The long build up to Anthem’s release is finally coming to an end, as the game will filter out onto PC and consoles in the second half of this month. It’s been preceded by two demos, but they can only give a small snippet of the gameplay feel and mission design, which leaves many questions around the endgame, how BioWare will continue to grow and expand the game as a live service, and more.
We sat down with BioWare Producer Thomas Singleton to ask about some of these long term challenges, but first had to deal with a more urgent logistical matter.
TSA: So, with the design of the various Javelins, what the bathroom situation? Do you just go in the suit?
Thomas: [laughs] You just hold it! I mean, if you want to get out of the Javelin out in the world, that’s up to you, man, but that’s dangerous stuff!
TSA: So there’s no built in toilet facilities? Not even in the big Colossus?
Thomas: [laughs] He has a bucket, obviously!
TSA: [laughs] One of the things that you spoke about in the opening presentation was that you’ve got main core missions and side missions, and for this kind of online “looter-shooter” style of game, that’s a pretty uncommon set up. What’s the difference in philosophy for game design that you have?
Thomas: I think it all depends on what you need to do to get max level. Often in games like this it’s a race to max level and then you can start on the other part of the game. For us, yeah, you can just do the critical path that’s required for some stuff later on, but if you just do that you might end up at level 15 – I dunno, i’m just making that number up – and so then it’s how do you get from level 15 to level 30? Do you do side missions? Do you do freeplay? You can do whatever you want.
We think the better experience is to do the agent quests, because they’re really interesting and they’re as good as the critical path, so do them and then you’ll be more like level 25, 26, 27 when you finish, and then you can do whatever you want to wrap it up.
Doing the agent missions is important as well, because they give you the contracts which then lead to the legendary contracts. Those are a good way to get loot at level 30, and that’s the incentive to complete them all, but it’s really up to the players.
TSA: Does that help when considering the endgame and replaying levels and activities?
Thomas: So a bunch of that stuff isn’t replayable, but that’s something that we might do later on. I think there are cool ways to replay some parts of the critical path or some of the agent missions, because there’s some really cool content.
But you do all these things to unlock new activites, so the more things you do, the more things you get to play at level 30.
TSA: How are you going to mix things up with weekly activites, daily activities when the game comes out? It’s always one of those mysteries with a live game like this, trying to get a feel for how it will evolve after launch.
Thomas: Yeah, because even if you come and play for five hours, you’re like, “What’s it like at fifty hours, a hundred hours or two hundred hours?”
Part of that answer is that there’s things in the launch game, and another part is that we’re going to do all this new stuff as a live service. In the launch game there’s a bunch of activities that you’ll do at max level between missions, freeplay, contracts, legendary contracts and strongholds – that’s four different things, really – and then as we head into the live service we’ll add more stuff.
One of the things we want to do is lean into the changing world. The Shaper technology and the Anthem of Creation are in this conflict, so how does that represent itself to the players?
TSA: Is that’s something that’s going to evolve the actual game world over time? In a year’s time will it actually look very different to Anthem at launch?
Thomas: Yeah, that’s what we want to do.
I think there’s two parts to it: temporary change and permanent change. You’ll see a lot of temporary change, like this weekend these things are happening, so to your earlier question we’d have things like daily and weekly challenges associated to activities, some of which are related to that change. Temporary change is great because you can turn it on and turn it off, you can return to it later, and then there can be some buzz about it.
I think permanent change is important too, but it’s much harder to do and you have to be really careful because you might ruin someone’s favourite something. We like the idea of biger events that, even if it’s not permanent, it’s on for a long period of time. We have some plans that we’re not talking about just yet, but we’ll be talking about them pretty soon.
TSA: What are the kind of key lessons that you’ve learnt from Destiny, The Division, and all the other games in this genre, and how they’ve handled the endgame and grinding? Obviously, you’re not copying, but you are able to take inspiration or see some of the pitfalls to avoid.
Thomas: We take inspiration from many games, and they’re not even genre-specific. Looking at loot, for example, what’s any game that you’ve played where the loot system was great and rewarding? And then, what specific part of that? This was their execution, but why was that great for you? So we take that core thing and then apply it to our game. Does it make sense? Does it not make sense?
We draw inspiration from many genres and many game, and then try to apply that to find the Anthem of that and make it our own thing. It’s not just copying, it’s more like, as you say, being inspired by things.
I think the toughest challenge in all of that is if someone plays two hours a week, how can that be rewarding? And then how can someone who plays forty hours a week have a rewarding experience? Then how do those two things exist in a game?
That’s the hardest challenge to solve and I think we’ve done a decent of it with the layers of progression. The two hour person can play some content and get an upgrade, because they’ve probably got a long way to go in their progression. The forty hour per week person is probably pretty quickly chasing legendaries that are super rare and super low chance drop. Beyond that, then it’s chasing legendaries with the perfect roll, the perfect inscriptions, and so we hope that’s how we’ve solved that horizon of different players, we just have to accept that they can’t have the same desires.
TSA: Can they both play together? For example, I’ve completely fallen off the Destiny bandwagon in the last year, so the times I consider going back, I’d be so far behind I’d be level gated from content and doing different or much easier activities.
Thomas: Yeah, so I think there’s a couple layers to the question.
In the levelling game, we want to be really specific that players of any level can play together, so if you’re level 25, you can get someone level 5 to play with you, you’ll get loot for 25, they’ll get loot for level 5, and that’s a fun experience.
When you get into the endgame at level 30, that’s when the difficulty levels come into play. If your gear score is 400 and their gear score is 200, you’re probably not going to do Grand Master 3 Strongholds, right? But you can play Grand Master 1 Strongholds and you can carry a little bit and make it easier for them, so they can get masterworks and catch up. There’s always the option of playing easier versions of the same content, and that was really important to us. The difficulty system was a really big deal because we wanted people to experience content, but still let the more hardcore players have an avenue to chase harder stuff, get loot and progress.
Obviously in time we’ll have to add catch up mechanics. If you come to the game late, how do we get you there a bit faster? We’ll do that based on what we see players play and what our telemetry tells us.
TSA: I’m personally impressed by just how free you are with the Javelin customisation. Why have you got such a broad range of materials and colours? There’s more chrome than in a Need for Speed!
Thomas: Yeah, you can blame our character artists… or thank them!
Their philosophy was that it would be cool for players to have access to all the things we have access to when we make stuff.
TSA: Did you have to convince someone hold the purse strings that this was a good idea?
Thomas: Not really! I was part of the team that built that system, and so it was the idea that these are things you’ll look at for a long period of time, and we knew that we wanted to monetise on vanity, but to make all that interesting it had to be a powerful system to make it work.
The best thing we did, and again it was a character artist’s idea, was to make the regions of the suit the same as the regions the character artists used to build things. So the materials, the layers, the colouring, you can make yourself look cool because it’s split up in the same way that the real artists make all that stuff, so it just naturally works that much better.
Then the materials was just a byproduct of, like, “Hey, I want to make this thing an it needs brass.” So, OK, we’ll add brass. “I need a different brass!” And then all of a sudden it’s just this huge list. That’s what they needed to make the base outfits, and something like 80% of the materials are in the base outfits you see for the four Javelins.
TSA: I don’t think I’ve really asked much about the actual gameplay yet! [laughs]
Thomas: Go for it, that’s my bread and butter, so I’m ready!
TSA: I played it last year and it’s still just as slick and smooth switching back and forth with traversal, but with having flight as a core pillar, how do you go about making use of the huge environments that you’ve made to accommodate this?
Thomas: Flight was tricky! It made a lot of things very hard, like how do you make sure you don’t just fly past everything? And so, honestly, a lot of that answer is in the mission design. Maybe on this mission you fly through all the stuff, but on the next mission you flew over something last time but now you’re coming back. If you map out all of the mission structure and the objectives, you actually cover most of the world as you play the game, it’s just that any given mission gives you a feeling of flying everywhere. We were pretty smart about making sure we didn’t just build something for the sake of flying over it.
TSA: I did notice that you sometimes had us flying around to collect a bunch of glowing tokens. That’s something that might start to grate a bit after a few missions.
Thomas: We have a few different mechanisms for completing an objective, and again, I think that’s one of the opportunities in the live service to add a few more. I think the levelling part is totally fine, at least that’s how I feel, but I think that’s something that we need to add over time. As you play the game more and more and more, you want some different mechanics for those objectives.
TSA: One of the key parts of having the four different Javelins is that they overlap and compliment each other. How do you make it clear to the player and discoverable how combos work and that you can bounce off each other with attacks?
Thomas: Some of that you learn over time, for better or for worse, and I think that discovering more depth as you go is good. The conversation goes from “I can use my abilities” to “Hey, I can prime a thing,” and then someone else is like, “OK, well I have a detonator. How does this work?”
That conversation then turns to how each Javelin has a different effect, so now it’s about who should do the combo, not can we do a combo. Beyond that, what’s the group composition of the Javelins and the loadouts we have to make use of the combos and how we use our support abilities. That’s how I hope those conversations go, right? You just get more and more advanced about how you talk about the game, and then two years from now everyone’s a n expert on using combos in different situations.
TSA: Or they’ve looked up the meta… [laughs]
Thomas: But then the meta will change! We want to have a perfectly balanced game, which is impossible. So as things are too powerful, we have to make other things more powerful to shift the meta, and then some other things will become too powerful and we’ll have to change again. That makes this interesting though, because it makes you chase more of the gear, explore more of the builds and find different ways to beat the really hard content. I think that all works in our favour.
Thanks to Thomas for speaking with us at the event. Be sure to check out our thoughts from the start of the game, from some of the endgame content, and join us as we delve into the full game later this month.