“Anthem” is an entirely new approach for BioWare. The games-as-a-service format will be a divergence for a studio better known for large chunks of narrative DLC. Games don’t often end anymore, especially when recurrent spending (that’s the fancy term for microtransactions and in-app purchases) is an important piece of how games become profitable in 2019.
The trickiest part of developing a games-as-a-service title that also has a narrative thread is figuring out how to keep players coming back when they’ve mined all the content. “Anthem” has been compared to Bungie’s “Destiny” on endless repeat since its E3 2017 reveal. That sentiment amplified after E3 2018, during which BioWare showed off some of “Anthem’s” endgame.
When you wrap up the main story, a protracted fight between the people of Fort Tarsis and the evil Dominion, there’s still more to do. Freeplay remains available, allowing players to explore the world on their own or with friends. It’s an opportunity to harvest crafting mats, fight powerful Titans, and take on world events.
Contracts (repeatable missions) evolve once you reach higher levels. “When you get into the later game, there is something called legendary contracts,” says executive producer Mark Darrah. “These are essentially the same gameplay concept, but the difficulty is ramped up.”
Unlike “Destiny,” which has you pick up patrol beacons while out in the world, Contracts and their Legendary forms are discreet missions. You’ll load one up, follow your cypher’s guidance (as well as the waypoints that direct you to the next major event in the chain) and then you’ll be booted out to Fort Tarsis, the Launch Bay social hub, or directly to the Forge (for customization and loadout tweaks) when done.
The meat of the endgame comes in the form of Strongholds. These are longer group activities for up to four players. They aren’t exactly comparable to “Destiny’s” raids, though.
“They are partway in between a raid and a strike,” Darrah explains. “They are not as long as a “Destiny” raid. “Destiny” raids ask quite a lot from you.”
Experienced “Destiny” raid groups that are used to running them together can knock out one of the current raids in about an hour to 90 minutes. Working with an inexperienced group can take significantly longer.
Darrah believes that “Anthem” differs from “Destiny’s” appointment-style gaming, which is a barrier for some players. He says there’s flexibility for players with time on their hands waiting for friends to come online. You can also matchmake into everything “Anthem” has to offer (including Strongholds), whereas “Destiny’s” raids still don’t allow that due to the intense level of communication required.
“If I have an hour to kill, there are lots of things I can do,” Darrah says. “I can walk around Fort Tarsis and talk to people, I can go into freeplay, I can matchmake into any of the activities. When my friends come on, we can build up that party until all four of us are on and then do the experience we wanted to. We’re still having a cohesive experience when everyone shows up.”
BioWare doesn’t want to fall into the trap that some games fall into in the endgame. While “Destiny” does have options for productive thumb-twiddling, many other games with raid-type experiences don’t. You’re instead stuck waiting for the entire party to be ready to set out.
“The experience is more in the way people actually live their lives,” Darrah says. “It’s available for those moments when you get everyone and everything clicks and everyone is able to play, but it’s also possible to experience the game and have fun around those moments, when things aren’t quite the way that you would ideally have them.”
What are “Anthem’s” Strongholds?
Two Strongholds available at a recent preview event were about 45 minutes long. Unlike “Destiny” raids, there are no puzzles. These two are closer to “Destiny’s” strikes. The focus is on setpiece combat culminating in a multi-phase boss fight.
One sends players into a Scar temple to take on an enormous boss, Scelos. Much of this Stronghold is interior, with tight corridors that lead to larger open rooms filled with scaffolding and sniper perches. Turrets complicate navigation and combat, but this is where level 30 Javelins shine, as special abilities tend to take them down quickly.
The final boss fight is a multi-phase encounter, requiring players to deal damage to the giant tank-like creature until it raises shields. Powerful Scar troops spawn in, requiring players to thin their numbers while trying to damage shield pylons to get another crack at Scelos.
The other Stronghold is similar to what EA showed at E3 2018. Players start flying through the wilderness on a mission to stop Scar troops from developing acid weapons. This quest includes silencing a shaper relic by collecting echoes and returning them to the control module and repairing a broken relic. The latter features a tense setpiece with a seemingly unending flood of bugs assaulting a point you and your team need to hold. The Tyrant Mine Stronghold culminates with a fight against a massive Swarm Tyrant, like the one featured in the E3 2018 video.
Part of what makes these longer missions more enjoyable is how “Anthem’s” gear contributes to a growing sense of power. There is palpable difference between the options and incentives players have throughout the game. At level 10 (where the Anthem demo places players), it’s prudent to equip the highest power gear. In fact, you might not have access to any items that confer additional benefits. At the level 30 cap, there’s a greater need for synergistic loadouts. This is a common feature in games like this, sure, but “Anthem” does a better job than most making players feel powerful from the start and continues to ramp that up through the endgame.
Despite a distinct and palpable progression, BioWare has been careful not to gate content based on gear power. This ensures that lower level players aren’t separated from their friends, even if they start playing “Anthem” much later.
Players can group up with anyone, regardless of pilot level or gear power. “Anthem” tries to find the sweet spot that gives all players in a party a satisfying experience.
“It will balance on an individual level,” Darrah explains. “If I’m level thirty in all masterwork gear and you’re level four and you have no masterwork gear, we’re both getting an experience that feels challenging to us, because we’re balancing within that experience. That’s not to say that the level 30 person isn’t going to have more choices, but the balance should feel correct.”
That means that the only thing barring players from partaking in endgame content with their friends is whether or not they’ve earned it through narrative progression. There are no hard and fast rules about your pilot level or individual suit power level. However, that may be gently introduced in post-launch content called Cataclysms.
“We unlock one stronghold during the main story,” Darrah says. “The other strongholds don’t unlock until you get to the endgame and finish the main story,” Darrah explains. “There is power gating in a way, in that you have to have unlocked it in order to play it. We’re not going to force you to be at a certain suit level, at least not yet. The Cataclysms will be more like that. Anyone can go into them, but your degree of success will be more driven by your strategy and gear. It’s a soft gate. You can experience the content. We don’t want to have content that people feel like they can’t see because they aren’t good enough.”
Cataclysms will function similarly to seasonal content found in games like “Fortnite,” with a global change to the map, or what DICE is doing with “Battlefield V’s” Tides of War. These will be time-limited, thematic content that gives BioWare the chance to change how the world looks, feels, and reacts to players. Cataclysm events will only last for a limited period of time and the core experience tied to them will also fit somewhere on the spectrum between a “Destiny” strike and a raid.
BioWare is following the rest of EA’s shift away from DLC and premium passes toward games-as-a-service. This is how the publisher has handled post-launch content for “Star Wars Battlefront II” and “Battlefield V,” both of which notably abandoned season passes and large, paid content drops that have traditionally split the community.
Darrah says that this fundamentally changes how BioWare is going to “Anthem” after its release. He intends for player feedback to steer how the studio builds out the game over the long-term.
“What I want to move us toward is more of a conversation with the people playing the game,” Darrah says. “Our DLC has always been story-driven in the past, which is great, but it’s always been really infrequent and really big, partially because it’s been really infrequent, so it had to be really big. What that means is that it’s not a conversation. It’s more, ‘Here’s a thing we hope you like it. Here’s a thing we hope you like it. Here’s a thing we hope you like it. Too bad if you don’t, we can’t do anything about it.’ When you can get more of that more often, then we’re able to react, evolve, and change. The people playing the game can influence what the game becomes over time. That’s going to be true, not just for Anthem, but for our games going forward in a way they haven’t been able to in the past.”