21 May 2012

The Myth of Bioware

As I prepared this post I reflected on the irony that for once it is probably a good thing that I don't have a whole lot of readers yet.  While I never go out of my way to coddle "fanbois," this post is a rather telling rebuke of one of the more popular developers in the gaming industry today.  So in a sense, maybe it's good that a whole lot of potential Bioware defenders won't see it.  On the other hand, maybe it will get their attention and they will gather the torches and pitchforks to storm my virtual castle.  Maybe that was my evil plan all along............... but I digress.  Let's get into how my viewpoint of Bioware changed.

Once Upon an Old Republic...

First off, let me briefly set the stage of my personal experiences with Bioware as to give you some context for how I came to see them the way I do.  I did not play the Baldur's Gate series and only briefly dabbled in Neverwinter Nights, so my first real experience with a Bioware game was the 2003 game, Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic.  I loved the game, loved the storytelling... heck when the sequel came out I rented it for my Xbox (remember when you could still do that?) and beat it in a single weekend.  One fact I overlooked at the time, but is important to the overall conclusion I have come to, is that both KotOR and its sequel used a version of the Dungeons and Dragons combat system.  It was not something Bioware themselves developed.  File that away for later.

Based solely on my enjoyment of the Knights games, I purchased Bioware's next major venture, Jade Empire.  This Asian themed RPG was an entirely original Bioware creation.  It was an original IP and didn't borrow from another game's combat engine.  That said, I enjoyed this game far less than either of the Knights games.  The story was... ok, interesting enough but the morality system was lukewarm at best.  But the worst part was the combat.  Every fight felt the same as the last and you could easily just "spam" one or two abilities to win pretty much every fight.  Granted Knights was pretty easily exploitable too, but again in retrospect, it shows Bioware's lack of aptitude in designing actual gameplay elements.

The Mass Effect of a Dragon Age

Fast forward to Bioware's other two original properties.  Mass Effect was a game and a series that I very much wanted to enjoy.  I am a sci-fi junky at heart and if given a choice, would always prefer that setting to the traditional high fantasy type that we get constantly bombarded with.  Like the Knights series, I enjoyed the heck out of Mass Effect at first.  I found the story very compelling, and while the morality system was easily the weakest link, the romantic subplots more than made up for that.  Yeah, yeah... I hooked up with Liara, so sue me.  But by the time I got to the end of ME2, the series had lost a lot of its luster for me.  I played it almost entirely for the storyline.  The game itself was almost an afterthought.  Why?  Because when you take away the story, the ME series is really nothing more than a very basic squad cover shooter with some RPG elements tacked on.  More and more I began to view combat as an "obstacle" between story elements, not something to be enjoyed in its own right.

This became even more obvious when I purchased Dragon Age.  Once again I highly enjoyed the story, and once again I found the game so tedious to play that I could barely make myself push the story forward.  Every battle felt like a chore, and every dungeon seemed to drag more monotonously than the one before it.  It got to the point where I gave up playing it for several months before I finally forced myself to pick it back up.  And on a side note, I found the ending of this one particularly unsatisfying.  I kept expecting some big plot twist that never materialized.  It was just a fairly standard political machination in the end.  But perhaps my sights were simply set too high because of Bioware's other story driven successes.  Are you picking up on the pattern?

The Grand ExperiMMOent

So finally we have a chance to see Bioware's genius applied to the MMO realm.  Much was made about the potential of Star Wars: The Old Republic.  I was one of the many who had high hopes about this game and what it could mean for the genre.  Could an MMO be successful with such a heavy emphasis on story telling?  This post is not going to address that question per say.  I am more concerned here with what the game said about Bioware.  In typical Bioware fashion, the storytelling was spot on, but the game itself lacked any kind of fun.  SW:TOR was the culmination of everything I had experienced about Bioware games up to now, but never had considered as a single overriding theme.  But after my disappointment with SW:TOR, the realization hit me like a ton of orcs.

Bioware is fabulous at telling stories but they are terrible at designing games.

You can go all the way back to the beginning of my little "list" and see the pattern.

KotOR:  Fantastic story, "borrowed" combat engine, mediocre gameplay.
Jade Empire:  Serviceable story, original combat engine, utterly boring gameplay.
Mass Effect:  Wonderful story, cover shooter with RPG elements, mediocre gameplay.
Dragon Age:  Tolerable story, original combat engine, totally frustrating gameplay.
SW:TOR:  Great story, standard "hotbar" combat engine, unsatisfying gameplay.

In all the time I have been playing Bioware games, I can honestly say there was never a point where I felt like I was playing a great game.  Was I participating in a great "interactive movie?"  Yes, absolutely.  And there is nothing really wrong with that... if that is all you want.  In fact there is an entire genre of digital entertainment developing around this concept.  Games like Indigo Prophecy and Black Rain are already showing the way.  And honestly LA Noire would have been a much better game if it had gone that route as well and ditched the "action" segments.  So it is not to say that Bioware is a failure as a developer, I just think their reputation for making great games is inaccurate.

I suppose all in all, this post isn't so much a critique of Bioware so much as an examination of our interests as gamers.  Companies only develop what we will consume.  What do we want more out of our digital entertainment?  Do we want to be told a story?  Or do we want an experience more enjoyable for how we directly participate in it?  Is it possible to have both a great story and a great game.  Many of you will argue that Bioware already does this, and from your own points of view you may be correct.  But for me, Bioware falls far short on the "fun" factor in its games. 


  1. I agree with you 100%
    In fact, Raph Koster even posted about 'Narrative vs Gameplay' where I think he illustrates BioWare's design fallacy pretty well: http://www.raphkoster.com/2012/01/20/narrative-is-not-a-game-mechanic/

    I think many 'game designers' today are in love with interactive cinema more than in making actual GAMES, and it shows. Frankly it's very disappointing to me when so many games are just pretty window dressing with no compelling or creative gameplay mechanics.

  2. Great Post.

    As an aside, for a good example of a "games as storytelling", try TellTale Games Walking Dead series. It's pretty much pure story with light gaming elements, and I really, really enjoyed it. Games that are largely interactive story are, I think, fine, provided that the story is strong enough to stand on its own merits.

  3. I'll take the bait. What have been the PC games that have good gameplay as well as an engaging story? Wizardry/Bard's Tale does not hold up. Diablo is merely a clickfest. And the best game play for me has been in games that are better known as action games - GTA iv, Max Payne series, Splinter Cell.

    I am not convinced that Fallout 3's gameplay is better than the original games. I liked the turn based games and the VATS system just did not cut it.

    Skyrim made me motion sick but in the few minutes that I put into the game, it was basically unplayable on a PC.

    Witcher 2 is action-y and hard. I don't know if the gameplay is "fun."

  4. really interesting assessment. Not sure if I agree or not though on whether narrative can't be parcel to gameplay. Bioware just happens to suck at it as you correctly point out. I wonder though ...I'll have to give this some real thought to figure out what I think.


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