Bethesda Knew How to Satisfy Skeptical Fans at E3. BioWare Didn't.
If you don't want 'Anthem,' what's a BioWare fan to do? Facing the same problem with 'Fallout 76,' Bethesda came up with a solution: give them what they want.
Image courtesy of Electronic Arts
Two games with major questions were given proper unveilings at E3— Anthem, Fallout 76—and each approached communication with their most passionate fans very differently, but only one seemed to come away without fans scratching their heads and wondering if it was time to grab their online pitchforks. Anthem wasn’t so lucky. I haven’t seen the rollout of a major game botched this hard in a long time, where every new detail only raises a thousand more questions, rather than answering the important ones people already had.
BioWare has been known for a specific type of game: RPGs with a big story and interesting characters. Even when BioWare’s made structural changes for delivering that story—Mass Effect being an action-driven shooter, for example—the core element remained, and so fans followed. BioWare does not have to make that game forever! It’s very healthy to experiment.
But when you do make something different, if the foundation does change, the best way to deal with unruly fans it to let them know what’s going on. Then, they can make a decision: “Is this game for me?” If the answer is no, there might be frustration, but they can move on. So far with Anthem, it’s not clear fans can answer that question, and it’s leading to kind of acute anxiety prompting Anthem’s creatives to spin tweet threads explaining what the game is.
It’s not a good look, and suggests a tension that’ll remain until the game launches. People will be asking “So, what is Anthem?” from now until February, no matter what BioWare says.
(Side note: I haven't done any reporting on the decision-making process for marketing Anthem. It's entirely possible many of these problems are, in part, rooted in decisions by Electronic Arts, a company with lots of communication problems.
Contrast Anthem to Fallout 76. When Bethesda teased Fallout 76, it irked me because I worried about inflated expectations. All the reporting (and everything I’d personally heard) suggested this was a spin-off. There would be story elements, yes, but it wasn’t Fallout 5, and there’s a big difference between the two. Bethesda did the game no favors when talking about ahead of the reveal, declaring Fallout 76 had a map several times the size of Fallout 4. The imagination immediately begins thinking about what Bethesda might do with that space.
But when Todd Howard came on stage at Bethesda’s own event, everything changed. After showing a trailer and revealing the game was online, he said what everyone was thinking:
“I know there’s a lot of you [who] have a thousand questions right now, so I’m gonna go through them in order,” said Howard.
And he basically did exactly that.
Up front, Howard answered some big ones: the game’s playable solo and has a story. By the end of his presentation, it wasn’t clear how much storytelling depth Fallout 76 will have, but as he walked through the game step-by-step, using amusing and informative trailers, he painted a picture for the kind of game Bethesda was building with Fallout 76. He made an argument for why Bethesda felt compelled to make this, instead of just another Fallout game. Through a combination of charisma, humor, and a sharp reading of the room, he probably sold he game to a bunch of skeptics and gave people enough information to reliably opt-out.
(Howard has been even more specific in the days after Fallout 76’s reveal, saying the game won’t have NPCs, only other players. There’s probably a good reason Howard didn’t mention this little detail during the presentation: people would have been disappointed. Quietly revealing this Very Important Detail elsewhere is frustrating, given Howard went out of his way to imply Fallout 76 would have traditional Bethesda storytelling, but even if Fallout 76 falls short in the narrative department, Starfield and The Elder Scrolls VI exist.)
But even for the people who’d come to the conclusion Fallout 76 wasn’t for them, Howard had an answer. After revealing an Elder Scrolls mobile game (did you really think he’d end on an Elder Scrolls mobile game?), he rolled all-too-brief teasers for two upcoming games: Starfield and The Elder Scrolls VI. Howard called Starfield a “brand-new, next-generation single-player game” and described The Elder Scrolls VI as “the one you keep asking about.”
People lost it. I even found myself pumping a fist at Starfield. This is how you say “Trust us.”
Imagine if, after showing Anthem at EA Play, BioWare general manager Casey Hudson came on stage, acknowledged Mass Effect: Andromeda wasn’t their best work, but promised Mass Effect—the Mass Effect everybody fell in love with over three games—would come back eventually. Imagine if, after making that clear, he said another Dragon Age game was a ways off, but when it arrived, it wouldn’t shock anyone: it would be another Dragon Age.
BioWare will make another Mass Effect. We already know Dragon Age is coming. Neither game may be coming out in 2018 or 2019, but what’s the harm in saying “We hear you,” especially when both of those games are more likely to be aimed at BioWare’s core fans? Even if Anthem decides to get experimental, fans can take a deep breath and look forward.
Tragically, this communication breakdown may all be at the expense of a cool game.
At every gaming event, whether it’s E3 or PAX, people ask “What should I check out?” My response is typically an obscure indie game deserving more attention, but at E3 this year, it was Anthem. When my hands-on demo with Anthem wrapped, Austin and I shook the hands of everyone in the room, and performed the awkward professionalism dance where people ask what you think, but you share some milquetoast version of one’s real impressions. (If you didn’t like the game, you come up with something you enjoyed, simply out of respect.)
The moment we left the room, we looked at one another in total bewilderment. We didn’t just like Anthem, we loved it—the 30-minute very guided bit we played, anyway. (That flying! ) There’s no telling if they’ll stick the storytelling landing, but Anthem was really fun to play, and in a game where you’re supposed to be fighting the same enemies and running the same missions in order to grab better loot drops, that’s not nothing. Anthem doesn’t come across as merely action competent for a BioWare game, it’s legitimately a good action game.
Here’s my hunch: Anthem has a shot at being cool, but BioWare (EA?) needs to start being more honest about the game they’re making, instead of trying to please everyone. If Anthem is a Destiny-like, loot-driven experience with comparatively light storytelling, despite coming from a studio known for compelling narratives, just say that’s what it is. If there aren’t romances in the game because the structure isn’t there to support it, people will get over it.
There are eight months until Anthem’s supposed to be released, but you only unveil a game once. In the meantime, people will fill in the gaps themselves. But with what?
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