If you played and were disappointed with Mass Effect: Andromeda, Kotaku’s Jason Schreier has just posted an illuminating explanation. He spent three months investigating the troubled development, and it’s fascinating.
Montreal, not Edmonton
Firstly, instead of the flagship studio continuing their work on the series, Bioware shifted development to a relatively new studio (2009) that had previously only worked on DLC.
Edmonton would instead work on Casey Hudson’s project Dylan (to make the Bob Dylan of games, ‘referenced for years to come’).
No Man’s Sky?
The project was aimed to expand on the exploration of the first Mass Effect, that was ditched in favor of combat, story, and relationships for ME2 and ME3.
New Director Gerard Lehiany came up with the basis of the plot, and wanted to include hundreds of procedurally generated planets (before No Man’s Sky). This would be great for exploration, but eventually impossible to merge with the series’ signature writing.
The 2013/14 prototypes were very similar to No Man’s Sky. Flying a ship in space, landing on a planet, and driving a land vehicle around. This concept was eventually abandoned later in the project, causing an insane rush to retrofit the game as a traditional Mass Effect
Andromeda’s use of Frostbite contributed heavily to development troubles. While Frostbite is fantastic at creating gorgeous but small environments for action games like Battlefront, it’s ill-equipped to handle the basics of an RPG (party management, leveling, etc). It also struggles with animation, only adding a mediocre solution (ANT) years into development. Montreal had to develop many RPG elements by scratch and bolt them on, something else Frostbite doesn’t take kindly too.
Edmonton accused Montreal of lacking vision, while Montreal accused Edmonton of sabotaging their efforts and stealing ideas/staff. Staff were moved, positions weren’t filled, and Andromeda slipped deeper into trouble. Casey Hudson left Bioware in 2014, assumedly to create Bob Dylan elsewhere. Lehiany left after.
Mac Walters (Mass Effect writer) came in as Creative Director, and brought a new vision for the game (alarmingly late into a AAA project).
Functional but not fun
The team made functioning space flight and procedurally generated planets, but struggled to make it fun, especially over the dozens of hours the game would take to play.
A source told Schreier the vertical slice teams usually create in early development (showing a small portion of most aspects as proof of concept) was never created. They only had a backup plan of reverting to the traditional Mass Effect map if the original idea failed.
By the end of 2015, the procedurally generated planets were ditched. Management recaled the planets from hundreds, to 30, then to 7. Confusion among developers was obviously high. Work would be lost.
Bioware put all hands on deck, utilizing their multiple studios and outsourced ones to pull the project together. As Schreirer noted, Ubisoft handles production across multiple studios with a very large team of producers to organize the complex workload. Bioware unfortunately, was not equipped for this kind of development.
Most of the game made in 1.5 years?
Many Bioware sources reported the brunt of the game seen was developed in the last 1.5 years of development. The large-scale changes to scope and design makes this sound like an inevitability. It should be noted that one developer argued against this claim, stating many of the ideas in the final game were present at the beginning of production.
Yes, we’ve seen the GIFs, and they are hilarious. It’s easy to look at that and think “who thought this was a good idea?”. The truth of game development shows the many contributing factors and lack of time meant it was a miracle the game was even finished (and many enjoyed!).
Originally, an Egyptian team was outsourced for facial animation, and it reportedly looked fantastic. Bioware struggled however, with implementing the tech across the broad scope of the game. Add in customizable player characters and the problems deepen.
A drastic change of animation software resulted in months of work lost for frustrated animators. The reshuffling of Bioware staff left the animation team incredibly short-staffed.
Mass Effect on the shelf
I’ve mentioned this before, but the correlation of game quality and sales is fascinating. The success of the first trilogy most likely convinced many to buy Andromeda. Even though an Andromeda sequel could be substantially better with the additional development time and re-use of assets, it would probably do much worse due to Andromeda’s mediocre reception.
Thanks to Kotaku and Jason Schreier for their excellent investigative work that shed slight on the most disappointing game of 2017 (so far). Hopefully this story answers future questions of “why is this game so bad?”