This account of Anthem’s development, based on interviews with 19 people who either worked on the game or adjacent to it (all of whom were granted anonymity because they were not authorized to talk about Anthem’s development), is a story of indecision and mismanagement. It’s a story of technical failings, as EA’s Frostbite engine continued to make life miserable for many of BioWare’s developers, and understaffed departments struggled to serve their team’s needs. It’s a story of two studios, one in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada and another in Austin, Texas, that grew resentful toward one another thanks to a tense, lopsided relationship. It’s a story of a video game that was in development for nearly seven years but didn’t enter production until the final 18 months, thanks to big narrative reboots, major design overhauls, and a leadership team said to be unable to provide a consistent vision and unwilling to listen to feedback.
Complicating these problems further was the fact that sometimes when the Anthem leadership team did make a decision, it could take weeks or even months for them to see it in action. “There were a lot of plans,” said a developer, “where by the time they were implemented it was a year later and the game had evolved.” The explanation for this lag can be summed up in one word, a word that has plagued many of EA’s studios for years now, most notably BioWare and the now-defunct Visceral Games, a word that can still evoke a mocking smile or sad grimace from anyone who’s spent any time with it.
That word, of course, is Frostbite.
“Frostbite is full of razor blades,” one former BioWare employee told me a few weeks ago, aptly summing up the feelings of perhaps hundreds of game developers who have worked at Electronic Arts over the past few years.
“Frostbite is like an in-house engine with all the problems that entails—it’s poorly documented, hacked together, and so on—with all the problems of an externally sourced engine,” said one former BioWare employee. “Nobody you actually work with designed it, so you don’t know why this thing works the way it does, why this is named the way it is.
“I would say the biggest problem I had with Frostbite was how many steps you needed to do something basic. With another engine I could do something myself, maybe with a designer. Here it’s a complicated thing.”
When a BioWare engineer had questions or wanted to report bugs, they’d usually have to talk to EA’s central Frostbite team, a group of support staff that worked with all of the publisher’s studios. Within EA, it was common for studios to battle for resources like the Frostbite team’s time, and BioWare would usually lose those battles. After all, role-playing games brought in a fraction of the revenue of a FIFA or a Battlefront. “The amount of support you’d get at EA on Frostbite is based on how much money your studio’s game is going to make,” said one developer. All of BioWare’s best-laid technological plans could go awry if they weren’t getting the help they expected.
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