Over 6 years in the making
Later this month, after years of hype and more recently a flurry of demos and early access exclusives, Anthem is finally being released. Whatever you may think of the game, supposedly in development since 2012, its success will surely depend on the size of its playerbase at release.
In this context, it is unsurprising (but no less embarrassing) how the EA team have spammed “mystery” posts on twitter about the game’s first live event during the open demo, like some overly enthusiastic parent trying to excite their apathetic kids that Santa Claus is on his way. They also continued this campaign, straight out of their Marketing 101 textbook, in the weeks leading up to release, as though worried we might forget about the game they’ve been working on for over 6 years.
Like an off-brand Fortnite event
After all, live events like this and seasonal game updates have proven successful elsewhere in keeping a playerbase engaged and coming back for more. This kitch build-up of Anthem’s in-game storm is indeed like some off-brand version of Fortnite’s masterful comet tease, a “viral campaign” which ultimately led to a complete redrawing of the game’s map. EA’s rushed live-event in a demo marred by connection issues and game-breaking bugs, together with their incessant reminders on Twitter, have all the lacklustre appeal you would expect from a dull, corporate knock-off.
However clearly EA has understood what the real key performance indicator will be for a game that relies on cooperative play to be fun, and is desperately trying to encourage Twitter that Anthem will be full of exciting events and super rad content for fellow kids like us.
“Don’t play this game on your own – whatever you do!”
This is also why Bioware developers have been repeating the key message that Anthem should be played with friends in a squad and suggested that the top priority for those playing the demo was to “play the game with others”, all but outright stating that Anthem is not a singleplayer game, and should not be considered as such.
So for a game which has hitched its wagon exclusively on being fun with other players, the fact that both the “VIP” demo (or glorified beta) and open demo weekend were riddled with game breaking bugs, connection issues and limited game assets is not a good sign.
After all, the success of large PVE and MMO style games like Anthem rely largely on how many players they have. In fact, there are good arguments to be made that this is the principal success factor for these types of games; it doesn’t matter how good an MMO is or how highly it is rated – massively multiplayer games live and die by the number of concurrent players. Few things will alienate players quite as quickly as connection errors and game breaking bugs.
The self-fulfilling prophecy of the “Wait and See”
The danger for EA now is that players who have seen how many issues were present in Anthem just a few weeks before its launch will decide to ‘wait and see’ if the issues are fixed before buying the game for full price at release. Indeed, many independent game critics and youtubers are advocating this very course of action.
Compounding this issue is the still recent memory of EA’s Battlefront 2 microtransactions fiasco; when images leaked on Reddit of the potential cost of suits in Anthem the backlash was immediate and unforgiving. With this in mind, it’s likely that many gamers will also choose to wait before getting the game in order to see how microtransactions are implemented and to what extent they affect the gameplay. Of course, players waiting to buy Anthem rather than getting it at launch is a serious concern for EA.
Anthem’s success will come down to whether or not it can quickly reach the critical mass of players to sustain itself. If too few players get the game from the outset, the drop-off will happen suddenly and will increase exponentially as the dwindling playerbase creates a negative feedback loop; the “wait and see” crowd will create a self-fulfilling prophecy, where their absence from the playerbase ultimately leads to the downfall of the game and confirms that they were right to abstain. On the other hand, if there are sufficient concurrent players once the game goes live, Anthem will be able to generate its own mass and, much like how a good online game with no players is worthless, even an average online game with a huge playerbase will be appealing to many people.
Bad demo design and lingering microtransaction anxiety
Among the technical and consumer trust issues outlined above, the design of the demo itself did little to wow players with the variety or extent of content on offer. The story missions left us completely uninterested in the actual story of the game, and the stronghold mission, supposedly the centerpiece of the Anthem demo, felt long and repetitive with a laughable puzzle component which seemed like an afterthought. For some logic-defying reason, the whole range of mech suits were not available at the outset, making the game feel even less diverse. Although they were unlockable over the weekend (so not purposefully omitted from the demo), the amount of disconnects and lost progress meant that many gamers weren’t able to use them at all. Why they were not made available from the outset of the demo will perhaps forever remain a mystery.
And in the increasing list of roadblocks which EA has set up for itself in the successful launch of Anthem, perhaps the most egregious and infuriating of these is the decision to release their new free to play battle royale game, Apex Legends, just a few weeks before the Anthem launch. In contrast to the Anthem demos, the Apex Legends launch has been met with more or less universal praise (thanks in no small part to their stealth launch) with virtually no connection issues or major bugs. Within a week, Apex Legends has reached 25 million concurrent players. If the popularity of this game holds, even for just a couple more weeks, then it may very well overshadow or completely eclipse EA’s much-anticipated Anthem release. The fact that it is much easier for Apex Legends to reach high player numbers because it is free to play is remarkably relevant, as Anthem is exactly the kind of game which would have benefited immensely from being free to play.
Different games – different players?
Naturally, EA and other observers would claim that the two games have very different playerbases and so do not really compete with each other in any meaningful sense; Apex Legends is a purely PvP game without any kind of story while Anthem is a purely PvE game with heavy narrative elements (supposedly). As far as EA is concerned, they are simply covering their bases by capturing both the market for PvP and PvE players at the same time.
Of course, this completely ignores the fact that there is a massive overlap for both games. Are you, or anyone you know, interested exclusively in either PvE or PvP games?
It also overlooks the fact that, as gamers, we have limited budgets for videogames and microtransactions (EA’s principal area of interest), not to mention limited hours of time to actually play or watch games. It’s also ignorant to the importance of social media in organically promoting a game. We can’t speak for everyone, but certainly for us at the moment our Twitter feeds are saturated with people streaming or talking about Apex Legends in a very positive way. On the other hand, it seems the only people actually talking about Anthem right now is EA’s community team…
Of course this could shift once Anthem finally releases and players have more to actually talk about but it doesn’t change the fact that EA has spectacularly distracted from a high-profile launch that has been six years in the making by releasing a free to play game.
The irony in the whole story of course is how the failure of Titanfall 2 to reach mainstream success is largely attributed to the fact that EA decided to release it too closely to its own Battlefield 1 and competitor Call of Duty: Infinite Warfare. Now, just a few years later, it looks like Respawn may be turning the tables on EA, subverting players from their other major release and being one of the main reasons (of many) why Anthem looks set to have a rocky launch.