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Five Years Ago, Anthem Was A Warning

In January 2019, I was optimistic when I flew out to BioWare’s headquarters in Austin, Texas. I’d been invited to test out Anthem, the studio’s take on the live-service looter-shooter, before it made its way into players’ hands. I was immediately smitten by the polish of the demo, zipping around levels like I was Iron Man in my Javelin suit and blasting bugs with elemental guns. At the time, I was convinced that Anthem would be a generation-defining title that countless future AAA games would have to emulate. Turns out, many of them did. Even if they shouldn’t have.

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At the time, BioWare’s pedigree as one of the best RPG crafters in the business—thanks to masterpieces like the Mass Effect trilogy, Knights of the Old Republic, and Dragon Age Origins—probably swayed my opinions a bit. Sure, 2017’s Mass Effect Andromeda wasn’t exactly beloved on release and had a troubled five-year development cycle, but I hoped BioWare had learned its lesson by that point.

But when the demo was released to the public a few weeks later, five-minute loading screens and buggy flying sent my hopes cratering down to earth. When you could get into the game, Anthem had players take control of Freelancers piloting one of four Javelins, taking part in missions that either involved killing bugs and aliens or setting up towers. That gameplay loop got boring quickly, and the loot you needed to farm barely made you feel stronger, making the grind that much more boring. Outside of flying, there wasn’t a compelling reason to play.

The game’s technical limitations and lackluster gameplay were the signs of a troubled, five-year-long development cycle that saw the creative team shift directions, lose dozens of employees, and overhaul the concept from the ground up multiple times. EA and BioWare released a few patches over the next year, adding seasonal content and fixing some game-breaking bugs and audio issues. But it wasn’t enough to get the game airborne.

Anthem Launch Trailer

BioWare’s General Manager Casey Hudson wrote in a February 2020 blog post that Anthem was going to get a “substantial reinvention.” But the hopes this announcement conjured were dashed in February 2021, when BioWare studio director Christian Dailey announced in another blog that development on Anthem was ending for good.

Five years later, Anthem’s been mostly forgotten, relegated to clearance bins and memes about the one-time hopes it might be a “Destiny killer.” The servers are still online, but since EA controls them, there’s no way to tell how many Freelancers are still hunting the Urgoth in the never-ending chaos of the Cataclysm.

Over the past decade, we’ve seen a massive rise in live-service games with huge AAA budgets that close after failing to find an audience. For every multi-million dollar contender like Fortnite or League of Legends, there are countless flops like Space Punks, Crossfire X, or Paragon. These titles require studios to grow their staff quickly, spend eye-watering sums of money, and hope that the trend will still be profitable and popular in two to three years. According to a recent industry survey, there are over 500 live service games currently either in development or being maintained.

Some studios are finally learning that live service is not always a guaranteed cash cow, and in retrospect Anthem feels like an early symptom of the carnage we’re seeing now. Bandai Namco recently took a big financial hit after its Genshin-like Blue Protocol failed to garner interest. Warner Bros. said that their recently released looter shooter Suicide Squad: Kill the Justice League “had fallen short of our expectations.” Last year, Sony announced it was delaying six of its 12 planned live-service titles, which included Naughty Dog’s Last of Us multiplayer game, which was later officially canceled at the tail end of 2023. On February 27, PlayStation laid off nearly 1,000 people, reportedly including a team at UK Studio Firesprite that was working on an unannounced Twisted Metal live-service project.

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