I don’t like judging an unreleased product before it launches. I just don’t. It’s not a matter of whether or not the writing appears to be on the wall. It’s just that, prior to a product’s launch, whether the product is a game, a movie, or otherwise, the image of that product that exists in your head is most likely the one that you would like to see exist in reality – this image itself often existing as a result of marketing specifically designed to create hype and encourage pre-orders.
This is why, when I criticize movie trailers or early presentations of unreleased games, I always try to angle my criticism towards “the presentation” rather than the product itself. I choose my words carefully, trying to focus on what the marketing teams have deigned to show us rather than the apparent quality of the product. Whenever I start to feel profoundly negatively towards an impending release, I remind myself of my incredibly lukewarm reactions to early demonstrations of 2014’s Wolfenstein: The New Order, now one of my favorite games of all time.
Early game reveals, when they fail, tend to do so because of a general trend in the industry: there’s often a tendency to focus on marketing all the things you can do in a game over what makes that game unique. Sometimes an abundance of features is what lends a game its charm; however, we’re in the midst of an era in the industry where games don’t succeed based on genre, but based on their ability to innovate and provide a unique experience in said genre. Feature creep doesn’t make a game good – these days, it tends to be atmosphere, worldbuilding, and presentation that set games apart from each other.
In early demonstrations of Wolfenstein: The New Order, we were shown the game’s opening hour – an assault on a Nazi-controlled beachhead during World War II. It looked like Wolfenstein, but the problem was that in the twenty-odd years since id released their first Wolfenstein games, we had already entered and left an era of back-to-back-to-back World War II games. Assaulting a Nazi beachhead? There was nothing new about that experience - and the gunplay looked solid, but it also looked to be similar to previous Wolfenstein titles. There was nothing making the case for this being a pseudo-reboot of the franchise. Despite the fact that the game’s Cold War setting had already been revealed with the game’s announcement, Bethesda’s marketing team chose to release the least interesting hour of the game as the gaming public’s first impression of the title.
Of course, Wolfenstein: The New Order would wind up becoming the exact shock to the system that the franchise needed in order to survive in the current gaming landscape. It would be critically lauded for its robust characterization, exploration of topical themes and stylish cinematic presentation. Before we knew it, the sequel would be one of the most anticipated games of 2017 and this time, the marketing would lean into more of the storytelling that made The New Order great.
Of course, all the marketing failures in the world don’t matter when your game already appears to be doomed from the start. Case in point: Fallout 76, another Bethesda-published title.
When reviews of Fallout 76 began flowing in, and with them, talk of game-breaking bugs, crippling server issues and a bland, empty overworld, I can’t say I was surprised. The most effective moment in Fallout 76’s hype cycle was its very first trailer – say what you want about the game itself, but that first reveal of West Virginia set to “Take Me Home, Country Roads” will likely remain iconic if for no other reason that it seemed to become a meme almost overnight.
However, the game’s actual reveal at Bethesda’s E3 showcase raised more questions than answers. Bethesda had to be banking on the hope that the Fallout name alone would be enough to draw players to 76, given that their bold vision - which involved a complete and utter lack of NPCs and the notion that the most important stories told would be generated by player interaction – would only have a chance of succeeding given a massive player base. And in the moment, at that E3 press conference, the excitement seemed to be palpable, due both to the sheer number of features that seemed to be present in the game and Todd Howard’s skill as a consummate salesman.
However, once the sheen wore off, the questions remained. Would Fallout 76 even have a plot? Yes, you could play solo, but would the game be as enjoyable as it would if you were playing with a friend? How would Bethesda account for griefers in the first multiplayer game in a franchise famed for its unpredictable, chaotic moments? And, perhaps most importantly, how would a developer famed for the number of bugs often present in their games manage to deliver a stable, cohesive online experience? It’s one thing accounting for a closed, single-player RPG, but an open world inhabited by hundreds of players strung together by the strengths of their internet connections? That’s a whole different ball game.
We now know the answers to these questions, none of them good. Fallout 76 is the lowest-rated AAA franchise title released this year, an experiment gone horribly wrong for Bethesda – a notable occurrence in an industry that can often be criticized for playing it too safe. Yet, it was hard not to see this coming, especially after Fallout 76’s E3 reveal was followed by a period of prolonged silence from Bethesda – marketing went dark over the summer until the weeks immediately leading up to the beta that took place immediately prior to final release. Perhaps the writing should have been on the wall the moment that Bethesda released a letter noting that Fallout 76 was unlike any game they had ever created before, asking players to be patient with bugs and glitches. It’s probably a bad sign when a developer comes out ahead of a game’s launch to warn players of potential issues. Sure enough – it was.
I first considered writing a variation of this piece back in June, after Anthem’s appearance at the EA Play showcase immediately prior to E3 2018. In the notes I took during that event, I even wrote down my planned title for the piece, dubbed simply “I Have Concerns About Anthem”. I knew exactly what angle I was going to take: I was going to focus on BioWare’s history as a beloved developer of single-player, character-driven RPGs and the manner in which that identity clashes with the very concept of what they appear to be doing with Anthem. In reality, I wouldn’t have been saying anything that hadn’t been said before, so I scrapped it – there didn’t seem to be a need for yet another writer to add to the chorus of voices that have been questioning BioWare and EA’s business decisions since 2012.
But I do have concerns about Anthem, especially now, in a post-Fallout 76 world. Because the stories seem to be lining up too well:
· A renowned development studio famed for single-player RPGs attempts its first foray into a multiplayer online experience;
· This game will sacrifice the narrative experiences that the studio is known for in order to encourage player interaction;
· The game can be played solo, but the developers seem noncommittal in regards to how enjoyable that will be;
· And, perhaps most tellingly, the marketing cycle seems virtually non-existent almost two months out from launch.
And just this week, a new wrinkle: BioWare has been heavily teasing that this Thursday’s Game Awards will feature not only a new Anthem trailer in preparation for this weekend’s closed Alpha, but also a tease for the long-awaited fourth Dragon Age. This also possesses shades of Bethesda’s reveal of Fallout 76, which was punctuated with the promise that The Elder Scrolls VI and a new single-player RPG IP, Starfield, were in development. It felt like a consolation message: “Don’t worry, we know what we’re good at – the thing you want is coming! Have faith in us, please! Oh, and try our new thing.”
In another world, the promise of a new Dragon Age would spark nothing but excitement within me. But it also leaves me worried for Anthem – you wouldn’t think that EA would want to draw attention towards a new legacy BioWare title right before the release of their latest new IP. Why risk derailing the Anthem hype train, which, again, thanks to the lack of new details in recent months, feels virtually nonexistent as it is?
And again, this is where I don’t like to speculate – for all I know, Anthem could be fine, the closed alpha this weekend could go swimmingly, and the final release could end up serving as one of the few examples of a massively multiplayer game that delivers exactly what it promises at launch. The gameplay certainly looks fun enough. But the reality is that this is far beyond the scope of any of BioWare’s prior experiments with multiplayer in their games, and after Fallout 76, I feel like there’s reason to be concerned.
I want Anthem to be good, not just because I want games to be good in general, but because I love BioWare games; the Mass Effect and Dragon Age series are two that defined my high school years and opened my eyes as to the potential of storytelling in games. I’d love to see them manage to capture that lightning in a bottle again with an experience that I can share with my friends.
In reality, I might be making a mountain out of a molehill. After the trailer reveal at the Game Awards on Thursday, the Anthem marketing cycle will likely begin operating at full capacity, people will get excited, and the game will come out on February 22nd. There’s no predicting how it’s going to play. But I can’t help but feel as though I’m experiencing a sense of déjà vu here, and that, come launch day, the internet is going to be flooded with think pieces wondering what went so horribly wrong with Anthem, explaining why it was inevitable, and pondering BioWare’s future as a studio.
And that’s not a future any of us want to live in.