BioWare: "Anthem is not a departure, it's the continued evolution of our craft"
Game director Jon Warner discusses the terror and excitement of leading BioWare's new flagship IP
When it was revealed last year the BioWare was working on an online multiplayer shoot-and-loot title, speculation abound that this was the end of BioWare as we knew it.
As a studio known for its single-player, story-focused RPGs, the change in direction appeared to many a cynical ploy, fueled by a desire from parent company Electronic Arts to jump aboard the money train that Activision was currently driving away from the station at a frightening speed with Destiny.
But speaking with GamesIndustry.biz at Gamescom this year, Anthem director Jon Warner said it has all the hallmarks of a BioWare game, but with expanded scope. Not only is it developed by the core team behind the Mass Effect trilogy, but the team has gradually expanded over the years, assimilating members from Dragon Age: Inquisition, and Mass Effect Andromeda.
"It's a true amalgamation of all our experiences and all of our game teams," says Warner.
Of course, that does little to dispel the notion that the studio known for character-driven experiences shaped by the player has been forced to kowtow to the industry's gradual move over to games-as-a-service.
While undoubtedly a business decision, given that EA has been instrumental in remodelling the industry this way, Warner expressed his excitement at the new opportunities presented by the shift, suggesting it doesn't necessarily represent a departure away from the status quo for BioWare.
"If you look at BioWare games on a spectrum, from Baldur's Gate to Neverwinter, and Jade Empire to Knights of the Old Republic, to Mass Effect and Dragon Age, you'll see that the games have always been about evolving our technique and storytelling... so the way that we look at it, Anthem is not a departure, it's the continued evolution of our craft and our technique," he says.
"I think once players get their hands on it and dive in they are going to find a world that is well realised and full of rich characters that you're going to want to get to know, and you'll be the hero of your own story, and honestly that is the heart and soul of a BioWare experience."
Warner, who joined BioWare six years ago to work on the live services portion of Mass Effect 3, has experience with the games-as-a-service model, and shared his design philosophy on how to make it work for players.
"[There's] two big principals there: one is generosity towards our players," he explains. "We never ever want people to regret spending time with us, or spending money with us, and that's something that's really important to us as gamers and as creators.
"We never ever want people to regret spending time with us, or spending money with us, and that's something that's really important to us as gamers and as creators"
"The other one is providing experience that is engaging... being able to inhabit a BioWare-style experience over a longer period of time is something that is very interesting for us, so that sense of engagement and wonder, and trying to provide continued reasons to re-engage, is also a principal that guides us."
According to Warner, BioWare began early-stage production on Anthem almost immediately after the studio was done with Mass Effect 3, before the "current crop of social RPGs were announced or delivered".
"The core of our vision has remained steady and true," he says. "So for us inside who've been able to see that evolution all the way through, it's quite a different picture from the outside in.... it's always been true to itself and true to the vision we laid down when we set out to do it after Mass Effect 3."
Despite all of this, BioWare has been facing down fairly negative public perceptions since it was acquired by Electronic Arts, one that it has increasingly struggled to counter. The decision to fully embrace live services, coupled with the lacklustre critical and commercial performance of Mass Effect Andromeda, was only worsened by a series of high-profile departures from the studio over the past year.
BioWare general manager Aaryn Flynn left a month after the Anthem was revealed at E3 2017, while Mass Effect writer Drew Karpyshyn parted ways with the studio after having worked on Anthem for around two years; he was followed shortly afterwards by Dragon Age creative director Mike Laidlaw, who had been with the studio for 14 years. James Ohlen, who spent 22 years at BioWare as lead designer of the Baldur's Gate series, Neverwinter Nights, Knights of the Old Republic, Jade Empire, and Dragon Age: Origins, left the studio just last month.
"It's really interesting," Warner muses. "I think BioWare is kind of a peculiar place in that we haven't had a lot of departures for a period of time and there is always in the tech industry especially, and video games in particular, a certain mobility in the workforce as people go from project to project, and people have tended to settle on BioWare for long periods of time.
"We still have lots and lots of veterans that have been around for a long time, and honestly I think this is just BioWare being a little bit more like the rest of the industry as talent kind of flows... I think an important part of staying vital, staying relevant and being able to continue to tell interesting stories and create amazing experiences. I view it as natural and healthy."
"The act of creation and the act of creativity, is all about mistakes, and trying new things, and getting to failure quickly so that you can iterate and learn and grow"
While Warner has nearly 15 years industry experience, he has never directed a game of this scope before. That said, he served eight years in the military and, when asked why he thinks he got the job, said: "I think I just bought a different perspective, a different type of leadership to the table that they felt was what Anthem needed, and I feel lucky to serve in that capacity."
But with just six years at BioWare, only three of which have seen him leading as game director of Anthem, he says the experiences been terrifying and exciting in equal measures.
"One thing to put out there really clearly is that I'm the game director of the game, the leadership of the studio is really involved and always has been in guiding Anthem because it is so important to us as a new IP," he says.
"Of course Mark Darrah our executive producer... has a very storied history at BioWare with a lot of experience there, and Casey [Hudson] is now our general manager, so thank god it doesn't all fall on my shoulders, because I think that would be daunting; but at the same time I feel like I have added my own elements to the game, my own take, my own creativity, and the support of the studio has been really wonderful in that regard.
"It's a place where you don't get punished for making mistakes, because the act of creation and the act of creativity, is all about mistakes, and trying new things, and getting to failure quickly so that you can iterate and learn and grow. So it's been a wonderful experience for me, and terrifying at times, it's been exhilarating at other times, but it's been truly one of the best experiences of my career."
Another concern which lingers over the production of Anthem is the relatively quiet marketing push EA has offered so far. The E3 reveal last year was followed by silence from the studio, and speculation from consumers and press; although the degree of exposure has been turned up since E3 2018, with just six months to launch, the hype machine has yet to splutter into life.
"You'll see a big media and marketing presence in the coming months," assures Warner. "It was our desire as developers to hold this a little closer to our chests and play our hand a little more quietly while we developed the game and really let it mature and become what we wanted and needed it to become before sharing it with the rest of the world."