How BioWare Went Wrong With Mass Effect Andromeda

Just over five years ago, BioWare released Mass Effect 3, the final title in the original Mass Effect trilogy and the most controversial of them all due to its various endings and how player choices did — or, more accurately, didn’t — impact the endgame outcome. BioWare would later take the unprecedented step of patching the game’s ending in an attempt to placate angry fans. But while the game was controversial, it also did quite well, with over 6 million copies sold by January 2017.

It would’ve been extremely difficult to follow up the plot of Mass Effect 3 with a new sequel that took place with the original cast of characters, and BioWare opted not to try. Instead, the next ME game would focus on an entirely new galaxy with new alien species, a fresh cast of characters, and a plot arc that only tenuously connected to the original Mass Effect universe.

The new game would focus explicitly on planetary exploration, which was an interesting departure from the original three titles. Mass Effect 1 had an extensive exploration system, but it mostly boiled down to “Drive a clunky ground vehicle over boring terrain, while occasionally shooting things and finding resources.” ME2 and ME3 had reduced the emphasis on exploration and tightened the story arc. With Andromeda, BioWare wanted to get back to its exploratory roots, but in a way that players would enjoy more and that offered more meaningful gameplay.

Over at Kotaku, Jason Schreier steps through the design process that created Mass Effect Andromeda, and the mistakes along the way that led to the game scoring lower than any BioWare release in decades. Critics pilloried it for uneven writing, terrible animations (this problem has supposedly been much improved with patches), a great deal of bugs, and for generally failing to meet the high bar set by the last two Mass Effect games. I say “Last two,” because if we’re being honest, Mass Effect is a pretty clunky game in its own right, with an inventory system only an accountant could love and weak exploratory gameplay. It’s still worth playing if you intend to play the ME franchise, but it doesn’t hold up well against the overall level of polish on ME2 or even ME3.

MEA-Face

Mass Effect Andromeda’s animations and facial features are… (or were, pre-patch) pretty interesting.

Schreier’s article is well-written, comprehensive, and based on conversations with nearly a dozen current and former BioWare employees who worked on Mass Effect Andromeda. The full story is absolutely worth a read — in the aftermath of Andromeda’s poor debut, fur has flown on message boards and enthusiast communities about who is to blame for the game’s problems. Blaming EA, or the departure of key BioWare employees, or using new studios for production have all been aired, but Schreier’s piece points to different causes.

What it ultimately seems to come down to is this: The Frostbite engine was never designed for the kind of RPG that BioWare wanted to build, which required the company to construct key modules and capabilities essentially from scratch. At the same time, the focus and scope of the game changed rapidly, long past the point (in a traditional development cycle) when those aspects of development would’ve been locked down.

One of the key problems with game production is that some teams literally can’t start working on a project until other teams have finished their own contributions. Ultimately, the Mass Effect Andromeda that gamers can play today wasn’t built over a period of five years, but in something more like 18 months — and it was 18 months of insane crunch time as the various teams scrambled to implement the story, quests, and dialog.

The original plan was for Mass Effect Andromeda to serve as a new launch point for a brand-new story, told over multiple games, but that seems much less likely now. The game sold over a million copies on consoles, according to VGChartz, and that was just its first week. Even if we assume the majority of sales were front-loaded, it’s hard to imagine that MEA hasn’t crept up on the two million mark by now. While that may not be a hit of the sort that EA wanted, it’s more than enough copies to claim that the game did sell reasonably well. But “reasonably well” clearly wasn’t what EA was going for; the company originally expected to ship 3 million copies of Mass Effect Andromeda in its first week.

As a result, EA has announced that future plans for ME games have been shelved for now. We’ll have to wait and see if Andromeda’s patches (and possible DLC releases) nudge its overall rating high enough for EA to consider taking the franchise back off the shelf.

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