life!”
Well no. Game developers still have to pay rent and buy food and live their lives, you shouldn’t expect them to break their backs “because they love the craft.” Earlier this month, Kotaku reported a working environment where employees were pushed so hard to create Anthem (a largely poorly received multiplayer game) that leaves of absence due to crumbling mental health were all too common. Allow me to quote the admirable Jason Schreier directly:
Perhaps most alarming, it’s a story about a studio in crisis. 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.
This segment comes prior said developer citing the frequent number of “stress casualties” that he’d entirely lost count of. Does this sound like a successful business model? All too often and throughout history, the people building structures are thought of as simple drones. Labor. Casualties written off as numbers rather than humans ground to a pulp. It’s an age-old mentality of “character building” and “labor of love” that masks a deep historical sense of numbers and instant gratification rather than a truly healthy, functional work force. The lack of attention given to increasingly overworked professionals is brushed aside in many ways, as previously mentioned. Here’s a couple of excerpts from BioWare’s statement, which came 15 minutes after Schreier’s article:
First and foremost, we wholeheartedly stand behind every current and former member of our team that worked on the game, including leadership. It takes a massive amount of effort, energy and dedication to make any game, and making Anthem would not have been possible without every single one of their efforts… We didn’t want to be part of something that was attempting to bring them down as individuals. We respect them all, and we built this game as a team… As a studio and a team, we accept all criticisms that will come our way for the games we make, especially from our players. The creative process is often difficult. The struggles and challenges of making video games are very real. But the reward of putting something we created into the hands of our players is amazing. People in this industry put so much passion and energy into making something fun. We don’t see the value in tearing down one another, or one another’s work. We don’t believe articles that do that are making our industry and craft better.
The full blog post is a short read that anyone even remotely invested in this story to look into. No part of the statement acknowledges stress and leaves of absence, all it talks about is “the difficult process of making games” and “the reward” – the latter of which is slim to none in the case of Anthem. The Metacritic scores are rough: 55% (PS4), 58% (PC), and 65% (Xbox One).
BioWare‘s success has been with character building, linear stories, and single-player campaigns. I was actively warned never to touch the Dragon Age Inquisition multiplayer (not unlike how Simba’s dad warned him not to leave the Pride lands for the “shadowy places.”) Unfortunately, we’re seeing the EA machine continue to work its magic; blood magic. Sacrificing a studio and twisting it into something devoid of healthy structure and original creator investment. That’s how Visceral Games and their claim to fame, the unique, horrific, unnerving Dead Space, became a defunct company and a game serialised into a member of the over-saturated action-adventure genre of gaming, continuing to starve the survival horror audience that gave the first instalment its success. Personally, I hope BioWare comes to reclaim their brand as a narrative-driven RPG champion, but now and back when I first completed Inquisition nearly 5 years ago, I don’t intend to hold my breath, not while EA has the studio in a choke-hold to make things like Anthem.