Anthem can't seem to catch any breaks, but this time it is coming from news over the titles turbulent development cycle.
Despite spending nearly seven years in development, Anthem was only in regular production from June of 2017 to launch in 2019, totaling around 16 months according to an in-depth report by Kotaku journalist Jason Schreier.
Schrier is quick to dismiss more of the conspiratorial claims regarding Anthem's development, and lays it out plain where the blame, at least based on over 19 former and current BioWare developers, says it should be laid; BioWare's production team.
Though it was not the only contributing factor to Anthem's troubled development, much of the problems were with the production leads between the period of 2014-2016, notably game director Jon Warner, design director Preston Watamaniuk, art director Derek Watts, animation director Parrish Ley, along with a handful of other Mass Effect veterans. According to the interviews, as reported by Schreier, were accused of mismanagement and a lack of vision.
"The most common anecdote relayed to me by current and former BioWare employees was this: A group of developers are in a meeting. They’re debating some creative decision, like the mechanics of flying or the lore behind the Scar alien race. Some people disagree on the fundamentals. And then, rather than someone stepping up and making a decision about how to proceed, the meeting would end with no real verdict, leaving everything in flux. “That would just happen over and over,” said one Anthem developer. “Stuff would take a year or two to figure out because no one really wanted to make a call on it.”
Part of the impetus of this was a desire to look for something new for the studio, an admirable, but would cause problems for the rest of the staff who were directionless for the duration of pre-production. Another issue was the lack of acknowledging the mistakes of competition from the production team. Comparisons to Destiny, for example, were reportedly taboo at BioWare -specifically in favor of a game like Diablo III - but as time went on the "looter-shooter" aspects of Anthem were more apparent, and the leadership at BioWare knowingly did little homework on the mistakes of the competition.
The problems would hurt major aspects of Anthem's overall product, from the entire story being in complete flux until the final months. This also included aspects such whether or not players can fly in-game, dealing with massive crunch times in the final stages of development, to even deciding on the name Anthem a week before the E3 2017 reveal, as their first choice - Beyond - was rejected by Electronic Arts due to possible copyright issues.
Other major problems included creating a new architecture from scratch with the Frostbite engine, including lack of support from EA in several instances due to focusing on other, more profitable franchises that used Frostbite, such as FIFA. The issues with Frostbite would force BioWare to create brand new toolsets specifically for Anthem, so the Frostbite engine can be used for an online co-op game. As a result, some corners had to be cut.
“Part of the trouble 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 took a lot longer, and in some cases you’d run into a brick wall,” said a BioWare developer. “Then you’d realize, ‘Oh my god, we can do this only if we reinvent the wheel, which is going to take too long.’ It was sometimes difficult to know when to cut and run.”
BioWare producer and director Mark Darrah would right the ship in the final sixteen months of production for BioWare, this story echoing similar problems with the development of Mass Effect: Andromeda and other BioWare veteran Mac Walters. Darrah was able to get the game to launch for March of 2019, a hard date set forth by publisher EA. "In the end," said one developer "we ran out of time."
BioWare, for their part, has replied to the report on their official blog, stating that they are committed to taking negative feedback, and opting to "not to comment or participate in this story because we felt there was an unfair focus on specific team members and leaders, who did their absolute best to bring this totally new idea to fans. We didn’t want to be part of something that was attempting to bring them down as individuals. We respect them all, and we built this game as a team."
"We put a great emphasis on our workplace culture in our studios. The health and well-being of our team members is something we take very seriously. We have built a new leadership team over the last couple of years, starting with Casey Hudson as our GM in 2017, which has helped us make big steps to improve studio culture and our creative focus. We hear the criticisms that were raised by the people in the piece today, and we’re looking at that alongside feedback that we receive in our internal team surveys. We put a lot of focus on better planning to avoid “crunch time,” and it was not a major topic of feedback in our internal postmortems. Making games, especially new IP, will always be one of the hardest entertainment challenges. We do everything we can to try and make it healthy and stress-free, but we also know there is always room to improve."
Anthem was released last month to mixed reviews, with a constant stream of updates, most of which are being handled by the BioWare Austin offices, making improvements to the game incrementally.
There is hope from some in BioWare that Anthem can not only improve as an individual game but also help BioWare as a whole.
“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.”
Honestly, BioWare's response is fairly tone-deaf this time around. Regardless of any fun I had with Anthem or the problems of their development, the lack of acknowledging the mistakes presented by Schreier here fully deserve a stronger response. The questions asked by Schreier are good ones, and despite how unflattering it depicts BioWare staff, at least in the eyes of the 19 employees interviewed, it is something for BioWare to hopefully strive to better themselves.
Personally, I hope BioWare can solve its corporate culture and management issues if nothing else because, despite the problems of Anthem, their next game will need a smoother development cycle to possibly help repair the studio.
What are your thoughts? Leave your comments below.