GameCentral reports back from Gamescom on EAs Destiny killer and discusses the secrets of marketing budgets and the nature of BioWareiness.
You could be excused if youd forgotten, or didnt even realise, but BioWare – creators of Mass Effect and Dragon Age – are releasing a giant, Destiny-esque, online multiplayer game in just six months time. Anthem was announced at E3 2017 and was then never seen in public again until this June. It was playable, technically, but not at E3s own pre-show event and despite being one of the best-looking upcoming games it failed to make the impression were now convinced it deserves.
If theres some grand masterplan behind the games marketing its not very obvious so far, especially as the playable demo at Gamescom is exactly the same as the one at E3. We were able to get a lot of new information out of game director Jon Warner though, as well as some loose-lipped EA employees at Stanstead airport.
We discussed with Warner the initial inspiration for the game, the question of how its been impacted by the blacklash to Star Was: Battlefront II, and how it copes with the inherent repetition of the genre. We even got him to admit BioWare arent working on a new Star Wars game of their own. But the biggest revelation to us was just how fun the game is, especially when it comes to flying.
Before playing Anthem we were under the impression that its basically Destiny but with mech suits, one of which looks like a bit like a Hulk Buster, one of which looks like Iron Man, and another of which is perilously close to being a Destiny Warlock (the fourth class type wasnt playable at Gamescom – and we werent allowed to look at the user interface for the Warlock-like class, as the developer playing it had to sit facing away from us – like a kid that hasnt done their homework).
Instead we got a go on the all-rounder Iron Man type who can use machineguns, has a kinetic style melee attack, a freeze grenade, and a chargeable energy blast. All that worked perfectly fine but what is by far the most interesting mechanic in the game is the ability to fly and hover.
As we pointed out to Warner in our interview, flying without restriction in a 3D space is extremely rare in modern video games and were very surprised to see it in a game from a major publisher aimed at a wide audience. But it works perfectly, with instantly accessible controls and a hugely satisfying sense of motion and precision movement.
You can only fly for a short time at first but apparently this can be extended as you customise your robot (called a javelin) and human pilot, although even at the start you can transition instantly from flying in the air to diving and swimming underwater.
It looks and works great, and although the demo was very short we thoroughly enjoyed just flying around; never mind getting on with the job of clearing out some facehugger style monsters and chasing around a giant egg-laying monstrosity. We didnt get a clear look at the role-playing systems underpinning the games but giving the explosion of numbers that appear on screen every time you hit an enemy theyre clearly quite integral to the experience.
Wed like to say just try it yourself and see what you think, but unfortunately theres still no sign of a beta date – although Warner promises one is coming. Were not sure Anthems slow reveal is helping it very much but hopefully it wont harm its chances too much when it is released, because in terms of mechanics alone its one of the most exciting new shooters weve seen in a long time.
Formats: PC (previewed), Xbox One, and PlayStation 4
Release Date: 22nd February 2019
GC: So I played the demo just now and it was great. I love 3D movement and it pains me its so rare nowadays. And so it surprises me that EA would allow it to be so prominent in such a big mainstream game. Surely the corporate logic is that 3D movement is too complicated and off-putting for ordinary gamers? How did you convince them to let you do it?
JW: [laughs] Well, you know, I think that we had a really clear idea of the experience we wanted to give to our players. And that was this kind of superheroic, high mobility, action experience. And so we didnt really think about the complexity of the task in front of us, we just knew that that was a compelling experience that we wanted to develop and we felt like other people would love it too.
And so we spent a lot of time just iterating on it until it got to an approachable space where you could actually just walk in and pick up the controller and start playing it. But that was a lot of trial and error!
GC: Presumably you were testing this on at least relatively casual gamers. Did they definitively prove that corporate logic is faulty?
JW: [laughs] Weve tested it with a range and variety of different players, experienced and new players alike. They pick it up really quickly and personally I feel like its because… we described it as primitive fun. If this was a game about hacking I would need to explain to you our hacking mechanic and why hacking would be fun. But if I was to tell you, Well, in this game you can run along on the ground and leap up into the air and start flying and then go from flying to diving down into deep water and its all seamless… You just institutively know that thats a fun thing to do.
GC: And you havent even mentioned the robots yet.
GC: What was the germ of this? Did you actively set out to create your own spin on Destiny? Or did the flying mechanic come first or just the multiplayer aspect in general?
JW: The idea of what we wanted to create came first. When we started concepting Anthem, Destiny and The Division – these types of games – hadnt even been released.
JW: They hadnt even been talked about yet, this was five and a half years ago. And so we thought, Look, we know we want to build a social experience. We know we want it to be in an open world that would have a high degree of freedom and mobility. And we started building it from there. Knowing that that was the experience we wanted, we then decided what kind of setting would be most appropriate for it. And then we started layering down a story and characters on top of that.
GC: Im slightly dubious about that, because its my job to be sceptical of developer claims.
JW: [laughs] Of course!
GC: [laughs] But I know sometimes multiple developers do come up with the same idea independently, at almost the same time. It didnt work out in the end, but the most striking example is when everyone, including BioWare, started working on 4 vs.1 multiplayer games all of a sudden.
JW: Yeah, that was odd. Developers… you know, were all looking at each others work.
GC: Is there some secret forum where youre all throwing around ideas for anyone to pick up?
JW: [laughs] That would be awesome, but no. No, I think were all playing games and were all thinking about the craft of what were doing and it is interesting and I cant explain it. But we do seem to converge and pull apart and re-converge at certain points… and Anthem is one of those points.
GC: But one industry-wide event that affected everyone is Battlefront II. And it did seem as if things went very quiet with Anthem a few months after it was announced, as if some sort of development crisis or rethink had occurred. And again, theres no shame if you reacted to the Battlefront II backlash in the way Im implying. If you did, Im glad you did!
GC: Although I suppose you can just claim, Oh, we were never going to be evil! We chose not to be evil before not being evil was a thing!
JW: [laughs] We were cool even before that! No, Ill be super honest with you. And I think you can see this in our previous products, like Mass Effect 3 multiplayer and Andromeda multiplayer. One of our baselines has always been this feeling of we want to be generous towards our players. We never want you to regret spending money with us. And so our MTX [microtransaction] plan was always to sell cosmetics. We never wanted to sell power.
And so we developed a plan where we wanted these javelins to be ultra-customisable and we felt like as we rolled out into a live service that players would want different things to decorate their javelins with and make themselves stand out and be cool. And so that was always our plan and our guiding principle. And we just kept our eyes open and learned lessons as we went. And yeah, of course we want to learn from the mistakes of others…
GC: So loot boxes were never in the game?
JW: They were never in it.
GC: Well, well never be able to tell now I guess.
JW: [laughs] Thats true, thats true. But no, loot boxes were never part of our plan.
GC: Mass Effect… 2 was it? Was one of the very first games to have loot boxes in a paid-for console game.
JW: It was 3, but yeah. We used the metaphor of card packs for that. When you open a card pack and theres an element of randomness in those. We wanted to move away from that and just be like, Oh look, heres the cosmetic and you want to buy these cosmetics – or you want to earn them, you can earn everything in the game through just playing it. Or you can shortcut that and buy vanity items.
GC: Im not going to pretend I liked Andromeda in its entirety, but I did think the movement system and the combat was very good. And Mass Effect 3 had very good multiplayer. Was that also partially an inspiration, that you looked at those games and wanted to try switching the focus from single-player to multiplayer?
JW: You know, I think that if you look at the evolution of our games, we started fiddling with multiplayer really back with Neverwinter Nights. Where we allowed people to create modules, you could play it together, and then Mass Effect multiplayer and Dragon Age: Inquisition multiplayer were kind of evolutions of that.
And yeah, we did find that to be a very interesting experience. And we thought, Yeah, it would be great if we could have a more social experience in a BioWare game and it didnt have to be this little side mode. What if it was the game? And that was definitely part of it.
GC: The other question everyone asks about Anthem is how BioWarey is it?
GC: I understand that romance isnt a part of the game? I dont want to come across as one of these guys who marries his DS or something but… BioWare can be a bit Mills & Boon at times but there was an earnestness, an inclusiveness to the romantic subplots that you do better than anyone else. But playing that demo Im not sure I really took to any of the characters at first.
JW: With Anthem we wanted to tell a story that was about a companionship of heroes. And we wanted to widen our audience out and so we wanted to tell character-based stories that were more like Knights Of The Old Republic, where they were engaging characters and theres no romance but you felt a bond and a connection.
And I think when it comes down to the BioWareiness of the game its being character-driven, with characters that you really want to get to know, and a setting where you get to be the hero of your own story. Those are the things that make a game BioWarey. And, you know, whether theres sexual romance or whether it is companionship I think its down to the story and the media.
GC: Youre name-dropping Knights Of The Old Republic there with what I imagine is careful consideration.
GC: One of the main problems with Destiny type games is dealing with the sense of repetition, which is difficult because its inherent to the genres appeal. Presumably you want to handle that better than anyone else, so what steps are you taking to make sure the grind is as painless as possible?
JW: Without getting into a lot of details a couple of the guiding principles that we wanted to follow were, we always wanted to present you with new horizons to chase. So, for example, when you get your first javelin at the start of the game youre chasing gear rarity. Because you go from common and then you want to find uncommon gear and then you want to find rare and then legendary and so on. Thats the first horizon.
And then we unlock another suit for you and then you kind of have this other horizon that youre chasing. Were also levelling up your pilots, which is your meta character that goes across the suits. So you have a skill-to-progression horizon that youre chasing there. So building a system that allowed us to introduce new horizons for you to chase was something interesting to go after.
Step two of that is rooting that progression, or rooting that grind, in characters. Because building strong characters is one of our strengths. Putting these activities in the mouths, and in the hands, of characters that youve grown to love and be rather fond of. it gives an extra sense of texture and dimensionality to that activity.
So thats how were pursuing it: changing horizons up, adding fresh things…. You can think of it along three axes really. When youre running a live service you can add novelty, which is new maps to explore, new story to consume. Those things are finite and players tend to consume them rather quickly. You can kind of restart the races. If youre racing to get new content or new types of content you can always restart those races by introducing things like seasons or things like that. And the last thing is introducing those new horizons to chase. So were kind of approaching it from a multi-pronged position.
GC: Im always surprised that procedural-generation isnt a bigger part of these types of games, because its so common in indie titles and yet not always to the games benefit. But here it seems like it would be useful and yet no ones using it.
JW: Yeah, and were definitely leaning into more systemic elements.
GC: Is it a technical issue or just something you dont want to do?
JW: Its always kind of a balance of fidelity versus procedural generation. And I think weve struck a balance of systemic progress, or systemic type content, that will be a nice leavening agent. So well see.
GC: I have two major concerns about the game at the moment, and the first is that while the graphics are technically excellent I do worry that the art direction seems rather generic. In the demo mission the big robot looked like the Hulk Buster, the little one looked like Iron Man, and the monsters looked like something out of Starship Troopers. And thats a little disconcerting for the debut look at the game.
GC: Im not suggesting your artists are untalented but you see where Im coming from?
JW: No, no, no. And Im not taking it that way. I definitely see where youre coming from. I think the challenge as a creator, when youre making something new, the challenge is to make it relatably individual. And so, yeah, we wanted to build a lot of it so that through your own personalisation and player agency you bring a lot of that individuality into the game. And we wanted to bring in a lot of stuff that while being new and kind of interesting had at least a sense of the familiar.
So the narrow slice you took a look at there is one aspect of it. I think that theres more variety in the game and I think youll be… pleased. [laughs]
GC: How substantially can you change the look of the robots? I loved Transformers as a kid, so can I change them to look more like that or something like, say, Evangelion? I never remember how to pronounce that…
JW: I know, right? Me neither. Personalisation goes across the spectrum. Paint jobs and materials and different ways that you can make it just visually different. And then you can change the geometry of the suit in certain ways, whether its through helmets or chest pieces, arms and legs, adding that individual flair. I dont know if youve seen the Legion of Dawn armour packs that were putting into the Legion of Dawn Edition?
GC: I dont think so.
JW: Take a look at those and youre see kind of where were headed with really changing the feel of each suit.
GC: But that leads into my other concern, which is Im surprised that weve seen so little of the game up till now. And its out in February! Is there anything going on? Im not trying to ambush you here, but I happened to be standing behind some EA marketing people in the queue at the airport who were being very indiscreet about Anthems marketing budget. I wont be boorish enough to mention the number in public but they were clearly surprised and disappointed that it was so low and so little had been done with the game so far.
GC: And I, and I think many others, were already worried at how little exposure Anthem has been getting so far. I mean… is this going to be a big game?
JW: Oh yeah. Its going to be a big game.
GC: EA arent sending this out to die?
JW: Without being indiscreet I think its really about our choice as developers wanting to bring something and show something that is more full-throated, if you will, at the right time. I think theres always the temptation to show stuff early and because its new, and because weve been iterating on it in a very meaningful way we as developers wanted to hold this a little closer to our breast for just a little bit longer, until we could get it to something like the demo that you see.
GC: So all this is a developer choice?
JW: It was a developer choice.
GC: But are you going to have time for a beta and everything before February?
GC: People say all this out of genuine concern for BioWare. Because Im sure you know more than anyone what tends to happen to EA developers that underperform.
JW: Oh absolutely.
GC: Are you confident thats not going to happen to you?
JW: Absolutely confident, yes. EA has given us such…
GC: Because I dont want it to happen. I want more games to have 3D movement, I want people to start copying you!
JW: [laughs] I want that too! EA leadership, from studio all the way up to the very, very top of the organisation have been so supportive of this process. And were lucky enough to have leaders who know that developing new IP is really hard. As creators its one of the most challenging and rewarding things you can do. But it is very difficult and I can honestly say, with no BS, that the process has been hugely supportive. Im not concerned in the slightest about our marketing, were gonna come out and really blow the doors off this thing.
GC: Okay, thats great. I hope you do. And actually, just since you mentioned the franchise. Can I ask: is BioWare working on a Star Wars game?
JW: [laughs] Well, beyond Star Wars: The Old Republic?
JW: Well… I dont think were ah…
GC: Would you know if someone was?
JW: I would know. [laughs] I would know.
GC: And youre sure that theyre not?
JW: Yes. [laughs] Right now we are fully focused on making Anthem.
GC: When they first got the Star Wars licence EA stated you were working on a game, but it was always unclear whether that just meant The Old Republic or something new.
JW: They meant The Old Republic.
GC: Would you like to work on another Star Wars game?
JW: I love Star Wars. I would love the opportunity to work on another Star Wars game. It was one of those foundational experiences from my childhood. Honestly, Anthem is the game that Ive always wanted to create and it is built on a foundation of 40 years of me reading comic books and consuming Star Wars movies and Edgar Rice Burroughs, and dreaming. And Ive been lucky enough to have this opportunity.
GC: Okay, thats great. Thanks a lot for you time.
JW: Thank you, those were some good questions.
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