Former Dragon Age boss Mark Darrah explains what "BioWare Magic" really means

“BioWare magic” is the catchall term for what makes games from the Mass Effect and Dragon Age studio so special, but in reality, it’s all just an ugly way to rebrand lousy development practices that cause crunch. It's a succinct explanation highlighted by former Dragon Age director and producer Mark Darrah, who explained systemic problems in the video game industry that development teams face while trying to quickly usher new titles out the door. 

“BioWare Magic is this,” Darrah begins in his new YouTube video, gesturing to a hockey-stick graph that gradually climbs higher before suddenly taking a sharp turn up. “You’re going along not making a ton of visible progress, we’re slowly getting things done, but if you draw that line out, your game is shipping in 30 years. Then at some point, that is usually impossible to identify before the fact, you hit a pivot point, and things start clicking together.” 

It’s that last bit of the graph Darrah describes as the fabled “BioWare magic,” it’s when the game takes shape through a surge of development, and suddenly there’s tons of content to work with. “Things come together really late, things get better really late,” Darrah says. “That’s terrible, right? Because you don’t know what the angle of this thing is gonna be. You don’t know if it’s gonna be shallow, super steep, and you don’t know when it’s gonna happen.” 

The Dragon Age II director and producer takes issue with that short piece of the graph, but he attributes that difficult period to “bad process”  throughout the entire development cycle. Darrah sees a more reasonable process as a triangle, so a constant gradual incline without that rough, sharp turn up. “That’s where crunch comes from, and that’s where delayed games come from because you can’t predict with a hockey stick … BioWare Magic is bullshit.”

The term has caught on with fans describing BioWare's memorable casts and stories, and it’s not that bit in particular Darrah seems to take issue with. Instead, it’s when it’s used in the development process, and he specifically mentions his frustrations hearing BioWare magic in the context of Anthem - a game years removed from some of the studio’s biggest hits and constantly plagued by development woes. Even Kotaku’s 2019 report on Anthem’s painful development process mentions the motto, noting it was used by leadership and other studio veterans. 

While Darrah takes BioWare to task, he acknowledges this is what most studios look like as they lack the “completion urgency” on their projects early on. He mentions common obstacles leading to that extreme pivot but notes company culture pushed by leadership teams often perpetuate the cycle. 

Darrah warns against buying into those mystified ideals and snappy phrases, a word of caution which come from decades of experience in the games industry mostly spent at BioWare. And while he’s speaking to experiences there, it’s easy to make those connections across other studios as we see massive triple-A projects like Cyberpunk 2077 contend with a cycle of delays and shoddy launch builds. Those problems are well documented in numerous reports on crunch - like those we’ve seen on industry titans, including Rockstar Games and Epic Games. But, ultimately, whether the game turns out to be a hit or not, many of these projects come at devastating human costs. Cultures of crunch and toxicity are anything but “magic.”