EA are in trouble. No, it’s not the kind of trouble that will see the company going under or being bought up by a French media conglomerate, but the company has seen a number of high profile misses over the last few years and they’ve been closing game studios left right and centre, it feels like. Visceral Games and the announced refocus of their Star Wars game into something that sounds a lot more like Destiny or Anthem is the culmination of a chastening string of disappointments.
Of course, they’re still a juggernaut of the games industry, with each year seeing their games come to dominate the sales charts. You have Madden selling like hotcakes in the US and FIFA consistently on top in the rest of the world, Battlefield 1 was a major success last year as EA capitalised on Call of Duty’s stumble in science fiction, and expectations will be high of Star Wars Battlefront II reaching the same kind of mass market is the previous game did in 2015.
Elsewhere, though, the company seems to be struggling to find solid ground to build upon. Mirror’s Edge Catalyst might have been eagerly awaited by the small cachet of fans that the 2008 first person parkour game managed to attract, but it didn’t live up to the expectations, despite ditching firearms and shifting to an open world design as so many had wanted. Then there was the folly of Titanfall 2’s release, launching is between its two biggest rivals, one of which came from within EA’s own stable, instead of giving it the space that the sublime first person shooter deserved. The release of Mass Effect Andromeda was also highly anticipated after the popularity of the original trilogy, but the internal struggles to find the right direction for the game and a serious lack of polish damned it to ridicule and sad indifference.
There have been some big casualties along the way, though not as many as you might actually think in recent years. Of these three high profile flops in the last year, it’s only Mass Effect Andromeda that has had major repercussions. DICE’s work on Battlefield and Battlefront means the Mirror’s Edge team could seamlessly be folded in, while Respawn are in many ways their own entity and bolstered by the very positive critical reception. However, BioWare Montreal is now gone, having had a large part of its staff let go in the wake of Andromeda’s release, the Mass Effect series put on hold, and then the remaining team merged with Motive Studios.
It’s been quite some time since EA have made a big budget single player adventure stick, regardless of the genre. In fact, you have to look back half a decade to Mass Effect 3 for the last blend of single player, critical praise and commercial success, and just a year later saw Crysis 3 as a big budget flop and Dead Space 3 failing to surpass its predecessor in sales and was criticised for straying too far form its horror game roots.
It’s the Dead Space series that Visceral Games will likely be most fondly remembered for – it certainly won’t be Battlefield: Hardline – and with Amy Hennig of Uncharted and Naughty Dog fame at the helm, there was a lot of anticipation for the untitled Star Wars game that they were working on. However, outside of some concept art and a brief teaser trailer, we really have little to go on with the action adventure title they were developing.
Past failures will absolutely have come into account for the decision to shut down Visceral and transform that game into something else, and the fact of the matter is that after three years of development alongside Motive Studios and with no indication that the game would be ready soon, this was going to be a game with a huge budget.
Of course, those who have followed EA’s decision-making process over the years will see that this is not an uncommon reaction to studios that fail to meet some kind of expectation. Many fondly remember the likes of Pandemic Studios – the original development team behind the first Star Wars: Battlefront games, as well as Destroy All Humans and the Mercenaries series. After being bought by EA, the studio was quickly dissolved for reasons that are still somewhat unclear. Bullfrog Productions also met a similar fate when Dungeon Keeper 2 failed to meet sales expectations.
Yet EA’s studio roster seems to come in waves – generations if you will. When the likes of Pandemic and Bullfrog were in trouble, others such as Visceral, DICE, and BioWare came into the fold to bolster their ever evolving lineup. Now with Motive Studios’ creation and sudden explosion in growth, Anthem expected to herald the next decade of BioWare gaminge, as well as DICE hitting on a money-making formula, it seems EA is evolving once more. Sadly, this means shifting what they may perceive as studios holding back progress and Visceral are just the latest victim in a long list of those cut loose.
Reading between the lines, it’s easy to see Söderlund’s mention of “fundamental shifts in the marketplace” and the desire to make a game that players “come back to and enjoy for a long time to come” and spot the looming spectres of microtransactions and Destiny or EA’s own Anthem within this. It’s certainly true that when budgets get bigger, you either need to sell more games, sell the same number of games at a higher price, or keep people engaged for longer and spending money after its release. Given how EA’s business has evolved around FIFA Ultimate Team and microtransactions, the way that their multiplayer shooters have thrived since Battlefield 3 and the degree to which their single player games have underperformed, it’s no surprise that they’ve felt the need to refocus Visceral’s Star Wars game.
Of course, where the game was in development, we don’t know, and we don’t even know what EA now expect it to become. Is it taking a linear eight hour Star Wars action romp and trying to spin that out into a Destiny-like game? Honestly, I can’t see something like that taking anything less than another three or four years. On the other hand, broadening the scope and making the world more explorable, open ended feels more feasible.
Will Amy Hennig remain to oversee the game’s transformation? That we don’t know, but Motive will surely be involved and development will now be headed by the team at EA Vancouver that was already a part of the game, and the staff at Visceral will be proliferated across EA where possible. It almost certainly won’t be coming out in 2019, as was previously expected. As EA move into a new direction, the future is uncertain for any employee in the EA fold. One thing is for certain though, that Visceral and the games they made in their heyday will be missed.