Medical school, RPGs and headshots: a short history of Bioware

Sam looks at the history of the studio behind Mass Effect, Baldur's Gate, and Dragon Age: Inquisition

A chance meeting of three trainee doctors in medical school has led to a generation of players being treated to some of the most memorable gaming storylines of all. Ray Muzyka, Greg Zeschuk and Augustine Yip were committed gamers, with the small matter of training for a career in medicine to attend to first. On graduating, the three came together to use their programming experience (medical software is owed a debt of gratitude by many RPG fans) to begin to create their own games. Thus, from a lecture hall in Canada, Bioware was born.

With the release of their first game, the mech shooter Shattered Steel in 1996, the company came into the public eye. Introducing revolutionary concepts like destructible terrain and context-dependant damage (layman’s terms; headshots hurt more), the team met with some success. Turning their attentions to their passion for role-playing games, the DNA for some of the biggest names in modern gaming was formed.

One of the most influential titles in the RPG genre was created next, with Baldur’s Gate and its sequel selling millions of copies between them and spawning a generation of other games which shared the Infinity engine with the series. Moving through various expansions to these titles, and dipping into the weird world of MDK by developing its sequel, the company had firmly established itself as an up and coming developer with serious talent backing up the big ideas coming forth.

Eventually, after some minor turbulence with the collapse of allied publisher Interplay, Bioware turned back to their signature series, once again expanding Baldur’s Gate with the Shadows of Amn pack. With various license deals in place, the company started work on yet another of their most influential games, the sprawling Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic. This established many of the elements that would become so familiar in the industry today, and can be clearly seen as a direct precursor to the iconic Mass Effect.

Ad – content continues below

The release of Mass Effect was a vitally important moment in the history of the genre, as the game brought action, storytelling and even a crucial socially progressive voice to the party. This didn’t go down at all well in some quarters, with a same-sex love scene that could be triggered causing consternation amongst some of the more right-wing-inclined outlets in the states, but established the company as a kind of outspoken, powerful voice for the growing maturity of the games industry.

Bioware made a huge break in 2008 when the giant Electronic Arts acquired the studio. With the clout of such a huge international publisher behind them, but the Bioware name intact and the key creative staff all set to work on massively ambitious projects, the stage was set. With such a large base from which to work, the team churned out a series of critically-acclaimed titles over the next few years, including the phenomenal success that was Mass Effect 2, a regular at the top of ‘greatest ever’ lists the internet over, and fantasy RPG Dragon Age: Origins.

Origins gave players almost complete influence over the game’s evolving story, with their race, background and moral choices making palpable differences to the events of the narrative and the characters within. The game won widespread plaudits for its immersive, tactical combat system and incredibly in-depth characters, with a sequel coming along in 2011. Dragon Age II may not have been universally popular amongst fans of the original game, streamlining the combat into a more action-oriented system and taking the unorthodox step of confining the game to an urban setting, but the familiar character beats and adapting storyline that had become the studio’s hallmarks were present and correct.

It was Mass Effect 2, though, which represents arguably Bioware’s best work. An action-packed shooter with detailed character development in both gameplay and story terms, the game took everything that was great about its parent title and refined it to one of the most memorable experiences of a generation. Leading our band of rogues around the galaxy in an effort to save it was an endlessly cool space opera that was the closest players could come to actually being Han Solo or Mal Reynolds.

The series came to a controversial conclusion with the powerful Mass Effect 3 in 2012, maximising the drama and gunplay as it tied up story threads from close to a hundred hours of gaming. Fans were famously left displeased with the ending, but the old saying about the journey being more important than the destination has possibly never rung truer.

Whatever your thoughts on the final strains of the Mass Effect saga, it can’t be denied that the trilogy is one of the most notable game series in history, and with a dedicated fanbase eagerly awaiting the fourth entry, it’s an exciting time for all things N7-related.

Ad – content continues below

Today, Bioware operate out of three offices across the Canada and the United States, and are working towards a number of huge-scale projects. To think back to the humble beginnings of such a company, with three students getting together after med school to code games together, it’s impressive to see just how far the endeavour has come. It’s one of the most closely-followed, critically scrutinized development studios in the world, and with their major IPs garnering such massive communities of fans, it seems a far cry from the days of part-time game making. The company celebrates its 20th birthday next year, and is now operated under one of the world’s biggest publishers in any industry.

With the team about to celebrate the release of Dragon Age: Inquisition, as well as continuing to work on the uber-secretive Mass Effect 4, the future would appear bright for the Canadian studio. Inquisition’s positive early reviews are being heralded by pundits as something of a new dawn for the series, and with more drips of information leaking out about the space-set epic at every expo or trade event that passes, the star of the RPG specialists is continuing to rise.

Follow our Twitter feed for faster news and bad jokes right here. And be our Facebook chum here.