Last week saw the release of The Lord of the Rings: Gollum, and it didn't go too well. While the PC Gamer review found the game had some redeeming features, technical issues on other platforms contributed to the game receiving some terrible review scores, to the extent the studio felt the need to issue an apology and some bug-squishing promises. It also led to a moment of developer solidarity on social media, as people who've worked on games that didn't come together shared their stories of such projects.
One particular story was shared at some length, and will make sad reading for any Iron Man fantasists out there. Developer Ian Saterdalen is currently a lead producer at Mythical Games, before which he worked in various roles at Crystal Dynamics, Blizzard, Riot, and then BioWare at the time of Anthem's extremely rushed development.
Anthem was once the next big thing from BioWare, or that's how it was sold by publisher EA anyway, but on launch felt unfinished, most notably lacking an endgame but with a host of other problems. BioWare went into triage mode on Anthem shortly afterwards, with the plan morphing into something called Anthem Next or Anthem 2, a full-scale rework of the game, which got well underway before EA pulled the plug.
"I learned a lot on this project," said Saterdalen. "We knew it wasn't ready, as this game was literally created in 15 months. Which is unheard of for a game that scope. Anthem 2 would have been great!"
Many found the 15 months figure nigh-unbelievable. Saterdalen went on to clarify that lots of concept and world-building work was done before this period, but "I'm sure 18 months before ship is when the first level and Ranger Javelin were started. 15 months is when I started and the Ranger was not finished and the world crashed every 2-3 min".
The story is a familiar one, and not in a good way. Saterdalen says EA had their reasons for wanting to hit the ship date, but it was the dev team that "had to pay the price". The price being 90 hour weeks for 15 months. "It wasn't sustainable and not even a position we should have been in [...] I'm fine now, but not without damage. Contributed to the cost of my marriage and I needed therapy for a while after that endeavor."
I learned a lot on this project. We knew it wasn't ready, as this game was literally created in 15 months. Which is unheard of for a game that scope. Anthem 2 would have been great! https://t.co/HHK29rpVbr pic.twitter.com/JJkpUf9DqXMay 28, 2023
Saterdalen mentions various unpleasant aspects of the contemporary industry, such as fan over-reaction to the finished product leading to some members of the team receiving threats including death threats, the "rough" process of working with Frostbite, and the morale constantly dropping because of the "vicious cycle" the team was locked in.
Anthem did get delayed at one point, but this was absolutely essential as it was missing key features, in something of a technical state, suffered from scope creep, and there was no endgame. While at Kotaku, Jason Schreier published this investigation into Anthem's troubled development, which Saterdalen says "was 100% accurate at some point in development".
More troubling is how management decided to address the game's lack of content and endgame. "I think the shittiest part about this, besides no endgame and replayability, was that during development, management was putting in gating mechanics to 'lengthen' the time it took to complete the story," said Saterdalen. "IIRC it was removed from the final version after backlash from devs."
The whole point of his comments, however, is that the team working on Anthem was nevertheless proud of what they achieved in the time given, and certain aspects of the game were undeniably good. "It was a great team effort to get the controls how we shipped. We went through many iterations and it was super rough in the beginning. I know the team was really happy where the controls landed too. We actually took in a lot of feedback from the EA game changers," said Saterdalen.
In terms of the game's eventual release: "It was definitely above my pay grade for the decisions of 'this isn't ready'," said Saterdalen. "I think everyone was just backed into a corner and I have an assumption that if we didn't release Anthem, BioWare would have been dissolved".
Going on to "something spicy", which is actually far from the spiciest thing he said, Saterdalen does make the point that he wasn't privy to such senior decisions and that, while it is easy to blame EA for what happened with Anthem, BioWare also has to carry the can. "I actually don't think it was all EA's fault. A developer and publisher is supposed to be a healthy relationship of trust and transparency. It's a 2 way street which I don't think was satisfied on either side," said Saterdalen.
As for that positioning of the game as a Destiny competitor… yeah, BioWare wasn't under any illusions about that. "I think maybe in the public eye it may have been positioned to be a Destiny killer," Saterdalen recalls. "It came up in conversations internally but we didn't have the muscle or know-how to take on Destiny. It was squashed very fast [because] that's a lot of pressure. Let's walk before running".
"FWIW most people at BioWare didn't believe in the 'BioWare magic'," said Saterdalen, "I just laugh at it all now though. It's sad to see that is one of the key things in people's minds that tie to Anthem".
After Anthem, of course, came the great rescue mission that was ultimately never to be. "On Anthem 2.0/Anthem Next, the game was really fun and was going in the right direction, said Saterdalen. "The team had hit a really great milestone, when EA canned it. It was a different development team driving Anthem 2.0. The team were gutted when it was cancelled"
"My assumption was there was just too much baggage from Anthem 1 or cost involved to get Anthem 2 out," said Saterdalen. "Anthem Next was Anthem 2. It was definitely real".
"It would honestly be interesting to see Respawn take this IP," said Saterdalen, "I think BioWare could do it again though with the right direction Anthem 2.0 was going".
The developer spent a good while replying to comments about Anthem, and thanking fans who enjoyed the game regardless of the issues. He reckons NDAs will prevent the full story ever coming out, though it sounds like we already have the broad outlines. And yes: they illustrate development is hard.
"It's great to see players passionate about what Anthem could have been", ends Saterdalen. "There is a lot of nuance and it's hard to convey everything in tweets. Please be nice to each other and bring positivity. Life is too short".