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EA's comments about Anthem's marketing are a misdirection from its real problems

Anthem was in shambles when it released to Origin Access Premier subscribers, and was still in rough shape after its 'day one' patch released nearly a week later. As a result, EA says it's now rethinking how it releases online games, suggesting somewhat that Anthem's struggles were due to marketing mistakes. It's like blaming undercooked chicken on the silverware.

The comments come from last week's EA investors call. Responding to a question about Anthem's under-performing launch, CEO Andrew Wilson began by saying that unpredictability was at play. BioWare went from making games that were "40 and 80 hours of offline play," he said, "to 40 to 80 hours of offline play plus 100 or 200, 300 hours of elder game that happens with millions of other players at scale, online."

Well, first of all, I'd say that I and a lot of other people want regular 40-hour BioWare RPGs. But more to my point: You're just now figuring this out, EA? 

The claim that EA has just now learned its lesson comes off as pure theater.

I'm sensitive to the difficulty of launching games like Anthem, but EA has launched Battlefields, Need for Speeds, Titanfalls, and Apex Legends. BioWare itself launched Star Wars: The Old Republic. Bungie and Ubisoft recently released games similar to Anthem—Destiny 2 and The Division—and publicly learned lessons from them. There are a lot of case studies for launching live service games, so the claim that EA has just now learned its lesson comes off as pure theater. 

As for what EA needs to correct, Wilson said that QA and development practices will be changed "dramatically" (which might be encouraging if he'd given any details), but that it's not just about that. "It also comes down to changing how we launch games," he said, and to that end, we should expect the company to move away from old-style releases and start testing "soft launches—the same things that you see in the mobile space right now." 

That's a weird comment because soft launches are ubiquitous on PC, with extended alphas and betas and early access periods being common. It's not just a mobile phenomenon. It also runs contrary to EA's biggest success of 2019: the 'hard,' complete launch and graceful landing of Apex Legends.

 What Anthem needed

Still, Wilson's not wrong that the old ways can fail with games like Anthem. These massive, online games are unwieldy at scale. But glossing over the real problems with Anthem—QA and development practices—and musing about soft launches is a misdirection.

We're months past launch, and BioWare has pushed back its original update roadmap to focus on Anthem's persisting, fundamental problems. EA's blunder here is that it didn't take an honest look at the state of Anthem back in February and give BioWare what it needed: more time to test and develop it.

Or, more likely, EA and BioWare leadership did take an honest look at Anthem, and decided it was best to release it anyway with the end of EA's fiscal year looming. It then let the developers at BioWare take the heat while they beat it into a better shape post-launch.

I'm skeptical that EA truly wants to adopt the slow burn model, anyway.

“Reading the reviews is like reading a laundry list of concerns that developers brought up with senior leadership,” a source who worked on Anthem told Kotaku. The problems were known. What else but more time could have addressed them?

We've seen again and again how hard it is to stick the landing with these bulbous games. Even beyond infrastructure, designing a forever-shooter is full of intrinsic problems that Bungie in particular has struggled with for years. With more testing and more time, Anthem might still have been a quagmire of a launch. But I'm pretty sure another six months would've done far more to help the game than EA moving its marketing team "out of presentation mode and into conversation mode," as Wilson suggested.

Maybe what Wilson is saying is that, were Anthem marketed as an 'early access' game—if it still bore that label right now—some criticism could've been dodged and players would've accepted that it needed fundamental changes. But that's just a label. It doesn't undo the mistakes laid out in Kotaku's report, and wouldn't have made it a better use of a player's 60 bucks back in February.

I'm skeptical that EA truly wants to adopt the slow burn model, anyway. Right now, it lets Origin Access Premier subscribers into games a week before a la carte purchasers get to play, claiming that this 'early access' occurs before the game launches. It looks more to me like a way to sell subscriptions while also creating a week-long criticism buffer while developers scramble to get out a 'day one' patch. It lets EA have its big 'launch day' while paying subscribers provide a brief stress test.

That technique didn't work too well this time, but completely giving up on launch day hype in favor of true soft launches is way out of character for EA. It's running a two-day event before E3 this year, and we're meant to believe it's hopping off the hype train?

At the most, I'd expect the publisher to run a few more betas in the future, and maybe increase the length of the 'early access' period for subscribers. If EA really goes the Steam survival game route, quietly releasing games into early access with muted marketing, no special editions, and no flashy trailers, I'll eat a shoe.

Tyler has spent over 800 hours playing Rocket League, and slightly fewer nitpicking the PC Gamer style guide. His primary news beat is game stores: Steam, Epic, and whatever launcher squeezes into our taskbars next.