Anthem, BioWare’s latest game, launched with quite a few issues, including bugs, long load times, an unbalanced loot system, and uninspired missions — all of which shaped the title’s tepid reception — and now a lengthy report from Kotaku gives us a window into what happened behind the scenes. Unsurprisingly, this tale involves poor working conditions, indecisive leadership, and a major publisher’s unrealistic expectations.
At the forefront of Kotaku’s report is the lack of decision-making during Anthem‘s development, a long, more than 6-year process that saw the project go through various iterations of gameplay and storytelling. (We reported on one such direction that, frankly, sounds more exciting than what we got in the end.) The people BioWare put in place after game director Casey Hudson left the studio to pursue other opportunities (he returned in 2017 to become BioWare’s general manager) could not nail down a clear direction for the game, meaning that the developers didn’t really know what the core of Anthem was all about or how different aspects of the game would come together until the final year and a half of development (the game began pre-production in late 2012, according to Kotaku).
One aspect of the game that was added and deleted from the game several times was the flying mechanic, which is quite surprising since it seems that so much of the Anthem experience is built around soaring through the wilderness beyond Fort Tarsis. But flying was only made a permanent feature of the game after former EA executive Patrick Soderlund gave his enthusiastic approval of the mechanic.
The story went through a tortured creative process, too. For example, the game wasn’t even called Anthem until just a few days before it was unveiled at E3 2017, a change made because it would be too difficult to secure the trademark for the project’s original title, “Beyond.” According to some of the former and current BioWare employees Kotaku spoke to, the title didn’t make much sense in terms of the current iteration of the game at the time, so the studio had to go back and create a story reason for the name.
Kotaku’s sources also point to EA’s proprietary Frostbite engine as a major source of frustration for BioWare, which had to build many of Anthem‘s systems from scratch on the engine, a process that prolonged pre-production. The engine also made it very difficult to fix bugs at times, forcing developers to “hack around” them when necessary instead of solving the issues.
Much of the report sheds light on the tense and stressful working conditions at BioWare. The Kotaku report details intense crunch periods, especially in the final months of development when the game was finally coming together under the leadership of Dragon Age exec producer Mark Darrah, who became Anthem‘s game director just 16 months before the game was to ship. Those 16 months made up the bulk of Anthem’s actual development, a time that saw many employees leave the company or take an extended leave due to the stress.
According to Kotaku, stress leave — “a doctor-mandated period of weeks or even months worth of vacation for [employees’] mental health” — became a company norm at BioWare, pointing to just how much pressure the studio’s workforce was under while working on Anthem. Similar working conditions also plagued Dragon Age: Inquisition and Mass Effect: Andromeda, per the report.
BioWare responded to the report in its own blog post, defending its workplace culture and condemning Kotaku for publishing the piece. The studio explained that it chose not to comment on Kotaku’s 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.”
“As a studio and a team, we accept all criticisms that will come our way for the games we make, especially from our players,” BioWare continued. “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.”
It’s worth reading the report in full, as there are some great tidbits from the developers regarding the company’s culture — including a struggle between the Edmonton and Austin offices — as well as hints at what’s going on with Dragon Age 4. Meanwhile, we’ll keep you updated on Anthem and all things BioWare.