BioWare discuses the risks of keeping Mass Effect 3’s development going long after launch

mass-effect-3You used to buy a game, pop the disc in your console or install it on your PC, play it and then be done. From the developer perspective, it was almost that simple. After game launch, you might have a skeleton team work on patches to fix show-stopping bugs in a game, but most development would just cease. Some popular games might get an expansion, but those were often viewed as wholly separate projects.

In the era of games that cost tens of millions of dollars to develop, game companies can’t afford to ship and forget a title, hoping that a boxed copy will sell enough to recoup development costs. Games now have to live past the launch dates, through DLC, microtransactions, and more. It’s a delicate balance though. If developers produce a good product that merits more content, gamers embrace it. If that content feels forced, it can end even a lucrative franchise. 

When BioWare announced that Mass Effect 3 would have a multiplayer component, the Mass Effect community initially proved hostile to the idea. Working on multiplayer would pull resources away from the single player game. Mass Effect was Shepard’s story, the story of one person trying to save a galaxy. What would be the point of multiplayer? Additional campaign DLC was expected and welcomed, but the multiplayer was an unknown.

As it turns out, multiplayer ME3 proved hugely popular, generating a dedicated community of players who came back day after day, racking up hundreds of hours in the pure co-op, horde-style mode. Better yet, players ponied up substantial real money for weapons and mod packs. And it wasn’t just multiplayer. Mass Effect 3 also had a tablet game tied to the game in Mass Effect: Infiltrator, and a small app for the iPhone, that enabled gamers to keep in touch with the Mass Effect universe. 

Right up until the game launched, however, all this seemed like a huge risk. BioWare’s Skylla Costa, who led much of the development effort, talked about the uncertainties in launching Mass Effect 3 in a way that would make it live past the initial single player game.

me3_telemetry

When the first player and editorial rumblings of doubt surfaced about multiplayer, the Mass Effect team decided to release a demo that covered both single player and multiplayer modes. Multiplayer consisted of just one or two maps (out of the six that initially shipped) and just one of the three factions. Surprisingly, players spent more than 25 hours in just the multiplayer demo, which was a pleasant surprise for BioWare.

Still, doubts lingered. Communication with the player community could have been handled better, Costa acknowledged. Players were confused about how multiplayer contributed to the single player “Galaxy at War” readiness rating, believing that they couldn’t get a “good” ending unless they played multiplayer. This misconception was eventually communicated to the community and the gaming press, but should have been made clear earlier.

On the BioWare side, logistical headaches came to the forefront. Since support for ME3 would be ongoing after launch, the game took on elements similar to what companies supporting massively multiplayer online games go through. The programming team couldn’t just leave on vacation en masse when the game launched, unlike typical single player titles – ongoing developer support would be needed.

BioWare kept a war room going in the weeks before and after the launch to deal with critical bugs and player issues. Eventually, this migrated to an ongoing support team that consisted of programmers, marketing, and a community team.

One thing BioWare did right int he community’s eyes was to make the multiplayer DLC packs free to the player. Making the DLC free on the PC was easy, but Bioware needed to negotiate with Microsoft and Sony on the console side. BioWare rationalized that forcing players to pay for multiplayer DLC would have fragmented the player base, resulting in the overall numbers going down over time. Instead, BioWare used microtransactions to allow players to speed up the process of acquiring rare weapons or character kits. Within weeks after launch, it became clear that the strategy paid off, and income from those microtransactions helped keep the multiplayer DLC flowing for a year after the game launch.

To keep the community happy, and deal with technical and gameplay issues as they cropped up, BioWare used robust, near-realtime monitoring of the game through sophisticated telemetry of both single player and multiplayer users on a large scale.

One very cool thing the Mass Effect 3 multiplayer team did was create weekend challenges, which engaged the player community on an ongoing basis. Players completing the challenge would get rewards in the form of challenge packs containing ultra-rare weapons or characters.

The final multiplayer DLC pack for Mass Effect 3 shipped in early March, and BioEWare has wound down some of its support elements, including the weekly challenges. However, the player base continues to return to multiplayer, and Bioware is keeping the servers alive as long as the community is large enough to warrant ongoing support. 

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