In what has become a regular occurrence in recent years, a major story about game-development woes—full of insider sources and years of production hell—has emerged courtesy of Kotaku news editor Jason Schreier. In what has also become a regular occurrence in recent years, the article in question is about an EA game.
BioWare’s Anthem is the latest subject of a wide-ranging, years-spanning report that comes to a few conclusions, all trying to explain why the game shipped as such a critical flop. Perhaps the biggest takeaway is that BioWare staffers allege that the game’s production process didn’t truly begin in earnest until “12 or 16 months” before the game shipped.
The Kotaku report explains this timeline by chronicling how the game’s pre-production process was marked by indecision and technical headaches. The project was jolted from this morass after EA executive Patrick Söderlund played an early Anthem demo in December 2016. “This is not what you had promised to me as a game,” Söderlund allegedly told BioWare, and the article talks at length about how the game’s original design documents described something a little more like a cross between the likes of Dark Souls and Shadow of the Colossus—where co-op players would focus less on collecting loot and more on teaming up to “see how long you could survive” in brutally difficult, dynamically changing worlds.
That original plan also included promises of Iron Man-like jetpacks, but for some team members, the technical challenges of jetpack flight made such a feature a non-starter. Yet Söderlund’s demand to see an improved demo resulted in a six-week crunch period to build something new and impress the boss, which meant adding jetpacks back. The boss approved of the updated demo, which, as it turns out, set BioWare on a new trajectory to build a game that resembled the demo in question.
“The demo was not actually built properly—a lot of it was fake, like most E3 demos,” one source told Kotaku. “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?'”
From there, the article breaks down a massive trove of woes. One of those, which has been echoed in other behind-the-scenes reports, involved issues with the DICE-developed Frostbite graphics engine. “Many of the ideas [BioWare Edmonton] had originally conceived would be difficult if not impossible to create on Frostbite,” Schreier wrote. One BioWare staffer described the engine as the worst of all worlds: “Frostbite is like an in-house engine with all the problems that entails—it’s poorly documented, hacked together, and so on—with all the problems of an externally sourced engine.”
Lack of access to Frostbite programmers didn’t help. Many of those EA staffers were allocated to helping the FIFA team, leaving BioWare in the lurch.
The cited sources are careful to point out that some critical complaints about the retail game (including those from yours truly) were echoed internally during the game’s development. Among those was the battle between feeding players plot and grouping them together as online playmates, which saw BioWare’s Edmonton and Austin studios clash.
“This is not going to work,” one BioWare Austin developer told the Edmonton team. “Look, these [story] things you’re doing, it’s gonna split up the player experience.” This developer told Kotaku that the Austin studio’s concerns were “repeatedly ignored.”
Staff turnover, loading screens, issues with plot, imbalanced weapons, an internal push to make the game “unmemeable” (as opposed to Mass Effect Andromeda and its viral GIFs), and a corporate directive to ship the game by March 2019: these details and more are chronicled in this must-read feature, which also acknowledges some of Anthem‘s technical successes and the fact that it crossed the finish line at all.
Also, from the sound of the story, EA’s pressure as a corporate boss didn’t apparently bleed over to demands for specific types of online transactions. The article includes a tease about another behind-the-scenes report to come, revolving around Dragon Age 4, but it does not mention that EA surprise-launched another major online game, Apex Legends, almost simultaneously.
The story ends with a statement from EA as opposed to answers to Schreier’s questions. The company includes a curious explanation for its non-participation with the story: “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.” Schreier points out that this statement went live before his story was posted and doesn’t appear to align with his article, which includes very little “focus on specific team members and leaders.”