- Starting this week, the first huge game of 2019 is finally available: “Anthem” launches on February 15.
- Ahead of Friday’s launch, Business Insider spoke with lead producer Mike Gamble about the game’s rocky first demo weekend and what to expect from the full game.
- Yes, we also spoke about that chart.
There’s a lot riding on “Anthem,” the huge upcoming game from EA’s legendary BioWare studio.
For starters, it’s the first major new franchise from BioWare in years. It’s an online-only, multiplayer-focused shooter – a major departure from single-player role-playing franchises like “Mass Effect” and “Dragon Age” that the studio is known for making. Secondly, BioWare’s last game was a massive flop that damaged one of the studio’s core franchises.
Moreover, “Anthem” is a direct competitor with games like “Destiny 2” and the upcoming “The Division 2,” both of which have dedicated audiences at this point.
With all this background in mind, on Monday I spoke with “Anthem” lead producer and longtime BioWare employee Mike Gamble. Here’s what he had to say, just days before the game’s initial launch on PC:
This interview has been lightly edited for clarity.
Ben Gilbert: How are you feeling right now?
Mike Gamble: Because the game has been in development for so long, and doing new intellectual property is definitely hard, and you don’t know what to expect … we’re definitely anticipating launch. It’s been a long road to get here.
That said, I think we’re ready to have “Anthem” out to the world so that we can start to build it out in the live service as well.
Gilbert: More personally speaking, how are you? Having sleepless nights?
Gamble: Definitely, definitely.
This always happens before any launch, right? It is kind of like delivering a kid, where it’s something that you’ve put a lot of time, effort, love, patience into over the last how many years? And for the people who’ve been here since the inception, and even much of the staff who’s come on from other projects – when you work on something day in and day out, you start to get really attached to it. You don’t really know what to expect until it comes out. So the anticipation is pretty high.
It is a kind of freeing moment to have it actually come out, and then finally see what everyone thinks. And then to really shift your mindset to how you’re going to support it for a long time, as opposed to the usual thing with our games in the past: It comes out, and then everyone goes to sleep for awhile, and then you start to do downloadable content.
With ‘Anthem’ it’s very different. There’s a team that’s kind of waiting in the wings, and they’re already working on some content which can support the live service.
Gilbert: Without getting into specifics/spoilers, what are you most excited for people to finally see?
Gamble: It’s challenging, because the demo was a little cross-section of the game. Unless you’re going to give the beginning of the game to introduce players – which has its own problem of spoiling the beginning of the game – you have to dump players right in the middle without any context. They don’t really know why they’re doing what they’re doing. So the whole idea behind the demo was to give players a tease of the gameplay.
Okay, so now everyone has a good sense of how the game plays. But what they don’t have a sense of is how we grow the narrative and grow the story and immerse you in this world. Basically, we bring you along for this journey with us.
And then of course, you have the amazing gameplay to go with it. That’s what I’m most looking forward to seeing: The people who can play the game from the very beginning, they can learn about the characters, they can get to know the world a lot more, and get sucked into the lore and context and everything that goes with it. Because you don’t have a chance to do that unless you play the full game.
Gilbert: Something that really stands out in “Anthem” to me is Fort Tarsis and the idea of cities or settlements. Is Fort Tarsis the only one? Can more be added?
Gamble: Oh yeah, absolutely!
Part of the whole conceit of why we’re doing this is to both build on the gameplay and the “looter/shooter” mechanics stuff in “Anthem” in a live service, but it’s also to continue the story. It’s to continue the narrative of the critical path, to tell new stories, to add new characters, to potentially add new areas in Fort Tarsis or new areas altogether to go to.
And back to my earlier response about what I’m excited for players to see, when you get a sense of the world and you get a sense of the scale and that Fort Tarsis is just one place … you get a sense of the overall history and context. Your mind starts to go to, “I really wonder what the capital of this other province is,” and “I really wonder what the northernmost fort closest to the Dominion is up against.”
That allows us to seed the ground and pay some stuff off later, but also it allows us to look at what the community is really into and see where they want to go next, and what they want to do. So we can tailor some of the live service towards that stuff.
Gilbert: The social hub is separate from Fort Tarsis, and I’m wondering what the logic is behind that. Why are they separate?
Gamble: The social area is the “Launch Bay,” and it’s a section of Fort Tarsis. It’s not a different city – it’s just a section of Fort Tarsis.
So Fort Tarsis, the narrative conceit around it is this is the place where the Freelancers on the frontier go and recoup and recharge and re-arm and all that stuff after their missions. It’s basically a frontier town. And there’s one area in that frontier town in which all the Freelancers go to meet up as teams and get ready to go back out. That’s the Launch Bay (the social hub).
Now, the reason that we didn’t put the social aspect in the normal Fort Tarsis area, so to speak (the one that you saw in the demo), is because that is the place where you get to make your choices with the characters for your story. And that’s where Fort Tarsis will change on behalf of your personal decisions.
If we allowed that be a fully social hub, that takes away from our ability to execute on that, and it takes away from our ability in the future to continue to build on that. We wanted a space where it’s private to you so that your narrative can be reflected in there. You can talk to people at your own leisure. You can progress certain plot lines with the characters at your own leisure. And you can do certain challenges and unlock certain things at your own leisure.
We didn’t want to have a social hub that was controlled by the world state. We wanted to have one that was made for you. Whereas the world – the open world where you run the missions – that’s controlled by the world state.
Gilbert: It’s such a different approach from other games of this genre, and it seems like almost two different games at once – a single-player game in Fort Tarsis versus the shared open world with other people who might be having a completely different experience.
Gamble: Right. And to your note about being able to progress the social areas commonly – that’s where our control over the open world does come out. So we can progress the state of the world as we see fit, as we want to, and we can tell universal stories for everyone out in the world.
We teased it a little bit at the end of the second weekend, where we changed the world state a little bit, did a precursor to a cataclysm – we have the ability to do that and change things and evolve things in pretty significant ways.
Gilbert: There was a mixed response to the demo of “Anthem,” and I’m interested in how BioWare processes all that data.
Gamble: We have teams of people combing through forums and videos and responses and all that stuff. They’re doing one of two things: They’re getting qualitative feedback like, “I wish this could be better, or that could be better,” or “I’d like this,” “do more of this.” And then we have the people who are looking into the bugs, and filing the bugs, and making sure that the bugs get sorted out. So there’s a few things.
In looking and editing all the data together, the demo was pretty successful for us on a couple things. One: The people who played the demo, more often than not, nearly universally, liked what they played. The bugs got in the way in a big way. And I think when you see the mixed sentiment coming out of people, it was usually, “Hey this game has legs, the foundation, the core, moment-to-moment gameplay feels solid, but I’m concerned about the bugs.” So we got that a lot.
And the other thing is, yes I know it was called a demo and that is what it is, but it did give us the ability to stress test a lot of the things that we otherwise would’ve seen at launch.
There was commentary that we didn’t have enough servers up. We had enough servers up, it was just there were some networking issues built into the client of the game which caused a lot of the bugs that you saw. That stuff doesn’t really showcase itself unless you give a proper at-scale test, and the demo was certainly at scale. There were a lot of people playing it. So when you have a lot of people, you start to see those bugs come out and you can fix them so you don’t have them on launch.
So, overall, it was a pretty positive thing.
And a lot of the bugs that we did see, we felt good about because they were either, A) Already fixed, or B) Things that we had not reproduced consistently on our side and now we have a pretty good reproduction case for, and then we can fix it.
So I think overall it felt pretty good for us.
Gilbert: There was a lot of backlash over a chart depicting different ways to play “Anthem.” A lot of that blowback seemed directed at EA rather than BioWare or “Anthem.” I know you are an EA employee, but I’m wondering how you square that backlash.
Gamble: The most honest answer I can give you for that is we’re just trying to make the best game we can. And we’re trying to make ‘Anthem’ the best possible game, that people will love and fall in love with. And that’s that. As a producer on the game, that’s my focus. And that kind of sums it up for me.
Gilbert: How much control do you have over something like that as a producer on “Anthem”? I don’t think you’re the guy in PhotoShop making charts.
Gamble: The way it kind of works is we are in partnership. It’s not like we don’t know about these things until they happen.
But ultimately there’s the goals of the game – to make the best game possible – and I know this is kind of a non-answer, but ultimately decisions have to be made. And whether it’s me or other people, there’s not necessarily … how to say this? Decisions have to be made and it’s not necessarily my job or my responsibility as a producer on the game to make certain decisions. I’ll just put it that way. They come out the way that they do.
I will say that without EA’s support, we wouldn’t have been able to make “Anthem,” so there’s that. I don’t think many people understand that. It’s a complicated situation for sure.
Gilbert: I think a lot of people who play games might not realize the distinction between game publishers, like EA, and game development studios, like BioWare.
Gamble: I get it, and I appreciate it, because it is a lot more complicated than people say. But if there’s one soundbite that has to come out of that, it’s, “The game, BioWare, the developers, their number one job – the thing that they get up every day to do – is to make the best game possible. And then sometimes the stuff outside of what that is leaves the studio and becomes more of a partnership with the publishing.” And I think that’s pretty standard with every publisher-developer relationship.
Gilbert: Back to the game itself, how much bigger is “Anthem” than the demo?
Gamble: We really tried to give a good cross-section of the things you might see in the game. The only thing that we obviously didn’t show was the cataclysm stuff – endgame stuff. We gave a cross-section of talking to people in missions, and a cross-section of a Stronghold, and we gave a cross-section of some of the kind of story missions that you would undergo.
The main game itself just has a lot more of all that stuff, with the nice progression and handholding that you would expect from a game that really wants you to be invested in the story and the characters.
And of course the other big thing that was missing from the demo was really the loot chase – the progression models. We threw you right in the middle of the game. We threw you right in the middle of the story. You don’t really have a good sense of progression. Plus, everyone knew that we were blowing away all the characters at the end of the demo, so they didn’t have that invested feeling.
So, with that all said, it’s my personal experience with the demo that it gives a good taste of the type of things you could do, but it doesn’t satisfy that full meal of what you want to do when you dig into the game.
- “Apex Legends”/Electronic Arts
Gilbert: And finally, “Apex Legends” is suddenly a massive deal. It seems a little crazy that EA would launch it right before “Anthem.” What’s your take on that?
Gamble: So, a couple things on that. Super, super congratulations to those guys [Respawn Entertainment, another EA-owned game development studio]. They deserve all the awesome kudos. The game is really solid and, like, I’m playing it when I’m not playing “Anthem.” There’s all that. They’re pretty awesome!
The second thing is, no one really knew how much it would take off. It’s taken off in a big way, which is great! Back to the earlier publisher-versus-developer question, we’re still all part of the EA Studios culture. So when one of our teams does really well on something, we all applaud it.
Now, I think that the audience for “Apex Legends” and the audience for “Anthem” – there is some overlap, there’s definitely some overlap, but they are different. With “Apex Legends” being primarily a player-versus-player (PvP) game, obviously free-to-play and Battle Royale, that serves a certain niche.
And it is free – it’s not like people have to make a decision between $60 “Anthem” and $60 “Apex.” They just have to get “Anthem” and then they can download “Apex.” So there is that. And the fact that we are a co-operative game (PvE) and we are a long-term service game, with a full story, characters, and that whole kit and caboodle. You can start to see how the people who are going to want to invest a lot of time in “Anthem” and the people who want to invest a lot of time in “Apex,” the overlap starts to get less and less when you look at the kind of games that they are.
Does that mean that there’s no overlap? No. But then again, people don’t always want to be playing PvP and people don’t always want to be playing PvE in that overlap group. So I think there’s enough room for both of us to co-exist equally.
We weren’t surprised by “Apex” – we knew about it. And it is a good time to be at EA right now, especially with both titles coming out.