Anthem Mostly Built in “Six to Nine Months,” Frostbite an Issue Throughout Development
After nearly seven years of development, EA and BioWare finally launched Anthem this February, and the response was less than enthusiastic. The game was roundly criticized for a lack of content, messy mechanics, and a host of technical issues, and currently boasts a demoralizing 55 Metacritic score. So, what went wrong? How could so much development time result in something so flawed?
Well, Kotaku’s Jason Schreier has shone some light on Anthem’s painful birth in a lengthy new behind-the-scenes exposé. Schreier got in contact with 19 current and former BioWare employees, who spoke under the condition of anonymity, and they paint a picture of a studio beset by poor decisions from parent company EA, rampant indecision, and misplaced confidence.
Yes, Anthem was in development for nearly seven years, but for most of that time the game was in pre-production. Anthem (originally codenamed “Dylan”) was initially envisioned as more of a survival game, with a complex world full of massive creatures and dynamic events. Unfortunately, BioWare leadership couldn’t quite decide on a firm direction for the game, and a lot of their more ambitious plans had to be chopped because DICE’s Frostbite engine wasn’t well-suited to making an open-world RPG.
In early 2017, EA finally showed a demo of Anthem to EA boss Patrick Söderlund, who deemed the game completely unacceptable. BioWare then threw together a second demo in only weeks, adding features that had previously been scrapped, like flight. This demo was received well, and so BioWare quickly threw together a trailer for E3 2017 – as many at the time speculated, this “demo” was mostly faked.
“After E3, that’s when it really felt like, ‘Okay, this is the game we’re making.’ 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. 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?’”
In fact, the name “Anthem” wasn’t even decided on until a couple weeks before E3 2017, with BioWare originally wanting to call the name “Beyond.” It was only after E3 2017 that Anthem actually entered full production, and according to one account, only a single mission had been completed by the beginning of 2018 (the game was originally supposed to launch during the 2018 holiday season). Per another BioWare employee, most of the game came together during the final “six to nine months” of development. Some key features were added only weeks before launch.
Needless to say, this crunch caused a lot of stress within BioWare, with numerous people burning out and having to take stress leaves. There was also a lot of tension between BioWare Edmonton and BioWare Austin, with the latter feeling they were treated like “grunts,” despite having more experience with online games. Ultimately, a significant number of top BioWare employees, including Aaryn Flynn, Mark Laidlaw, David Gaider, Drew Karpyshyn, James Ohlen, Neil Thompson, Jacques Lebrun, and Kris Schoneberg, left the studio during this turbulent period. Throughout all this, studio leadership ensured staff the “BioWare Magic” would kick in and save the project. Sadly, it seems it never did.
If you’ve got a solid 40 minutes to spare, I suggest you check out Kotaku’s full piece, as it contains way more detail than I could possibly cover here. Overall, the future it paints for BioWare isn’t exactly a sunny one. BioWare quickly responded to Kotaku’s article, saying they don’t “see the value in tearing down […] one another’s work…”
“As a studio and a team, we accept all criticisms that will come our way for the games we make, especially from our players. The creative process is often difficult. The struggles and challenges of making video games are very real. 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.”
Hopefully they’re not so defensive about the changes that clearly need to be made within their studio.