In the last 24 hours there has been a lot of debate around Bioware, as Kotaku's Jason Schreier - a notable insider with plenty of industry contacts - published a report that shed some light on the development process behind Anthem, including the various struggles like the name being changed from the original idea of Beyond a week before E3 2017.
This report allegedly talks to 19 people anonymously who either worked on the game or are familiar with it, and reveals that production didn't start until the last 18 months of the seven years it was in development, meaning what we saw at E3 back in 2017 was pre-production content.
What's more is that this took a toll on developers as well, many of which suffered from depression and anxiety and had to take "stress leave". One developer said that they'd find a private room to cry in, and that "people were so angry and sad all the time."
Another added that "depression and anxiety are an epidemic within Bioware," while a further email from a former Bioware developer added: "I actually cannot count the amount of 'stress casualties' we had on Mass Effect: Andromeda or Anthem. A 'stress casualty' at BioWare means someone had such a mental breakdown from the stress they're just gone for one to three months. Some come back, some don't."
This stretches back to Dragon Age: Inquisition too, which caused crunch at the studio, reports of which we've heard for games like Red Dead Redemption 2 over the last year as well. One developer even said that the Edmonton studio felt "we needed [Inquisition] to fail in order for people to realize that this isn't the right way to make games".
The report goes into the finer details about the features originally developer for Anthem in the early stages of development, which fell short of the release version. It wasn't always a loot-shooter, for example, with an early goal instead being focused around surviving for the longest time and salvaging alien parts to upgrade your gear.
With Casey Hudson leaving in 2014, morale was still high in the early days due to the potential the game showed, and the belief that the struggles of Andromeda were unlikely to happen again. "EA had these team health reports. Anthem's morale was among the highest in all of EA. It was really really good for quite a while. Everybody saw there was so much potential in those early prototypes. 'Potential' was always the word there," one source wrote.
Dragon Age writer David Gaider moving onto the team in 2015 also caused friction in development, according to the report, especially with the story direction, which Anthem design director Preston Watamaniuk told him should be "science fantasy" in feel. "I was fine with that, as fantasy is more my comfort zone anyhow, but it was clear from the outset that there was a lot of opposition to the change from the rest of the team," Gaider said. "Maybe they assumed the idea for it came from me, I'm not sure, but comments like 'it's very Dragon Age' kept coming up regarding any of the work me or my team did... and not in a complimentary manner. There were a lot of people who wanted a say over Anthem's story, and kept articulating a desire to do something 'different' without really being clear on what that was outside of it just not being anything BioWare had done before (which was, apparently, a bad thing?). From my perspective, it was rather frustrating."
Gaider left in 2016 too, and issues of direction apparently persisted, with many developers unclear on what the game should be. Struggles with the Frostbite engine also plagued the studio, as it had done with Inquisition and Andromeda. "I would say the biggest problem I had with Frostbite was how many steps you needed to do something basic. With another engine I could do something myself, maybe with a designer. Here it's a complicated thing," one source said. Engineers and staff with Frostbite experience were also being moved onto other projects like FIFA too, which were taking priority.
With issues persisting into 2016 and the direction not working out, concerns were reportedly dismissed by EA. "You'd come to management saying, 'Look, we're seeing the same problems on Inquisition and Andromeda, where design wasn't figuring things out. It's getting really late in the project and the core of the game isn't defined.' Basically saying, 'Hey, the same mistakes are happening again, did you guys see this the last time? Can you stop this?' They'd be quite dismissive about it," said a source.
When it came to the goals though, Destiny wasn't the focus for the studio's leaders, although the developers felt differently. "We were told quite definitively, 'This isn't Destiny,'" said one developer. "But it kind of is. What you're describing is beginning to go into that realm. They didn't want to make those correlations, but at the same time, when you're talking about fire teams, and going off and doing raids together, about gun combat, spells, things like that, well there's a lot of elements there that correlate, that cross over."
In 2017 Andromeda launched and more Bioware staff could now work on Anthem, but this is when Patrick Söderlund played a demo of the game and was not happy with it, allegedly saying: "This is not what you had promised to me as a game". Later that year another demo was prepared to include flying, which he was far more impressed with.
Even when the game entered production after E3 that year the vision still wasn't clear, and there were further internal struggles. "Anthem is the game you get from a studio that is at war with itself," explained a former developer. "Edmonton understandably has the perspective of, 'We are the original BioWare.' Anybody not part of that brand is lesser, and does not garner the same level of trust as people that are in the Edmonton office. And so I think that's a little bit of an issue there."
In October that year we also saw Aaryn Flynn depart, with Casey Hudson returning and Project Joplin (which turns out was Dragon Age 4) being canceled. Dragon Age 4 was later restarted with a small team under a new code name of Morrison, with most of Dragon Age 4's developers moving to Anthem. Mark Darrah also took charge of the project, and caused people to make decisions.
By the start of 2018 only one mission had been implemented, meaning the autumn 2018 release window looked even more unlikely, and this was the start of a tough year. "I would say it ended up being quite a stressful time and a lot of people started to develop tunnel vision," said one developer. "They have to finish their thing and they don't have the time."
"It felt like the entire game was basically built in the last six to nine months. You couldn't play it," another added. "There was nothing there. It was just this crazy final rush. The hard part is, how do you make a decision when there's no game? There's nothing to play. So yeah, you're going to keep questioning yourself."
A big focus was to make the game "unmemeable", according to another developer, meaning facial animations had to be better than Andromeda. Performance capture was brought in, but with only one shot due to high prices, this was difficult to apply to an ever-changing project.
All of this led to a lot of staff leaving Bioware in 2018. "We hear about the big people," said a developer who departed. "When [writer] Drew Karpyshyn leaves, it makes big waves. But a lot of people don't realize that there were a ton of really talented game designers who left BioWare and no one knows. The general public is unaware of who these people are."
Features were added and overhauled even by the end of 2018, like Challenges of the Legionnaires coming in, but there was no other choice than to launch by the end of the fiscal year, which came to a close in March this year. "In the end, we just ran out of time," one source said, and concerns were again brushed off due to the game being a live service that would be supported and changed "for years to come."
When the game launched early on EA's Access services on February 15, this build was a few weeks old, and started the trend of negative reception. Several sources also allegedly told Kotaku that complaints in reviews and from fans had been raised in 2017 and 2018, but not fixed (you can read our review here to see what we thought).
Now though Bioware Edmonton staff is moving over to new projects like Dragon Age 4, while Austin takes over the live service, and concerns have been left about Bioware's development practice. "There are things that need to change about how that studio operates," said a former developer. "There are lessons that need to be learned and the only way they'll get learned is if they become public knowledge."
"I think Anthem might be the kick in the butt that BioWare leadership needed to see that how you develop games has changed dearly," added someone else. "You can't just start fresh and fumble your way forward until you find the fun. That doesn't work anymore."
Despite Kotaku's request for a statement from Bioware and EA being declined, the Bioware blog has since published a post addressing "an article" talking about their development of Anthem, reinforcing that "we wholeheartedly stand behind every current and former member of our team that worked on the game, including leadership. It takes a massive amount of effort, energy and dedication to make any game, and making Anthem would not have been possible without every single one of their efforts. We chose 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."
The post later explains that Bioware welcomes all criticism of their games, and that there are struggles in development that lead to the reward of putting the games in the hands of players, like Anthem, which will continue to be their focus. They also seem to take a more hostile stance towards Kotaku when they say:
"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."
Jason Schreier has since talked about the issue on Twitter in the last day, saying that "I've spoken to several current and former BioWare employees since my article went live today, including some I hadn't interviewed earlier. General consensus has been sadness and disappointment at BioWare's statement, which read as disheartening to those who hoped for change."
Is this article a good way to generate change?