Anthem gets a rare second chance | Opinion
Most games that fail at launch are quickly passed over -- but Bioware's Anthem is getting a rare and expensive second chance at successby Rob Fahey
It's an unfortunate reality that many games, even -- or perhaps especially -- some of the most highly anticipated games from some of the world's most famous developers, simply do not live up to their promise at launch.
Occasional disappointment is part and parcel of the experience of being a game consumer. Seeing a much-hyped game turn out to be little or nothing like its trailers and early demos is something we've been experiencing for decades. It's not hard to point to some major recent examples -- No Man's Sky is perhaps the most notorious -- but if anything, things have improved on this front, at least in terms of transparency. It's unlikely that we'll ever, however, reach a point where all games live up to the dreams of the players who have been waiting for them, or indeed of the developers who worked on them.
Up there in the dubious company of No Man's Sky in terms of delivering a pretty crushing disappointment to many players at launch is Bioware's Anthem. This game was supposed to be Bioware and EA's riposte to the likes of Destiny, but ended up achieving little other than darkening the pall over Bioware that had originally been cast by the critical bashing of its previous science-fiction title, Mass Effect: Andromeda.
The issues surrounding the game at launch have been litigated many times, and we even have some insight into the tortured development process that led to this unfortunately deformed and stunted version of the team's vision making it into the wild. The question hanging over Anthem in the year since then, however, has been what EA would actually do about it.
There's usually a very simple answer to that question: drop it and move on to the next thing. That's by far the most common strategy any developer or publisher pursues when their big, expensive game fails to make waves at launch, and especially so if it's a game designed to be an online, multiplayer, service-led kind of title. If the player numbers drop off rapidly and the economics no longer look rosy, in most cases the plug gets pulled fairly quickly.
That can look very harsh to an outsider, but the internal logic is solid. Not only is it a cast-iron case of not throwing good money after bad, it's also often the preferred option for the development team, for whom moving to a fresh new project is a lot more appealing than trying to shore up the crumbling edifice of their last game -- a game whose failure, in many cases, was foreshadowed by a lengthy period of crunch time that's already made many of the team sick to the back teeth of the whole thing.
It's genuinely surprising -- albeit in a very good way -- to discover that this isn't the fate that's been chosen for Anthem. Instead, having worked on incremental updates and patches for the game for the past year, the team is now going to spend a significant amount of time and effort on a root-and-branch overhaul, redesigning the game right down to its core loop. In essence, this means developing a whole new game on the bones of Anthem, building brand new systems, experiences and content, removing and refilling huge expanses of the game while working around the handful of aspects that actually clicked with players, such as the flying controls.
This is a huge undertaking, genuinely not dissimilar from developing a whole new game from scratch -- which, of course, is why most companies look at the failure of a game and decide to do precisely that, rather than lingering too long in the ashes of failure. Making the decision to rebuild a game and fix its problems to this extent is a rare thing; while the aforementioned No Man's Sky has been enormously updated and overhauled since launch, a much closer parallel to what Anthem's developers are now proposing is Final Fantasy XIV, whose disastrous launch was followed by a massive effort rebuild, resulting in its triumphant relaunch as Final Fantasy XIV: A Realm Reborn some time later.
The differences between the original and relaunched versions of FFXIV were night and day -- which was hugely impressive from a player's perspective, and vastly successful from both a commercial and critical standpoint, but should make anyone with the slightest insight into game budgets pause and wonder whether the relaunch might not cost just as much to create as the original game itself. Certainly, the figures were likely in the same ballpark; there were assets that could be re-used and so on, but equally there were major overheads introduced by the need to work within the confines of decisions and mistakes that had been made by an earlier team.
It's hard to say at this point if what the Anthem team do with the game will be quite as ambitious as Final Fantasy XIV's rebirth, although from a marketing and commercial perspective they will at least need to be able to make equivalent claims. Anthem's audience is all but gone; when the new version of the game rolls out, there will be a desperate need for that to be communicated as an effective relaunch of the game in its entirety, without which it's unlikely to attract back old disillusioned players, let alone having any hope of bringing in a new audience. This week's decision will have been made with an understanding of the size of the task involved, the risks inherent, and the difficulty of communicating this change to players, both current and lapsed.
One big question that hasn't been answered, though, is why. Why Anthem? EA has never been a company that lingered for long over its failures. If any firm in the industry seems like it would have the instinct to scrap Anthem entirely and move its team onto something new, it feels like it should be EA. The reasoning offered officially by anyone at Bioware or EA will by nature be unsatisfactory -- a lot of carefully scripted and very sincere-sounding words about how important the players are and how much they respect the fans and how attached to the world created for Anthem they've all become -- without a hint of an explanation for the cold commercial logic that must underwrite such a decision.
One strong candidate, though, lies in the question of branding. When Square Enix committed to doing Final Fantasy XIV again, and doing it right this time, its reasoning was all about the value of the Final Fantasy brand. Here was a game carrying the name of Square Enix' most valuable property -- a 'main-sequence' game, no less, not a spin-off of some kind -- and it was risking being shut down and abandoned within a year of launch.
The damage that would do to the Final Fantasy brand was incalculable; the stain of having a huge, embarrassing gap between XIII and XV (the latter of which was still in development hell at the time, lest we forget) would never be entirely gone from the series. The decision to redevelop FFXIV must have been a very tough one, but it was made easier by the fact that the alternative was so utterly unpalatable from the point of view of preserving the value of Square Enix' IP.
With Anthem, of course, there's no such concern about the franchise per se. This is a brand new IP and doesn't have any intrinsic value attached to it in the way that Final Fantasy does. EA would have liked it to become a major core gaming franchise, but its failure merely ended that dream rather than damaging an existing, valuable piece of IP. There is, however, a genuinely powerful and valuable brand in the firing line from Anthem's failure -- namely Bioware itself, whose studio and brand remains one of EA's most expensive acquisitions, but whose software output of late has left even its most devoted fans wondering if the magic is gone.
Admitting defeat and shutting down Anthem after a year on the market would be a major blow to Bioware's credibility as a core gaming studio. As Square Enix has shown, a hell of a lot can be forgiven and forgotten if a game's overhaul really works well, perhaps even to the point of rescuing Bioware from the serious reputational damage Anthem's launch state has caused.
All of this, of course, relies on the team now working on Anthem actually being able to build a great new game from the ash and bone of the existing product. It worked for Square Enix, but that doesn't mean it's a sure thing by any means. If it fails, this will truly have been good money thrown after bad. But this is an industry where the benefit of the doubt should always be applied where it can, and for the first time since Anthem's launch, there's a glimmer of light on the horizon for Bioware's beautiful but horrendously flawed creation.