Bioware used to be the game developer who could do no wrong. They were a strong player in the game industry, with lots of very much loved games under their belt. From Baldurs Gate through to Mass Effect and Dragon Age it seemed they could do no wrong.
But now it almost seems they can do no right. The Mass Effect 3 ending caused a huge backlash among fans. Dragon Age 2 wasn't appreciated by fans. And Star Wars: The Old Republic appears to be haemorrhaging subscribers, not that long after release.
So what's happening?
Here are a couple of ideas I have about where Bioware is going wrong.
#1 Bioware Have Forgotten Their True Fans
Bioware is where it is today because it focussed on one type of player, the RPG player. Through release after release of game they provided the experience that their fans loved. And consequently, they grew that fanbase. They gave it what it wanted, and because of this the fans loved them. Bioware only had to announce the development of a new game, and the fans went wild.
I'm not sure this has happened since EA bought them out, but now with each new game release, Bioware have been stripping away the game mechanics that their fans love. RPG's have always been notorious for the stats. That's been the case since, and caused by, the old pen and paper Dungeons and Dragons games. It also attracts a particular type of player, and repels other types of players.
Bioware in an attempt to make RPG's 'simpler' have been removing the stats and attributes from their new games, or hiding them behind other gameplay elements. In essence this makes a game easier to get into and understand and easier to progress, which is not necessarily a bad thing, but it marginalises the players who do actually like stats and attributes. If those players perceive Bioware as moving away from the model they love, they're not going to be fans anymore.
#2 RPG's Aren't Just About The Story
In all the time Bioware has been developing games, there has been a huge emphasis on story. And that is good. That's a big part of an RPG. But it's not all there is.
As I mentioned above, a good RPG provides character progression as well as features that are recognisably RPG.
Is it possible to emphasize story too much?
In the case of SW:TOR, I think the answer is yes. So much so in fact that the game really comes across as a single player game with other players running around whom you can group with.
Ironically, this is Bioware's forte. They make great single player RPGs. But for a MMO you really need a lot more than just a class story, you need a huge virtual world, not just a linear progression path. Even WoW has more than that.
#3 Bioware Are Choosing The Wrong Role Models (At The Wrong Time)
I think this one specifically relates to SW:TOR, but it could be applied to some aspects of their single player games too. It seems to me that Bioware focussed on making The Old Republic too much like World of Warcraft. Sure, Bioware puts a very strong emphasis on story in SW:TOR but is this enough to differentiate it from the WoW themepark model?
And even with World of Warcraft we are seeing a significant drop in subscriptions, perhaps the most significant since that game was released.
Why is this? Well, frankly I'm not really all that sure. Thousands of words have been written on the topic, and thousands of more will be. All I know that for myself is that World of Warcraft was becoming too narrow in its focus on the endgame. The journey was no longer important, it was all about levelling up quickly in order to raid. I'm not a raider, I'm more of an explorer so once the content was exhausted there wasn't much point in sticking around. I see this same model in SWTOR, with the exception of (heavily) encouraging alt-ing through the legacy system.
If SW:TOR has been released five years ago it might have been the WoW killer everyone has been dreaming of, but instead it has been released at a time when there appears to be a growing disatisfaction with the subscription themepark model.
I'm not going to say that the subscription model is dead, I don't believe that for a minute, but there is an equalisation going on between subscriptions and free to play. To survive the subscription model needs more than basic themepark gameplay. It needs, I think, the sandbox. The subscription model is perfect for Eve Online, I doubt Eve could work as free-to-play, but for a long term themepark, much more is needed. SW:TOR for all its beauty, story, and Star Wars-ishness is a very basic themepark. That isn't going to keep players around.
Every business has this intangible asset called goodwill. It usually doesn't appear on the balance sheet because it can be really hard to quantify. How do you tell if your customers love you? Well they keep coming back for one thing; but how much is this worth?
In Bioware's case, goodwill was the asset they earned when they focussed on making quality RPGs for a generation of fans.
Now it seems that the recent mistakes are losing that goodwill.
What do you think Bioware are doing wrong? Do you think they are making mistakes in the first place? Or will this all blow over and everything will be alright?