Two years after its release, the vaguely-awaited revamp of BioWare’s live service looter-shooter Anthem has been canned. The update, titled Anthem Next, was set to overhaul the game’s core experience and fans hoped it would provide a turnaround in the face of the lukewarm reception received on launch. It looks like Anthem’s story is over, as BioWare refocuses on more familiar territory than pseudo-MMOs.
The company put the blame squarely on the COVID-19 pandemic, but questions remain about how inevitable this was – would the infamously calculating bean counters at Electronic Arts have permitted the considerable spend on an overhaul of an underperforming game, when BioWare’s other properties are still in high demand?
There’s also a question of how necessary this all was; the bad-launch redemption tale of any given barebones live service game is one we’re used to by now. It’s almost expected at this stage that any game in this increasingly-lucrative (?) market will launch with barely any content, an overpriced expansion pass and/or microtransaction store, and a surprising number of players sitting around waiting for it to finally ‘get good’. Furthermore, does any given middling game really need to shoulder the weight of living expectation that it will fulfil its true potential if given enough time, money, and players hanging on?
Destiny is one of the prime examples. Considering live service games like Destiny as ‘full’ games with the content chopped up and delivered in a drip is a dated and probably ill-informed take, but you’d be hard-pressed to argue otherwise from Destiny’s first year of content alone. It was only with The Taken King that Destiny appeared to redeem itself. Of course, this isn’t an issue only with these games, being a criticism often levelled at early access games as well. Games are often purchased on senses of promise and potential, with the expectation of improvement and additional content. The difference is that with early access this expectation is explicit rather than implicit – it’s in the name, after all, you’re voluntarily an early adopter.
When you bought a game like, for instance, Sea of Thieves, you purchased a full-priced game and (in the best-case) understood from context that the live service(ish) nature of the game means that more will come later, or that you’re buying a ‘platform’ for future content. That game originally capitalised on its promises of pirate-y co-op and intense streamability, but suffered from an initial lack of worthwhile activities, drip-feeding them over time. While not strictly a ‘live service’ game (all additions have been free of charge) No Man’s Sky is maybe the most famous game redemption tale of this console generation, with huge, regular additions transforming its reputation. Originally launched with big promises of an entirely procedural universe and enormous expectations, it has slowly come closer to the game people wanted it to be over the course of years.
But, well, does every game with an unsatisfactory start need to be this way? While it’s certainly nice for fans of the game and great for companies’ long-term PR, should it be something we come to expect? Since the mid-late 2000s and the rise of distribution platforms like Steam and thorough online integration on consoles, buggy games are expected to be patched over time and, arguably, publishers and developers are aware that they can get away with a certain level of jank on release. Perhaps the most iconic boundary-pusher in this exciting field is Bethesda, and in 2018 they, too, launched their own half-baked take on the live service ‘genre’ with Fallout 76.
When attached to an optional subscription model, an instantaneous live service ‘roadmap’ and a microtransaction store, the poor state of Fallout 76’s barren world didn’t lead it to massive success, though the game still ‘lives’. Despite being forewarned by Bethesda’s form for poor launches, this one seemed to sting even more than usual – entering the live service space like this carried with it the distinct scent of opportunism, using that implicit understanding that the game will finally become good over time for advantage. In many ways 76 blurred the line between live service and early access in ways that felt brazen even for 2018.
I’m not arguing that BioWare expected the reception to Anthem, but it finds another similarity to Destiny here. Except it’s been six years since the hype and possibility of Bungie’s looter-shooter ran into the brick wall of 2014-era reality. I’ve heard this song before, after almost a whole generation of games like this.
Both consumers and critics were equipped with a reasonable set of expectations for what a looter-shooter service game would look like in the year 2019. In the early days of shiny, big-name service games (and early access or NMS-type procedural games) I was guilty of letting fantasy overtake our understanding of what a game offers. It’s easy to construct an idealised version of a game like this in our head – of the scope or detail of their worlds, or the breadth and depth of their systems. Even the games that were eventually ‘redeemed’ in one way or another still traded on this sense of latent potential.
Does the consistency with which these stories of games saved from the doldrums of mediocrity have appeared over the last generation indicate a new way in which games are delivered? I really don’t think so. At least, not one that’s reliable, or will endure the test of time. The idea of spending enormous quantities of money (like Destiny’s $140m) on these games and then selling the promise of further content has, I think, lost its luster. We don’t know how much money Anthem cost, or how much it made – EA doesn’t release these as a matter of routine. Probably a lot, and not enough.
Launching off the bat with a limited amount of stuff and a cash store (but without an expansion pass), I think that Anthem was a few years too late for its own good. Not just because, by the time it arrived, there were so many entries in the crowded looter-shooter genre. It was also because the from-the-ashes storyline of dedicated fans and loyal developers that would have justified the Anthem Next revamp has been seen so many times. It’s now, understandably, regarded with mild suspicion, perhaps through better understanding of the conditions that create these games. It’s unlikely that games are released half-baked at the discretion of the developers, so when a big-name game with a big publisher attached releases like this eyebrows are justifiably raised, the fog of corporate-driven fiddling hanging in the air.
With games in early access, it’s understandable to be sold a dream, often from an independent developer. I don’t fancy treating major live service games with the same attitude, and marvelling on cue when a full-priced product finally becomes good after a year, or two, or three. Games like No Man’s Sky should be the inspirational exception, not a trailblazer for a paradigm of content delivery. Despite this, I’m not going to regard the disappearance of Anthem Next with glee, and I’m not intending to become part of a shadenfreude pile-on regarding BioWare’s fall from grace.
I hope it is at least reflective of a reduction in games by big studios and publishers being sold on potential and smoke. It’s unlikely it’s being done on purpose (at least on the developers’ part), but the idea of releasing a game that is known to be in a rough state with a plan to ‘rescue’ it later is simply untenable. I also think that, by and large, it’s sort of fine for a game to be mediocre, and remain so. Some games are not destined to live an eternal life as a live service. I don’t feel like players should hold on and keep playing a game long after they’ve extracted the last drop of joy on the basis that it could, one day, actually be worthy of their ‘investment’.
However, it’s not a totally dead trend yet. With that same heady combination of massive expectation, a big marketing push, and a bad launch, Cyberpunk 2077 is a prime candidate for the next big tale of gaming redemption, with fans already gearing up for when it finally ‘becomes good’. While obviously paying customers deserve to see their product improved, is the increasing tolerance (or expectation) for rough starts and slow roads to success healthy, both within the live service space and without?
If you’d like to read more of my bad opinions on games, take a look at my games of the generation article, to better understand my taste (or lack thereof). You could also take a look at my article on Guilty Gear Strive, a game I hope doesn’t launch in a bad state (but might). Going back to the past, there’s also Nevi’s article on Dawn of War, a game that’s a space marine-filled rush of instant nostalgia for a misspent childhood.