At some point, probably after the release of, say, Dragon Age II, lots and lots of people got it in themselves to hate on BioWare. Those who ferociously voiced how crappy they felt the makers of Mass Effect games had become also had a reason: it was EA's fault. The mega-giant publisher did what it always does after it acquired a stellar game dev studio, angry fans said. They meddled with BioWare the same way they did with Pandemic or Mythic and bad things happened.
Well, the guy that calls the shots at EA Games has heard the theories and says that's simply not the case. EA president Frank Gibeau says that there isn't any mustache-twirling going on in the company's corporate headquarters. "The truth is BioWare has developed as BioWare and that creative culture is owned by them," Gibeau told me last week at the New York Games Conference. "There's nobody in the central planning committee at Electronic Arts that rolls in the tank divisions [into our studios] when they get too independent or too risky or too thoughtful."
Gibeau offers up the controversial ending of Mass Effect 3 as proof of the company's hands-off policies. "Did EA intervene and say, 'Hey Casey, you've got a really interesting ending here to [Mass Effect 3], you're probably going to cause some fans to get upset?" Gibeau said, referring to BioWare executive director Casey Hudson. "No, we didn't do that. Casey is an artist. He made a choice about the story that he [and the team] wanted to tell as related to Mass Effect 3. And we didn't intervene." "It's the same thing with PopCap, it's the same thing with how we reinvigorated [SimCity studio] Maxxis. It's the same thing with DICE. The way it actually really works is those guys report to me and they run their own individual businesses. They have their own individual creative choices. I will give them editorial feedback from time to time. But most of [my] time is spent doing research with customers and fans and understanding what's happening, and understanding how to make our games better."
So, Gibeau would have you believe that the decision to make more Mass Effect games won't necessarily come from him. "Does [Mass Effect 3's ending] mean you can never tell another story in the Mass Effect universe? No. If Casey decides on a story that he wants to tell, guess what? He's going to be able to step forward at EA and we're going to back him with capital for him to be able to go build that experience and tell a new story in the Mass Effect universe if that's what he wants to do. If he wants to do something different, a new IP, he'll have our backing as well. He's a profoundly talented guy. He's got our confidence. And the audience loves him. So that's how it really works."
What about the complainers that preach against the medium-befouling microtransactions and free-to-play conversions that EA is modeling its future on? Gibeau says that they're a vocal minority and that things aren't as bad as they think.
"We know what gouging is," Gibeau replied. "And, based on what we discover in research, we don't do a lot of things that we could. Like changing the play balance of a game to lean towards payments for objects. That's something that we found is a non-starter for a lot of console fans. We haven't done it. It works in Asia famously. But, in the West, that's exactly an example of something that we just don't do. Would we make more money? I don't know. But, based on what I've heard from gamers, is if they can buy a 50-caliber sniper rifle in Battlefield 3 that unbalances the entire game… well, it's not happening."
Yes, making money is important. But Gibeau's comments hint at borders that EA won't cross. "We discover the line as we build games, and we talk to our fans," he continued. "And they tell us what the line is and sometimes we cross over it and we pull back. Which we've done a number of times. If you walk the halls of EA's creative teams when people are building, there literally aren't people with knives in their teeth with bandanas on thinking of ways of how to screw the customer. They actually are starting with the notion that they want to make something awesome. They want to make an epic experience." And Gibeau and all the research he gets? He just tries to help them do that. Honest.