Remember Anthem? When EA and Bioware launched the ambitious sci-fi loot shooter, their answer to Destiny, early last year, it face-planted almost immediately. It was a slow-motion trainwreck we saw coming and couldn’t stop watching afterwards. Rumors suggested that after the team’s post-failure silence, they buckled down to basically begin rebuilding the mess of a game from scratch in the hopes of winning players back with a big do-over Final Fantasy 14-style. And a recent blog post on Anthem’s future development basically confirms this plan for “substantial reinvention.” We hope Anthem eventually becomes good. But in the meantime we’re revisiting this article we originally posted at launch examining how the “games as a service” model caused it to launch so bad in the first place.
By now the verdict’s in on BioWare’s hotly anticipated Anthem. Despite some satisfying shooting, the consensus is that the game isn’t the massive hit publishers Electronic Arts wanted. While the storied studio put their trademark spit and polish into the product, it just didn’t come together in the end like they’d hoped. We’ll probably never know everything that went on behind the scenes to make a seven-year project turn out so aggressively mediocre.
But one thing is inarguable: Anthem represents BioWare’s first attempt to release a game outside of their traditional model, a game where instead of traveling through a linear (if branching) narrative from beginning to end, you instead are placed in a world without that throughline, tasked with completing quests forever. Why would they make this choice to stop dancing with the one that brought them? Because that’s the brass ring the industry’s chasing in 2019, for better or for worse.
To understand that, we’re going to need to go back a few years and talk about the pivot to “games as a service.”
Back in the beginning, when you bought a new game for your PC or console, you were getting what was in the box or on the diskette and nothing else. You’d play it, maybe finish it, and then put it away. Some games like SimCity would have more replayability, some like Ultima would have more playing time in their story, some like Doom would have multiplayer, but in general you were getting a single piece of software.
The Internet changed all that, like it changed most things. With faster and faster file transfer speeds, developers could release “patches” to games after they were released to fix bugs and address complaints. Previously, those patches had to be mailed on disk to each customer, which was expensive. It became more and more common for the retail game to require at least one download before running, and it wasn’t long before developers started doing more with those downloads than just cleaning up the code.
Starting in the mid-1990s, many developers started offering additional optional content for their games online. Popular RTS Total Annihilation had new maps released each month, and FPS shooters had thriving mod communities releasing unofficial maps and content. But there was no real way to pay for these downloads, so it was a labor of love.
In 2003, the rest of the gaming world caught up. Unreal Championship for the Xbox was the first console title to have a patch distributed electronically, with the update addressing performance issues delivered over the newborn Xbox Live network. Patches were, of course, free to the consumer. But that didn’t always have to be the case.
The introduction of safe, effective credit card processing online meant that publishers could now charge for this downloadable content — or DLC as it came to be called — and before too long every major platform was selling add-ons for successful games.
As we said above, multiplayer was a huge time extender for the early days of gaming. Playing against a human opponent is significantly more engaging and rewarding than beating an AI. That philosophy found flower in the release of World of Warcraft, Blizzard’s on-line role-playing game that took place in a persistent world with hundreds of other humans at the same time. The company made this a huge environment, littered with treasure to collect, monsters to slay and quests to complete. But eventually, all of that good stuff would run out.
So here was the second phase of World of Warcraft‘s success: expansion. Once the game had established a solid player base shelling out monthly subscription fees, Blizzard started making their world bigger. In addition to adding new quests and events, the company also sold expansion packs that added new lands to travel to and new abilities, growing the sandbox to keep players hooked. It was a dynamite strategy that was a huge financial success and other studios immediately wanted in.
But why was the World of Warcraft model the only one that could support these additional payments? It wasn’t, obviously, and it didn’t take long before other types of games followed suit, both with subscriptions and with additional microtransactions for cosmetic and gameplay items. Soon, it was rare to see a game release that didn’t have some extra content you could buy after the fact.
Everybody Into The Pool
By 2017, “games as a service” was the buzz of the industry. All of the big names were trumpeting their intention to transform franchises into “recurring revenue streams,” where the retail price was just the beginning. They spun it as a great deal for players — you got more for your money, after all — but it was also great for their bottom line. Being able to sell content for months or years after a game’s release helped them stabilize their financials away from the all-or-nothing retail model.
Some were successful. Epic’s Fortnite and Blizzard’s Overwatch both captured the online shooter market, one with a fast-paced battle royale that created a social space where dabbing was just as important as getting kills, and the other with a lore-rich, mechanically fun team experience that inspired terabytes of fan art. Both of those games aren’t “finished,” and aren’t likely ever to be. As long as they’re profitable, the developers will keep rolling out new bits of content – characters, events, weapons, dances — for players to get hooked back in by.
And, of course, there are indie games that follow the same franchise. The introduction of Steam Early Access let developers jump ahead in the queue by getting games to players before they were ready for prime time, and then patching them repeatedly in response to feedback. Even before that, Mojang’s Minecraft positioned itself as a creative sandbox experience that would continually see new materials and textures added to it.
But then there’s the ones that didn’t make it. Not every studio is equipped to create a game that goes on forever. People loved BioWare’s classics — Mass Effect, Dragon Age — for their deep, immersive storytelling, creating worlds populated by rich, realistic characters and giving players the option to shape their own destinies. The nature of a service game’s unending plot just doesn’t let you do this. You’ll never be able to do anything of any real consequence in Anthem, just like you can never stop the storm in Fortnite. It’s just not that kind of game anymore.
Although in the short term, “games as a service” seems lucrative to publishers, in the long term as more and more titles release with that model it’s going to end up cannibalizing itself. Keeping players plugged in to the same title for years with new content means that they’ll have to dedicate a significant portion of their gaming time to just that game, leaving less and less bandwidth for other titles. We’re already seeing this with Battle Royale titles, as the few big players have effectively choked out everything else on the market. If gamers are happy with their existing games and they can expect new content forever, what’s the motivation to try something new?
The bigger issue, though, is a creative one. Imagine if BioWare hadn’t been forced to put a square peg into a round hole with Anthem? Imagine if all the fun shooting and cool world-building was attached to one of their epic, planet-spanning narratives, without endless meaningless, disposable fetch quests and content locking for levels? It’d be a spectacular evolution of the mechanics they’ve been iterating since the first Mass Effect and you bet your ass it’d have gotten better reviews.
It might be too early to write off Anthem — Destiny had a similarly rough start, and Bungie managed to bring enough polish to the table to make a game that was at least well-liked, if not a blockbuster success. Electronic Arts VP Patrick Söderlund has claimed that Anthem will be the “start of maybe a 10-year journey.” That seems wildly ambitious to us, especially in the face of a studio that doesn’t seem to know how to right the ship. But that’s sort of the magic of “games as a service” — what initially ships can transform into something completely different after enough patches are applied. Or it can head to the discount bin and take a once-great studio down with it. Only time will tell.
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