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Innovation Strategy Example: Bioware’s Mass Effect

Innovation Strategy Example: Bioware’s Mass Effect

How One Video Game Franchise Made a Strategy Out of “Give ‘Em What They Want” 

After 2021’s financially successful release of Mass Effect Legendary Edition, and recent announcements of another entry in this video game franchise, it’s interesting to consider this franchise as an innovation strategy example: how it became as popular and lucrative as it is. 

While any number of reasons might explain why each subsequent entry in this franchise sold better than the last, it’s no doubt partly because of the simple but effective innovation strategy Bioware used to design each subsequent game in this franchise. 

Innovation Strategy Example: Feedback-Based Development

The developer of the Mass Effect franchise, Bioware, intentionally designed each Mass Effect game in response to criticism of the last one. In a video interview by Game Informer the director of the first three games in the franchise, Casey Hudson, described this process in detail

To summarize, for months after each game’s release, Bioware would collect negative and positive feedback from reviews, forums, youtube, etc. Then, they would sort the feedback into a document and organize it into a prioritized list of categories with potential fixes or changes. This document would provide a blueprint for the next game. 

For example, when Bioware was collecting feedback about Mass Effect 1, Hudson notes the list had a whopping 48 categories of feedback, with each category itself containing multiple suggested changes. 

In short, when designing sequels to its games, Bioware would collect feedback, organize it into categories with subgroups, and prioritize which feedback and changes seemed most important. 

This example of a strategy for innovation is simple and effective, but it does come with risks. 

Innovation Strategy Example: Bioware’s Mass Effect

#1 Risk of This Innovation Strategy Example

Perhaps the most obvious risk with the way Bioware innovated the design of its games is that it is by no means self-evident which feedback should be listened to and responded to. This isn’t a problem unique to game design. Responding to feedback is a necessary step when innovating or creating anything new: to be successful, product innovators need to respond to consumer needs. 

How to Balance the “Customer is Always Right” with Good Design

In this regard, it’s helpful to consider what Mark Brown, the video essayist behind Game Maker’s Toolkit, has suggested are relevant principles when responding to player feedback

  1. Don’t listen to a vocal minority: use data to confirm, clarify, and contest player feedback. 
  2. Identify problems, not solutions: use feedback to generate questions to diagnose issues.  
  3. Don’t let changes create a boring game: trying to please everyone dissatisfies everyone. 

In other words, it’s unwise to assume that seemingly popular feedback about proposed changes is as popular as you think, or would actually solve the problems it proposes it would. For, in truth,  negative feedback only directly suggests where people experience frustration, not what causes it. It is rarely (if ever) the case that a proposed solution accurately diagnoses the core problems. 

Innovation Strategy Example: Bioware’s Mass Effect

Innovation Strategy Example: Changes Over Time

The Mass Effect franchise provides a clear example of what happens when this innovation strategy misuses feedback. For example, it’s well known that Mass Effect 1 received lots of negative feedback about how it organized its armor, weapons and customization items.  Bioware’s response in Mass Effect 2 was to cut down the amount of weapons, armor, and customization items, which disappointed many reviewers on release. As a result, Mass Effect 3 reintroduced the options Mass Effect 2 cut, but with a different UI system than Mass Effect 1. That solved the real problem: the unwieldy item interface in Mass Effect 1. In short, while Bioware has been successful with innovating based on feedback, it too has made mistakes. 

Ultimately, if you want to innovate a better thing, you have no real choice but to listen to feedback. But you need to be careful not to let that feedback make your product worse. People don’t always know what they need, but feedback remains key to diagnosing their problems.  

If you’d like to learn more about the video game industry consider reading “Growth Strategy Template for Video Games” or “Growth Strategy Framework for Video Game Industry.” Alternatively, for more innovation strategy examples, visit our Innovation Strategy Resources. Or, learn more live from us at one of our Office Hours events.