Are Gamers Complaining About the Wrong Thing?

Yesterday, Kotaku’s Jason Schreier published an article entitled “How BioWare’s Anthem Went Wrong”. It was a long form, incredibly well researched article that went into great detail about how BioWare – the studio behind the much beloved Mass Effect and Dragon Age games – could now be looking at their second “failure” in a row with the launch of Anthem. Anthem currently sits at a 55 on Metacritic, lower than even the much-maligned Mass Effect Andromeda which managed to score in the mid-70’s. Although its sales have not been terrible, they appear to be lagging behind Andromeda and Mass Effect 3. People are still playing the game – myself included – but the rumblings of discontent have been loud and clear. That being said, Bioware has been working hard to fix a lot of these issues post launch and ultimately, it’s very possible that Anthem will pull a Destiny and turn itself into a game that we are still happily playing years from now.

But that’s not really what this podcast is about.

For the article, Schreier interviewed 19 current and former developers to get the inside track on what went wrong -- and the reasons for failure are numerous. They include issues with the Frostbite engine and getting it to work with the style of play that BioWare envisioned for Anthem, internal management issues and turnover within the team.

But what really stuck out to me as I read the article was the following two paragraphs:

“Perhaps most alarming, it’s a story about a studio in crisis. Dozens of developers, many of them decade-long veterans, have left BioWare over the past two years. Some who have worked at BioWare’s longest-running office in Edmonton talk about depression and anxiety. Many say they or their co-workers had to take “stress leave”—a doctor-mandated period of weeks or even months’ worth of vacation for their mental health. One former BioWare developer told me they would frequently find a private room in the office, shut the door, and just cry. “People were so angry and sad all the time,” they said. Said another: “Depression and anxiety are an epidemic within Bioware.”

“I actually cannot count the amount of ‘stress casualties’ we had on Mass Effect: Andromeda or Anthem,” said a third former BioWare developer in an email. “A ‘stress casualty’ at BioWare means someone had such a mental breakdown from the stress they’re just gone for one to three months. Some come back, some don’t.”

And what was Bioware’s response to this? First, they chose not to comment on the article. Second, almost immediately after the article was published – and certainly before they could have read all of the over 11,000 words it contained – they released this statement:
“We’d like to take a moment to address an article published this morning about BioWare, and Anthem’s development. First and foremost, we wholeheartedly stand behind every current and former member of our team that worked on the game, including leadership. It takes a massive amount of effort, energy and dedication to make any game, and making Anthem would not have been possible without every single one of their efforts. We chose not to comment or participate in this story because we felt there was an unfair focus on specific team members and leaders, who did their absolute best to bring this totally new idea to fans. We didn’t want to be part of something that was attempting to bring them down as individuals. We respect them all, and we built this game as a team.”

BioWare then went on to talk about how seriously they take workplace culture and the work they did to try and minimize crunch time. They then end with this:

“We don’t see the value in tearing down one another, or one another’s work. We don’t believe articles that do that are making our industry and craft better.”

What BioWare is really saying is that we don’t like articles showing how the sausage is made. That internally, what they call “BioWare magic” is something that exists only at the expense of real people. People who’s physical and mental health is the cost for the video games that we as gamers get to spend our nights and weekend enjoying, while somewhere another game developer is spending yet another weekend away from their family and friends and destroying their mental health so that we can have slightly better graphics in our next looter shooter.

As gamers, the solution for this isn’t to boycott anybody. Developers want us to play their games, that’s why they got into the industry in the first place. They want to create worlds that we can lose ourselves in, they want our minds to be blown the first time we get in our Javelin and fly around. But maybe if we spent as much time complaining about how companies are treating their developers as we do about how pissed off we are about end game loot drops we would see a change in the industry we love.

Sometimes a game developer doesn’t have the time or budget to put all their ideas into a single game, but that usually comes out later as downloadable content. Byte Me DLC is that same idea, but for thoughts and ideas that don't fit on Byte Me podcast, plus our "book club for video games" Byte Me Plays.

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