It was not even called Anthem . Just days before the annual E3 convention in June 2017, when the big studio BioWare wanted to reveal its latest game, the plan was to go with another title: Beyond . They had even printed 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, came down to secure the trademark rights would be too difficult. Beyond was excluded. The management team quickly switched to one of their backup options, Anthem . But while Beyond had been indicative of what BioWare hoped the game would be – you went beyond the walls of the fort and into the dangerous game around you – Anthem did not really mean much .
"Everyone was like," Well, it has no meaning – what has it to do with something? "Someone who worked at the game said. Just days before their game was announced, the team at BioWare had a brand new name that no one understood.
Such a great last upheaval may seem strange to an outside observer but to Anthem was commonplace, very few things went straight into the development of BioWare's newest game, an online business partner who was first teased in mid-2012, but spent years floundering in the pre-production. Implemented until the last months, and for some who worked on the project, it wasn't even clear what kind of game Anthem was even until the E3 demo in June 2017, less than two years before it actually came Later they came up with an explanation of the name: The planet of the game was surrounded by something called the anthem of creation, a powerful and mysterious force that left environmental disasters worldwide.
Da Anthem launched in February 2019 it was panned by fans and critics. Today, it has a 55 review review site Metacritic, BioWare's lowest score since the company was founded in 1995. The developer is once known for ambitious role-playing games as Dragon Age and the original Mass Effect trilogy has now released two critical flops in a row, after the disappointing 2017 Mass Effect: Andromeda . Although hardcore fans have put their faith in BioWare to continue fixing Anthem 's bugs and improving their mechanics – especially since Bungies Destiny a similar game had a hard launch and finally restored – few were happy with the original release. Anthem was not just buggy and thin on the content; It felt half-baked just as it hadn't been tested and tweaked enough by developers with experience in playing other shooters. In the weeks following the launch, there seemed to be a big new problem every day.
Fans have speculated infinitely on how Anthem went so wrong. Was it originally a single-player role-playing game, like BioWare's previous titles? Has EA forced BioWare to make a Destiny clone? Have they removed all the good missions to sell later as downloadable content? Is the running system secretly powered by an elaborate AI system that keeps track of everything you do so you can spend more on the game?
The answer to all these questions is no.
This account of Anthem & # 39; s development based on interviews with 19 people who either worked on the game or next to it (all were assigned anonymity because they were not authorized to speak Anthem 's development is a story of indecision and poor management. It's a story of technical flaws, 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 studies, one in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada and another in Austin, Texas, which grew resilient to each other thanks to a tense, skewed relationship. It is a story of a video game that was in development for almost seven years, but did not go into production for the last 18 months thanks to large narrative reboots, great design overhauls and a management team said to be unable to provide a consistent vision and unwilling to listen to feedback.
Perhaps most alarming, it's a story of a study in crisis. Thousands of developers, many of them ten-year veterans, have left BioWare for the past two years. Some who have worked at BioWare's longest office in Edmonton talk about depression and anxiety. Many say that they or their associates should take "stress" – a medical period of weeks or even months worth vacation for their mental health. A former BioWare developer told me that they would often find a private room in the office, shut the door and just cry. "People were so angry and sad all the time," they said. Another said, "Depression and anxiety is an epidemic in Bioware."
"I can't actually count the amount of stress forces" we had on Mass Effect: Andromeda or Anthem "A third former BioWare developer said in an email." & # 39; stress accident & # 39; at BioWare means that someone had such a mental distribution from the stress that they have just gone for one to three months. Some come back, some do not. "
EA and BioWare refused to comment on this story.
Among those who work or have worked at BioWare who believe that Something drastic has to be changed, many at the company mumbling now that the success of 2014s Dragon Age: Inquisition was one of the worst things that could have been the case with them.The third Dragon Age who won the Game of the Year at the 2014 Game Awards, was the result of a brutal production process plagued by indecision and technical challenges, built mainly during its last year, leading to long-lasting hours and lots of exhaustion "Some of the people of Edmonton were so burned out," said one former BioWare developer. "They were like," We needed [Age Dragon Age: Inquisition ] to make people realize that This is not the right way to make games. ""
Within the study there is an expression called "BioWare magic." It is a belief that, no matter how rough a game production may be, things will always come together in the last few months. The game will always be assembled. It happened on the Mass Effect trilogy, on Dragon Age: Origins and on Inquisition . Veteran BioWare developers look like referring to production as a hockey stick – it's been flat for a while and then suddenly bumps it up. Even when a project feels like a complete disaster, there is a conviction that with enough hard work – and hardly enough – it all comes together.
After the high-profile errors in Mass Effect Andromeda and Anthem it has become clear to current and former BioWare employees that this attitude no longer works. In recent years, BioWare has done serious damage to its reputation as a leading RPG developer. Perhaps the hockey stick approach is no longer viable. Or maybe – just maybe – this kind of production practice was never really sustainable at first.
One thing is certain: On Anthem ran out of BioWare's magic.
In the beginning, it called Dylan . At the end of 2012 and 2013, BioWare director Casey Hudson and a small team of longtime Mass Effect developers began working on a project that they hoped would be Bob Dylan of video games, meaning something that would be referred by video game fans in the coming years. Even within BioWare, it was a mystery project – you needed a password to get into the wiki, according to someone who was on it. For a while the team became small. Most of BioWare's staff were on Dragon Age: Inquisition who needed all the hands on deck to ship by the end of 2014.
The early ideas for Dylan I want to call Anthem from now on to get clarity) was ambitious and changed constantly, according to people who were on the project. As it is typically during this kind of "ideation" phase, nobody knew how the game would look yet – they just wanted to see what might be cool. It would be an action game, certainly, and you would be able to play it with your friends. The goal was to get away from traditional sci-fi and imagination so that the game would feel separate from Mass Effect and Dragon Age .
A concept that quickly emerged was the idea of a dangerous, perilous planet. Anthem would be put on a hostile alien world, and in order to go into the desert, you would need a robbery roof. A realistic, NASA-inspired robotic roof. The place was simple: Iron Man but less cartoonish.
During the months, a core concept began to crystallize: Anthem the planet would be like the Bermuda Triangle in this universe with an inexorable gravity it was constantly dragging on foreign ships and dangers. As a result, the world would be deadly and full of dangerous creatures. "You are the bottom of the food chain, and everything is significantly stronger than you," said someone working at the game. Describing these early iterations of Anthem have compared Dark Souls Darkest Dungeon himself to the Colossus Shadow . There would be big, scary creatures in the world, and your work would be to see how long you could survive. A prototype allowed the player to attach to a large monster; others centered on the atmosphere, the weather and the environment.
"The idea was that there were all those levers that could be pulled internally, so there would be different events at all times," a developer said. "You would be out somewhere and a big storm would happen randomly and you would survive it. We had an early demonstration of this where the environment was dynamic and by pulling livers we could change it from summer to winter to fall. You wanted to see the snow hit the ground, beat the trees … There were conditions in the building where it was demonstrated, and that we could see this was something you could actually achieve. "
We saw a small glimpse of these prototypes E3 2014, when BioWare showed a teaser trailer for the not yet named game that would eventually be Anthem :
Anthem was always intended as an online multiplayer game according to developers working on it, but it was not always a loot shooter, the kind of game where you infinitely hit missions for new arms. In these early versions, the idea was that you should go out of town and go on expeditions with your friends and stay out in the world for as long as you could survive. You would use a robot exhaust and you would fight monsters with melee and shooting attacks, but the focus was less on hoarding and more to see how long you could survive. A mission, for example, can take you and a team in the middle of a volcano, where you should find out why it was outbreak, kill some creatures and then fight back. "It was the main hook," an Anthem developer said. "We go out as a team and will try to do something like a team and then come back and talk about it." Along the way you can scavenge or save alien ships for parts and bring them back to your base in upgrading your weapons or improving your suit.
"It was really interesting," said someone working on it. "It really hit a chord with many of the people who were working on it initially."
What was unclear during this process was how many of these ideas and prototypes would actually work on a scale. Dynamic environments and giant creatures can perform nicely in a controlled environment, but would the [Anthem team really make these functions work in an online, open game played by thousands and thousands of people? And would Frostbite, the fleeting video game engine that BioWare now uses for all its projects, really support all these features?
As these issues persisted, the [Anthem team was subjected to a major shake-up. In August 2014, as they continued to prototype and dream about their games, they lost their leader. Casey Hudson, who had directed the beloved Mass Effect trilogy and was to be a creative director at Anthem left. "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 on to pre-production on a title that I think will redefine interactive entertainment." Jon Warner, a relatively new lease who had worked for Disney before joining EA in 2011, took the role of a game manager.
BioWare veterans liked to describe Casey Hudson's Mass Effect team as Enterprise from Star Trek : They did everything the captain said, and they were all laser focused on a single destination. (By comparison, the Dragon Age called the team a pirate ship that moved from port to port until it reached its final destination.) Now, the company no longer had its Jean-Luc Picard.
Still, members of the [Anthem team say they remained happy. Dragon Age: Inquisition was sent in late 2014 for critical recognition, and many of these developers moved to Anthem where they found a team filled with high hopes and ambitious ideas. "EA had these team health reports," one said. " Anthem 's morals were among the highest in all EA. It was really really good for a while, so there was so much potential in the early prototypes." Potential "was always the word there." 19659005] A BioWare developer who had not yet moved to the team Anthem recalled hearing these colleagues, talked about how much better they had it than the people who were stuck on Mass Effect: Andromeda who at that time went through serious struggle thanks to technical challenges and significant directional changes. Surely they thought it couldn't happen Anthem . "We took so much time to get the experience right," another person who worked at the game said. "So I think the morale was so high. I knew we had taken the time to really refine what we would have played about. Now we just had to go and produce it."
"EA Anthem's morals were among the highest in all EAs, which was really good for a while, so there was so much potential in the early prototypes. & # 39; Potential & # 39; was always the word there. "- BioWare developer
Question was how would they do it? As the evolution progressed, it became clear that some of the original ideas of the Anthem team would not work or were not quite solid enough to be implemented. Take e.g. Traversal. The mandate was that Anthem 's world would be massive and seamless, but how would you get around? The team played with prototypes and explored various ways in which your exosuit could move vertically all over the world. For a long time, they thought it would climb mountains and ledges sides, but they couldn't quite get it right. Early flight iterations – as developers say were removed from and added Anthem several times – more like gliding, and members of the Anthem team say it was difficult to make the system feel everything it is funny. Each time they changed the traverse, changing the world design accordingly, fluttering and stretching the ground to accommodate the latest movement style.
There were experiments with procedural meetings where dynamic creatures and environmental risks would randomly random from the world, but they also did not work too smoothly. "It took a long time," said one developer. "The game was super dependent on this procedural system that just wasn't fun."
The story also began to change drastically. In early 2015, the veteran moved Dragon Age author David Gaider to Anthem and his version of the story so much different than the ideas they had experimented with in the past few years. Gaider's style was traditional BioWare-big, complicated villains; old alien artifacts; and so on – which ranked some of the developers hoping for something more subtle. "There was a lot of opposition from the team who just didn't want to see a sci-fi Dragon Age I think," a developer said. Added a second: "Many people were like," Why do we tell the same story? Let's do something different. & # 39; "
When asked to comment on this, Gaider said in an email that when he started the project Anthem design director Preston Watamaniuk had pushed him into a" science-fantasy " "direction." I was fine with that, as fantasy is more my comfort zone anyway, but it was clear from the start that there was a lot of resistance to the change from the rest of the team, "he said." Perhaps they assumed the idea of that it came from me, I'm not sure, but comments like "it's very Dragon Age " continued to come up with some work I or my team did … and not on a free manner. There were many people who wanted a word about Anthem & # 39; s story and kept articulating a desire to do something different without being fully aware of what was outside it, just to be something BioWare had done before (which apparently was a bad thing?). From my perspective, it was quite frustrating. "
Gaider left BioWare at the beginning of 2016-" As time went on, I didn't feel anxious to play the game that I was working on, "he told me – leading to new authors for Anthem and a total story reboot, which led to even more chaos. "As you can imagine, writing to BioWare puts the foundation for all the games," a developer said. "When writing, you are unsure of what it does, causes many devastation for many departments. "
Instability had been mated to the course at ] Anthem team, when Hudson's departure left a void that turned out to be difficult to fill in. The work of governance Anthem now fell to the creative management team, a group that included the game manager Jon Warner, design director Preston Watamani uk, 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 very angry with this group, and in interviews, many who worked at the Anthem accused the management team of indecision and poor management. "The reason for all this was the lack of vision," a former BioWare developer said. "What are we doing? Please tell us. The recurring theme was that there was no vision, there was no clarity, there was no single director who said," It all works together. ""
"They never seemed to do something about something, "the person added. "They were always looking for something more, something new." Another said, "I think most of the team felt we didn't know exactly what the game was or what it should be because it was changing so much."
The Most Common Anecdote that was relayed to me by current and former BioWare employees was this: A group of developers is in a meeting. They debate a certain creative decision, such as the flight mechanics or the lore behind the Scar alien race. Some people disagree on the foundation. And then the meeting instead of someone will step up and make a decision on how to proceed, ending without a real judgment that leaves everything in flux. "It would just happen again and again," an Anthem developer said. "Things would take a year or two to figure out because nobody really wanted to call it."
"Remember," said another Anthem developer, "everyone had tough decisions to do what we've never done before. New IP, new genre, new technology, new style, everything was new . "
During 2015 and 2016, it appeared to the Anthem team that they were very small. They struggled with the online infrastructure, they hadn't figured out how missions would work, and while building a few environments and creatures, it still wasn't quite clear what the basic gameplay might look like. The story changed constantly, and progress on the game grew sluggish. An early idea was that there would be more cities that eventually turned into a city and player-created outposts that eventually turned into a city and a mobile warrior base that eventually turned into a single fort. The earlier survival ideas melted away. "They were still finding out key parts of the IP, like [crafting material] Ember, how technology worked, that kind of thing," said a former BioWare developer. "The whole back-end architecture and everything was not found out yet."
At the same time, BioWare's studio management had to focus heavily on his attention to Mass Effect: Andromeda a game that caused headaches for virtually everyone, and whose fast-paced release date was set in stone. Another way: Anthem could have started to look like it was on fire, but Andromeda was already almost burnt to the ground.
Complementing these problems further was the fact that sometimes when Anthem management team made the decision, it could take weeks or even months for them to see it in action. "There were many plans," said one developer, "where they were implemented, it was a year later and the game had been developed." The explanation for this delay can be summed up in a word, a word that has plagued many of EA's studios for years, especially BioWare and the recent Visceral Games, a word that can still provoke a mocking smile or sad grimace from anyone who has used anyone time with it.
The word, of course, Frostbite.
"Frostbite is full of razor blades," a former BioWare employee told a few weeks ago that he summed up the feelings of perhaps hundreds of game developers working on Electronic Arts in recent years. 19659005] Frostbite is a video game engine or a series of technology used to make a game. Created by the EA-owned Swedish study DICE to make Battlefield shooters, the Frostbite engine became ubiquitous across Electronic Arts in the last decade thanks to an initiative led by former managing director Patrick Söderlund to get all his studies on the same technology. (By using Frostbite instead of a third-party engine like Unreal, these studies could share knowledge and save a lot of money in license fees.) BioWare first switched to Frostbite for Dragon Age: Inquisition in 2011, causing massive problems for it hold. Many of the features the developers had taken for granted in earlier engines, such as a rescue system and a third-person camera, simply did not exist in Frostbite, which meant that the team Inquisition had to build them all from scratch. Mass Effect: Andromeda went into similar problems. 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 that BioWare had never done before led to a host of new issues for BioWare designers, artists and programmers. "Frostbite is like an internal engine with all the problems that cause – it's badly documented, hacked together, and so on – with all the problems with an externally sourced engine," says a former BioWare employee. "No one you actually work with the design it, so you don't know why this thing works like it does why it's called the way it is."
During the first years of development, Anthem team realized that many of the ideas they had originally thought would be difficult, if not impossible, to create at Frostbite. The engine allowed them to build large, beautiful levels, but it just wasn't equipped with the tools to support all the ambitious prototypes they had created. Slowly and gradually, they began to cut down on the environmental and survival functions they had conceived for Anthem largely because they just didn't work.
"Part of the hassle 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, it took much longer and in some cases you would run into a wall, "a BioWare developer said. "Then you would realize," Oh my god, we can only do that if we reinvent the wheel that will take too long. "It was sometimes difficult to know when to cut and run."
Even today, BioWare developers say that Frostbite can make their jobs exponentially more difficult. Building new iterations at levels and mechanics can be challenging due to sluggish tools while failures that need to take a few minutes to squash may require days of back and forth conversations. "If it takes you a week to make a little bug fix, it discourages people from making mistakes," someone who worked on [Anthrop] said. "If you can hack around it, you can chop it around, as opposed to correcting 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. 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 with your own set of tools all the time."
Anthem 's top leadership had from the beginning decided to start from scratch to much of the game' s technology rather than using all the systems the company had built for Inquisition and Andromeda . Some of this may have been a desire to stand out from the 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 at Frostbite, cannot stand up in an online game, so the Anthem team expected them to build a new one. "At the end of the project, we started to complain," a developer said. "Maybe we would have gone further if we had Dragon Age: Inquisition stuff. But we also complain about the lack of labor in general."
It often felt for the [Anthem] team that they were understaffed, according to the developer and others who worked at the game, many of whom told me their team was a fraction of the size of developers behind similar games that Destiny and Division . There were a number of reasons for this. One was that FIFA in 2016 had to move to Frostbite. The annual football franchise was EA's main series, which led to a large share of publisher's revenue, and BioWare had programmers with Frostbite experience so Electronic Arts switched them to FIFA .
"Many of the really talented engineers actually worked on FIFA when they were supposed to work on Anthem ," a person who was on the project said. There was also the fact that BioWare's headquarters were located in Edmonton, a place where winters can dip to minus 20 or even minus 40 degrees Fahrenheit, which staff have said has always made it difficult to recruit veterans from more habitable cities. (Man må også undre sig: Hvor mange programmerere har hørt om Frostbite's knivblader og besluttet at genere sig?)
Når en BioWare-ingeniør havde spørgsmål eller ville rapportere fejl, skulle de normalt tale med EAs centrale Frostbite-team, en gruppe af supportpersonale, der arbejdede sammen med alle udgiverens studier. Inden for EA var det almindeligt for studios at kæmpe for ressourcer som Frostbite-holdets tid, og BioWare ville som regel tabe disse kampe. Efter alt har rollespil spillet en brøkdel af indtægterne fra en FIFA eller en 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 Andromedawhere 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 Destinyalthough 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 Destinythat 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 Anthemincluding 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 AnthemBioWare 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 Republica 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 Realmsa 4v1 multiplayer game that was announced in the summer of 2014, and then there were some other prototypes, like Sagaa 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 Anthemhelping 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 Destinyor 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 Anthemwhat 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.”
“One of the things we struggled with was, we didn’t understand the game concept. When Anthem was presented to us, it was never really clear what the game was.” – former BioWare developer
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 shipped a big online game, Star Wars: The Old Republicand 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 Anthemwhich 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: Andromedawhich, despite its flaws, was widely considered to have the best shooting of any Mass Effect game. Now that flying was a permanent fixture in Anthemit 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.
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And Anthem needed to be finished. By rebooting Dragon Age 4 and moving almost all of BioWare’s staff to Anthemthe 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 Anthempublished 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 Uscame 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 Anthemthe 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, the leadership 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.
“I think there was an entire week where I couldn’t do anything because there were server issues.” – BioWare developer
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 Anthemthe 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.