The big BioWare interview: the response to Anthem, and the future of Mass Effect
"For players who want this to be a traditional BioWare game, that is part of the game."
BioWare's ambitious Anthem was the highlight of EA's E3 2018 press conference - although that was hardly a tough bar to clear. We gained our best look yet at BioWare's shared world full of jetpacking players in mechs, angry monsters and mysterious god energy - but some BioWare fans watching felt like the gameplay shown did not align with their own, personal expectations of what a BioWare game should be.
Here at E3 itself, the mission shown during EA's press conference is playable in full - and with better context and setup, including the introduction of some prominent NPCs heard during the demo via voiceover. It's a much better introduction to the game - but sadly one which the audience back home isn't able to experience themselves.
After the dust had settled on Anthem's showing, and after exec producer Mark Darrah had set the record straight on some immediate responses, I was able to sit down for a half hour chat with lead producer Mike Gamble, previously producer on the Mass Effect series, to speak more deeply about the game, discuss what was happening with BioWare's other franchises, and find out how this week's showing of Anthem had gone for him. Our full chat lies below.
It's been 24 hours now, how do you think the Anthem announce went?
Mike Gamble: We wanted to do something different and discuss the IP, because making new IP is rare and hard, but I wish everyone could play it. Because when you play it, you feel the differences in what we're doing compared with others - as to how you move through the world, the mobility, weight and feel of shooting. But unfortunately not everyone can do that.
I don't understand why you didn't show more of what is here for press to play! The demo I just finished you get to see the characters in the Strider who talk to you throughout the mission, you get context, and they weren't in the stage version demo. People just saw that and saw the shooting and...
Mike Gamble: Drew their own assumptions, and that's what they do...
BioWare games have shooting in them, but I don't necessarily play BioWare games for the shooting.
Mike Gamble: I dig that. The Strider and the characters in it do give you that sense of who your family is in the game. You saw Halek the mechanic who looks after the Strider, he's jolly - sometimes he's angry but in this he's pretty jolly. You have Faye, your oldest friend with whom you have a lot of history, and then Owen who is your cipher - your communication, your eyes and ears in the field. When you play the game you build relationships with these characters as you go, and these are just your immediate crew. There's tons of characters back in Fort Tarsis which we showed last year a little bit - we didn't show it at all this year, we're saving that for the future. Much as with your crew, you have relationship moments, you spend time with them in story moments, but that is limited to Fort Tarsis and in the Strider because, as Mark [Darrah] said on stage this is a shared world and you and I will have our different versions of Tarsis, we just come together in the world to play missions.
We will show more of what that storytelling, what that BioWare DNA looks like, in addition to talking about how the game's being balanced for multiplayer, how there will be a good loot chase. It's a tricky thing to introduce new IP but it's also a tricky thing to introduce it when everyone has an expectation based upon what you've done or what you should be doing. So it's key to be very clear what this game is - it is not a single-player corridor shooter, it's not a Mass Effect game, it's not a Dragon Age game, as much as those IPs are special to us. As much as we have various projects in the works and there's a team working on Dragon Age stuff right now, and Mass Effect is certainly not dead, Anthem is different and we have to highlight those differences, of which co-operative play is a big difference.
Where do you see the future of Mass Effect lying? Is it another game, or will it just be comic books from here out?
Mike Gamble: I don't know - Casey [Hudson, BioWare boss] and Mark and I and EA leadership have to sit down and work out what that looks like. You're very near and dear to it - so are we, as creators, and we want to make sure there's a future. But that comes after Anthem, after all that stuff we're talking about. That's future.
Do you think Andromeda got a fair shout when it launched?
Mike Gamble: Personally I think Andromeda has a lot of great stuff in it, sometimes you need to scrape to get to it. But when you get there, you feel that magic. We launched in a highly competitive quarter - there were some great contemporaries out at the same time and hindsight is always 20/20. I'm proud of the team behind Andromeda and how hard they worked and I feel strongly there's enough of an audience out there who appreciates it and loves it that I feel encouraged by this still. Could it have been received better? Absolutely. Are there things we learned from it - focus, polish, visual fidelity? Absolutely. We have to, or we never get better and make the same mistakes.
What did you learn from Andromeda which has been applied to Anthem?
Mike Gamble: Focus and polish. Some specific tactical things like faces, for example. That was one of the hot-button rallying items for Andromeda, so EA and BioWare have invested in different technology to be able to support that. In general, taking the passion of many developers who worked on Andromeda and channelling that into Anthem.
Would you say the success of Anthem is crucial to the success of BioWare, going forward? Is it vital to the success?
Mike Gamble: No, I wouldn't say it was vital. Any game is important to the future of any studio - name any of our contemporaries, if they're working on a game and it doesn't do well, it sucks for them. However, there's no - 'if it doesn't do well, it's the end of BioWare!' - that is hyperbole. That does not help us, back at the studio. That makes us go - [loud sigh]. All we want to focus on is making a great game, putting it out, and seeing what people think of it. So no, I wouldn't say it was vital - BioWare has many teams, many projects, as well as Anthem.
What percentage of the studio is now focused on Anthem?
Mike Gamble: A very large proportion of the studio is working on Anthem. When you're in your shipping year a lot of teams will work on something [together]. And Anthem is not a simple type of game, weaving in story, different types of narrative, with the dedicated server co-operative model, new gameplay mechanics... That's not to say we're starving out anyone else, but every game has a time when you have a lot of staff on it, and Anthem is that game right now.
How about after Anthem launches?
Mike Gamble: We have a team right now dedicated to post-launch support for Anthem - but what those plans look like, when we launch content, the team to support it will match that. Until then our focus is on making the game you buy on February 22nd a solid piece which you can play for a long time. Any BioWare game, that's important. It's not like we're releasing a tiny bit and saying 'see you on the live service!'. That's not what this is about.
How will Anthem's world change?
Mike Gamble: We have systems which support live content of all different types and sizes. Small things - we can add a couple of lines of dialogue to a certain NPC, [up to] adding in new characters, areas, missions. Part of the large investment in Anthem is the ability to continue telling new stories for as long as we want. Instead of having to wait - like with our older DLCs, it would be every three or four months at least before we released a big pack of content. We want to do that different this time.
Will those big packs still be there, or will it just fed out in more regular, smaller updates?
Mike Gamble: It depends on the stories we want to tell, and when we figure that out we'll decide on the best delivery system for them. There's a couple of things we already know, but you know how this works... [laughs]
Are there raids?
Mike Gamble: We have a concept in the game called Strongholds - for most people you'll need a team of four to push through it. That is definitely an end-game style of adventure.
Can everything in the game be played solo?
Mike Gamble: All the story content in the game can be played solo - the critical path, sidequests, all those things. Things like Strongholds are four player adventures.
Will these have matchmaking?
Mike Gamble: Yes. There will be matchmaking based on the setting you choose - everyone in the world, randos, friends of friends, just friends, that kind of stuff. You can also jump into other people's games. I can jump in half-way and after the mission is done we disband, go back to my Tarsis, talk to the bartender and have some moments. Likewise, I can invite you actively at the beginning.
How long will the critical story path last me?
Mike Gamble: I don't know... ask me in eight months. When you've played! Everyone plays it differently...
Would it be fair to say it's the same length as another BioWare game? A Mass Effect or Dragon Age?
Mike Gamble: It wouldn't be fair to comment on that either way at this point.
Is there any timed-exclusive content for a particular platform?
Mike Gamble: Not that I know of. There's the standard EA Access trial, we're doing that. But no PlayStation versus Xbox.
Romances - what was the thinking behind leaning away from that in Anthem?
Mike Gamble: We always focus on characters, but to get to know and understand a character you don't always have to have a romance. So that's the line we've drawn around this thing. There are many people in Tarsis you will get to know and you'll get close to some of them, but we didn't want romances to be a highlight of what this game is about. Anthem is a different game, the type of storytelling is different, and while romances are good for some other games they just don't fit well. It's not any more complicated than that - there's no anti-romance cabal talking to us. It's just a different game, a different type of character development.
Is it the tone of game that doesn't fit?
Mike Gamble: The closeness you get with characters doesn't really fit - we're not making romantic relationships or sex scenes for Anthem. There's so many characters you will get to know closely... Let's go back to Mass Effect for a second. I played Male Shepard throughout the trilogy and I was never interested in romancing Garrus but he was my best friend. I talked to him, we were best buds. That's the kind of thing we want to emphasise in Anthem.
Shooting bottles on the Citadel?
Will I be able to shoot bottles with someone in Tarsis?
Mike Gamble: We may or may not have moments akin to that... bringing out the same camaraderie.
Is the critical path heavily influenced by your narrative decisions? Will the end point always be fairly similar?
Mike Gamble: The choices you make in Tarsis and coming out of quests will have consequences in your Tarsis - but how they will be is something we probably won't talk about until launch because there's so much spoiler stuff there. Especially when you talk about how the Anthem of Creation works with the cast of characters you have and how that changes the world...
Do your choices affect the open world or is that separate?
Mike Gamble: No, the open world is our shared world. It's affected by events we control - day/night, a series of events - we have control over that. The choices you make are reflected in your Tarsis, your Strider. The choices you make don't affect my open world, just as you wouldn't want the choices I make affecting yours. When you go outside Tarsis it's what we have decided the world should look like that particular week or that month, or that day.
Are there any friendly aliens?
Mike Gamble: Not going to answer that one [laughs].
What is the Anthem of Creation?
Mike Gamble: It is an underlying force left behind by the Shaper gods after they were creating the world. The Shapers began creating the world - for what reason we don't know - using these tools you'll see scattered throughout the world. And this energy which runs through those is the Anthem of Creation. One day, the Shapers vanished - no one knows why they left, where they went, or why they left those tools behind. There's still some usage in them, but people don't know where they came from. And it's all very real-world religion - people think different things, there are more scientific theories... it all unravels in a web of narrative story and BioWareism.
Who are the Dominion?
Mike Gamble: They are a pretty aggressive conquering lot from the North. The area of Anthem you play in is obviously part of a larger world and the Dominion... the Anthem of Creation is ever-present in our world...
I don't know what that means!
Mike Gamble: [laughs] To put this in a non-spoilery way but that also makes sense... There's a great power in our game which the Anthem of Creation is rooted in. And the Dominion has been trying to figure that out for a very long time. They're very dominant - their name is the Dominion!
I've watched Star Trek: DS9, the Dominion are bad people.
Mike Gamble: There you go! So you take those things together, and hijinks will ensue. They're one the of the major antagonists in the game. I mean, there are also giant rock people, but the Dominion are human.
Is it kind of like Star Wars in that you play as humans but they're not from Earth?
Mike Gamble: Yeah... I mean, they are humans and this is not Earth. But... based on how the Shapers work, and how everything works... [pauses] just play the game [laughs]
If you could give it to me on a disc right now...
Mike Gamble: [laughs] The way the storms work and the creative energy works... it's hard to rule out anything at this point. But it is not Earth. You can look up in the sky and there are two moons.
Is there anything else you would say to fans who've seen the limited amount shown during E3's press conference but who obviously don't have access to the demo here? Those people telling you 'this doesn't look like a BioWare game'?
Mike Gamble: There's an amazing cast of characters in this game. Tarsis is a place that is yours where you can make choices and see consequences. You can play the story of the game solo. There's an incredible world to explore and it is full of lore. It is full of things you will want to learn about - where the Scars came from, what the Dominion from the North is. It's not just in any shape or form you with a gun just flying around shooting things. It's a whole package. For players who want this to be a traditional BioWare game, that is part of the game. It is different - it's not a single-player linear game, and yes there are no romances or active companions flying with you, but there's all the other things which weave into the DNA of what makes a BioWare game. In addition to amazing combat, amazing mobility, a cool open world.
To people worried this is a template for future BioWare games, is there still an audience for the more traditional Dragon Age and Mass Effect experiences?
Mike Gamble: Yeah, absolutely. No one should worry this is a template for anything. We're making a different type of game with Anthem, we made a different type of game with Andromeda, and a different type of game with Inquisition, and I can go all the way back to Baldur's Gate. We make different types of games every two or three years since. We've made an MMO, we've made open world, we've made [ME spin-off] Jacob's Story for iPhone. We've made so many different kinds of games and that will continue. We don't have a new template for a new type of game, we just have a template for a great game. Or, at least, we're trying.