AusGamers' resident javelin gold medallist, Joab Gilroy, was recently invited out to Tokyo, Japan to get hands-on with BioWare's Anthem, and in between sessions of pretending to be Iron Man, also managed to speak to lead producer Mike Gamble about all manner of things, beginning with a bit of good old BioWare sexy time...
Tokyo, Japan, played host to a preview of Anthem — BioWare's epic new loot shooter. We chatted to Mike Gamble, Lead Producer on Anthem, to find out all the nitty gritty details.
AusGamers: So we'll just kick off with... it's a BioWare game. If you guys are known, for anything in particular, it's sexy times. How many people can you bang in Anthem?
Mike Gamble [Laughs] None! Yeah, we gotta leave some room for Dragon Age, I tell ya.
Nah, we didn't ever want really Anthem to be about that. We kind of wanted to try something different, go in a different direction, not necessarily to make it about the romances. Yeah, I mean, it was a design decision from the very beginning.
AusGamers: During your presentation, you said that you planned on content for months, maybe years. Do you guys have a rigid commitment to support for Anthem at this point?
Mike: We have a team that's working on content, that's looking at the next however many deliverables that we have. There's a plan, there's a narrative arc in the story we wanna tell. It's only rigid in the sense that we're building it, but when we launch we might see from fans that they want certain things, different things. So we're gonna have to pivot, maybe.
"I think that as long as players are playing it and really support it, there's no one year..."
They have flexibility as well, but there's the plan and then there's the reality. When things come out, we might have to work on different things, who knows.
AusGamers: Is there a time commitment for that support, post-launch?
Mike: No, there's no hard-and-fast time commitment. I think that as long as players are playing it and really support it, there's no one year, five year, 10 year plan, but it is a long time. We're investing heavily in this game and we want it to last for a very long time. There's no sense in making a game with the framework that we have now, and then just pulling out very shortly after launch. We don't want that.
AusGamers: One of the things that I noticed while I was playing was the minor variances in the amount of XP earned at the end of a round. I earned 1900, someone else earned 2100, is there anything, in particular, governing that? Is it just kills or...
Mike: Yeah, it's kills, it's definitely kills. It's your contribution. Doing it that way actually solves a lot of problems. In other games, let's say that you're doing a raid or something and someone jumps in, in the last five minutes, and then takes credit for the entire raid. We don't want that, so what do we do? Base it on kills. And based on the amount of damage you do, and the amount of contribution that you're doing. That's why you're seeing the differences.
AusGamers: Anthem harkens to the classic dungeon crawls / party based MMO style game, but it doesn't have that holy trinity, it's missing the healer element of the Trinity. Why is that?
Mike: [Anthem] was always about feeling like a superhero, a really powerful superhero. If you look at the Avengers, it's like, who's the healer in the Avengers? Nobody. Everyone is just in combat in different ways, so we really wanted to lean into that fantasy, make it less about that. Plus, every time you kill, you get… well, not every time you kill, but many times you kill, you get health which will make the healing a part of staying alive, when people manage their own shields, so that everyone can feel like they're contributing to damage.
AusGamers: Then it is also part of the gameplay loop as well, because when you kill someone, you have to go get the health as well?
Mike: Yep, absolutely. It changes things up just a little bit, but ultimately the biggest reason was we want everyone to feel like they're doing damage and they're contributing in damage.
AusGamers: There's a shit tonne of customisation options for your javelin. Where do you draw the line? Is there a limit?
"You've got four javelin types and four different playstyles, and you change all that based on your gear and weapons..."
Mike: I guess there is, but what's in-game right now is kind of what we plan on launching, too. There's a lot of different ideas that we have in the future. For example right now, you can't really like, customise the colour of the lights on the eyes and stuff like that. We can add all that stuff later on.
You've got four javelin types and four different playstyles, and you change all that based on your gear and weapons. But really, in the game that's about playing with people and being social, you have to be able to be unique, as unique as humanly possible which means the more options the better.
You'll also notice that we didn't spend a lot of our investment on the pilot. You don't really see the pilot nearly as much in the game as you see your exo, so we just shift it all over to the javelin.
AusGamers: It's a loot chasing game, they've become quite popular in the last couple of years. Why do you think that is, why do you think people desire that extrinsic motivation when they're playing games?
Mike: I think it's actually been around a long time. Even in action games and RPG games, you always have people who are pursuing these challenges. I remember when I played Final Fantasy, way back in the day. Sure I was playing through the story, but that wasn't enough, I wanted to kill all of the Weapons. It was a thing that I wanted to do. People really like increasing level of challenges and they feel great to get to that one horizon, and then they see another horizon in front.
I think that players are being more strict with their money and how they're spending on games, and they're expecting a lot more time out of the purchases they make. Instead of people buying two games a month, maybe they'll buy one game every six months, and they expect that one game to really carry them. The industry has changed a lot that way, so I think that's part of it, the mentality of why and how people play games has changed, so we have to adapt as well as game makers.
AusGamers: Do you think that loot chasing feeds into that?
Mike: Definitely. It definitely does.
AusGamers: Does it feed into it from a perspective of allowing you to lengthen the process of playing the game, or does it feed into it, in a sense that people are more inclined to get in on the ground floor with a game?
Mike: Both, and the feeling of hitting a certain reward horizon and then having that next thing in front of you is a really intrinsic motivator to keep on going and re-play. Then ultimately, there's the whole thing where you get to play with your friends and you get to play as part of a group.
Group play and social games have really become a lot more popular, and it is because when you play with your friends and you have those victories, it's not like an insular feeling anymore, it's got a shared feeling. So you remember that and you're like, "Oh, hey man, remember that time that we did this and this and this? Yeah, that was awesome!" And, "I hope they add this, and I hope they add this." That adds to that kind of forward momentum. So it's also about it being social. I think that if people just played by themselves, they wouldn't feel that nearly as much.
"The more comfortable people are playing with other people, the more that they lean into it..."
AusGamers: Cool. How does all of that impact playing with randoms? Is it about making friends outside of your friend circle?
Mike: A little bit, we hope. The game is designed to reinforce social play through gameplay. Obviously, when you play it, you see the combo system, the primers, the detonators. We also have something called the alliance system which is, the more you play with others, the better the actual gameplay rewards in. That's kind of a viral system that we have in there. So there's a gameplay reason to [play with others]. Communication is key, and sometimes we hit barriers with it. So, playing with randoms, you'll still see benefit in it even in the gameplay perspective, but playing with your friends is ultimately the best, and then if some of those randoms become your friend, then cool.
For me personally, I played Overwatch for many years, and the number of people who I've added to my friends list who I've encountered through that game, is way more than I ever thought that I would before, especially as a nerd who just played single player RPGs vs Overwatch. So it's kind of a change of behaviour, right? The more comfortable people are playing with other people, the more that they lean into it. But it's getting over that initial hurdle, right?
AusGamers: Does the game balance for multiplayer primarily then?
Mike: Yeah, that was a big focus, actually. The difficulty will scale based on the number of players in the match, so both the difficulty of the creatures plus the number and types, whether you have lesser titans or normal titans or legendary titans, it's a combination of the number of players, your level, difficulty that you've chosen the game on, and all those things filtering together to create the difficulties that you see.
AusGamers: We had a guy drop out. Would we have noticed the difficulty lower when he dropped?
Mike: You should have. In those situations, you will also see... obviously, the match making pool for this event is just everyone in this room… but hopefully, in the real world, it will try matchmaking someone who's looking for quick play, because you would hit quick play on the menu and then search for something, and if you're the appropriate level or whatever, we'll just nab you and bring you in.
AusGamers: Speaking of levels, how does that work? How does playing say, I'm in early, I bust out a bunch of levels, my mates are a bit slower. How is that gonna work?
Mike: Actually, it just works. Let's say that you're level 28 and I'm level two, I can actually join up with you, because damage scaling is relative. So, when I'm killing someone, I will do relative damage to that person based on my level, so we'll both contribute equally to the overall experience. The only difference is that the loot that you get will be relative to your level, the loot that I get will be relative to mine.
Let's say you're level 30, you're starting to get legendaries, or blues or purples, you'll get more of those. I will get greys and greens, the commons and uncommons, as part of it, but we should both play together. The whole reason we did that is because we saw so many examples of games where there was the haves and have nots, the left behinds, and the people who have gone in on day one.
"The higher you get, the more rigid the matchmaking gets. So, at grandmaster three, you wanna matchmake primarily with people of a certain calibre..."
Ultimately, that's really not what Anthem's about. We think that the differentiator between folks should be based on your level of skill and how much you're willing to bring to the table. So, if you're gonna do a grandmaster three stronghold, well, you're going to want people of a certain level, of a certain level of gear score, and then you're going to want to do it that way, as opposed to punishing them in the earlier game when they should be levelling up.
AusGamers: Is the grandmaster system where that scaling stops?
Mike: Yeah, especially at grandmaster three. The higher you get, the more rigid the matchmaking gets. So, at grandmaster three, you wanna matchmake primarily with people of a certain calibre. At lower levels, when you're just playing through the story or just playing through the side content, it's more generous and you'll see more different people. It tries to maintain it, regardless, but the specific use case that we're applying for is if like, we're friends and I haven't started and you have, you should still be able to invite me. Even in grandmaster, you can still invite me as a level one but yeah...
AusGamers: Good luck.
Mike: Yeah, good luck.
AusGamers: Could you explain the combo system a little bit more to me, because I definitely saw a combo pop up a couple of times.
Mike: Yep. In its simplest form... it gets pretty nuanced... but in simplest form, there are primers and there are detonators. And certain gear and certain powers prime the enemy, and then certain gear and certain powers detonate the enemy for crazy results. To use a super rudimentary example, let me think of a good one... There's a certain ability on the Ranger where he has an electric kind of shock baton, and that's a primer, and then if you go to something that's mechanical, you can prime that thing up with an electric charge.
Then someone will come in with a fire damage and they detonate that, and it does like, eight times more damage than the normally would. So if you have a Storm behind you, or a Colossus behind you which has like a mortar, you prime that thing with your electric charge, the mortar hits it, detonates it, and then Bob's your uncle. Versions of that throughout the game occur. And there's an icon which denotes if something is primed to be detonated and then everyone will know.
AusGamers: Is it a multiplayer combo?
Mike: Yes, 100%
AusGamers: You're not-
Mike: Oh, you can do it yourself. You can be like, "All right, I'm gonna use my electroshock and then I'm gonna use my multi-missile and then blow it up." Where it gets really powerful is where you can start priming and detonating groups of mobs, so you'll have an electric charge which has AOE, grabs a group, and then you'll have someone with better vantage point who can hit a large group of people and detonate them with that. So, we're expecting players to call each other out and definitely use combos. I think, at the higher level of play, when you start getting grandmaster one, two, and three, combos are going to be really important to living, to even surviving.
AusGamers: Do you think players are going to build towards specific things, like "I'll build a primer javelin." Or...
Mike: Yes, 100%. That's the kind of level of player that you're gonna need at the top level which is, "All right, so, I have this role. My role is buffs, debuffs, and your role is aggro." Or, "I have this role, it's priming." We've already seen certain builds of Storms who are detonation Storms. So, you have folks in the front line who are responsible for priming, and the storms job is to hover above and look for things which are primed, and then just knock them out with the detonators. That's the kind of level of play that we want.
AusGamers: What are you guys looking at down the road for Anthem?
Mike: First, we gotta launch, that's the big thing. We gotta launch and we gotta launch stable. Servers and everything have to work, that's a big deal. The VIP weekend, this weekend [just passed], was a really good learning experience for us. Get that stuff stable. We have a couple more opportunities to get better and better, and then we have to launch.
Once we launch, part of the team is gonna go and they're gonna continue building the content that we planned on releasing very frequently, and the other part of the team is gonna be monitoring player feedback for like, quality of life things, certain changes and tweaks that need to be made, but ultimately we plan to support Anthem for a long time. So it's going to be all hands on deck after the launch.
AusGamers: Did it feel good to build a brand new...
Mike: Yes, it does. Doing an IP, it takes a long time, it really does. It's not as simple as a lot of people think it is. Establishing the rules of the IP, the fundamentals of what the game is, the storytelling that can exist. Basically, carving out the framework and then building on top of that. So, being like, "Oh, and then there's this, and then there's this, and then there's these characters, and this story." It's a big layer cake that we have.
But it feels good when it finally comes together and finally comes out. Releasing IPs are so rare, especially new ones, that we took the time I think to do it. I think Anthem has legs to carry itself for a while, like we did with Dragon Age, like we do with Mass Effect. We hope Anthem to join that family of things we can make different themes off of and support for a while.
AusGamers: Are all Bioware games in a Brandon Sanderson-esque multiverse?
Mike: No, I wouldn't say that. Anything's possible, really, if you beat us over the head and really ask to like, "Are they all the same universe?" You might get a different answer. We want it to kind of live on its own.