At first glance, it’s easy to write off BioWare’s ‘Anthem’ as EA’s answer to Activision’s ‘Destiny.’ To do so would ignore decades of BioWare’s dedication to storytelling and role-playing games. Even as players take to social media to lament ‘Anthem’s’ lack of romance options, studio general manager Casey Hudson is confident that fans will know for certain this is a BioWare game.
BioWare games are, ultimately, about giving players choice and freedom. World-building and character development are hallmarks of their craft.
“It’s a matter of agency,” Hudson tells Variety. “There are games that are a series of linear missions. You go out and you do those one after the other, and a story is told in an authored way. But you don’t get to look out into the whole world and say, ‘I want to go… there today.’ That kind of agency in what you want to do, where you go, choices that you make about characters… those kinds of things are what thematically what is super important to a BioWare game. On the next level, it’s about a world that is rich enough to go and discover lots of story. There’s world lore. In addition to that world is a strong story arc that you have agency in and memorable characters you can develop longer term arcs with.”
Hudson draws a fine distinction that directly addresses the concerns fans have shared. There is a difference between building relationships with non-player characters and love scenes with them.
“The relationships are an important part of it,” he explains. “When we talk about having no romances, there is a subtle nuance to that. Of course, in recent BioWare games, that translates to love scenes. That’s the main thing we’re saying isn’t there at least in terms of what we’re designing into the initial launch story, because it’s a science-fantasy action game. It’s that genre, which is why we don’t go that far. We’re just trying to be clear that piece isn’t there initially. What is there is nuance. There’s flirtatious quality to some of the relationships. Some of them can seem romantic. It’s just that exact things you might have expected from romances in previous BioWare games, it won’t work exactly that way.”
‘Anthem’ represents an evolution for BioWare, not just in development, but in studio management. Hudson, who left BioWare in August 2014 after serving as project director for the ‘Mass Effect’ trilogy, returned in July 2017. He took on a new role overseeing the entire studio after the departure of general manager Aaryn Flynn.
Hudson explains that both he and the studio needed to step away from ‘Mass Effect’ at the end of the trilogy. It was time to move onto something new for both, and that meant saying goodbye for a few years.
“I had been at BioWare for about 15 years,” Hudson recounts. “One of the reasons we defined ‘Mass Effect’ as a trilogy initially was that I anticipated both for us and for fans after you do three games—and games take a long time to make—we would probably need some kind of refresh. That allows you to say, ‘This is the end of the era, in both the game and our development of it, and we can refresh to something else.’ Sometimes you can get stuck sequeling without a reason to update the premise and what’s going on. We knew we would need that break point to re-invent. When we finished it, it had been a decade making the Mass Effect games. Looking forward, this is going to be the next ten years, launching this IP and working on it. If I was going to do something different, this was going to be the time. I felt like I was hitting a plateau. I wanted a rest and a change.”
Hudson spent time considering opening his own virtual reality or mixed reality studio. He ended up with Microsoft, which was working on its Hololens prototype. While there, he learned the skills that he believes prepared him to lead BioWare into its next phase.
“The cool thing is that what I learned there as part of a bigger company and disengaged from games for a while were the things that taught me how to be a general manager,” Hudson says. “Organizational things, personnel, creative leadership at scale. When there was an opportunity to come back as general manager, it was a really nice fit. I don’t think I would have known how to do this job had I evolved into it from where I was.”
Hudson believes that BioWare needed to evolve, also. That meant revisiting what the studio stands for and what it wants to be.
“Looking at where we were, in order to innovate and change and get aggressive about what a BioWare experience can be in terms of doing things that are going to delight players, we also had to know what the bedrock of what BioWare is,” he says. “We worked really hard to update our vision in a more focused way. We redefined our mission statement and values. That vision statement is the thing that allows us to continue to innovate. As long as we still come through on these things, we believe we’ll still be building a BioWare experience.”
Under his leadership, BioWare is taking a measured approach to hot-button issues in the gaming world. EA announced that “Anthem” won’t feature gambling-style loot boxes or pay-to-win measures. Instead, any cosmetics for sale will be “what you see is what you get.” Hudson says that BioWare needed to play a role in determining how “Anthem” would be monetized.
“We were very involved. With anything like that, we need to take a viewpoint on things like that as a studio,” he says. “What we did was put together a group to figure out how ‘Anthem’ works. When challenged with the world of games that are live, you have to figure out from scratch quarterly if there’s a new, best business model. Other forms of media don’t really have this. If you’re making music or a movie, the distribution and business model doesn’t change as rapidly. We put together a group to figure out how ‘Anthem’ is going to work in this way. We brought a number of principles into it. When you buy the game, you have to feel like all the content you get with the game is more substantial than the full price you paid. We don’t want you to feel forced or compelled to buy anything else to get your full value. We want to make sure you stay immersed in the game. One thing that drives me nuts in any game is when I’m immersed in the experience and monetization concepts pop up. We do so much work, especially in the HD space, to immerse you and make you feel like you’re moving through a busy market or exploring the world. Those things can really pull you out of the experience.”
Hudson also is thoughtful about one of the biggest challenges studios face when shipping a game: crunch. Long overtime hours that consume developers’ weekends can lead to mental strain and quality assurance issues. BioWare is trying to live its promise of staying focused to avoid putting that kind of pressure on developers, especially for extended periods.
“Any kind of world-class endeavor requires really hard work,” Hudson says. “I think it’s pretty clear that long hours beyond a certain point or over a long period of time doesn’t work. It isn’t efficient. We will have times of focus, when we’re trying to get a specific thing done. We really make it goal-oriented and individual in terms of signing up for an amount of work. We talk about how long it will take to get things done. We’ll push to get those things, but it’s really important to fold in where we’re at back into the schedule so we’re not using overtime and crunch to solve for planning problems. We’re just trying to get to good discipline around being able to put in our solid workday. As long as we’re doing that and working hard during the day, that’s got to be able to answer our schedule commitments.”
When he came back to BioWare, “Anthem” had matured from the sprawling set of possibilities Hudson left behind in 2014 into something more focused. The first time he saw it after his departure was when EA unveiled it to the world at E3 2017.
“It looked very much like I what I hoped it would have been,” Hudson tells Variety. “When you start a new IP, your initial ideas are very broad. It could turn into many things. That’s where I left off. Anthem was the things it is now, but it was also way too many other things, too. It was at the point there was a lot of great material to work with, but it’s like in math when you have a huge equation. You have to start folding and collapsing things together until you get something small and elegant. We hadn’t done that process yet. That’s where the team made choices about what the game is and how to fold those things in. I think they were very clever about how they did that. Over the last year, we’ve done some further focusing into the clear way to understand and explain the core premise of the world and what you get to do with it.”
“Anthem” represents a shift at BioWare’s toward more agile development. Unlike the studio’s previous work (with the exception of “Star Wars: The Old Republic”), BioWare will be rapidly responding to how players interact with the game, adding new content in smaller doses. This requires a level of focus, which Hudson believes lies at the heart of today’s BioWare.
“Before, we had a maximum difficulty level in game development, where we had many projects going, and many that were in production, which is the hardest part,” he explains. “Many were in different locations. We’re getting to focus now, and some people have exaggerated it and said that every single person is working on Anthem. We have a few projects going still. We have ‘Star Wars: The Old Republic,’ which is proving out our commitment to live service over a long time. You can imagine that when we launch ‘Anthem’ that we want it to run for many years. We also are working on future projects. There’s more recognition that we need to focus on getting our next big production right and having discipline around leveraging all of the things that we built for that into what we do next. In the way that we design our games, we’re designing them to receive content and updates in a way that our previous games didn’t. We used to make a game and then set it up to receive DLC. Each one was kind of a mini-production of a game. We have a spectrum of things that we can update Anthem with. We can put a hint here and then, in a few weeks, drop a bigger thing. Now we can set up a longer story arc.”
All of that combines to aid player acquisition and retention. Hudson is aware that while some players will stick with Anthem for an uninterrupted period of time, many others will drift to other games and, hopefully, come back for new content. In order for that to be a smooth process, BioWare needs to think ahead to reintegrating lapsed players. This includes level scaling, a narrative approach that keeps narrative spoilers away from the multiplayer combat segments, and not segmenting the community through paid add-on content.
“The world changes when you come back to it,” Hudson says. “That’s part of it. If you feel like that you’ve already been to that valley and consumed that content, we can say this weekend there’s a crazy snowstorm. That lake you used to dive into is now frozen over and you can get to a new cave. You’ve been to that place a bunch of times, but not in that situation. Now everything is different. That’s one thing. The other thing is putting everything into an ongoing narrative. It’s not just that there will be daily and weekly events. There are character arcs and world lore story arcs. There’s a long-term narrative about what’s going on in the world that changes over time. That’s another reason to come back and see what’s going on and which characters have returned. It’s sort of the HBO series of games. There’s the gameplay and the missions to do, but the context is always changing. There’s always a new narrative situation that evolves over time.”
Hudson wants Anthem to be a shareable experience. He hopes current players share their exploits in combat, talk about changes to the world, and loudly announce characters that weave in and out of the experience. A piece of that is making changes to the game that keep a core audience engaged and enthusiastic. To make that work, BioWare needs to ease players’ return after a long absence.
“In the HBO premise, they will choose at different times, like after a holiday hiatus, they’ll do a ‘last time on Game of Thrones’ thing. I think we’ll end up doing things like that to get you caught up on things going on,” Hudson explains. “Our hope is that people are talking about what’s going on. It’s highly shareable and dynamic and you want people to know what’s going on. Hopefully the shareable nature will keep players updated, even if they go away from the game for a while. They’ll be able to see on Twitter what’s going on or if a character returned.”
“Anthem” isn’t the game players might have expected from BioWare, but Hudson believes that it fits the studio’s core principles and will deliver an experience that still feels familiar. This latest endeavor represents the first page in a new chapter for BioWare that includes the latest innovations and a forward-looking philosophy without sacrificing the things that have endeared the studio to players.
“We can do lots of exciting things with technology and gameplay,” Hudson muses. “Maybe 15 or 20 years from now on devices we can’t imagine, you can play a game and say, ‘Wow. This feels like a BioWare game.’”