BioWare’s Anthem is an ever-changing sci-fi world built for storytelling

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Toward the end of October 2012, Hurricane Sandy was just beginning its life as a tropical storm, one that would grow into something much more devastating as time went on. From its early days in the Caribbean Sea, it moved across the globe, steadily gaining strength. By the time it reached Kingston, Jamaica, it was classified as a hurricane, and it ravaged Haiti, Cuba, and the Dominican Republic before finally reaching the United States, where the storm impacted 24 different states. It was felt particularly hard in New York and New Jersey, with flooded streets and subway tunnels.

At the same time in Edmonton, about 2,000 miles northwest of New York City, the developers at BioWare were figuring out what their next big project would be. The studio was primarily known for its epic single-player role-playing games, like Mass Effect and Dragon Age, but the team wanted to go in a slightly different direction for its new game, which at the time was codenamed “Dylan.” The idea was to create a persistent online world, one where players could share experiences together. They developed an ethos they described as “massively shared, but not massively multiplayer.”


Casey Hudson, a longtime employee who now serves as BioWare’s general manager, was part of this brainstorming process for “Dylan.” During that period he also found himself fascinated with the destructive path of Hurricane Sandy. He remembers getting text alerts on his phone, and following the storm’s movements online. One morning when he went to the office, he immediately turned on CNN, transfixed by a live stream of the storm reaching New York. A drip-feed of news and reports had built up this dramatic moment, and it gave Hudson an idea. “I was thinking, that’s what I wanted people to be able to talk about in the game,” he recalls.


“Dylan” would go on to become Anthem, which launches next month. And for a studio previously focused primarily on linear storytelling, it represents a big change. On the surface, it looks much like other online sci-fi shooters, like Destiny or Warframe, where you don futuristic suits, battle alien swarms with friends, and unlock cool new weapons and armor as you go. But BioWare is also trying to layer its renowned worldbuilding and narrative on top of that frame — think interesting characters you’ll grow attached to, and a complex mythology full of secrets to uncover — while making it work in a persistent, shared world. In order to do that, the studio had build a brand-new world designed from the ground up to support dynamic storytelling.

The idea of telling a story in a huge, shared world isn’t exactly new. But there are certain problems inherent in the concept. It can be slow, for one thing; in a massively online multiplayer game, players usually have to wait for major updates or expansions to add new story elements, which makes it hard for developers to respond to what fans are doing in a timely manner. Other times, the idea of a narrative can seem to run counter to the game itself. Fortnite has made headlines for its momentous in-game events, like the rocket launch or rolling cube, but these moments can also be a source of frustration for many players since they take place within a winner-takes-all battle royale game. It’s hard to enjoy a one-time-only event when someone kills you right before it happens. In Destiny, meanwhile, the most interesting bits of lore aren’t even featured in the game itself, so most people aren’t aware they exist.

To get around this ongoing problem, BioWare decided to build a new world from scratch, one that was designed explicitly to be capable of rapid change and shift based on what the designers — and players — want. Anthem takes place on a hostile alien planet, one that was created by a group of gods who were forced to abandon the process part way through. The result is a volatile world, where it’s hard to predict just what’s going to happen; treacherous storms can appear from seemingly nowhere, or hordes of monsters may start spawning to go along with shifting weather patterns. “It’s this world that was left unfinished by the gods, and all of these relics litter the landscape, and they’re ruins that cause chaotic energy that reshapes the world,” explains lead producer Mike Gamble. “That underpinning props up all of the different kinds of things we’re trying to do.”

This premise is at the core of what Anthem is. Against this backdrop, humanity lives in walled enclaves, and freelancers (the role players will take on) go out into the harsh wilderness to take on missions and solve mysteries. There is a more straightforward story in place; in fact, the game is actually split into two halves, one of which plays out much like a classic BioWare game. The main mode is the third-person action you’ll play with friends, but there’s also a first-person, largely single-player experience where you head back to town after missions and can talk to people and form relationships with computer-controlled characters. It’s simpler than a classic BioWare adventure — instead of branching dialogue trees, you’ll only be able to make binary choices in conversation — but it should scratch that itch for longtime fans.

Anthem will still have larger story expansions down the road, but what makes the game so different from the studio’s past work is the moments that will happen in between those major story beats. Mark Darrah started working on Anthem last year, after years of working as executive producer on the Dragon Age series, and he says that those large gaps between updates that happen in the traditional expansion / downloadable content model have always been a problem for BioWare.


Anthem

“What ends up happening is that, because it takes so much effort to deliver content, that content naturally gets larger, because why would you spend all of this time on something tiny?” he explains. “It kind of takes on a life of its own. I think there’s a power and an opportunity for us to have these very small moments of worldbuilding and storytelling, which can happen much more frequently. It changes the nature of the relationship with the people who are playing. With traditional DLC, it’s like you’re releasing another tiny game. This is more like a conversation.”

Unfortunately, we don’t have any specific examples for the kinds of story events that players can expect. BioWare designers have mentioned weather as an important factor; storms that start out small, but slowly grow into something huge and dangerous, and create important events that are connected to Anthem’s lore. The wildlife, likewise, can be adjusted in real time to better reflect what’s happening in the game. Creatures may disappear for a mysterious reason, or become more prominent due to some mystical event. These events can then tie directly into larger story beats, using the world itself to pull you in.

One of the reasons this wasn’t possible in past BioWare games was because of how they were built — a game like Mass Effect simply wasn’t designed to be rapidly updated in order to respond to players. So in addition to designing a fictional world where it made sense that things were constantly changing, the team also had to create the backend tools to make that possible.

“Previously when we would do DLC, we’d ship the main game, and the main game has a certain number of sockets that you can plug DLC into,” says Hudson. “But it was really hard. Each would be its own one-off thing; it wasn’t something you could easily do. You’re also inserting it at the end or the middle of a story, versus having a live world that you can change right now. For example, instead of having to patch something so that it has a snow texture [in Anthem], it’s more like we have it on a dial so that we can make it snow a little bit more.” That kind of tool makes it possible to have the gradually changing weather and other dynamically shifting elements that Hudson first imagined in 2012. “You don’t have to go in and touch every pixel,” he explains. “The dynamic nature is built right into the game.”


Anthem

Anthem is a game that’s been in the works for close to six years, and a number of changes have happened over that time. (Hudson even briefly left the studio in 2014 before returning three years later after a stint at Microsoft Studios.) While it was a novel concept in 2012, the idea of a shared, dynamic world isn’t so unique today. Most large-scale games have some sort of connected element, and along with the runaway success of Fortnite, developer Epic has also popularized the kind of dynamic, shared environmental storytelling that’s so core to Anthem. (Just this weekend the battle royale game featured an intense, dramatic snowstorm that altered the entire island.)

Hudson says that the studio isn’t phased by other games entering the space. “It’s great because it confirms a lot of the things we thought would be awesome about really big events in a dynamic game,” he explains. Gamble adds, “We don’t think anyone has focused on character and story the way we have in Anthem. I don’t think anyone has actually nailed that.” It’s a problem that other studios have long struggled with, and it won’t be clear whether Anthem has actually solved it until the game has been out for some time.

This industry-wide shift to online experiences has also created a lot of trepidation for fans of traditional single-player games. Series like Star Wars Battlefront, Titanfall, and Call of Duty have at various times eschewed a single-player campaign entirely, while Bethesda’s attempt to turn Fallout into a connected multiplayer world with Fallout 76 largely fell flat. BioWare is one of those long-running stewards of the solo RPG, and this has led to concern that the studio is moving away from what fans love, toward the more lucrative space of online games.

Hudson, though, sees it as a natural evolution. He views change as a core part of BioWare’s DNA. For instance, after years of making PC-exclusive D&D games, it was controversial when the studio made a console RPG based on Star Wars. But that turned into Knights of the Old Republic, one of the developer’s most iconic releases. Similarly, there was concern when Mass Effect introduced more action-oriented gameplay, and when the studio created a full-on MMO with The Old Republic. In its quest to tell new kinds of stories to new audiences, BioWare has always had to change, and — as someone who has been around for all of the aforementioned skepticism — Hudson believes Anthem is just the latest example.

“I feel like it’s the same,” he says of the concern around Anthem. “I think probably a few years from now, people will look back and Anthem will be just the latest example of ‘Hey, why don’t you do games like you’ve always done, like Anthem?’ Because in it people will find a lot of those things that are core to what they like about a BioWare game.”

Anthem is launching February 22nd on PS4, PC, and Xbox One.



By Andrew Webster

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