Video game publishers are always looking for more ways to get players to spend more money and spend money often. One of the latest trends is offering early play time, which companies like Ubisoft, 2K, and Electronic Arts have successfully used as an incentive.
Using those extra few days of early play can help sell more expensive versions of a game or convince someone to sign-up for a subscription service. It can also gives publishers a built-in hype machine, with thousands of players online, posting glowing video commentary, and creating buzz for the wide release.
That’s presumably what EA hoped would happen with Anthem: critical acclaim, glowing videos, and an electric atmosphere building for an entire week. BioWare’s latest was officially released on Friday, Feb. 22, but the full game was available for some players on PC and Xbox a full week earlier. Sometimes though, features that are supposed to make games more attractive can have the opposite effect.
It all began with with “the grid,” a more-complicated-than-it-needed-to-be visual explainer of when you could play Anthem on each platform. It wasn’t rocket science, but it’s a long way from the days when games had a single release date.
The discussion around the grid and Anthem’s early play time became a distraction. It was memed on social media, with thousands of comments openly deriding the chart. What was intended as an easy way to communicate the value of EA Access and Origin Access Premier subscriptions became a flashpoint for criticism. A number of responses to the original @EAHelp post, even suggested that the spreadsheet-style chart was enough of a turn-off to drive people away from purchasing. (Take that with a grain of salt though, as there is no way to know if these individuals ever intended to buy Anthem in the first place).
As Eurogamer’s Tom Phillips pointed out, this could have been far less complex. So, why wasn’t it?
EA was trying to communicate too much all at once. The grid included two demo weekends, two different PC release dates, early play time tied to two other subscriptions, and the existence of the more expensive Legion of Dawn edition. Of course, the grid wasn’t simply about education. It was designed to up-sell players into a more expensive version of the game or a subscription program.
It backfired, and things got worse when Anthem’s first demo weekend (a selling point on the grid) suffered from technical issues. EA and BioWare fixed the problems for the second demo weekend and awarded free skins to players who put up with the original demo.
Everything was smooth sailing to Anthem’s early release date on Feb. 15.
But in the week between “early play” and the game’s official release on Feb. 22, EA ended up with a problem on its hands. Critics and players weren’t falling in love with the game.
Key features weren’t well tutorialized, excessive load times hampered the experience, and the messaging around a “day one” patch for a game already playable for days confounded EA’s PR operation.
All of this was made worse by Microsoft vice president Mike Ybarra who took to Twitter to lambaste a critic who called out Anthem’s poorly explained combo system. He argued that despite players having access to Anthem on PC and Xbox One that the game shouldn’t be criticized for its bugs, because it wasn’t released yet. EA and Microsoft are partners — Xbox is helping to market the game — and the EA Access subscription program only exists on one console: Xbox One. This partnership should be a feather in Microsoft’s cap, not a target for corporate executives.
All of this flips the script on early play. Instead of having ambassadors out in the community promoting the game and critics building excitement for release, there’s an entire week of unfavorable press and social media discourse that is no doubt having an effect on pre-orders, or at the very least, the public perception of Anthem.
EA says it expects to sell five to six million copies of Anthem by March 31, the end of the publisher’s fiscal year. The company is coming off a miserable quarter that showed soft sales for Battlefield 5 and underperformance for Command and Conquer Rivals. It has a runaway success in Apex Legends (which may complicate Anthem’s position), but EA needs a premium release win. Investors still look at unit sales during a game’s launch window as a hallmark of success.
None of this has to be more than a stumble, though. If we’ve learned anything about service-based games, there is always room for redemption. Ubisoft continues to pour resources into helping games like Rainbow Six Siege and The Division reach their full potential. Bungie continued to improve Destiny and Destiny 2, both of which have grown and matured since launch. EA itself buckled down and corrected some big missteps with Star Wars: Battlefront 2.
Anthem breaks new ground for BioWare, shifting away from a traditional DLC model for games like Mass Effect and Dragon Age to a full game-as-a-service. There are obvious challenges in keeping players engaged over the long-term but there are also opportunities to improve on Anthem’s great gameplay loop. A rough start doesn’t mean the Javelins are going to crash to the ground. It does mean, however, that both publisher and developer must commit to long-term success, especially in the face of short-term failures.