The video game industry is, as your average NFL commentator is likely to state at least six times every Sunday afternoon, “a copycat league.” Developers pay close attention to the competition to determine what works and what doesn’t, then they attempt to incorporate those lessons into their upcoming products. Following the success of the Super Mario Bros. franchise, every console maker decided they needed some sort of family-friendly platformer to serve as the face of their new machine, be it a blue hedgehog, a thick-skulled caveman, or whatever the hell a bandicoot is. Mario later pulled gaming kicking and screaming into three dimensions a decade later with his debut on the Nintendo 64, begetting the likes of Banjo-Kazooie and several piss poor attempts to add a dimension to previously beloved side-scrolling franchises like Earthworm Jim. The success of games like Doom, Goldeneye, and Halo built the market for the umpteen hundred first person shooters available today. In gaming, concepts that work are copied and then expanded upon. There’s nothing wrong with this strategy; in fact, it’s a rare concept that makes sense both in terms of business and art. Any successful video game is essentially a beta test for future titles.
Which brings me to BioWare. I’m a huge fan of their RPGs, despite how they’ve arguably strayed from the true meaning of that term in recent years. The Mass Effect, Dragon Age, and Knights of the Old Republic franchises are some of my favorites in all of gaming. Hell, I even enjoyed Jade Empire. Squad-based role playing with excellent writing and deep casts of compelling characters is my jam, yo. Judging from the sales of those various titles, I’m definitely not the only one who smells what BioWare’s cooking. According to vgchartz.com, the Mass Effect series has sold over 10 million units combined. The Dragon Age series has sold approximately 6.5 million. Anyone who claims the single-player RPG is dead need look no further than those numbers for a rebuttal.
And yet, unless I’m missing something (and please tell me if I am), no one else has tried to emulate the style of those games. Why the hell not? These things sell, and BioWare isn’t exactly cranking out zillions of new RPGs using its particular style. There’s a market here, a niche yearning to be filled; there has to be. So why isn’t anyone trying to fill it?
The answer, I’d wager, lies in the MMORPG space. If an MMO hits, it can make a shit ton of money over an extended period of time. The key word in that sentence is most definitely “if.” The last two years have seen a slew of big name MMOs from big time developers crash, burn, and turn free-to-play, including Age of Conan, Star Trek Online, The Secret World, and even BioWare’s own Star Wars MMO, The Old Republic. Attempting to break into the MMO space is a serious gamble; why take that risk when there’s a market languishing under the lack of high quality single-player RPGs, especially when those games aren’t that different structurally from MMOs.
I’d bet that Knights of the Old Republic 3 would’ve outperformed The Old Republic. The Secret World features a very compelling modern setting and some interesting gameplay ideas; how great would it have been as a Mass Effect/Dragon Age semi-clone? Had 38 Studios focused on making Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning the best damn game it could’ve been rather than aiming for the stars with its Project Copernicus MMO, Rhode Island might not be out $75 million. That last example was a total joke, but I’m sure you get the point.
Will someone please try to beat BioWare at its own game? I’m practically begging that someone to take my money. I’m sure I’m not the only one.
Check out episode 138 of the D Pad D Bags podcast, featuring Tomb Raider, Bioshock Infinite, Borderlands, and Pizza Hutt.