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Anthem is built to make money, not be fun

For most service games like Anthem, being fun is secondary to being engaging

By Derek Strickland from Feb 25, 2019 @ 7:50 CST

Like most games (especially online-only ones), Anthem was made for a specific purpose: to make money. But how it makes money is different than, say, Sony's blockbuster PS4 exclusives.

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Based on the middling-to-lackluster reviews of BioWare's big new online-only game Anthem, there seems to be some confusion about what EA set out to achieve here. Anthem is ultimately molded around the engagement strategy that makes EA billions every year, which ultimately means it was built to make revenues first and be a great, groundbreaking game second. This point is unfortunately illustrated quite clearly through every facet of Anthem, from the light RPG and heavy loot mechanics that pull in separate directions to the story that seems to conflict with the game's basic scope.

In short, Anthem wasn't designed to be what most gamers consider a great title. We won't see any Horizon: Zero Dawn-level story arcs, or God of War cinematic-style matery; no, Anthem was made to be addicting first and everything else comes second. Action takes the forefront and interesting RPG elements are in the back. How good a game is wildly subjective, of course, and I don't aim to diminish BioWare's immensely hard work on the game. It's clear the team toiled tirelessly on every aspect of the project, but Anthem itself is still bound by the rules of engagement.

Anthem's throwaway missions, endless grind loops peppered with randomized loot, and huge cosmetic customization that directly promotes microtransaction spending are all telltale signs of a service game bent on pulling in tons of cash.

These aren't the things we expect from BioWare games, but I've long warned gamers that Anthem wouldn't be the same as Mass Effect or Dragon Age. There's no deep sprawling operatic tale of sci-fi wonder interspersed with meaningful events (although Anthem does have strong lore), there's no sense of empowerment and creativity that's accessible to everyone and not locked behind grinding--instead the game is artificially carved up so users just play longer.

Again, these are hallmarks of most service games.

But Anthem was always a live service project even before it was officially announced. Way back in February 2017 I predicted a lot of Anthem's problems before the game was unveiled or really talked about. Anyone who looked closely at BioWare's trajectory and EA's business model could've surmised the same.

EA has a long history with service games and this isn't going to stop any time soon. It makes billions every year from microtransactions, subscriptions, season passes and DLC.

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EA made $784 million from live services in FYQ3'19, or about 65% of its total digital net revenues.

If anything we should see more live games from EA. The company just reported lower-than-expected fiscal Q3'18 earnings and promised to make "tough choices about its investments," hinting future games could be cancelled or morphed into recurring revenue streams like its big new Apex Legends battle royale.

EA didn't become second to Activision-Blizzard's might by accident, but through careful and meticulous planning. All of its big games have online hooks of some kind and are monetized accordingly, especially marquee franchises like Battlefield. Even the upcoming Need for Speed and Plants vs Zombies games will have paid content of some kind (probably microtransactions).

Anthem is different than most EA games, though, because it's an experimental new IP that was always geared towards microtransactions, engagement, and never-ending grind loops. Unlike other EA games, Anthem can't be played offline. It has no offline singleplayer component and must be connected to play.

EA took a big chance funding Anthem, and as a wholly-owned company BioWare probably doesn't have a lot of say in monetization. Sure BioWare will be responsible for changing, updating, and shaping the IP over time, but EA will have final say with the big money-making decisions.

Sadly EA and BioWare missed the most important part of the engagement cycle. It's not making money. It's fun.

As Bethesda proved with Fallout 76, you can't properly monetize a game that isn't fun. Actually making a game that's enjoyable is paramount to long-term revenues and success, especially when it comes to a live game. When gamers are enjoying themselves they forget how much time they spend, actively play with friends and interact with the environment, and are more likely to buy into future content or optional microtransactions to show gratitude.

But Anthem is so artificially carved up, confusing, and needlessly layered and complicated that it's legitimately putting off gamers. Consistent fun is important, not a droning and frustrating experience that's nearly the same every time.

Engagement, microtransactions, online gaming, services: this what EA is, and what they do. But it might not be what they do best any more.



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