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.
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.
In December 2018, developer BioWare teased the next Dragon Age game, hinting at a mysterious future for the popular fantasy series—one that’s enticing, but seems very far away. Why, more than four years after Dragon Age: Inquisition, is Dragon Age 4 still so early in development? The answer is complicated, and reflective of BioWare’s turbulence over the past decade.
Last week, we published a lengthy investigation into how Anthem, the new loot shooter from the beloved game studio, went so awry. While reporting on this story and then in the days that followed, I learned a lot more about the current state of Dragon Age, one of BioWare’s two tentpole franchises (alongside Mass Effect, which was put on ice in 2017 following the disappointing Mass Effect: Andromeda but has since been warmed back up). I heard more about the first version of Dragon Age 4, which was rebooted in October of 2017, and the current version, which is now in development at BioWare’s office in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada.
The story behind this reboot isn’t just a story of a game going through multiple iterations, as many games do. The Dragon Age 4 overhaul was a sign of BioWare’s troubles, and how the company has struggled in recent years to work on multiple projects at the same time. It was indicative of the tension between EA’s financial goals and what BioWare fans love about the studio’s games. It led to the departure of several key staff including veteran Dragon Age creative director Mike Laidlaw, and it led to today’s Dragon Age 4, whose developers hope to carefully straddle the line between storytelling and the “live service” that EA has pushed so hard over the past few years. (EA did not return a request for comment.)
Perhaps the saddest thing about Dragon Age 4’s cancellation in 2017 for members of the Dragon Age team was that this time, they thought they were getting it right. This time, they had a set of established tools. They had a feasible scope. They had ideas that excited the whole team. And they had leaders who said they were committed to avoiding the mistakes they’d made on Dragon Age: Inquisition.
But Anthem was on fire, and BioWare needed everyone to grab a hose.
In the fall of 2014, BioWare released Dragon Age: Inquisition, the studio’s first modern open-world game and the first role-playing game to be made on EA’s Frostbite engine. It was a critical success, selling well for BioWare’s standards and winning Game of the Year at the 2014 Game Awards. It was also a catastrophic production, by all accounts, one that was documented in the book <a rel="nofollow" data-amazonasin="0062651234" data-amazonsubtag="[t|link[p|1833913351[a|0062651234[au|5724028783693984903[b|kotaku[lt|text" onclick="window.ga('send', 'event', 'Commerce', 'kotaku – The Past And Present Of Dragon Age 4‘, ‘0062651234’);window.ga(‘unique.send’, ‘event’, ‘Commerce’, ‘kotaku – The Past And Present Of Dragon Age 4‘, ‘0062651234’);” data-amazontag=”kotakuamzn-20″ href=”https://www.amazon.com/Blood-Sweat-Pixels-Triumphant-Turbulent/dp/0062651234?tag=kotakuamzn-20&ascsubtag=e22ef8b086616195677a74fda0599da4fce9173b”>Blood, Sweat, and Pixels. (Full disclosure: I know the author of that book pretty well.)
The short version: Dragon Age: Inquisition was hampered by a host of problems, including the challenges of shipping on five platforms at once (PC, PS4, PS3, Xbox One, and Xbox 360), the addition of a multiplayer mode to Dragon Age for the first time, and the technical difficulties of Frostbite. Too many people were assigned to work on the game when it first started development, forcing the leadership team to spread themselves thin and make fast, questionable decisions in the interest of ensuring that everyone had work to do (work that they’d frequently have to redo later). Most notably, Inquisition was the product of the “BioWare magic” documented in our Anthem investigation. Much of the design and story was finalized during the final year of development, leading to stress and crunch throughout 2014 as the Inquisition team scrambled to finish the game.
One of the biggest problems was that the chilly reception to Dragon Age 2, a narrow, often repetitive game made in just 14 months, left the developers feeling skittish and insecure. As creative director Mike Laidlaw told me in an interview for the book a few years ago, this insecurity led him and his fellow directors to second-guess a lot of their decisions. “You’re following a negative experience,” he said. “You’re not quite sure where and how to get it back. And on top of that you’re introducing all this new gameplay that leads to an inherent insecurity.”
By the time Inquisition finally launched in November of 2014, everyone was burnt out. Laidlaw and executive producer Mark Darrah told staff they would try to do things better for their next project, acknowledging that they had made mistakes and telling the staff they didn’t want to shoulder that kind of load again. They said they would focus on delivering an explicit, consistent vision and communicating that vision to the team in as efficient a manner as possible.
Following 2015’s critically acclaimed Trespasser expansion, the Dragon Age team split up. Many of the people who’d worked on Inquisition moved to the troubled Mass Effect: Andromeda, while a few dozen developers including Darrah and Laidlaw started spinning up the next Dragon Age, which was code-named Joplin.
The plan for Joplin was exciting, say people who worked on it. First and foremost, they already had many tools and production pipelines in place after Inquisition, ones that they hoped to improve and continue using for this new project. They committed to prototyping ideas early and often, testing as quickly as possible rather than waiting until everything was on fire, as they had done the last time thanks to the glut of people and Frostbite’s difficulties.
“Everyone in project leadership agreed that we couldn’t do that again, and worked to avoid the kind of things that had led to problems,” said one person who worked on the project, explaining that some of the big changes included: 1) laying down a clear vision as early as possible, 2) maintaining regular on-boarding documents and procedures so new team members could get up to speed fast; and 3) a decision-making mentality where “we acknowledged that making the second-best choice was far, far better than not deciding and letting ambiguity stick around while people waited for a decision.” (That person, like all of the sources for this story, spoke under condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to talk about their experiences.)
Another former BioWare developer who worked on Joplin called it “some of the best work experiences” they’d ever had. “We were working towards something very cool, a hugely reactive game, smaller in scope than Dragon Age: Inquisition but much larger in player choice, followers, reactivity, and depth,” they said. “I’m sad that game will never get made.”
You’d play as a group of spies in Tevinter Imperium, a wizard-ruled country on the north end of Dragon Age’s main continent, Thedas. The goal was to focus as much as possible on choice and consequence, with smaller areas and fewer fetch quests than Dragon Age: Inquisition. (In other words, they wanted Joplin to be the opposite of the Hinterlands.) There was an emphasis on “repeat play,” one developer said, noting that they wanted to make areas that changed over time and missions that branched in interesting ways based on your decisions, to the point where you could even get “non-standard game overs” if you followed certain paths.
A large chunk of Joplin would center on heists. The developers talked about building systemic narrative mechanics, allowing the player to perform actions like persuading or extorting guards without the writers having to hand-craft every scene. It was all very ambitious and very early, and would have no doubt changed drastically once Joplin entered production, but members of the team say they were thrilled about the possibilities.
The first big hiccup came in late 2016, when BioWare putJoplin on hold and moved the entire team onto the troubled Mass Effect: Andromeda, which needed as many hands as possible during its final months of development. Those people, who worked on the game for three or four months, are noted in the game’s credits as the Dragon Age “finaling team”:
Once Andromeda shipped in March 2017, it was back to Dragon Age for thisteam, even as some of them started to sense that Anthem was going to be the next project to turn into an all-hands-on-deck disaster. The Joplin team expanded with people who were rolling off Andromeda and kept working, prototyping, and designing the game. After spending months of their lives helping finish a Mass Effect that didn’t excite a ton of people, it was nice to return to Dragon Age.
One thing that wasn’t discussed much on Joplin was multiplayer, according to a few people who worked on the project, which is perhaps why the project couldn’t last. While BioWare’s publisher and parent company, Electronic Arts, tends to give its studios a fair amount of autonomy, there are still mandates to follow. By 2017, EA had not been secret about its desire to make all of its major products into “games as a service,” best defined as games that can be played—and monetized—for months and years after their release. Traditional Dragon Age games did not fit into that category. Inquisition had a multiplayer mode, but was something like that really going to bring in the long-term revenue that EA wanted from expensive productions like Dragon Age 4?
While reporting on Anthem, I kept hearing one interesting sentiment from current and former BioWare staff: They felt like the weirdos in EA’s portfolio, the guys and gals who made nerdy role-playing games as opposed to explosive shooters and big sports franchises. BioWare games never sold quite as well as the FIFAs and Battlefields of the world, so it never felt like they could get quite as many resources as their colleagues at other studios. High-ranking BioWare staff openly wondered: Did EA’s executives really care about narrative? Did they really care about RPGs? Those questions have always lingered, and still do today.
By the latter half of 2017, Anthem was in real trouble, and there was concern that it might never be finished unless the studio did something drastic. In October of 2017, not long after veteran Mass Effect director Casey Hudson returned to the studio to take over as general manager, EA and BioWare took that drastic action, canceling Joplin and moving the bulk of its staff, including executive producer Mark Darrah, onto Anthem.
A tiny team stuck around to work on a brand new Dragon Age 4, code-named Morrison, that would be built on Anthem’s tools and codebase. It’s the game being made now. Unlike Joplin, this new version of the fourth Dragon Age is planned with a live service component, built for long-term gameplay and revenue. One promise from management, according to a developer, was that in EA’s balance sheet, they’d be starting from scratch and not burdened with the two years of money that Joplin had already spent. Question was, how many of those ideas and prototypes would they use?
It’s not clear how much of Joplin’s vision will shape Morrison (at least some of it will, says one person on the game), but shortly after the reboot, creative director Mike Laidlaw left, as did some other veteran Dragon Age staff. Matt Goldman, art director on Dragon Age: Inquisition and then Joplin, took over as creative director for Morrison, while Darrah remained executive producer on both that project and Anthem.
In early 2018, when I first reported that BioWare had rebooted the next Dragon Age and that its replacement would be a live service game, studio GM Casey Hudson responded on Twitter. “Reading lots of feedback regarding Dragon Age, and I think you’ll be relieved to see what the team is working on. Story & character focused. Too early to talk details, but when we talk about ‘live’ it just means designing a game for continued storytelling after the main story.”
At The Game Awards in December 2018, BioWare teased Morrison with a vague trailer, hinting at the return of the enigmatic villain Solas and promising in a blog post that the team was full of vets. “We’ve gathered our strongest team yet and are venturing forth on the most epic quest ever,” wrote Goldman.
So what does all this mean, exactly? How much of a multiplayer focus will Dragon Age 4 have? Is it online-only? We’re not sure about all the details, and in fact they’re likely still being decided, as the game is still very early in development and could evolve based on the negative reception to Anthem. Rumor among BioWare circles for the past year has been that Morrison is “Anthem with dragons”—a snarky label conveyed to me by several people—but a couple of current BioWare employees have waved me off that description. “The idea was that Anthem would be the online game and that Dragon Age and Mass Effect, while they may experiment with online portions, that’s not what defines them as franchises,” said one. “I don’t think you’ll see us completely change those franchises.”
When asked, a few BioWare developers agreed that it’d be technically possible for a game built on Anthem’s codebase to also have an offline branch, but it’s not yet clear whether Morrison will take that approach. If it does turn out to be an online game, which seems likely, it would be shocking if you couldn’t play the bulk of it by yourself. (Diablo III, for example, is online-only on PC yet can be played entirely solo.) One person close to the game told me this week that Morrison’s critical path, or main story, would be designed for single-player and that goal of the multiplayer elements would be to keep people engaged so that they would actually stick with post-launch content. Single-player downloadable content like Dragon Age: Inquisition’s Trespasser, while often excellent,typically sells only a fraction of the main game, according to developers from BioWare and elsewhere across the industry.
Yet this wouldn’t be a “live service” game if it was a repeat of Dragon Age: Inquisition, which compartmentalized its single- and multiplayer modes. Fans in the past have grown outraged at the idea of BioWare putting a lot of emphasis on multiplayer gaming, but there are ways in which a service-heavy Dragon Age 4 could be ambitious and impressive. For example, some ideas I’ve heard floated for Morrison’s multiplayer include companions that can be controlled by multiple players via drop-in/drop-out co-op, similar to old-school BioWare RPGs like Baldur’s Gate, and quests that could change based not just on one player’s decisions, but on the choices of players across the globe.
Maybe in two or three years, Morrison will look completely different. It’s not like Dragon Age hasn’t changed drastically in the past. In the office, BioWare developers often refer to Mark Darrah’s Dragon Age team as a pirate ship, one that will eventually wind up at its destination, but not before meandering from port to port, drinking as much rum as possible along the way. His is a team that, in the past, has iterated and changed direction constantly—something that they hoped to cut down for Joplin, but has always been part of their DNA (and, it should be noted, heavy iteration is common in all game development).One BioWare employee summed it up well as we talked about the future of BioWare’s fantasy franchise. “Keep in mind,” they said, “Dragon Age games shift more than other games.”
Said another current BioWare employee about Morrison: “They have a lot of unanswered questions. Plus I know it’s going to change like five times in the next two years.”
There are other questions remaining, too: With BioWare’s Austin office gradually taking over Anthem going forward, when will the bulk of employees at the company’s Edmonton HQ move to the Morrison team? Will Morrison be able to avoid following the lead of Dragon Age: Inquisition, which took on too many people too early and wound up suffering as a result?
And, most important, will BioWare work to prevent the burnout that has led to dozens of developers leaving over the past two years, with so many citing stress, depression, and anxiety?
Last week, just a few minutes after the publication of our Anthem report, EA and BioWare put out a statement (written before they could have read the article) that was disheartening to some current and former employees and felt almost dismissive of their issues. The next day, in an e-mail to employees, BioWare GM Casey Hudson sent a far more assuring message, promising change “to make BioWare the best possible place to work.” But there have been several recent employee departures, with more (I hear) on the way, and wide-scale leadership improvements may take a long time.
The depression and anxiety that has been described by current and former BioWare employees didn’t just result from crunch. It came from people who felt stressed and exhausted, who felt like they couldn’t voice their opinions, who felt like their goal posts were constantly moving, who felt like they’d be targeted for speaking out. These were issues of management and leadership, not just scheduling.In order to protect the identities of employees who spoke to us for the Anthem article, we weren’t able to share some of the saddest and more devastating anecdotes we heard during reporting, but they painted an ugly picture.
We’ve also heard questions and stories from other developers who faced the same sort of issues at other big video game studios, who noted that the idea of “BioWare magic” is common across the industry, not just specific to BioWare. We intend to continue tackling these questions and reporting on these stories.
We’ll have to see how the next few months and years proceed. If there’s one wish among people connected to BioWare (besides “get rid of Frostbite”), it’s that Morrison will follow Joplin’s lead and not just become a great game, but an example of a project whose leaders are trying to do production right.
For their groundbreaking Star Wars role-playing game Knights of the Old Republic, BioWare and LucasArts made the highly ambitious decision to have a cast of actors voice the game’s entire massive, branching script. That story, excerpted below, is told in the latest entry in the Boss Fight Books series, written by journalist Alex Kane and available this week.
With the exception of George Lucas, there’s one name that’s appeared in the credits of more Star Wars games than anyone else’s: Darragh O’Farrell. For more than two decades, he’s been the go-to voice-over (VO) director for Star Wars video game projects, in the LucasArts era and beyond.
O’Farrell was working in animation in Los Angeles, circa ’94, when he got wind that LucasArts was on the hunt for a VO director. “The company could see things were going from floppy disk to CD-ROM,” he says. “As a film company, they needed to embrace the talent side of things a little bit more, which is how I ended up starting there.” O’Farrell’s first game was The Dig, a 1995 point-and-click adventure adapted from a story by Steven Spielberg. It starred Robert Patrick, who’d played the villain in Terminator 2, and featured cutscenes by Lucasfilm’s renowned visual-effects studio, Industrial Light & Magic. “We were used to doing games that had like 10,000 lines of [recorded] dialogue, when no other company was really doing that at the time,” O’Farrell says.
What made the casting and sound departments at LucasArts unique, compared to other internal teams, was that they worked on all of the publisher’s titles. With Star Wars games, in particular, music and sound design has always been one of the key pillars holding the larger experience together. Knights of the Old Republic would be no different.
“We did want to have the BioWare DNA of story, and companion characters that you cared about, and choices that had impact,” lead designer James Ohlen recalls. “But we also knew this: We couldn’t do something that was text-heavy like Baldur’s Gate or Neverwinter Nights, because Star Wars is a very cinematic experience. And the fan expectations would be different than Dungeons & Dragons fans’ expectations. They’d be less understanding of walls of text and lots of reading, which is why [KotOR] was the first game where all of the non-player characters had full voice-over.”
O’Farrell remembers an early meeting with producer Mike Gallo and project director Casey Hudson, at which point the plan, he says, was still to do what BioWare had done in the past—a handful of spoken lines per interaction, with the majority of dialogue being displayed in text form. O’Farrell threw out a suggestion: “Why don’t we record the whole thing?”
Gallo and Hudson exchanged glances.
“We can do that?” said Hudson.
O’Farrell nodded. “As long as there’s room on the disc.” He told them he’d work on getting the budget approved; they still had about a year before it would be time to go into the studio.
“It was one of the most ambitious projects that LucasArts or BioWare had ever attempted,” Gallo says. “I don’t think BioWare had fully voiced anything in the same way that we were doing with this game. Certainly not that size. It was a huge budget for us, internally. It was a massive undertaking.”
LucasArts got its money’s worth, however. Pull up the IMDb entry on Knights of the Old Republic, and you’ll be greeted with a veritable who’s who of the voice-over industry. O’Farrell sent audition packets to a number of Hollywood agencies, casting the game largely with veteran actors from film, television, and previous LucasArts titles. A full paper copy of the game’s script could fill ten large binders; it called for about 300 speaking characters with roughly 15,000 lines of dialogue. Following a traditional casting process, a hundred or so actors filled those roles.
Recording took place at Screenmusic Studios, on Ventura Boulevard in Los Angeles, over the course of five grueling weeks. O’Farrell was joined by voice coordinator Jennifer Sloan, and the two of them worked numerous sixteen-hour days in order to ensure the audio was ready six months out from release.
The great challenge of recording a BioWare RPG became apparent almost immediately: The game’s structure was, for the most part, nonlinear. Every character, therefore, was given their own unique version of the script, and each actor had to be recorded individually. “The first week that I was in LA, James [Ohlen] was there, and he had his laptop, and every so often we’d get to a point where we weren’t quite sure which way the branching was going,” O’Farrell says. “And he would jump on and dig into the code a little bit, and then we would have a clearer direction.” In later weeks, writer Drew Karpyshyn also assisted with some of the sessions.
“That’s something a lot of the actors were doing for the first time,” Karpyshyn says. “So you really needed someone there to give them an overview of how the branching narrative works, and how the storylines are gonna play out, depending on player choices.”
“It’s probably one of the earliest games where I remember a character being both dark and light,” says Jennifer Hale, who voiced the Jedi Bastila Shan. “You know, having the ability to go in either direction. I remember doing a bunch of recording, and then coming back in for another round of recording, and them saying: ‘Okay, now basically she’s changing sides. She’s completely shifting.’ And I’m like, ‘Oh! Okay. Let’s do that.’”
The game’s many quest lines and relationships could develop in different ways based on what the player chose to say, or depending on which planets they journeyed to first. But the player character’s actions also affected their Force alignment; needless slaughter or malice could put a Jedi on the path to the dark side. Moral or immoral choices didn’t merely change the game’s ending but also altered the way companion characters, like Hale’s, responded to the protagonist.
The character of Bastila speaks with a British accent—“Coruscanti,” in the Star Wars universe. According to Hale, a Canadian-American actor, this is something that comes naturally. “I think in various dialects in my head, but British is definitely one of the primary ones, and that’s always been a part of me. Since I was little, and just in the back of my head—I don’t really know why. I just know it’s there. And I went to a fine-arts high school [where] we studied dialects. I’ve put in my time. I work with coaches every now and then when I need a tune-up.”
Hale’s commitment to her craft is evident to even casual fans of games. She holds the Guinness World Record for “most prolific” female video game voice actor, and has voiced characters as diverse as The Elder Scrolls Online’s Lyris Titanborn, Overwatch’s Ashe, and Mass Effect hero Commander Shepard (or “FemShep”), who had her own version of the Force-alignment continuum courtesy of that game’s Paragon–Renegade morality system. Tom Bissell, writing for The New Yorker, once called Hale “a kind of Meryl Streep of the form.”
“There’s no end of positives that you can say about Jennifer,” O’Farrell says. “Take somebody like Liam Neeson. Without him forcing it, you know, there’s a strength that Neeson gives off without actually having to overtly put it out there—it’s just the demeanor that’s there. There’s a strength behind it. And Jennifer has that, too. You just know that she’s not somebody you want to fuck with, you know? She’s a badass without having to be a badass. From a purely professional standpoint, she’s just a great actor. She makes sessions easy because she’s clued in and just gets it. So you can kind of jump in and start hammering out a lot of lines, and you’re just getting quality the whole time.”
Some of Hale’s earliest credits were, in fact, Star Wars games: X-Wing vs. TIE Fighter (1996), Force Commander (2000), Jedi Academy (2003). “I did a ton of games early on because, frankly, a lot of actors didn’t really want to do them because they were super demanding. And I just seemed to have a knack for it,” Hale says. “In the early 2000s, it was really exciting to be involved in the creation of games, and kind of at the forefront of some of the really powerful cinematic stuff that was going on, and especially as a woman. To be given these powerful roles, and a place to lead, and to occupy characters that were leaders, was phenomenal.”
The essence of the job, she says, “is really to go out and have as big a life as I can, and then to bring that experience into the booth.”
Bastila, a young Jedi grappling with both the enormous depth of her powers and her connection to Revan, is the emotional anchor of the game. Beyond Revan, she’s the beating heart of Knights of the Old Republic, and credit for much of the game’s resonance is due to Hale’s stellar work on the character.
One of the most contentious performances to come out of the production, oddly enough, was the beloved assassin droid HK-47, played by actor-director Kristoffer Tabori.
“Originally, [BioWare] wanted him really serious and evil and sinister,” O’Farrell recalls. “Because of our schedules, I was basically working nine to one, taking an hour, working two to six, and then at six o’clock I would do a session until ten, and I would just kind of eat, you know, while we were working. And Kris was one of those evening sessions.”
In the script, the character wasn’t played for laughs. A droid with a lust for violence, HK introduces almost every new line of dialogue with a tag denoting the mode of speech. (“Expletive: damnit, master, I am an assassination droid—not a dictionary!”) His voice is stilted, mechanical. He’s also utterly misanthropic, often referring to human beings, including the player character, as “organic meatbags.”
Tabori tried performing the part as written, but something was missing.
“After about twenty minutes we both, almost simultaneously, said, ‘You know, I’m just not feeling this. This isn’t quite working. I think we’ve got to play up the comedy angle,’” O’Farrell says. “And so we played around for five minutes with it, trying to sort of find the voice, and then decided, ‘Okay, we’ve settled on something.’ And we went back to the beginning of the script and recorded everything again, working our way through all of the HK-47 stuff.”
Usually, over the course of that five-week stretch, O’Farrell would fly into the Bay Area on Friday night and spend the weekend at home before returning to LA to record again. One week, however, he dropped by the LucasArts office on a Monday morning, and Mike Gallo stopped him in the hallway.
“We need to talk about HK-47,” Gallo said. “Everybody hates it.”
O’Farrell told him, “Mike, look, we tried to do what was on the character sheet. It wasn’t working. We went for the comedy route. I get that everybody might hate it right now, but you know what? We’re up against the gun. Let me finish the entire project, and then if there’s time at the end, we’ll talk about it.” Another month went by, and BioWare was forced to live with Tabori’s tongue-in-cheek version of the droid for the time being.
When O’Farrell got back from Los Angeles, and all the initial sessions were over, he asked, “What are we going to do with this HK-47 thing?”
“Oh, everybody loves it now,” Gallo insisted. “Everyone thinks it’s funny. We can’t cut funny.”