Remember the first time we saw the Citadel in Mass Effect? The Normandy breaking through the clouds to reveal a massive space station with a beautiful shade of pink and purple surrounding it. Everything about that scene is perfect and for a lot of people, it’s the moment they knew they were going to fall in love with the series. Despite being a game that came out in 2007, it managed to create a moment that arguably looks better than cinematic scenes today made on superior hardware. It’s an example of how, with proper art direction, anything can look great.
Now let’s compare the feeling that moment created to the one that Mass Effect: Andromeda created. Bioware’s attempt to take the series in a new direction was a spectacular failure and, until recently, has left the series dormant. There are people who do enjoy Andromeda, and they are well within their right to like the game because everything about video games is subjective. However, even the biggest defenders of Andromeda had one significant issue with it and it’s the state the game launched in. Bugs, poor facial animations, and a feeling of being unfinished plagued that game. Even with a shiny new engine utilizing cutting edge technology, Andromeda was a broken mess that took months to fix.
Doesn’t all that sound really familiar? It should because those are the same issues that plague the Madden franchise’s yearly releases. It also sounds a lot like some of the issues that led to Anthem being a development mess from start to finish until it was sadly shuttered for good. There’s one consistency across all of these titles, as all of them use the same internally developed engine called “Frostbite.” This does not mean that Anthem failed, Madden struggles, and Andromeda released a mess because of a singular engine. Every video game goes through its own problems in development, but considering that Frostbite was once described to Kotaku as “Full of razor blades” speaks volumes to the challenges it creates.
These challenges have led to rumors that the new Mass Effect game currently in development may utilize a different engine. The original trilogy was on the Unreal Engine and there’s a chance that Bioware switches back to that for their upcoming game. While it’s unfair to blame previous failures solely on an engine, when you look at the history of how Frostbite came to be and why so many developers struggle with it you gain a better picture of why they’re considering the switch.
What is Frostbite?
Frostbite is an internal engine that was first created by EA owned studio DICE. The reason DICE created Frostbite was because they wanted something that would help them meet the massive visions they had for the Battlefield games. Battlefield is famous for huge battles featuring up to 64 players at once and the upcoming Battlefield 2042 is expected to allow 128 players. They needed an engine that would not only allow for games of that size and scope but would also look really good at the same time. Frostbite gave them that.
For all the struggles that Frostbite can create, the games made with that engine are some of the best looking out there. Anthem, despite its faults, is a great-looking game. When Madden works it’s one of the prettiest sports simulation games. FIFA has been on Frostbite for years and is frequently praised for its graphics. However, the key detail in all this is that Frostbite was created with one series in mind: Battlefield. It is an engine specifically designed for the first-person shooter genre.
Everything is Frostbite
When EA realized the potential of Frostibite it started to switch many of its biggest IPs over to it. Not only because of how it looks, but this saves them licensing costs. By using an internally developed engine they aren’t forced to spend licensing money on something like Unreal. In theory, this is a great idea, but DICE didn’t make Frostbite to be an all-in-one tool. They made it for Battlefield and that means there were immediate problems that presented themselves. Tools that are standard in most engines have to be made from scratch, one phrase used by the Anthem team was they were “hacked together,” and bugs took an infamously long time to fix. One developer told Kotaku:
“We’re trying to make this huge procedural world but we’re constantly fighting Frostbite because that’s not what it’s designed to do,” said one developer. “Things like baking the lighting can take 24 hours. If we’re making changes to a level, we have to go through another bake process. It’s a very complex process.”
When everything is made on an engine that was designed for first-person shooters there is going to be problems. Some games, such as FIFA, managed to work through these problems and come out better. Others have not had nearly the same amount of success.
Switching to Frostbite guarantees growing pains
Not every game on Frostbite besides Battlefield and FIFA is a failure. Dragon Age: Inquisition was developed in Frostbite and came out a success — although, the developers of that game have spoken frequently about how difficult it was. Star Wars: Squadrons didn’t blow anyone away, but it was a perfectly serviceable game and received generally positive reviews. Star Wars: Battlefront II had great gameplay and was really only panned as hard as it was because of predatory microtransactions. However, it’s probably worth noting that the studios with the most success with Frostbite so far have either been DICE, worked closely with DICE or been on the EA Vancouver FIFA team. Every other studio is having a lot less luck with the franchise.
Perhaps no franchise has suffered more from the switch to Frostbite than Madden. Fans have been growing increasingly frustrated by the game for years, but morale around the series is easily at an all-time low. Metacritic isn’t a perfect metric, but here’s the critic and user scores of the last three games:
Compared to the final three games on Ignite Engine.
There is a significant and obvious drop in quality among both users and critics when it comes to Madden on the new engine. Some of this is apathy for the series, with faults such as bugs no longer being tolerated, but consider what we know about Frostbite and its “razor blades.” Then look at how only three studios have managed to successfully navigate those razor blades and it’s painting a picture that this engine might be more trouble than it’s worth.
Frostbite and Mass Effect
Mass Effect is a series that is absolutely beloved by fans. What Bioware created is a universe, characters, and morality system that fans still talk about to this day. “Who was your romantic interest?” “Did everyone survive the suicide mission?” “I am a scientist Solarian.” Obviously, these games weren’t without glitches and faults of their own. Some of the writing is extremely dated, it had glitches such as “ghost Tali,” and the combat in Mass Effect 1 was genuinely horrible. Remember the Mako? Everyone hated the Mako. The game wasn’t perfect, but we loved it anyway and when the remakes came out recently there was a sigh of relief when we saw it was sticking to the Unreal Engine. Not just because of nostalgia, but because it was going to avoid the razor blades.
Developers don’t want to make a bad video game. Nobody at EA has ever set out to make a game with the intention of it being bad. However, making video games is incredibly difficult already, and giving a team one of the most challenging development engines out there with a proven track record of causing problems seems like a bad idea. Especially when the last Mass Effect game on that engine failed as badly as it did. We all just want the upcoming Mass Effect game to be good. If that means moving away from an infamous engine then do it. If they can make a great game on that engine then stick to it. Just make Mass Effect fun. Please?