Tales of the Rampant Coyote

Adventures in Indie Gaming!

Guest Post: Lessons I Learned While Working at Bioware

Posted by Rampant Coyote on April 26, 2011

The Rampant One is off running rampant in New Orleans, and while I’m away, the community gets to play. Actually, they can play any time they want – I love to add extra voices here to Tales of the Rampant Coyote. Today’s post is a wonderful bit of insight from a man who’s been in the belly of the beast. Or, rather, in the belly of one of the most celebrated CRPG makers in North America. He’s recently left his dream job for a dream shot of another kind: Going “rogue” as an indie.

I give you Dan, of GameDevGoneRogue. Enjoy:

Hi All! My name’s Daniel, and Jay graciously invited me to write a guest post on his blog while he’s away. I’m a former BioWare employee of 7 years, who’s recently decided to take the indie plunge. And I’ve started a blog about my experiences during the transition.

When I first spoke with Jay about the guest post, he indicated that he’d be interested in hearing about lessons I’ve learned while at BioWare. It’s an interesting question. I actually owe BioWare a lot in that respect. I feel I’ve learned a ton during my time there, but it’s tricky separating what one knows now from what one knew before. There are a couple that spring to mind, however. I’ll start with the biggest question I had when starting out.

Where do BioWare games come from?

Before I joined the industry, I had visions that a handful of people sat in a meeting room, possibly into late hours and over empty pizza boxes, and hashed out what the next game would be. Coke would be consumed, and ideas “spitballed.” Then, when satisfied and at a consensus, they would gather the team, make an announcement, and employees would dash off to make it a reality.

And my dream was to eventually, through hard work and diligence, to be invited to one of those spitballing meetings.

It doesn’t quite work that way, but it’s not completely wrong either. The truth is, each game comes to be in a different way. Most often, the core leadership of one project moves on to spitball the next. It makes sense. If you’ve got a good bunch finishing up game A, you might as well let them take a crack at game B. They’ve proven themselves, so it’s a good bet they’ll do well again. Especially if game B is similar in nature to game A. Some project leaders involve their teams more. Other times, these are very closed meetings.

In some cases, project leadership teams lose members or fragment to do different projects. Or  a project appears first, and a team must be assembled to make it. When these situations happen, new leaders have to be chosen. Usually, these leaders are chosen from within the company. People who have experience, have learned the culture, and have proven themselves reliable. I guess this is where I thought I could get through the door.

So did I? At the end of my 6th year, I’m happy to say I got a taste of it. Part of it was luck: I happened to hear about an up-and-coming project as I was finishing DA:O, and I happened to know the guy running it. I did a metric poop-ton of research and preparation to make myself as valuable as possible, and I approached him at a party to ask how it was going. We had a good chat, and that eventually turned into a new role on his team.

Let me tell you, it was everything I hoped for. It was brainstorming, market research, business planning, you name it. We tossed ideas around, we prototyped, we spent late nights chatting over beers about our ideas. I felt more invigorated and engaged than any other time in my career. Unfortunately, reality sometimes has other plans. In our case, market conditions and studio needs meant that we had to put those ideas on hold to work on more pressing projects. It was a blast while it lasted, though!

I also got to see one other game ideation process from a slightly different angle: I pitched a game to BioWare. It was a small game. Less than a man-year of total work. I figured I was still fairly newbish, so smaller would be a safer bet. But, as it turned out…

Small games aren’t necessarily an easier sell than big games

The thing about studios is, they’re expensive to run. And more to the point, employees are expensive to keep. Employees need salaries, sure. But they also need benefits. And equipment. And space to work in. And support staff. This all adds up, unsurprisingly. A useful “napkin math” figure I learned while in the industry is that your average employee costs twice their salary over a year. Think about that, for a moment. Let’s say your average employee is making $50k per year. That probably means you cost your employer $100k annually. That’s over $8k per month!

So when it came to pitching my small game idea, the question of money inevitably came up. I met with our director of finance, and we started working some numbers. Suffice to say, even a small team over a small time adds up. And that doesn’t include overhead for a product website, marketing, community management, etc. It became pretty evident to me that my barrier to profit was much higher than I realized.

And that wasn’t even my pitch’s fatal flaw. In fact, the pitch itself was quite well received. I was shocked by what good sports they were, entertaining my pitch, hashing out the finance plan, bringing in other project leads for input. In actual fact, my flaw was gameplay. I have to admit, even I didn’t have a clear idea how the “core nugget” of gameplay worked. My pitch and my prototype both sort of danced around it, and implied something fun would happen. But it wasn’t there yet.

It was a big lesson for me, and I had a lot of fun learning it. And it’s safe to say, the bug bit me hard during this process. Shaping a product; its game mechanics; its art style; its business plan; its market strategy…I was hooked.

But if I wanted BioWare to make my game, I would have to make it something BioWare fans would love. This, it turns out, is a tricky proposition because…

You can’t please all the fans all the time

BioWare wants to do right by its fans. It really does. Many of its employees (if not most, nowadays) are former fans of BioWare games. So they have an inherent interest in making quality games.

The trouble is, fans. Yeah, that isn’t a complete sentence. Its incomplete for a reason. “Fans” means a lot of things. Take a look at TV Tropes’s list of fandom sub tropes. Reading just a few of those will alternately make your heart soar, or harden like stone. It’s hard to summarize the effect fans have on game development in one word or sentence. When one creates a work that becomes popular, there are a lot of people watching you closely to see what you make next. And not all of these people want the same thing. So when your next product inevitably lands slightly outside their circle of expectations, they become disappointed. And often vocal.

I can’t tell you how many times we, as employees, scoured the internet for reviews, forums, anything to tell us what the world thought of our work. Did we do right? What can we improve? You have to have a thick skin to deal with what you find. There’s a saying. I’m not sure who said it first, but I first heard it while at BioWare. It goes, “If we could give people a magic hat that would create for them the exact RPG experience they’d always dreamed of, they’d complain about the color of the hat.”

That about sums up where most employees arrive after reading too many forums. You just lose heart, and stop reading forums. There are a few who soldier on, taking the flak, and trying to get to the bottom of the feedback. There are even those BioWare hired to do so. But most devs eventually lose heart and just tune it out. Which is probably a good thing, frankly. Because if everything you do is going to piss someone off anyway, you might as well do what feels right. You’ll be more engaged in something you believe in, and probably make a better product for those who actually want it.

I think I’ll stop there. There are other lessons I’ve learned, to be sure. I could talk a bit about humility as a core value, the need for tools and pipeline specialists, and intra-studio communications. But I’m getting rather long-winded already. Perhaps I’ll follow-up with a second batch during Jay’s next vacation!

Anyway, I hope you enjoyed reading, and thanks again to Jay for the opportunity to guest-post! I welcome any feedback you might have, both on the topics and the writing. Maybe you have contrary wisdom to contribute, maybe you saw a grammar mistake, or maybe you experienced the same things. Let us know! (I promise to read this forum if you do ;-)


Filed Under: Biz, Game Development, Guest Posts - Comments: 25 Comments to Read



  • fluffyamoeba said,

    The internet says it was Drew Karpyshyn who said that. And everything on the internet is true.

  • dcfedor said,

    I actually had a former coworker chime in with corroborating support for that claim. Score 1 for the internet!

  • eedok said,

    Did you work at the Edmonton branch of Bioware by chance? Are you attending this event? http://www.facebook.com/event.php?eid=215217688490143&index=1

  • dcfedor said,

    I used to work there. I moved to the Montreal office last year, though. Since I’m in NH at the moment, I’ll have to pass on the Gamepub Q&A. Thanks for the invite, though. And have a Lion’s Pride for me!

  • Zinfandel said,

    “You can’t please all the fans all the time.”

    I can imagine that, being creative, it is very difficult to distinguish between “vocal” but viable criticism and flaming trolls ripping apart everything that comes their way. Both can hurt quite a lot.
    So I think what you say is very true (and a bit sad because it seems so inevitable), but for me there is no doubt that nowadays for BioWare a predominant factor when making design decisions is: upping the sales. And I think this is where a lot of the rage comes from. People feel BioWare sold out. To EA, to the mass-market, to cheap thrills.
    Anyway, the best of luck for your project and may you evade the pitfalls of success. ;)

  • Noumenon said,

    You picked a good topic for a post on an indie games site, but if I can ask an off-topic question, does a Bioware games team have a DM? Someone who decides “I’m going to send them off thinking this, and then have a plot twist here, so they have a meaningful choice there, and then I’ll put a consequence here.” I’m playing Dragon Age right now and it feels just like the best DM in the world sat down and made NPCs, dungeons, moral dilemmas… it feels like one person who never did anything but study EnWorld and take notes on good DMing just put it all into practice. Where does that design philosophy come from?

  • JAK said,

    Yeah, right on – those fans really are such nuisances. I mean, all this good work you did to cut content from the game and package it into day 1 DLC packs and they won’t even appreciate it.

  • dcfedor said,

    @Zinfandel – Unfortunately, sales performance is a spectre that hangs over most creative decisions at a game studio. And I’m sure it’ll haunt me when it comes time to put food on the table. So I thank you for your luck. Perhaps it’ll ward off the spectre long enough to have some fun making what I want, before I have to make what’s fiscally responsible ;-)

    @Noumenon – A lot of it does come from a DM culture, though there are novel writers, CCG players, and boardgame players in there as well. And not all of those groups are mutually-exclusive. Sitting near writers for a brief while pretty much confirmed for me what you say above, that much of the game content is driven by the RPG-like worldbuilding a DM would do.

    @JAK – I’m interested to see what happens to day 1 DLC in the marketplace. Will the fans vote with their feet or their wallets? My gut feeling was that fans would respond the way you do here, and walk away in disgust. But the sales seem to say otherwise, so someone out there thinks its worth buying. I dunno what the right answer here is. We’ll just have to see what evolves next.

  • pizzapicante27 said,

    Those pesky fans, why wont they buy our overpriced dlc, our mediocre sequels, and accept that were not doing what they wany anymore!

  • JS said,

    Yeah, that’s the solution to making good games, tune out the criticism.

    The sad fact is, and this isn’t just a problem with Bioware, a lot of people are okay with putting out a lower quality product if that means they can make more of a profit. For a while this works, but eventually a competiter will come along and offer a superior product for the same price if not cheaper.

    IMO, Bioware and other large developers are in a slow decline.

  • Rampant Coyote said,

    This is true of indies as well as big developers, though. Jeff Vogel recently spoke of the same problem. Dan is not wrong, here.

    Sometimes the best you can hope for is hitting a middle ground where half the people think you’ve gone too far while the other half think you haven’t gone far enough. You absolutely, positively CANNOT please everybody. And the ones you cheesed off are going to be far, far more vocal than the ones who are happy with your direction. If you go chasing the vocal minority without a plan other than trying to directly address their concerns, you’ll lose.

    Period.

    That being said, it’s also stupid to tune them out entirely. You need more feedback than just sales numbers. It’s painful to do – especially when you are dealing with a HUGE audience – because the vocal minority will be the ones with a bone to pick with your game. It’s tough developing thick enough skin to deal with the pain.

    It’s also tough sometimes getting at the “real” cause behind the complaints. I see it all the time in testing where a tester will complain of something, but fixing what they cite simply migrates the problem. For example, they might complain about how much damage the enemy lasers inflict, but the real root cause of the problem is that the interface is so confusing that they can’t respond properly when being attacked.

    There’s an art to it.

    And it’s a constant balance. Do you make the game YOU want to make? Or do you make the kind of game that pleases the largest base of the market? Or do you make a game that really targets a particular niche? With the first, you get the advantage of your own passion to help drive the concept, and push the boundaries. With the second, you get sales numbers, which is critical to being able to stay in business so you can keep making games. And with the latter, you get the real fans who love rather than just like your game.

  • Erynnar said,

    Sometimes the best you can hope for is hitting a middle ground where half the people think you’ve gone too far while the other half think you haven’t gone far enough. You absolutely, positively CANNOT please everybody. And the ones you cheesed off are going to be far, far more vocal than the ones who are happy with your direction. If you go chasing the vocal minority without a plan other than trying to make them happy, you’ll lose.

    Period.

    While I agree with this, it seems that for DA2 they went too far in listening to the vocal complaints for DAO. I wish they would do a consumer survey on the BSN so that people who love it would be inclined to put what they liked and didn’t like as well. I wonder why they don’t?

    That being said, I am at fault as well for just loving the hell out of DAO so much that I didn’t think to give construtive criticism and positive feedback. I was…too busy playing. *hangs head in shame*

    It is a lesson for me to be sure, I will give feedback on DA2(things I liked too, not just what I didn’t like) and try to do so in a way that doesn’t discourage the BioWare folks who are reading it.

    Of course now I feel horrible, what if I said something (meant to be snarky or funny) and I discouraged them? I love BioWare, and my husband got me addicted to the games they make. Now I worry about my feedback. : (

  • Erynnar said,

    Also, DAO was a huge success from what I can see. Why make the sequel so different from it’s successor? There was the impression (right or wrong) that Mr. Laidlaw didn’t like DAO and made the game he wanted. While that may work for a new game and new story (it will have fans or haters), taking a game with an already well established core of fans, and rebooting instead of fixing what was were percieved as weak spots…I think a lot of that anger comes from confusion mixed with a heavy dose of disappointment. But what do I know? I just play the games, not make them. : D

  • Market Troll said,

    Uhm, yeah, no. Bioware actively tries to get MORE fans, NEW fans. That is why old fans dislike newer games. There is an obvious, and intentional dumbing down of the games.

    This is beyond simple, you don’t even need to consult the forums. Old school, hardcore gamers just want complexity in the shiny new toys Bioware makes. The more you remove complexity, the more they dislike it.

  • Market Troll said,

    Imagine if fighting games got LESS complicated, would old fans be happy? Imagine Street Fighter 2 getting simpler and simpler… That’s what the market did after ’02

    Are RPG fans supposed to be different and love it?

  • mk2net said,

    When did Rampant’s blog turn into RPG Codex? Quite a few of these comments (complaining about Bioware when the author obviously was not involved in the decision-making process for DA2) certainly sound like they belong on the “dex.”

    dcfedor – thanks for posting an interesting, enlightening article on some aspects of major gaming studios and their workplace culture.

  • dcfedor said,

    @mk2net – Whew, thanks! I was getting a little worried I had stepped on a landmine here!

    @Market Troll – “Are RPG fans supposed to be different and love it?” – Please don’t! One of the reasons I went indie is because I love hardcore RPGs, and I could better afford to make games for that niche market as a low-overhead solo dev.

    @Erynnar – It’s not a fan’s job to provide positive feedback, so don’t feel bad or anything. And your point about providing balanced feedback is right on. A comment that includes praise mixed with constructive criticism will definitely stand out from the sea of one-sided comments. Negative or positive. And don’t stop being snarky or funny. The devs who do read the forums appreciate the levity!

    @Rampant Coyote – Thanks for the backup. Your point about tuning out forums entirely being stupid is definitely true. One just needs to don emotional armor before going in. And regarding the three approaches you list at the end of your comment, #s 1 and 3 sound really nice. Any pointers on combining the two? Also, get back to enjoying your vacation!

    @JS – No, you’re right. Tuning out the critics entirely isn’t the answer either. It’s just hard to turn the other cheek sometimes. Regarding “a lot of people are okay with putting out a lower quality product if that means they can make more of a profit” I have to disagree. I’ve never met anyone, at BioWare or elsewhere, who wanted money more than a reputation for quality products. I would’ve quit my job a lot sooner if I ever met a person like that.

    @pizzapicante27 – If we could make a game that was exactly what everyone wanted at a price everyone thought was fair, believe me, by all of the power in the universe, we would make that game!

  • McTeddy said,

    I know my issue with Bioware is that I felt betrayed.

    For a long time, I was a loyal Bioware fan. I bought everything they made because I was convinced it would be amazing.

    Suddenly, it all changed. They stopped making RPGs and instead made shooters. As a loyal fan, I was hurt. They threw everything that I loved away, in exchange for oodles of cash.

    But you know, in the past I would get upset… but I’ve come to realize something. If a made a bajillion dollars off a shooter why would I care about my old RPG fans?

    @dcfedor
    You’ve really never met anyone who was more interested in money than quality…?

    While I’ve never met a developer who felt that way… I’ve met plenty of people in the publishing industry who did :/

    Though they usually have fancy terms like “Cost cutting feature!” instead of “**** quality, they’ll buy it anyways” (Though I have actually heard similar quotes)

    Good Luck with your indy work. I’m always glad to see new people creating their own games.

  • dcfedor said,

    @McTeddy – “You’ve really never met anyone who was more interested in money than quality…?” – Really, I never have. I don’t have much respect for such people, and I wouldn’t feel comfortable working for or alongside someone who didn’t care about quality more than profit.

    Here’s hoping you find the games you’re looking for again soon, whether at BioWare or not. And thanks for the good luck!

  • Game Testing and the Thinking Designer « Emergence Campaign Weblog said,

    [...] is why to me it’s not surprising that Guest Writer Daniel at The Rampant Coyote: http://rampantgames.com/blog/?p=2644 talks about how wearying dealing with customers is. Towards the end he notes that “You just [...]

  • daniel said,

    ///// Sometimes the best you can hope for is hitting a middle ground where half the people think you’ve gone too far while the other half think you haven’t gone far enough. /////

    i totally disagree

    ///// You absolutely, positively CANNOT please everybody. /////

    i totally agree

    see what you did there? on one hand you say you can’t please everybody but on the other you say that trying to do so and hitting somewhere in the middle is the best one can hope for. the truth is, if you succeed in hitting that spot in the middle you won’t really have pleased ANYONE (except the “money-people”). to me that’s a worst case scenario.
    that’s the kind of crap that comes off the hollywood conveyor belts. and unfortunately it’s a trend that’s been gaining popularity in the gaming industry.

    ///// And it’s a constant balance. Do you make the game YOU want to make? Or do you make the kind of game that pleases the largest base of the market? /////

    once again, i don’t see a “balance” here. make your choice or you’ll end up in the middle, producing mediocre stuff weighed down by an indecisive aura.

    and if you choose to walk the middle ground to maximize profits and people get vocal, don’t complain…you can’t expect to be loved for that. nothing wrong with wanting to make big bucks but the product will suffer and that may eventually come back at you.

    ///// With the second, you get sales numbers, which is critical to being able to stay in business so you can keep making games. /////

    so you’re saying by making a game YOU want to make you can’t get sales numbers? curious…would you want to make a game like baldur’s gate? here’s a little quote from the baldur’s gate wikipedia page:

    “The game was a financial success, selling over two million copies worldwide.”

    …2.000.000 copies and the game was a pc only title. pretty impressive i would think.

    and from the baldur’s gate II page:

    “It has sold over 2 million units.”

    the real problem right now, as i see it, is that the more money is on the line (with so-called AAA-titles that’s a lot these days), the less chances people are willing to take. by “people” i mean of course the guys investing the money – the publishers. and by “chances” i mean the fear of not at least doubling that money. subsequently, out of a mixture of fear, greed and delusion of grandeur, the publisher becomes a game designer and we get “hollywood games”.

    in that sense, congratulations to you dan, for taking the daring step and going indie. i like your mantra so far, though that logo still needs some work ;)
    i’m looking forward to seeing what you guys come up with and wish you lots of success!

  • dcfedor said,

    @daniel – Good points, and thanks for the well-wishes! The Baldur’s Gate figures you quote raise an interesting question. Just how many CRPG fans are there out there? For something like BG, which has been out over a decade, probably discounted to all kinds of levels, has it reached market saturation? Does that give us an idea of the total hardcore PC CRPG market? It would make for an interesting study, if one researched some other comparable titles on PC.

    And I agree, that is not the logo I want to fly as I go into battle ;-)

  • daniel said,

    yeah, that’s hard to say…considering how popular bg is with the hardcore crpg crowd it’s probably a good estimate for the pc. however, the pc market hasn’t exactly been “cultivated” these last few years, has it?

    according to this chart, dragon age origins so far has only sold 390,429 units on the pc:

    http://gamrreview.vgchartz.com/sales/33504/dragon-age-origins/

    compared to that BG can really hold it’s own, even if you consider how long ago it was released. after all game sales in general are going up year by year.
    of course bg is a “real” pc game solely targeted at a pc audience…and you just can’t beat ad&d ;)

    what’s also interesting is how much better dao did compared to da2. especially on consoles where i would have expected the exact opposite (da2 ~ 1m; dao ~ 3.2m). simplified game mechanics, more accessible…that’s what console gamers want!…or is it? :)

  • McTeddy said,

    While I’ll be the first to rag on new school RPGs and Dragon Age 2… I don’t think comparing sales is really a strong indicator of what’s going on here.

    Balder’s Gate was sold in a veeeerry different time than today. The level of quality required for a game to be accepted has skyrocketed. As such the team sizes have jumped up. The cost of making the game’s in general have become insane… and that means the required profits to stay alive are increased.

    As for Dragon Age 2 failing… there are far more reason for it’s failure than it being an action game. Yes, they alienate their loyal fans of the original and yes many of us refused to buy it…

    But the critics cited Bugs, boring story, lousy characters, reused areas and plenty of other complaints that detract people from wanting to buy it.

    Those of us Niche Players, happily overlook flaws because people rarely give us what we like and we’re happy with scraps. Dragon Age 1 gave’s us a fantastic, if flawed experience. It had fairly low critical ratings, and mediocre sales… but I still derived pleasure from playing it.

    Core players on the other hand don’t give two darns about you trying to do. If your game isn’t flawless they will rip you apart for it. “Yer game not Call of Duty!”, “Why no multiplayer!?” Anything less than perfect and the game will be butchered. Core players are a viscous bunch.

    As for consoles being dumbed down selling better, according to VGCharts: Mass Effect 2 sold 2.37 million copies on the 360 alone. Dumbing down is a completely valid strategy.

  • mk2net said,

    @daniel: The sales chart you cited only has the number of units sold for the PC in EMEAA. EMEAA stands for Europe, Middle East and Africa. So those PC game sales figures do not include the United States, Canada, or Asia, which will make up a hefty portion of the sales on PC.

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