So, as everyone now knows, Bioware and Pandemic were bought by EA. A lot of folks are talking like this is scary, but I want to talk about why I'm optimistic.
First, I recommend reading this coverage, since it's the only place I've read some important details. The most interesting point there is that EA doesn't have a history with open-ended RPGs, which is one of the main reasons they bought Bioware.
EA's got the money and the connections to market Bioware and Pandemic games on TV. Next time you lament the poor image gaming has in mainstream culture and your friend or family member's complete disinterest in your favorite passtime, think of EA advertising something like Mass Effect between CBS dramas or some Pandemic mayhem between TNT action flicks. This will help generate interest among non-gamers.
EA supposedly knows how to let developers be free. Of course, a Pandemic representative's going to say that after the purchase. But just look at the other developers, like Maxis [edit: can anyone find a link to a list of EA's other studios?], who have been with EA for years and continued to make quality games. EA certainly publishes some utter crap, but they know how to publish quality games as well.
And what form does their garbage usually take? Movie-based games. EA is more guilty than anyone else for putting out terrible games based on Hollywood IPs. This is where I have the most hope for the EA-Bioware partnership. Bioware's emphasis has always been on storytelling, and they've always gravitated toward the linear storytelling methods of films and literature. Honestly, I think the best model for a film-based game is an open world that only uses the film as a setting, rather than taking players down the film's linear adventure. But if the traditionally linear model is going to be applied, then Bioware's the best company to do it. I wouldn't be surprised if Bioware develops the first film-based game that's actually good.
It wasn't until this morning that I realized this represents a convergence of three companies which have each made one of my favorite games. Bioware made Neverwinter Nights; a game limited by the D&D license but full of meaningful customization and open-ended gameplay (in comparison with other games of the time). Pandemic made Star Wars: Battlefront; a wonderfully original game that was fast-paced and replayable for months. And EA made Battle for Middle Earth: 2; my favorite RTS of all time. All three games have elements which I hope to use as models for my own designs one day. These are all companies I respect, for different reasons.
So I'm hopeful about this EA deal. I don't expect we'll see any development effect until late next year, but this may lead to new innovations as each company coaxes the others into unexplored territory.
By the way, I know it might seem a little odd that I called Bioware's games linear and then praised NWN for being open-ended. I was referring to different elements of their games. Bioware designs relatively open-ended gameplay, but their storytelling follows more linear models. Mass Effect might allow for a lot of wandering and different dialogue-story branches, but it still makes the story the character's story more than the player's story. The player's choices essentially unlock dev-created stories, as opposed to the emergent and player-founded storytelling of MMOs and games like The Sims or Battle for Middle Earth: 2 multiplayer campaigns.