BioWare Boss Addresses Studio Issues, Vows To 'Continue Working To Solve Them'

The head of BioWare addressed a Kotaku report on the studio’s cultural issues yesterday afternoon, acknowledging that “these problems are real” and promising that it is “our top priority to continue working to solve them.” 

This week, Kotaku posted an investigation into what had happened behind the scenes on Anthem, a story that also dived into cultural problems impacting BioWare’s current and former employees.

The piece discussed indecision, mismanagement, and the production practice referred to as “BioWare magic,” a belief that with enough hard work—and enough crunch - every project will coalesce at the last minute. The piece detailed the stress, depression, and anxiety that has led dozens of employees to leave BioWare over the past two years.

How BioWare's Anthem Went Wrong

It wasn’t even supposed to be called Anthem. Just days before the annual E3 convention in June of 2017, when the storied studio BioWare would reveal its newest game, the plan had been to go with a different title: Beyond. They’d even printed out Beyond T-shirts for the staff.

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EA and BioWare chose not to respond to our requests for comment, instead publishing a blog post that read to many as dismissive and disheartening. (“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.”) 

The company stayed silent for the next day and a half, other than asking employees not to speak to press. Then, late Wednesday, BioWare general manager Casey Hudson sent a note to staff (obtained by Kotaku) that addressed the piece. You can read it in full here:

Hey BioWare,

I wanted to get a note out to you to share my thoughts on the Kotaku article and the online discussion it has raised.

The article mentions many of the problems in the development of Anthem and some of our previous projects. And it draws a link between those issues and the quality of our workplace and the well-being of our staff. These problems are real and it’s our top priority to continue working to solve them.

What we found out-of-bounds was the naming of specific developers as targets for public criticism. It’s unfair and extremely traumatising to single out people in this way, and we can’t accept that treatment towards any of our staff. That’s why we did not participate in the article and made a statement to that effect.

When I was offered the opportunity to return to BioWare as GM, I came into the role knowing the studio was experiencing significant challenges in team health, creative vision, and organizational focus. I was - and continue to be - excited to help drive improvements in those areas because I love this studio, and above all I want to create a place where all of you are happy and successful.

I’m not going to tell you I’ve done a good job at that, and on a day like today I certainly feel like I haven’t. But some of the steps we’ve taken towards this include a more focused studio mission and values, so that we have clarity on what we are here to do and how we define a high standard for our studio culture. We updated our studio structure around a matrix so that department directors can be fully focused on individual career support and well-being.

We are defining better role clarity so that people can succeed better against clear expectations. And we are putting in place production changes that will provide for clearer project vision as well as a significant post-production period that will further relieve pressure and anxiety on teams during development.

But I know there’s much more to do, and we will talk in more detail about other actions we have been planning in response to internal feedback and postmortems at next week’s All-Hands. As always please continue to provide feedback on further steps we can take to make BioWare the best possible place to work.

I’m committed to getting us to a place where we are delivering on the highest expectations for BioWare games, through a work environment that’s among the very best in the world. With your help, we will get there.

Please let me know if you’d like to talk in person and I will be happy to set up time to hear your thoughts.

Casey

Since the publication of this week’s article, I’ve heard from a number of developers who work or have worked at beloved AAA game studios with messages like, “Replace BioWare with [my studio] and it’s the same story.” We can only hope that continuing to talk about and report on these issues will lead to widespread change.


Comments

    That comment about the media is still making me angry, it is the Trump 'fake news' effect branching out in hilarious and scary ways. Seen recently here by Pauline.

    Why bother taking responsibility for your own actions when you can just blame others, in this case the media. (Good) media is to here to inform, not take sides, as long as they try and do their job right, it isnt about taking sides but simply reporting on what is happening. If Bioware had done their job right there would have been no article right. Its not the articles fault a unfinished, featureless was launched on to the market at full price.

    It is hilarious that Bioware is blaming the media for making the game industry bad, when that same source asked for a comment and they refused. Made even more concerning is how much this article hits on so many of the same issues from ME:A, it is almost like Bioware are incapable of looking inward to fix its own faults. Its the Mr Skinner approach to game making... "Am I so out of touch? No. It's the children who are wrong."

      It's a refusal to be accountable, in a lot of ways.

        Just curious as to whether Jason's sources are ever independently vetted by Kotaku. He has become known for (and presumably made money from - see his book) this kind of 'muck-raking' article. It would be easy for an unscrupulous writer to sensationalise or exaggerate what sources tell him/her. Alex, if you have time, a quick run-down on how Kotaku handles sources for this kind of article would be really interesting.

          For everyone, or the younger audience: Muckraking traditionally referred to journos who attacked corrupt institutions; today that field is now, academically, considered investigative journalism.

          Regarding how things are done internally, we all have that discussion with our sources. The general guideline that the US has always followed is outlined by the Society of Professional Journalists, which you can read here. MEAA and the local Press Council have similar guidelines that Serrels, myself, Hayley, Amanda, et al. have all followed for our various long-form pieces in the past (most recently the Firemonkeys layoffs).

          The US also has their own internal mechanisms for vetting and working through stories, and they've also established a range of encrypted, secure methods to protect sources that do reach out. Part of the vetting process takes place through that, as far as I understand, and that relationship is between the writer, editor and the sources in question. (Re. locally: I have some encrypted ways people can reach out, but we don't have a network-wide Securedrop or anything the way the US does.)

          And - this is more for everyone else, not aimed at you specifically - it's worth remembering that a lot of gamedev studios operate under "at will" employment laws. If most of these people are named, they will be fired immediately - they don't have the same employment protections we have in Australia. Hell, even just the revelation of games under development through LinkedIn profiles has resulted in the dismissal of devs before.

          I'd also add that, as journalism has always been, a lot of this operates on trust. Because we have to consider the well-being of everyone involved, not everything can be revealed. So readers should - and it should always be an active question - make a decision on how much they trust what is published in articles like these. That's partly why Kotaku always makes a point of noting how many people have been contacted - although obviously the names of those people will often never appear in print - as a way to highlight the due diligence we've done. But the rest everyone should think about critically, weighing up what's already on the public record, our history with investigative pieces like these, the author in question and their own judgement.

          I think we've all earned our stripes, and a lot of the work Jason has done has also helped educate and inform others on staff about doing similar work of their own. Cecilia's growth from when she started to the longform pieces on Atari and Riot are a perfect example.

          There's more that could be said, but that'd just be hijacking the thread completely at this point. It's a good discussion for a podcast or a panel.

            Thanks Alex. For the record, I'm not suggesting that sources be named :-) I think it's pretty important though that at least one other person, who isn't the writer, verifies what those sources say.

              Yeah, I get what you're saying. Traditionally, that's the role of the editor in these scenarios, although in smaller teams and some situations (like locally, where it's just me) that can be a bit harder.

          Muck-raking? Is that what the kids are calling having a reputation for delivering extremely detailed, highly researched articles these days?

          I get that you are doubtful. Doubtful is good. But demonising the integrity of a professional doing their job with a term like muck-raking, is less good. It really undersells what he does for a living.

            Jesus Christ he was asking a question and Alex answered him. Don't make this more than it is.

            If you want to call Theodore Roosevelt, who coined the term in 1906, a kid, then... yes? But it means someone who

            "fixes his eyes with solemn intentness only on that which is vile and debasing. Now, it is very necessary that we should not flinch from seeing what is vile and debasing. There is filth on the floor, and it must be scraped up with the muck-rake; and there are times and places where this service is the most needed of all the services that can be performed."

              The meaning and connotations of words change, especially over a 100 years.

          Jason's articles are always presented in a very clear cut informative manner. If he was trying to sensationalize it would be obvious in the style of writing.
          Simply put Jason has integrity.

        Just to play devils advocate - I feel like they've very much taken ownership of their failings.

        But targeting individuals is dicey territory. These are not politicians, they're normal people working normal jobs.

        And I'm not saying a good journalist shouldn't call them out. But at the same time, I think a good corporation shold endevour to protect their people above their product.

        As poorly as they managed Anthem, I think they've managed this recent crisis with class.

          Part of the woes of leadership, when your captain and you run the ship into a reef and sink it... It's your fault.

    I am getting the sense that working for big developers like EA or who ever is like being in a domestic violent relationship. You know what is happening isn't right but your too scared to do anything about it. I just really feel for Devs nowadays with such high stress atmosphere to work in, I really do hope something changes in the industry.

      I have a feeling that things are going to get worse. The major problem is that developers (particularly big ones) are setting up and using teams who work in jurisdictions where workers' rights are not as robust as in the US (and even in the US they aren't super great). This has led to a culture of fear, where if you don't work as hard as demanded then you might just get replaced by a semi-independent studio in Shanghai or somewhere.

        Yeah just seems really putrid to me, I am sure I'm not the only person who thought growing up how amazing working in the games industry would be and now hearing about how companies treat the their workers like disposable currency is just super sad. Like you said also it has permeated to this fear of speaking up because of how easily one can be replaced.

      It probably doesn't help that, in the United States, there's very little in the way of support for people out of a job, so sometimes holding on to a job, regardless of how awful it is, is still better than the alternative, which is often just literally dying.

        Yeah that part kind of sucks too. What a world we live in.

      If only there was some sort of organisation that represents the collective interests of workers. This hypothetical organisation could help workers unite to negotiate with employers over wages, hours, benefits, and other working conditions.

      Oh well.

      You just described working in almost every corporate environment (from my experience). But hey, thats just the way i perceive things.

      Last edited 07/04/19 12:19 pm

        Yeah I guess I am lucky in the sense that I work for a smaller family run bussiness, so we still have deadlines and the likes but our boss is human and understands the needs of each of his workers.

    Its wierd how its phrased, that they didnt like the individuals to be named... they were the people in charge.

    Would they have responded if it just said "lead game designer" or "exeuctive management"... no they wouldnt. The article didnt call out anyone for criminal behaviour, they were listed as being in charge of the workplace and projectwhen all this happened.

    Accountability starts at the top, if not the man in charge... the man in charge should know who is responsible for issues plaguing their core business, cause if they dont? Then aint they accountable for being negligent in their duties.

    He is right he had to come back and steer the mess, and doesnt deserve all the ire, but its you responsibilty to own past mistakes a cpurse correct the business... so is not naming those in charge a fair action.

    Time to unionize, game devs.

      I'm glad people are finally waking up to this. I'm happy to pay more for games that are produced by people who aren't being run into the ground for my entertainment.

    clarity on what we are here to do Make money for shareholders. That is your existence. Anything you do for the betterment of workers while tethered to that will not be sufficient, and not just because reconciling their purpose and welfare is untenable.

    I think its interesting to see them respond in this way. It must be hard to be the guy who has to come in a fix an absolute broken mess.

    That said, I found this comment from Gamasutra interesting and a slightly different perspective, that the entire studio had a culture/management issue:

    This bit isn't quite correct. BioWare themselves decided on using Frostbite.
    https://gamingbolt.com/biowares-frostbite-usage-was-our-decision-not-forced-by-ea

    And support existed, but BioWare Edmonton felt themselves above everyone else, and often refused to ask for help or support. Shit, they even refused to look at what other games, like Destiny, were doing and learning from them. That EA only "offered" support near the end was because the game wasn't a game, and BioWare Edmonton needed rescuing.

    From: http://www.gamasutra.com/view/news/339951/Devs_recall_moments_of_instability_indecision_and_crunch_on_Anthem.php

    Last edited 05/04/19 12:56 pm

      Ugh I messed up the formatting, that last paragraph was meant to be in the quote box as well...

        Worth noting that the "EA didn't force Frostbite" is a *little* misleading.

        The studio has the option of not using Frostbite, but then they have to find the money in their budget to account for licensing and what comes out of revenue at the end. Naturally, if they use Frostbite, that's more room for headcount and various other things that can go into the budget.

        So they're not forced, but it's not like they have a free choice in the matter (that is, EA wouldn't discount the cost of licensing from the overall budget, allowing them to make the game they wanted with the same staff count etc).

        Like most major corporations, the influence applied isn't a directive - it's more subtle shifting of sands.

          I think its interesting to see the difference here between Ubisoft and EA. Ubisoft has a range of engines - Snowdrop, AnvilNExt, UbiArt, Gamebryo, and has put out some really solid products recently. Now Engine does not equal quality games, but given the issues with the tools that Jason identified (in Destiny as well!), you have to think that the Frostbite directive has been a giant distraction for EA.

    I think it's important there is this sort of platform for people en masse, to speak up about unfair/toxic work environments with anonymity, where there is poor legislation for workers rights. Great article guys!

    The problems with the product itself, is proof enough of the issues stated in the article.

    'Continue Working To Solve Them'

    As if you gave a shit about these issues a week ago before Kotaku called you out. You aren't "continuing" shit.

    UNIONIZE, seriously
    If it wasnt for the right wing stacked courts shitting on every employee rights bill and making it harder to succesfully unionize there is no way publishers could treat devs like this

    So even if its harder to do in the US you HAVE TO DO IT, the film industry has succesful unions, the game industry needs them too

    Casey Hudson returned to BioWare in July 2017. As Anthem was reported to have not started meaningful development until around 12-15 months prior to launch, he was well and truly in charge while a lot of the reported shenanigans went down. Hudson didn't fix shit, obviously wasn't interested in fixing shit, and wouldn't have said a thing about it had this article not exposed it.

    Last edited 05/04/19 10:05 pm

    This is also not specific to game development; i do app dev in the non-gaming end of the industry and just came off a multi-year project that so closely mirrored the experiences related in the original piece that it gave me goose bumps - too many managers and still no leadership is like poison to the worker bees.

    But you keep on trucking, in the hope that things will improve. You get stockholmed and believe that this is normal. When you're finally done, you feel relief more than joy - relief that it's over.

    I look at my experiences and multiply them by a thousand to get an idea of how folks at Bioware must feel. They've had a pretty awful time.

    One important note I'd make: It might be easy to dismiss Bioware management's claims that they're interested in improving things but there's good odds they really do. In my organization, we are all very close, some of us like family, and we still fell into the same trap.

    These things don't just happen because people disrespect each other - they reflect much deeper organizational problems. And they will only be resolved by management and staff working together, neither end of town has enough perspective or resources to fix everything on their own.

    I guess at what point do you stop blaming the game engine? I get that Frostbite can be a pain in the ass to work with, that seems a near universal criticism of it, but the team that made Anthem consists of team members who worked on Inquisition right? That's 6 years of development 'experience' alone, and that's just Anthem, not including the time to get used to Inquisition.

    Even retooling things from scratch doesn't mean you start from the complete ground up with no understanding of what you *shouldn't do.* You always have some idea at least. And whacking in T-SQL statements for server stored inventory isn't impossible, they have hired industry professionals.

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