At PAX West in Seattle last weekend, BioWare revealed more about the single-player portion of its upcoming live-service, action game Anthem. After the panel I had a chance to sit down with Anthem executive producer Mark Darrah and lead producer Mike Gamble to ask some burning questions that have been building since Anthem was revealed back in E3 2017.
This means I not only got to pick their brains about how Anthem’s live services will work, but also what we might expect when the game launches in six short months. We talk about some of Anthem’s Fortnite-style content plans, potential events and weapons, and how Anthem will evolve to meet player demands, whether that's for more story or more action.
USgamer: Today's PAX panel dove into the single-player narrative mechanics in Anthem. What is the main takeaway you want to get across to people who are curious about how single-player works in Anthem?
Mark Darrah: I think what we want people to understand is, while Anthem is a very different game from games that BioWare's done before, there's still storytelling at its heart. It's still about characters, it's still about getting to know people in the world and that we're telling story through this new way of, what we call 'Our World, My Story,' which is about going out into a shared world where story things happen. But then your true storytelling agency happens in Fort Tarsis where those choices live and you have that single-player, more player-driven narrative experience.
Mike Gamble: And it is a hard problem to solve. It's like how do you do a multiplayer game that has cooperative at its heart, but also still be able to tell a great story? And you know I don't think anyone actually nailed it yet. I think we probably have a pretty good shot at coming out of the gates and being able to do it. But it takes intentional design from the very beginning to split out, 'Okay this is how you're going to do your missions, and this is how you're going to do your character building.'
Okay so without necessarily naming other live service games, where do you think they've failed with things like narrative, and where do you feel that you have an edge on with Anthem?
MD: You know I don't know that necessarily a lot of other games have failed so much as a lot of other games haven't gone after it. I think when you look at our previous games... these are single-player stories. They are stories designed be told in single-player. If you play with a bunch of other people, this is still a single-player story. It's about one person all the time.
If you look at the games in and around the kind of game that Anthem is - so like Destiny or The Division and things like that - what they're really doing is they're not trying to tell a story with player agency at all. They're telling the story but it's something where you're experiencing it.
There appears to be a clear division between the "our world" and "my story" parts of the game. Are there moments in Anthem where they will intersect? Will something you do in Fort Tarsis affect the shared world?
MD: So what will happen is that because we are sharing that world the things that I'm doing in Fort Tarsis are going to have limited impact when I'm out in the world. I might get different banter than other people playing with me, I might get like different conversation stuff, but we will experience the same world. The world there changes based upon things that we as developers do. So, you know it could be raining, if it's raining there's rain for everyone. That's a thing that is affecting everyone. What we're hoping that does is, it allows a greater degree of emergent storytelling.
So when I go in to work on Monday and I was playing Anthem and you were playing Anthem we might not talk about the characters we talk to, or the relationships that we're getting into, but we can talk about the fact that there was a crazy lightning storm on Saturday because we all experience it.
And that's one of the things that we've been really trying to solve for BioWare games is there's a lot of reluctance to share experiences there because there's a big worry of spoiling experiences. Whereas when you look at things other kinds of games that are more experiential, people are much more comfortable sharing those experiences.
MG: Like the rocket in Fortnite.
MD: Yeah like that's a huge storytelling beat that involves basically a rocket. But still it built this huge story around itself that everyone shares together.
Is that the direction that you'll be going with Anthem in terms of emergent narrative. Like, 'Oh here's a mysterious rock that wasn't here last week, what's up with that?'
MD: Honestly we were pretty far on this road, but Fortnite is really hitting their stride with this kind of stuff - with the big purple cube and the rockets and the meteor - and they've really figured out how to build these storytelling events where everyone comes together and experiences things as a community even though really there's only a hundred of you playing the game for ten minutes. It's like millions of people are experiencing this thing all together.
When you say Anthem has systems in place that will allow for live changes both big and small, you're saying it can be as small as a single line of dialogue?
MD: Small as like the amount of damage that a specific gun does.
MG: To a specific person at a specific time. [Anthem] is built with those systems in mind and it's just another tool in our tool kit that we can combine all those things to make something impactful, or we can make it subtle and hidden for players who want to explore. We can drop a little thing into the world that hopefully someone will find and if they find it and they tell their friends and then build on that.
How big can these changes get?
MG: Massive, massive. But that's a story for next time.
I guess one concern of mine is that it sounds like you can play the open world parts of Anthem almost without context from the My Story portion – the Fort Tarsis portion of the game.
MD: So, you can go into free play and kind of just experience the world for long stretches time without that context. I think for engagement long term you want a little bit more to give you purpose. To say like, 'Well I'm a freelancer and a freelancer has a purpose and goals and a reason for continuing.' If you're someone that doesn't need that context yeah you can.
MG: If you skip cutscenes and yeah if you skip all the cutscenes in Mass Effect and you just want to mess around with the biotics and shoot people in the head you could, and in Anthem there's no difference. Like, if you don't really want to engage in that stuff you don't have to. You can do the loot chase and feel rewarded that way.
There's been a lot of developments in the live service space just in the past year. Are there any recent lessons you've been able to observe and learn just in the past couple of months about live service games?
MD: Yeah and you know one of the things that I think has been a relatively recent lesson in the live service space is that before last year I think you saw games coming out that were relatively incomplete. [Games] that then sort of built up and built their fan base over time and grew and got bigger. And I think in the last year you've seen a couple of games launch that were in that same kind of space that you would've thought, 'Okay this should be fine' that then didn't work out.
People came in and they went, 'there's not enough here' and they left. So, I think it's partially because the competition in the space has gotten harder people are less willing to just kind of hang out and hope that stuff is going to come along. There are other things for them to do. So, I think for me a big lesson has been that... it's that you need to have enough on the first day so that there's a reason to stay. And when more is coming then that's great. That's amazing. But I'm not just going to hang out and wait for the game to become complete. It has to be complete from day one.
MG: And then the other thing was, personally, it was generosity with players. That's a big one because obviously this is a business and we want to do well, but there is an aspect of being as generous as you can with players. And the players will take care of you, and the players will take care of your game. If they feel like they can get cool, free content, if they feel like you're trying to create a world for them to play [in]. You want to build something larger for them that they can see 'Oh I can I can be playing this for a very, very long time.' They will reciprocate that. They will stick with the game, they will stick with the company, they'll boost everyone up. It's a hard lesson to learn but we've been beneficial in where we're launching next year to see all this stuff.
MD: I feel that there is a good, valuable game that you're getting for 60 dollars–or for whatever a game cost these days–at launch that is worth the money...You would be able to play for months and months. Even if we weren't then layering a live service on top of it. So, I think it's an excellent value right off the start. You know, four Exosuits, a complete story. So, both I think it's a complete package but it's also the starting line of an experience as well.
MG: We don't have to wait for full expansions anymore like our previous games, let alone other games in the [live service] space. If you look at Dragon Age or Mass Effect you'd have to wait three, four, five, six months sometimes between big updates. We don't have to abide by that anymore. We Can actually, week-over-week, trickle out content."
That's good, because with for example Mass Effect: Andromeda which had its post-launch plans cancelled there might be a fear surrounding Anthem's post-launch support.
MG: I can speak conclusively when it comes to Andromeda, the [post-launch] plans were never in place the way that they are for Anthem. The systems and tools weren't in place to support the long-term plans, it was never like [Anthem] – never had a good, solid foundation to start from with that. Where with Anthem [post-launch] is a part of it. The job does not end on February 22. It only begins for us, really.
Going back to the Fort Tarsis stuff for a moment, I think it's interesting that there's no content gated behind making the right narrative choices in single-player. What was that like, streamlining the narrative stuff?
MD: What I want to make sure is that this is a game that appeals to a different audience than what we've seen before. It would be unfortunate if [players] were to run into a full on conversation wheel like from Mass Effect or Dragon Age and just hit full decision paralysis. Just go, 'I don't want to make the wrong decision.' It's interesting and can provide an interesting experience, if you're ready for it.
And I think we're going to have a lot of people in Anthem that haven't been exposed to that, so in part this is a bit of an opportunity to expose them to the concept. And then hopefully, maybe in the future, this makes them open to more complicated branching choices.
MG: Yeah, I mean the other way to put it is you can tell a great story with agency and great characters without something being a full-fledged RPG. Which is what anthem isn't. Anthem is not a full-fledged RPG, it's an action game with a lot of these elements. And we think that we're well positioned to be able to bring those elements in because we do have experience with the RPG stuff. But it doesn't mean it has to mimic it because it's trying to be its own thing.
That's interesting. So, there's a chance that you can introduce more RPG-elements into the game as the service goes on?
MD: The one thing that is really hard to wrap your head around, and certainly I think we've had a lot wrapping our heads around it, is this is a live service. This is the thing that will evolve once people start to play with it. So, if we find that most people really want way more monsters, Okay well then that's where we focus our attention. Oh what? What people really want is more characters, more interesting interactions, more complicated interactions? That's the direction we can go.
So, we have certain tent poles of experience like around seasonal content and stuff like that which we have locked down. [But] there's a lot of flexibility built into the plan to allow us to react to the way that people are actually engaged.
Is there a lot of flexibility with the dev team? I spoke with another live service developer earlier this year and they have four teams working on new content to pump them out at a regular clip. Is this the same for BioWare?
MD: That's exactly right. I can't remember the number, but it's in that sort of four, five, or six-
MD: Streams of content. You know you're going to do this kind of content and you want to do it every three months, but it takes five months to work so you need to have two of those going at the same time. But also, it's just things like, 'Okay, well we're going to have one stream of people working on quality of life improvements and one group of people working on this kind of drip feed narrative stuff, or this kind of person is going to work on all the holiday events.' So, it's really about keeping the machinery running and not doing this very serialized developments that you see
MG: I don't want to sound like we have hubris in this. We will make our own share of mistakes we absolutely will. Everyone who launches these kinds of games makes their share of mistakes. It's, as you said, having the flexibility in the team to build, to respond to those quickly. Because we can test, test, test, test, we can focus on something and then it's the thing that we don't test which is like, 'Gotcha!' And you have to be able to respond right?
What can we expect in terms of content drops? Will we see wild weapon drops like a bazooka that shoots other bazookas?
MD: I mean one of the advantages of a leaning away from PVP is it allows us to have weapons that do more elaborate- more interesting things because we don't have to worry about the interaction of them as much. Because if there's an interaction that's super-duper unbalanced we'll want to fix that but there's not that urgency of, 'you just broke PVP and now suddenly the bazooka bazookas breaks everyone's experience and you're a terrible developer and we hate you.'
MG: Yeah there's a lot of cool stuff there but I mean when we ship the game it'll be pretty much in line with the IP. As we get into live service we will take more and more liberties with it. You know? you can stray away more. Does Halloween really exist in the world of Anthem? Meh, and then you just do a pumpkin gauntlet [?].
One of the funniest things I remember about the Anthem reveal is when we found out the players plays as "freelancers" and there were these jokes like, "Freelancers are too busy trying to get healthcare to fight monsters." So I guess I have to ask: Do the Freelancers get healthcare?
MG: [Laughs] I wish. There's no actual health care in Anthem. Everyone - they either they die from a papercut or they somehow persevere.
MD: There is not a health care provider anywhere in Tarsis.
MG: You have to go all the way Antiem to find the hospital. We should probably do something about that.
The Anthem demo is on February 1, 2019 but since Anthem is an EA title it's going to be on EA Origin Access Premier. So that means it will be out earlier for them as part of the subscription service. What are your thoughts on Premier?
MG: It's like our launch day is actually not [February] 22.
MD: That's what it means. It means we basically launch a week early.
You know I really like the idea of a subscription. If you look at Netflix we live in—I was going to say a 'golden age' [laughs] ah fuck it—we live in a golden age of television because a subscription platform like Netflix allows Netflix or HBO or Amazon to take a lot more experiments, do a lot more different formats. If you look at the triple-A space we've become quite risk averse because games are all basically—they have same bar... and it all kind of means that they all have quite similar budgets and quite similar expectations and quite similar goals. And I think once you look in a world of subscriptions it opens the door to new possibilities. Like games that aren't intended to be played by more than 300,000 people but are built and budgeted accordingly.
MG: You have your House of Cards for Netflix, but you also have your comedy specials or like your true crime documentaries, and it's not just genre which is different. Size and scale of those things—budgets and everything are different things. And as a person who subscribes to Netflix you're like 'I get all of that for my subscription' And then I can dabble, and I can choose like, 'Oh well you know that was cool I liked it but it was only an hour of my life so that's all right.' I don't have to be super invested.
MD:What you see in television homes is a de-homogenization. There's more different television being made. And what I worry is happening in games, and triple-A in particular, is a homogenization. Games are getting more like each other. We're chasing, not the same audiences, but ever sort of convergent audiences—audiences with similar behaviors and play styles. And what I would hope that we see as subscription start to rise is the same kind of thing, a de-homogenization. Where more different kinds of things are targeted. Genres that don't even exist now can come into being and exist and maybe find a niche. Maybe that niche isn't very big, but it doesn't need to be that big because it can be addressed in a very different way.
One of the things that was revealed about Cyberpunk 2077 at Gamescom was that the shooting in it is being worked on by an ex-Counter-Strike pro. Since Anthem is more of an action game do you have some specialized devs working on combat for Anthem?
MD: Our combat lead worked on Halo and was actually, I think, was a combat lead on Halo. So yeah, we do have we do have pedigree from more action focused studios.
MG: But I do have to counter that a little bit because we've been building better and better combat experience for like 10 years now. It's like, you start out with [Mass Effect 1] and then you go on to [Mass Effect 2] and that [action] was tighter. [Mass Effect] Three was even better. [Andromeda] you would argue that Andromeda's - one of the strong suits was... the jetpack and the combat and how that stuff worked.
MG: And we don't lose those people. They just continue to move through games, right? So that, plus we also have other folks from other places.
Anthem is coming out on February 22, 2019 for PS4, Xbox One, and PC. EA Origin Access Premier will have full access to Anthem on February 15 as one of the perks to EA's premium subscription service. A full Anthem demo is also planned for February 1. For more including previews, trailers, and news, check out our full Anthem guide for everything we know about the game so far.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.