Anthem spent over five years in development at one the industry’s most esteemed studios, with the financial backing of one of the industry’s most powerful publishers. Yet the final product was riddled with bugs, littered with puzzling design choices, and generally lacking in content.
It was not the AAA masterclass to get BioWare back on track following the disappointment of Mass Effect: Andromeda, and not the Destiny-killing big win that publisher EA needed to recover its dubious reputation amongst gaming fans. Something had to have been wrong with its development, many thought. Well, now we have our answer.
An in-depth report based on interviews with 19 employees at BioWare by Kotaku’s Jason Schreier has provided insight on Anthem’s troubled development. Based on his report, it was a total train wreck.
As you’d expect, such a spectacular failure is not owed to one single issue. The employees at BioWare speak of shaky leadership, a lack of focus in Anthem’s core design, and a myriad of technical problems.
Yet one major complaint stands out above the rest, one that should give people that have been paying attention to BioWare’s problems over the last few years a major case of deja vu.
If you’ve played any major EA-published game, you’ll likely have noticed that they all have a similar feel. That’s because EA mandates its Frostbite graphical engine is used by all its development studios. First developed for Battlefield by EA Dice, the engine is used for EA’s many sports games, and was first used in an action-RPG for BioWare’s Dragon Age: Inquisition.
Frostbite is intended as a foundation for all EA-published games, presumably with the intention of allowing developers to share assets, provide assistance to one another, and generally make development an easier process. There’s just one problem… none of that has worked in practice.
On the contrary, Frostbite appears to have been the bane of BioWare’s existence for years. Here are several excerpts from Schreier’s book Blood, Sweat, and Pixels:
“If an engine is like a car factory, then in 2012, as (Dragon Age) Inquisition entered development, the Frostbite engine was like a car factory without the proper assembly lines.”
“Even when Frostbite’s tools did start functioning, they were finicky and difficult to use.”
“Since creating new content in Frostbite was so difficult, trying to evaluate its quality became impossible.”
“Engine updates made this process even more challenging… “There’d be times when the build wouldn’t work for a month, or it was unstable as hell.””
As you can see, trying to build a third-person fantasy action-RPG in a game engine designed for shooters wasn’t easy. It slowed development and caused all manner of frustrations that strained employees, pushing them to the brink. It almost ruined Dragon Age Inquisition.
You can also see why I was having Deja vu reading this latest report on Anthem’s development. Particularly as it also references similar issues encountered by the team working on Mass Effect Andromeda years later. Remember those notoriously wonky facial animations?
The most perplexing part is that BioWare employees had appealed to higher-ups about these issues, and yet they’ve been repeatedly ignored. This same maddening cycle of having to carve a video game into a graphical engine that it just isn’t designed for has continued again with Anthem.
Frostbite simply wasn’t equipped for Anthem’s online functionality, and it once again proved a complete nightmare for programmers.
“Frostbite is like an in-house engine with all the problems that entails—it’s poorly documented, hacked together, and so on—with all the problems of an externally sourced engine,” said one former BioWare employee in Schreier’s report.
“Nobody you actually work with designed it, so you don’t know why this thing works the way it does, why this is named the way it is.” via Kotaku.
Something needs to change in a big way here. Whether its EA allowing developers to use their own in-house engines or whether Frostbite needs a total overhaul, I’m not sure. One thing is for certain, though: the use of Frostbite as an interchangeable engine to be used on multiple IPs across different genres is not working.
EA insisting on using an in-house engine to save on licensing fees to, say, Unreal, is understandable. I’m sure the sums involved are hefty. But when an engine is causing such misery for developers and so many problems for games, it’s perhaps time to accept that Frostbite just isn’t capable of it’s intended role. In fact, maybe it’s time to relax the policy and consider letting select studios license engines for games outside the shooter and sports genre, or whenever necessary?
I’m not even sure that having a ubiquitous graphical engine is working from a logistics standpoint, either, judging by how many employees were shifted between projects during Anthem’s development.
Having staff move from one game to another because they’re trained in one particular engine might look efficient on paper, but it sounds as though it was more of a damning blight for Anthem’s development than an overall boon for EA’s studios.
If you believed that publishing decisions were the sole cause of Anthem’s woes, you’ll have surely changed tune after reading Schreier’s report.
BioWare has plenty to answer for if the statements from employees are to be believed; the mismanagement of the project as a whole is arguably the root cause of why Anthem turned out the way it did.
Frostbite, however, has been a thorn in the developer’s side for too long. It has proven ineffective in every aspect except perhaps its potential for admittedly beautiful graphics.
With two high-profile catastrophes now tainting the reputation of EA’s premier studio, and the one before those almost imploding, too, it has to be time for Frostbite to either be retired or limited in its use to games it was originally designed to support like Battlefield.