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.