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Is it time for BioWare to give up on the Frostbite engine?

Over the last eight years, BioWare has released three games- Dragon Age Inquisition, Mass Effect Andromeda and Anthem. Each launch has been followed by stories from developers talking about how difficult the development process was, in large part due to changing over to the Frostbite engine. On paper, having all of EA’s studios on one engine, using the same tools and sharing resources sounds like a good idea but it was made clear this week that this approach just isn’t working, especially for the people at BioWare.

Kotaku’s Jason Schreier has reported on the behind-the-scenes issues that plagued Dragon Age Inquisition and Mass Effect Andromeda. Last night, he dropped another bomb, this time detailing Anthem’s troubled development, complete with accounts from 19 developers that worked on the game.

Anthem was in pre-production for over six years and was initially supposed to be a seamless online game, with different cities, bases, dynamic weather and in-world events. The original pitch actually sounds a lot more like a survival game set in a dangerous world where exosuit-clad humans are the lowest on the food chain. Instead, we got an Iron Man power fantasy with less content than many had hoped for.

Why were so many of the original ideas scrapped? Well, a lot of that does come down to the Frostbite engine. One developer told Kotaku that “Frostbite is full of razor blades”, while another said that the engine is “poorly documented” and “hacked together”. Another BioWare developer gave a bit more explanation: “Part of the trouble was you could do enough in the engine to hack it to show what was possible, but then to get the investment behind it to get it actually done took a lot longer, and in some cases you’d run into a brick wall. Then you’d realise, ‘Oh my god, we can do this only if we reinvent the wheel, which is going to take too long.’ It was sometimes difficult to know when to cut and run.”

The report cites developers noting that simple bug fixes can take up to a week on Frostbite. Other tasks that should be relatively quick to complete are bogged down by sluggish tools and over-complication:

“With another engine I could do something myself, maybe with a designer. Here it’s a complicated thing”. Another developer added: “It’s hard enough to make a game, it’s really hard to make a game where you have to fight your own tool set all the time”.

BioWare did tackle a whole bunch of issues when getting Dragon Age Inquisition running on Frostbite, so theory goes, the studio should have had some knowledgeable talent in-house that could tackle certain issues. Unfortunately, that wasn’t the case at all. The report confirms that instead of working on Anthem, some of the best engineers were actually shifted over to work on FIFA, as that is EA’s biggest money maker.

EA does have a central team that handles Frostbite support requests across all internal studios. Unfortunately, the amount of support you get seems to directly correlate with how much money your game is expected to make. With that in mind, FIFA and Madden developers seem to get the most support.

Tasks like making adjustments to the lighting or updating the level design could take up to 24 hours. Games are made through a process of experimentation and iteration, with that in mind, huge slowdowns like this can cause issues and hurt morale.

What this report makes clear is that Frostbite is not the all-encompassing, versatile engine that EA wants it to be. It was designed for first-person shooters and in that role, it does the job quite well. However, it simply doesn’t have the tool set for the large-scale RPGs that BioWare is known and loved for.

Unfortunately, it doesn’t look like this process is going to be resolved. At the moment, BioWare is planning to base Dragon Age 4 on Anthem’s codebase. Frostbite will likely remain front and centre. Perhaps over time, programmers, designers and engineers at BioWare will manage to solve these problems but developing an engine is no easy task and without the additional resources from EA’s Frostbite experts, it will continue to be the root cause of many issues.

While this article mainly focuses on the Frostbite portion of this story, it is worth noting that the Kotaku report showcases many other problems that plagued Anthem’s development. From a lack of vision or direction, leadership not dealing with critical issues, lack of resources, poor communication and a blind faith in ‘BioWare Magic’- a term used by the studio to describe the later parts of development where the puzzle pieces miraculously fit together.

KitGuru Says: Developing an engine is a difficult task and takes years of hard work. As we have seen over the last eight years, Frostbite isn’t versatile enough to properly support the types of games BioWare is best known for. Sure, Anthem runs, but so many potentially great ideas had to be thrown out along the way just to get to this point.

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