The Grey Wardens, the Inquisition, and the Elder Gods have collectively developed a loving community of loyal fans since BioWare's first instalment in the Dragon Age franchise released in November of 2009. Today, as a decade has passed, however, the relationship between the fans, the studio behind the franchise, and the studio's mother company EA has turned sour. To delve deeper into the issues with both the studio and the Dragon Age franchise we have to dial back the clock 10 long years.
When BioWare released the first Dragon Age game, Dragon Age: Origins, they were already on top of the world. With one successful game launch after the other, boasting massive games such as Baldur's Gate, Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic, and Mass Effect in its arsenal, the developer had the RPG crowd in its firm grasp. Back then, and for many years to come, BioWare was seen as the biggest genre giant out there, and for good reason. After people had fallen in love with intergalactic protagonist (or antagonist, depending on your in-game choices) Shepard, the developer switched its focus towards the fantasy fans, letting people experience a grand, dark story revolving around honour, fantasy creatures, and fighting for what's right in a world in turmoil.
The player took on the role of a self-made, customisable character with a varied list of possible backstories to bestow upon them, as was the BioWare way. Creating your own hero was, of course, one of the big reasons why fans were so passionate about the game, and the release took genre fans and critics by storm, quickly being seen as a pillar of the RPG genre and its deep companion system. Paired with Mass Effect, it made the studio stand out a little extra. Dragon Age: Origins had it all - a grand story, the perfect setting, loveable characters, and a fresh combat system where the player could switch between characters and even change the camera view for tactical combat. BioWare had, with the deep narrative, the romance options, and the customisation options offered, ensured that Dragon Age was a one-of-a-kind adventure with plenty of potential for future entries in the series.
Dragon Age: Origins (dark)spawned no less than seven DLC packs, a companion approval system tweak, and one grand expansion within a year post-release. BioWare looked to the future of the series alongside developing and releasing fan-favourite sequel Mass Effect 2, a future that would somewhat split the fanbase, with some deeming the follow-up less of an RPG than the original.
While the development goal for Dragon Age II was to improve the Dragon Age: Origins formula, the game was on the end of a major backlash after its release in 2011, despite its praise from critics. Fans criticised the major change to the original combat (despite this having been the main complaint of the original game), as well as the weak origin choices, the enemies of the game, spawn-mechanics, and the lack of fresh environments. The sequel to the beloved original had been streamlined, and by making that change, BioWare lost a lot of its hardcore audience, gaining new ones from within the more casual crowd. The dawn of BioWare's inclusive stance on romance-options, however, started with Dragon Age II. The player - who stepped into the shoes of a human Fifth Blight refugee and soon-to-be Champion of Kirkwall called Hawke - had plenty of options when it came to wooing a special someone. As is often the case when a developer tries to be open-minded, there was some pushback, and BioWare started receiving complaints about the lack of romance options for the "core base of players". BioWare did, and still do, make sure to add options for people of all preferences and sexualities, and the studio promptly shot down the complaints, standing up for the LGBTQ+ community, and that fact has since been praised and appreciated by gamers of all types, being one of the reasons why the studio's games hold such a special place in so many hearts across the world.
After four DLCs released for Dragon Age II, BioWare moved into somewhat uncharted territory with Dragon Age: Inquisition, switching the linear narrative for open world exploration. Having released the Mass Effect game that brought mixed feelings from fans with its abrupt ending and unworthy farewell to the beloved Shepard earlier in 2012, Mass Effect 3, Inquisition was officially announced, and it would bring major changes to all aspects of the now-franchise.
The linear experience was gone with Inquisition. BioWare instead opted for a massive open world for the player to explore, and fans got a lot more content, a crazy amount of new additions such as the extensive crafting system, and a roughly 50-hour long storyline (and that's not counting the side-missions and optional content). However, while they got a lot, fans didn't get much that they had actually asked for. The criticism of the changes has since been dismissed by others as a direct factor of nostalgia, where fans have such a strong connection to an original game that they have a hard time appreciating what comes next in a series.
The additions, such as the multiplayer mode and the War Table operations, were somewhat separate from the core game, rendering them optional content that the player wouldn't notice if they weren't looking for them. As for the story, setting, actions and consequences, and characters - which make up the very essence of Dragon Age - these aspects of the game received praise. After the identity crisis of the series after the launch of Dragon Age II, the developer had taken a step back in a sense, while at the same time moving a console generation forward and focusing more on narrative. That said, some fans believed that the open world took something away from the DA experience. The main protagonist, gaining the title of Inquisitor, was customisable in terms of race, gender, morality, and cause and effect would once again be a big focus.
Dragon Age: Inquisition reintroduced some companions and NPCs from the previous games, with most of these being praised for their depth, while fan-favourite bard Leliana received a change in personality, albeit one that was warranted. The most notable character added to the series was Solas, who would come to play a big part, both in the story of Inquisition, its last DLC The Trespasser, and the upcoming Dragon Age 4. This fact was somewhat controversial considering The Trespasser, which was a purchasable DLC, added to the story of The Dread Wolf which would later be confirmed as the main focus of the upcoming release of Dragon Age 4, essentially rendering those who didn't purchase the DLC somewhat clueless about what was coming next.
As for development, the team behind Inquisition encountered a massive bump in the road with the switch from the Eclipse engine to Frostbite, forcing the team to not only bring Dragon Age to modern-day consoles, patch up the wounds still left open by the criticism of Dragon Age II, and expand the universe with an open world, but to do all of that in an engine that wasn't as familiar to them.
Following the release of the overall much-appreciated Dragon Age: Inquisition followed a hefty amount of controversy, not necessarily tying back to the Dragon Age development at BioWare, but definitely impacting the work on what was to come. Mass Effect: Andromeda, the BioWare game that followed Inquisition, received a massive backlash both from fans and critics, with some going so far as to state that the sci-fi RPG "killed" the franchise that had been one of the more prolific role-playing experience of all time. Not only did the criticism centre on technical issues, visuals, and the overall role-playing elements, Andromeda's companions, narrative, and the consequence-based gameplay were dumbed down according to many, essentially resulting in bad sales, fan-disappointment, and cancelled narrative DLCs.
With BioWare facing challenges of their own and mother company EA receiving its own fair share of controversy, Anthem was bubbling under the surface, a game that was already being worked on when Andromeda was released. Anthem was to be BioWare's next big new IP, its first in years. When it was revealed and shown at E3 back in 2017, fans of Mass Effect speculated whether it would be the Mass Effect successor they wanted, or if it would follow Bungie's Destiny route, considering it would lean heavily on multiplayer elements.
Beyond the original title getting ruled out after copyright issues, there were other issues faced, and the extensive Kotaku report from this month reveals a whole host of problems. Despite the fact that Anthem had a ready, willing, and hopeful team of developers at the start of development, that would come to change. The project was overhauled multiple times, some of these changes completely altering both mechanical and narrative elements, and the team had to face these challenges as the leadership disregarded their concerns and feedback. Many veterans went on to leave the company because of the sheer stress that Anthem and its development caused and some would take out doctor-mandated leave or hide from stressful situations at the office.
Despite severe issues within BioWare and its leadership, Anthem launched in February of this year but it would follow the downward spiral reception-wise. Anthem landed at a Metacritic rating of 55, making it the lowest-rating game in BioWare history. With the grind-heavy gameplay, the lack of what was initially promised, the bugs, and the server issues, Anthem didn't go down well, although BioWare continues to support its players.
Many developers and veterans went from Dragon Age: Inquisition straight on over to Anthem, and another insider report from Kotaku's Jason Schreier paints a worrying picture. So far the project has seen plenty of stops and starts, scrapped ideas, as well as the departure of creative director and veteran Mike Laidlaw. Up until October of 2017, Dragon Age 4 was built with completely different building blocks to those being currently used. The idea up until that point, then codenamed Joplin, was described to be a smaller game in scale but with a steadier focus on role-playing elements, player-choice, companion relations, and narrative. As teased at the end of Inquisition's Trespasser DLC, the player would be playing a spy in the wizard-ruled land of Tevinter, no doubt focusing its story on the slave-trade of the continent, and the Dread Wolf and his continued inner turmoil and Elder God ways. This scenario, focusing less on fetch quests and open-world exploration, seemed to be exactly what fans of the series wanted.
Joplin, however, was cancelled, or rather reinvited and codenamed Morrison, as BioWare moved staff over to Anthem to help with its troubled development. This would be built using similar building blocks to those used in Anthem as well as some live service elements, according to the Kotaku report. There's no doubt that fans and the RPG audience haven't and won't be looking for a live-service game if one drops within the Dragon Age universe, and according to BioWare's Casey Hudson that's not what we're getting. The plan for Dragon Age as a live-service will not alter the game too much other than keeping it going after the main story concludes. We're used to the deep narrative experience, the fantastic characters, the relationships we could form, the great settings, and the role-playing elements that the previous games have given us, but despite calming words from BioWare we can't help but worry that the old-school BioWare experience could be on its death bed.
Will the Dragon Age development team adopt the mentality of the Anthem team (it would hardly come as a surprise, considering how many Dragon Age veterans moved over to Anthem) and might it be built with multiplayer in mind? Multiplayer games are all the rage right now and they drive long-time player engagement. With that, microtransactions are what most companies make money off of and we've seen them implemented in RPGs and single-player action games before. With Dragon Age's Inquisition-born crafting system and the big focus on gear, will EA see a monetisation option there?
Moreover, how many veterans can a studio lose to stress and pressure before the studio, as it was, has become something different? Like it or not, BioWare doesn't hold the same sway as it used to in its golden days but the damage that's been done can still be remedied if both BioWare and EA get their priorities straight. They know what their fans want, now it's up to them to hand it to them, even if that's easier said than done. We don't know how drastically the core changed when Dragon Age 4 stopped being called Joplin and was reworked as Morrison. Are the main elements still there? Were the previous instalments built upon or will Dragon Age 4 end up being a departure like Mass Effect: Andromeda was in relation to the main trilogy.
While BioWare struggles, fans across the world are hoping for the studio to trace their steps back to what was originally envisioned for the Dragon Age series, but whether or not the BioWare/EA leadership will allow that to happen remains to be seen - who knows what the ultimate plan is for the fantasy franchise. All we know for sure is that Dragon Age 4 is a way off and that the team face several challenges internally if they're going to make a fourth game worthy of the name.
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