Better broken than never?
I keep finding myself thinking about Anthem. It's a game I wanted to love, found that I couldn't, and - unusually for me - uninstalled in a fit of justified annoyance several months back. It was a buggy, broken mess of a game that promised so much more than it delivered. I wrote about it here, and here we are four months on and it appears that I'm still grieving over what could have been. Now more than ever, it feels like that game and I have unfinished business. And therein lies a problem. With more and more people in my dim little corner of the internet screaming "games as a service are a fucking con!" at the top of their voices - a statement which I disagree with in spite of being able to understand their frustrations - Anthem is the go-to example to back up their argument. It was sold on promises of day one content it didn't have, on promises of a roadmap that was promptly scrapped; it's the gargantuan balls-up that their hypothesis hinges upon.
Without doubt, it's the highest profile "failure" of a service game so far - crashing and burning despite the weight of BioWare and EA behind it. The sales were OK, apparently - but the engagement since has been way below expectations. I couldn't help but notice that service games were conspicuous by their absence at E3 this year. Anthem itself was removed from the EA Play conference, apparently - hardly surprising giving the underwhelming update stream a week earlier, which is something we'll come back to in a bit. Sea of Thieves was also quiet, while Bungie had blown their load about Destiny 2's new "Shadowkeep" expansion a few days earlier. The Division 2 is getting more content - which is a surprise to no-one as it seems to be quietly getting on with doing what it does and doing reasonably well. But I don't recall seeing a single new service game announced. Correct me if I'm wrong, but I wasn't sure what to make of that. Could it be that there are others but they aren't in a position to be announced just yet (not that such a niggling little problem would normally stop Sony from sounding off about their existence)? Or are developers and publishers looking at the increasingly crowded sector and considering just how much work is required to achieve viability and cautiously backing away? No insider knowledge here, but I'd guess a bit of both - and time will tell as it always does.
Coming back to Anthem, though - my plan was always to return to it when it was fixed. As that looks doubtful though, there's another problem beginning to arise in the form of a player count that is in free-fall. The number of people engaging in the game has fallen off a cliff, apparently - with some estimates claiming that the player base is now hovering at between 5,000 and 7,000 unique players logging in each day. For someone who wanted to go back to the game (and who was looking forward to doing so, if I'm honest), there's a very real possibility that by the time I return, the player base will be so low that some elements of the game are impossible to engage with in any meaningful way - and that's assuming that that point hasn't been reached already. Which leads me, finally, to the point of this whole post - is it better to jump in and play a game when it first comes out, at a moment in time when its player base is as high as it will likely ever be, but it's probably also in the worst technical state it will ever be? Or, do we wait - as I have with Anthem - only to eventually realise that we've maybe waited too long, and that by the time it's in a decent technical/content state no-one's around to play it with anymore? Is it better to play a game broken, or to face that in waiting for fixes you may never play it? As usual, there's probably no right answer.
There's a truth to be found here though, and that's that service games - while designed to be played forever, at least hypothetically - will most often end up having a finite lifespan. That lifespan may end up not being anywhere near as long planned, either. This could prove to be especially true of games like Anthem. While it is a service game, it's sat behind the initial cough-up for the disc or digital download and hopes that enough people will then spring for pretty outfits to be able to continue paying for the servers and the dev team to maintain it. The simple reality is that once that player base hits a certain level, the economics of maintaining all of that infrastructure simply won't make sense any more. Service games sold on a subscription (World of Warcraft, as ever, being the best example) have that endless stream of income that can fund all of the things that keep players engaged. It's interesting to note that Bungie are planning to move to a model closer to this one when Destiny 2 goes free-to-play in a couple of month's time. Ones where all the player's financial investment is stacked up front risk two issues - both of which have plagued a lot of service games but especially Anthem: firstly, players expect content immediately, and if it isn't there or is substandard the backlash will be very fast and very loud. Secondly, once players realise there's nothing to do they leave - taking their friends with them.
Bioware have gone pretty much radio silent on Anthem in the last couple of weeks. There was a developer stream in which they revealed the Cataclysm event - it was greeted with a lack of enthusiasm, and news coming in from PC players who are engaging with this new content via the recently launched Public Test Servers is that it's underwhelming at best - a far cry from the visual spectacle shown off in various E3 trailers in the past (which is hardly surprising, let's face it). Responses on Twitter to anything posted to the official @AnthemGame account are almost uniformly negative - anyone brave enough to post something positive risking a pile-on that would make the bravest Twitter user mute their notifications. The forums for the game are like a forest fire. And yet in spite of all of this, EA are publicly stating that they're committed to the game. The roadmap has been binned and no new one announced... but yet there is now a test server. Could it be that they're actually (wait for it...) doing what they promised to do, and fixing it? There's no doubt that to do so will be an uphill struggle - and the battle for the hearts and minds of gamers who were burned by it could become a war of attrition - but at the same time the brand damage they'd likely suffer from letting it die, whether quietly bleeding to death in the corner or by public execution is probably enough for some very high level head-scratching to be taking place.
Ultimately, it seems as though the fate of Anthem and the answer to the question posed are inextricably linked. For someone like me though, who grew up with games that I can still fire up and play today (he says, eyeing his SNES), it's a strange thing to think about - the idea of some of the biggest games actually being acutely time limited. Enjoy 'em while they last guys - because no matter how great they are or for how long, they aren't gonna be around forever.