Anthem, Gaming, And The Problem With Service Games

Anthem was finally killed off for good yesterday, although it felt less like a murder and more like a mercy killing. Actually, that’s not right either. It’s more like Anthem was James Caan in Misery, and EA was Kathy Bates. The true version of Anthem was Caan’s burned manuscript, while the book Bates forced him to write was Destiny. His agent was BioWare. The players, I dunno, I guess we were the sheriff who gets shot in the back with the shotgun. This metaphor’s getting away from me a little bit now, but the point is this: there was a great game somewhere inside Anthem, but it was never allowed to come out. For the good of Mass Effect and Dragon Age, I suppose I’m glad it’s finally gone, although I can’t help but mourn its loss. More than that, it reminds me of how cruelly temporary video game development can be.

Anthem has struggled to gain any momentum since it launched, and EA had previously promised the game would be completely retooled to realise its potential. Whether this would be a sequel, an expansion pack, or a complete teardown was unclear, but some fans were hoping for a Final Fantasy 14-sized redemption story with Anthem 2.0, also known as Anthem Next. Such redemptions are rare though, especially in an industry where cutting your losses is often the go-to move – just look at Google Stadia, which didn’t give its studios a chance to finish a game – and so it proved with yesterday’s complete termination of Anthem. The servers will remain open, but no further work on the game will be completed.

In an ideal world, I would have wanted Anthem to get its act together. The flying, especially with the more agile Javelins, was phenomenally fun, even if the quest markers weren’t always clear and the shooting didn’t live up to the aerial excitement. Of course, we don’t live in an ideal world. We live in a word of limited resources, faceless executives, and billion dollar turnovers. The best parts of Anthem were not the parts EA seemed interested in saving, and to truly rebuild Anthem you’d have to trim the looter shooter vibes, hone in on the story mode, and invest more time in the development of the supporting characters, the way BioWare games usually do. In this world, the real world, I’d rather the devs were reassigned to Mass Effect or Dragon Age, where they’d have the ability to thrive on a project that might actually be successful.

As an example of Anthem’s inner qualities, just look at Marvel’s Avengers, a game currently at risk of a similar fate to Anthem. It has failed to replicate the feel of Anthem’s flying with its sluggish iteration of Iron Man, despite Tony’s built-in personality and suit perks. Avengers has been making small tweaks, adding new characters, putting together a 4K upgrade for the PS5 and Xbox Series X, but it feels like Spider-Man might be their Anthem Next. It’s all on the webslinger to reinvigorate Marvel’s Avengers, otherwise Square Enix might be putting out a statement similar to EA’s sometime in the future.

It feels appropriate that the challenge falls to Spidey, given that Peter Parker offers one of the best recent examples of how even success stories in the world of modern gaming can be fleeting. If Marvel’s Avengers is culled, it will feel like the work everyone put into the game will be for nought. The original face model for Marvel’s Spider-Man (a series not linked in any way to the Avengers game, despite the name) might feel similarly like his work was for nothing. When Spider-Man was remastered for the PS5, the face model was recast for a younger, more Tom Holland-esque model. The story remained the same, Yuri Lowenthal’s brilliant voice and mocap work was still there, and I don’t have a problem with the new Peter. I actually think this new look suits him better. But it’s a stark reminder of how replaceable work in games can be. A new face is more noticeable, but with service games especially, there are constant patches, copy updates, redesigns, all put in place ostensibly to improve the game or keep it fresh, but what it’s really doing is wiping away someone else’s work, forever.

Even when patches are patently necessary, like with Cyberpunk 2077, the way games delete their own history raises interesting questions. Cyberpunk 2077 1.0 should be in a museum. The launch of that game, from the swirling hype, the initial sparkling PC reviews, to the stark reality of the bugs and crashes on PS4 and Xbox One is one of the most important events in modern video game history. Has gaming ever had a better Icarus moment? And yet, this version of the game no longer exists. Obviously, the patches were necessary, and people who bought the game shouldn’t have to live with a subpar version just because of the historical value of the glitches crashing their console. But it still feels like that flawed, broken game deserves to be crystalised, and the way modern gaming works just doesn’t allow for it.

Remasters are slightly different, in that they preserve the original version as it was, and then create a more modern, hopefully better version. But we’ve already seen that in doing so, a little bit of the personality can disappear. The Mass Effect Legendary Edition looks fantastic in the glimpses shown so far, but TheGamer’s Cian Maher has already written about his concerns around Eden Prime’s ‘makeover’, and I agree. The setting originally had a hazy skyline, enforced by the lack of technology to properly render a background. Now, the Legendary Edition has added such a background in, but does doing that diminish the work of the original designers who had to work around roadblocks? Or does it take the spirit of the original and give us what we should have had back then, were it not for inferior technology? The remasters don’t erase the originals, but in actively making changes, they do highlight how gaming’s quest for technological perfection leaves it constantly open to futureproofing further down the line.

It’s true of games media too, though on a smaller scale. This piece you’re reading right now will be worthless in a week. The news cycle will have moved on, different stories will emerge, and Anthem will fade, for one final time, from our collective memory. It’s just the way things are. I’m not complaining – in fact, I feel very lucky to be in a position to write about news as it happens, and it’s not like we’re going to delete this post in a week. It will still be there, people will still be able to read it, it will still exist in a real, tangible form. I know EA claims it will keep the Anthem servers open, but eventually they will close and the game will cease to be real. All the work that went into it, deleted.

This happened this year already with Battleborn. I won’t claim Anthem or Battleborn were masterpieces, and I know a lot of the decisions were informed by money grubbery, and the games were shaped by an impersonal design-by-committee feel, but people worked hard on them. Developers and designers and artists and actors spent months on those games. Now they don’t exist, or soon won’t. They aren’t just “dead games” in the way that Fall Guys, no longer the most popular game in the world, has been designated “dead”, they’re actually dead: in the ground, buried, and everybody missed the funeral. Some games have endured for decades, but the truth is most of them don’t, and it hurts to see a studio like BioWare, known for its timeless titles, wounded by Anthem. It reminds me how callous this industry can be, how easy it is to be forgotten.

The worst thing is, Anthem will endure a fate worse than death. Its corpse will be dragged out on marionette strings every time a service game fails, a single-player studio pivots to online games, or even when a successful game sees a dip in player base. Like the artists who crunched for the VFX on Cats, only to then be roundly mocked when the film was pushed out far too early, the hard working devs of Anthem will be branded a failure, despite their efforts, despite how fun most of Anthem is, and despite the fact that Anthem’s biggest critics don’t appear to have ever played it. Nothing lasts forever, and in industries built on tech, that’s even more apparent. Farewell to Anthem, and all the games like it. They surely deserved better.

Next: Games With Built-In Friends Make Lockdown Less Lonely

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Stacey Henley is an editor for TheGamer, and can often be found journeying to the edge of the Earth, but only in video games. Find her on Twitter @FiveTacey

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