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"I've seen people literally spend $15,000 on Mass Effect multiplayer cards"

Former BioWare dev speaks out against EA's monetisation of games.

Gameplay designer Manveer Heir spent a long time - seven years - working for Electronic Arts at BioWare Montreal, making Mass Effect 3 (mostly multiplayer) and then Mass Effect Andromeda, and he had some illuminating information about the company's mindset to share with Waypoint at the weekend.

It was to do with EA's recent closure of Visceral Games and the "pivot" in direction of the Star Wars game in development there - but it also tied into Star Wars Battlefront 2 loot crates as well.

In the Visceral Games statement, EA executive vice president Patrick Soderlund said: "It has become clear that to deliver an experience that players will want to come back to and enjoy for a long time to come, we needed to pivot the design. We are shifting the game to be a broader experience that allows for more variety and player agency..."

It read like a declaration EA will move away from single-player experiences in favour of open-world or shared open-world games. It's what Manveer Heir said he saw happening firsthand there.

"It's definitely a thing inside of EA," he said, "they are generally pushing for more open-world games. And the reason is you can monetise them better. The words in there that were used are 'have them come back again and again' [not quite but that's the gist - see above]. Why do you care about that at EA? The reason you care about that is because microtransactions: buying card packs in the Mass Effect games, the multiplayer. It's the same reason we added card packs to Mass Effect 3: how do you get people to keep coming back to a thing instead of 'just' playing for 60 to 100 hours?

"The problem is that we've scaled up our budgets to $100m+ and we haven't actually made a space for good linear single-player games that are under that. But why can't we have both? Why does it have to be one or the other? And the reason is that EA and those big publishers in general only care about the highest return on investment. They don't actually care about what the players want, they care about what the players will pay for.

"You need to understand the amount of money that's at play with microtransactions. I'm not allowed to say the number but I can tell you that when Mass Effect 3 multiplayer came out, those card packs we were selling, the amount of money we made just off those card packs was so significant that's the reason Dragon Age has multiplayer, that's the reason other EA products started getting multiplayer that hadn't really had them before, because we nailed it and brought in a ton of money. It's repeatable income versus one-time income.

"I've seen people literally spend $15,000 on Mass Effect multiplayer cards."

What we're seeing is a "cynical" chasing of the games making big money. "You've seen - what is BioWare's new franchise coming out?" he asked.

"Anthem," the host duly answered.

"Right," Heir said. "It's not a traditional-looking BioWare game, right? If that's what you're seeing from a place like BioWare, owned by EA, a place where I worked for seven years; if that's what you're seeing from Visceral now closing and going to this other Vancouver studio; what it means is that the linear single-player triple-A game at EA is dead for the time being."

Cover image for YouTube videoA brief look at each of EA's Star Wars titles (including Visceral Games!) - E3 2016
Footage - at 3:55 - of EA Visceral's 'pivoted' Star Wars game.

Manveer Heir said making the open world gave Mass Effect: Andromeda the most problems. BioWare simply didn't have the expertise for it, he said, and open worlds are among the hardest things in games to make because you can't predict how players will approach situations in them. Trying to build an open world after major changes in direction was just too much.

"The problem is, what ultimately comes out with a Mass Effect Andromeda isn't the game we started making," he said. "We started by making a prequel called Mass Effect Contact, and as we started testing things we realised a prequel wasn't a good idea and we moved to a sequel, which a lot of the team was happier with. We rebooted that game design multiple times, so the version of the game you see come out is probably the last two and a half years of direction."

It sounds like BioWare Montreal wasn't a happy ship, (there have been deeper dives into the turbulent development of Mass Effect Andromeda) and as soon as Heir had seen the project through to manufacturing, he left. "I was done," he said. "It was a real difficult project and time." He goes onto talk in much more depth to Waypoint about cultural disagreements in the full hour-and-a-half podcast.

Today, Manveer Heir is getting his own indie studio off the ground, making a game about the war on drugs and destruction of black and brown communities in cities by white supremacy, he said. He's currently trying to raise funds for the project.