Anthem preview: BioWare’s jetpack shooter ready for take-off
The lead producer of Anthem reveals how he and the team built EA's big challenger to Destiny
If Ben Irving had his way, he and the team at BioWare would keep making Anthem forever.
The lead producer on EA’s forthcoming jetpack-based shooter speaks rapidly and enthusiastically about BioWare’s multi-year plans for the game, which will evolve both in story and structure as players dive into its world.
“Our preference is to just make Anthem forever as a live service and have it be really successful,” says the amiable Aussie at a hands-on preview event in London’s Shoreditch last week. “As a general live-service philosophy, we believe in having a 15-month rolling roadmap of what we're gonna do. We've created a multi-year story already – not all the details but the big beats so that we know directionally where we're going and how we want to pull players through that narrative.”
Anthem is set in a futuristic world formed by a mysterious race known as the Shapers, using an energy known as the Anthem of Creation. But the Shapers abandoned the planet before they were finished, leaving the Anthem force to produce some unstable and cataclysmic effects – creatures, weather, even alien structures. Into this maelstrom come freelance fighters wearing jetpack suits known as Javelins to tackle the chaos in squads of up to four players, based at a sanctuary known as Fort Tarsis.
If the set-up has more than a whiff of Destiny about it, the joyous airborne combat diminishes the comparisons, at least until your feet touch the ground.
Irving, though, is having none of it and bats away the similarities with references to Anthem’s extensive back-story, something BioWare is famous for in its Dragon Age and Mass Effect sagas. Anthem has less of that character-based interaction, though we have to concede the sparky chats we had with Zoe, a Northern Irish mechanic with a convincing accent, bodes well for the rest of the story.
“One of the things I love about this IP is there are these mysteries that I don't know if players will ever solve,” he insists. “Who really were the Shapers and why did they leave? How did their instruments of creation work? What is the Anthem? What’s its purpose?
“All we know is that its purpose is to create. It just wants to create. It's not good or evil. It just creates things. Sometimes that results in a cataclysm. Sometimes that could create a new creature out of nowhere. Sometimes it causes weather effects. Some of these things are beneficial to humanity and some are not.
“We don't answer all of those questions. That's part of the mystery. Much like on Earth, we don't know everything. We're very intentionally keeping some of these things as mysteries. Maybe one day we'll give answers to some of them. But for now we love the idea that it is a mystery that you don't know.”
The Sydneysider moved to Austin, Texas, almost 10 years ago to work Star Wars: The Old Republic, a massively multiplayer online RPG. In a soft Aussie burr unblunted by nine years in Texas, Irving admits Anthem pushes BioWare outside its comfort zone, from RPGs towards pure shooter territory.
“Anthem is being co-developed in Austin and Edmonton,” he explains. “It's probably 60pc Edmonton, 40pc Austin. The Austin people mainly worked on Star Wars: Old Republic, helped with Dragon Age Inquisition and worked on Mass Effect Andromeda. And then the Edmonton crew obviously is where Bioware was first started, so their history is more in Mass Effect and Dragon Age franchises.
“One of the really cool things about Anthem is we have leaders from all of those franchises coming together to make Anthem.
“But going into this, we knew the game we were making, there were some gaps and we had to hire some people. We hired people who ran gameplay for Halo, for example, and we brought that shooter expertise in. We needed creature stuff. We've got top talented people and we hired a lot of animators from a lot of top studios. We were aware of some of the things we weren't naturally as strong in, and we went out to make sure we hired that talent and integrated them into the BioWare culture so that we could really deliver on this game.”
The jetpack-powered flight is undoubtedly Anthem’s most distinctive feature, something that feels astonishingly good, evolving from a double-jump to full-on flying and hovering. Irving ruefully remembers how hard it was to get right, including the camera positioning.
“We changed control schemes five, six, seven times,” he says. “We put flight on all these different buttons and ultimately landed where we are. Same with the camera. Is it centred? Is it offset? How do we frame it when you tight aim? How much do you zoom in? How much of the screen can you see? How much peripheral vision do you give the player?
“All of those things were really, really long conversations but we have a super-talented team who for every decision made had a solid reason. We landed in a spot where we felt was right by that core vision of high mobility and super-heroic combat.”
On the thorny issue of microtransactions – something by which stablemate Star Wars Battlefront 2 came hideously unstuck – BioWare (and EA) seemed to have learned their lesson.
“Our monetisation philosophy is that it's only about cosmetics,” Irving notes. “It's about how you look. We will not be selling any power. We don't have any lootboxes. We believe that if you're gonna spend you should be able to know what you're spending and get that item. We do have a earned currency by playing the game and a real-money currency. Anything we have on the store is available for both.
“You don't have to buy any vanity or cosmetics at all. It doesn't make any difference to the game but we think a part of this fantasy is personalising your javelin to look really awesome. In many cases it represents your time investment in the character.
He admits, though, that this may not always be the case – and the pressure may come from an odd place: “We've had some players give feedback that they would like to have things you can only get with real money and we're like, OK, that's interesting. So we don't have that at launch but as something we'll keep an eye on. I guess if that's what people want we would consider it but certainly at launch we just want it to feel very player-first and say you can earn it or you can buy it, it's your decision and it's all cosmetics.”
One thing conspicuous by its absence is PvP battles. The world is filled with bizarre creatures – a little bit like Monster Hunter, my notes say – most hostile, some not. But other players are not the target and Irving explains it came down to balancing the weapons and abilities.
“In the short term, I don't see that changing. I think we've built the game to be a four-player experience. We believe in things like aspirational content, like new challenges beyond what you see today and beyond what you play. It's important to have that something that you might schedule with a group of friends on a Tuesday and Thursday night. Maybe it becomes a reason you play the game and every other activity you do is about getting ready for those things you do on a Tuesday or Thursday or whatever.
"Right now we want that to be four-player content. But PvP, we're very open to. The reason we don't have it at launch is we talked about it and we said, hey, one of the most important things to us is this unbounded power. We don't want to limit ourselves on the abilities that we create or how powerful you can get. We didn't think we could do that and also do PvP and do them both well. Because by doing PvP you'd have to balance that.
“So what we've kind of been pretty open about saying is, hey, we're just gonna see how the game plays, see how players play the game and if it makes sense to add PvP into that ecosystem, that environment, then we're totally open to it. If it doesn't make sense to do it, then we won't do it.
“I think, though, PvP would be some time away. Adding more content to the game is kind of a no-brainer. The specifics of it will depend on how people play. A whole new mode like PvP would be a pretty big undertaking so even if we decide to do it, it would probably take us a little bit of time to get there.”
He comes back to the idea that Anthem has something different to offer other shooters out there. “The idea that it's a four player co-op, always online, live-service game. So my hope is that it stands up in that market and that people will want to come and play the game. The only thing I can really add to that is if people are unsure about the game, we're doing a free demo where everyone can play.”
• Anthem is released for PS4, Xbox One and PC on February 22. The free demo is available this weekend until Sunday.