On February 15th, 2019, BioWare's latest game, Anthem, was released to mixed-to-negative reviews from critics and gamers, respectively. With Metacritic scores ranging from 54 to 65 out of 100, the game currently stands as BioWare's worst reviewed game in the studio's history. The game was also a major commercial disaster, selling only a fraction of the game's projected 6 million sales within the first month, and the game currently sits in a state of limbo at the time of writing. One month after the game's launch, Jason Schrier published an 11,000 word in-depth investigative report detailing the hellish development process for Anthem, using 19 sources from within BioWare Edmonton, all of which cited many poor managerial practices from higher-ups that ultimately resulted in the disastrous launch of Anthem.
QUICK NOTE: what you are about to read to essentially an abridged version of Schrier's article. The page will focus on the issues specific to Anthem, since there is a lot of crossover with Mass Effect: Andromeda's development as both games were made at the same time.
Similarities to Mass Effect: Andromeda
First and foremost, a lot of the development issues Anthem faced were carried over from Mass Effect: Andromeda. Here they are in a brief list:
- The use of the Frostbite Engine making development much harder than necessary.
- Departments being understaffed throughout development.
- The bulk of the games were developed in the last 12-16 months of the 6-7 years spent in development.
- Key staff departed from the studio due to in-office politics.
- EA was inflexible with delaying the games in spite of not being ready for launch.
Casey Hudson, the head of BioWare at the time (2012) codenamed the project "Dylan", named after the folk singer Bob Dylan because he wanted the game to be one that players would remember/talk about for years to come. The game was originally going to be a survival game set on a dangerous planet that the team described as "The Bermuda Triangle of the universe", a setting so dangerous that a robotic suit would be required to traverse the terrifying conditions, and the goal being to survive the hostile environment for as long they can. The game would also put the player at the bottom of the food chain, similar to games like Dark Souls and Shadow of the Colossus.
According to Schrier's contacts, several BioWare employees were grossly overworked to the point were in-office doctors mandated stress leaves (normally associated with military trauma) because they couldn't handle the stress. Some sources remember having such a severe mental breakdown that they would lock themselves in a private room and cry due to the awful crunch periods. Some employees often left the studio for months at a time, some of which never returned. BioWare higher-ups referred to their development practices as "BioWare Magic", in which the project would come together at the last minute with enough hard work. One source even described stress and depression as an "epidemic".
This attitude was in place during Dragon Age: Inquisition's development; that game released to critical acclaim, but the team behind Anthem resented that game's success since the team was unable to correct the studio's brutal workplace culture. This mindset negatively affected Mass Effect: Andromeda, resulting that game's disastrous reception, but it was clear that BioWare's higher-ups had learned nothing from it.
As of Casey Hudson's departure, there was no dedicated leader on the Anthem project, which resulted in the game's concept, narrative, and design being changed constantly. When the game started to resemble other looter/shooters like Destiny and Destiny 2, but according to Schrier's sources, it was taboo to even mention those games; it wasn't clear why this was the case, but since upper management didn't. The ground workers grew concerned that the project was in trouble and they took it up with upper management, but the feedback was ignored. Edmonton's managers even went as far as ignored ideas and contributions from the Austin branch, claiming the former is "the A-Team", seeing (and treating) the latter as the lesser team, leading to internal tensions rising.
Lack of Man Power
The Frostbite Engine was a nightmare to work with since it was not designed for the type of games BioWare were known for. Because it was difficult to work with, several design elements that were initially conceptualised had to be scrapped. Some tools had to be made from scratch since the engine (intended for FPS games like Battlefield) was incompatible for large scale role-playing games, especially ones that are online-centric, and even simple tasks like debugging required several steps to complete. Not only that, but because publisher EA had mandated FIFA 17 to be made with Frostbite, they started to pull staff away from BioWare to assist with that game's development, which resulted in the team being understaffed throughout. The team was given less help with the engine since BioWare's games didn't make as much money as other studios.
The aforementioned feedback and creative contributions from Austin would have been a blessing if Edmonton had listened, since Austin was responsible for Star Wars: The Old Republic, which was another online MMO, so they knew how to make games similar to what Anthem was shaping up to be
The "Demo" from E3 2017
While he was still a key player at EA, Patrick Soderlund was given a chance to try out the playable demo for Anthem, one which didn't feature flight mechanics. According to a BioWare, Soderlund was not happy with what he played, citing weak visuals and dull gameplay. So Edmonton threw together a second demo that reintroduced flight mechanics; flight proved to be a pain in the ass to implement, since the world design had to be altered to accomodate for this mechanic. Soderlund was much more satisfied with this demo, so BioWare Edmonton used this feedback as the basis for the demo they would show off on Microsoft's stage during E3 2017.
Schrier then drops a massive bombshell in his report; during E3 2017, Anthem was STILL in pre-production, meaning the "gameplay demo" wasn't even real, it was a scripted CGI proof of concept. According to sources, it was at this point in which some team members saw what they were working towards, but they were also uncertain whether what they saw in the trailer was even attainable. The fake trailer explain why Anthem looked so vastly different to the final product.
Anthem remained in pre-production until August 2017...
...and by the time 2018 rolled around, only one mission had been implemented. One source extrapolated on the game's atrocious loading times; the team knew that players would outcry over these, but they didn't have enough time to improve them. Some of Schrier's BioWare contacts described 2018 as the studio's most stressful year due to mounting pressure from all directions; EA had mandates for all their studios, EA mandated all games to had recurrent monetisation, and the loot box controversy forced the industry to rethink their strategies, and so on, so forth. It wasn't until Mark Darrah took over as team leader before the project started to come together.
However, features like Skills were cut from the game, and one source talked about the infamous "Tomb of the Legionnaires" mission, which became derived for its insufferable grind. The source acknowledged that the mission was intended to pad out the game's length, but it was controversial even within BioWare itself; it was apparently going to have time gates originally, which would've been even worse than the final product if implemented.
Release, Reception, and BioWare's Response
When the game released, it was decried for its poor story, inconsistent dialogue, uninteresting loot, awful loading times, and technical mishaps. Some members of the Anthem team have stated that the large scale complaints from players were also complaints they themselves had during development, but they were all but ignored when they bought these issues with upper management. Jason Schrier's exposé revealed all manners of poor management practices, including brutal crunch, incompetent leadership, mismanagement, lack of cohesive vision, and other things. Many agreed that this article was important information that needed to get out into the open, and that BioWare's recent failures needed to be spotlighted. The blame falling squarely on BioWare higher-ups.
However, only minutes after Jason published his article, BioWare management put out a statement in a blog post attacking the article, pretending that nothing was wrong and assuming ill intent on Jason's part, but it was clear that they didn't even read the article before they posted a response it. What's more, the studio didn't refute any of Jason's findings, and spinelessly claimed the article was naming specific individuals for public criticism, when he only did so for the sake of getting the proper context for what happened during development.
In particular, Yongyea took umbridge with BioWare's response to Jason's work, calling out management for denying fault, attacking the press for highlighting key issues within the studio, and went as far as to ask: "what the hell does BioWare know about making the industry better..." after highlighting their recent failures, in response to their claim that "articles like this [Jason's exposé] don't make the industry better." Thankfully, head of BioWare, Casey Hudson (who returned to the studio in 2017) put out an e-mail to his internal team members in which he acknowledged that there are many issues with the studio's work culture, and vowed to help make it a much better work place.