Retraction, April 3, 9:51 a.m.: GamesBeat has since learned that EA leadership knew that BioWare GM Casey Hudson was going to the Dragon Age 4 blog and announcement. GamesBeat retracts this part of our story. We apologize for the error.
Two hours into The Game Awards 2018, organizer Geoff Keighley threw to yet another one of his famous “world premieres.” Over the next 60 seconds, fans watched a vague teaser for the next entry in the Dragon Age series. The bulk of the clip focuses on a 3D render of an object called the “red lyrium idol.” And it ends with the idol fading into a mural as the character Solas repeats a line from the Trespasser expansion for Dragon Age: Inquisition. If you watch the trailer for yourself, you may notice that it seems thin and rushed. And that’s because it was, according to sources familiar with publisher Electronic Arts and developer BioWare that have talked to GamesBeat anonymously. The video is the result of EA scrambling to fulfill a promise that BioWare made. The studio made that promise even though EA brass was not aware that the Mass Effect and Anthem developer was going to do so. And yet, in a blog post on November 29, BioWare director Casey Hudson heavily implied that Dragon Age 4 would show up at The Game Awards:
“Dragon Age is an incredibly important franchise in our studio, and we’re excited to continue its legacy. Look for more on this in the coming month (though I won’t tell you where to look…)” When BioWare posted that tease, it left EA no choice but to play along. Dragon Age fans were now expecting … something.
Updated 11:50 a.m. Pacific on April 2 with a source that claims to refute the details of the Dragon Age 4 reveal.
Hudson’s move was possible in part because of EA’s current relationship with BioWare and its fans. EA brought Hudson back in 2017 (after he left in 2014) to give fans confidence in future BioWare releases after the disappointing Mass Effect: Andromeda. Shortly after The Game Awards, EA chief executive Andrew Wilson flew up to Edmonton to do an in-person checkup on BioWare. And Wilson has a lot of good reasons for skepticism regarding the progress of Dragon Age 4. BioWare is beginning to repeat its mistakes. A lot of that is due to EA, but it seems likely that BioWare’s culture is also a culprit. Since publishing the story, I’ve spoken to an alternative source familiar with EA that denies its details. According to this source, key people were aware of Hudson’s plans. And Wilson’s trip to Edmonton was not a response to the Dragon Age trailer. EA is a big company, and it’s possible that some people were in the loop. But Dragon Age 4’s tease on the BioWare blog was not typical and caught many within the company off-guard.
Different game, same story
Mass Effect: Andromeda launched in 2017 after nearly five years of development. But BioWare finished most of the work on that sci-fi RPG in the 18 months leading up to its release.
Anthem debuted in February after nearly five years of development. But BioWare finished most of the work in the 18 months leading up to its release. A story on Kotaku today echoes and corroborates many of these details.
But while Andromeda and Anthem had similar development cycles, the latter indicates a potentially larger problem for Electronic Arts: BioWare Edmonton is no longer a sure thing.
Prior to Anthem, Edmonton was never primarily responsible for one of the online BioWare games. BioWare Austin oversaw the launch of Star Wars: The Old Republic, and Montreal was in charge of Andromeda.
Now that Anthem is having the same issues, the concern is that the problem with BioWare games is endemic to its leadership.
Anthem’s extended preproduction
Another aspect of Anthem’s development that echoes Andromeda is its lengthy preproduction, according to our sources and also echoed in the Kotaku story. BioWare also posted a blog today that responds to and confirms much of this reporting.
While BioWare Montreal struggled to get certain tools up-and-running during the early years of Andromeda, Anthem director Jon Warner and creative director Preston Watamaniuk waffled on a decisive direction for their game.
At the same time, Warner and Watamaniuk were not great about implementing external feedback. And the result is that BioWare spent years trying to figure out what Anthem (at that point called Dylan and then later Beyond) was going to turn into.
Hudson left during this preproduction period. But he thought he had left a strong vision in the hands of those who remained. By December 2016, BioWare presented its “Christmas demo” to Patrick Soderlund, who was the executive vice president of EA’s worldwide studios.
At that point, Anthem’s action was a lot more like Mass Effect: Andromeda’s (which was the strongest part of that game). But that did not impress Soderlund. To win him over, BioWare came up with a flying mechanic. Soderlund loved that.
But now BioWare had to rebuild its entire game around flying. When EA first showed off Anthem to the public at the Electronic Entertainment Expo trade show in June 2017, the flying was the only thing that was real. BioWare mocked up everything else.
Hudson returned to BioWare a month after Anthem’s E3 reveal. And he found a number of messes that stood in the way of a successful launch for Anthem.
While the game was technically out of preproduction, the scars of that process were still lingering. The team at Edmonton was trying to juggle Hudson’s original vision while also living up to the pitch that Soderlund actually greenlit.
Meanwhile, BioWare Edmonton strained its relationship with BioWare Austin. Edmonton had this golden-child swagger. Its last game was Dragon Age: Inquisition, which won multiple Game of the Year awards. It also released the Mass Effect games and Knights of the Old Republic. And Edmonton didn’t let Austin forget it.
And then you have the tools.
Even if Anthem’s directors were more decisive through preproduction, the Frostbite Engine probably still would have put them behind schedule.
Frostbite is the engine that DICE developed for its Battlefield series of military shooters. It is excellent for those games. But throughout this last decade, EA has shifted all of its development to this collection of tools. And that’s a problem because Frostbite isn’t great at everything.
One particular weakness is animation. This led to ridiculous memes of ugly characters in Mass Effect: Andromeda. In Anthem, however, players get static galleries where nonplayer characters stand relatively motionless while they wait for you to approach them.
And when it comes to actually creating content, those kinds of tools make every job significantly more difficult. Creating a cutscene can take so long that even DICE sometimes ships games, like Battlefield V, with less content than it originally intended.
The easy answer
You ever watch the credits on a movie and wonder how so many people can work together to create one final, cohesive work? Games are like that, but way more complicated. It’s like if movies had a person building a camera while someone else was using that camera to film a scene.
That’s a way of saying that games are so complex that you’ll never be able to point at the one bad guy who ruined a project. Anthem, which is an OK game with a lot of rough edges, had multiple points of failure.
The directors couldn’t settle on a direction. When they did, they picked something that frankly sounds kind of boring. To get the thumbs-up from Soderlund to move into actual production, however, BioWare changed the game drastically. This was so late in development that it invalidated a lot of work.
And with under two years to get the game out the door, Frostbite made things significantly more time-consuming.
Then a half-year before release, the game went through a battery of mock reviews. Those consultants provided a list of problems with Anthem … and BioWare Edmonton addressed almost none of them. The studio was definitely running out of time, but that also goes back to the Anthem team not taking feedback.
BioWare and EA don’t have plans to abandon Anthem. It’s the publisher’s biggest launch in a while, and it’s potentially an important part of EA’s Origin Access Premier subscription service.
But what this does change is the dynamic between BioWare studios. Now, Edmonton is going through a clunky launch. And it’s BioWare Austin that has the experience of building up a game into something beloved over time. It did that with The Old Republic, and now it could lead the effort here.
And while Edmonton may shift focus to a Dragon Age game that may take years to come out, Austin could get the credit if it’s able to turn Anthem around.
Updated April 2 at 11:50 a.m. with a source that refutes the details of the Dragon Age 4 reveal.