Automakers live and die on the products they create. That can make the development process a harrowing experience. No company gets it right 100 percent of the time. And although companies like Honda and Toyota rarely deliver a true dud, their past success does not automatically grant them future prosperity. Video game studios face similar challenges. Anthem, which recently debuted on PC, Playstation 4, and Xbox One, arrived after years of chaos within BioWare, the studio that developed the game. The story behind its development is very similar to how Ford bungled the 1996 Taurus. In both cases, hubris, unclear objectives, and willful ignorance created deeply flawed products.
The inspiration for this QOTD came after I finished reading Jason Schreier’s excellent piece about the extremely troubled development process surrounding BioWare’s latest video game. For anyone interested in the issues currently impacting the industry, it’s worth a read. For those who’d rather not, don’t worry. I’m going to discuss the relevant bits and compare it to the development of the 1996 Taurus.
Video game companies, like their automotive equivalents, spend significant resources to create products that take years to develop. There is a lot of pressure for development teams to deliver. When they do, it can inadvertently lead to a sense of invulnerability among the teams responsible for the follow up product. In Anthem’s case, BioWare was coming off of a high following the release of Dragon Age: Inquisition, the third entry in their highly popular fantasy role playing game franchise that ended up being a massive hit:
“Within the studio, there’s a term called “BioWare magic.” It’s a belief that no matter how rough a game’s production might be, things will always come together in the final months. The game will always coalesce. It happened on the Mass Effect trilogy, on Dragon Age: Origins, and on Inquisition. Veteran BioWare developers like to refer to production as a hockey stick—it’s flat for a while, and then it suddenly jolts upward. Even when a project feels like a complete disaster, there’s a belief that with enough hard work—and enough difficult crunch—it’ll all come together.”
Beyond the development process itself, Jason Schreier outlines how Bioware Magic led management to believe that they were basically destined to create an excellent product, no matter what happened. That same thinking also influenced BioWare’s Edmonton branch to ignore any sort of input from its Austin branch regarding how to build an online-oriented game, a process they were familiar with due to their work on Star Wars: The Old Republic.
BioWare’s management also discouraged any discussion about Destiny, a game similar to Anthem that had been very successful. In a perverse sort of way this made sense, because pretty much everyone (including myself) thought the game looked like a poor imitation of Destiny when it was officially revealed. Before the game was completed, the rank and file team members realized pretty much the same thing, but still felt it was necessary to study the game in order to figure out what worked and what didn’t. They did not get their wish:
“Because leadership didn’t want to discuss Destiny, that developer added, they found it hard to learn from what Bungie’s loot shooter did well. “We need to be looking at games like Destiny because they’re the market leaders,” the developer said. “They’re the guys who have been doing these things best. We should absolutely be looking at how they’re doing things.” As an example, the developer brought up the unique feel of Destiny’s large variety of guns, something that Anthem seemed to be lacking, in large part because it was being built by a bunch of people who had mostly made RPGs. “We really didn’t have the design skill to be able to do that,” they said. “There just wasn’t the knowledge base to be able to develop that kind of diversity.”
Even conceptualizing the game was an issue. BioWare started developing the game as a survival type of shooter where you’d go out with friends to gather supplies for as long as possible. Over time, the game evolved and became what is known as a “loot shooter,” a subgenre that emphasizes repetitive gameplay in order to acquire more powerful and unique armor and weapons. Flying was constantly dropped and re-added into the game, and it was only made permanent after an executive at Electronic Arts (the company that owns BioWare) expressed his enthusiasm for it.
All of this inconsistency translated into an extremely flawed game that was pilloried by nearly everyone who played it when it launched. Anthem simply isn’t interesting. With the game constantly changing gears during development, Anthem’s story is pretty much non-existent, and NPC’s (non-playable characters) are dull and talk about things that don’t make any sense whatsoever. Unlike Destiny, the gameplay isn’t addicting, and the gear you’re able to equip on your character doesn’t feel unique at all. It’s also unnecessarily difficult to connect with your friends. The game has also been plagued by a seemingly endless amount of technical glitches.
Anthem’s bungled launch is a shame. I played the demo with three of my friends and was blown away by the flight mechanics and how it was incorporated into fighting enemies and navigating the map (for those of you familiar with modern video games, it’s like you’re playing as Master Chief from the Halo series after he acquires an Iron Man suit). Unfortunately, a poor inventory management system and a completely derivative setting contributed to my dismissal of the game as mediocre. But I never expected the finished product to be as bad as it seems to be.
The issues that sunk Anthem are similar to the problems that befell Team Taurus when they were developing the 1996 Taurus. Dick Landgraff, who was project manager for the Taurus, never really had a strict set of goals for the redesign. The initial mantra was “Beat Camry,” despite the fact that the Taurus had been outselling the Camry for some time and would continue to do so through 1996. Instead of just incrementally improving on what made the second generation model popular, Dick and crew envisioned a Taurus that was just as revolutionary as the original model. The team thought this could be accomplished by creating a visually stunning car.
That line of thinking ignored what made the original Taurus such a hit. The 1986 model offered excellent driving dynamics but also had ample cargo space and reasonable pricing. And the first generation only introduced styling that was already proven to be a hit. Dick Landgraff wanted the Taurus to be its own styling trend, and he accomplished that by rejecting what the established luxury automakers were doing at the time, which was the complete opposite approach to what the original Team Taurus had done. The Ford ended up standing alone in regards to its styling, but for all the wrong reasons. Before “BioWare Magic” there was “Taurus Hubris.”
Beyond Anthem and the 1996 Taurus, the video game and automotive industries are similar because they’re both experiencing a period of substantial upheaval. Electrification, autonomous driving, and the crossover revolution are impacting how automakers modernize their lineups. For video game companies, the “games-as-service” or “live service” model has similarly transformed their approach to creating games. This new approach to game development goes something like this: even if a game is mostly a single player experience, it must also come packaged with some type of regularly updated multiplayer component designed to keep people interested in the game, which will in turn create a constant revenue stream for the company. Grand Theft Auto V is a perfect example of the new paradigm, as it initially debuted as a single player experience with an online component, with the latter becoming so popular (and profitable) that the studio behind the game dropped any pretense of releasing any additional single player content. One of the reasons why Anthem failed so spectacularly is due to the fact that BioWare had never developed a games-as-service product before.
And single player games themselves are starting to become less relevant as games like Fortnite: Battle Royale and Apex Legends dominate the current zeitgeist. These two games are basically the video game equivalents of Tesla because they’ve substantially disrupted the industry in multiple ways. For starters, they’re free. They’ve also popularized a new subgenre of shooters to the point where established game studios like Activision and DICE have struggled to adapt. And their advertising budgets were minuscule compared to franchise heavyweights like Call of Duty and Battlefield. Instead, the smaller studios behind these new games focused on getting the right influencers to play their game, a tactic that was extremely successful and very cost effective.
It makes sense that the two industries have so many similarities. They both develop products that take years to complete, and their creations have to be profitable and desirable. And they’re both impacted by shifting trends and consumer preferences. Internally, inconsistent goals and the lack of humility can sink these labor intensive products and permanently damage the reputations of the companies that develop them. Anthem and the 1996 Taurus are two such examples. Unlike Ford however, BioWare has a shot at redemption, as Anthem’s existence as a constantly updated product means it has a chance to eventually succeed despite currently being a massive disappointment. Other studios have successfully relaunched games to great success, and I sincerely hope BioWare pulls it off, because like Ford, when they sweat the details, they can create great things.
What do you think? Am I insane for comparing the two industries? Are there other industries that operate similarly? Please let me know in the comments.
“How BioWare’s Anthem Went Wrong” by Jason Schreier, Kotaku
“Games as a service need to find out how to keep players engaged” by Cass Marshall, Polygon