www.thegamer.com

Mass Effect: Andromeda: 20+ Behind-The-Scenes Reasons Why It Broke The Franchise

Alright, folks, I think it's time we admit the painful truth: the Mass Effect franchise is probably done. We didn't get any DLC for Andromeda and BioWare has pretty much announced that they are shelving the idea indefinitely. So how did this happen? Why was the game so bad? How do you go from making one of the most enthralling and immersive trilogies in gaming to making a laughable meme factory? As always when it comes to making something as complex as a video game, there isn't one single thing we can fault with the failure, it's more of a perfect storm of unhappy accidents.

Jason Schreier, a reporter working for Kotaku, recently interviewed dozens of people who worked on Andromeda who paint a pretty colorful picture of what was happening behind the scenes. Unfortunately, they had to remain nameless due to them signing nondisclosure agreements about the work process. Many of the people who were interviewed said it was the most unhappy and difficult project they had ever worked on, claiming that it felt needlessly more difficult than any other game they had worked on.

Through these interviews, we have a pretty detailed timeline of how and when things went wrong, from inception to release date. So while it may be salt in the wound to hear about something you hold so dear going so far off the rails, it does serve as a good warning as to what NOT to do on future titles. So what exactly did go wrong with Mass Effect: Andromeda?

36 It Was Made By BioWare Montreal

via: branchez-vous.com

Don't get me wrong, this isn't to say that I think BioWare Montreal was incompetent or anything. I'm simply pointing out the fact that they were founded solely to create the DLC for Mass Effect 3. And hey, that DLC was actually incredible, making that game way more fun.

But they didn't know how to handle a sprawling narrative.

A self-contained story about you liberating a city, or fighting off your evil clone before throwing a rager of a party is all well and good, but it isn't an intergalactic soap opera. Which is what fans wanted.

35 Story Versus Exploration

via: youtube.com

Right out of the gate, the director of Andromeda, Gérard Lehiany, wanted there to be hundreds of planets to explore. Sounds awesome already. But hundreds of planets would probably mean that they would need to procedurally generated. This means that a computer algorithm would design the planets randomly, but at a higher volume.

The problem with this was, if the planet's landscape is created at random, how do you have set events and missions on them? Suddenly the narrative of the game, the core story, was interfering with the scope of the exploration aspect.

34 Too Many Planets

via: masseffect.wikia.com

Above I mentioned that in order to make hundreds of planets, they would need to be created at random by an algorithm. Some members of the team actually got an algorithm working, but the results were less than promising. Sure, the computer could make them, but it couldn't make them interesting.

The planets in previous games were all made by hand, in a way that exploration, or objective seeking, would be fun and interesting. The computer couldn't account for human fun, so the maps were dull, and needed to be touched up by hand.

33 The Frostbite Problem

via reddit.com

The common engine used in all Mass Effect games is called Frostbite, and is widely regarded as one of the most powerful bunches of video game developing software out there. That being said, it was created for the Battlefield game series, which you will note is a first-person shooter.

When developers use Frostbite to develop an RPG, they don't necessarily have all the tools they need, especially in regards to dialogue options, team building or inventory. This would be a huge setback for the team working on Andromeda who were already having troubles at the concept stage.

32 Frostbite Can't Animate

via: ibtimes.com

Multiple people from multiple teams have discussed their troubles working with Frostbite, including the team working on another BioWare title, Dragon Age: Inquisition. On top of having to build a network of software programs AROUND Frostbite in order to make it work for an RPG, Frostbite is also terrible at animations.

Everyone who works with it says that it can render things with incredible detail, but the moment it comes to making humans look, you know, human, it falls flat. And in a game as dialogue heavy as Mass Effect that isn't exactly going to fly.

31 ANT Fixes Almost Nothing

via: youtube.com

So what is a game developer to do when the engine they have been instructed to use doesn't support making animations? Obviously, they patch in a new program that would be able to handle animations. The solution is so simple, only a loon wouldn't see it.

Enter the animations software ANT, which was added into the Frostbite bundle to make it more animation friendly. The only problem was that everyone who used it claimed it fixed next to nothing, claiming that it was full of "duct taped issues." So not exactly the huge help they needed.

30 Frostbite Isn't Big Enough

via: game-maps.com

So if your game requires your characters to explore hundreds of whole planets, those are going to be some seriously huge maps. Sure you can probably skip over parts of a planet, you don't need to flesh out every desert or ocean, but for the most part, you need to create a whole landscape, right?

Turns out, Frostbite isn't very good at that either. The package had a map limit of 100 by 100 kilometers, which you'll notice is somewhat big, but barely a moon. So there's another pointless setback.

29 The Company Changes Animation Programs

via: forbes.com

One huge complaint many of the animators who worked on the project had to say afterward was that BioWare made them switch animation programs. They went from using 3D Studio Max to Maya. This wouldn’t have been a problem, Maya is a great product, but BioWare should have told them before they started, not in the middle of pre-production.

This accounted for months of progress being wiped out over an arbitrary change in programs, which further set them behind schedule.

28 Animators Ignore Some Orders

via: pcgamer.com

It isn’t really a good sign when employees take it upon themselves to openly defy orders. On the other hand, sometimes you get an order so stupid that you have to trust that you know best and to just go your own way.

Many animators felt they knew better than the higher-ups at BioWare and decided to ignore the order to switch animation programs. They simply (and covertly) just went on using 3D Studio Max instead, much of which made it into the final game.

27 The Squabbling Begins

via: eluta.ca

At this point in development, infighting began between the headquarters of BioWare Edmonton and BioWare Montreal. Edmonton, who would be the headquarters for all of BioWare, were disappointed in the progress, and arguably, it did seem like the game was progressing much slower than anticipated.

What really stung is that they were claiming that the folks in Montreal didn’t even have a strong enough concept or idea for the game. They claimed that they were still trying to think of a game at all, despite being in the production phase.

26 Was Edmonton Sabotaging The Game?

via: wccftech.com

To counter the argument that Montreal was behind schedule, they accused Edmonton of sabotaging their game. Of course, a company wouldn’t outright sabotage itself if it hurt their bottom line, but they can relocate resources to a more profitable venture.

Edmonton was accused of stealing staff members to work on their own upcoming titles. We know one of the titles was Dragon Age: Inquisition but the only hint as to the second title is that they referred to it as the “Bob Dylan of game” (whatever that means.) It’s probably Anthem, and it doesn’t look all that great.

25 A Mass Exodus Of Staff

via: realgamemedia.com

We all know that video game programmers are woefully underpaid, unless they are extremely sought after and well-known names. They work the terrible hours for the glory of the game, not the paycheque. So what happens when you feel that even the glory isn’t worth all the stress? You walk away from the project.

Since Edmonton already felt the project was floundering, sometimes the positions that people vacated never even got filled again. So now you are working on a project that is coming apart at the seems, with a skeleton crew.

24 A Producer And A Director Leave The Project

via pinterest.com

Things go from bad to worse, when Casey Hudson, the executive producer at BioWare, left for reasons unknown. This would have a significant impact on the game, but wouldn’t be a huge hurdle.

Then, Gerard Lehiany, the director of the game, left the project.

Losing a Director mid production is always a bad sign, but he was replaced by Mac Walters, who had previously written on multiple Mass Effect games. Mac was stationed in Edmonton, and who knows what kind of effect that had on morale.

23 Leaving Pre-Production Without A Clear Idea

via: deviantart.com/martingust

As they left pre-production, it became clear that they still hadn’t made a lot of key decisions. The biggest one that nobody seemed to want to commit to was the fact that they had never agreed whether they were making all of the planets by hand, programming each map, or to let them be procedurally created via algorithm.

To me that sounds like something the director should have made an executive decision on was earlier in the process. That way you could a lot your staff to either sculpting planets, or to smoothing out the algorithm.

22 No Proof Of Concept

via: kotaku.com.au

Usually, when a game enters the production stage, they will have something called a “vertical slice” which would act as a proof of concept. It would show both the team, and the higher-ups, what the game would be capable of, and then they could work out the kinks and build tonnes of more levels around it.

Predictably, Andromeda never made one of these. Most of this seems to stem from the earlier mentioned planet rendering problem. If nobody can agree on what kind of planet to explore, then how do you even build a concept level?

21 Under Equipped

via: youtube.com

Apparently the decision to move from pre-production to production was not one shared by all the teams working on the project. A few people interviewed after the fact almost unanimously agreed that not only were they becoming woefully understaffed, but they didn’t have what they needed.

I’m not programmer, so I don’t actually know what they were short on, but the they continually complained about not having the right tools or pipelines. If you happen to be smarter than me (not hard) and know what these terms mean, feel free to let us know in the comments.

20 Making Huge Cuts

via: conceptartworld.com

Nothing hurts quite like working hard on something only to see it be unneeded. That’s what happened around this stage in development. Because the direction was so unstructured, plenty of teams were working on prototypes that nobody knew how to utilize.

One example is a team member saying they had a really well-developed space flight program up and running, but had no idea how to make it incorporate into the game. You’ll notice that space flight is suspiciously missing from the final product.

19 A Good Reason To Jump Ship

via: polygon.com

Nothing hurts quite like working hard on something only to see it be unneeded. That’s what happened around this stage in development. Because the direction was so unstructured, plenty of teams were working on prototypes that nobody knew how to utilize.

One example is a team member saying they had a really well-developed space flight program up and running, but had no idea how to make it incorporate into the game. You’ll notice that space flight is suspiciously missing from the final product.

18 Going From 100 Planets To 30

 

via: deviantart.com/euderion

The shadowy cabal of executive who control the fate of all things handed down a heartbreaking decision to the development team of Andromeda; the scale of the game was going down from 100 planets down to 30. Not only did this disappoint the creators (I’m sure a few programmers were delighted) but they got further bad news.

The decision had finally been made to completely abandon the procedurally generated planet aspect. This is a decision that should have been made months, if not years, earlier, since now some poor teams work was completely flushed away.

17 A Further Shrinking Galaxy

via: deviantart.com/redliner91

Fans and creators were devastated when they found out that the massive, sprawling galaxy they had been promised they could explore was now something that was barely bigger than the original Mass Effect map. They had very little else to be excited about, because so much of the plot was being held under wraps.

So imagine the reaction when another higher up decision declared that the galaxy of explorable planets was now being shrunk down from 30 to 7.

16 Rescoping Way Too Late

via: reddit.com

Rescoping is now an uncommon thing to happen in a video game. Often the creative director will have such huge ambitions, there are just no way to meet them, either due to deadlines or technical limitations. So you scale back the proposed project, easy-peasy.

Oh, no, it’s only easy when you do it is pre-production. If you do it this late in the stage, it puts a huge strain on your team and a massive setback in schedule. You are supposed to rescope before anyone works on the larger picture.

15 Time Schedules Don't Meet Up

via: polygon.com

BioWare had three locations all over the globe: Austin, Montreal, and Edmonton. Typically they would work on a game out of all three locations, which is actually a huge boon for creativity. Having different people use different perspectives to solve a problem is always going to be the best way to approach something.

But being that far apart can be a huge hindrance to scheduling and deadlines. In order for them to all get on a conference call of Skype, it would sometimes take them upwards of an hour to coordinate due to the time differences.

14 Ubisoft Does It Right

via: escapistmagazine.com

This is necessarily about Andromeda but more about where they went wrong. Ubisoft has a similar concept, with multiple teams working around the globe on a title. Like I said earlier, this helps with creativity and helps them understand how to make a project appeal to different demographics.

Knowing how many teams they have, Ubisoft has a whole division of producers whose sole job it is to coordinate meetings between all these teams. Unfortunately, BioWare never had quite the resources for that kind of endeavor.

13 Writing Started Too Late

via reddit.com

Partly because of the erratic pre-production and partly because of the sudden, massive rescope, everything was behind schedule, including the writing. So for whatever reason, by all accounts, the writing for Andromeda was done over the last two years of production, instead of during the total five year process.

A good RPG takes many years to really flesh out.

Do you remember the intensely interwoven narrative of the first three games? That wasn’t because it was rushed. It’s because an immersive universe takes time.

12 The Big Ideas Get Scrapped

via: artstation.com

If the writers have ideas for some of the 93 planets that got canned, they just wasted their time. If they had ideas for the space flight sections, those are more wasted hours. The rescope cost the writers a lot of time in story development by making huge chunks of the universe unplayable.

When this kind of thing happens in other projects, it isn’t uncommon to bring in a writing team early to help flesh out ideas. Unfortunately this writing team was actually brought in late, so many quests were added last minute.

11 Deadlines Destroy Games

via: youtube.com

Due to the whole team being so far behind, they began to feel pressure from higher up the chain to meet deadlines. Can we talk about how immensely stupid it is to announce deadlines on unfinished products? You have no idea the product will be finished by that time, you have no guarantee it will be good, and you put a lot of people in a bad mood.

As Shigeru Miyamoto once said: “a delayed game is eventually good, a rushed game is forever bad.” Once a game is out there, you can’t take it back.

10 A Rushed Team Has Low Morale

via: answers.ea.com

Remember how earlier I said that putting a deadline on a vide game puts a team under unnecessary pressure? Well, guess what pressure does? It totally takes the wind out of everyone’s sails. And I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but morale must have already been pretty low.

Look how far down this list we are. That’s how many things have already gone wrong on this project, and we aren’t even finished. So this team went through all that, and are then expected to start working nights and weekends during crunch time.

9 Everything Stops Working

via: dancinfox.artstation.com

Many accounts of what happened at this stage of development begin to use the phrase “regression.” It means that while they should have been polishing, they kept having to fix sudden and unexpected problems.

A person would create something, check that it works, sign off on it, and the next day another member of the team would report that it was glitching. Having this happen one or two times would be normal, but it seemed that every single day was about putting out fires until of further building the game.

8 Trouble Outsourcing

via: gamespot.com

Getting close to the home stretch, they began to outsource the facial animations to a team in Egypt called Snapper. I am in no way criticizing the work that Snapper does, they are actually incredible, and if you check out their work, you’ll see that they are highly qualified.

The real trouble is the same problem that happens with a lot of outsourced programming: importing. When BioWare got the animations back, they had huge trouble importing the files, to the point where some of them simply did not work within the game.

7 Can't Agree On Lip Synching Software

via: prettybatgames.com

We all know that the lip synching in Andromeda was bad, and we are starting to discover some of the reasons why. Another massive factor was that nobody could seem to agree on which software they should use in order to get the lip-synching to work.

Some members wanted to use software called FaceWare, but many thought it wasn’t up to the job. Much of what made it into the finished product is created by FaceFX, a program which matches movements with the sound it hears. It was used in previous games.

6 Customizable Faces Are A Nightmare To Synch

via: reddit.com

When an animator is in charge of a face, creating the whole thing from the bottom up, they will have a lot of control over how they want the lips to perform during dialogue. This can even be made easier when you incorporate new technology like facial recognition software.

Things get way more tricky when you give the player the option to create their own face. Suddenly you have to account for thousands of variations of faces, and somehow making those monstrosities (no offence) look like they are talking in a normal manner.

5 Animators Don't Have A Storyboard

via: polygon.com

It was crunch time and the game was brutally understaffed, so they decided to outsource some of their animations. I don’t really have a problem with that, as long as the game ends up looking good. But earlier, I told you that the writing team was very far behind, which ends up being a problem.

The writer’s usually give outsourced animators a storyboard, so that they can piece together visuals in a fluid way. Without that storyboard, the animators had to guess as to what was needed, and that negatively impacts the finished product.

4 Predicting Metacritic Score

via: tenantwants.ga

Here’s where things get kind of weird. BioWare sent out an early copy of the game to what amounts to test run reviewer. This is a common practice for game companies. And they didn’t do too bad, they were given a mid to low 80s projection.

While not a terrific score, it’s the kind of score that merits a sequel, so all the profits they could make on Andromeda they could funnel into the next game to make it better. This did this exact practice with the first Mass Effect to make the second one incredible.

3 It Was Us All Along Who Destroyed The Franchise

via reddit.com

Everything was going fine, they knew the game was flawed, they were working on patches for when the game actually came out, they were planning the sequel. And then they gave it to the early access crowd, who obviously noticed the sea of glitches and bugs. And they had no mercy.

Before the game came out, it was a meme factory, and not in the cool way. Like this is an unplayable game kind of way. So even people who weren’t early access had an idea of how bad the game could be.

2 It Came Out In The Middle Of A Great Season

via pinterest.com

Life is a comedy, and in comedy, timing is everything. So sometimes, though no fault of your own, you may release something that shouldn’t be hated, but because of the timing, it comes across as one of the worst games ever made.

Andromeda came out in the middle of a slew of near perfect games. When held up against games like Horizon Zero Dawn, Nier: Automata and Zelda: Breath of the Wild, something as heavily flawed as Andromeda is going to look like a flaming rat pile.

1 The Meta Score Ruined All Hope

via: youtube.com

So the game was flawed. Heavily flawed. I’m not even going to tell you it was fun to play. It was less fun than the original. And everything was riding on that Metacritic score, because if it wasn’t high enough, BioWare might not consider it a profitable franchise anymore.

The score ended up being only 70.

That isn’t the kind of score you pump any more money into. Or it is if you aren’t a heartless corporation and you see the potential in something, but that isn’t the world we live in. We live in a world where no one person can be blamed for the untimely end of one of my favorite franchises.

More in Lists