Hyperspace Beacon: I wasn’t going to talk about Anthem, but I think I should

    
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Like everyone else working in or around the gaming industry, I read Kotaku’s Jason Schreier’s exposé on BioWare’s development of Anthem. And like many of you, I read it having a hard time believing just how terrible things were, even as someone who covers a major BioWare online title, SWTOR, regularly in this very column. There were issues with Anthem, from production and marketing to actual launch, but I had trouble wrapping my head around some of the things said. Then after some tweets by the likes of Trion’s Scott Hartsman and the follow-ups by Jason Schreier himself, I began to wonder if this isn’t just a symptom of something greater in gaming development.

Before I jump into the meat of this, I want to give my thanks to Schreier for putting the original piece together. I understand the time and work that he put into his piece. Although I might criticize parts of the article, I don’t believe that it is bad or false or any other negative adjective. I also don’t believe that anyone from BioWare is lying or that they didn’t go through any of the things mentioned in the original article. Working in the gaming industry is difficult, but I will get into the details of that later. I just want to give my respect to those who were quoted in the article and the reporter conveying the story.

A certain point of view

Tell me if you relate to this: Someone tells you a story that might be difficult to hear. Let’s say that someone hit your friend’s dog. Obviously, your friend would be distraught and focused on caring for the dog. He tells you the story of how he heard the dog getting hit, ran around to the front of his house, saw the car that hit the dog speeding away, and immediately checked on the dog. He explains in great detail about the dog’s injuries and how scared he was. He tells you about making sure that he could move the dog before placing him into his car with the help from neighbors. It is super moving and very tragic.

Obviously, he is upset at the person who hit the dog and just drove away. Clearly, only a terrible person would do that. Any sane and moral person would agree, the driver of the car lacks all qualities of decency. And you, being a good friend, would want to hunt that person down to get justice for the injured dog. I would, too.

When I was a kid my grandmother used to tell me that there were two sides to every story. She was a very even-tempered person and taught me a lot about understanding people. She used to work with all different kinds of employees and customers as a manager at a grocery store for twenty years. Some things can be missed because of a person’s perspective, so it’s always good to look at the other side of the story. In the case of the hit-and-run, the friend seemed to miss the part where the car driver actually turned around when he realized what happened and actually helped carry the dog into the car. The friend wasn’t lying in this story, but his perspective skewed.

In the Anthem story, we read everything from the perspective of 19 employees of BioWare who are willing to talk to the press about their grievances with BioWare. Obviously, bad things happened to these employees, and I am not denouncing their testimonies. But it’s always good to understand and hear the other side.

As a reporter, you do what you can to get all sides of the issue, and Schreier did his best, I believe. According to his update, he sent a summary of the article to BioWare so it could respond, but received nothing back. In fact, according to an internal memo reportedly given out to BioWare staff by General Manager Casey Hudson, BioWare refused to reply, citing that “naming of specific developers as targets for public criticism” as “out-of-bounds” and BioWare would not participate in the article officially.

Truth without bias

Finding an unbiased truth is impossible even in the most in-depth scientific journals. Thinking that there isn’t bias in an article on Kotaku or any other news outlet would be ignorant. Bias doesn’t mean that the reporter did a bad job; that’s just the way it happens, especially when you toe the line between informing and keeping readers interested. We do that every day on this site. It doesn’t mean that the information is untrustworthy or needs to be taken with a grain of salt; it means that the story might have to be run through a sieve.

Enough with the metaphors.

What unbiased truth can we garner from the article and the subsequent follow-ups from BioWare and other developers? We know that people left BioWare for mental-health reasons related to stress. We know that the Frostbite engine gave the developers trouble and added to the long development time. We know that several different studio leaders took the reins of Anthem over the seven years of development. We know that there was a heavy crunch before Anthem’s launch.

Because I am inclined to believe the developers that spoke to Schreier, I will also accept the stories of many staff wanting Dragon Age: Inquisition to fail because of struggles with the engine. I will also accept stories of EA VP Patrick Soderlund being highly disappointed in the Anthem Christmas demo and the team having to reiterate a demo in six weeks to fit his liking.

I do, however, have a hard time taking some of the subjective statements at face value. Much of what was said about “BioWare magic” is skewed because of bias against the way the management handled issues, the management attempting to keep morale up, or just a misunderstanding of how things work in a creative field. I don’t think that the developers were lying about what was said, but I do believe that their perspective weighs very heavy on those statements.

The problem is systemic

When I was in high school and college, I did a lot of work in the stage productions both on the stage and behind the scenes. There is always crunch-time. There are always last-minute things that needed to be done. The producers, stage managers, and directors all have a hand in how time is managed.

I remember working on a production of Little Shop of Horrors that seemed to come together very smoothly from a production standpoint. There were some missteps when it came to acting choices, but I was surprised at how all the puzzle pieces came together in the end. Of course, there was crunch-time, and we were afraid that some things wouldn’t work out. There were stresses and arguments, but it came together.

But then I think about the production of The Boys Next Door that I also did in college. The stage manager was the same as for Little Shop, but the director was different. The production was riddled with issues from set design to lighting to sound design. Honestly, I’m surprised that play even came together at all. There was stress to the point that the director came up to my sound booth and screamed at me about a minor mistake I made during a final run-through.

Anthem had multiple different directors, producers, and other creative heads that burned out during the project or came into the project already burned out. That alone is going to extend production time by years. That alone is going to cause stress and a heavier crunch-time.

This kind of problem doesn’t just exist with Anthem alone. It exists in all creative fields, from stage productions to movies to other games. Scott Hartsman from Trion said on Twitter that this kind of thing happens far too often with online games: “It’s far too common to have ‘the game you play’ being an effort whose mass was largely created in the final 10-12 months of a long dev cycle with next to no time for iteration.”

We had a saying in the theater: “A bad final run-through means a great opening night.” That reminds me of the statements about “BioWare magic.” Stage managers and directors didn’t say these things because they wanted the crew to take things on “blind faith” as one of the BioWare developers suggested in the original article; they wanted the crew to have confidence in what they were doing and the team they worked for. If morale is low, having trust in yourself and your team can boost it. And it was clear that BioWare needed that during most of Anthem‘s production.

A takeaway

The situation with BioWare and Anthem was horrible. It’s not something I wish for anyone to have to deal with. I know it is far too common in the gaming industry. I want the mental health of game developers to be paramount. I also want developers to get paid what they are worth by multi-million dollar corporations, so when crunch-time comes, they are better equipped to deal with that instead of worrying about how they are going to make rent. Other creative industries have unions, like the Screen Actor’s Guild or the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees, to protect the interests of those working on the day-to-day of making entertainment. Maybe that’s the answer.

The situation isn’t a BioWare issue. It’s not isolated to Anthem. It’s not exclusive to BioWare. And it’s not even every BioWare production, either, even after it was bought by Electronic Arts.

When BioWare invited the press to talk to people about Anthem, everything was extremely closed off and controlled. I talked about this and some of my other concerns in my PAX West piece about Anthem.

My experience with BioWare’s Star Wars: The Old Republic was much different. There was a pretty solid demo a couple of years before the game launched and a couple more good demos leading up to launch. I’m not saying that there wasn’t a crunch or that SWTOR was perfect. The atmosphere was different. At the fan-site summit before the game launched, future players could talk directly to the developers, ask questions, and play through a few parts of the game without the heavy oversight we experienced with Anthem.

I don’t have all the answers; in fact, I have very few answers. But I do believe that we need to take a hard look at what gaming corporations are doing to the people working for them. We need to try to understand the perspective of everyone involved. My hope is that BioWare is able to right this ship and that EA doesn’t swallow another wonderful studio. And I hope that we players better appreciate the struggles of working in the gaming industry. Ultimately, I hope that companies make better games made under better circumstances.

Every other week, Larry Everett jumps into his T-16 back home, rides through the hypergates of Star Wars online games, and posts his adventures in the Hyperspace Beacon. Drop him a holocom on Twitter @Shaddoe or send him a transmission at larry@massivelyop.com. Now strap yourself in, kid — we gotta make the jump to hyperspace!
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Anton Mochalin

We can understand why Respawn can be good at making a battle royale game – BRs are still shooters after all. But why would anyone expect the company making good RPGs (and an average MMO) to make a good looter shooter? Bioware will be fine making more good RPGs, they wanted a big slice of game-as-a-service pie, but that’s so clearly not in their DNA, even SWTOR is basically a single player RPG with DLCs and some co-op and pvp added as some bonus for better sales. As was written above Buchenwald entrance “Jedem das Seine” – “to each his own”.

Mewmew
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Mewmew

All we ever hear is the good side of the story though for the most part. Yeah, there are two sides to every story, and we rarely get to hear this other side like we got to here. I’d say it’s far more realistic than the sunny happy “everything is great” side that the company heads try to push.

You say you have a hard time beliving it and there are two sides to every story, even though you don’t want to say anybody is lying or such. And yet even BioWare took notice and believes it.

At the same time BioWare was publically saying that we shouldn’t expose these things and that it’s not all that bad, they were sending an internal memo saying how these are real problems that were brought up that need to be addressed.

To me this is like the person in your scenario who hit the dog saying “I was rushing to get to the Hospital and didn’t see the dog!” and then he sends an email to his friends admitting that he was just rushing to get to a sale at Wal-mart and absolutely saw that he hit the dog but if he stopped he might miss out on a good price on a TV.

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Ashfyn Ninegold

During the American Civil War, general of the army U.S. Grant made hundreds of crucial decisions every day. One anecdote has him deciding how many wagons the army would need during the Wilderness Campaign. He wrote a number on a slip of paper and handed to the staffer, who, amazed at how quickly he had decided, asked him how he knew it was the right number. To which Grant replied, “I have no idea whether it’s right or not, but the decision had to be made and I made it.”

Sounds like BioWare spent 5 years never making a single decision until it was too late, not just mismanaging but not managing at all.

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Bývörðæįr mòr Vas´Ðrakken

Something unless you have actually does not get mentioned is this

Focus groups, QA testers, and a couple other departments get paid about 10 to 15 dollars and hour all the way up to crunch at which point they start making about eighty thousand dollars a year due to over time. I know several developers that chose to work the insane over time hours to pay off their houses or cars. The people on salary are often asked to work the same hours while getting paid less than that unless they are DBA, DBM, DBE (database administrators, managers and engineers), programmers, fiance, and legal. The programmers because you start making mistakes and it takes longer to find the mistakes than to go home and get a good nightʻs sleep. Fiance and Legal, because their are laws against working in either of those two jobs longer than ten hours and day, and you have to take a 45 minute to 2 hours lunch while working those types of tasks.

So some of it is that if studios accepted the higher cost of living issues and paid the studio to get the work done by mile stone the way studios meet their publisher requirements, then the issue of crunch would likely go away.

The biggest reason crunch happens is feature creep and over promising. The game starts in the concept phase where all you have is gestural sketches and a rough idea how the mechanics of the game might work. This concept is either green lite by an investor or the studio heads using money from other projects that are failing to meet mile stones. So the heads of the studio take people off projects that are falling behind and move it games they think will cover the losses when the publisher cuts funding to the game.

Which suggests if EA or Bioware moved money off Anthem then they were trying to cover their loss of publisher dollars and make enough money on FIFA to pay their bills. More likely what happened is more people rented anthem instead of buying it and when they got bored FIFA was rented instead. I bought the game and rented it so speak via the original premier because I want to see more mech games.

As far as the Hero Engine I first worked on the Hero Engine for one of Daniel Macmillan studios that failed. He wanted to try a studio that was largely gay then he tried to see what would happen if the non-gay personal were removed from the situation. I do not think it was the gay issue but just companies where the upper management is hired to make sure everyone has work, those companies last longer and have less turn over, the studios with huge turn over are started by guys and gals who do not understand why they were laid off or fired. Bioware was started as the first and when the studio heads where bought out over the never winter license, EA got the new heads a copy of the Hero Engine.

SWTOR uses the Hero engine almost right out of the box without modifying much code or understanding it. The beta tests that were not public where under a first expansion NDA to not mention that the mid level and the high level version of the game where removed for launch. Bioware built assets for the Hero Engine that ran on about ten percent of the machines in the alpha and beta tests. Someone pushed for wider specs which meant that you have to re-write the driver stub in the client to re-enable the old mid level version of the client as the high end version of the client, and if you took the driver stub from the alpha client and the assets from the alpha client you could enable very high in the game. Bioware would enable the highest version of the engine for their in game holiday that looked forward to the future but the blue and green back grounds on the inventory the fonts, that was all default hero engine. It looked cool and fit the star wars theme yet because bioware claimed they built all of that no else was willing to work on the hero engine and we lost a license companies could pay to use in their games. Which leads to frostbyte, there are things it could do far better but if you look at anthem, you kinda have to snicker and say delays were do to the engine being hard to work in? The truth is likely there are a couple guys who likely got good a scripting and they got the new management to fire the programmers before SWTOR and those guys and gals are likely still running the code section. The only way you can fix those types of issues is to retire the ones that have no idea what they are doing and pay them a retirement to prevent wasteful lawsuits and move forward with people who want to make fun games.

oldandgrumpy
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oldandgrumpy

Sorry Larry but you will never hear the other side as that is middle management and they are much too concerned about being a good corporate minion, climbing the greasy pole and their bonus. You will hear from corporate PR and get their spin on it. In fact they responded to the original article with a blog.

Good management is rare in any industries, poor to passable management is the norm in my experience. If you are lucky enough to have good management they never last very long before going on to bigger and better things.

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Sally Bowls

good management they never last very long before going on to bigger and better things.

If the managers were competent, they would have been promoted out of that job. :-)

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Peter_principle

an employee is promoted based on their success in previous jobs until they reach a level at which they are no longer competent,

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Anton Mochalin

No one can be competent at managing a “disruptive”, really innovative product creating a new market so yeah the best are managing such products and have a lot of failures in that. That’s what we need the best among us for.

MurderHobo
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MurderHobo

Thank you Larry Everett’s grandma. Great perspective and article.

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Alex Willis

Still, though: f*ck that person for hitting the dog.

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rafael12104

Hmm. Cool. Thanks for your perspective. And, you are closer to Bioware than most which makes it very credible. credible.

But I have to agree with Greaterdivinity. Bioware made the hole they were in and did not know how to dig out until Patrick Söderlund demanded they get off their butts and make flight work.

The result? They made a nice demo showing that flight would indeed work and dovetail nicely with combat and animation, the best parts of the games to date.

There is no denying EA’s influence though. I totally agree with that. And to the extent that the leadership issues weren’t dealt with early by EA, ME:A facing the same mismanagement, tells us alot about EA’s priorities.

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Greaterdivinity

and that EA doesn’t swallow another wonderful studio.

I have issues with this characterization. By all accounts, ALL of BW’s wounds are self inflicted.

They chose to use Frostbite, it wasn’t forced on them. There were incentives for using it (like not spending some of your development budget licensing an engine), but at the end of the day it was a choice. Just as it was a choice to re-use the engine. Just as it was a choice to throw out their work and start from scratch not once, but twice.

If BW can’t turn Anthem around, and especially if DA4 is another miss and there was no heavy-handed EA involvement causing the problems, then honestly…maybe it’s time to close the doors. If the studio can’t operate at the level they once did given the changing market then it is what it is. You adapt or die, and EA can’t, and shouldn’t, be asked to keep a failing studio alive.

Are there other solutions? Sure! EA could take a much more involved approach and be far more hands-on in managing BW if BW needs that level of oversight nowadays. But that’s a no-win situation for EA because any problems with any games, no matter what, will instantly be blamed purely on EA “ruining” the game and studio.

Is BioWare even a “wonderful” studio anymore? Given their recent releases (SWTOR was deeply flawed and has stumbled repeatedly, ME3 was massively overrated IMO even without the ending drama, DA:I was solid and I liked it but it had some mixed responses, ME:A and Anthem both missed) I think it’s a legitimate question. It’s a very different studio than the studio that gave us Baulders Gate or Jade Dynasty, for better or worse.

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Dug From The Earth

The concept of “choice” is highly flawed.

If I tied your best friend and family member to chairs, handed you a gun and said “Shoot one of them, or I shoot them both”, and you shot your best friend, one could argue that it was YOUR choice.

Now that was a hugely drastic/extreme example. But it gets the point across.

Bioware had to make decisions, none of which were good. Why? Because EA was standing there saying “pick one, or ill shoot both”. Sometimes the “shooting both” element was EA limit on development budget. Sometimes it was EA’s limit on development time. In this case, Bioware had to “choose” to use Frostbite, or else Anthem may have been canceled due to lack of budget, resources, etc.

Another thing to realize. The people who know how to code/program arent the ones often making the choices. Upper management at Bioware might have decided it was in Biowares best interest with EA to use Frostbite, despite all the developers saying “hell no”.

What I firmly believe, is that if EA wasnt in the picture at ALL, Bioware would not have gone with Frostbite.

And thats all that really matters, regardless of how upper management at Bioware or EA tries to spin it.

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Greaterdivinity

In this case, Bioware had to “choose” to use Frostbite, or else Anthem may have been canceled due to lack of budget, resources, etc.

Citation needed.

It was absolutely incentivized its use given that the licensing fee wouldn’t come out of the development budget, but it’s still a choice.

And if the leads ignored feedback and forced them to use the engine that’s still on BW, specifically them not listening to their own internal feedback. Just as they refused to listen to BW Austin when they tried to give them advise based on their experience on SWTOR.

If EA wasn’t in the picture? Of course not, because Frostbite is an internal engine that isn’t licensed externally. They’d have either needed to create their own engine or license a third party one.

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Dug From The Earth

have you never worked for a company that said “we own this, its what you will be using” ??

My last job of 16 years acquired companies like crazy, and every one of them was “forced” to move much of their tech over to what we already had established.

There is quoted evidence out there of EA stating that going forward they will utilize Frostbite (and yes, im too lazy and apathetic to bother finding it).

Again, this isnt a case of EA going “You are using Frostbite, or else” most likely (still a small possibility, you cant prove its not any more than i can prove it is). Its more likely a “The smart choice would be to use this FREE engine that we own, since we arent giving you time to develop your own, or the money to license another one”

Again, thats not really a “choice” in my eyes.

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Greaterdivinity

Yes I have. And apparently that’s distinctly NOT what EA tells studios, per the interview with Flynn.

And yes, EA has been very public that they want their teams working with their own technology. Which makes perfect sense. However that desire doesn’t contradict with them allowing their teams to continue using third party engines if they feel that’s the best path for their titles.

Yes, as you say the choice is a free internal engine or losing part of your budget licensing an engine. That’s a strong incentive to use the internal engine, but that’s still a choice. If the developers felt that Frostbite was far too risky and cumbersome for them and that the costs for licensing an engine would provide dividends throughout the development process then I’m sure they could make that argument and do so.

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Dug From The Earth

As a developer myself, I can surely tell you that my opinion on what engine, api, or platform to use means jack outside of my department.

Given the last THREE bioware games that used Frostbite all resulted in the developers stating how bad the engine was for the games types they were making, it seems their experience is pretty similar to mine.

Someone may be gung ho about using Frostbite within Bioware, someone may have even championed Bioware using it for Anthem… but from the sounds of it, it was certainly not a developer.

Tech decisions made by non-tech people result in sub par results more often than not.

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cursedseishi

It should be noted that Flynn would not crap over Bioware or anything to do with their choices in an interview with his name on it.

The industry has a notably NASTY habit of blacklisting individuals. Much like many other places, too. That very same interview was a hand-wave. He did not discuss much of anything in depth, and avoided even casting a twig’s width of shade towards EA or Bioware.
Yes, Bioware ‘chose’ to use the Frostbite engine… And three times now, in a row, we’ve seen critical errors and issues arise with every game. Three for three. And the inflexibility of the Frostbite engine isn’t unknown by any standard, it’s been around long enough that people all have heard about its issues.

Where I work, we do training every year… And one of the questions on one training program is why do we take this training, and one answer is “we do this because its company mandated, and is necessary for the job”. It is mandated, we are all required to do so otherwise we get hit with penalties… But its the ‘wrong’ answer. Even if you aren’t in a department that deals with the situations in the training, you have to take it anyways.

Flynn isn’t going to go out and say “look, Dragon Age: Inquisitions was a bloody mess, it deserved none of its honors and awards. Andromeda is falling apart at the seams because we have nobody actually involved in the models and animations. And our third game? Don’t even bother asking about it”. No, he’s going to tell you “Yeah we’ve hit difficulties like everyone, but you know… the culture’s just great. It’s all great and you’ll definitely be happy to see it on release.”
Had the interview been anonymous? I guarantee you he’d be speaking very differently.

PlasmaJohn
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PlasmaJohn

Other creative industries have unions, like the Screen Actor’s Guild or the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees, to protect the interests of those working on the day-to-day of making entertainment. Maybe that’s the answer.

Unions “work” when they control the labor pool. The games-dev industry is in such a shambles because there’s an absolute glut of naive young hopefuls that would do anything to “live the dream”.

Go ahead and stamp your feet and demand unionization. Those you’re trying to compel have too many practical reasons to ignore you, namely a chance at their dream job. Regulatory pressure would be far more effective.

MurderHobo
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MurderHobo

Do you think there is an issue with lack-of-fungibility in software development in general? For all the attempts to build a code factory, isn’t it still more of a guild structure with regard to senior devs and team structure?

I’m an uninformed observer, but I’ve heard this argument before from people who seemed to know from other software development fields. I wonder if this sort of thing applies in game development. Senior developers who are worth their chops seem to write their own ticket in more mainstream industries.

Hard to unionize an environment so dependent on a tiny pool of specialists.