BioWare announced it will lay off approximately 50 employees, which is roughly 20% of the developer’s overall staff. Those laid off include long-time and key employees. In March, EA stated it would eliminate 6% of its overall workforce. BioWare’s actions are part of the culmination of that move.
It is impossible to highlight everyone laid off. Major employees known at time of writing include Mary Kirby and Jon Renish. Kirby, who played a vital role in writing all of the Dragon Age games to date, is the writer behind Varric Tethras’ character, dialogue, and novel. Varric narrated the Dragon Age: Dreadwolf trailer. Renish was a leading developer on the programming side for eight years.
The lay offs were announced in a blog post by BioWare General Manager Gary McKay. “In order to meet the needs of our upcoming projects,” McKay wrote “continue to hold ourselves to the highest standard of quality, and ensure BioWare can continue to thrive in an industry that’s rapidly evolving, we must shift towards a more agile and more focused studio. It will allow our developers to iterate quickly, unlock more creativity, and form a clear vision of what we’re building before development ramps up.”
This news comes at a time when Dragon Age: Dreadwolf‘s current form has been in production for five years (eight years overall), and, as of June, 2023, Mass Effect 4 remains in early pre-production.
During this time, most of the news from the studio has regarded high-profile departures. In 2017, when BioWare shuttered the original version of Dragon Age: Dreadwolf, Mike Laidlaw left. He was the game’s (and franchise’s) creative director, as well as the lead designer and director on the first three games. In 2020, long-time lead employees Casey Hudson and Mark Darrah left. In 2021, the senior creative director, Matt Goldman, left. In January 2023, Mac Walters, the game’s production director and a 19-year BioWare veteran, left.
“If you’re wondering how all of this will impact development of Dragon Age: Dreadwolf, let me be clear that our dedication to the game has never wavered,” McKay said in the blog post. “Our commitment remains steadfast, and we all are working to make this game worthy of the Dragon Age name. We are confident that we’ll have the time needed to ensure Dreadwolf reaches its full potential.”
According to former employees, including Mark Darrah, and investigative journalism by Jason Schreier, BioWare management allegedly delays concrete work on a game and, in the final months of development time, demands extreme forms of crunch to conjure a finished game just in time for release. Now, a significantly smaller team faces two major releases back-to-back under these conditions.
According to McKay, BioWare management has chosen to “act now” to give the laid-off team members “as many internal opportunities as possible.” It is unclear why the affected staff members would not be marked for transfer, if possible, instead of laid off and required to reapply.
Additionally, EA has cut ties with Keyworlds, a major game services firm that provides playtesting. In June 2022, this part of Keyworlds voted to unionize. EA has announced that it will let the contact with them expire on September 27. Industry sources allege that this is unrelated to the unionization, but is due to EA choosing to reduce their playtesting.
At another point in the blog post, McKay expanded upon their dedication and focus. “After much consideration and careful planning, we have built a long-term vision that will preserve the health of the studio and better enable us to do what we do best: create exceptional story-driven single-player experiences filled with vast worlds and rich characters. This vision balances the current needs of the studio—namely, ensuring Dragon Age™: Dreadwolf is an outstanding game—with its future, including the success of the next Mass Effect™.”
This news comes shortly on the heels of Larian Studios’ Baldur’s Gate 3, which continues a series BioWare began in 1998 to critical and commercial success. As the Larian Studios heads have repeatedly discussed in interviews and speeches, they have taken steps to prevent crunch. The game’s development was paced-out ahead of time, and completed significantly ahead of launch. While there have been some mixed signals from Larian Studios, the difference between the two developers is stark.
This blog post seems intended to head off investor and consumer concerns before the lay offs can affect the bottom line or sales. Most of the blog post is geared toward reassuring the reader about BioWare’s focus, the quality of the upcoming games, and that laying off a significant number of the staff will enable the company to make better games faster. How this will be accomplished is left unexplained.
On the other hand, the well-being and status of the affected staff members is given only a brief, vague blurb about aid they will receive and the possibility of other positions they may find within EA.
On a far less important note, none of this is good news for Dragon Age: Dreadwolf or Mass Effect 4. Dragon Age has lost most of the writers and designers who made the series what it was; they were the series’ creators in any real sense. While the game should be nearing completion, BioWare’s production cycles are heavily weighted toward the final months before release. It’s difficult to imagine what will result without those writers, designers, and artists able to shepherd the game to completion. Similarly, Mass Effect 4 nears production with only the equivalent of a skeleton crew left to work on it; additionally, very few members of the staff with experience on the original series remain.
Featured Image: Polygon
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