Yesterday, Electronic Arts announced that it would be closing its San Francisco Bay-based studio Visceral Games. The studio was responsible for such titles as the Dead Space franchise and 2015’s Battlefield Hardline. Unfortunately, along with the scuttling of the studio, EA revealed that Visceral Games’ in-development Star Wars game would be rescoped and moved to development at EA Vancouver.
EA’s statement seems straightforward enough. After extensive playtesting, the publisher felt the need to “pivot the design” into a “broader experience that allows for more variety and player agency, leaning into the capabilities of our Frostbite engine and reimagining central elements of the game to give players a Star Wars adventure of greater depth and breadth to explore.”
In short, the single-player title under the direction of lauded Uncharted and Legacy of Kain writer Amy Hennig won’t work for player retention. Not like the upcoming multiplayer-focused Star Wars: Battlefront II would, anyway. And furthermore, it’s being offloaded to EA’s Vancouver-based studio, which has largely only contributed to sports titles. As for Hennig, according to Polygon, EA is “in discussions with Amy about her next move.”
So what does the offloading of the title and shift away from narrative mean for the future of Star Wars games — and of story-based single-player games, in general?
What Was Visceral’s Star Wars Game About?
To rub salt in the wound, let’s recap what this game actually was. After leaving Uncharted and The Last of Us developer Naughty Dog, Hennig joined Visceral in April 2014 to work on the unnamed Star Wars project. She was working with actor and writer Todd Stashwick on a game in the style of Uncharted and borrowing concepts from the canceled Star Wars 1313 adventure game. Concept footage shown during EA’s press conference at E3 2016 showed what appeared to be a smuggler wandering through a market on a desert planet.
And — that was all we knew. After only three and a half years in development, Visceral unceremoniously closed and the project’s fate is up in the air.
What is EA Vancouver?!
In the announcement of Visceral’s closure, EA executive vice president Patrick Söderlund revealed that the Star Wars project, slated to launch sometime in EA’s 2019 fiscal year — which means between April 2018 and March 2019 — would be delayed indefinitely. Furthermore, the team at EA Vancouver, having already started contributing to the project, would take over, with other EA studios worldwide chipping in. “Our Visceral studio will be ramping down and closing,” Söderlund wrote, “and we’re in the midst of shifting as many of the team as possible to other projects and teams at EA.”
This also isn’t the first time Visceral Games has dropped the ball on a video game tied to a major franchise. In 2007, EA announced the cancellation of The Lord of the Rings: The White Council, a role-playing game set in J.R.R. Tolkien’s Middle-earth that would have story narrative elements. We’ve seen and heard nothing about the game since.
But the transfer of ownership to EA Vancouver, despite being the publisher’s oldest and largest studios, doesn’t inspire a lot of confidence in what this Star Wars project will become. The Vancouver studio’s past work is largely comprised of assistance on the various sports franchises — the FIFA, NFL Street, SSX, NBA Live, NCAA, and NHL franchises, to name a few. The studio has also worked on 1999’s Need for Speed: High Stakes, minigame compilations EA Replay and EA Playground, and 2007’s Medal of Honor: Heroes 2.
Why does this bode ill for a Star Wars narrative adventure? Nowhere in the studio’s pedigree is there a game that is story focused. These are all sports titles — and multiplayer titles, to boot. Therefore we can make a large, very educated guess that Hennig’s Uncharted-inspired Star Wars adventure is being rescoped into yet another multiplayer game, and probably another gun-toting shooter-based adventure. It seems, then, that we’re destined for multiplayer-only — and competitive no less — Star Wars games.
Wait, But Battlefront II Has A Story!
Back in 2013, a year after Disney announced that it had purchased Lucasfilm for a cool $4.05 billion, the entertainment giant and EA announced a multi-year game deal that would see EA churning out a plethora of Star Wars related video games.
So far, we’ve gotten expansions to MMORPG Star Wars: The Old Republic from Mass Effect studio Bioware; 2015’s Star Wars Battlefront reboot from DICE; an unnamed and un-detailed project from Titanfall developer Respawn Entertainment; and this year’s upcoming Star Wars Battlefront II. You’ll notice these are all multiplayer games, which hints at where EA thinks the money lies.
And yes, Battlefront II does have a story campaign, something the first Battlefront lacked and players asked for. But the real issues with Battlefront weren’t a lack of a narrative campaign. They were its unbalanced and repetitive multiplayer combat. The story campaign in Battlefront II, no matter how good a story it may be, won’t be its selling point; it won’t be the thing that lures players into microtransactions or keeps returning to.
What Does This Mean for Star Wars Story Games?
But while the language in Söderlund’s statement is ambiguous and more than a little non-committal, one thing is clear: EA has no confidence in a single-player, narrative-driven Star Wars video game. We are in a period of focus on multiplayer campaigns and open worlds — just look at Nintendo, who held out on these constantly-updating, open-ended, 100-plus hour games until this year’s The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild.
Developers aren’t looking at the first 10 to 20 hours of gameplay anymore. They’re not even looking at the first 40 to 50. They’re looking at the first 200 hours. Companies are looking at these late-game periods and want to make experiences that keep players around this long. They want to make the next Overwatch, not the next Uncharted. And in doing so, they’re neglecting and sometimes completely messing up building compelling experiences in those first 10 to 20 hours that should hook players in the first place.
But, no — they want to jump right to the money-making hours, when players will have spent, or start to spend, money on lootboxes and cosmetic skins, on the guns the top players have and on the tools that will make them want to continue coming back to grind less-skilled players into the ground. They’re looking at all multiplayer games, regardless of theme and intention, like an esport, and this can be detrimental to games as a whole and neglectful of players that do what that narrative experience. And those players are out there.
I don’t expect this to stop with Star Wars, either. Look at the introduction of loot boxes in Warner Bros.’ Middle-earth: Shadow of War. Lootboxes are in Star Wars: Battlefront II, too. But as Star Wars fans know, there is so much more to a galaxy far, far away, a setting rich with new stories and new experiences, as seen in projects like the Star Wars Story spin-off films and Star Wars novels like Thrawn, Phasma, and From A Certain Point of View. Unfortunately, game developers don’t seem to see it that way.