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OPINION: Anthem's Overhaul Has Me Conflicted

Poorna Shankar Posted:
Editorials 0

In case you missed it, yesterday, Anthem-head Casey Hudson announced in a blog that the team was going to essentially overhaul the game top to bottom. I’m genuinely conflicted about this admittedly unsurprising confirmation from BioWare. On one hand, I don’t want BioWare to dump more resources into the objective failure that is Anthem. However, I do want to see the true fulfillment of that concept shown off to us at E3 2017. Let’s discuss. 

Let’s back up a tad for some context. Anthem was seemingly troubled from the start, as was apparently confirmed in Kotaku’s expose on the matter. The issues behind the game were pretty foundational, rooted in a systemic lack of leadership and direction. Invariably, the game came together – and I use that term loosely – only in the last 18 months or so of development.

To be frank, the instant we were shown that initial trailer back in 2017, I knew that the final game would never come close to what was on display. This wasn’t some sage-like power I possessed, rather, years of following the industry hardened me to simply know better. There was one fundamental truth as I watched that trailer: BioWare wasn’t capable of producing something like this.

The graphics were too good. Although PCs at the time could have absolutely ran it, consoles most certainly couldn’t. The fake banter between the “players” was terrible and entirely unconvincing. The scale of the world on display was simply too large. The level of detail was too great. The physics were simply too accurate. In short, it looked fake, and that’s because, well, it was.

Jason Schreier’s article outlined how that trailer was effectively put together when the game simply didn’t exist at a foundational level. Pretty much none of what was shown to the masses in that trailer came to pass. Anthem launched laughably broken, with core systems simply underdeveloped. And BioWare, the studio known – lauded, even – for their story-telling prowess in single-player games, delivered a multiplayer online looter shooter with virtually no story.

But don’t worry, the microtransaction store worked.

Fast forward a year filled with forgettable content updates, an abandonment of their roadmap, and a hemorrhaging of their player base, and we arrive at yesterday’s blog post. It follows what I call the PR Formula:

  1. Affirm excitement for game
  2. Commit to supporting aforementioned game
  3. Thank community for their support
  4. Affirm to listening to community feedback
  5. Completely underplay and/or ignore the actual, looming, widely acknowledged problems with the game

The actual content of the blog post doesn’t come into play until about halfway through when Casey says (emphasis added),

“Over the coming months we will be focusing on a longer-term redesign of the experience, specifically working to reinvent the core gameplay loop with clear goals, motivating challenges and progression with meaningful rewards – while preserving the fun of flying and fighting in a vast science-fantasy setting.”

That emphasized bit is important because, in not so many words, Casey is describing, “a video game.” Those things – clear goals, motivating challenges, and progression with meaningful rewards – are the exact things that are the bare minimum in virtually every video game.

Casey Hudson isn’t so much describing a reinvention of Anthem here, as he is describing building an actual game, full stop. And it’s no wonder. Anthem simply was not a complete nor competent product upon launch. The core loop wasn’t there. There were glaring bugs. There were no meaningful rewards. There was no clear progression path. Foundationally, there was nothing there upon which to build and expand.

You know what had hints of this foundation? The 2017 reveal trailer. But more on this later.

Casey’s statement continued (emphasis added),

“And to do that properly we’ll be doing something we’d like to have done more of the first time around – giving a focused team the time to test and iterate, focusing on gameplay first.”

On the surface, this sounds self-reflective and almost mature, as if BioWare has acknowledged what went wrong, and what they need to do to move forward. However, let’s revisit Jason Schreier’s expose.

“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.”

The root issue here wasn’t time, as suggested by Casey’s statement above. The root issue was a lack of guided leadership resulting in an inconsistent vision. This waywardness, and not time, is what completely derailed Anthem. The team had time, seven years in fact. Time wasn’t the issue. And yet, there is no acknowledgement for a need of clear leadership and consistent vision in Casey’s statement.

Additionally, the second emphasized part of Casey’s statement calls for a focus on gameplay first. This deeply troubles me. I won’t for a minute sit here and defend the atrocious gameplay in Anthem. But by re-reading Casey’s statement, you’ll notice that there isn’t a single mention of story.

BioWare made its name by amazing story-telling in epic single-player RPGs. But here, Casey wants to focus on gameplay in a multiplayer online looter shooter and doesn’t even mention the word “story.” This simply reinforces my point on lack of leadership and vision. BioWare here isn’t focusing on their historic competence: good story-telling.

Instead, they’re eschewing story-telling for gameplay in a genre in which they have absolutely zero experience developing. That is incredibly telling of not only BioWare’s current predicament, but of their own blindness in truly understanding the root problem within their team.

This lack of truly understanding the root of the problem is perhaps best expressed at the end of the blog post with the following,

“Creating new worlds is central to our studio mission, but it’s not easy.  Sometimes we get it right, sometimes we miss.”

Anthem wasn’t simply a “miss.” It was the Prestige in a multi-year act resulting in the total collapse of BioWare’s competence, leadership, and vision. To downplay this in any way is to completely ignore this harsh truth. And without acknowledging this fundamental problem within BioWare, no amount of “reinvention” will save Anthem, or any future game.

And yet, there lies a conflict within me.

You see, even though I knew full well that the 2017 trailer was a complete lie, I liked it. As someone whose passion lies in technology, hardware, and progress, the visuals and level of detail on display in that trailer completely enthralled me. Even though I knew full well that what we were seeing was vapor, my mind began to immediately conjure up stories of what exactly happened in the world before me.

I didn’t really care for the obviously fake banter, or the unmistakable Destiny-wannabe gameplay, but I did want to know what had happened to that world. Where did all this vegetation come from? Why are chunks of the earth ripped up? What are those machines? Who made them? My imagination ran wild as I yearned for BioWare to tell me a truly great story.

Obviously, we never received that. But this doesn’t change the fact that I desperately want to see that version of AnthemAnthem Lost, as it were. I want to see the fulfillment of that concept presented to me with an amazing story, believable characters, and filled with real choice, real consequence, all embedded into an utterly beautiful world.

And therein lies my conflict. I don’t think the BioWare of today is capable of pulling off such a game. BioWare of 2007 could have done this. BioWare of 2020? No way. I think BioWare 2020 will be wasting their resources chasing this reinvention of Anthem instead of moving on and working on a Dragon Age game.

But…as I explored above, just because they move onto a new game won’t mean they’ll shed themselves of their root issues such as rudderless leadership and inconsistent vision. They’ll simply take these foundational issues with them to the next game. So here I sit, completely torn. If BioWare 2020 isn’t capable of making this mythic Anthem Lost, then perhaps another studio is.

Does anyone have the numbers for Obsidian, Larian, and CD Projekt RED? 


Poorna Shankar