Kotaku’s Anthem exposé unmasks a studio in ‘crisis’ – and BioWare’s response is alarming

    
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Hooray, no shouting LFG for hours, that's enticing.

Kotaku has another lengthy expose up today, this one homing in on Anthem. Author Jason Schreier interviewed 19 Anthem (and Anthem-adjacent) developers to paint a picture of a studio in chaos – the word he uses is “crisis,” in fact. Under cover of anonymity, developers discuss how the game’s name was chosen from the runners-up list just days before the announcement, how two studios suffered a “tense” relationship, how production was a tangled mess of departures and reboots and a broken engine, how employees were forced to take “stress leave” or bail out of the company as crunch-induced “stress casualties,” and ultimately, how “BioWare’s magic ran out.”

Anthem is the game you get from a studio that is at war with itself,” one ex-employee put it. Indeed, it sounds as if SWTOR’s developers, moved from the MMO to Anthem, felt frustrated since they’d actually shipped a major online title – and were being ignored.

“We’d tell them, ‘This is not going to work. Look, these [story] things you’re doing, it’s gonna split up the player experience,” said an Austin developer. “We’d already been through all of it with The Old Republic. We knew what it was like when players felt like they were getting rushed through story missions, because other players were on their headsets going, ‘C’mon cmon, let’s go.’ So we knew all these things, and we’d bring it up repeatedly, and we were ignored.”

I don’t think most of this will surprise any of you who’ve been watching BioWare and Anthem with us for a long time. What made my eyebrows inch upward was the fact that Destiny – on which the game was obviously slowly becoming based – was considered “taboo” to mention, meaning the developers felt hamstrung, unable to truly study their closest rival and iterate upon it. Sound familiar?

Where this goes from yikes to double yikes is that while Kotaku had contacted BioWare and EA asking them to comment ahead of time, they declined, but then BioWare put up a blog post right after Kotaku’s piece went live, apparently having prepared it in advance without the benefit of having read it. The message acknowledges, without going into detail, the criticism being leveled at it, but ultimately it appears to be shaming Kotaku, suggesting the outlet is trying to attack individuals at the company and tear down their work.

“We chose not to comment or participate in this story because we felt there was an unfair focus on specific team members and leaders, who did their absolute best to bring this totally new idea to fans. We didn’t want to be part of something that was attempting to bring them down as individuals. We respect them all, and we built this game as a team,” the company says. “People in this industry put so much passion and energy into making something fun. We don’t see the value in tearing down one another, or one another’s work. We don’t believe articles that do that are making our industry and craft better.”

In its own followup, Kotaku called the response “particularly bizarre” and points out the only named individuals in the article are leadership staff cited by sources. We’ve since seen commentary across the gaming world, from MMO developers like former Trion boss Scott Hartsman, who said the article “nearly triggers a PTSD” reaction in him, and from Polygon, which opined that “the press is not [BioWare’s] enemy” and suggested the company look inward as – we’ll quote Ben Kuchera here:

“Kotaku’s piece — and reporting like it — absolutely helps to make gaming a better place. It’s the reliance on crunch and dysfunctional management on the part of companies like BioWare that hinder the longterm success of the big budget games industry. And, as BioWare has shown, this development strategy doesn’t always lead to good games. Which means everyone loses.”

Source: Kotaku, BioWare. Cheers, Rafael and Hank.
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Avin

I lost faith in the management team at BioWare long ago. A lot of good people work at that studio, in my experience none of them are in management.

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squid

Bioware’s message to staff after the release of the article and their response: “Don’t talk to the press.”

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rafael12104

One more thought that I can’t get my head around.

Most if not all corporate companies have gates or phases in the development. Without getting to technical, these phases at a high level are Concept, Planning, Deployment. Each phase gates the other to ensure tasks are completed and the work is managed efficiently.

And I guess Bioware and Ea don’t use this methodology? That is insane. Freaking insane!

Because it seems they were still working on Concept in 2017, and Planning was done on the fly. Deployment? It happened after the game launched!

And I’m sad about this. It’s not Anthem that bothers me. But Bioware… a great studio with a great brand has faded away before our very eyes.

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Eamil

I’m absolutely positive that EA as a corporation uses that type of project planning, but much as publishers deservedly get a lot of shit for being too rigid about that sort of thing, what we see here, based on this article, is a shining example of what happens when a publisher provides too LITTLE oversight and puts too much trust in a team that doesn’t (or once did but no longer does) deserve that trust. Kickstarter projects get stuck in development hell for very similar reasons – they’re frequently driven by the creatives with no one with management experience to give things focus.

You need good project management, you need team leaders capable of putting their foot down and saying “look, we’ve spent enough time talking about this, I’m making the call, we are doing it THIS way and we’re not going back and forth on it anymore.” The biggest names in gaming history are not immune to this, as Tim Schafer has thoroughly proven in recent years.

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rafael12104

Exactly. And I’ve been in the very situation that you describe. A Core Team, which has reps from all groups involved in a product launch including Devs, Marketing, Engineering, etc. was waffling around in Concept Phase on what to include and exclude as the product offering and missed the phase exit deadline.

The result was an emergency meeting with the VP of Product Development and she made all of the calls. All of them. She left no doubt that the decisions were final. The following day, the existing Program Manager was replaced and while all opinions were heard in the Core Team meetings, decisions were made by the team and final well before the next phase exit. It didn’t hurt that the VP also required regular Product Reviews from this Core Team.

And I have to say, it was hardcore as those Product Reviews were scary if you didn’t show progress and meet expectations. Lol.

And it freaking worked. That product launch was one of the best in features and quality in my career.

That bullshit panel described in the article? That is a huge process mistake and a red flag.

smuggler-in-a-yt
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smuggler-in-a-yt

Except that managing a bad project well will still end in a bad result – e.g. most government technology programs.

I’d be really surprised if they weren’t using Scaled Agile or something like. It’s the nouveau practice these days. But project management on the dev side doesn’t equate to project management on the management side, and it sure doesn’t make two bits of difference if you’re not actively listening to the feedback cycles (see above).

I ultimately see two serious problems here. The first, that SMEs were giving them feedback on design choices which were problematic and somehow the senior designers thought “I’m better than all the data, surely my solution will prevail!” What hubris.

Second, that there is a consistent theme in the industry that rather than accept human failings and attempt to put in better practices and hire people who better reflect the current state of the consumer, it is better to try and accuse the news outlet. That is a serious whiskey-tango-foxtrot moment.

One of these days, I’m going to hit the lottery, set up a team, do it all with open source, and link all the projects on GitHub. We’ll turn Games into a service industry yet. Just you wait. These sorts of things just make me fume.

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rafael12104

Oh, I agree. There are many variables. And mismanagement and bad decisions can occur even with the best processes in place.

I’m not a process guy. I don’t like constraints when trying to get a project done with the best possible outcome. BUT, mature process systems, Agile Matrix, LEAN etc. etc. do force teams to meet milestones and gate Programs if requirements aren’t met. So at the very least your not guessing at the 11th hour what the product is going to be.

The Program/Project could still end up as total dog shit. But at in Bioware’s case, part of the problem is that they aren’t using any processes at all.

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Fervor Bliss

Reading the Ben Kuchera quote, Why does the video game industry attract such dysfunctional management in high places? Is it the lack of moral accountability with the consumers?

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Kevin McCaughey

In my (lifetime) experience the prime requisite for joining management is to be highly dysfunctional but able to say all the buzzwords and phrases that upper management parrot back and forward to each other in meetings. I have yet to meet a competent manager. Things get made and done in spite of management, not because of them.

Veldara
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Veldara

Yikes, I’ve worked in mobile studios that were better managed.

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rafael12104

I’ve worked in related environments and things can get very chaotic at launch. But, late dev and engineering changes weren’t tolerated. Nor was the real work started near the end of a development cycle. It is strange.

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Fervor Bliss

Yes if you were a vendor putting in a network and the client saw this sort of thing. Well, start looking for another job because no one would hire this firm again.

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Anton Mochalin

It should have been alarming already when Bioware picked looter shooter genre for their next game. Looter shooters is a nice genre and Bioware is a good studio but looter shooter isn’t the genre they can be good at. The whole story about removing flight and adding it back just shows very clearly they weren’t sure what they want. Looter shooters are all about pace and timings and flight is very much related to that. When I saw their first demo it was very clear to me they lack vision and long before release I was saying “this will be a mild success changing into failure when people buy the game but start leaving it in a month after release”.

But I have a good feeling about Dragon Age 4. From all I know about Bioware Dragon Age 4 is going to be a good game and everyone will love Bioware again.

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Nathan Aldana

Its telling also, that the statement from Bioware doesnt deny any of the allegations, just tries to pretend that Schreier is being mean and cruel to innocent game devs who work hard at what they do (as though almost everyone else with a paying job doesnt too)

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Melissa McDonald

“Mamas, don’t let your babies grow up to be game devs.
Don’t let ’em code python and C + + +
Let ’em be doctors, and lawyers, and such”

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Stormwaltz

As a game dev with one child who wants to follow in my footsteps, I have literally sung this to my wife.

Veldara
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Veldara

*raises a glass* Amen to that.

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Matt Comstock

Interesting read. Assuming it’s true, it fully explains a lot of issues with Anthem. Crunch time, IMO, has nothing to do with magic… Crunch time is just a lot of hard work and stress to complete an objective. Relying on crunch time is most certainly not a viable long term plan to finish any project. The prior “Bioware Magic” was more likely just luck that their games coalesced at the end of a major crunch time. Luck is a fickle thing.

My big take away is that the development and production process was plagued by a lack of consistent leadership. No one was really calling the shots until the very end.

Regardless, Anthem is fun to play, they really did nail the combat and flight. As long as they keep developing and adding to it, Anthem may still yet end up with long term viability and eventual success.

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Anton Mochalin

I’m absolutely sure they won’t get any “eventual success” outside their initial $100M revenue spike. They’ll bury the game as soon as they can. Simply because they don’t like this type of games and don’t play this type of games themselves.

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Matt Comstock

It is entirely plausible they won’t be able to dig themselves out of the mess and then bury the game at the bottom of that deep hole. But, I prefer to hold judgment until more time has passed, and we see what comes with Acts 2 and 3.

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Ashfyn Ninegold

At the very least, this answers the age-old question, why didn’t they learn from SWTOR? Apparently they did, but the bigger Theys chose to ignore from learned experience.

Their blog response isn’t about protecting their “team” members, but about protecting their stock price. The only team they are truly concerned about is their stockholders. Otherwise, the big Theys would never have allowed BioWare’s workplace to devolve into such chaos.

Stress isn’t a work ethic. It’s a physiological response to unendurable circumstances.