BioWare is known primarily for one thing: well-crafted, branching stories. Through series like Mass Effect, Dragon Age, and Knights of the Old Republic, the studio has carved out a lucrative niche of making choice and character-driven role-playing games. On the surface, BioWare’s next game, Anthem, looks like it goes in a completely different direction. It’s a shared online world, where players can team up to take on missions and gather loot, Destiny-style.
But the studio doesn’t see it as a drastic departure. Instead, BioWare looks at Anthem as a way to fix one of the problems with massively multiplayer online games — namely, that they rarely have a compelling story to dig into. “It is solvable,” BioWare general manager Casey Hudson says of making a narrative-driven online experience, “but you have to design the game from the ground up to deal with that.”
Anthem has been in the works for five years, and Hudson has a somewhat unique perspective on the project. A longtime BioWare employee, he left the studio in 2014, when Anthem had been in the works for about a year, in order to pursue opportunities at Microsoft outside of gaming. Then, in 2017, he returned to take on the GM role. And while games like Destiny and its sequel launched during that time, ushering in a new wave of connected shooters, Hudson says the premise of Anthem has remained consistent from the beginning.
“You have to design the game from the ground up to deal with that.”
“Really, all of that stuff was there in the early days, and it was kind of the whole point,” Hudson says of the online multiplayer components of Anthem. “That really was the genesis of it: taking the experience we have and making it widely shareable and also solving the challenge of doing that with the story. That’s going to be the thing that’s really different and unique about Anthem. Cracking the problem of: how can you get people playing together as a team, inside a large community of many more players, and still feel like you have an intimate story to zero in on?”
Anthem approaches this problem in a unique way. Essentially, the game is divided into two parts. There’s the more traditional story side, which takes place from a first-person perspective. Here, you’ll be able to talk with characters and make the kinds of choices BioWare games are known for. The other half of the experience shifts to third-person, and plays out like a more traditional action game. You don a superpowered exo suit and team up with other players to take on missions.
It sounds like a much more unconventional approach than Bungie’s attempts at narrative-building with the original Destiny, which suffered from shallow storytelling and a world fleshed out mostly by prompting players to read large swaths of text on the game’s website. (Destiny 2 has a meatier story, but it still relies largely on non-playable characters explaining plot details to you while you move from checkpoint to checkpoint.) During a short Anthem sequence I played at E3 last week, I partnered with three other players to destroy a nest of angry alien spiders. These two halves of the experience aren’t just divided by perspective and action, but also physically. The story moments take place at your home base, while the action happens in a hostile open world.
“You suit up, jump off the cliff, and go have an adventure.”
It’s not clear yet how cohesive the game will be, as players will be transitioning between two seemingly very different experiences. I wasn’t able to explore it during the brief demo, but Jonathan Warner, Anthem’s director, describes it as “a really seamless experience.” He says you’ll get missions from characters in the hub, where there’s lots of dialogue to explore and decisions to make. And if a friend wants to play, you can jump back into the multiplayer action at any point. “It’s kind of a loop that you’re in, where every time you come back to base, you take your suit off and you walk around town, you see all of your favorite people and move the storyline along,” says Hudson. “And then you suit up, jump off the cliff, and go have an adventure. That loop is integral to the game. It bonds those things together.”
This kind of online game may seem like BioWare is chasing trends, but the developer says that the concept for Anthem stemmed from a very different place. Single-player RPGs don’t result in the same kind of water cooler discussions that a shared world can lead to, and the studio wanted people talking about its games. “We thought, what if we have a game where the whole point of the experience is for everyone to talk about what’s going on right now?” says Hudson. “‘There’s going to be a huge snowstorm that’s gonna hit next Saturday.’ And every day the weather starts getting crazier and crazier, and then on Saturday, everything hits, everyone shows up to see what’s going on, and there’s a whole different set of things you get to do in the game.”
The scripted narrative will be a major focus of Anthem, but BioWare says that systemic events like changing weather or incoming alien attacks will also be a major focus. “We don’t rely solely on a new, crafted narrative,” says Warner. There will be dynamic events that alter the game, and much of it is built around seasons. As the weather changes on the alien world, you’ll experience different conditions, new creatures, and even new story elements as the storyline progresses.
That kind of shared experience is a big reason behind the success of Fortnite, and it’s something BioWare is trying to replicate in Anthem but with a larger focus on story. “When we built the world of Anthem, we really built it,” Warner explains. “We layered it with lore and history, and it’s all stuff that you discover. There are some things that we’ll never tell our players ever, but we need to know it to create a consistent world that makes sense.”
“We layered it with lore and history.”
Hudson says that the idea of being able to respond quickly to players was another big reason BioWare wanted to pursue a game like this. It’s something that’s not really possible in a single-player RPG. As an example, Hudson mentions Garrus, a Mass Effect character who became so beloved that fans started clamoring for the option to romance him in the game. “We built that into the next game,” explains Hudson. “It’s just that it took us two years to have the opportunity to do that. In Anthem, we can get a sense of what people want. We can plan something out for two months from now, but plant a seed right now. That’s a lot of real-time interaction with fans we want to have.”
This kind of narrative freedom is also one of the reasons why BioWare decided to build a new property from scratch. The studio already has access to two beloved science fiction universes with Star Wars and Mass Effect, but it was easier to build an expansive world for players that could regularly change without the baggage attached to those franchises. The action-oriented gameplay of Anthem was another reason to start something brand-new. “There were things we wanted to do with our next game that we knew we couldn’t do with either of those two licenses,” Hudson says of the decision.
Anthem is a co-production between BioWare’s offices in Edmonton and Austin, and, at least on paper, it sounds like a perfect fit. The Edmonton studio is renowned for its single-player RPGs, while Austin has spent the last seven years building out the online world of Star Wars: The Old Republic. As a game that tries to marry those two styles of game together, Anthem pulls from the backgrounds of both teams.
In fact, the experience of building and maintaining The Old Republic has been a major influence on Anthem as a whole. “It could’ve been made,” Hudson says of the possibility of creating Anthem without the experience of The Old Republic, “but I don’t know if we would’ve done it right.”
Anthem launches February 22nd on PC, PlayStation 4, and Xbox One.