How BioWare built Anthem as a multiplayer game with a single-player story

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While the upcoming Anthem game may look like an entirely new type of experience from BioWare, it does share something in common with the titles that have come before it baring the studio’s name. Much like Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic, Jade Empire, Mass Effect and Dragon Age, there is a single-player, character-centric story at the heart of the action. It’s there in Anthem, it’s just isn’t being presented in a way that you might be expecting. 

ON THE RADAR: Anthem

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Cathleen Rootsaert, one of Anthem’s lead writers, sees this as a strength, particularly as BioWare looks to create an experience that can help it evolve narrative-design in the RPG space. In fact, Rootsaert is excited by the challenge of creating a living game, one that will allow BioWare to take the sensibilities it is so famed for engineering into a brand new medium. “What’s been exciting for the writers on Anthem has been the opportunity to create something new,” she tells us. “To take our experience creating memorable stories and characters and to apply it to this unique setup.” 

The unique setup, should you need reminding, is BioWare’s take on a live-service shooter. The studio has created a large open world designed to facilitate seamless cooperative play between Freelancers – groups of mercenaries that jump into heavily customisable exoskeleton suits – as they face down a mysterious alien threat emerging from a tainted void of creation. And it wants to enable this shared action experience without sacrificing the deep and reactive storytelling that the studio is so famous for developing. The unique part of the equation comes from Anthem’s schism between single player and multiplayer narrative design. 

Overcoming expectation

“The world of Anthem, beyond the safety of Fort Tarsis, is a shared world, a shared adventure, that is the same for everyone that you’re playing with at that time,” Rootsaert continues, attempting to explain Anthem’s complex narrative arrangement. “It’s in Fort Tarsis, the hub, where you can take your time and experience the stories of the people who live there on your own and at your own pace. That’s where there is reactivity to your personal game.”

Okay, so let’s break this down. This is how BioWare is looking to channel what is effectively a single-player narrative inside of a predominantly multiplayer-focused experience. As you head out into the world to participate in missions, you are heading out into those missions together with other players; The events and scenarios that generate while you’re in the middle of the action, as you team up with friends and strangers to take on threats, will will create unscripted, shareable stories. 

“Good relatable stories have been told since the times of campfires and cave paintings – the medium should never stop us”

Cathleen Rootsaert, Lead Writer

These missions will, however, ultimately culminate in Fort Tarsis – one of the last protected homes for humanity – which is a fully instanced hub area populated by an array of classic BioWare characters, quest givers and NPCs that you’ll be able to converse with, interact with and stan on Twitter when you think that nobody’s watching. When you return to Fort Tarsis – a place for you and you alone – you will see and feel the consequences and choices that occur on these missions reflected back at you.  

The idea is that Anthem is straddling the line between two types of storytelling experiences. On missions you’ll be engaging in communal storytelling, engaging in the types of multiplayer narratives that tend to dominate Twitch streams and Sub-Reddits. Once you return to Fort Tarsis, on the other hand, you’ll be able to really dig into the type of lore dives, exposition and character interactions that may usually warrant a spoiler warning in a traditional BioWare game. 

It’s an intriguing premise and it is, as Rootsaert tells us, a way in which BioWare is trying to expand what it is capable of. Is the fact that Anthem is primarily a co-op game working to its detriment in the story department? Rootsaert is quick to push back on such an assertion: “Good relatable stories have been told since the times of campfires and cave paintings – the medium should never stop us.”

A space that's always shifting

Rootsaert is quick to acknowledge that “the most radical changes that we had to make in order to adapt to the multiplayer and single-player split have been technical”, and she doesn’t believe that this has affected BioWare’s ability to tell an engaging story with good characters, lots of heart, and plenty of spectacular moments all weaved in with one another. 

In fact, once the studio worked out how to separate the two spaces, Rootsaert is confident that is was effectively business as usual. “While you often hear people talk about BioWare and story, I maintain that our characters are the special sauce that make BioWare games unique. So, going in to create our world was very much about imagining the people who live there – their dreams, desires, and challenges. To me, a successful story and its characters [should be] emotionally relatable.”

Fort Tarsis is a space that will continue to shift and evolve as you move throughout the story of Anthem. As you complete missions, complete quests for the your Faction of choice, and otherwise engage with the crew of NPCs stationed in the spacious area, your progress through the narrative will be reflected in both the dialogue and visual design – not unlike how the Citadel, Normandy and Skyhold would work to reflect current events and tensions in Mass Effect and Dragon Age. 

Anthem Story Explained

Anthem lore, characters and factions explained: Lead BioWare writers Cathleen Rootsaert and Jay Watamaniuk sit down to discuss all things story related.

That isn’t to say, however, that Anthem will handle these interactions as past BioWare experiences have done. The studio is only too aware that players will be torn between wanting to spend time with real friends and the ones the studio has scripted, and that means certain aspects of the game have been streamlined to accommodate. “As Anthem is also a new game and we’ve tweaked things slightly. For example, we know that players will have friends waiting for them to get out and fly through the world and so we’ve replaced the conversation type – where you could ask tons of questions [to NPCs] – with something more nimble. I hope that players will still see that the richness of the lore is still very much there. That is what is important to us.”

Fort Tarsis is where you’ll experience the nimbler conversational systems, as you interact with the new cast of companion characters – a pit crew that will support you in your endeavours to collect Shaper Relics before they fall into the hands of the Dominion. “In Fort Tarsis you will find your crew, Owen, Faye, and Haluk, as well as, other major characters,” she tells us. “And, just as with BioWare games of the past, you’ll be able to talk to them and get to know them better.” 

“You’ll also meet local characters and make choices as you talk to them and others in their storyline,” she says, adding. “The people who inhabit Fort Tarsis have stories and problems to solve that you can become involved with. Sometimes, through your advice or choices, their story will take a different turn. What is exciting for us is that we can continue through live service to pay off these choices.”

BioWare has been keen to note that no game-centric content will be cut off entirely through these choices, you might just have to work a little harder to discover certain bits of lore or cosmetic skins should you decide to push your relationship with one character or Faction to a breaking point. Still, this isn’t the biggest challenge that the team has had to consider when attempting such a bold narrative framework: “The challenge is the chaos of not knowing where in the story a player might be compared to another player,” Rootsaert tells us.

Play at your own pace

That makes sense. Players will be moving at different speeds through Anthem when it launches on the 22 February. The game is designed to deliver matchmaking for all of its core missions and give you the ability to meet up with your friends in the Launch Bay or out in Freeplay at any time, regardless of where you are in the story. We’re still waiting to see exactly how BioWare has handled every aspect to these particular problems – some are larger creative challenges than overs. For example, in an effort to keep the matchmaking servers busy, BioWare has confirmed that you will be able to replay missions that you’ve already completed at any time (be it with friends or in a matchmade group) and you can expect to be rewarded for doing so. 

That’s a small hurdle in the grand scheme of things. A bigger one is how your personal choices will reverberate out of Tarsis and into the actual missions themselves; the studio has only teased scenarios thus far. One clear example is that NPC dialogue (even while you’re in the midst of a mission) will be delivered to each individual player and can indeed reflect decisions you’ve made in your own specific Fort Tarsis – so if you’re really pissed off a mission-critical quest giver you might just find that they are a little curt as they are barking objective orders in your ear, while your friends are none the wiser. 

"I love how rich this world is with possibility and imagination and magic”

Cathleen Rootsaert, Lead Writer

That might not sound like much, but the technical hurdles associated with such a feat are massive. BioWare has encountered problems like this all throughout Anthem’s design and it has met every one of them head on. Perhaps that’s why we are so excited to see how this format will expand and evolve over time. The live service nature and dual-storytelling structure of Anthem means BioWare has more space to play than ever before. 

Anthem is a game that is designed to grow over time, with characters and relationships shifting in Anthem’s living and breathing world – always reflecting events or decisions made back onto you. Or, at least, that’s what BioWare is betting on. “I hope so!” Rootsaert responds as we ask whether we can expect new stories to arrive in Anthem for years to come. “That’s the plan. I love how rich this world is with possibility and imagination and magic.” 

Edge magazine uncovers how Anthem almost became a free-to-play experience before BioWare settled for a different model. 

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