Was The Writing On The Wall For Visceral’s Star Wars Game?

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.

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  1. Ha! I had a feature partially written which angled in the same points. Spot on, Tef. Visceral for me was the go-to for EA’s single-player games. Dead Space made me a believer in the studio’s ability to make solid single-player experiences.

    I’m hoping Hennig stays in for the writing. I also think it’ll still be great if it’s still linear but has large open areas like Uncharted has done in recent entries. Not everything has to be open-world and non-linear to be spectacular. As there Star was universe is so massive and ever expanding

    This game smells of micro-transactions already, but it’s the timing of when the game will come that will be most interesting. Given the time frame we’re at now and the fact we’ve seen little to nothing. It’ll probably slot its release between two Star wars movie releases. One being a spin-off and the other being a new episode to the Skywalker Trilogy. They’ll cash in on that for sure.

  2. I guess this means the next non-Battlefront Star Wars game will be the one Respawn have been working on for a year or two.

  3. I actually think the change of direction for the game may be a good thing. I very rarely go for linear, single play through games any more, there’s just no mileage to them. Play them, get 8-10 hours of entertainment, done. If they could build something Destiny-like in the Star Wars universe, that’d be amazing!
    Obviously, it’s very sad news about Visceral, they’ve done some great things in the past, Dead Space was one of my top 5 games probably. Thing is, the gaming landscape is changing and they have to keep on top of that.
    It’s a very good article by you, very well written and very informative, but it shows in the article itself that some of EAs recent, linear, single-player games of late have failed. Yet games of theirs with more mileage, that you can keep coming back to, have been successful.

  4. What kind of annoys me about this decision is that they already have ‘games that players come back to for a long time to come’. The great thing about story-driven, linear games is that they AREN’T time consuming. Why can’t we have both? I’m not sure that by turning every game into an endless, online, lootfest, people are suddenly going to start buying more games. If anything, they’ll probably buy less because they’ll be too busy returning to the games they already own ‘for a long time to come’.

    I’m just mad because I was hoping for a new Dead Space. Or at the very least a Dead Space HD Trilogy (remember those?). What will they remaster in the future? Destiny? Battlefront? The Division? We’ll already be playing prettier versions of exact same games, with a higher number at the end. I can’t think of anything worse. I doubt anyone will be longing for a 4K Remaster of Evolved on the PS5.

    These types of games are very much ‘of the moment’ because in 5 years time, the servers will be switched off and they won’t exist anymore. They’re like ice sculptures… (bear with me) …nice to look at when they’re there but once they’re gone you aren’t bothered. Call me old-fashioned but I like my games to stand the test of time and these online, fleetingly-entertaining, sinkholes have no substance. They don’t even last one generation.

    • I think there’s more of us here who cling on to the idea of lasting games offline games than those who embrace these more fashionably funded types. I think we’ve had plenty of both though, mostly first party this gen but the likes of Uncharted and Horizon have kept me satisfied and the halfway houses with good value season passes. I can’t invest stacks of time in games like Destiny because I’ve got young kids, but Battlefront 2’s lootgate doesn’t bother me because I’m not aiming to reach top standard at the game. I reckon those who are will be in the minority and whilst lootgate and the sinister matchmaking are shit to read about they probably won’t totally ruin a game for most, they just two the polish off.

  5. EA need to stop trying to make every game a season pass & dlc fest. The industry is now afraid of single player linear games because they get no extra revenue other than the initial purchase. Remember when that was enough though? EA certainly don’t.

  6. You didnt mention that EA could learn how to do more with less. Its not always about pushing the costs onto the players, it could be about learning new ways to do things that are alot cheaper or quicker.

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