Anthem’s demise might be the final nail in the looter shooter genre’s coffin

Anthem should have been a slam dunk, or at least that’s what EA was banking on. The live service title, which replaced Destiny’s space wizards with flying robots, was meant to be a long-term game that would keep players engaged for years. With tons of loot to collect and an ambitious content road map, plus the talented team behind Mass Effect at the helm, it seemed like EA couldn’t fail … until it did.

After launching to middling reviews, the game quickly failed to meet EA’s lofty sales expectations. EA CEO Andrew Wilson quickly conceded that the approach wasn’t progressing as intended, telling GameDaily: “The promise was we can play together, and that’s not working very well.” One year later, BioWare got to work on a total overhaul meant to revive the game’s player base, but now, one year after that effort, EA has shuttered the project entirely.

The rocky two years isn’t a story that’s exclusive to Anthem. The failed experiment now serves as a cautionary tale for major studios hoping to cash in on the loot-centric live service trend and could be the final nail in the subgenre’s coffin.

The rise of the looter shooter

“Games as a service” is a phrase that encompasses many types of experiences. In short, it’s used to describe a game that’s meant to be played over a long period of time, not in a few sittings. Rather than giving players a short story and then sending them off to the next game, live service games attempt to keep them logging in over and over so they’ll keep engaging and, more importantly, spending money.

It’s a wide net, and one that contains many successes. Fortnite is a perfect example of a live service game done right, with its social water cooler spectacle and pop culture crossover events that make it a must-play experience. Then there are games like World of Warcraft, which has managed to retain a dedicated player base since 2004. Why make a brand-new game when players will keep logging into the old one?

More studios started asking that same question in the mid-2010’s, kicking off a wave of games that were all cut from the same cloth. In 2014, Bungie launched Destiny, an ambitious looter shooter that would keep players entertained for 10 years (a misleading claim that Bungie spent years walking back). While Destiny certainly wasn’t the first game to adopt the live service model, it was a high-profile release that became a blueprint for the next six years of video games.

Several major studios would follow suit with their own long-term service games meant to keep players on the hook. EA revealed Anthem, Ubisoft dropped The Division, Bethesda introduced Fallout 76, and even Square Enix hopped on the trend with Marvel’s Avengers.

These games all featured different gameplay mechanics, but they were united by one key factor: Loot. Players would spend hours and hours replaying missions or grinding out objectives to chase down gear that would raise their power level and make them stronger. The hook of this subgenre of service games was built around a symphisian gear chase where players’ stats could always go higher. What players actually did in the game took a back seat to what they could get.

That last part is what went on to doom looter shooters.

Fix it later

Other than loot, all of the games mentioned above had one more thing in common: Rocky launches. Destiny released with a somewhat thin suite of content that had fans skeptical of its long-term potential out the gate. The Division ran into the same problem two years later, even after initial impressions prematurely labeled it a Destiny killer.

The launch stories only get worse from there. Fallout 76 and Anthem had notoriously weak rollouts that had players bored within weeks, leaving their developers scrambling to overhaul the experience entirely. Last year’s Marvel’s Avengers turned out to be a disaster for Square Enix, which was forced to delay the game’s planned content as it fixed thousands of bugs at launch, all while bleeding players and costing the publisher millions.

Iron Man attacks in Marvel's Avengers
Photo courtesy of Square Enix

In all of these cases, compelling content proved to be a challenge. It’s not enough for a live service game to be fun; they have to continually provide players new experiences or risk turning entertainment into a chore. Games like The Division featured satisfying third-person shooting, but asked players to grind story missions over and over or trek through its repetitive Dark Zone to get more gear.

Anthem’s problems ran even deeper than that. In a 2019 report by Kotaku, several developers on the game described a chaotic behind-the-scenes process where the live service branding became a way to excuse fundamental problems. “Issues that were coming up, they’d say, ‘We’re a live service,’” said one developer. “We’ll be supporting this for years to come. We’ll fix that later on.’”

That led to the game launching with abnormally long load times and several bugs that left BioWare scrambling for fixes postlaunch, not unlike Marvel’s Avengers less than two years later. More and more, studios were playing defense as they tried to keep players from trickling out by creating new content, while simultaneously fixing the foundation. It’s an impossible balancing act that leaves little room for error, especially when players can just jump over to dozens of games with identical loot hooks.

What started off as a smart strategy for keeping players hooked quickly became a risky proposition that wasn’t consistently paying off as expected. EA opting to shut down Anthem entirely and putting BioWare’s efforts back into reliable games like Mass Effect and Dragon Age signals that the love affair with the subgenre may finally be winding down.

An ongoing process

This isn’t necessarily the end for Destiny-style service games. Warner Bros. recently teased that it’s looking to implement similar ideas into its upcoming games, such as Hogwarts Legacy. Meanwhile, titles like Warframe continue to thrive, getting better with time. Genres like this never really die wholesale, they just ebb and flow in popularity.

But it looks like we’re reaching the end of a design fad that dominated how major studios made video games for six years. As a medium, video games tend to be heavily trend-based. A game like Halo gets popular and regenerating health becomes the norm in shooters. PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds dominates the Steam charts and suddenly everyone has a battle royale game.

This breed of service game is no different and it was only a matter of time before studios would stop making multimillion-dollar gambles that were increasingly turning into a liability. Anthem had to die for the industry to finally give up on a style of game that it wasn’t prepared to support. Studios wanted to make a quick buck, but all they got was a long headache.

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