Shadow Realms was a cancelled online action RPG in development at BioWare Austin. It was originally scheduled for release in fall 2015 exclusively on PC with no immediate plans for a console port. The title’s cancellation was announced on February 9, 2015. However, thanks to multiple anonymous contributors related to the project, we have been able to preserve a plethora of insider information about it that was never disclosed by BioWare officially.
It was a game conceived by BioWare Austin in late 2013 as a 4 v 1 online multiplayer experience; with full production commencing by early 2014. According to one former employee of the company, its realization long preceded the announcement of other 4 v 1 titles, such as Evolve. Despite countless comparisons between the two by the press and consumers alike, our source emphasised that two were thought of completely independently of one another.
The World of Shadow Realms
BioWare Austin’s team envisioned a universe wherein Earth existed parallel to another world dubbed ‘Embra’. This alternative realm was populated by all manner of monsters inspired by gothic literature, including werewolves, gargoyles, wraiths and even zombies; as well as rejected creature designs from Dragon Age: Inquisition, repurposed. The story of Shadow Realms was to chronicle the discovery of Embra at the hands of a group of gifted teenagers in the 21st century. Soon realising they possess the ability to wield powerful magics, they are faced with the task of repelling the dark forces of Embra, whose invasion threatens the fate of Earth itself.
The narrative setup and general world building of Shadow Realms was to unfold via a series of live action trailers leading up to release, as opposed to traditional in-game cutscenes, our source revealed. The first of these short videos was titled “Chosen” and went live on August 13, 2014:
With its inspirations heavily set in modern youth fiction, it was the Austin team’s attempt to piggyback the trend brought about by the popularity of such phenomena as Harry Potter and the Twilight series. This mini web series of sorts would have depicted a diverse cast of young adults wrestling with their newfound powers and the responsibility they were reluctantly inheriting. Some would rise to the task, excited by the macabre domain before them, while others would recoil in terror.
On a conceptual level, the Austin developers were focusing on a juxtaposition of modern and fantasy aesthetics. Whereas some missions would take warriors into the grim depths of the shadow realms, other conquests took place in real world settings back on Earth; like an office block or an underground subway station. Each player was presented with a wealth of customisation options, too, and would have been offered the freedom to mix regular modern day clothing items such as hoodies with a variety medieval armour pieces collected throughout. We were informed that the majority of the game’s modern clothing was made to replicate real clothing brands, although no actual product placements were present.
Diversity was a key factor during development and the character creation tool would have reflected that. A wide range of ethnicities, body types, accessories, tattoos and other more off-the-wall customisations like devil horns would have been at your finger tips. Our source added that there were options for transgender characters included, as well.
Earth Vs Embra
The core gameplay of Shadow Realms involved a team of four heroes fighting against a player controlled enemy named the ‘Shadow Lord’ and every quest was styled as either a dungeon or arena type mission. These were almost entirely linear environments with the occasional opportunity to take an alternative route or uncover a hidden loot area. Heroes had the goal of battling through these stages and defeating the culminating boss enemy, whilst the Shadow Lord player would have to do everything in their power to prevent this.
Shadow Lords had an extensive array of dark sorcery at their disposal to get the job done. They could lay traps, summon computer controlled monsters and even perform direct attacks of their own. Whether you were taking up arms as a warrior of Earth or Embra, each class had its own unique skill progression with unlockables attached. Human characters were divided into eight different class types with a separate tree for playing as the Shadow Lord. Every hero class had some form of fixed magic available to them, although their choice of weapon was up to them.
BioWare’s Jeff Hickman said that the premise of the title was a deliberate callback to the table top RPG‘s of old:
“This game brings us back to our roots in the realm of classic Pen and Paper RPG, but also delivers something that’s completely new and innovative for our fans.”
BioWare’s Unrealised Plans
The payment model to be used by Shadow Realms was never announced by BioWare in any official capacity, despite being discussed openly with the press. Our source close to Bioware revealed that there were various other considerations throughout development but it was, indeed, going to be a ‘free-to-play‘ game. Microtransactions were planned to be in place for those wanting a valuable premium currency to gain unlocks at a faster rate, but the whole multiplayer experience would have been accessible without paying a penny to start off with.
One former BioWare employee also divulged that were talks of a single player component being implemented:
“Multiplayer came first, so story was not a huge push, but it existed. [There were] no set characterizations but that could have changed for the single player experience if they went forward with that. Think TF2.”
Ultimately, this solo mode never moved past the drawing board. For the remainder of development, the team’s time was spent mostly on polishing the 4 v 1 multiplayer, which had been at the heart of the project since its inception.
There were plans, we have been told, to support it for years to come with both free and paid expansions.
It was in June 2014 that word of the game began to reach the fellow branches of BioWare, as the Austin team started to show off their creation. Our source shared that it was somewhat far along at this point with “decently modelled characters and levels”. However, the underlying first impressions of it were distinctly lukewarm among the other offices it was shown to. This made for a stark contrast with the excitement building for another new IP the company was working on, which the developers were greatly enthused about.
“Many YuGiOh jokes were made around the office when we learned of it”
This general lack of goodwill towards the project internally extended to the staff hired to test the game’s alpha build, who were apparently left equally uninspired by it. Complaints highlighted such aspects as the shallowness of the combat.
Two months later, the title’s first gameplay video debuted at Gamescom 2014 during EA’s presentation on August 13, 2014. It was observed that initial reactions to the reveal among Bioware fans online and at the show ranged from tepid to outright negative – an unanticipated low for the company, our source disclosed. Once it was in the hands of the public via demo kiosks at the event, the indifference shown towards it continued, but Bioware refused to address the issues taken with it. Members of the press such as the team at Gamespot, on the other hand, were marginally more positive.
The Demise of Austin’s Experimental New IP
After its first showings, feedback sourced from these events pushed back the schedule of Shadow Realms as the team worked to improve the game’s foundation. By October 31, they would announce that its closed alpha preview was being postponed indefinitely, after previously pledging that it would be made available in the coming months. On their official microsite for the title (now defunct), Senior Producer Dallas Dickinson saved face as things began to fall apart behind the scenes:
“The thing is, feedback was so good it made us want to do more, to get a bit further down the road, before opening Shadow Realms up again. We got so many excellent questions about what the game will be, beyond just the multiplayer piece that we’ve revealed, and we’d like to be able to show you some answers rather than just telling you what the answers will one day be. But we need a bit more time. We’ve taken a deep look at the state of the game – what it is now, what we intend it to be, and most importantly what it could be – and realized this is an opportunity to take a great game and make it even better before bringing it back for more feedback from you.”
Production continued for the final months of development as publisher EA began to lose confidence in the project and its future lay in jeopardy. For the remainder of 2014, Austin’s team was apparently “oblivious” to the likelihood of it being dropped altogether. Their community manager, Eric Musco, would even come out to confidently deny this, saying that it was “absolutely not cancelled” on Reddit in December.
This would change on January 5, 2015 when the word was finally out and Shadow Realms was officially dead. The developers became a part of a complete studio refocus which involved transitioning them into development on Star Wars games, contributing to Dragon Age: Inquisition add-ons and their next new IP. One result of this was a number of departures from the company; the most notable of which being their aforementioned director of production, Mr Dickinson.
BioWare waited over a month to announce its discontinuation when on February 9, they released an entry on their blog, confirming it:
“We’ve made the decision to not move forward with development of Shadow Realms. We fully recognize that this news is disappointing to some of our fans, so I want to explain more behind this decision.
While the team did amazing work on the game concept and we got lots of great feedback from our fans at events and through other game testing, right now there are other projects for the team to work on within the BioWare studios for the coming year and beyond. We’ve got an incredibly talented team here at the Austin studio, and they are excited and already deep on new projects within the BioWare family, ones that will make some great BioWare games even better.”
On February 23rd, EA killed the Shadow Realms microsite that originally hosted the above statement to save money on server costs, in addition to removing almost all references to the game from their official sites.
Embra enemy concept art:
Additional concept art:
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