For the unitiated, Anthem is Bioware’s most recent video game release, a “live service” model that’s a new franchise and…went over like a Hawaiian pig roast at a bar mitzvah. They indicated that there was a “10 year roadmap”, and this week it came to light that many of the game’s senior managers had been reshuffled or reassigned.
But, I submit that EA needs to stick to the roadmap.
They probably won’t – the only number lower than the earnings from the game is the metacritic score. At the rate things are going, it is unlikely to ever break even. It doesn’t make business sense to continue developing content for Anthem from the looks of things. Just to get it out of the way, I’m not saying this as someone who bought Anthem and is now upset at the lack of content. Anthem is an anathema to the sort of video games I like – single player with solid mechanics and a progression method which encourages discovery and exploration. Crysis, Sol Survivor, Star Trek Elite Force, Osmos, Kirby’s Adventure, Bioshock, Trine, and of course Mass Effect are all amongst my list of favorites.
The reason I say this is not for my benefit, but for EA’s.
EA wants the “Live Service” model to succeed. Loathe it as I do, I am able to at least understand the business need to have something beyond one-off $60 game sales as a business model. However, as has been exhaustively covered by dozens of Youtube commentators, Anthem embodies most of the worst aspects of the live service model.
Notable in this list is the “roadmap” concept itself – the promise of new content over the life cycle of the game. In the days of yore, content had to be on a cartridge or CD, otherwise it didn’t get shipped. Then, we got expansion packs and downloadable content (DLC) which provided additional content to a complete game. DLC kept creeping in; Mass Effect 3 had approximately $55 of DLC released over the course of its lifetime, it’s hardly the worst offender. The Roadmap concept is essentially a game publisher requesting that players invest in a game for which content will be released over time. This might be acceptable for games intended for some sort of episodic format, but Telltale and Valve both had issues trying to do video games in an episodic format, and I don’t think Anthem or its premise lends itself to it any better.
There are a few reasons I think having a roadmap for Anthem is worth the losses EA will incur. First, Bioware’s issues with the Frostbite engine are well documented. It is clear that getting RPG elements into a game using Frostbite is incredibly challenging for the team there. Using Anthem as a development and de facto UAT platform for those elements may help streamline things for other RPG games required to use the engine. Second, several other live service games with bumpy starts ended up maturing over time and earning themselves a stable fan base. Certainly, it is unlikely that Anthem will unseat Fortnite in the next year or two, but it’s possible that the game will find its footing over time. The capability of a game to adapt to what players are looking for is one of the selling points of live service games. Shifting the focus a bit to single player for the moment might not be what EA and Bioware want long term, but the low number of players aren’t endearing anyone to missions requiring other people to play.
The biggest reason, however, that I think Anthem should stay true to the roadmap is because it is a canary in the coal mine for live service games. If EA abandons the roadmap, EA makes the statement that roadmaps are ‘suggestions’ or ‘nice-to-haves’, rather than commitments. If players stop trusting roadmaps, they’ll hold off their purchases until the first or second phase of the roadmap is in place…which, depending on the roadmap, can be months or years after initial release. This is dangerous because it dilutes the ability for companies to make financial reports based on first-week sales. There may well be pent up demand for an already-released game, but whose prospective players are keeping a wait-and-see approach for the first steps of the roadmap. This makes it a gamble for the publishers as to whether it’s worth spending the money to develop the additional content. Moreover, making those decisions can easily become even more difficult when dealing with competing studios. If Blizzard withheld content for Destiny 2 due to the Anthem roadmap, it would look like an almost laughable decision in retrospect. Conversely, if a game’s roadmap listed a particular release date, and right around that time another super popular game caused a measurable dip in player engagement, it might make sense to delay it until the fervor dies down, but it would then cast doubt on the validity of the roadmap.
Finally, Anthem’s roadmap promised ten years of content. Given how little it’s actually being played, and how little revenue it’s making (relatively), there’s a whole lot of speculation that the game won’t make it until the end of the year. If a roadmap is something that’s actually promised, EA may have to either refund players (i.e. lose every dime they spent developing the game), or roll the dice that none of the players have the time or disdain for EA to file a lawsuit for false advertising. If such a lawsuit happens, it may cause roadmaps to be legally binding. If that happens, it puts EA in a terrible position for future live service games, since those roadmaps will have to go through their legal department to ensure they are only making promises the company can fulfill.
If EA keeps to their Anthem roadmap, it will be a signal to everyone that EA’s roadmaps can be trusted. That trust is critical for any live service game they plan to release. Providing content for Anthem is expensive. Not providing content for Anthem is even more expensive.