Anthem concept art
With a project over six years in the making, the storied game studio enters a new era
On Oct. 29, 2012, Hurricane Sandy brought havoc to the East Coast of the U.S. Among the destruction, its 60 mph winds struck a construction crane atop the One57 luxury high-rise in midtown Manhattan and left the crane’s massive arm hanging precariously over a street. Buildings throughout the adjacent blocks were evacuated, and millions watched as footage of the scene unfolded across news networks.
Meanwhile, in an Edmonton, Alberta, office building 2,000 miles to the northwest, the team that had shepherded the Mass Effect trilogy to its conclusion was charting a new course. A number of the folks in the room had spent the better part of a decade working on BioWare’s acclaimed series of sci-fi role-playing games; they were desperate to find unexplored territory for their next project, an action game codenamed “Dylan.”
“As we were coming up with concepts for Dylan, there was that storm that hit New York,” recalls game director Jon Warner, “and there was this giant crane that had been damaged, and was dangling off the side of a building. CNN and everybody was showing it.” For a time, the disaster haunted their imaginations.
Fast-forward to the unveiling of Anthem on the eve of E3 2017, and the influence of that hurricane five years prior was impossible to miss. The first gameplay trailer showed a squad of armored guns for hire making their way through an alien, primordial landscape, cutting down hostile creatures until they happened upon a technological cataclysm called a “shaper storm.” The first signs of the in-game event, naturally, were darkened skies and violent winds.
Mark Darrah, Anthem executive producer
It’s also unsurprising that Anthem’s setting — the fruit of those early Dylan meetings — centers around godlike machinery that reshapes the game world, even as it throws that environment further into chaos. This is a period of change for BioWare. In the summer of 2018, the developer quietly retired the logo it had used since its 1998 hit, Baldur’s Gate. Later this year, it will be moving from its current Edmonton offices to the downtown Epcor Tower, the third-tallest building in its native city. And Anthem itself, a project more than six years in the making, is a marked departure for the studio that made its name with Dungeons & Dragons simulations like Baldur’s Gate, Neverwinter Nights, and Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic.
Executive producer Mark Darrah notes that BioWare’s games tended to be more experimental before the blockbuster success of the original Mass Effect in 2007. “We started out with turn-based, 2D games, and then we moved into 3D, and we moved into sort of action games with Jade Empire. And it’s only really from Mass Effect 1 until now where we kind of had a type, interestingly,” he says. “We always had games about stories; world-building and characters are the things that have been continuous through our entire history. In a lot of ways, Anthem is a return to that evolving nature.”
“If we’re talking about RPGs and the story-based stuff, Anthem is completely different,” says producer Mike Gamble. “Anthem, from its inception, has always been something that we wanted to be very different from a Dragon Age or Mass Effect or even Baldur’s Gate.” It began, he says, with a question: “How do you tell a story, how do you have an amazing game, in a cooperative space where your friends are telling the story with you?”
For a company founded by a handful of D&D players fresh out of medical school, this question isn’t particularly new. But it’s one BioWare knows how to answer.
Polygon recently spent a day at the developer’s Edmonton office, talking to several members of its leadership team about the state of BioWare — about new challenges posed by Anthem as well as scant details on the next Dragon Age, how BioWare figures into EA’s plans for the Star Wars license, and the future of the Mass Effect franchise.
Casey Hudson, BioWare general manager
At first glance, Anthem bears little resemblance to the games that earned BioWare its reputation. An online-only shooter designed for constant retooling, with an emphasis on replayability, it’s a four-player social experience above all else. You might be forgiven for thinking it had been made by any other developer.
General manager Casey Hudson is quick to point out, though, that multiplayer has been a part of the studio’s games going all the way back to its very first, 1996’s Shattered Steel. The co-op missions in Mass Effect 3 became the subject of some controversy in 2012 not because the developer had never done multiplayer, but because players had grown to expect a solitary journey. “Super core to a BioWare game is the shared experience,” Hudson says. “So Anthem was designed as a multiplayer game from the beginning.”
The studio has made a tradition of nicknaming its projects after folk singers — the next Dragon Age was reportedly called “Joplin” at one point — but there’s a rhyme and reason to the Dylan moniker. “It was really about creating something that had a lasting appeal,” Warner says. “Something that could withstand some time, like Bob Dylan. And so that kind of set the philosophical tone for what we wanted to achieve.” With a vague mission statement in place, Hudson laid down the design foundation: Dylan would be a shared world with a focus on social gaming.
“And so we really started just pitching all sorts of different ideas,” Warner says. “There were ideas that were set inside of cities. One was more of an open world like Grand Theft Auto, the way it’s set inside [Rockstar’s] version of Los Angeles. There were countryside-type concepts — something more like what Bethesda does. There was an Arabian Nights game in there. There were some more traditionally sci-fi ideas, and some traditional fantasy and urban-fantasy ideas.”
Of BioWare’s two active intellectual properties, Dragon Age had a Tolkienesque fantasy setting, while Mass Effect offered a blend of heady science fiction and Star Trek-infused space opera. According to Hudson, Dylan needed to be “a third thing” of some sort in order to justify making another IP. It needed to feel new.
In Anthem, this ancient Ash Titan is but one of the monstrosities freelancers are sure to encounter in Bastion.
“It always had elements of real-world or sci-fi technology,” he says, “but in a fantastic setting. There are these photographs of a place — I think it’s in Kazakhstan — where, downrange from the Russian rocket launch sites, some of the stages of the rockets fall back to earth. So there’s these beautiful green, pristine farmlands, and people living a very rural life, but then they will come across these pieces of crashed spaceship. And there is something amazing about these photographs. We said, ‘This doesn’t feel like sci-fi or fantasy. There’s something in that.’”
Darrah recalls early tech demos for Dylan where players were “out in the wilderness,” perhaps in an exosuit but without the final product’s flashy, Iron Man-inspired traversal.
“It actually has a lot of the same DNA that it’s always had: this idea of being in a dangerous world where there are pockets of civilization just holding on and fighting to survive,” he says. “Not a zombie-survival thing, where humanity’s slowly being whittled away and dying out. But humanity is not the top dog in the world; it’s out of scale with everything else. The world is built for bigger beings than them.”
In Dragon Age: Inquisition, players wield magic to combat the demonic forces invading the land; in Mass Effect, you can harness dark energy to wield “biotics.” And in Star Wars: The Old Republic, Jedi and Sith characters can draw on the power of the Force. So the IP development team behind Anthem felt there had to be something equivalent in that world to make players feel, as Hudson puts it, “larger than life.”
Anthem character models shine up close.
Early in the process, BioWare hit on the idea of using powered exoskeletons. Yet that was only a piece of the puzzle. “We knew that we wanted to use the idea of exosuits as a way to give you a changeable character class, basically, that could give you superheroic abilities, so that you could go out into a dangerous world and fight all these other larger-than-life things,” Hudson says. “But we were still in the realm of: ‘OK, what could exosuits do?’ And you could be stronger; you could kind of jump higher.”
The end goal, however, was what BioWare calls “superheroic movement.” The first Avengers film came out the year that work on Project Dylan began, grossing more than $1 billion. Superheroics had never been so fashionable.
But in August 2014, Hudson announced he was leaving BioWare to pursue new challenges. “The foundation of our new IP in Edmonton is complete,” he wrote in a letter to his co-workers, “and the team is ready to move forward into preproduction on a title that I think will redefine interactive entertainment.” In 2015, Hudson surfaced at Microsoft Studios, where he served as creative director for two years.
Even if he was walking out the door, it was easy to be optimistic about Dylan and BioWare’s future at that moment. Dragon Age: Inquisition, destined to be a triumphant game-of-the-year title for BioWare, was months out from release. The Old Republic team at BioWare Austin was gearing up to release Shadow of Revan, an expansion centered around the protagonist of 2003’s Knights of the Old Republic, one of the most beloved games in the developer’s history. James Ohlen — the lead designer of Baldur’s Gate, Neverwinter Nights, and Dragon Age: Origins — was hard at work on a project called Shadow Realms, inspired by his years as an avid Dungeon Master. And, most importantly to many, there was a new Mass Effect on the horizon.
What could go possibly wrong?
A trophy case in BioWare’s lobby.
Pre-production on Dylan proceeded slowly, at first, as BioWare focused on hitting immediate milestones. Beginning with Dragon Age: Inquisition, Electronic Arts, the developer’s parent company and publisher, encouraged the studio to employ EA’s proprietary Frostbite 3 engine. The Dragon Age team struggled for years to acclimate to the unfamiliar tech, and satellite studio BioWare Montreal ran into similar issues while working on Andromeda, the follow-up to Mass Effect 3.
Frostbite had been built by EA DICE, the Stockholm-based developer behind the Battlefield series, to power first-person shooters. It was an odd fit for role-playing games, and — as detailed in the Inquisition chapter of the book Blood, Sweat, and Pixels — required many of the features typical of BioWare games to be custom-made from scratch.
During this same period, Shadow Realms, an asymmetrical action RPG that had become the pet project of veteran designer James Ohlen, also underwent a total reboot at BioWare Austin. Onetime Shadow Realms lead writer Alexander Freed, who left the company in 2012, says the version he worked on was “an extremely different game” than the one shown off at Gamescom 2014. In February 2015, the studio shelved the game in favor of updates to The Old Republic, with EA publicly citing the then-upcoming release of Star Wars: The Force Awakens — the first new Star Wars film in more than a decade — as the main reason for the shift.
Three years later, Ohlen announced he was leaving BioWare after 22 years with the company. “I need to take a break from the industry,” he tweeted, “and work on something a little smaller and more personal.”
“James is, at heart, a game designer,” says Freed. “He wants to make stuff, and after Shadow Realms he never had a project to call his own.”
While the Austin studio focused on Shadow Realms and The Old Republic, with the Edmonton office balancing Dylan and Inquisition, BioWare Montreal endured several years of turmoil, as reported in a June 2017 article by Kotaku. The story notes the Andromeda team in Montreal spent years of pre-production on various false starts, including a notion involving hundreds of procedurally generated planets not unlike the ones seen in 2016’s No Man’s Sky. Leadership turnover and dwindling resources reportedly left the project without a clear sense of direction, however, and the bulk of the game was developed over a period of 18 agonizing months.
Mass Effect: Andromeda launched in March 2017 to lukewarm reviews, drawing widespread criticism for its poor facial animations and the leisurely pace of its opening hours. It’s often regarded as one of the most disappointing games in recent memory.
Four months after its release, as BioWare continued to issue patches for the game’s character models and animations, then-general manager Aaryn Flynn resigned from the company, a move he said he’d been considering for some time. (He’d been with the studio since graduating from college.) Former Mass Effect project lead Casey Hudson then returned to BioWare as Flynn’s replacement.
In Anthem, Freelancers don various “Javelin” exosuits to survive in the wilderness.
Once Hudson settled into his new role as general manager, he says he was pleased to find Project Dylan alive and well. With Andromeda in the rearview mirror and BioWare Montreal being absorbed by EA’s Motive Studios, finishing Anthem was the logical next step.
Something Hudson and the IP development team hadn’t anticipated in those early meetings from the fall of 2012 was the full potential of the exosuit concept. “I think my favorite memory is when we introduced flight into the game,” says senior designer Paul Marino. “We were all heads-down in our respective areas of development, when the gameplay team pushed an update that refactored the movement schema. Once flight was turned on, that was the moment when it all clicked. It presented challenges to support it — namely, larger and more vertical spaces — but once it was in, it was absolutely core to what we were creating.”
Anyone who played Mass Effect: Andromeda can see the best of its DNA in Anthem. BioWare learned a great deal from Andromeda’s use of gunplay and mobility, and the added ability to fly promises to set Anthem apart from titles like Destiny, The Division, and Warframe. Of course, this being a BioWare game, there was a specific kind of reaction to the reveal ahead of E3 2017: Was this just another “shared-world shooter”? Or would it also tell a meaningful story?
“The game could have been a lot less story-focused than it is,” says Gamble. “As we went through the initial years of development, we realized that — to create the BioWare magic and the storytelling that people expect from us, but also have Anthem be unique and different — converging on this idea of ‘our world, my story’ was really key for us. Which is to still tell a great story that you can connect with as a player, and be able to do that in the context of co-op with your friends.”
Mike Gamble, Anthem producer
Following the negative reception to Andromeda’s facial animations, Gamble says, BioWare invested in new technologies, such as performance capture, to ensure that Anthem wouldn’t suffer from the same problems.
“I remember the first time I saw an early cut of a performance-capture scene, where the emotional beauty that Rochelle Neil brought to her performance had translated, with all its nuance, into our game. I was so thrilled,” says lead writer Cathleen Rootsaert. (Neil plays a prominent character named Faye.) “The way that advancing technology can capture the integrity of performances like that, and bring them to our players, makes me excited for the future of storytelling in our games. With Pcap, our characters have never looked better.”
One of the greatest challenges for the project involved balancing its multiplayer gameplay with the more personal narrative, and the relationships you develop with various nonplayer characters within the solo areas of Fort Tarsis, the game’s safe zone. In the summer of 2018, BioWare made it clear that, for the foreseeable future, players won’t be able to romance Anthem’s NPCs the way they could in the studio’s previous titles.
“People who only play our games for the romances — and there are people like that — may not find a lot to love in Anthem,” says Mark Darrah. “But I think people that play our games for getting connected to characters, and having an interesting experience learning about the world — there’s still a lot there for them.”
“For co-op,” Rootsaert adds, “the challenge has been more logistical: How do we create a compelling story and character arcs when players can ignore content for hours or skip forwards or backwards in the story to play with friends? It’s narrative anarchy. It’s herding narrative cats! In the end, though, I think BioWare’s storytelling is more about the characters and the world, so we’ve focused on creating cool characters who live complex lives. The story always springs from that.”
BioWare’s lobby keeps outsiders from seeing much of the studio.
Anthem of creation
As the video game industry has changed these past few years, one big lesson BioWare has learned — from its own mistakes as well as those of other developers — is communication. When Casey Hudson returned to Edmonton in 2017, he started a blog on the company’s website. Since Anthem’s reveal, Mark Darrah has fielded hundreds of questions from would-be players on Twitter, making certain that folks understand what, exactly, the game is meant to be. And starting almost a month out from the game’s release, BioWare held two weekend demos for all platforms — PlayStation 4, Windows PC, and Xbox One.
“The casual comparisons to other games are very easy to make until you play it, and see the story development, and see the character development, and see how it actually plays on the sticks,” says Gamble. “Then people are like, ‘Oh, yeah, this is different.’ I wouldn’t call it an experiment. Anthem is Anthem; it’s a different game. Studios are allowed to make different games than the ones they’ve done before.”
While the first play test got off to a rocky start on Jan. 25 — for much of the first day, many players were unable to log into the game, and those who managed to play were met with a host of unpleasant, game-breaking bugs — BioWare was able to fix the worst of the problems in time for the next weekend’s open demo.
“It’s a hard thing to do, sometimes,” Warner says of showing a work in progress to the public. “When you’ve created something, it’s an intensely vulnerable act. It’s like, ‘Here it is.’ You might think my baby’s ugly. But having the courage to be transparent and show it and talk about it in very real, honest terms has been a big takeaway for me.”
“We love, and we’re attached to, and we’re passionate about, this stuff in ways that people do not see, people do not understand,” Gamble says. “This is more than a job for the vast majority of us: This is our hearts. This is our dreams. This is everything. The changes to the games that we’ve made, and the ways Anthem is different than our previous games, we don’t approach casually. And we want the players to enjoy themselves.”
Anthem’s a roll of the dice — one that’s been a long time coming. According to one source familiar with the company who requested anonymity, there’s a great deal of uncertainty about what the game might mean for BioWare. In the event that it flops, some tough decisions will follow. And if it’s a big success, that, too, could have a significant impact on the future of the studio’s games.
In Anthem, the world left behind by the “Shapers” — a mix of the otherworldly and familiar — feels almost prehistoric.
Just what that impact might look like is another question entirely. A story published at Kotaku last year said that BioWare went back to the drawing board for its next entry in the Dragon Age franchise sometime in 2017. Amid speculation about the game’s new direction, Hudson took to Twitter to assure fans that the series would retain its focus on narrative, with live-service support allowing for “continued storytelling after the main story.”
Although the group is reluctant to confirm any hard details about upcoming iterations of Dragon Age or Mass Effect, BioWare’s leadership isn’t ruling out the idea of a strong multiplayer element taking root in either series. “It’s not like we’ve decided, hey, all of our games are now gonna be Anthem,” Warner says. “Our other games, as we go forward, are gonna take things out of the toolbox that they need to be true to themselves. Whether that’s another bout of multiplayer — we’ll see.”
Darrah, for one, is eager to explore the unique experience of tabletop role-playing games like D&D, which isn’t the purpose of a fast-paced shooter like Anthem. (In January, EA filed a new trademark application for Jade Empire, the name of BioWare’s 2005 action RPG, though there’s no word yet on what new plans might be in store for the property.)
Regarding the developer’s potential role in the partnership between EA and Lucasfilm, neither Hudson nor Warner had much to say. “God, I wish I had something to give there,” Warner says. “I’m a lifelong Star Wars fan; KOTOR is one of my all-time favorite BioWare games. Unfortunately, I don’t have anything new to dish on. You never know. There’s a big pitch process, and Disney wants to take Star Wars in a certain direction. But I’d love to work on another Star Wars game.”
Instead, Hudson points to The Old Republic as an example of the studio’s commitment to supporting an online live-service game over a number of years. (Its last full-fledged expansion went live at the end of 2016, but Hudson teased in a recent blog post that 2019 could be the MMO’s “most exciting year yet.”) He says that when he became GM of BioWare a year and a half ago, he was surprised to learn just how many people were still playing the The Old Republic. “We want to keep investing in it,” he says.
As for BioWare’s own space-opera franchise, Darrah says, “We’re definitely not done with Mass Effect. There’s a lot of stories to be told. We could pull on the threads we put down with Andromeda; we could pull on threads from Mass Effect 3. There’s a lot of interesting space to be explored.”
“In my mind, it’s very much alive,” says Hudson. “I’m thinking all the time about things that I think will be great. It’s just a matter of getting back to it as soon as we can.”
But the wait for the next Mass Effect could be a long one. Between heavy production on the next Dragon Age and Anthem’s ongoing live-ops support — not to mention the likelihood of another major update to The Old Republic — Mass Effect is still firmly in the pre-production phase. If Anthem is to “redefine interactive entertainment,” as Hudson predicted almost half a decade ago, it needs to follow through on its promise of a “living, dynamic world” that tells a story over a number of years.
Jon Warner, Anthem game director
“We have a bunch of knobs and levers that we can play with to actually do stuff with the community, get people talking about events,” Warner says, recalling his earlier anecdote about Hurricane Sandy. “It’s more about us being able to play with our audience members, and less about huge drops of content that take months to do. We don’t want players to gobble it all up and then go into waiting mode until the next big thing happens.”
“We don’t want to separate and stratify the player base at all,” says Gamble, echoing BioWare’s press briefing at EA Play 2018. “We want a consistent game state for everyone. So the story updates will be part of that, and the gameplay content updates will be rolled out into the world for free. Everyone gets them at the same time, and we’re going to do them pretty normally. We still have to figure out the cadence — and we have to, because we don’t want to lose players.” He also hints that new Javelins, or player classes, will eventually be added to introduce greater variety.
“We didn’t want to kind of just leak things out from zero all the way up to a hundred percent,” Hudson says. “We actually want you to be able to jump in and get a big experience that really establishes what this world is, and what the experience is. We’ve got all four Javelins and a big critical-path story.” However, he stresses that the critical path is not a resolution.
“With Mass Effect 1, we had something on the order of 40 or 50 planets that you could discover and explore. But the story was written as a race against time, so people would finish in 13 or 15 hours because of the nature of the story,” Hudson says. “The critical path serves a different purpose in Anthem. It’s meant to introduce you to this world that you get to continue living in, as opposed to telling a story that then is over. The critical path blends into the things that are meant to be dynamic and change from week to month, so it removes some of the pressure and finality of an ending.”
Player feedback, then, will help drive the experience going forward. Things like narrative focus and specific activities, or even the possibility of an eventual sequel, will come down to what players say they want.
“With Anthem, we’ve made a bunch of guesses on what we think the community’s going to enjoy,” says Warner. “As the live service evolves and grows, we’re going to be listening closely and making adjustments and trying to provide more of what they like and less of what they don’t. And if there’s new ideas, things that are big enough that they require a second iteration, it’d be like, ‘OK, here’s Anthem 2, everybody.’ Then that’s something we would consider doing.”
“I guess we’ll see how the thing unfolds,” he says.