Target Audience Matters (The Anthem Problem)

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.

Episode - Screenshot 2018-12-08 23-58-15

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.

Episode - Screenshot 2019-02-07 14-17-56

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.

Naughty Dog Anniversary

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.

BioWare Games

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.

anthem 4 players

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.

killzone
One of several Killzone games you never played.

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.

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Visceral Lames (Damn It EA)

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.

Dante's Inferno

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.”

-Pulled from an article on Kotaku

EA Kills SP

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.

EA Slot Machine

 

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.

  1. Dragon Age
  2. Mass Effect
  3. Knight of the Old Republic and Star Wars in general
  4. Mirror’s Edge
  5. Medal of Honor
  6. James Bond
  7. Crysis
  8. Dead Space
  9. Dante’s Inferno
  10. Wing Commander
KOTOR 3
I used to have hope but now it’s finally gone.

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
You can’t beat the best and we all know single player is the absolute best in gaming.
  1. The Witcher 3
  2. Nioh
  3. Horizon Zero Dawn
  4. The Surge
  5. Cuphead
  6. Assassin’s Creed Origins
  7. South Park: The Fractured But Whole
  8. God of War
  9. Knack II
  10. Yooka Laylee
  11. Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice
  12. Mario Odyssey
  13. The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild
  14. Shadow of War?

Are you as unhappy about this as I am? What single player games are you most worried about?

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As always, thanks for reading. Please take the time to follow my blog, leave a comment, and check out some of my other channels if you enjoyed what you read.