'Anthem' Producer Explains Anxiety of Launching New Franchise
With the launch of Anthem this week, EA and BioWare are hoping to spawn a new franchise.
Launching on Friday, Anthem is the first game developed by BioWare since 2017's Mass Effect: Andromeda. That title, the fourth entry in the popular space-set action RPG series, debuted to disappointing sales and a middling critical response.
Heat Vision breakdown
Anthem represents a chance at redemption following Andromeda, and EA is making a big push for the game to make a serious impact. It was touted at last year's E3 and BioWare has hosted a number of demo weekends for the title ahead of its full launch.
The demos weren't completely without turbulence, however, as some players dealt with laggy connections and loading issues resulting in Chad Robertson, BioWare’s head of live service, addressing the issues in a blog post last month.
Demos aren't always a genuine reflection of how a final game will turn out, of course, and Anthem's producer Mike Gamble caught up with Heat Vision ahead of the game's release on Friday to assure fans that issues affecting the game will be resolved by launch. (Early reviews have been mixed.) He also discussed the anxiety that comes with launching a new franchise, the value of new IP, what sets Anthem apart from competitors and what the success of EA and Respawn Entertainment's free-to-play Battle Royale shooter Apex Legends means for his own game and the video game industry as a whole.
Anthem is the launch of a new franchise for BioWare. Is that exciting or does it make you anxious?
It’s exciting but we’re also a little bit anxious. There’s a reason why new IPs are not very common. They take a lot of setup, a lot of work, a lot of incubation. Whenever you do a new IP it’s really nerve-wracking to see what people are going to think of it when it comes out, but it’s also pretty exciting. You really don’t know how people are going to receive any game, let alone a new IP, until it hits the market. We’re really at that point right now and the studio is kind of buzzing.
At this year’s D.I.C.E. Summit, Sony Interactive Entertainment chairman Shawn Layden credited new IP for the success of the PlayStation 4 and said new franchises aren’t “easy, but they are necessary.”
I totally agree. You need it, it’s the lifeblood of what keeps us going. Sequels are great because they allow people to make existing things better and better and really get levels of polish that we don’t see anywhere, but without new IP we would stagnate. That was actually one of the reasons why BioWare went after Anthem. It was time.
This game has been described as a “contiguous open world.” What does that mean, exactly?
It’s a pretty technical way of saying it. Really all that means is that the open world has no loading and changes between regions. You basically traverse the open world in one giant space. Now, there is loading between the open world and things like dungeons and caves, but the overland map, the primary place you explore, is contiguous and stitched together in a way where you don’t have to load between sections.
How do you make that seamless in a game that has so many concurrent online players?
Yeah, it is challenging. It takes a lot of loading up front and a lot of technology that [EA’s proprietary game engine] Frostbite supports called streaming. You’re constantly loading and unloading assets as you’re moving through the world, things the player can’t see. We’re basically loading out of memory and putting only things that the player can see in memory and by doing that constantly you’re able to basically maintain that overall experience.
Anthem has been compared to Destiny and other games. What makes your game unique?
The first thing is, we think that Anthem has a great story with great characters and really immerses you in the world that we wanted to create. Not saying anything specific about any of the competitors, it’s just that we feel that is really one of our strong suits and we put a lot of effort and love and life into Anthem’s story and characters. The second thing is, the way that you traverse, flying around, really does change how you engage in the game. It changes the moment-to-moment gameplay and the mobility is such that you can actually fly, you’ll realize that the standard cover shooter or running around plays very, very, very differently. Anthem is a game that’s designed to be built around flying and mobility. Everything leans into that: world design, combat design, mission and encounter structures.
BioWare is known for story-driven games. How important is Anthem’s story to the overall game?
The way it works is, there’s two components to the game by which we tell story. There’s Fort Tarsis, which in the lore of the world one of the last pioneer settlements in the outskirts of this province and it’s a very up-and-coming place that’s rough and dusty. This is the place that the player is in kind of solo. When they’re in Fort Tarsis, it is their experience and their story and is not part of a multiplayer component, even though you could be paired up with friends at the same time. Then, when you go on missions out in the world, that’s kind of the shared world experience that we have. BioWare has control over what happens in the world when it comes to events or creatures spawning or different things like that. What we’ve done is weave the story between those two areas and you’ll see that a lot of the narrative gets delivered to you in Fort Tarsis and all the choices that you make are there and once you have that you go out on the missions. We deliver the narrative to all the players via banter and radio lines that are connected to their squad. And of course, the overall narrative conceit is that freelancers (the game’s protagonists) are usually in groups. In the narrative, you are one of those freelancers. You’re not a hero, you’re not the chosen one, you’re part of a crew who gets the missions done.
Are you confident that the issues that affected the game’s demos will be resolved upon launch?
Absolutely. It goes without saying that the demo was, out of necessity, an older build and the amount of bugs that we’ve fixed since the demo have been pretty substantial, in the order of thousands. Even then, there’s still one more patch that’s going to come out on Feb. 22 (when the full game launches).
Are there plans to roll out more content in the near future following launch?
We have pretty detailed, in-depth plans. We can’t get into specifics now, but it’s split into multiple acts. The first act starts on launch and goes for a little while after that and the first act culminates with one of our shared world live events, called a Cataclysm.
I think the launch of Apex Legends, which was developed by Respawn Entertainment and published by your parent company EA, really surprised fans. Does that game’s success relieve any of the pressure for Anthem and do you have any thoughts on why Battle Royale is so hot right now?
It goes without saying that we are super happy about what the Respawn team has done and we’re really proud of them. Now, does it take some of the pressure off? No, it doesn’t. Apex and Respawn are them, Anthem and BioWare are us. We have our own sets of pressures to release a new IP. We are not just doing a flash-in-the-pan type of thing. This is an investment in a long-term IP that has a big future. In terms of what we were thinking about when we were designing it relative to Battle Royale and stuff like that, one of the reason why Anthem is primarily a PvE game (Player vs. Environment, i.e. not competitive multiplayer or Player vs. Player) is because there is a massive number of people who enjoy PvE games and do not enjoy PvP games. It’s a very different kind of game, so we’re really confident that there’s enough space in the multiplayer shooter space for more than one type of game and Anthem is certainly very, very different than Apex Legends. Also, there are people who love PvP and PvE, so they’ll come to Anthem to get their PvE fix and go to Apex for their PvP fix.
by Graeme McMillan
by Aaron Couch