Over the weekend, BioWare’s loot shooter Anthem received a new set of Challenges called “The Oncoming Storm.” They appear to be a precursor to the game’s upcoming Cataclysm event, which will introduce a new limited-time mode, but players have already run into some difficulty trying to complete the Challenges due to bugs and crashes.
“The Oncoming Storm” consists of three parts, all of which take place in the game’s freeplay mode. The first revolves around destroying a new set of crystals that have started appearing around the world. The second requires you to complete three separate “Crystal World Events,” activities that randomly pop up and reward you with a crystal once finished. And to complete the third, you just need to kill crystallized enemies, which are effectively Scar fighters with crystals on their backs. Getting all of this done rewards you with Coin, one of Anthem’s standard in-game currencies that can be spent on armor and materials, as well as some new decals specific to the activity to customize your Javelin with.
The Challenges are nothing to write home about, and they’re not a reason to jump back into the game by any stretch, but they at least give people who have continued playing something new to do beyond running the same Stronghold mission on loop and complaining about the loot drops at the end.
When BioWare first showed off how parts of Cataclysm would work in late May, the studio said that the event would be preceded by a two-week build-up period in which the world would slowly change and small things would be added. “The Oncoming Storm” Challenge descriptions briefly went live in the game early last week. More recently, a storm has appeared off in the distance on the northern part of the map. While the Cataclysm mission itself has been live on a public test server for PC players to try out for weeks now, the full event, including new story missions, now seems likely to come to the full game in early August. Back when Anthem first came out, the Cataclysm was scheduled to arrive some time in May.
During a developer live stream today, BioWare gave Anthem players their first look at the game’s upcoming Cataclysm event, a limited-time end-game activity that will take place in an entirely new environment.
Based on what BioWare showed, the Cataclysm, which will last six weeks, seems to function like a mini-freeplay mode. Players load into a special area with its own overhead map broken up into different sections that can be explored in any order. Some of the rewards players can collect in Cataclysm will change from week to week, as will the map, with more activities getting added as the weeks go on.
Cataclysm will be score-driven, with higher scores apparently granting players better rewards and a higher amount of a special new currency. It’ll also have a countdown timer ticking down. When it reaches zero, the mission ends. Players can regain time by completing different activities on the map, like arenas, which are localized enemy encounters that look similar to the ones in the rest of the game. The more arenas players clear, the higher their score, with more arenas being added to the map as the weeks go on. The arenas also have orbs at the center of them. When the orbs are destroyed, they create safe zones that protect players from the environmental hazards of the Cataclysm.
Ben Iriving, the game’s lead producer, said that there will also be lots of secrets and puzzles hidden throughout the map. The more efficiently players move through the Cataclysm, the more of these side activities they’ll be able to get through, boosting their overall score and potentially netting them additional rewards. He also stressed that it won’t have a level requirement, so new and old players alike can try it when it becomes available with rewards scaling as needed.
If the activity has a main boss, BioWare didn’t show it. While this was only a brief look at Anthem’s major end-game activity, it seemed much less like a Destiny-style raid and much more like that game’s “Prison of Elders” mission, which had waves of enemies and encouraged players to prioritize dispatching them quickly over puzzle-solving or story-driven exploration.
Cataclysm, which was supposed to launch sometime this month, doesn’t currently have a start date. Before it’s rolled out for everyone, however, Iriving said the plan is to release it first on a test server for PC players to try it out and provide feedback. Effectively, Anthem’s first major content expansion after release is going to go through a brief beta period.
When Cataclysm is finally released, it’ll coincide with an update to the loot system in the game. For the duration of Cataclysm, there will be a new vendor at Fort Tarsis who will give players war chests in exchange for a new type of currency. Irving didn’t clarify whether these chests will function like loot boxes or if they will give pre-determined rewards.
The game is also getting a new gear slot for melee attacks. While different pieces of melee gear won’t change the appearance of your melee weapon, they will change how powerful it is and what its secondary status effects are. That will give players more options in how they execute attack combos. Also, the luck stat is going away. Now, the game will just treat every player as if they had a maximum luck stat, which will in turn cause more loot to drop overall for the average player.
More significantly, Iriving said that the new loot being added to the game during the Cataclysm will be five levels higher than the current existing end-game gear. It’s unclear if this will mean that players’ existing inventory of guns and armor will be made obsolete, or if there will be some way to level it up or craft new versions that are in line with the new gear. Iriving said that BioWare will be taking feedback during the testing phase before deciding what to do there.
Since very little of the event itself was actually shown, it’s hard to know how interesting the fights and exploration aspects will be, or if the rewards will feel like they’re worth the effort (unlike a lot of the game’s current activities, which don’t). It’s possible BioWare is holding back from showing off the most exciting aspects of Cataclysm right now, but so far, it doesn’t yet look like a game changer.
Video games are art. Video games can tell complex stories about the nature of the soul or bring players to tears with their honest belief in heroes. They also have numbers in them. Lots of numbers. And I am a big buffoon who loves when numbers go up.
I’ve been denying this simple fact for a long time. After all, numbers are used as part of the treadmill to keep players mindlessly locked to their games. The importance of numbers and statistics is key to things like lootboxes. In many mobile phone games, strong characters and items are found through “pulling” for rare items. This can often mean using in-game currency that’s purchasable with real money. A player’s desire for the biggest, bestest numbers and statistics can draw them to participate in an exploitative monetization model created specifically to wring every last cent out of them.
I know all this. I am intimately aware of it and find it disgusting. Mobile games are a hellscape. I also love it when I get a rare weapon or stat-increasing “wrymprint” in Dragalia Lost that boosts my Might level to further heights. Because even if you are aware that you’re living in Idiocracy, we’re all still giant apes who happened to beat up all the slightly dumber apes. If I have the largest Might level, does that not make me the bigger and most powerful of all the apes?
In games, numbers are abstractions of certain qualities. The more, the better. Striking a critical blow in Final Fantasy XIV doesn’t just mean that you hit the enemy, it’s an indication that you really hit the big meanie super hard. You big, tough Warrior of Light, you. In some cases, like in the Fallout series, having big numbers in stats like Intelligence unlocks special dialog options that allow better rewards or easier progression. You’re not just smart, you’re exceptionally smart. A goddamn genius. Meanwhile, a low number in Intelligence can lead to limited options and (sometimes questionable) dialog options. You want more, you need more.
I can’t begin to decipher the ancient impulse that leads humans to believe that having more of a thing is better. Some of that is probably tied to survival instincts. In the times where our near-ancestors had to deal with absolutely bonkers shit like sabertooth tigers and roaming raiders, you probably wanted the biggest dudes and the biggest spears to avoid getting eaten. This somehow got codified into the notion of wealth, where we stopped collecting each other’s goddamn skulls as proof of how big we were and did the totally sensible thing of deciding that shiny stuff would do. Humans fucking love shiny stuff. That’s a part of video games too; see the colorful item rarity systems in games like Diablo 3. Anyway, the point is that capitalism became a thing. You got wealth by (supposedly) being tough or adventurous or cunning—all of which are largely code words for being a dubious asshole—and your collection of wealth was a bigger number than the other guy.
Look at all these loot shooters. These games are predicated solely on the idea that folks will run the same content over and over again to up their statistics. You have Destiny 2, The Division 2, Anthem, and soon there will be Borderlands 3. All of these games are fundamentally peddling the same experiences, all enticing players who lust for more loot that is quantified with bigger and bigger numbers. A homogenous AAA slurry is slurped up until we get a sequel with a bigger number at the end of the name. Numbers have ruined the gaming landscape.So here I am today, fully aware that numbers are the basis of questionable practices and systems that exploit many people. Systems that dangle the prospect that people could also have more stuff as the best possible thing that can happen in our lives. Systems that turn our catelog of art (at least at a certain level) into a grey wasteland where everything is the same. That’s stupid and I hate it. Meanwhile, I spent an entire evening checking to see if the Dragon’s Dogma servers were up because I wanted to see how many rift crystals my companion had collected by helping other players.
I have over one million rift crystals now. One million! That’s a big number and I’d be lying if I didn’t say that I grinned like a buffoon as whatever societally ingrained Pavlovian response kicked off in my brain. I salivated like a slobbering dog at the mere idea that one million could become two million.
I can’t keep lying to myself like this. I am a friggin’ dope who loves the big numbers. Don’t just give me Excalibur, give me Excalibur+1.
Today’s Anthem update has removed special Elysian chests from the game just over a month after they were added. This comes on the heels of several delayed updates, leaving the game’s remaining players bewildered and frustrated.
Anthem’s 1.1.1 patch went live earlier today and fixed a handful of small bugs, including one which was causing the wrong equipment stats to be displayed. The patch notes also included a note encouraging players to use up their remaining Elysian keys before they vanished from the game completely. “A reminder that Elysian Caches will be going away on May 7th, so if you have any keys left be sure to use them today!” it read.
Elysian Caches were special loot chests that appeared at the end of Stronghold missions and had unique cosmetics like decals and fabric textures inside. They were originally added to the game in a March 26 update, the game’s first major new piece of content since its February release. The cosmetics inside the chests weren’t fantastic, but they did give players an additional reason to keep running through the same old content over and over again.
“I know they weren’t very rewarding but Elysian Caches were literally the only thing that kept me in the game. Log on. Do a daily. Get a key. Heart of Rage. Log Out. Easy enjoyable experience,” wrote one player on the game’s subreddit. “Not rewarding mind you. But I still had fun. Hell, sometimes I would run TWO strongholds in the same night.”
In the comments section of Reddit, BioWare global community manager Jesse Anderson responded that the Elysian Caches were never meant to last. “They’ve always been planned as a temporary thing since there was a timer under the challenges,” he wrote. “There is a chance that they’ll come back again at some point.”
A post on EA’s website about the chests does indeed allude to them being temporary. “You’ll have to move fast, though, because Anthem’s world is always changing, and the Elysian Chests won’t be around forever,” it reads. But that hasn’t made the game’s remaining players feel any better about their removal given Anthem’s overall lack of content.
In the meantime, the game’s popularity on Twitch has plummeted, and some of its players have taken to the subreddit to announce they’re taking a break. Last week, Chad Robertson, the game’s head of live service, took to Twitter to try and reassure fans that Anthem wasn’t dead.
“We remain 100% committed to Anthem and look forward to showing players the new content we are working on,” he wrote. “We want to make sure we aren’t overpromising, so our updates on what’s coming in the game will be focused when we have things near completion.” Unfortunately, the removal of some of the game’s only new content since release isn’t the type of update many were hoping for.
I’m playing Anthem, and I’m flying through a tunnel. There are a lot of those in the game. This one happens to be filled with water. At the other end I can make out some light. I fly closer to it. Eventually I break through the surface into a sandy, sun-bleached arena surrounded by massive walls of sea water. For a few seconds Anthem is really, really cool again.
This takes place toward the end of The Sunken Cell, a new Stronghold added to Anthem in this week’s update and the first significant new piece of content since the game launched in February. It’s located in an underground facility which belongs to Doctor Harken, an evil scientist who likes to tamper with the powerful Shaper artifacts that have left Anthem’s world a broken mess. Similar to the game’s three other Stronghold missions, The Sunken Cell ends with a boss fight, in this case against one of Harken’s experiments. The excitement of that fight pales in comparison to the background scenery, which is some of the game’s best.
Harken’s facility is connected by a series of tunnels and large water pipes which you can jump inside and travel through. Gaining access to them requires defeating waves of enemies and then solving a quick puzzle. You then spend a handful of seconds swimming through a pipe to the next section. Except on the fourth one. That pipe leads to an open-air part of the surface where the Shaper technology has parted the ocean, creating a natural cage in which you’re forced to confront Harken’s experiment, an oversized mashup of ancient technology and monstrous flesh called the Unfathomed.
After being down in BioWare’s dark, dingy caves for so long, I found the azure skies and pulsing seafoam cyclone refreshing and even breathtaking. “The creation of [this Stronghold] was all about this payoff,” BioWare’s level design director said during a livestream yesterday. “You’ve been going up, up, up in these tight spaces and then you come here and then you exit and you’re like ‘oh my god what is going on here.’”
Anthem’s scenery is one of its strongest elements. The look of the game’s sprawling nature reserves keeps me wanting to come back and wishing there was more pay-off for doing so.
Unfortunately, the Sunken Cell’s wonderful “holy shit” moment is surrounded by many of the same issues that plague the rest of the game.
Enemy fights still feel like haphazard melees with enemies sprouting up out of thin air in random places and little indication of where enemy fire is coming from. Though The Sunken Cell is broken up into distinct sections, they blur together since they all consist of showing up in a big open room, blowing up the enemies that randomly spawn throughout it, and then flying to the next one. The puzzles are as surface-level as those in the rest of the game—matching symbols in a Simon Says-fashion and coordinating timing with teammates so you activate levers simultaneously.
The Unfathomed is also a letdown. He bumbles around the arena firing purple blasts at you from afar. Sometimes they follow you and explode on impact to create little vortexes that suck you in and keep dealing damage. Other times they zap you in quick bursts. They’re almost impossible to dodge while flying, so most of the battle plays out while darting behind piles of rocks, which feels like a supreme waste of the giant wall of moving water that surrounds you both. And since BioWare still hasn’t sorted out Anthem’s loot problems, there’s no special Sunken-themed gear to collect at the end.
All of this is par for the course in Anthem at the moment, but perhaps the most disappointing part of the mission was when I tried to fly into the liquid vortex and was immediately bulldozed to the ground by forces unseen. Diving underwater was one of the first things BioWare showed when Anthem’s gameplay was revealed at E3 and you spend a lot of time doing it in The Sunken Cell, so being able to dive in and out of a cyclone to dodge the Unfathomed’s attacks was my first inclination. Unfortunately it’s not one the game is ready to reward yet.
In an Anthem update released today, BioWare lead producer Ben Irving and head of live services Chad Robertson announced that a number of updates planned for the game, including its limited-time Cataclysm event, have been delayed.
“While we have delivered many of the Act 1 features on time, we are not going to hit all the goals on our Act 1 Calendar,” the two wrote. “We set aside time for this work, but the reality is there are more things to fix and improve than we planned for. While this is the best thing to do for the game, it means some items from the calendar will be delayed.”
The list of delayed features includes:
Legendary Missions – Phase II
Weekly stronghold challenge
Some freeplay events
The leaderboards, guilds, and weekly stronghold challenges were some of the bigger updates planned for April intended to help build out the end-game. BioWare has been light on details about some of the other delayed content, like the Mastery system. Cataclysms have been described as limited-time events that will bring new enemies and dramatic changes to the world’s terrain and climate. They were promoted in a video prior to the game’s release as Anthem’s “most challenging and ambitious content.”
“Cataclysms will obviously not be every day; they’re designed to be content that you engage with for weeks, and they would come out less frequently,” executive producer Mark Darrah told GamesRadarin an interview in February. “They’re more meta-changing; they’re designed to be more seasonal.” In an interview with Variety, Darrah said Cataclysm missions would be somewhere between a Destiny raid, which can be several hours long, and a strike, which are much shorter.
Anthem has been light on content, especially in the end-game. Many players have been desperately waiting for the first Cataclysm event to hopefully introduce some traditional raid-like content into the game. Currently players have only had strongholds to focus on, half-hour missions whose difficulty is mostly a result of spongier enemies.
But while the game’s first Cataclysm has been delayed, BioWare hasn’t given any more specifics on what the new time frame is. “A lesson we have learned is we have been talking about things too early,” wrote Irving and Robertson. “Our goal is to tell you about new content and features once the work is closer to being done.”
When BioWare’s online multiplayer loot shooter, Anthem, launched in February, it wasn’t possible to embark on missions back-to-back or swap out equipment on the fly. In today’s update, BioWare has finally changed that, helping to streamline an experience previously mired by frustrating restrictions.
Patch 1.1, which went live earlier today on PS4, Xbox One, and PC, finally makes it possible to launch new missions directly from the expedition summary screen. Previously, players were forced to return to the launch bay or the game’s main hub of Fort Tarsis prior to going back out again. That required sitting through multiple loading screens, slowing play by a couple minutes between missions. For a game predicated on grinding the same content repeatedly, little things that get in the way of continuously playing are extra annoying.
It’s also now possible to choose new contracts directly from the mission selection screen rather than needing to go visit the contract boards individually. That means there’s less reason to wander through Fort Tarsis, but since it’s clear that’s not where the heart of the game is, providing shortcuts to bypass it is a welcome development.
The biggest new feature remains the ability to access the Forge during missions. In the past, it was only possible to fiddle with your character’s Javelin loadout while back at Fort Tarsis or the launch bay. Now you can pull it up mid-combat by going to the menu screen and changing out components, guns, and gear in a matter of seconds. It’s a feature that should have been in the game back when it launched 60 days ago but at least it’s here now. Unfortunately, it doesn’t apply to new loot you pick up during a mission. That can still only be accessed at the end.
The patch has brought new content as well, including a new stronghold called Sunken Cell, which I’ll offer more thorough impressions on once I’ve been able to spend more time with it. It also adds some loot in the form of new Masterwork components like the Extended Sniper Magazine for sniper rifles that boosts ammunition and damage. There’s a long list of bug fixes and gear adjustments, not all of which appear to actually updated yet. The patch notes list the Storm’s Chaotic Rime seal as having it’s damage bonus increased from 125 percent to 250 percent, but when I played today that wasn’t reflected in the in-game description.
It’s hard to be overly enthusiastic about the patch given how many questions still remain about the rest of the content that was originally slated to roll out this month. Of the 14 new additions planned for April in BioWare’s 90-day calendar for the game, this update adding the Sunken Cell marks the first. That leaves seven days left for everything else, including big stuff like the new Mastery progression system and guilds, which seems incredibly unlikely that this point.
A developer livestream, the first in over a month, is scheduled for later today where BioWare is expected to provide an update to the existing schedule.
Anthem’s next update will arrive tomorrow on April 23, global community manager Andrew Johnson announced on Twitter. It will add new bug fixes, gameplay tweaks, and the much awaited new Stronghold mission called The Sunken. The update will be followed by a developer live stream later in the day.
With Anthem currently in a holding pattern as players wait for BioWare to add more content, its community has taken to dressing up like characters from other video games, comic books, and movies to help pass the time.
For several days now, players on the game’s subreddit have taken a break from the usual topics—how to improve the game, weird bugs, comparing loot drops—to share pictures of their Javelins customized to look like characters from elsewhere. The looks don’t always translate to Anthem’s mechanical exosuits, but players have been having fun regardless. By far the fan favorite so far is a Storm Javelin by Reddit user BrotatoChipz painted like a Charizard from Pokemon.
It’s especially fitting since the Storm Javelin has elemental fire attacks. “Okay so screw you,” wrote one commenter. “I hate all these posts but this one is actually amazing, so now I am both annoyed and pleased at the same time.” Unlike the other submissions, it even won a reply from BioWare’s global community lead, Andrew Johnson. “I <3 this one,” he wrote.
Anthem players have so much time on their hands at the moment that they’ve even gone further afield with much more obscure references. I kid you not, someone actually made Rinzler from Tron.
Someone else even made Metalhead, the fifth Ninja Turtle from the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, originally created by Krang to fight them but later reprogrammed to be good by Donatello.
According to Anthem’s 90-day roadmap, there are a lot of updates planned for April, including a new Stronghold mission, additional gear, and a guild system, so the game’s remaining players will likely be back to the usual grind soon.
In the meantime, players can continue to show off their increasingly bizarre creations in a contest being held by the Fashionlancer subreddit. First-place wins a download code for a 4,600 Shard Pack, perfect for buying more cosmetic accessories for your Javelin, if and when the game eventually gets them.
It wasn’t even supposed to be called Anthem. Just days before the annual E3 convention in June of 2017, when the storied studio BioWare would reveal its newest game, the plan had been to go with a different title: Beyond. They’d even printed out Beyond T-shirts for the staff.
Then, less than a week before the Los Angeles press conference held by BioWare’s parent company, Electronic Arts, word came down that securing the rights to the trademark would be too difficult. Beyond was ruled out. The leadership team quickly switched to one of their backup options, Anthem. But whereas Beyond had been indicative of what BioWare hoped the game would be—you’d go out beyond the walls of your fort and into the dangerous wilds around you—Anthem didn’t really mean much.
“Everybody was like, ‘Well, that doesn’t make any sense—what does this have to do with anything?’” said one person who worked on the game. Just days before their game’s announcement, the team at BioWare had a brand new name that nobody really understood.
Such a major last-minute upheaval might seem strange to an outside observer, but on Anthem, it was common. Very few things went right in the development of BioWare’s latest game, an online cooperative shooter that was first teased in mid-2012 but spent years floundering in pre-production. Many features weren’t finalized or implemented until the very final months, and to some who worked on the project, it wasn’t even clear what kind of game Anthem even was until that E3 demo in June of 2017, less than two years before it actually came out. Later, they came up with an explanation for the name: The game’s planet was enveloped by something called the Anthem of Creation, a powerful, mysterious force that left environmental cataclysms across the world.
When Anthem launched in February of 2019, it was panned by fans and critics. Today, it has a 55 on the review aggregation site Metacritic, BioWare’s lowest score since the company was founded in 1995. The developer once known for ambitious role-playing games like Dragon Age and the original Mass Effect trilogy has now released two critical flops in a row, following 2017’s disappointing Mass Effect: Andromeda. Although hardcore fans have put their faith in BioWare to continue fixing Anthem’s bugs and improving its mechanics—especially since Bungie’s Destiny, a similar game, had a rough launch and eventually recovered—few were happy with the initial release. Anthem wasn’t just buggy and thin on content; it felt half-baked, like it hadn’t been play-tested and tweaked enough by developers with experience playing other loot shooters. In the weeks after launch, there appeared to be a major new problem every day.
Fans have speculated endlessly as to how Anthem went so awry. Was it originally a single-player role-playing game, like BioWare’s previous titles? Did EA force BioWare to make a Destiny clone? Did they strip out all of the good missions to sell later as downloadable content? Is the loot system secretly driven by an elaborate AI system that keeps track of everything you do so it can get you to spend more money on the game?
The answer to all of those questions is no.
This account of Anthem’s development, based on interviews with 19 people who either worked on the game or adjacent to it (all of whom were granted anonymity because they were not authorized to talk about Anthem’s development), is a story of indecision and mismanagement. It’s a story of technical failings, as EA’s Frostbite engine continued to make life miserable for many of BioWare’s developers, and understaffed departments struggled to serve their team’s needs. It’s a story of two studios, one in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada and another in Austin, Texas, that grew resentful toward one another thanks to a tense, lopsided relationship. It’s a story of a video game that was in development for nearly seven years but didn’t enter production until the final 18 months, thanks to big narrative reboots, major design overhauls, and a leadership team said to be unable to provide a consistent vision and unwilling to listen to feedback.
Perhaps most alarming, it’s a story about a studio in crisis. Dozens of developers, many of them decade-long veterans, have left BioWare over the past two years. Some who have worked at BioWare’s longest-running office in Edmonton talk about depression and anxiety. Many say they or their co-workers had to take “stress leave”—a doctor-mandated period of weeks or even months worth of vacation for their mental health. One former BioWare developer told me they would frequently find a private room in the office, shut the door, and just cry. “People were so angry and sad all the time,” they said. Said another: “Depression and anxiety are an epidemic within Bioware.”
“I actually cannot count the amount of ‘stress casualties’ we had on Mass Effect: Andromeda or Anthem,” said a third former BioWare developer in an email. “A ‘stress casualty’ at BioWare means someone had such a mental breakdown from the stress they’re just gone for one to three months. Some come back, some don’t.”
EA and BioWare declined to comment on this story. [Update: See note at the bottom.]
Among those who work or have worked at BioWare, there’s a belief that something drastic needs to change. Many at the company now grumble that the success of 2014’s Dragon Age: Inquisition was one of the worst things that could have happened to them. The third Dragon Age, which won Game of the Year at the 2014 Game Awards, was the result of a brutal production process plagued by indecision and technical challenges. It was mostly built over the course of its final year, which led to lengthy crunch hours and lots of exhaustion. “Some of the people in Edmonton were so burnt out,” said one former BioWare developer. “They were like, ‘We needed [Dragon Age: Inquisition] to fail in order for people to realize that this isn’t the right way to make games.’”
Within the studio, there’s a term called “BioWare magic.” It’s a belief that no matter how rough a game’s production might be, things will always come together in the final months. The game will always coalesce. It happened on the Mass Effect trilogy, on Dragon Age: Origins, and on Inquisition. Veteran BioWare developers like to refer to production as a hockey stick—it’s flat for a while, and then it suddenly jolts upward. Even when a project feels like a complete disaster, there’s a belief that with enough hard work—and enough difficult crunch—it’ll all come together.
After the high-profile failures of Mass Effect Andromeda and Anthem, it has become clear to current and former BioWare employees that this attitude is no longer working. In recent years, BioWare has done serious damage to its reputation as a premier RPG developer. Maybe the hockey stick approach is no longer viable. Or maybe—just maybe—that sort of production practice was never really sustainable in the first place.
One thing’s for certain: On Anthem, BioWare’s magic ran out.
At the beginning, they called it Dylan. In late 2012 and 2013, while finishing up the Mass Effect trilogy, BioWare director Casey Hudson and a small team of longtime Mass Effect developers started work on a project that they hoped would be the Bob Dylan of video games, meaning something that would be referenced by video game fans for years to come. Even within BioWare, it was a mystery project—you needed a password to get into the wiki, according to one person who was on it. For a while, the team stayed small. Most of BioWare’s staff were on Dragon Age: Inquisition, which needed all hands on deck in order to ship by the end of 2014.
The early ideas for Dylan (which we’ll call Anthem from now on for clarity) were ambitious and changing constantly, according to people who were on the project. As is typical during this sort of “ideation” phase, nobody knew what the game would look like yet—they just wanted to see what might be cool. It would be an action game, certainly, and you’d be able to play it with your friends. The goal was to get away from traditional sci-fi and fantasy, so the game would feel distinct from Mass Effect and Dragon Age.
One concept that quickly emerged was the idea of a dangerous, hazard-filled planet. Anthem would be set on a hostile alien world, and in order to go out into the wilderness, you’d need a robot suit. A realistic, NASA-inspired robot suit. The pitch was simple: Iron Man, but less cartoony.
Over the months, a core concept started to crystallize: Anthem’s planet would be sort of like the Bermuda Triangle of this universe, with an inexorable gravity that was constantly pulling in alien ships and hazards. As a result, the world would be lethal and full of dangerous creatures. ”You are the bottom of the food chain, and everything is significantly more powerful than you,” said one person who worked on the game. When describing these early iterations of Anthem, developers have made comparisons to Dark Souls, Darkest Dungeon, even Shadow of the Colossus. There would be big, scary creatures out in the world, and your job would be to see how long you could survive. One prototype allowed the player to attach themselves to a giant monster; others centered on the atmosphere, the weather, and environmental effects.
“The idea was going to be that there were all these levers that could be pulled internally so there’d be different events happening at all times,” said a developer. “You’d be out somewhere, and an electrical storm would happen at random, and you had to survive it. We had an early demonstration of this where the environment was dynamic and by pulling levers we could change it from summer to winter to fall. You’d see the snow hitting the ground, hitting the trees… There were states of the build where that was being demonstrated, and that we could see this was something you could actually accomplish.”
We saw a small glimpse of these prototypes at E3 2014, when BioWare showed a teaser trailer for the as-yet-untitled game that would eventually become Anthem:
The final game would have nothing even close to those teases.
Anthem was always envisioned as an online multiplayer game, according to developers who worked on it, but it wasn’t always a loot shooter, the kind of game where you’d endlessly grind missions for new weapons. In these early versions, the idea was that you’d embark from a city and go out on expeditions with your friends, staying out in the world as long as you could survive. You’d use a robotic exosuit, and you’d fight monsters with melee and shooting attacks, but the focus was less on hoarding loot and more on seeing how long you could survive. One mission, for example, might take you and a squad to the center of a volcano, where you’d have to figure out why it was erupting, kill some creatures, and then fight your way back. “That was the main hook,” said an Anthem developer. “We’re going out as a team, going to try to accomplish something as a team, then come back and talk about it.” Along the way, you could scavenge or salvage alien ships for parts and bring them back to your base in order to upgrade your weapons or enhance your suit.
“It was really interesting,” said one person who worked on it. “It really struck a chord with a lot of the people who were working on it originally.”
What remained unclear during this process was how many of these ideas and prototypes would actually work at scale. Dynamic environments and giant creatures might perform nicely in a controlled environment, but would the Anthem team really be able to make those features work in an online, open-world game played by thousands and thousands of people? And would Frostbite, the volatile video game engine that BioWare was now using for all of its projects, really support all these features?
As these questions lingered, the Anthem team faced a major shake-up. In August of 2014, as they continued to prototype and dream about their game, they lost their leader. Casey Hudson, who had directed the beloved Mass Effect trilogy and was supposed to be creative director on Anthem, was departing. “The foundation of our new IP in Edmonton is complete,” he wrote in a letter to the studio, “and the team is ready to move forward into pre-production on a title that I think will redefine interactive entertainment.” Jon Warner, a relatively new hire who had worked for Disney before joining EA in 2011, took on the role of game director.
BioWare veterans liked to describe Casey Hudson’s Mass Effect team as the Enterprise from Star Trek: They all did what the captain said, and they were all laser-focused on a single destination. (By comparison, they called the Dragon Age team a pirate ship, meandering from port to port until it reached its final destination.) Now, the Enterprise no longer had its Jean-Luc Picard.
Still, members of the Anthem team say they remained happy. Dragon Age: Inquisition shipped at the end of 2014 to critical acclaim, and many of those developers moved over to Anthem, where they found a team full of high hopes and ambitious ideas. “EA had these team health reports,” said one. “Anthem’s morale was among the highest in all of EA. It was really, really good for quite a while. Everybody saw there was so much potential in those early prototypes. ‘Potential’ was always the word there.”
One BioWare developer who hadn’t yet moved to the Anthem team recalled hearing those colleagues talk about how much better they had it than the people who were stuck on Mass Effect: Andromeda, which at the time was going through serious struggles thanks to technical challenges and significant directional changes. Surely, they thought, that couldn’t happen to Anthem. “We took so much time to get the experience correct,” said another person who worked on the game. “I think that’s why morale was so high. I knew we had taken the time to really refine what we wanted the game to be about. Now we just had to go and produce it.”
Question was, how would they do that? As development progressed, it became clear that some of the Anthem team’s original ideas either wouldn’t work or weren’t quite solidified enough to be implemented. Take traversal, for example. The mandate was that Anthem’s world would be massive and seamless, but how would you get around? The team played around with prototypes, exploring different ways in which your exosuit could move vertically across the world. For a long time they thought it’d be climbing up the sides of mountains and ledges, but they couldn’t get that quite right. Early iterations of flying—which, developers say, was removed from and re-added to Anthem several times—were more like gliding, and members of the Anthem team say it was tough to get the system feeling all that fun. Every time they changed the traversal, it meant changing the world design accordingly, flattening and stretching terrain to accommodate the latest movement style.
There were experiments with procedural encounters, where dynamic creatures and environmental hazards would spawn randomly from the world, but those weren’t working too smoothly, either. “That took a long time,” said one developer. “The game was super reliant on this procedural system that just wasn’t fun.”
The story started changing drastically, too. In early 2015, veteran Dragon Age writer David Gaider moved over to Anthem, and his version of the story looked a lot different than the ideas with which they’d been experimenting for the past few years. Gaider’s style was traditional BioWare—big, complicated villains; ancient alien artifacts; and so on—which rankled some of the developers who were hoping for something more subtle. “There was a lot of resistance from the team who just didn’t want to see a sci-fi Dragon Age, I guess,” said one developer. Added a second: “A lot of people were like, ‘Why are we telling the same story? Let’s do something different.’”
When asked for comment on this, Gaider said in an email that when he’d started on the project, Anthem design director Preston Watamaniuk had pushed him in a “science-fantasy” direction. “I was fine with that, as fantasy is more my comfort zone anyhow, but it was clear from the outset that there was a lot of opposition to the change from the rest of the team,” he said. “Maybe they assumed the idea for it came from me, I’m not sure, but comments like ‘it’s very Dragon Age’ kept coming up regarding any of the work me or my team did… and not in a complimentary manner. There were a lot of people who wanted a say over Anthem’s story, and kept articulating a desire to do something ‘different’ without really being clear on what that was outside of it just not being anything BioWare had done before (which was, apparently, a bad thing?). From my perspective, it was rather frustrating.”
Gaider left BioWare in early 2016—“As time passed, I didn’t feel keen to play the game that I was working on,” he told me—which led to new writers for Anthem and a total story reboot. This led to even more chaos. “As you can imagine, writing for BioWare sets the foundation for all the games,” said one developer. “When writing is unsure of what it’s doing, it causes a lot of destruction to a lot of departments.”
Instability had become par for the course on the Anthem team, as Hudson’s departure left a void that proved tough to fill. The job of steering Anthem now fell to the creative leadership team, a group that included game director Jon Warner, design director Preston Watamaniuk, art director Derek Watts, animation director Parrish Ley, and a handful of other Mass Effect veterans who had been on Anthem since the beginning. Some current and former BioWare employees feel a lot of resentment toward this group, and in interviews, many who worked on Anthem accused the leadership team of indecision and mismanagement. “The root cause of all this was that lack of vision,” said one former BioWare developer. “What are we making? Please tell us. The recurring theme was there was no vision, there was no clarity, there was no single director saying, ‘This is how it all works together.’”
“They never seemed to settle on anything,” added that person. “They were always looking for something more, something new.” Said another: “I think most people on the team felt like we didn’t know exactly what the game was or what it was supposed to be because it kept changing so much.”
The most common anecdote relayed to me by current and former BioWare employees was this: A group of developers are in a meeting. They’re debating some creative decision, like the mechanics of flying or the lore behind the Scar alien race. Some people disagree on the fundamentals. And then, rather than someone stepping up and making a decision about how to proceed, the meeting would end with no real verdict, leaving everything in flux. “That would just happen over and over,” said one Anthem developer. “Stuff would take a year or two to figure out because no one really wanted to make a call on it.”
“Keep in mind,” said another Anthem developer, “everyone had hard decisions to make that we’ve never done before. New IP, new genre, new technology, new style, everything was new.”
Throughout 2015 and 2016, it appeared to the Anthem team that they were accomplishing very little. They struggled with the online infrastructure, they hadn’t figured out how missions would work, and while they had built a few environments and creatures, it still wasn’t clear exactly what the basic gameplay might look like. The story was changing constantly, and progress on the game grew sluggish. One early idea was that there would be multiple cities, which eventually turned into one city and player-created outposts, which eventually turned into one city and a mobile Strider base, which eventually turned into a single fort. Those earlier survival ideas melted away. “They were still figuring out core parts of the IP, like [crafting material] Ember, how technology worked, that sort of thing,” said one former BioWare developer. “The whole back-end architecture and everything wasn’t figured out yet.”
At the same time, BioWare’s studio leadership had to focus much of its attention on Mass Effect: Andromeda, a game that was causing headaches for just about everyone and whose rapidly approaching release date was set in stone. Put another way: Anthem might have started to look like it was on fire, but Andromeda was already nearly burnt to the ground.
Complicating these problems further was the fact that sometimes when the Anthem leadership team did make a decision, it could take weeks or even months for them to see it in action. “There were a lot of plans,” said a developer, “where by the time they were implemented it was a year later and the game had evolved.” The explanation for this lag can be summed up in one word, a word that has plagued many of EA’s studios for years now, most notably BioWare and the now-defunct Visceral Games, a word that can still evoke a mocking smile or sad grimace from anyone who’s spent any time with it.
That word, of course, is Frostbite.
“Frostbite is full of razor blades,” one former BioWare employee told me a few weeks ago, aptly summing up the feelings of perhaps hundreds of game developers who have worked at Electronic Arts over the past few years.
Frostbite is a video game engine, or a suite of technology that is used to make a game. Created by the EA-owned Swedish studio DICE in order to make Battlefield shooters, the Frostbite engine became ubiquitous across Electronic Arts this past decade thanks to an initiative led by former executive Patrick Söderlund to get all of its studios on the same technology. (By using Frostbite rather than a third-party engine like Unreal, those studios could share knowledge and save a whole lot of money in licensing fees.) BioWare first shifted to Frostbite for Dragon Age: Inquisition in 2011, which caused massive problems for that team. Many of the features those developers had taken for granted in previous engines, like a save-load system and a third-person camera, simply did not exist in Frostbite, which meant that the Inquisition team had to build them all from scratch. Mass Effect: Andromeda ran into similar issues. Surely the third time would be the charm?
As it turned out, Anthem was not the charm. Using Frostbite to build an online-only action game, which BioWare had never done before, led to a host of new problems for BioWare’s designers, artists, and programmers. “Frostbite is like an in-house engine with all the problems that entails—it’s poorly documented, hacked together, and so on—with all the problems of an externally sourced engine,” said one former BioWare employee. “Nobody you actually work with designed it, so you don’t know why this thing works the way it does, why this is named the way it is.”
Throughout those early years in development, the Anthem team realized that many of the ideas they’d originally conceived would be difficult if not impossible to create on Frostbite. The engine allowed them to build big, beautiful levels, but it just wasn’t equipped with the tools to support all of those ambitious prototypes that they’d created. Slowly and gradually, they started cutting back on the environmental and survival features that they’d devised for Anthem, in large part because they just weren’t working.
“Part of the trouble was you could do enough in the engine to hack it to show what was possible, but then to get the investment behind it to get it actually done took a lot longer, and in some cases you’d run into a brick wall,” said a BioWare developer. “Then you’d realize, ‘Oh my god, we can do this only if we reinvent the wheel, which is going to take too long.’ It was sometimes difficult to know when to cut and run.”
Even today, BioWare developers say Frostbite can make their jobs exponentially more difficult. Building new iterations on levels and mechanics can be challenging due to sluggish tools, while bugs that should take a few minutes to squash might require days of back-and-forth conversations. “If it takes you a week to make a little bug fix, it discourages people from fixing bugs,” said one person who worked on Anthem. “If you can hack around it, you hack around it, as opposed to fixing it properly.” Said a second: “I would say the biggest problem I had with Frostbite was how many steps you needed to do something basic. With another engine I could do something myself, maybe with a designer. Here it’s a complicated thing.”
“It’s hard enough to make a game,” said a third BioWare developer. “It’s really hard to make a game where you have to fight your own tool set all the time.”
From the beginning, Anthem’s senior leadership had made the decision to start from scratch for a large part of the game’s technology rather than using all of the systems the company had built for Inquisition and Andromeda. Part of this may have been a desire to stand out from those other teams, but another explanation was simple: Anthem was online. The other games were not. The inventory system that BioWare had already designed for Dragon Age on Frostbite might not stand up in an online game, so the Anthem team figured they’d need to build a new one. “Towards the end of the project we started complaining,” said one developer. “Maybe we would’ve gone further if we had Dragon Age: Inquisition stuff. But we’re also just complaining about lack of manpower in general.”
It often felt to the Anthem team like they were understaffed, according to that developer and others who worked on the game, many of whom told me their team was a fraction of the size of developers behind similar games, like Destiny and The Division. There were a number of reasons for this. One was that in 2016, the FIFA games had to move to Frostbite. The annual soccer franchise was EA’s most important series, bringing in a large chunk of the publisher’s revenue, and BioWare had programmers with Frostbite experience, so Electronic Arts shifted them to FIFA.
“A lot of the really talented engineers were actually working on FIFA when they should’ve been working on Anthem,” said one person who was on the project. There was also the fact that BioWare’s main office was located in Edmonton, a place where winters can dip to minus 20 or even minus 40 degrees Fahrenheit, which staff there say has always made it difficult to recruit veterans from more habitable cities. (One also has to wonder: How many programmers heard about Frostbite’s razor blades and decided to shy away?)
When a BioWare engineer had questions or wanted to report bugs, they’d usually have to talk to EA’s central Frostbite team, a group of support staff that worked with all of the publisher’s studios. Within EA, it was common for studios to battle for resources like the Frostbite team’s time, and BioWare would usually lose those battles. After all, role-playing games brought in a fraction of the revenue of a FIFA or a Battlefront. “The amount of support you’d get at EA on Frostbite is based on how much money your studio’s game is going to make,” said one developer. All of BioWare’s best-laid technological plans could go awry if they weren’t getting the help they expected.
No matter how many people were involved, one thing about Frostbite would always remain consistent, as it did on Dragon Age: Inquisition and Mass Effect: Andromeda: It made everything take longer than anyone thought it should. “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.”
Frostbite’s razor blades were buried deeply inside the Anthem team, and it would prove impossible to stop the bleeding.
By the end of 2016, Anthem had been in some form of pre-production for roughly four years. After this much time in a more typical video game development cycle, it would have entered production, the point in a project when the team has a full vision of what they’re making and can actually start building out the game. Some who were working on Anthem say that’s when they started feeling like they were in trouble, like the game was screwed, like they would soon have to face the same sort of last-minute production crunch that their co-workers were suffering on Mass Effect: Andromeda. Yet word came down from leadership that everything would work out. It was time for BioWare magic. “You had to throw your prior knowledge out and either go on blind faith or just hope things were gonna turn out well,” said one person who was there. “A lot of the veterans, guys who had only ever worked at BioWare, they said, ‘Everything is going to be fine in the end.’ It was really hard on people who couldn’t just go on that blind faith, I suppose.”
One former BioWare developer said that they and some of their co-workers would bring up these concerns to directors, only to be ignored. “You’d come to management saying, ‘Look, we’re seeing the same problems on Inquisition and Andromeda, where design wasn’t figuring things out. It’s getting really late in the project and the core of the game isn’t defined.’ Basically saying, ‘Hey, the same mistakes are happening again, did you guys see this the last time? Can you stop this?’” said the developer. “They’d be quite dismissive about it.”
Over the months, Anthem had begun naturally picking up ideas and mechanics from loot shooters like The Division and Destiny, although even mentioning the word Destiny was taboo at BioWare. (Diablo III was the preferred reference point.) A few people who worked on the game said that trying to make comparisons to Destiny would elicit negative reactions from studio leadership. “We were told quite definitively, ‘This isn’t Destiny,’” said one developer. “But it kind of is. What you’re describing is beginning to go into that realm. They didn’t want to make those correlations, but at the same time, when you’re talking about fire teams, and going off and doing raids together, about gun combat, spells, things like that, well there’s a lot of elements there that correlate, that cross over.”
Because leadership didn’t want to discuss Destiny, that developer added, they found it hard to learn from what Bungie’s loot shooter did well. “We need to be looking at games like Destiny because they’re the market leaders,” the developer said. “They’re the guys who have been doing these things best. We should absolutely be looking at how they’re doing things.” As an example, the developer brought up the unique feel of Destiny’s large variety of guns, something that Anthem seemed to be lacking, in large part because it was being built by a bunch of people who had mostly made RPGs. “We really didn’t have the design skill to be able to do that,” they said. “There just wasn’t the knowledge base to be able to develop that kind of diversity.”
One longstanding BioWare tradition is for their teams to build demos that the staff could all take home during Christmas break, and it was Anthem’s turn during Christmas of 2016. By this point, BioWare’s leadership had decided to remove flying from the game—they just couldn’t figure out how to make it feel good—so the Christmas build took place on flat terrain. You’d run through a farm and shoot some aliens. Some on the team thought it was successful as a proof of concept, but others at BioWare said it felt dull and looked mundane.
In the beginning of 2017, a few important things happened. In early March, Mass Effect: Andromeda launched, freeing up the bulk of BioWare’s staff to join Anthem, including most of BioWare’s Austin office. The Montreal office began to quietly wind down and eventually closed, leaving BioWare as two entities rather than three.
Around the same time, Electronic Arts executive Patrick Söderlund, to whom BioWare’s leadership reported, played the Anthem Christmas demo. According to three people familiar with what happened, he told BioWare that it was unacceptable. (Söderlund did not respond to a request for comment.) He was particularly disappointed by the graphics. “He said, ‘This is not what you had promised to me as a game,’” said one person who was there. Then, those developers said, Söderlund summoned a group of high-level BioWare staff to fly out to Stockholm, Sweden and meet with developers at DICE, the studio behind Battlefield and Frostbite. (DICE would later bring in a strike team to help BioWare work out Frostbite kinks and make Anthem look prettier.)
Now it was time for a new build. “What began was six weeks of pretty significant crunch to do a demo specifically for Patrick Söderlund,” said one member of the team. They overhauled the art, knowing that the best way to impress Söderlund would be to make a demo that looked as pretty as possible. And, after some heated arguments, the Anthem team decided to put flying back in.
For years, the Anthem team had gone back and forth about the flying mechanic. It had been cut and re-added several times in different forms. Some iterations were more of a glide, and for a while, the idea was that only one exosuit class would be able to fly. On one hand, the mechanic was undeniably cool—what better way to feel like Iron Man than to zip around the world in a giant robot suit? On the other hand, it kept breaking everything. Few open-world games allowed for that kind of vertical freedom, for good reason; if you could fly everywhere, then the entire world needed to accommodate that. The artists wouldn’t be able to throw up mountains or walls to prevent players from jumping off the boundaries of the planet. Plus, the Anthem team worried that if you could fly, you’d blaze past the game’s environments rather than stopping to explore and check out the scenery.
The leadership team’s most recent decision had been to remove flying entirely, but they needed to impress Söderlund, and flying was the only mechanic they’d built that made Anthem stand out from other games, so they eventually decided to put it back. This re-implementation of flying took place over a weekend, according to two people who worked on the game, and it wasn’t quite clear whether they were doing it permanently or just as a show for Söderlund. “We were like, ‘Well that’s not in the game, are we adding it for real?’” said one developer. “They were like, ‘We’ll see.’”
One day in the spring of 2017, Söderlund flew to Edmonton and made his way to BioWare’s offices, entourage in tow. The Anthem team had completely overhauled the art and re-added flying, which they hoped would feel sufficiently impressive, but tensions were high in the wake of the last demo’s disappointment and Mass Effect: Andromeda’s high-profile failure. There was no way to know what might happen if Söderlund again disapproved of the demo. Would the project get canceled? Would BioWare be in trouble?
“One of our QA people had been playing it over and over again so they could get the flow and timing down perfectly,” said one person who was involved. “Within 30 seconds or so the exo jumps off and glides off this precipice and lands.”
Then, according to two people who were in the room, Patrick Söderlund was stunned.
“He turns around and goes, ‘That was fucking awesome, show it to me again,’” said one person who was there. “He was like, ‘That was amazing. It’s exactly what I wanted.’”
This demo became the foundation for the seven-minute gameplay trailer that BioWare showed the public a few weeks later. In June of 2017, just a few days after that last-minute name change from Beyond to Anthem, BioWare boss Aaryn Flynn took the stage of EA’s E3 press conference and announced the game. The next day, at Microsoft’s press conference, they showed a demo that helped everyone, including BioWare’s own developers, finally see how Anthem would play.
What the public didn’t know was that even then, Anthem was still in pre-production. Progress had been so slow that the demo was mostly guesswork, team members say, which is why the Anthem that actually launched looks so drastically different than the demo the team showed at E3 2017. In the real game, you have to go through a mission selection menu and a loading screen before you can leave your base in Fort Tarsis; in the demo, it all happens seamlessly. The demo is full of dynamic environments, giant creatures, and mechanics that bear little resemblance to the final product, like getting to see new loot when you pick it up rather than having to wait until the end of a mission.
“After E3, that’s when it really felt like, ‘Okay, this is the game we’re making,’” said one Anthem developer. “But it still felt like it took a while to get the entire team up to speed. It was also kind of tricky because there were still a lot of question marks. The demo was not actually built properly—a lot of it was fake, like most E3 demos. There was a lot of stuff that was like, ‘Oh are we actually doing this? Do we have the tech for that, do we have the tools for that? To what end can you fly? How big should the world be?’”
“The abilities and all that were still getting decided,” said another developer. “Nothing was set in stone at that point at all.” Said a third: “Going out of pre-production is never really a crisp thing. You have to just look at the attitude of the team and what they’re doing. The fact of the matter is, fundamental things were not figured out yet.”
At E3 2017, BioWare announced that Anthem would launch in fall 2018. Behind the scenes, however, they had barely even implemented a single mission. And the drama was just getting worse.
Until very recently, hardcore BioWare fans used to refer to the studio’s various teams using derogatory tiers. There was the A-team, the B-team, and the C-team. Opinions may have varied on which was which, but in general, “A-team” referred to the original BioWare, the office in Edmonton, Canada responsible for Dragon Age and the Mass Effect trilogy. A couple thousand miles southeast was the “B-team,” a studio in Austin, Texas that was founded to make Star Wars: The Old Republic, a massively multiplayer online role-playing game. (The “C-team” usually referred to Montreal, the ill-fated studio behind Mass Effect: Andromeda.)
What fans might not have realized was that even within BioWare, some people thought the same way.
“Anthem is the game you get from a studio that is at war with itself,” said one former BioWare developer. “Edmonton understandably has the perspective of, ‘We are the original BioWare.’ Anybody not part of that brand is lesser, and does not garner the same level of trust as people that are in the Edmonton office. And so I think that’s a little bit of an issue there.”
After shipping The Old Republic in 2011 and continuing to cultivate and support it, BioWare Austin started a few of its own projects. There was Shadow Realms, a 4v1 multiplayer game that was announced in the summer of 2014, and then there were some other prototypes, like Saga, a multiplayer open-world Star Wars game that was in early development for a few months. (And then there was the dream of a new Knights of the Old Republic game, which some BioWare Austin staffers say was always dangled as a possibility but never really came close to getting off the ground.)
By the end of 2014, those projects were all canceled, and BioWare had enacted an initiative that it called “One BioWare”—a plan designed to get all of the company’s studios working in tandem. Many of BioWare Austin’s staff moved on to Dragon Age: Inquisition downloadable content and then Mass Effect: Andromeda. By early 2017, around the time Söderlund was demanding to see that new demo, most of BioWare Austin was officially on Anthem, helping with just about every department, from cinematics to storytelling.
Anthem’s lack of vision in Edmonton was even more pronounced in Austin, whose developers suddenly found themselves working on a game they didn’t quite understand. Was it an online loot shooter, like Destiny, or was it more of a role-playing game? How did you get around the world? What would the missions look like? “One of the things we struggled with was, we didn’t understand the game concept,” said one former BioWare Austin developer. “When Anthem was presented to us, it was never really clear what the game was.”
“They were still finding the vision for the game,” said a second. “I saw multiple presentations given to the entire studio trying to define what Anthem was about. The Hollywood elevator pitch version of Anthem: ‘When we talk about Anthem, what we mean is X.’ I saw many, many variations of that over time, and that was indicative of how much conflict there was over trying to find a vision for this game, and over how many people were struggling to have their vision become the one that won out.”
Even when they did figure out what was happening, it felt to BioWare Austin staff like they were the grunts. Developers who worked both in Austin and Edmonton say the messaging was that Edmonton would come up with the vision and Austin would execute on it, which caused tension between the two studios. BioWare Austin developers recall offering feedback only to get dismissed or ignored by BioWare Edmonton’s senior leadership team, a process that was particularly frustrating for those who had already shippeda big online game, Star Wars: The Old Republic, and learned from its mistakes. One developer described it as a culture clash between a group of developers in Edmonton who were used to making single-player box product games and a group of developers in Austin who knew how to make online service games.
“We’d tell them, ‘This is not going to work. Look, these [story] things you’re doing, it’s gonna split up the player experience,’” said an Austin developer. “We’d already been through all of it with The Old Republic. We knew what it was like when players felt like they were getting rushed through story missions, because other players were on their headsets going, ‘C’mon cmon, let’s go.’ So we knew all these things, and we’d bring it up repeatedly, and we were ignored.”
After the E3 reveal, in June of 2017, the Anthem teams in Edmonton and Austin were meant to start moving into full production, designing missions and building a world based on the vision they could now at least somewhat see. But that just didn’t happen, the developers say. “They had been in idea land for four to five years, and nobody had actually gone, ‘Okay, we need to decide what we’re making and make it,’” said one member of the team. “They were still going back to the drawing board on major systems. Which is fine—part of game development is that you iterate, and it’s like, ‘This didn’t work, let’s go again.’ They never got to the point of like, ‘This doesn’t work, let’s iterate on it.’ It was, ‘This doesn’t work, let’s start from scratch.’”
The story was still in flux under new narrative director James Ohlen (who would also leave BioWare before Anthem shipped), and design was moving particularly slowly, with systems like mission structure, loot, and exosuit powers still not finalized. A number of veteran BioWare developers began leaving the studio that summer, and the untimely death of Corey Gaspur, one of the game’s lead designers, left a massive hole in that department. Core features, like loading and saving, still hadn’t been implemented in the game, and it became difficult to play test builds because they were riddled with bugs.
“It came time to move from pre-production to production in June,” said one BioWare developer. “June comes, we’re still in pre-production. July, August, what the heck’s going on?”
The Anthem leadership team and some other veterans continued to talk about BioWare magic, but it was clear to a lot of people that something was wrong. They had publicly committed to a fall 2018 ship date, but that had never been realistic. Publisher EA also wouldn’t let them delay the game any further than March 2019, the end of the company’s fiscal year. They were entering production so late, it seemed like it might be impossible to ship anything by early 2019, let alone a game that could live up to BioWare’s lofty standards.
Something needed to give.
On June 29, 2017, BioWare’s Mark Darrah published a tweet that may seem odd today. He noted that he was the executive producer of the Dragon Age franchise, then gave a list of games he was not currently working on: ”Anthem; Mass Effect; Jade Empire; A DA Tactics game; Star Wars…” The implication was that Darrah was producing Dragon Age 4. At the time, this was true. This iteration of Dragon Age 4 was code-named Joplin, and those who were working on it have told me they were excited by creative director Mike Laidlaw’s vision for the project.
But Anthem was on fire, and by October, BioWare had decided to make some massive changes. That summer, studio general manager Aaryn Flynn departed, to be replaced by a returning Casey Hudson. As part of this process, the studio canceled Joplin. Laidlaw quit shortly afterward, and BioWare restarted Dragon Age 4 with a tiny team under the code name Morrison. Meanwhile, the studio moved the bulk of Dragon Age 4’s developers to Anthem, which needed all of the company’s resources if it was going to hit the ship date that EA was demanding.
Mark Darrah was then installed over game director Jon Warner to become executive producer on Anthem. His role became so significant that he took top billing in Anthem’s credits:
That the first name in Anthem’s credits is someone who started working on the game in October 2017, just 16 months before it shipped, says volumes about its development.
If Dragon Age: Inquisition hadn’t been so successful, perhaps BioWare would have changed its production practices. Perhaps studio leadership wouldn’t have preached so strongly about that BioWare magic—that last-minute cohesion that they all assumed would happen with enough hard work and enough crunch. But it was ultimately Dragon Age: Inquisition’s executive producer who steered Anthem out of rocky waters and into port.
When Mark Darrah joined the project in the fall of 2017, he began pushing the Anthem team toward one goal: Ship the game.
“The good thing about Mark is that he would just wrangle everybody and make decisions,” said one former BioWare developer. “That was the thing that the team lacked—nobody was making decisions. It was deciding by panel. They’d almost get to a decision and then somebody would go ‘But what about this?’ We were stagnant, not moving anywhere.”
“He started saying basically, ‘Just try to finish what you’ve started,’” said a second developer. “The hard part about that was that there were still a lot of things to figure out. There were still a lot of tools to build to be able to ship the game we were making. It was very, very scary because of how little time there was left.”
At this point, that developer added, it felt like “player-based gameplay” was in a good spot. Combat felt like a strong evolution from Mass Effect: Andromeda, which, despite its flaws, was widely considered to have the best shooting of any Mass Effect game. Now that flying was a permanent fixture in Anthem, it was starting to feel great, too. Other parts of the game were in much worse shape. “It was level design, story, and world-building that got screwed the most, in that things kept changing and they had to rebuild a lot all the time,” the developer said.
By the beginning of 2018, by another former developer’s recollection, Anthem’s progress was so far behind that they’d only implemented a single mission. Most of the high-level design had still not been finalized, like the loot system and javelin powers. And the writing was still very much in flux. “They talk a lot about the six-year development time, but really the core gameplay loop, the story, and all the missions in the game were made in the last 12 to 16 months because of that lack of vision and total lack of leadership across the board,” said the developer.
This final year was when Anthem began to materialize, and it became one of the most stressful years in BioWare’s history. There was pressure within the studio, as many teams had to put in late nights and weekends just to make up for the time they’d lost. There was pressure from EA, as executive Samantha Ryan brought in teams from all across the publisher, including developers from outside studios like Motive in Montreal, to close out the game. And there was pressure from the competition, as The Division 2 was announced, Destiny 2 continued to improve, and other loot shooters like Warframe just kept getting better.
Meanwhile, the gaming landscape was changing. Electronic Arts had gone all-in on regularly updated “games as a service” but was struggling in several key areas, closing Visceral Games in San Francisco and facing serious drama at its ambitious EA Motive studio in Montreal. The Star Wars Battlefront II pay-to-win debacle led to a reinvigorated public hatred for all things Electronic Arts and a publisher-wide reboot of all things loot box, even as EA executives continually pushed for all of their games to have long-term monetization plans, Anthem included. EA has been public about its distaste for linear games that can be easily returned to GameStop after a single playthrough.
And Anthem needed to be finished. By rebooting Dragon Age 4 and moving almost all of BioWare’s staff to Anthem, the studio, now under new leadership, was doubling down. Decisions had to be made that would get the game out the door, no matter what that meant cutting. There was no more time for ideation or “finding the fun” in prototypes.
“I would say it ended up being quite a stressful time and a lot of people started to develop tunnel vision,” said one developer. “They have to finish their thing and they don’t have the time.” That, the developer added, is one of the explanations for some of Anthem’s critical flaws. Consider its unreasonably long loading times, for example, which could take more than two minutes on PC before the early patch. “Of course we knew loading screens would be unpopular,” the developer said. “But we have everything on the schedule, hundreds more days scheduled of work than we actually have. So loading is not gonna get addressed.”
Anthem was so in flux during 2018 that even some major features that were discussed publicly that year never made it into the game. A Game Informer cover story on Anthem, published in July of 2018, detailed a skill tree system that would allow players to build up their exosuit pilots in unique ways: “Your pilot also gains skills that apply universally to any javelin you use. For instance, the booster jets on your javelins overheat with continued use, but by investing in a certain pilot skill, you can increase the amount of time you’re able to stay airborne in all of your suits.” That system was cut before launch.
“I don’t know how accurate this is,” said one BioWare developer, “but it felt like the entire game was basically built in the last six to nine months. You couldn’t play it. There was nothing there. It was just this crazy final rush. The hard part is, how do you make a decision when there’s no game? There’s nothing to play. So yeah, you’re going to keep questioning yourself.”
It’s not unusual for a video game to be in rough shape close to launch. Some of the best video games in history, like The Last of Us, came out of rocky development cycles in which many of the staff felt like they were screwed until everything coalesced at the last minute. Something about Anthem felt different, though. Too much had gone awry; too many ambitions had not been realized. “I think if just one thing had gone wrong, we would’ve navigated that,” said a developer.
One mandate from Anthem’s directors had been to make the game “unmemeable,” a reaction to Mass Effect: Andromeda‘s jittery facial animations, which became an internet joke in the days leading up to that game’s release. For Anthem, the team used high-end performance capture in order to ensure that the characters couldn’t be turned into embarrassing GIFs and plastered all over Reddit. Since the bulk of the game’s story-telling would be told from a first-person perspective in the hub city Fort Tarsis, players would spend a lot of time staring at characters’ faces. The characters had to look good.
Performance capture, or “pcap,” did indeed make for beautiful animations, but it came at a cost. Because booking performance capture was so expensive, the team often had just one shot to get things right, which was a difficult proposition when Anthem’s design was changing so rapidly. Sometimes, the team would record and implement scenes that stopped making sense as a result of design changes. “There are little bits of dialogue, little moments in some of these performance-captured scenes, that if you stop and think, don’t make any sense,” said one developer. “The reason this doesn’t make any sense is because they changed some of the gameplay down the line, but it was impossible to change the performance capture.”
One mission involving the rebellious Sentinel Dax, for example, has a few lines of dialogue that reference the destruction of her javelin exosuit, which never happens in the game. The explanation is simple, the developer said. The mission was altered after they’d recorded the dialogue, and there was no time or money to go re-record it. “They were just like, ‘Well it’s not gonna be destroyed,’” said the developer. “Wait, that makes that line of dialogue make no sense.”
Hardcore fans have spotted other examples of Anthem dialogue that seems incoherent or odd, like characters talking about other characters as if they’re not present when they’re actually standing in the same room. “That’s a really strong example of the types of problems that befell us,” said another developer. “Why couldn’t they change this? It’s not that nobody wanted to. It’s because when we set the course with these huge assets, we’re sometimes stuck with them.”
Because decisions were being made so rapidly and there was so much work left to do, Anthem developers say they had a hard time looking at the game holistically. It was tough to zoom out and get a feel for what it’d be like to play 40, 60, or 80 hours of Anthem when entire missions weren’t even finished. How could you tell if the loot drop rates were balanced when you couldn’t even play through the whole game? How could you assess whether the game felt grindy or repetitive when the story wasn’t even finished yet?
Plus, the build could be so unstable, it was difficult to even log on to test for bugs. “I think there was an entire week where I couldn’t do anything because there were server issues,” said one person who worked on the game. Another said that the team had to test out and approve levels offline, which was a strange choice for missions that were meant to be played by four people.
Just a couple months before Anthem shipped, decisions were still being finalized and overhauled. At one point, for example, theleadership team realized that there was no place in the game to show off your gear, which was a problem for a game in which the long-term monetization was all based on cosmetics. You could spend money on fancy new outfits for your robot suit, but who would even see them? The game’s one city, Fort Tarsis, was privately instanced so that it could change for each player based on how much progress they’d made in the story. So the team brought on EA’s Motive studio in Montreal to build the Launch Bay, a last-minute addition to the game where you could hang out and show off your gear to strangers.
Back in Edmonton, as the crunch continued, BioWare employees say leadership assured them that everything would be fine. The BioWare magic would materialize. Sure enough, the game did continue to get better—one BioWare developer emphasized that the improvements were exponential during those last few months—but the stress of production had serious consequences. “I’d never heard of ‘stress leave’ until the end of Andromeda,” said one former BioWare developer, referring to a practice in which BioWare employees would take weeks or even months off for their mental health. On Anthem, the developer added, this practice just got worse. “I’ve never heard of people needing to take time off because they were so stressed out. But then that kind of spread like wildfire throughout the team.”
This also led to attrition over the course of Anthem’s development, and a glance through the game’s credits reveals a number of names of people who left during 2017 and 2018. “People were leaving in droves,” said one developer who left. “It was just really shocking how many people were going.”
“We hear about the big people,” said another developer who left. “When [writer] Drew Karpyshyn leaves, it makes big waves. But a lot of people don’t realize that there were a ton of really talented game designers who left BioWare and no one knows. The general public is unaware of who these people are.” Some of those people took off for other cities, while over a dozen followed former BioWare boss Aaryn Flynn to Improbable, a technology company that recently announced plans to develop its own game. That list includes many former high-level staff—including art and animation director Neil Thompson, technical director Jacques Lebrun, and lead designer Kris Schoneberg—some of whom were at BioWare for over a decade.
By the end of 2018, those who remained on Anthem wished they could have had just a few more months. Under Darrah and the production staff, there was real momentum, but it became clear to everyone that the game wouldn’t ship with as much content as fans expected. They came up with some artificial solutions to extend the campaign, like Challenges of the Legionnaires, a tedious, mandatory part of the main story that involves completing grindy quests in order to access tombs across the game’s world. (Originally, according to two BioWare developers, this mission included time gates that might force players to wait days to complete it all—fortunately, they changed this before launch. “That mission was controversial even within BioWare,” said one. “The reasoning was to definitely throttle player movement.”)
There was no escaping EA’s fiscal targets, and Anthem had already been in development for nearly seven years. They had committed to launching within EA’s fiscal year, which ended in March of 2019. The game would ship in February. Even if they wanted a few more months, that just wasn’t an option. “In the end,” said one developer, “we just ran out of time.”
If there was one reason for BioWare staff to be optimistic, it was the fact that unlike the studio’s previous games, Anthem had room to evolve. Early mock reviews—critical assessments provided by outside consultants—predicted that Anthem’s Metacritic score would land in the high 70s. This was low for a BioWare game, but company leadership was fine with that, telling staff during company meetings that with some last-minute polish in the months following those mock reviews, they could get even higher. A few months after launch, maybe they’d have something special on their hands.
“They had a really strong belief in the live service,” said one developer. “Issues that were coming up, they’d say, ‘We’re a live service. We’ll be supporting this for years to come. We’ll fix that later on.’”
It turned out the mock reviews had been too generous. By the time Anthem came out, BioWare’s leadership would have killed for a Metacritic in the high 70s.
On February 15, 2019, Anthem launched in EA’s premium early-access services, opening the floodgates as players and reviewers began to see just how flawed the game was. The loading screens were too long, the loot system felt unbalanced, and missions were thin and repetitive. Plenty of players liked the core gameplay—the shooting, the flying, the javelin exosuit abilities—but everything around it seemed undercooked. As it turned out, this February 15 build was a few weeks old, a devastating mistake for BioWare that likely led to far more negative reviews than they might have received otherwise. A patch a few days later fixed some of the bugs, such as audio drops and sluggish loading screens, that were highlighted in reviews, but it was too late. By the time the Metacritic score had settled, it was a 55.
“I don’t think we knew what Anthem was going to be when it shipped,” said one developer. “If we had known the shipped game would have that many problems, then that’s a completely different take than, ‘Oh, it’s okay to get this out now because we can improve it later.’ That wasn’t the case. Nobody did believe it was this flawed or this broken. Everyone actually thought, ‘We have something here, and we think it’s pretty good.’”
While talking to me, a number of former BioWare developers brought up specific complaints that were voiced by players and critics, then shared anecdotes of how they had made those same gripes to the leadership team throughout 2017 and 2018 only to be brushed off. It’s easy for developers to say that with hindsight, of course, but this was a common theme. “Reading the reviews is like reading a laundry list of concerns that developers brought up with senior leadership,” said one person who worked on the game. In some cases, perhaps they just didn’t have time to address the issues, but these former BioWare developers said they brought up bigger-picture concerns years before the game shipped.
As an example, two developers brought up non-player character dialogue. Most of Anthem’s story is told through conversations in Fort Tarsis and radio chatter as you go through missions, yet the game strongly pushes you to team up with other players. As anyone who’s played an online game knows, it’s hard to pay much attention to NPC dialogue when you’re playing with other people, whether they’re blabbing in your ear or rushing you to hurry up and get to the next mission. Current and former BioWare employees say they brought this up with BioWare’s senior leadership only to be ignored. Anthem developers say they anticipated other complaints, too, like ones about the heat meter that prevents you from flying for too long without breaks, and the fact that so many of those Fort Tarsis dialogue choices didn’t seem to accomplish much.
In the weeks after launch, BioWare’s Austin office began taking over the live service, as had always been planned, while BioWare Edmonton staff gradually started moving to new projects, like Dragon Age 4. Among those who remain at the company, there’s a belief that Anthem can be fixed, that with a few more months and some patience from players, it will have the same redemption story as so many service games before it, from Diablo III to Destiny.
Yet questions linger about BioWare’s production practices. Many of those who have left the company over the past few years shared concerns about the studio’s approach to game development. There’s widespread worry that the soul of BioWare has been ripped away, that this belief in “BioWare magic” has burned too many people out. That too many talented veterans have left. “There are things that need to change about how that studio operates,” said one former developer. “There are lessons that need to be learned and the only way they’ll get learned is if they become public knowledge.”
One big change that’s already been enacted at BioWare is a new technology strategy. Developers still at the studio say that under Casey Hudson, rather than start from scratch yet again, the next Dragon Age will be built on Anthem’s codebase. (We’ll share more on that game in the near future.)
“I think Anthem might be the kick in the butt that BioWare leadership needed to see that how you develop games has changed dearly,” said one former staffer. “You can’t just start fresh and fumble your way forward until you find the fun. That doesn’t work anymore.”
Perhaps Anthem will morph into a great game one day. A few people who worked on it have expressed optimism for the future. “A lot of us were screaming at the wall,” said one Austin developer. “Over time, what builds up is, ‘Okay, when we get control, we’re going to fix it.’ Sure, the game has all these problems and we understand them. It’s very much a ‘motivated to fix’ attitude.”
The game that emerged from a six-and-a-half-year development cycle was the result of a number of difficult, complicated factors, ones that won’t be quite as easy to fix as Anthem’s loot drop rates or loading screens. When the Anthem team started development back in 2012, they hoped to make the Bob Dylan of video games, one that would be referenced and remembered for generations. They might have accomplished that. Just not in quite the way they hoped.
UPDATE (11:30am): Minutes after the publication of this article, EA and BioWare put up a blog post in apparent response. We had sent over a bullet-pointed summary of what was in this piece, although they did not have a chance to read the article before publishing their post, which makes it a particularly bizarre response.
The post explains the lack of comment for our article based on an assumption of what the article would focus on: “We chose not to comment or participate in this story because we felt there was an unfair focus on specific team members and leaders, who did their absolute best to bring this totally new idea to fans. We didn’t want to be part of something that was attempting to bring them down as individuals.”
While our article names some senior people at BioWare, and while we’d asked about the roles of various leaders at BioWare during the game’s development, readers can judge for themselves whether BioWare’s assumptions about our article were correct. We don’t think they were.
“The struggles and challenges of making video games are very real,” the post states. “But the reward of putting something we created into the hands of our players is amazing. People in this industry put so much passion and energy into making something fun. We don’t see the value in tearing down one another, or one another’s work. We don’t believe articles that do that are making our industry and craft better.”
We believe in asking questions and publishing what we can find out. We hope that in the future EA and BioWare will see the value of that process.