So long, Anthem…

After months of speculation, Electronic Arts and BioWare finally confirmed what every gamer and games industry watcher has known for ages: Anthem is dead. Rather than spend even more money on this failure, EA have opted to cancel any remaining plans that they had in the pipeline in order to focus on other projects. And while it may be disappointing to Anthem’s five or six remaining loyal players, it’s unquestionably the right decision.

What was clearly the wrong decision, though, was releasing this mediocre title in the first place. And stepping back even further than Anthem’s troubled 2019 launch, we can argue that it was the wrong decision to push a studio like BioWare – renowned for their single-player role-playing games – to create a “live service” multiplayer action-shooter in the first place.

Anthem was developed by Canadian EA subsidiary BioWare.

Game developers and studios have to be allowed to innovate; without trying new things there would never be any progress in video game development, and that wouldn’t be a good thing. But when a studio has a proven track record at making a certain style of game, their publisher or the company who owns that studio pushing them to do something entirely outside that wheelhouse can lead to difficulties and problems.

The developers at BioWare simply did not have the multiplayer experience, the action-shooter experience, or the necessary knowledge of EA’s Frostbite game engine to put together an ambitious title like Anthem. And while senior BioWare managers may have felt, in 2012 when Anthem was first conceived, that they had a new and unique idea, the “live service” concept had been done and done again by the time the game finally stumbled out the door.

Anthem promo art.

Anthem was boring. It was an uninspired shooter whose every in-game system and mechanic had been done before by someone else – and done better. BioWare’s final saving grace when dealing with lacklustre gameplay was the studio’s ability to craft great stories and bring wonderful characters to life – but they failed at that too, and Anthem ended up offering little more than a decently pretty environment. That just isn’t good enough, and players quickly put down this disappointing experience, never to pick it up again.

When Anthem’s “roadmap” of additional content was scrapped in late 2019, that was it. No one who follows the games industry was seriously expecting EA and BioWare to successfully revive the game – and if anyone did, I’ve got a bridge to sell them! All this talk of “Anthem Next” was a cynical attempt by these companies to convince the few remaining Anthem players to stick around and keep spending money in the game with promises of more features and updates. I seriously doubt that EA ever intended to make good on the promise of an overhaul and update of the game; that was nothing more than meaningless empty words designed to exploit those few remaining fans.

A javelin seen in promo artwork.

After more than a year of living through the coronavirus pandemic I am sick to the back teeth of companies using it as an excuse for whatever the problem of the day is. In their curt blog post announcing the end of Anthem, BioWare attempted to shift the blame onto the pandemic, suggesting that it played a role in this decision. I call bullshit on that. This was a business decision, plain and simple, and it was one that was almost certainly taken a very long time ago.

The reality is that Anthem, like Mass Effect: Andromeda before it, was dead on arrival. The game has been kept on life support for two years, with players fed a steady diet of lies and promises that EA and BioWare had no plans to make good on. Such is the reality of a “release now, fix later” game. So much for being the “Bob Dylan of video games” – a statement so stupid, by the way, that I can scarcely believe anyone at BioWare actually said it.

Anthem was supposed to be the video game equivalent of Bob Dylan.
Photo Credit: The White House from Washington, DC, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Anthem needs to be a lesson, not just for BioWare and Electronic Arts but for the games industry in general. You can’t release a mediocre game and convince people to stick around in case it gets good later. “Release now, fix later” categorically does not work. The legacy of Anthem needs to be that better games are released in the wake of its failure.

If a game is not in a good enough state, it should be delayed and not forced into a release window to meet some arbitrary deadline. Big companies like Electronic Arts can absorb the costs of prolonging development if it means that the game will eventually launch to critical acclaim and commercial success. By forcing Anthem to be released when it was simply not ready, Electronic Arts snatched defeat from the jaws of victory and pissed away a huge amount of money.

Another piece of promotional artwork.

Anthem was never financially viable. No multiplayer game that loses 90% of its playerbase in a matter of weeks can possibly be sustainable, which is another reason why I’m convinced that all this talk of a “renewal” or update to Anthem was never serious on the part of EA and BioWare. The sad thing is that there was potential in Anthem. Had it been a project that was handled differently its flying “Iron Man” suits and brand-new sci-fi world could have gone on to be held up alongside franchises like Mass Effect or Halo. But a series of poor decisions across its development meant that wasn’t possible, and it seems unlikely at this stage that Anthem’s world will ever be revisited.

What this means for Anthem’s remaining players is that it’s over. It’s time to jump ship and not spend another penny on any in-game microtransactions. While BioWare have promised to keep the servers running for now, in reality it’s only a matter of time before they’re shut down and the game is gone forever. There are other, better games out there to play, so if you’re one of those few remaining players, have a look for something else to play instead.

A javelin underwater.

For BioWare this is a double-edged sword. On the one hand it potentially frees up a handful of developers to work on the next Dragon Age game, Mass Effect 4, and whatever else may be in the pipeline. On the other hand it confirms what we’ve all known for a while – the studio has released two failures in a row. Electronic Arts, rather like Google, has a reputation for shutting down unsuccessful studios and killing projects that aren’t bringing in enough money. There was already a lot of pressure on BioWare to get their next project right – and that pressure has just increased.

I don’t think we should celebrate the demise of Anthem – but I don’t lament it either. The game was a waste of potential, it damaged the reputation of a studio previously held in high esteem, and serves as yet another example of why this “release now, fix later” trend is such a mistake. Hopefully the lessons of Anthem will be learned so that better games will be made in future. That’s its only shot at a legacy.

Anthem is the copyright of Electronic Arts and BioWare. This article contains the thoughts and opinions of one person only and is not intended to cause any offence.