Bioware Probably Aren’t Going To Make The Dragon Age Sequel You Want. They Could At Least Let Someone Else Try.
It’s becoming increasingly clear that the kind of game that Dragon Age fans really want isn’t the kind of game that EA and Bioware are interested in making. Maybe someone else should take a shot.
Any discussion of Bioware and EA has to begin by dispensing with the usual naiveté.
Outside the world of marketing campaigns and press releases, conventional wisdom says that the relationship between these two companies is one of strict hierarchy. Bioware are not a collective of creative RPG visionaries set free to follow their whims with a triple-A budget behind them. Rather, they’re just one of several development studios that EA rely on to turn a profit. They are a tool in the hands of capitalist executives looking to make money rather than art.
Anything great created via their pursuit of a return on investment should be seen as less of an expected outcome and more of happy accident.
When you factor in what EA have done with the other studios in their stable , it tells a story about how EA see them. Like Respawn and DICE, the direction of Bioware under EA has been increasingly towards the games-as-a-service model. Anthem might have failed but future attempts to steer Bioware into becoming EA’s equivalent or something like a Bungie or Blizzard are almost certain. It worked with Apex Legends, after all.
While some innovation might be tolerated, the strategy here will all but inevitably involve maintaining tight control of Bioware’s various original IPs. When the last two attempts to refurbish the brand have gone so awry, it’s hard to imagine EA taking any bold risks with any of these franchises anytime soon, especially Dragon Age.
It’s hard not to have at least a little sympathy for the devil here. The mass-market audience for games like the original Dragon Age hasn’t disappeared, but it has drifted further and further away from the gaming mainstream in recent years. EA aren’t solely responsible for this trend. They’re just chasing it.
Attempts by Bioware to continue the series after Dragon Age: Inquisition are inevitably going to be contingent on reaching beyond the franchises’ own in-built fan-base. The market segment of people who didn’t play the earlier Dragon Age games is magnitudes greater than the passionate community that did.
The underlying problem here is that — if the failure of things like Anthem and Mass Effect: Andromeda are any indication — even the most hardcore Bioware fans aren’t all that enthusiastic about the steps Bioware and EA are taking to try and draw new fans to the series, particularly when this shift means departing from the traditional single-player focus that’s defined the series to date.
It’s all very damned if you do, damned if you don’t.
Dragon Age fans know what they like — and that’s an overwhelming orthodox CRPG-style single-player experience like cool loot, dialogue trees and the ability to romance your chatty and colorful companions.
Unfortunately, that’s doesn’t really seem like the kind of game that EA are interested in publishing anymore.
For all the short-term sense that avoiding and downplaying things like loot-boxes and micro-transactions in the wake of the backlash to Star Wars: Battlefront II, it’s clear that EA see that direction as both the future of their business and the games industry as the whole.
In a statement made following the closure of Visceral Games and the cancellation of their single-player Star Wars action adventure game, EA said that:
Our industry is evolving faster and more dramatically than ever before. The games we want to play and spend time with, the experiences we want to have in those games, and the way we play…all those things are continually changing. So is the way games are made. In this fast-moving space, we are always focused on creating experiences that our players want to play…and today, that means we’re making a significant change with one of our upcoming titles.
If the reports around the troubled development history of Dragon Age 4 are any indication, the publisher’s prerogative towards more dynamic long-tail game experiences is unlikely to have diminished in the year’s since.
Following the cancellation of the original Dragon Age 4 (code-named Joplin) Jason Schrier writes that:
A tiny team stuck around to work on a brand new Dragon Age 4, code-named Morrison, that would be built on Anthem’s tools and codebase. It’s the game being made now. Unlike Joplin, this new version of the fourth Dragon Age is planned with a live service component, built for long-term gameplay and revenue.
Schreier positions this shift, which builds on the segregated multiplayer experiences found in Mass Effect 3 and Dragon Age: Inquisition, as a response to the inconsistent sales of the traditional single-player focused expansions made for earlier games in the series.
One person close to the game told me this week that Morrison’s critical path, or main story, would be designed for single-player and that goal of the multiplayer elements would be to keep people engaged so that they would actually stick with post-launch content. Single-player downloadable content like Dragon Age: Inquisition’s Trespasser, while often excellent, typically sells only a fraction of the main game, according to developers from BioWare and elsewhere across the industry.
Obviously, the trope of single-player games dying in favor of multiplayer always-online experiences is pretty well-worn territory at this point but maybe it’s time to stop asking EA to make a style of game they’re clearly not interested in producing and time to start asking them to make room for those who can.
EA could and should learn from Riot’s example here.
Last year, the studio behind League of Legends announced a new initiative called Riot Forge that would open up the fictional universe of Runeterra to new creators.
According to Riot:
The League Universe and its champions offer limitless possibilities; by supporting and empowering passionate partners to tell their own stories and expand the League world, we’ll deliver a variety of bespoke games that enable players of all types to experience League in new and exciting ways.
Two projects have already been announced as part of this: Ruined King (a turn-based RPG developed by Airship Syndicate) and Convergence (a platformer developed by Double Stallion). Both look great.
It’s easy to imagine a world where EA and Bioware taking a similar approach to expanding the Dragon Age and Mass Effect universes. By allowing other and smaller parties to tell new stories in these universes, this would free EA and Bioware from the unreasonable expectations of veteran fans who want more what they’ve always gotten and see anything less as as infringement on their emotionnal investment.
Just imagine what a Dragon Age game from the team behind Sunless Seas or a Mass Effect game by the folks behind Paradise Killer could offer?
By keeping the keys to the Dragon Age universe to themselves, EA and Bioware are setting themselves up for failure again and again.
Every new Dragon Age game has to be everything to all people. It has to appeal to newcomers. It has to have cutting edge graphics. It has to try and appease long-time fans. It has to provide a little bit of everything but not enough of anything. It inevitably costs a ton of money and it takes way too long time to make.
Adopting a Riot Forge-esque approach and allowing others to play in the Dragon Age universe would give EA and Bioware more leeway to do the things they actually want to do and make the games they want to make while still giving fans a way to stay engaged with the franchise between major releases.
As someone who found themselves charmed into the Dragon Age fandom on the strengths of the traditional single-player experience offered by the original Dragon Age: Origins, I’d return to Thedas in a heartbeat no matter who is building the pathway there. I’d be more open-minded about the direction that EA want to steer the franchise if they let someone else fill the void left behind and I doubt I’m the only one that feels this way.