With the news recently that BioWare had set up a 30-person team to revive Anthem, it’s clear that they still think there’s life in the game. Anthem was quite a dramatic failure at launch, being almost devoid of content. This was also BioWare’s second big miss in a row, following the much-memed Mass Effect: Andromeda launch. Saving Anthem may be a Sisyphean task, but could be vital to winning back BioWare’s fan base, many of whom — myself included — have lost a lot of faith in the studio.
If we look at Anthem’s history, it has definitely been a rocky one. Revealed in 2017, the teaser was an exciting one. Gorgeous visuals and interesting locales paired with the fact that Anthem was BioWare’s first new intellectual property in ages meant that almost everyone was excited. Behind the scenes, however, things were nowhere near as smooth as that first glimpse.
The big boy Jason Schreier did a deep-dive into How Bioware’s Anthem Went Wrong, and it is a must-read for anyone interested. Among many stories of Anthem’s development from the article, it turns out that just days before the game reveal it wasn’t even called Anthem. Apparently it was meant to be called Beyond, and they’d even printed out T-shirts with the title for staff.
It turns out that EA found securing the rights for Beyond too difficult, so they went with the slightly banal backup option of Anthem. As Schreier put it, “such a major last-minute upheaval might seem strange to an outside observer, but on Anthem, it was common.” I won’t retell the development struggles that Schreier outlined, but this one anecdote is indicative of an overall development that rarely went to plan.
With this as the foundation for what is meant to be one of the big players in the looter-shooter realm, it would seem like BioWare should just move on. If they want to save this game, there are some fundamental issues that need to be resolved. While there are the obvious irritations like loot boxes and absurd loading times, something more deep-set needs to be fixed in Anthem.
The key with other games of this ilk, like Destiny, is that addictive core gameplay loop. It is key to the longevity of games-as-service titles. Do a mission and shoot some things, get some loot as a reward, upgrade your character, and go out and do more missions with harder things. It’s why people play Destiny or Monster Hunter forever. That gameplay loop is tight.
If you look at Anthem, however, that gameplay loop is barely there. And the problem with this seems to be systemic, and something which was going wrong from the outset. As one former BioWare developer said, “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.” Without that clear understanding of Anthem’s loop, it was inevitable that it wouldn’t exist.
With that in mind, the question would be to the future. All that is in the past and can’t be helped. So how has everything post-launch looked at BioWare? Not good. No matter what they’ve tried, BioWare hasn’t done much to revive interest in the game. It also doesn’t look like the studio is at its healthiest. The best place to see these signs is the notable BioWare departures since launch.
Head producer of the game Ben Irving announced he was leaving in August 2019. Just a month and a half after promising to fix Anthem, head of live services Chad Robertson also announced that he was leaving in October 2019. From the outside, it looks like a lot of fed-up staff are jumping ship, and quite rightly.
However, a few weeks ago, we got the news from Christian Dailey that he would be heading-up a 30-person ‘Anthem incubation team’ over at BioWare, with the hope of saving the almost-dead game. His post was lovely, personal, and low-key — all very good signs! No big promises, other than that they were working on it. He also made it clear that this would be a slow process, as the team was only ‘starting to validate [their] design hypotheses.’ So we won’t see anything any time soon.
With such deep-rooted issues that started almost a decade ago, at the beginning of Anthem’s development, Dailey and his team have a monstrous task ahead of them. They are also an incredibly small team. Whether Anthem can have a No Man’s Sky moment may be unclear, but it isn’t looking at all exciting. If anything, it seems unlikely that Anthem will, and BioWare clearly isn’t putting their full force behind saving it.
I like the idea of BioWare moving on and focusing on their beloved franchises like Dragon Age and Mass Effect. But I also like the idea of Anthem becoming a good game. I just can’t imagine, with a team this small and a task so large, that they will actually be able to do it. I sure would like to be proven wrong.