Our cover image shows the protagonist of Mass Effect: Andromeda deep in the uncanny valley next to her real-life model Jayde Rossi.
A lot has been said by critics and the public and the backlash to the game has been pretty epic. So much so that it has even come to our attention. Besides the shortcomings of gameplay, the one area of contention has been its facial animations.
There's just something in the eyes... those creepy, dead eyes. These animations attracted the ire of the Internet and the animator was allegedly sent death and rape threats
. Reports that the individual was the animator however were false and EA denied that she had worked for them. Anywho, this still looks pretty dank. Just compare this animation to that of a smaller, Japanese studio who made the game Yakuza: Zero.
Just look at the attention to detail in the faces and how little nuances are telegraphed perfectly. You can read the subtle cues on their faces and are almost photo-realistic.
So what happened?
For parent company, Electronic Arts, the company behind the game, the Mass Effect
series was a commercial and critical success and they were definitely banking on another... bankable hit. While there isn't much to go on, there is some speculation on the Internet as well as a review by a former VFW Artist at Bioware Montreal (developers of ME:A
), who left a review of the company on the website Glassdoor
1. The symbiosis between Bioware Edmonton and Montreal was broken
Bioware Edmonton was the team behind the earlier Mass Effect
games and Bioware Montreal was only opened in 2009 to assist with production of games. While some of the existing team worked on Andromeda
its clear from this comment that they were pretty much sailing the ship on their own. He also mentions "Lots of conflicts and bro culture". Something of a crony situation we suspect.
2. The game lost 13 leads (game design, art, audio, etc.)
This he compared to Bioware Montreal who only lost three leads in five years. Edmonton used to clout to evict Leads and Producers who were not aligned to their leadership style. A messy production team equals a messy, unpolished game.
3. People were put on corrective plans
The Performance Improvement Programs were a "tactic to get rid of people". More than 10 people were let go because of the program and the ex-employee once again blames Edmonton for these dismissals and claimed it was used to "purge the mess from the lack of vision cause by upper management".
4. Dissenters were punished
In his words "Retaliation and harassment is sadly a reality. If you talk and ask questions you will be tagged as a trouble maker and end up in a bad position."
His other points were actually part and parcel of producing games like benefits getting cut after the prolonged gaming development cycle and the lack of rest time during the final stages of development. While some might call into question the review, the review was posted on July 2016, way before any controversy regarding facial animation.
5-year development cycle
Perpaps five years was too much for a support team like Montreal to carry such an iconic series into the future. They had to work with new hardware on the PC, PS4, and XBOX One, and even new software with EA DICE's Frostbite engine. BioWare Montreal had to construct all systems, tools, and assets from scratch. It's hard for developers to utilise technology for the first time. Just look at Naughty Dog's Uncharted
trilogy. Tracking from the first to the third, animators had to perfect their animation over time.
Note that the developers took three iterations of the games to get the graphical fidelity we see today. A studio that hasn't been given the proper time to familiarise with a new engine would definitely struggle for fidelity. Pair that with a tumultuous development cycle and the apparent lack of unity.
Nevertheless, this is what we're stuck with. Bioware is now patching the issues but cannot say more about the facial animations. Lead designer Ian Franzier said on Twitter via Eurogamer, "We're looking at patching lots of issues and want to strongly support the game moving forward. I can't say more just yet."
Did you buy Mass Effect: Andromeda on launch day? Let this writer know your joy and frustrations. Go on.