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‘Anthem’ maker discusses beta takeaways, update schedule and response to ‘Apex Legends’

(Courtesy BioWare)

On February 22, BioWare will release “Anthem,” a shared-world shooter that is a new IP for the company. In the game, people dash around the air in metallic space suits and go on adventures to upgrade their gear.

Mike Gamble, the lead producer on “Anthem” spoke by phone with The Washington Post about the impending release, what it means for BioWare as a studio, their takeaways from the beta, how often they plan to update the world, and how the surprise release, and stunning success, of “Apex Legends” was felt by the “Anthem” team.

Editor’s note: The following has been edited for length and clarity.

Q: BioWare has traditionally been known as a studio that creates single-player RPGs like “Knights of the Old Republic” and “Dragon Age." Can you describe the process that led the studios to embark on the creation of a multiplayer shooter?

Mike Gamble: Let’s look at the shooter part first. We’ve been making arguably better and better shooters, I think, over the life of Mass Effect. So if you look at Mass Effect one, it was kind of fairly rudimentary in terms of the shooting mechanics. It got a lot better on two, improved more on three, got even better on “Andromeda.” So we’ve been kind of building this pedigree of great third-person shooting mechanics for a while now. The multiplayer component versus the single-player component was probably the larger step. Obviously, we had done multiplayer for Mass Effect and Dragon Age previously, so we weren’t strangers to the space, but the original design question for “Anthem” — which was also called “Dylan” back at the time — was how do we tell a story cooperatively, how do we tell a story in a shared world where everyone is kind of experiencing the same thing, but how do you give players some agency and the ability to have their own choices kind of represented in what that world is? So taking games like the “Knights of the Old Republic” and “Mass Effect” and “Dragon Age” kind of as our genesis of it — and understanding, well, to tell a story in a multiplayer way, we have to structure the game like this, like this, like this — all those ideas kind of came together and gave us “Anthem” the way that we see today.

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Q: But why multiplayer? Was there a certain internal drive at the studio to make the next game a multiplayer experience? Were there reasons that you were looking for engaging fans over longer periods of time?

Mike Gamble: It was more back to what I said, how what the challenge for us was, okay, so we know how to tell a story to one person who’s kind of disconnected. We challenged ourselves to be able to tell a story to multiple people in a shared-world environment, because that’s something that really intrigued us. It’s like, well, what if the world that you live in is shared? What if the world that you exist in, just like our real world, has social interaction and connectivity between people? It was less about building a multiplayer game and more about, well, we want to make this true to life. We want to stop the situations in “Anthem” where people are afraid to talk about what they’re playing or people don’t want to spoil things because, you know, it’s their personal experiences or personal journey. What if we have a game, which is a lot more social that people can share in the storytelling together? That was kind of a core of what we wanted to do. It was less about, as I said before, “yeah, we want to decide to make something multiplayer versus single player.' It never came down to something as simple as that. It was more we want a shared world, we want to be able to tell common stories across multiple people at the same time.

Q: One of the things that you’ve mentioned was that the game was code named “Dylan” — I read that was because Casey Hudson, executive producer in the first three “Mass Effect” titles, wanted to become a cultural reference point. How did you view the Bob Dylan reference and what does turning a game into a cultural reference point look like?

Mike Gamble: So it kind of means exactly the right game that people are craving in a time when they’re craving it. So, back when we originally conceived the idea of the game, it was, you know, in a world where people are getting more social, and in a world where people are starting to play together more and more, how do you extend that into the type of game that you can still have a great narrative experience with? So that’s what we mean by exactly the right game.

Q: How do you hope to distinguish “Anthem” from other shared-world shooters?

Mike Gamble: Good question. the kind of the back-of-the-box of how it’s different is you get to enjoy a story that is rich. You get to enjoy a world built from the ground up for you, and you get to make decisions and you get to make choices and you get to have that reflected in your personal story. You get it reflected in your personal Fort Tarsis.

On the flip side of it, we have a world, an open-world, which we control at all times, whether it’s things as simple as weather states or as complicated as cataclysms which are giant endgame storms. We have control over that world state. And so those fundamentally, we think they’re game changers because it allows us to do things in terms of story and gameplay evolution that no one else can do. . . . We teased a little bit of it at the end of the second demo where we started to do a precursor to the catechism in the sky and what that triggered was certain creatures now started to come up more. That allows us to do different things with progression and loot, and the types of things that you can fight out in the world, and the types of rewards that can be given.

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We can change all of that stuff at a moment’s notice, but we can also introduce new creatures. We can also introduce new narratives. We can start to, you know, do long term arc-over-arc storytelling. And we can start to do that by building that into the world: adding new areas, adding new places to discover, adding new regions, all that kind of stuff. We have the ability to do that in a shared-world service. So really “Anthem” was built on that. . . . It’s a very powerful system under the hood and the possibilities are pretty deep.

And then of course, finally, the moment-to-moment gameplay we think in “Anthem” is very different than what you’ve come to expect in other third-person and first-person shooters. Once you master flight and how flight works, and the quick moment-to-moment gameplay that you see that comes out of flight, you see that the gameplay is very, very different than anyone else. And so I think between those three things, that’s definitely how we’re going to make a difference in the genre, but also kind of against anyone else who might be out right now.

Q: How do you hope to balance out how people are able to appreciate and approach the story while still remaining in-group with their friends?

Mike Gamble: We found a lot when we’ve focus tested “Anthem” and when we’ve watched people play that there’s three kinds of players and “Anthem” has to work with three kinds of players. And, of course, I’m generalizing here.

There’s the players that want to group up and continue to push the progression model. For those we found that getting good narrative context is important to them. But, you know, sitting down with characters for hours on end isn’t necessarily what they want to do while they’re grouped up. They want to play. So in that world, narrative can serve them because we have the type of content that they like to do. Um, they can either rush the critical path, they can pay whatever attention to it they want. And they can get to the endgame and they can play the endgame for as long as they want.

The other group — and I feel this is the most common kind of group — they don’t grab onto one particular way of playing. So sometimes they’ll play with their friends, sometimes they’ll play with randoms, and sometimes the drop-in and drop-out kind of serves the needs of those players. This is why we had to make Fort Tarsis kind of a separate concept, because we wanted to make it so that they can play asynchronously from other people, which means then you have to put matchmaking in everything, which means that you have to be able to reinforce other players, which means that Fort Tarsis as a hub has to be separate than kind of the other gameplay experiences that they have.

Because those players may, and they often do when their friends are not playing, want to engage in the story. They want to talk to the characters. They want to kind of build a narrative, and they want to read the lore and so being able to play asynchronously from their friends in this way is really important.

So, let’s say you and I are playing and we’re running a couple of repeatable contracts and then you have to go and then I’m like, okay, well I’m going to take this time now to talk to all the people in Fort Tarsis, in my own personal Fort Tarsis, which is not linked to yours so I don’t have to do anything with you. There’s no connection. There’s no requirement that I do things while you’re online I can do [things] completely asynchronously. And so we give the player the opportunity to do that.

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And then the third type of player is the one who doesn’t want to play with anyone else. They want to get the benefits of the shared world, and the kind of the shared world storytelling that we have, but they don’t want to play with others. And that type of player we allow to play kind of completely solo — all the story content in the game — and they can kind of do it offline.

So the three types of players have a number of features and a number of different ways of playing that “Anthem” kind of works with them. Ultimately, if you have a group of friends and if you’re really into story, and if you have a group of friends who were yelling at you to stop listening to the story, well, you know, it’s a problem that “Anthem” the game can’t solve for you.

Q: Are there any specific aspects of the game that you’re especially proud of or are eager to build upon?

Mike Gamble: First of all, I love the characters in the game, I think they’re hilarious. I am proud of the kind of performance that we’ve done, the voice acting and everything. There’s a number of characters in the game that I definitely want to build on and tell more stories because there’s kind of a rich narrative that we’ve put in with them in and we want to continue that. I’m extremely happy with the way that the moment-to-moment gameplay has come out with the difference in Javelins, how different they feel from one another and how flying and the maneuverability mechanic works in the game. So those two things I think are kind of the highlights for really how this game differentiates itself, but also how we can continue to build on it in the future.

Q: What unique challenges did you face over “Anthem’s” development cycle and were there any productive surprises, something that came up that caused you to pivot, because it was useful overall?

Mike Gamble: Getting people to understand the world, but also having the ability to create a new world from scratch is both liberating and terrifying at the same time. When we first conceived of how “Anthem” worked, um, we didn’t know that you’d have the Xbox One X. We didn’t know that you’d have the PS4 Pro and all the great hardware that kind of came with it. So it allows us to do more things visually.

The world of “Anthem,” the stunningness of the open world is a direct result of us being able to harness Frostbite with this new technology. So that was good. We actually had a lot of great development from the “Mass Effect: Andromeda” team to set up certain practices in terms of how we do combat and things like that. A lot of the staff came over, those were changes, but they were happy changes because they brought a really good sense of gameplay moment -to-moment with them.

Q: What sort of feedback did you receive from the beta? Are there any changes that you’ve implemented since the beta concluded that you’d like to share with those who participated in it?

Mike Gamble: There’s a couple things obviously. A lot more stability and bug fixing. Like we said before and I think it does bear repeating that the build for the beta or the build for the demo was [from] awhile ago. Having said all that, many stability fixes, many changes regarding stability, less rubber banding, crashes and disconnects. I’m playing the final version of it and I haven’t had any so far in the 25 hours that I played.

In terms of features, we’ll kind of come out with a full list of it, but being able to run in Fort Tarsis is one of the ones that we’ve added in recently [along with] various things to do with the economy and changes in terms of how the economy works and tweaks that we’ve made. But you know, we’re always listening, right? Even before the demo, we saw people wanting us to put a social hub area in the game because Tarsis is primarily or exclusively single-player. So, you know, we reacted and we built the social hub in pretty quick time.

Q: Was it fairly easy for you guys to just scale up the servers when you encountered the initial problems with the private beta? Was it fairly easy to transform that situation to the greater stability that was later seen subsequently?

Mike Gamble: Yes. Yes. Once you find out what the issue is, you never have to solve that problem ever again. It’s like it wasn’t a matter of not having enough hardware or something operational like that. It was a technical bug and once you find that bug you never have to solve it again.

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Q: Post launch, how do you intend to keep the buzz going with the game?

Mike Gamble: Well, it’s about being consistent and transparent, right? So I think there’s two things that we’ve tried to do a lot in the lead up to launch. So the first thing is be open with the players, be open with the fans and really tell them what’s coming, what they can expect, what they can’t expect, all that stuff. When you have discourse with the people who are playing the game, it just really opens up a level of trust and we want to continue doing that. The second thing is, we have a full team dedicated to building this content. So, we want to make sure that we release it frequently and we want to make sure that we release it still with the amount of flexibility that we can pivot based on what the fans are asking for. You want to maintain people and you want to keep on serving them content. So our goal is to continuously do that as opposed to going away for four months and then coming back with some new stuff and repeating that cycle.

Q: What would you say from your end is an ideal release schedule for updates?

Mike Gamble: Yeah, that one’s a tough one because we are going to have to be a bit flexible on how frequently we do it. So, whether we release small amounts of content more frequently or batch it up into a less frequent kind of cadence, whatever it is. There’s two sections to it. The first thing is the actual new content, and new experiences, and new story stuff. And then there’s the quality- of-life improvements. Like, “Oh, this is really wearing on me.” So we should change this screen or we should make it so that you can do this from this screen. Those are two kind of separate streams. Both of them are making fixes and making content in parallel and we have to stagger that as much as possible.

Q: “Apex Legends” has amassed a lot of attention recently. Is it a concern for you that another shooter under the EA umbrella was released so close to Anthem’s launch? Moreover, are you worried that “Apex Legends” free-to-play model will siphon off players from “Anthem”?

Mike Gamble: Yeah. So first of all, we’re happy for “Apex Legends.” I think it’s a great game. The Respawn team is pretty solid. So, you know, nothing but positive vibes their way. The second thing is, I think there’s less overlap between the “Anthem” audiences and “Apex Legends” audiences than one might think. Just based primarily on the fact that “Apex Legends” being battle royale and player-vs.-player is primarily focused toward a certain type of player and “Anthem” being [fully] players-vs.-environment and a long-service-kind-of-style game it’s focused toward another group. Don’t get me wrong, there is an overlap between those two groups, but I, I also feel as though the fact that “Anthem” with its storytelling, and its character development, and its critical path, has kind of that rich experience that you would expect from a game from BioWare that you would pay $60 for. People don’t have to make a choice between paying $60 for “Apex Legends” and paying $60 for “Anthem.” We’re not too concerned about it at all. I think that there’s more than enough space in the shooting genre to have multiple games, multiple great games, kind of playing one off each other.

Q: One of the things that “Apex Legends” has also gotten a lot of attention for is that they had the surprise drop. Do you think hype is being perceived more now as a double-edge sword?

Mike Gamble: It can be. It doesn’t necessarily mean that it always is. I mean, very, very, very few games released the way that “Apex Legends” did. You can do that under certain circumstances. So for example, in a game that is free to play, that is entirely based on kind of viral moment to moment, ‘Hey, I’ll just give it a try and I download it. It’s pretty fun.’ Like, that really can work for a game like that, And plus it’s in an existing universe that people know. With a game like “Anthem,” we need to be able to tell players and inform players and, really kind of get them onto what type of game it is, what the universe is that we’re building, and is more of a long-tail thing.

Q: What does “Anthem” mean for BioWare?

Mike Gamble: “Anthem” is pretty important in the sense that it is BioWare doing something a little bit different than everyone has come to expect in the past. We are obviously making another “Dragon Age” game. We’ve mentioned that in the past. So, you know, the types of stories and experiences that people can expect from BioWare with “Anthem” are different than what they would come to expect with a game like “Dragon Age” and we hope that the fans can see — and I’m pretty confident they will — the DNA of BioWare running through “Anthem,” but kind of focused in an entirely different way. So there’s that. The other thing is technically it’s a complicated project. So we’ve learned a lot. We gained a lot of skill and competence within the company to do these types of games, which is incredibly valuable in this day and age. And, of course, it is the first new IP in, oh, I don’t know how long — numerous numbers are thrown around — but it’s the first new IP in a very long time for BioWare and for EA and so launching a new IP is an investment in the future and so we want to maintain that and we want to continue to make it so that people kind of look to “Anthem” as something unique and different.

Q: Is there anything that you would like to convey to the audience? Is there something that you would like to communicate to those looking forward to the game?

Mike Gamble: I have said this before, but it bears repeating: “Anthem” is something different. “Anthem” is something new for BioWare and it really melds the ability to tell story and kind of shared-world environment and um, you don’t really know what to expect out of some of the stuff with “Anthem” until you get your hands on it, or until you watch it, until you really see how it plays and the moment to moment. So we hope that people give it a try because once you get your hands on the controller, it tends to stick with you. So that’s, that’s the one thing that I want people to know.

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