I hate monopolies. I think they’re one of the worst things about modern capitalism. I also hate the current framework for copyright laws as it allows bad decisions to be made in entertainment for the protection of corporate greed/profit. We are currently seeing this affect a number of IPs and a number of forms of entertainment. A really big current example is Spider-Man’s place in the MCU. Because Sony and Marvel/Disney can’t play nice, we the fans are robbed of Tom Holland’s Spider-Man in the MCU after he’s already been in several films and made a huge impact. This is monopolism of creative ideas and capitalism gone wrong.
In the same vein of thinking, I love Star Wars. More specifically I really love Star Wars games. But currently Star Wars games are being monopolized by EA. They have the sole license to produce/publish Star Wars games. Which means that as a consumer I’m forced to decide between playing Star Wars games from EA, a company I don’t trust or really want to support anymore, or not playing Star Wars games at all. This is not really a choice. This is a lose-lose situation that corporate shills and crony capitalists pretend is a choice in order to make bad arguments in defense of a system gone off the rails. Having to choose between something you love and nothing isn’t a choice at all. The choice only exists when you can get that something you love from multiple sources and can decide which source to go with. Star Wars games don’t have that.
At the end of last month, a new trailer for Jedi: Fallen Order released. In true EA style, it’s a magnificent trailer. It’s the kind of trailer that made people excited for Anthem. If anything that’s the real magic of EA. They’re top tier marketers that have mastered the art of selling garbage at exorbitant prices and then throwing in microstransactions for good measure. EA has failed me, and other gamers like me, many times. EA has failed Star Wars more than enough times already. In general, I try to steer clear of their games now. I do support some of their indie projects, like when I bought Unravel Two, on sale of course, but when it comes to AAA titles from EA I haven’t bought one since Mass Effect: Andromeda, which I admittedly didn’t hate. But the fact that they screwed up so hard that even I didn’t buy a game produced by what was once my favorite developer and dream company to work for, Bioware, shows just how much damage EA has done over the years. Overall, I buy less than one game from them a year. And even that feels like too much a lot of the time. But where else can I get my Star Wars game fix?
I didn’t buy Star Wars: Battlefront II (2017). I supported the boycott and stuck to my guns. But where does that leave Star Wars game fans? I love Star Wars games and I love single player games. EA has a monopoly on Star War games at the moment. So logic concludes that I’m ultimately going to buy Jedi: Fallen Order against my better judgement. And if the comments section on this newest trailer is any indication, I’m not the only one.
This is an annoying place to be in that gamers have always been in since the advent of the console exclusive. We always end up getting coerced into buying things and thereby supporting companies that we don’t agree with or want to support. It doesn’t matter how much you hate Konami. If you want to play Castlevania then you are going to support them. And this is the situation that I once again find myself in with EA. Because the truth is that no matter how many times EA has screwed me. No matter how little faith and interest I have in a single player, non-shooter from Respawn Entertainment. The truth is that I am going to buy Jedi: Fallen Order. I am going to go against my own wishes and support EA, yet again. And honestly I hate myself for it.
The Jedi: Fallen Order trailer looks so good. But it’s EA so that doesn’t necessarily mean anything. In fact, history shows us that this will most likely be an ultimately disappointing and problematic game. But I’m still gonna buy it. A single player focused Star Wars game set before the sequels with a focus on narrative. How could I not buy it? But that’s a garbage place to be in. It’s essentially putting steak in front of a starving vegan and then telling them they have a choice in whether or not they want to eat meat. If there are no other options, they’ll eat the damn steak. And then they’ll feel really bad about themselves. They might even get sick from eating the steak because they’re haven’t eaten it in so long. There are so many reasons they shouldn’t eat the steak in that scenario. But they will. Because what choice do they have?
The last Star Wars game I played was Star Wars: Battlefront I (2015). It was a big pile of meh with some decent foundational gameplay mechanics. The last one I played that had good single player was The Force Unleashed II (2010). It’s about damn time for another steak! My fear is that like so many EA games in the past decade, the steak will look good when served and ultimately be disappointing. So I certainly won’t be buying Jedi: Fallen Order at launch. The silver lining of EA is that their games tend to tank in price fairly quickly because they ultimately do end up disappointing. But fingers crossed that this won’t be the case with their latest attempt at not totally wasting their exclusive access to the Star Wars IP.
What do you think of Jedi: Fallen Order? Does it look as good as I think it does or do I just have Star Wars tinted glasses? Let me know in the comments.
When I was a kid, there were no patches. There were no updates. There was no DLC. The closest thing you could get to additional content in a game, other than buying a sequel, was an expansion. And honestly expansions were usually just sequels on a smaller scale. They were bought and sold as separate games, but continued directly from where the base game left off and required an existing save file. My point is that games were static for the most part. When you bought a game, that was the final product. There was no additional development, no tweaks or rebalancing to the gameplay, and certainly no making a shitty game better or, as in the case of some developers, worse.
Today, the bulk of games seem to be using what’s known as “agile development”. Wikipedia defines this as:
. . . an approach to software development under which requirements and solutions evolve through the collaborative effort of self-organizing and cross-functional teams and their customer(s)/end user(s). It advocates adaptive planning, evolutionary development, early delivery, and continual improvement, and it encourages rapid and flexible response to change.
Through the magic of marketing speak and fancy packaging, agile development appears to mean that software is delivered to end users faster and then improved rapidly based on user feedback. This all sounds very nice. But what it actually means in practical application is companies release broken, shitty software that works enough to pass minimum functionality expectations/standards but ultimately needs a ton of work. This work is then done based on user feedback by prioritizing what customers, having already paid for the software, are complaining about the most at a given moment. In gaming terms that means bad games are released and then patched over time while it still seems profitable to do so.
In the olden days, reviews worked. Not just “professional” reviews from places like GameSpot and IGN. User reviews were equally valid depictions/critiques of a specific game’s experience. Reviews were timeless. A review about a game published on the day it released was an equally valid depiction of the game a year or even 10 years later. First impressions were valid judgments of games and honestly didn’t need to change, assuming a fair amount of time was put into playing/testing that game when making that first impression. But that is often far from the case today.
Whether intentionally or by design, we are seeing more highly hyped and marketed AAA games released in broken states than ever before. Examples like No Man’s Sky, Sea of Thieves, and the recent Anthem come to mind. We are also seeing lots of games as service titles that aren’t released necessarily broken, but certainly not in a completed and satisfying state as far as content provided. Examples like this include bother Destiny I and II, The Division 1, and from what I’ve read, the recently released Days Gone. While these two groups of games aren’t in the same boat quality/user satisfaction wise, they are both using some form of agile development. More importantly, all the games mentioned were/will be much different on day 365 than they were on day one. And more importantly, what they will be on day 365 will most likely be much better than what they were on day one.
On a previous blog post, I recently received a comment saying that they didn’t agree with my views on Destiny because I was ignoring the fact that Bungie had improved the game(s) over time based on user feedback. This is specifically what I want to discuss today. The commenter was factually correct in saying that both Destiny titles evolved over time and had been noticeably improved based on user feedback. That is a position that I cannot and would not try to deny. But I am equally right in saying that DestinyI was a huge disappointment at launch. I think most people, including that commenter if I understood him correctly based on that one comment, would agree with that statement as well. I preordered Destiny and purchased the Collector’s Edition. I invested $100 into the game and don’t/didn’t feel that I got $100 worth of content delivered to me. At the same time, if I had waited a year, I could have gotten a huge amount of content for less than $60 with The Taken King Edition. If you remember that time, then you will recall that many early adopters were angry about this. Because it was much more blatant and “unfair” than your standard GOTY edition release of a game. Since I haven’t personally played that additional content, because I absolutely refused to give Bungie another dollar for that game, I can’t say if I would have felt like I had gotten $100 of content or not. But based on what I’ve seen and read, I am of the opinion that I probably would have felt satisfied if my $100 preorder had netted me all the content of the Taken King Edition.
So you have two people with two very different opinions of the same game because they played the game at two very different times and thus had much different experiences. But is one opinion more valid than the other? Is my take on Destiny a more legitimate critique because I judged the launch version of the game, which would rightfully be considered the most authentic experience? Or is the commenter’s take the more legitimate one because it was/is the most up to date and arguably better represents the intended experience that the developers had for the game? I don’t actually know if there’s a right answer. What I do know is that this question and how you answer it presents a real problem when it comes to reviewing, grading, and ultimately valuing games in 2019.
Anthem is a trash game. It is an objectively broken experience that does not live up to the BioWare name. 99% of gamers agree with this statement, 0.5% are lying, and the other 0.5% don’t know what Anthem is. That is the current state of the game and the reason the player base has declined so rapidly. In true EA style, it was released broken, lacking of all character, and not at all like the BioWare games of old that ultimately led to people buying a shared world shooter from a long established RPG dev to begin with. But that shouldn’t have surprised anyone. I predicted the game would be disappointing at release months before launch. I will admit that I didn’t see it being as bad as it ultimately is though. But I also believe that Anthem doesn’t have to remain bad.
Anthem has a ton of problems and is missing a plethora of things to be a proper BioWare game. But the skeleton is fairly well made. I genuinely believe that Anthem in year two can and will be a great game if EA continues to invest in it and doesn’t shutter BioWare, as everyone, myself included, is worried about. In fact, that’s why I made a blog post called Anthem Year Two back in July of 2018. In the same way that Destiny, No Man’s Sky, The Division 1, and countless other games added a lot of additional content, made changes, and patched out bugs over the course of the first year to ultimately create a great game in the long run, I believe Anthem can, and must, do the same thing. The real question is how do you judge and valuate such a game?
Let’s say on February 22, 2020, exactly one year after the original launch of Anthem, BioWare releases an update that completely revolutionizes the game. Let’s assume they fixed everything. Loading times are lightning fast, story actually exists, decisions matter, romance is an option, gear is more consequential, and drop rates are drastically improved. Imagine that basically the game went from where it is now to Mass Effect 2 status for quality of experience while maintaining the balance between single player and multiplayer at the same time. Essentially GTA Online with much stronger writing. I’m pretty sure that we would all agree that such an improvement would be welcomed and revolutionary. But how would/should we value and grade Anthem as a whole in this scenario? Would we just ignore the original version and pretend it never existed? Would we average our opinions based on both iterations? Would we still condemn the game based on our first impressions? What exactly would be the right way to go about judging this new and vastly improved Anthem?
On one hand, you’d have a phenomenal game that everyone would be dying to play. But on the other hand you’d have, if estimates I found online are correct, somewhere between three and six million players (purchasers) who bought the game at/near launch who were ultimately disappointed and quit playing the game. While many of them would probably jump back in for this new version, many will have already been soured by the game, rightfully so, and would choose not to pick Anthem back up for all the patches and improvements in the world. This later group would be accurately judging the game on their first impressions. At the same time, anyone judging the game based on the new content would also be making a fair critique of the current product. This presents a number of questions that really haven’t been fully addressed or properly answered by the gaming industry or community. Also the pricing of this magical update would need to be part of the discussion as well. Would it be free like the improvements made to No Man’s Sky? Or would it be at cost like the way they’ve developed Destiny with periodic paid expansions?
What I’m most interested in discussing is how we as consumers should be judging games, and the companies that produce/distribute them, that fall into this situation. First impressions used to be super important. To me, they still are. Most people can name at least one developer or publisher that they absolutely do not trust anymore because of one or, in the case of EA, several projects that soured their feelings toward the brand. But in world where games are improved over time and often go from being some of the worst games currently available to some of the best games playable over the course of an extended period of time, how do we as consumers navigate that system? How do we judge games like this? How long do we give games to stop sucking? How do valuate games like this in terms of pricing? Possibly most importantly, how do we discuss games with each other on fair terms when we could literally be playing different games depending on when we started and stopped playing a specific title?
I think Destiny I was disappointing. I started playing day one and stopped after the House of Wolves expansion. I spent $100 total. Another player started playing after The Taken King Edition was released. He paid $30 for all the content I got plus a lot more. He thinks the game was phenomenal. In my opinion, we are both correct and both wrong at the same time. But how do we officiate those opinions in a useful, constructive way without having to precede them with three or more pages of explanation, a personal gaming history, and a notarized record of gameplay experience every time we try to engage with each other online? Obviously I’m exaggerating a bit but the point still stands, two players played the same game and yet didn’t play the same game and one felt justified in attacking the other’s opinion as a legitimate criticism of that opinion, and not just a troll.
For me, I think first impressions matter a lot. I don’t support the idea that a company can release a garbage game and improve it over time with no repercussions to their public image or the way we discuss that game in the long run. I think we should absolutely be mindful of the fact that a game was released unfinished and severely lacking for $60 or more in the case of AAA titles. I think it’s criminal for a developer/publisher to release a broken, unfinished game and then charge extra to repair it, even if those repairs ultimately turn it into a masterpiece. At the same time, I also think that it’s important to give a clear and accurate depiction of a game in its current form in order to help late adopters make decisions that will ultimately net them the best overall gaming experiences within their limited budgets.
I didn’t buy Anthem. I played the alpha and the beta and saw that it was going to stink to high Heaven. It was very obvious to me and ultimately why I published my previously linked post about it. But I also believe that Anthem has the potential to be a great game in the future if given the proper time, care, and resources it needs to evolve into something beautiful. So when/if I buy it, I’ll be getting a hopefully great gaming experience. And I will discuss it as such. But that won’t negate the bad experiences that the many people who did buy it day one first experienced before ultimately quitting the game. The gaming community needs to evolve to a new set of standards that properly address this point when discussing, judging, and debating games in the current landscape.
There’s a bigger issue at play here as well though. Let’s say BioWare really does improve Anthem. In fact, let’s say they completely fix it and really do ultimately deliver an award winning, GOTY level gaming experience. Would that make everything OK? Would it suddenly be acceptable that they released a steaming pile of crap, charged everyone who bought it day one or preordered it $60+, and made them wait a year before delivering a serviceable product? Should we then champion BioWare like in the days of old and commend EA for sticking with the game till it met the expectations they promised us? Now as an old school gamer who was gaming years before patches were even conceived of, I say no.
I wouldn’t forget that release, the lacking content, or the fact that day one players were asked to return to a game a year or more after release, and possibly have to pay extra for the expanded content. Even if I did buy the game a year later and got something great, for me that wouldn’t negate the fact that BioWare and EA tried to pass off something terrible to the public. Because Anthem day one is what they wanted us to accept. Anthem day 366 is what we forced them to ultimately deliver. In my opinion, consumers shouldn’t have to strong arm studios or publishers to get quality games. There’s supposed to be a social contract where they deliver good products and we purchase them, and because those products were good we’ll purchase their next product as well, assuming it also looks/is good. That system falls apart when studios try to put out crap and then apologize by making patches. Yet many people today, especially younger gamers, see this as the modern norm. They’re fine with a studio releasing crap as long as they fix it in the long run, because they’ve been raised on patches. They don’t let first impressions define their perception of a game or studio.
In some ways this modern form of judging a game is kind of beautiful at the human level. The ability for a person to see the potential in something bad, trust the creators to evolve their work to its full potential, and then not carry any grudges or spite from the past is a quality that I think all people could benefit from . . . when dealing with other people. But we’re talking about multi-million to sometimes billion dollar corporations. We don’t need to feel any sympathy for them. A lot of people try to say corporations are the people who work for them, but that’s not really accurate for larger studios. That’s just marketing and PR over many years of inceptive messaging. Why should I pity a studio that puts its employees through 80 hour crunch weeks? Why should I feel sympathy for companies that are known to work their teams to the bone and then fire the bulk of their employees down to a skeleton crew once the project is launched? These corporations aren’t people. They’re heartless money making machines that care more about profits than the health and well-being of the creative minds that make their profits possible. So while I’m not actively calling for the gaming industry to reform itself, though I do believe it needs to, I’m also not going to look upon these companies with any sort of charity or sympathy. These is merely business.
Sell me quality products at a fair market price, take my money, and I’ll see you again for your next game. That’s the full extent of the relationship. So for me it’s a real issue if products being delivered are no longer being delivered at an acceptable standard. The fact that they’re getting improved down the road doesn’t negate that first impression. Especially if there’s an added price tag for those improvements. But as a whole, the gaming community is not in agreement on this topic. Many are fine with the agile development model. Many are happy to forgive a studio or publisher as long as the game is good in the long run. We even have review sites now updating their reviews over time to account for these changes to games rather than having projects deal with their troubled pasts for the entire duration of their tray life. And that’s not necessarily wrong. It’s not the way I judge games and the studios that release them, but it’s certainly a valid position to take in the current system. We really need to come to some sort of agreed upon system for how we as consumers are to judge and discuss games like this fairly and accurately. Because this model of development is here to stay, whether we want it to or not.
Recently Anthem, the new shared world loot shooter from Bioware, released. The review scores have not been kind, but who really cares about that? What I’m more interested in discussing is the split in public reception of the game. I haven’t tracked the numbers by any official means but there seems to be an almost even split between people who really like the game and people who think it’s trash. Usually this isn’t the case. Most of the time the majority of people hold a similar opinion about a game and some outliers think the exact opposite. This is the case with Battleborn (2016). It was a fairly average co-op shooter that came out at the same time as Overwatch. It’s by no means a bad game but it’s fairly forgettable and as such it failed to gain traction over Overwatch. But even today you will still find a few diehard fans of the game that swear it’s way better than it actually was. This is the norm. But every so often you get a game with a hard split down the middle. This appears to be the case with Anthem.
I don’t own Anthem but I played the closed alpha, closed beta, and open beta. Ultimately my experience with those pre-builds made me opt not to buy the game. I did enjoy the basic gunplay and the graphics are quite impressive. But ultimately it was a hollow overall gameplay experience devoid of meaningful narrative structure and riddled with issues such as preposterously long loading screens. That is how it was for me. But even I still could see myself picking it up in year two, which I’ve been advocating since before the game released, as can be seen in this old blog post.
Anthem is a fairly repetitive loot shooter with bullet sponge enemies that relies on the sensation of playing cooperatively with other players to have a meaningful and enjoyable gameplay experience. That is not a knock to the game but an objective description. I would use the exact same description to describe Destiny, The Division, and a number of other games. That’s the basic tenant of this genre. Some games do it better and some games do it worse but at the end of the day you’re paying for the experience of farming loot with your friends or randoms in order to get better stats so you can farm more loot with your friends or randoms. There is usually a story component to games in this genre but the level of quality and importance of it varies from game to game, just as it varies in necessity from player to player. As far as how Anthem compares to other games in the genre, it’s got its high and low points. The graphics are awesome. And the ability to fly in an iron man suit makes them even more awesome. It has too many loading screens. The classes (Javelins) are very differentiated but you aren’t locked to one class like in Destiny. The coop aspect is important, but playing the game solo is not nearly as fulfilling or manageable as in The Division. The narrative is no worse than that of Destiny. I could go on, but the point is that it’s not a worse game than the other games as service loot shooters currently leading/exemplifying the genre. It’s more of the same. You just pick your poison and get pretty much the same overall experience. I’m most likely going with The Division 2 this year, if anything, because the alpha and closed beta really impressed me and I very much enjoyed the base game of the first one. But I wouldn’t say that this decision is any more valid than choosing Anthem or Destiny II.
*I keep referencing Destiny instead of Destiny II because I refused to play Destiny II so it would be inappropriate for me to cite it for comparison having not played it.
While Anthem is a fairly standard iteration of the loot shooter genre, it seems to be getting considerably more hate at release than other games of the same type. Destiny, Destiny II, and The Division all did fairly well at release as far as public reception goes. I personally enjoyed playing Destiny and The Division at release. It’s only a bit later after the base content has run its course and people are stuck with lacking end game and waiting for updates that they start to complain, usually. The pricing/release model for additional content in Destiny is the only reason I chose to wash my hands of the franchise. So why does Anthem seem to be getting considerably more hate during the initial release window? I think it has a lot more to do with BioWare than it does Anthem.
In marketing and product sales, which I do work in professionally, we often use the term “target audience”. You probably already know this term but basically it means who you’re actually trying to sell products to. Often people outside your target audience will purchase the product, and that’s great, but when creating a product and the marketing strategy for said product, or game in this case, the company chooses a specific demographic to focus on based on a number of factors. One of the most important factors in choosing a target audience is past purchasers/loyal consumers. Basically people who have bought products from you in the past and didn’t hate them are more likely to buy more products from you in the future. This is fairly obvious in entertainment. It’s the reason people buy music from the same artists again and again and follow specific actors, writers, and so on. The same is of course true for games. That’s the reason you care when you hear “new game from Naughty Dog” and really don’t care at all when you hear new game from (insert some unknown indie dev you’ve never heard of here). That’s why brand image is so important. But what it also means is that over time as brands build up a loyal consumer base they also become beholden to the expectations and desires of that consumer base. This is why developers tend to develop a consistent style over time and often focus on specific genres or gameplay mechanics. As they establish their base more, that base tends to want more of what they first enjoyed when they joined that base. And they stayed loyal because they kept getting more of what they enjoyed the first time. This makes it fairly easy for studios to figure out what to do to keep their customers happy and more importantly loyal, but it also comes at a cost.
Having an established and strict product style often means being limited to that style. If developers want to branch out and try new things it’s often met with anger and disdain. This is what happened when CD Projekt Red announced that the upcoming Cyberpunk 2077 would be a first person game. After three third person RPGs over the course of eight years culminating with The Witcher 3, arguably the greatest third person RPG ever made by any objective criteria, people came to expect their next great RPG, which they’re already marketing as bigger and better than The Witcher 3, to also be in third person. Because the bulk of their loyal audience are people who like/prefer third person RPGs. I’m personally in this boat. That’s not to say that there isn’t a market for first person RPGs, because the 50 remakes of Skyrim prove that there absolutely is. It’s just that CDPR’s base like their RPGs in third person. So when CDPR picks/picked their target audience for Cyberpunk 2077, they had to choose between targeting their established fan base, the most common choice for developers today, or they had to risk that base in order to target a new audience. They chose the latter. Again, this doesn’t mean that people they aren’t targeting won’t buy the game. Many absolutely will. It simply means that they decided that their focus audience/market for this new game won’t be their established player base. At least not in totality. And that’s fine but it does come with a risk. In my opinion, the negative repercussions that come with that risk are what’s plaguing Anthem today.
BioWare has been making story focused, character driven long form, single player RPGs for more than 20 years. They brought us hits like Knights of the Old Republic I & II, still the gold standard in Star Wars games, the Mass Effect Trilogy, the Dragon Age series, and the highly acclaimed one off Jade Empire. For the bulk of almost two decades they were the gold standard for single player, story driven western RPGs. Didn’t matter if it was a gun, a sword, magic, or a lightsaber. If you wanted a great single player RPG you bought it from BioWare. Then suddenly they put out a shared world co-op loot shooter with arguably less meaningful story content than The Division with a butt load of preposterously long loading screens and you don’t even get to see what your character looks like outside of the iron man suit. While none of that, other than the loading screens, makes Anthem an objectively bad game, it absolutely makes it a game that’s way outside the interests of BioWare’s usual target audience. But that didn’t necessarily stop all of them from trying/buying it.
I think this is the real problem Anthem is facing. Destiny was made by Bungie and published by Activision. If you play Activision games, that means you like shooting things, usually people, in first person and much of the time the things you’re shooting are controlled by other players. If you play Bungie games, that means you like shooting things, usually people, in first person and much of the time the things you’re shooting are controlled by other players, but those people you’re shooting aren’t necessarily earthlings. The difference between the two companies’ target audiences and loyal bases are purely cosmetic. It was a marketing match made in heaven and that’s why they were able to make not one but two overrated games that raked in a shit ton of profit they didn’t by all rights deserve. The player base and the target audience were perfectly aligned for both the developer and publisher without either company going too far outside their norm. The only reason the companies recently split was because of disagreements about late stage management of the franchise/installment. The same cannot be said about BioWare, EA, and Anthem.
BioWare made a game for the Destiny crowd. The problem is that the bulk of people who have been buying games from BioWare for the last 20 years aren’t the Destiny crowd. Conversely, much of the Destiny crowd hasn’t been buying BioWare games for the last 20 years either. Obviously EA is involved in all this, but in order to streamline the post/conversation, I’m ignoring that aspect for the most part because it may change the reasons why this happened, but it in no way changes the fact that it did and the results of that decision. What this means is that a bunch of people, let’s say half the current player/purchaser base, who have been playing BioWare games for several years bought a BioWare game expecting the same type of game they’ve grown used to. While the other half of players bought a loot shooter expecting a loot shooter, which they got. To their credit half isn’t bad. The fact that they were able to get about as many people to migrate over from Destiny II and The Division, among other loot shooters and battle royale games, knowing full well that The Division II, which after playing alphas and betas for both games I do have to say is superior overall, is coming out just a month later, as people who traditionally buy BioWare games is fairly impressive. Or sad depending on how you want to look at it. There is still a lot of bad blood over Mass Effect: Andromeda, which personally I don’t get because I thought it was a fun game. But in any case you have about 50% of players enjoying the game because they buy loot shooters and like loot shooter mechanics. But that other half is serious Western RPG players who went in expecting Mass Effect or Dragon Age with Iron Man suits and instead got Destiny with only one planet and fluid classes.
I truly believe that while Anthem has a number of flaws (I’m gonna keep mentioning those loading screens BioWare) it’s not a bad game. It’s by no means a traditional, or even subpar by comparison, BioWare game for their core fan base. But for a loot shooter it’s fairly decent. Ultimately this is the dilemma for every established studio with a loyal player base. They can’t make outside the box projects because the people who usually provide the bulk of their revenue don’t want to see huge changes to the formula and often won’t stand for it. For creatives this is a pretty depressing deal. They can’t pursue anything radically new or different for fear of angering their loyal customers. And we know this hasn’t only happened to BioWare. Many studios have had similar problems both critically and commercially when trying to do something new. While I’m all for consumers voicing their opinions with their words and their wallets, one must admit that this is why the industry has become more repetitive while delivering less and less risky and interesting content. The reason we’re seeing so many battle royale games is because they’re really easy and cheap to make by comparison to fully fledged games with a story focused campaign. Even the ones that aren’t ultra-successful still tend to make a profit when produced by larger studios with a popular brand attached to them. Even Tetris battle royale is super successful and that cost basically nothing to make by comparison to the last Nintendo first party game. And tons of people are saying it’s worth subscribing to Nintendo Switch Online just to play that one game. It’s a big problem with no clear or easy solution.
So what’s the answer here? If Anthem had been released by a different studio with a more established loot shooter pedigree would it be facing the negative responses it is now? In my opinion the answer is no. It’s still not the top of the line loot shooter so it wouldn’t necessarily be garnering high praise but I think it would be doing a lot better in the public eye. It’s very difficult for a studio to change its stripes this drastically and garner success and positive reception out of the gate. The only truly great example that comes to mind is Guerilla Games with Horizon Zero Dawn. But that’s a much different situation than BioWare and Anthem. Similarly to BioWare, Guerilla Games was known for only one genre of game, FPS, in the 13 years it had existed before HZD. They did release a third person shooter no one remembers in the same year as their first FPS game, but ultimately that IP never went anywhere. They went on to release four more FPS titles in the years leading up to HZD after their first game. But there is one key difference between them and BioWare.
All the first person shooters Guerilla Games released are part of the same franchise, Killzone. If you’re not familiar with Killzone, that’s exactly my point. Before HZD, the only thing Guerilla Games was “known” for was a lackluster franchise of PlayStation exclusive FPS titles that pretty much no one was playing. And even if you did know the name Killzone, since it was a release title for at least one PlayStation platform, chances are you didn’t know the name Guerilla Games was attached to it. They simply didn’t have the brand recognition or success with their games that BioWare has had. And BioWare had/has it across multiple IPs. It was way easier for Guerilla Games to make something entirely new for them and be met with open minded consideration because most people went into HZD with no preconceived notions or expectations about the studio. BioWare, and of course EA, do not have such privilege when making games. They’re simply too big and well known to ignore their current player base’s expectations. This is exactly what’s crippling Anthem. About half the players shouldn’t by all rights have even considered touching the game if not for the developer name attached to it. If anything EA should have stealth released under some new established studio as a dummy brand for BioWare. This of course would never happen, but I’d be willing to bet it would have been met with more positive reception.
There’s a reason Capcom can put out a totally repetitive game about killing monsters in order to get stronger to kill more monsters with the most mediocre story ever and it can win RPG of the year while BioWare can’t put out a loot shooter and get above a 70 on Metacritic. Capcom has been around twice as long and has been making games from a plethora of genres since their inception. The expectations are way different for them even though in many ways they’ve created a similarly repetitive game with its own list of design flaws and issues. And yet I bought Monster Hunter World almost a year ago and still put in more than 20 hours of gameplay in the last two weeks alone. BioWare is in a problematic situation. And with EA pulling the strings, there’s a good chance the studio will be shuttered in the not too distant future. And yet all BioWare is really guilty of, other than getting into bed with EA to begin with, is making something they’ve never made before. Honestly it’s kind of unfair. And yet I’d sooner support the studio closing down than I would consumers being forced to buy a game they don’t want from a studio they’ve supported for years simply to keep that studio open out of no longer deserved loyalty. It’s a shitty situation for everyone involved.
In recent months, we’ve seen a lot about the upcoming Anthem. Anthem is a shared world mech-shooter being developed by BioWare, who is of course under the umbrella of EA. The game was first announced at E3 2017 and was shown again at E3 this year in a big way. We think we know a lot about Anthem already. The marketing has been very good. The trailers are amazing. But a lot has also changed since it was first announced. When Anthem was first being talked about, it was being called BioWare’s take on Destiny. The studio drew the comparison themselves in certain interviews. Then the whole Star Wars: Battlefront II thing happened and EA has been trying to fix their image ever since. And they have made moves. They removed the loot box system from Star Wars: Battlefront II at launch and stated that though it would be re-added, it wouldn’t be as predatory as originally shown. They have done their best to move people away from the loot box conversation and announced that Battlefield V, being developed by the same studio as Star Wars: Battlefront II, DICE, wouldn’t have any loot boxes. So it’s hard to know exactly how Anthem will be now in the wake of all the bad press and changes EA has taken in response to recent mishaps.
I am very hesitant about Anthem precisely because they’ve drawn comparisons to Destiny. If you read my blog normally and have for a long time, then you know I have very negative feelings about Destiny. I pre-ordered the physical limited edition and I have regretted it pretty much since the announcement of The Taken King expansion, which I never played. It angered and still angers me that I gave Bungie $100 before the game even released for them to provide me maybe half a story, some crappy raids, and then tell me I had to pay another $30 or more dollars to get some actual additional story content. But if I had waited, I would have been able to get all the content, old and new, for like $30. That pisses me off. And we’re not talking about something like The Witcher 3 where you get a full game that’s almost too full and then for another $25 you get like two more full games’ worth of content. That would have been acceptable. Destiny just screwed me over. I did not buy Destiny 2 and I haven’t purchased any other games from Bungie, Activision, or Blizzard since then. And I wasn’t really a fan of any of those companies before Destiny either so I was already taking a leap of faith, but I really enjoyed the Destiny beta so I decided to take the plunge. The last Bungie game I bought before Destiny was literally 10 years before with Halo II. It will probably be another 10 years before I even consider buying another game from them.
That badly priced, content lacking experience is exactly what I’m afraid of happening with Anthem. By all rights I should just walk away now. But the trailers look so good. And I actually really do like BioWare. I haven’t played a single game by them I didn’t like. That includes Mass Effect: Andromeda, Dragon Age II, and Dragon Age: Inquisition. I wouldn’t say any of those are the best they’ve ever produced, but I consider all of those games and the others I’ve played by them to be fine titles. So I want to trust them. I want to play Anthem. But I don’t want to play another Destiny.
My issue with Destiny was not the gameplay. Mechanically, I thought it was excellent. It wasn’t the graphics. Visually I thought it was quite good, and I played it on PS3. My only real complaint, other than a number of unbalanced raid challenges which I consider forgivable, was the lack of fresh content for the price I paid. I don’t like replaying missions. I don’t like farming because of an unbalanced RNG rewards system. And I did not buy the game for PVP. I put a fair amount of time into the Crucible, but that’s not what I paid for. So I don’t have to consider that in my personal judgement of the game in terms of my satisfaction, or lack thereof, with it. This is not a review. I don’t have to be objective. I spent $100 of my hard earned money and didn’t get a full story experience. But I genuinely believe that if I had gotten all that year two content, as well as what I got in year one, for the $100 I spent, then I wouldn’t have left the game so unhappy. If I had not supported the game from day one and waited it out like I do for most games then I wouldn’t even be writing this post right now. None of this is BioWare or EA’s fault. It has nothing to do with them. But the shared world shooter genre is spoiled for me because of that experience others like it such as The Division. Yet I still want to play Anthem based on what I’ve seen.
The problem with games like Destiny and presumably Anthem is that the player’s enjoyment of it is directly tied to the presence and influence of other players within the experience. That’s why we get conned into buying them day one. We take the risk of them dying if we wait and then we can’t really play them at all. The only thing worse than Destiny year one would have been Destiny year one with no other players. But this line of thinking gave me an idea.
Why do we play these games on their terms? Why do we let studios tell us when and how to enjoy games? It didn’t used to be that way. You used to be able to buy a game when you wanted and play it the way you wanted. You shaped and enjoyed the experience you chose to have. Why did we let that concept die? People will of course say that the nature of games has changed. What with daily challenges, special events, limited time offers, and pre-order bonus content, it seems impossible to play a game on your own terms and get the full experience. Then there’s of course the fear of missing out on the experience altogether. You don’t want to be left out and you don’t want to show up to the party after everyone else has already left. But what if we as a community chose not to be limited by these factors?
What I’m about to say is all theoretical. It makes a number of assumptions about BioWare’s long term plans/actions for the game. It assumes the game does well overall from day one. And it assumes that extra content will actually be added over time like in Destiny and The Division. None of these assumptions have to be true. They are very likely based on empirical data from the last several years of gaming. But it’s quite possible they all end up being incorrect assumptions, in which case the entire concept I’m about to suggest would be a complete failure before it ever began. And to be clear, even if all these assumptions do end up being true, which I do believe will be the case, that still doesn’t mean that I believe what I have devised will actually come to fruition, because it relies heavily on the actions of other gamers which is never a recipe for success.
I propose a plan that I’d like to call simply Anthem Year Two. If we assume that there will be an official Anthem Year Two campaign, then that means we can assume that there will be Anthem Year Two content. And because this game is being published by EA, it’s fair to assume that this Year Two content will be at additional cost to the players unless you buy a full edition a la Destiny Year Two Legendary Edition. Again, waiting for year two means missing out on year one content while the bulk of other players are playing it. Now that doesn’t really matter as long as you have people to play with that are going through the year one content at the same time as you. This might be a limiting factor for PVP but that assumes you’re playing for PVP, which shouldn’t necessarily be the case when Anthem isn’t even being sold as a PVP game. In fact, it won’t even have PVP options at release. So let’s, at least for the purposes of argument, assume you’re playing Anthem for the campaign content and your only reason for buying day one is that you want to make sure you have people to play with when you’re playing the year one content and so on into year two. But what if instead of forcing ourselves to play year one content during year one, we as an organized community of gamers fabricated year one conditions in year two?
Here is what I propose. What if instead of forcing ourselves to buy Anthem day one, a large group, as in hundreds to even thousands of players, collectively committed to waiting for year two to buy the game? Say a large community of gamers all pledged that they would collectively wait for the Anthem Year Two Legendary Edition release to drop to $30 and would buy it the day it hit that price. And assume they all stuck to their word. What is the limiting factor in this scenario? Other than the waiting time, will our gaming experience be hindered in any way? Not really, unless you count possible spoilers as an issue. We could get all the content for a good price and have people to play it with that all started on a level playing field because we all would have started at about the same time. Just a year after the game was released. Why doesn’t the gaming community ever do things like this? I’ve never heard of a large organized group of gamers actively waiting for the second year content of a cooperative multiplayer game to be released before purchasing. We could shape the entire experience, down to the price, to our liking and needs. We would fully control the situation and be guaranteed a fair amount of content from the start with no wait time to access it. Why wouldn’t we do this? Why haven’t we done this? There are already huge gaming communities for just about every online game. No Man’s Sky was a steaming pile of crap and it had entire self-formed governments organized by players. So why don’t we just take control of the situation? Not just with Anthem but with every game like this. The Division 2, Jump Force, and the list goes on. We simply need to decide to wait as a collective, decide when the wait is over, and that’s pretty much it. It’s little more than a gaming union that doesn’t charge dues. Am I crazy or are we just all inpatient children too lazy to put in a small amount of effort for a better, more affordable overall gaming experience?
I didn’t want to write this post. Honestly I was just going to let this event pass by without mentioning it on my blog. But as I’ve read more articles, talked to more people on Reddit, Twitter, and other forums, and thought about it more I decided I couldn’t just let this go without saying something.
I’m sure most of you are already aware, but in case you didn’t know Visceral Games was closed down by Electronic Arts last week. Visceral Games was the development studio responsible for a very eclectic collection of games including Tiger Woods PGA Tour 2000, Dante’s Inferno, Battlefield Hardline, and the Dead Space franchise. By no means was Visceral Games my favorite developer. I was not interested in most of their games. I did however love Dante’s Inferno and wish they had made a sequel. Even though I wasn’t a fan, they were a studio that I really respected. They were committed to making plot based liner storylines with a focus on interesting core gameplay that ties directly to the game’s narrative. This is the approach that I would like to see all developers take. Obviously not the ones who don’t make real games. I don’t expect EA Sports to deliver the next GOTY experience or anything. But for studios that are making games with plots and campaigns, whether single player, co-op, or shared world, I want to see narrative be the focus of development. I still remember reading an article discussing Visceral Games’ design principles for the first Dead Space. I was so impressed by their mission statement in approaching that game. I knew from the start that I wasn’t going to play it before seeing a single trailer, because it’s not my genre, but I absolutely respected and applauded the studio for the way they viewed and handled that project. EA disagrees with my sentiments about game development.
Visceral Games was in the midst of making a plot focused, linear Star Wars action, adventure game. In other words, they were making exactly the type of game that true Star Wars game fans want to see made. Not some shitty never ending MMO. Not a time sink, loot box, pew pew extravaganza. They were making a proper narrative based Star Wars game tied directly to the lore of the current Star Wars film universe. EA decided that such a game was no longer worth making. In fact they basically implied that single player, plot based games in general are no longer worth making.
“Our Visceral studio has been developing an action-adventure title set in the Star Wars universe,” EA’s Patrick Söderlund said in a blog post. “In its current form, it was shaping up to be a story-based, linear adventure game. Throughout the development process, we have been testing the game concept with players, listening to the feedback about what and how they want to play, and closely tracking fundamental shifts in the marketplace. It has become clear that to deliver an experience that players will want to come back to and enjoy for a long time to come, we needed to pivot the design.”
So in honest terms what Patrick Söderlund is saying is basically Visceral Games was making a video game that people wanted to play and then EA decided that because it wasn’t a Games as Service model that they could lace with loot boxes, open world multiplayer, and additional DLC with no real bearing on the plot, they decided to cancel it. This is a big problem. This is basically a declaration that from now on any game that doesn’t play like Star Wars Battlefront II, with its egregious loot box system and paltry 5 – 7 hour campaign, will no longer be made/published by EA. Furthermore, any studios that are trying to make standalone linear plot based games under EA will be shut down.
I don’t need to go into the ethics of this issue. I’m sure you’ve heard it all before about how single player campaigns literally built EA and the rest of the industry and that publishers choosing to blatantly discount the opinions of the consumers that funded the industry in order to trick kids into spending thousands of dollars on loot boxes is wrong. I don’t need to tell you not everyone wants to play crappy console MMOs with no real end game. Or that not everyone in the United States, much less the world, has a good enough internet connection to enjoy shared world games. You’ve heard all that before. I don’t even want to take the time to give one of my grandiose speeches about voting with your wallet and all that because clearly, just like with the United States Presidential Election, your vote doesn’t matter. If one person is going to spend $15,000 on Mass Effect 3 cards, why would EA ever consider the opinions of anyone other than MP addicted whales? $15,000 is 250 $60 vanilla game sales, not including tax. That $15,000 in loot boxes is tax free from the consumer side, meaning EA swallowed the whole amount. If any publisher only has to market to one 250th of the gaming population to turn a higher profit then of course they are not going to make the games the masses want to play anymore. Your lousy $60 and angry tweet is worth shit compared to that one guy who keeps shoveling in money like a gambling addict. I won’t be surprised if one day in the near future we see someone like Steve Wynn enter the gaming industry. It’s gotta be easier and more profitable than running a casino at this point. So there’s just no reason for me to give a rally cry for boycotting.
What I think is more important to talk about is what this means for us as single player campaign gamers. I don’t mean that in the philosophical sense about how we’re essentially being pushed out of the industry that we bought and paid for with our hard earned money and that of our parents. I mean in a more literal sense let’s talk about what it means that EA isn’t making single player campaigns anymore today. Electronic Arts is a huge empire of a publisher. They currently own 33 operating development studios around the world. They’ve shut down 28 studios. They’ve almost got a negative studio success rate and it hasn’t affected their bottom line at all. But that’s not even the important part of the discussion. The problem here is all the single player IPs that EA owns the rights to that are now either dead in the water or destined to be bastardized into some shitty multiplayer, microtransaction experience with at best a shitty campaign of no substance. Let’s look at the list of just single player, plot focused games/franchises that I believe are important. I’m sure I’ll leave things out that you think should be included.
Knight of the Old Republic and Star Wars in general
Medal of Honor
That’s 10 franchises known for single player, plot based experiences. It does not include the many other games/franchises that have a multiplayer component that many people still purchase for the single player experience such as Battlefield, Need for Speed, and I’m going to include Rock Band, but I’m happy to remove it if that offends people. This doesn’t even include the various games they publish for third party developers such as Titanfall, Alice, Bullet Storm, Brutal Legend, Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning, and several others. Some of the greatest single player franchises ever made now belong to EA. That’s a sickening thought in the wake of this news. Mass Effect, Dragon Age, and KOTOR are three of the best Western RPG franchises money has ever been able to buy. Those are gone now. At worst they don’t exist anymore. At best they’re no longer the great story driven gameplay experiences they once were. Either way it’s a terrible prospect for long standing gamers like me. Add that to the fact that me choosing not to buy their shitty future games in protest won’t do anything and that’s a terrible reality to have to look forward to. If anything the best thing we can do is actually buy their games and not purchase any of the microtransactions to make a statement about the way we want to play and pay for games. But that still means giving EA money they don’t deserve and it still doesn’t deal with the greedy whale problem. At this point it’s not just a losing battle, it’s a lost battle. The cause is already defeated. I for one am very depressed by that and don’t actually know what to do moving forward as a traditional gamer of more than 20 years. All we can really do is hope other developers/publishers keep some form of integrity. Japanese studios seem to be better about this overall but even Nintendo has started pulling some real bullshit.
I thought it was appropriate to end this post with a list of single player, plot based games I plan on buying in the next six months.
The Witcher 3
Horizon Zero Dawn
Assassin’s Creed Origins
South Park: The Fractured But Whole
God of War
Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice
The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild
Shadow of War?
Are you as unhappy about this as I am? What single player games are you most worried about?
This week I published an article defending DICE‘s choice to feature a female Stormtrooper as the main character in the upcoming Star Wars Battlefront 2. I have literally never defended DICE before and I have nothing but disdain for Star Wars Battlefront, but I cannot stand badly made arguments and that’s exactly what all the sexist bullshit since the trailer dropped is. I published this article on Gaming Rebellion but here’s the introduction:
Recently the Star Wars Battlefront 2 trailer was released and the most surprising news of all was not only does this game actually have a single player campaign, but apparently it stars a female Stormtrooper. If you haven’t watched it, I’ve embedded it here so you can now. It’s certainly worth the two minutes. Did people complain about the fact that the trailer kind of ignores the chronology of Star Wars? No, not really. Did people complain that the game campaign appears to place you as a member of the Empire instead of the Rebellion? Not from any comments I’ve seen as of yet. Did people complain about the fact that the game makes it seem like the Imperial troops were genuinely unhappy about the end of their tyrannical dictatorship? Not in the slightest. Did people complain that the campaign appears to star a female protagonist? This is the internet. Of course they did.
You can read the rest right here. Please check out my Author’s Archive for other articles by me on Gaming Rebellion.