When a game we all know had potential comes out disappointing, it’s hard not to wonder what the heck went wrong. Usually, we don’t find out. Usually, people keep their mouths shut and we’re left to wonder. With Mass Effect: Andromeda, though, we have a lot of developer testimony thanks to a deep dive investigation from Kotaku‘s Jason Schreier. It turns out that the biggest problem that led to Mass Effect was just about every problem ever.
Even before the game went into full production, it spent time tinkering with aspects that would sound like rip-offs from No Man’s Sky if they weren’t already in the works before that game was even unveiled. Hundreds of procedurally generated planets went down to thirty-something, and that went down to seven planets that were partially hand-made and partially procedural.
One particular trouble spot for the team was the toolset they were using. Animators had to switch tools partway through development. A facial animation suite wasn’t decided upon until quite late in the process. The Frostbite engine, a software suite designed by EA studio DICE for use in first person shooter games, was filled with shortcomings for the sort of game the team was trying to make. They spent countless hours building in basic functionality they needed to get things working.
Major staff left during the development process. This aspect is more or less public knowledge. High-level staff left throughout the development of the game. In a game that has a strong direction, a few departures may not be a problem, but Andromeda was already struggling in a variety of ways, so each departure added to the chaos.
Writing and dialogue weren’t dialed in until very late. The people Schreier talked to said that most of what we see came along in the last 18 months of a five-year stretch. That threw just about everyone into disarray. Animators couldn’t animate, artists couldn’t create necessary art. Programmers were changing core parts of the game far into the creation process, creating bugs in things they thought they’d finished.
Talented teams were deeply understaffed, forcing them to either put out sub-par work or forcing the developer to outsource parts of the game. And while BioWare Montreal led development on the game, BioWare Austin and BioWare Edmonton participated in development. In conjunction with outsourced staffing, this led to huge production slowdowns. Creators were often waiting for hours or overnight just to get things done.
Let’s boil it down.
When it comes down to it, it sounds like a management problem. With Andromeda, you have a severely understaffed team spread all over the world working with changing tools in a game engine that doesn’t suit its needs, and that team is trying to work on an ambitious, hotly-anticipated project that changes scope multiple times, pushing teams further and further behind schedule. At some point, management should’ve put the game on hold. There was something going wrong here, and someone put day-one sales over long-term success.
Exacerbating all of this, Schreier points out, is the fact that this game released during the same month as three major game-of-the-year contenders: The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, Horizon Zero Dawn, and Nier: Automata. It’s possible the game would’ve looked quite as bad in a less-packed month. Mock reviews has the game clocking in around an 80 MetaCritic score, while the real reviews ended up pushing the game down to 70. EA thought it had an okay game on its hands and wanted to get that okay game out the door.
This could’ve been prevented, it seems like, but instead, Andromeda was pushed through to release. Electronic Arts knew Mass Effect was a big property and that Mass Effect 3 made it a controversial one as well, but still pushed the game through.
It’s easy to blame inexperienced staff or social justice warriors, but even if either of those did play a role, it’s easy to see that the ship was springing leaks from every possible angle.
Schreier’s investigation, in the source link below, is a lengthy one, but it’s worth checking out in full to see just how troubled the project was.