BioWare Doubles Down On Anthem As Pressure Mounts

BioWare Doubles Down On Anthem As Pressure Mounts

Promotional material from BioWare’s Anthem

Over the past few months, BioWare has essentially transformed into a single-game studio as it harnesses its teams to work on the ambitious multiplayer action game Anthem, sources say. There are still small teams maintaining Star Wars: The Old Republic and piecing together the next Dragon Age, which was recently rebooted, but the bulk of BioWare’s staff in both Edmonton and Austin are now on Anthem. And there’s a sense among BioWare employees that the company’s future is inextricably tied to this game.

Anthem, which was announced at E3 2017, is now scheduled for release in early 2019, according to three people familiar with the project. The “fall 2018” window mentioned during that E3 announcement was “never realistic,” one source said.

Exact dates remain in flux — and Anthem‘s developers must also plan for a beta release, an EA Access launch, and an ongoing schedule of patches and updates — but it appears unlikely to developers that publisher EA will allow BioWare to delay the game any further than March 2019, when the company’s 2019 fiscal year comes to an end.

(EA, like most publicly traded companies, uses the fiscal calendar as a basis for all of its decisions, as those dates determine how investors will behave.)

BioWare, founded in 1995, has long been seen as one of the world’s most prestigious developers of role-playing games, thanks to hits like Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic, the Mass Effect trilogy, and Dragon Age Origins.

In 2007, EA purchased the studio, expanding it beyond its original office in Edmonton and putting BioWare studios in Austin, Montreal, and Virginia. (The latter two were later shut down.)

It’s not unusual for BioWare to pull staff from other projects as it enters the final year of production on a game. In recent years, BioWare has done the same for both Mass Effect: Andromeda and Dragon Age: Inquisition. But Anthem, the studio’s first new franchise in eight years and EA’s first big stab at a Destiny-style persistent online world, feels different.

To BioWare staff, the stakes feel higher than they ever have. As one developer told me, there’s a belief that if Anthem doesn’t live up to EA’s expectations, BioWare will look very different in the future, especially after the disappointment of Mass Effect Andromeda led to EA absorbing BioWare Montreal into the studio EA Motive.

Now, with a year left in development and a climate that’s grown more turbulent thanks to controversies over EA’s Star Wars Battlefront II and Activision’s Destiny 2, pressure is mounting for Anthem to be great.

In the past few weeks I’ve spoken to more than half a dozen people close to the project, all of whom spoke anonymously because they were not authorised to talk about the game, and they have described feeling both optimistic and anxious — optimistic that they can make something good, but anxious at the number of forces that appear to be pushing against them.

Anthem has been in development since 2012, at first under Mass Effect director Casey Hudson, who left the company in 2014 (and returned last year to lead BioWare as studio head). The game remained in preproduction at BioWare’s lead Edmonton studio for a very long time. Some close to the Anthem team have criticised that fact, suggesting that the game’s development was floundering, but veteran Anthem staff point out that most big new franchises have long gestation periods.

Destiny, most notably, was in preproduction for years as the developers at Bungie tried to figure out what a persistent multiplayer shooter might look like. At points during 2014 and 2015, I heard several rumours that the Anthem project was not going well, in part because of the long-running issues that BioWare has faced with its engine, Frostbite, and in part because making a game of this nature can be an excruciating process.

Over the last year, as Anthem‘s production ramped up and BioWare began putting more and more of its staff on the project, things appear to have improved. When I asked one source recently whether Anthem‘s struggles fell more into the category of “this game is screwed” or “game development is really hard,” the source said that over time, it had veered from the former into the latter.

Other people close to BioWare have said similar things, although it’s not hard to find developers willing to complain about Frostbite, the game engine initially designed for EA’s Battlefield games, which has impeded many of BioWare’s projects over the past decade.

The past year has been tumultuous for BioWare and involved some major changes to the studio. One was to reboot the fourth Dragon Age, which at the time was code-named Joplin, according to two sources. (There’s a running theme here — Anthem‘s codename was Dylan.) The goal, those sources said, was to implement more “live” elements into the game, although two of those sources stressed that this next Dragon Age will still have a heavy focus on characters and story, whenever it does come out.

It’s not clear what a “live” version of Dragon Age might look like, but EA has been public about its embrace of games as a service, and its lack of interest in releasing $US60 ($75) games that do not have any sort of revenue tail, whether that means paid extra content, microtransactions, or something else.

BioWare has also discussed ending development on the multiplayer online game Star Wars: The Old Republic, those sources said, although one person familiar with the studio told me recently that plans are still up in the air.

What’s clear is that both BioWare studios, Edmonton and Austin, are singularly focused on Anthem, and will be until that game comes out. Even Mark Darrah, executive producer and shepherd of the Dragon Age franchise, was recently moved to Anthem. In June, shortly after Anthem‘s reveal, Darrah tweeted that he was not working on the game. But things have changed.

Minutes after we heard back from an EA spokesperson saying the publisher was declining to comment on this article, Darrah tweeted that he is working on both Anthem and Dragon Age — his apparent first public acknowledgement that he is now on Anthem. “Anthem‘s up next but there are people hard at work on both franchises and I look forward to sharing more in the future,” he said. The creative director of the Dragon Age series, Mike Laidlaw, left BioWare last year.

Even with both of BioWare’s studios all-in on Anthem, some developers have expressed anxieties, in large part because of 2017’s other events. First there was Mass Effect Andromeda, a high-profile failure that disappointed fans last spring and led to the closure of BioWare Montreal, as well as Mass Effect getting put on ice.

Veteran members of the Anthem team were thrilled to finally unveil the game at E3 in June 2017, but a month later, BioWare studio head Aaryn Flynn departed, to be replaced by Casey Hudson. Both men are well-respected at the company, but this sort of top executive shuffling often leads to worry.

Then, in November 2017, widespread player anger over loot boxes and microtransactions in EA’s Star Wars Battlefront II shook up the entire video game industry. From what I’ve heard, the loot box controversy has led a number of big video game studios, including BioWare, to reexamine their plans for microtransactions in future games. Although Anthem‘s microtransaction plans are still undecided (and, I hear, may only involve cosmetics), the outrage has left some developers on edge.

Most recently, sources say, Anthem‘s developers have been watching the ongoing anger in the Destiny 2 community over the state of that game. Destiny fans have grown irritated at Destiny 2‘s lack of content, Bungie’s poor communication, and the lingering feeling that Destiny 2 is repeating its predecessor’s mistakes.

Although fans and pundits have suggested that Destiny 2‘s inability to capture hardcore players may leave an opening for Anthem to grab that crowd, some BioWare developers have expressed worry that their game will face its own growing pains, as all games of this nature do. Most persistent action games have had to recover from rocky launches, including Destiny, Diablo III, and The Division. The question is: how much patience will EA have for Anthem?

And then there’s the toxicity problem, as video game pundits seize any opportunity to stoke anger at big publishers. Two people who have worked on Anthem both expressed anxiety to me about the ways some big YouTubers have spread misinformation and inflammatory rhetoric about EA, saying that it has a demoralising effect on those people on the ground level.

To people who work for EA, the publisher isn’t just a cold corporate master — it is a complicated machine that, yes, is concerned first and foremost with generating revenue for investors, but also supports thousands of people in many tangible and intangible ways.

People close to BioWare, along with many other developers I’ve talked to in recent months, worry that commentary from some of YouTube’s loudest voices has eliminated nuance and made companies like EA seem like Disney villains.

If you’re a BioWare fan, there are certainly reasons to be hopeful. Anthem‘s staff have shown a willingness to be transparent and engage with fans, as technical design director Brenon Holmes posts frequently on Reddit to answer questions and share details on the game.

What we’ve seen of the game has looked spectacular, even if last year’s footage seems a little too pretty to be real. One thing is undeniable, however: For BioWare, the pressure is on.

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