When I was first asked to preview Greedfall, an upcoming RPG by Spiders, I didn’t really know what to expect. Its vast world, packed with ruins and frontier towns, captured a sense of discovery but also evoked a strange apprehension in me. Greedfall brims with potential and clever ideas, yet even after playing it, I can’t tell if it will mark a powerful recreation of BioWare-esque storytelling or a half-measured romanticising of the all-too-violent Age of Exploration.
In Greedfall, you play as De Sardet, a citizen of the old continent. Overpopulation has allowed for the rapid spread of a plague known as the Malichor. You are sent as a diplomat to an island across the ocean called Teer Fradee, where a cure to the plague might be found. While searching, you act as a sort of diplomat to the island’s various trade factions and native peoples. The vibe rests distinctly in the 17th century with tricorn hats, armored soldiers, vibrant heraldry, and lonely outposts. Teer Fradee proves to be a mysterious place, magical even, with strange creatures that feel lifted from games like The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt. In fact, playing Greedfall for any stretch of time makes it clear the it’s angling to fill the gap created in the absence of games like The Witcher and Dragon Age. I learned as much when I recently sat down with Focus Home Interactive creative producer Tom Butler for a hands-on demonstration.
Greedfall proved immediately gorgeous to look at. Butler started the demo in a small swampland, where beams of light pierced through gnarly branches. Distant forest trees held sage-colored leaves dotted with faded hues. Teer Fradee felt real, as if I could tell what angle my foot would take stepping on a rock. As Butler gave a brief overview of the area, he mentioned that Spider’s CEO Jeanne Rousseau, the main writer on the game, found herself inspired by Baroque art and Flemish paintings. She also found inspiration in the historical accounts of various explorers and naturalists. Greedfall’s world design held a specific ethos: to evoke awe and wonder. What I saw, limited as it was, touched upon those feelings. It was a place I wanted to poke at and whose nooks and crannies held promise.
“We absolutely didn’t want to be strictly historical,” Rousseau said in a YouTube video about the world’s design. “Rather, it had to remain inspiration. We’re inviting players to dream, explore, and discover a totally new universe.”
The world is broken up into small subsections with quests to undertake and point of interest to locate, reminiscent of Dragon Age. As I started playing, I found myself in camp with various companion characters like the cavalier yet secretive sailor Vasco or the curious native Siora. Traveling with companions doesn’t just give advantages in combat but also affects how you might handle situations. For instance, Siora can act as a translator for interactions with Teer Fradee’s various peoples, opening up new dialogue options or helping to resolve situations. Each of these characters had sidequests of their own and stories to pursue. Butler warned me that ignoring them long enough in the main game might lead party members to leave the group out of frustration.
Camp also held a workbench where I could craft armor and weapons. Each item was customizable; I could decide what sort of half cape I wanted to drape over my armor or else adorn myself how I saw fit. For normal difficulty levels, this amount of customization seemed unnecessary, but I was assured that higher-level players would find it useful to min-max each armor piece for high stats. For my part, I mostly imagined how spiffy I could make my character look, wondering if I could maybe opt for something a little more Bloodborne and less conquistador.
I decided to pursue the main quest arc for the area I was in, working with members of the mercantile Bridge Alliance to find a lost foraging team and their lead botanist. Leaving camp, I was almost immediately thrust into combat against some wild boars. This was where Greedfall started to grab me. Players can choose from three initial disciplines at the start of the game: Warrior, Technical, and Magic. It was essentially the split between fighter, thief, and mage, though players can diverge from their initial path. For this demo, I was a mage. This meant tossing magical spells that ranged from simple “magic missiles” to huge spells that exploded energy around me. If I wanted to, I could also switch to my sword or even pull out a matchlock pistol.
Combat flowed well, and it quickly became intuitive to dash away from enemies and cast spells or else wait until my Fury meter filled so I could unleash a stronger attack. (You can watch above to see a clip of skill tree management and a fight against a dangerous monster.) It was similar to the lock-on swordfighting of The Witcher, but there was a welcome twist: At any given time, I could pause the action and play like a turn-based RPG. If things were hectic, a single button tap froze everything and filled my screen with a variety of attacks and spells to queue up. While it hardly felt necessary for my battle against the boars, I imagine it’s a valuable tool in boss fights.
My quest took me through ruined camps and a detective sequence where I followed a trail of blood. Finding a corpse led to discussion of the situation between my companions. My protagonist seemed dismayed that the man was killed.
“He was only a scholar, a sage, not a warrior on the battlefield,” they said.
Siora’s reply came quick: “Do you think my people see a difference when Bridge men steal our people from their beds? All the clans hide their children.”
A game about crossing the ocean to “explore” a new, magical world holds a lot of uncomfortable implications. This was at least some acknowledgement that Greedfall wasn’t going to completely ignore those, that characters would differ in their thoughts about what it meant to explore and what it meant when new groups of people interacted. Butler boiled the interaction down to a question:
“How do you explore that one person’s notion of expansion comes at the expense of other people?”
I mentioned that I was glad to see the moment but I was still apprehensive. How much would Greedfall acknowledge the destructive impacts of colonization? How much would it allow the player to navigate and negotiate a different path, even as it wore the trappings of the Age of Discovery?
Eventually, I came across two Teer Fradee natives in a clearing and approached them. I was greeted with welcome skepticism. Who the hell is this colonist and what do they want? Are they also here to cause trouble? For the purposes of the demo, I had a high charisma stat that led to fruitful discussion, but I also had the option to have Siora step in. I was told later that I could have also snuck close to eavesdrop on the conversation instead.
We discovered the lone survivor of the Bridge survey team, a feisty alchemist named Aphra. She introduced herself by dropping out of a tree and ambushing my party, a memorable introduction that made it clear she would be a companion character. Companions clashed. Siora and Aphra clearly did not see eye to eye when it came to the Bridge Alliance’s forays deeper into Teer Fradee. The mercenary Kurt noted that if Aphra lashed out at the party again, he would kill her himself. It made me wonder how these companions would play off each other throughout the game.
The rest of my time with Greedfall was spent exploring a few major towns and poking at the game’s character creator. It had a neat framing device—a portrait session that the main character is sitting through at the start of the game. This also gave me a chance to get a better sense of the various skills you could have, like Craftsmanship or Science. These could affect dialog but also give certain options in the game world. For instance, someone with a high science skill might craft bombs to create makeshift entrances to restricted areas like warehouses.
I walked away from Greedfall extremely curious. It could be just the sort of RPG that I’ve been craving. Companion characters, stats that affect dialog, a rich and interesting setting. There’s promise here, a chance to use a familiar video game frame to explore interesting ideas and characters, should the ideas be handled with care. Whatever happens, I won’t have to wait long to see the final result. Greedfall releases in September for PC, Xbox One, and Playstation 4.
I think I’m bad at role-playing games. I’m far too impatient, too lusty, too easily distracted. I usually leave a trail of dead party members behind me because I keep missing those five-second side-conversations earlier in the game that somehow butterfly-effect themselves into someone dying.
NSFW WARNING: A butt.
I lost Lydia somewhere in a Skyrim dungeon, and she was murdered by elder tech while I was off looting. My boyfriend refuses to play Divinity: Original Sin 2 with me because I keep trying to pickpocket people, and then we have to fight twenty angry guards, and when I’m not pickpocketing I’m running around accidentally triggering important quests while looking for treasure. But playing Dragon Age: Inquisition, I felt like the game was designed around my awkward clumsiness. Here is the tale of how I ended up with three love interests.
It all started with Dorian. He’s a sassy asshole, and I love him. Something about his wit, sarcasm, and stupid tiny mustache drew me to him, and in typical RPG style, I ignored all other characters for every chance I could get to trigger new dialogue with him. It wasn’t long before he took me on his personal quest, during which I was sure he would tell me that we were to be married at once, or whatever the Dragon Age equivalent was.
But the personal quest turned out to be a mission to confront his father about his attempt to use blood magic to suppress Dorian’s homosexuality. Oh. Oh.
I went to the library and had a tough conversation with Dorian, asking him what he had meant by all that flirting if he wasn’t interested in me. Not only did he acknowledge that it was misleading, he apologized for toying with my heart, and offered to never flirt with me again if it was too much for me—which was a moment in and of itself, because, wait, had the game expected me to do this? Was this all part of writer David Gaider’s plan? Damn him! Damn that sexy mustache! But I moved on, satisfied with the realness of our conversation and with Dorian’s agency as a non-playable character who was only interested in men.
I dallied for a while with Blackwall, a man with a stupid beard, a gravelly monotone, and a distinct lack of personality (apologies in advance to all Blackwall fans). When I say I dallied, I mean once. Precisely once. I chose one flirty dialogue choice out of curiosity, and it wasn’t until four painful romantic cutscenes later that I was able to tell him to take his beard and fuck off back to the stables. He was convinced we were very much in love. From my perspective, it was more like a clingy guy that thinks one date is a tangible commitment.
From there, I only really had one option, because Josephine—the gold-plated angel who was basically Andy from the end of The Devil Wears Prada, knowledgeable and ever-present—wasn’t dateable, and I accidentally made everyone else hate me. That remaining option was Iron Bull, AKA Freddie Prinze, Jr., AKA the ten-foot Qunari who was as horny as he was, uh, horny. Because he had horns.
Iron Bull, being made entirely of beef and trauma, was very, very into BDSM, a topic I wasn’t expecting to find in a AAA game. Despite the fact he could have pumped my poor dwarf protagonist into a sex-paste, I went for it. The height difference was probably at least six feet, a fact the game attempted to gloss over. He asked for my enthusiastic consent over and over again, and although this was probably more like a waiver—because of the danger of the aforementioned sex pulverization—it impressed me nonetheless.
(Apparently, if you don’t date Iron Bull or Dorian, they can end up together. Dragon Age: Inquisition did a lot for me, but it didn’t let me be the mayonnaise in that man-sandwich, so if you’ll excuse me, I’m off to find some fan-fiction.)
It’s been said a thousand times before about Dragon Age: Inquisition, but it sure is refreshing to play a AAA game that treats sex not like a win-state, nor a titillating cutscene, but as a living part of an ever-changing relationship. We don’t have to treat sex like something divorced from the narrative of the game, nor do we have to act like it only exists for the player’s enjoyment. Good sex in games, as rare as it is, should be about sex in context, with all the dynamics of power and personality that come with it. Giving characters like Dorian the agency to reject people is just as important as giving the player and the player-character the agency to consent, and I’d love to see more of that in the future.
Not to mention that sex is a great opportunity for silly jokes that show a different side of characters, like the sex scene between the Inquisitor and Sera, who falls off the bed laughing at the Inquisitor’s failed attempt to shave initials into her pubes. And why not! It’s a tender, heartwarming scene that lets us take a break from battles and misery.
I am eternally grateful that Dragon Age: Inquisition let me roleplay as the hot mess I am, with all the relationship fuck-ups and responses that acknowledged that everyone, from Dorian and Blackwall to Sera and Iron Bull, was fully aware of how much of a romantic dumbass I was.
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.
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.
This means everything is being overhauled, from unit visuals to maps to faction icons, and the game’s roster will be tweaked so that each available side plays like it should according to Bioware’s canon.