Last week, Kotaku's Jason Schreier published an investigative article that revealed many of the issues behind Anthem, BioWare's latest title. The problems range from poor management to hesitant decision making and everything between, and most of them were surprising to see from such a highly-regarded game studio. However, there was one culprit that didn't surprise players at all — the Frostbite engine, notorious for both its incredible visual potential, and its extreme difficulty to work with, which often results in barriers that are as numerous as they are frustrating for developers to work through.
Anthem is perhaps the perfect embodiment of Frostbite's pros and cons, combining breathtaking visuals and maddening performance issues into one bittersweet package. And as it joins the ranks of several other titles that had rocky development due (at least in part) to the Frostbite engine, one has to wonder if the engine's peak potential is worth the demoralizing climb developers have to embrace to reach it.
Why DICE shouldn't move on from Frostbite
While it's clear that the Frostbite engine is incredibly problematic for most studios, one company that makes it work wonderfully is DICE — and this is because they made it. Back in 2008, DICE made the Frostbite engine for its Battlefield first-person shooter series, and ever since it has served them extremely well, throughout all of its iterations. The Battlefield and Battlefront franchises, by and large, have great technical performance.
Because of this, there's little reason to suggest that DICE stop using its own engine. So far, it hasn't failed them.
Why other developers should move on from Frostbite
While DICE may have few issues with Frostbite, it has become clear that it presents a mountain of problems for most other developers that use it. BioWare's various teams have practically been at war with Frostbite from 2014's Dragon Age: Inquisition onward. That game, Mass Effect: Andromeda, and Anthem all experienced major setbacks during development because of its difficulties. Frostbite was also a major factor in the collapse of Visceral Games' now-cancelled Star Wars title. While currently unconfirmed, many suspect that the swap to Frostbite for recent FIFA titles has caused their development teams to struggle as well, as they have numerous technical problems.
In addition to the anonymous sources from the above Kotaku articles, Manveer Heir, who previously worked on Andromeda, personally wrote on Twitter that "...all the criticisms of Frostbite, the shittiest engine I've ever worked with are 100% on point and seriously my life is so much better on Unreal now where things, you know, work and content creators are, you know, empowered." He then went on to add that "Some days I wake up from nightmares of Frostbite taking 2 days to do something I can do in 2 hours in a competent engine. Beautiful looking engine that is dogshit to use."
Based on all of the evidence we have, it seems very clear that the Frostbite engine is a huge pain to utilize if you're making anything other then a first-person shooter. Sure, the engine allows for incredible visuals — I noted in my review of Anthem that it's easily one of the best-looking titles I've played — but are those graphics really worth the cost of having to fight with the tech you're using at every turn?
At the end of the day, I don't think they are. Amazing visuals are always a treat, but other engines are capable of great graphics too, and they don't cause significant problems for developers that ultimately turn into technical issues for the player. Naturally, this makes Frostbite a contributor to developer stress levels, with one BioWare employee that spoke to Kotaku stating that "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."
If a game engine is a significant contributing factor to declining morale in a company's ranks, and if it's the direct cause of numerous bugs and glitches, I think it's safe to say that it's time to look for a new one, no matter how great the graphics are.
Conclusion: Retire Frostbite for everyone — except DICE
While DICE has managed to use its Frostbite engine well for its games, it was designed for the first-person shooter titles it makes. It was not made for third-person action games, role-playing games, or sports games, and it seems that as long as developers keep trying to use it for those genres, both players and programmers will suffer as a result.
It's unclear whether or not EA forces the companies under it to use Frostbite. Former BioWare general manager Aaryn Flynn revealed that BioWare chose to use it because of concerns about its current engine at the time, suggesting that they, as well as other companies under EA's wing, are not mandated to use the engine. However, if that's the case, why keep using it now despite all the problems?
The answer to that question may never come. However, one thing is certain — the Frostbite engine needs serious work if developers want to take it beyond its first-person shooter roots.
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