If Star Wars can't give a publisher confidence in a splashy, expensive single-player game, maybe everyone's doomed.
Image courtesy of Electronic Arts
For years, Electronic Arts and Visceral Games have been developing an untitled Star Wars game spearheaded by Amy Hennig, a former creative lead on the Uncharted games. Though little had been shown, everything suggested a single-player-focused, story-heavy adventure that amounted to Uncharted: Star Wars. Today, EA announced it was shutting down Visceral Games and moving this project to another studio, essentially cancelling it.
Kotaku reports the game's assets will be used to form the basis of a new project.
The most important line in the announcement from EA executive Patrick Söderlund was this:
"Our Visceral studio has been developing an action-adventure title set in the Star Wars universe. In its current form, it was shaping up to be a story-based, linear adventure game."
Here was our one and only look at the game, from E3 2016:
There are few brands in the world that can compete with Star Wars. Marvel? Disney? (It's not a coincidence all three—Star Wars, Marvel, Disney—are owned by the same company.) If there was a fictional universe with enough fandom to give a game publisher confidence it could support an expensive game aimed at players looking to experience a good story and move on, you'd think it would be Star Wars. And yet, here we are. That game is no more.
"God, I love 'em," said Epic Games public relations manager Nick Chester on Twitter, as folks tried to make sense of EA's news, "but [big] budget, large scale, AAA, story driven games are expensive and risky to make. A huge IP doesn't guarantee a win."
Chester himself works for a company that's moved in a similar direction. Once defined by the awe-inspiring single-player campaigns in Gears of War, Epic has since transitioned into a company exclusively focused on service-driven games that players are coming back to for thousands of hours, not a dozen. It's one they might spend hundreds of dollars playing over the course of several years, not during a marathon weekend session. Paragon, a third-person MOBA, and Fortnite, co-op survival game, couldn't be more different than Gears of War.
"Seems Visceral got shut over microtransactions, the popularity of sandbox/roguelikes, Twitch/YouTube as marketing, and publisher financials," said Vlambeer designer Rami Ismail, best known for games like Super Crate Box, Ridiculous Fishing, and Nuclear Throne.
EA's announcement comes at a time of great financial turmoil in video games, right as there's larger industry conversation happening about the ethics of including loot boxes. Loot boxes, for the unaware, are a gambling-inspired microtransaction that quickly jumped from free-to-play and mobile games into the big-budget projects folks are used to paying $60 for the main experience, with optional, substantive add-ons (i.e. season passes) down the line.
The first response that many, including yours truly, had to EA's announcement was "Oh, they want their own Destiny." Granted, the EA-owned BioWare announced its own Destiny-like game at E3 this year, Anthem, but Anthem remains a risk. It's a new property with a new universe, and players might reject it. You can imagine how compelling the notion of a Destiny-like game with the Star Wars license would be to EA. It's an endless pit of money, one where even a mediocre attempt would have a higher potential to become a cash cow.
Destiny is an interesting lense through which view EA's decision. When Destiny was first announced, it was pitched as bringing the Halo experience—one rooted in traditional, bombastic, story-driven campaigns campaigns—and fusing that with multiplayer. That's not really the game that shipped in 2014, one where the multiplayer elements, like raids, shined. Though Destiny's development was infamously tortured and wrought with second guessing, Destiny 2's doubling down suggests the original game wasn't that far off the mark. The original campaign was singularly disappointing, yes, but Destiny 2's story won't exactly be talked about years from now, either. The world and fiction are merely set dressing for the stories that players go on themselves. The campaign is almost certainly an afterthought.
What the campaign and world building does, however, is pull you into the gameplay loop. The main attraction to Destiny is that it feels good to shoot stuff, it feels good to shoot stuff with your friends, and the pacing of acquiring new equipment keeps people coming back.
That's what publishers want: a reason to come back. Everything else is window dressing.
"I'm not asserting that Visceral's Star Wars game was definitely going to be good," said Giant Bomb editor Alex Navarro on Twitter. "They never showed it, so nobody outside EA really k
nows. what I am asserting is that regardless of its quality, if the numbers people forecasted it as profitable, they'd have put it out anyway."
A lot of single-player games haven't sold to expectations in the past year or so, including Prey, Dishonored 2, Resident Evil 7, Deus Ex: Mankind Divided, and others. Dead Space 2, according to one developer who worked on it, cost $60 million to make, sold four million copies, and that "wasn't enough."
There's a strange, upsetting irony that only months after Sony released Uncharted: The Lost Legacy, this Uncharted-inspired Star Wars project has been given the axe. The next project from Naughty Dog, the one studio you can reliably count on to make the very kinds of games that people are lamenting the loss of today, is The Last of Us II. Nothing suggests the sequel will meaningful depart from what people are expecting: a big-budget, story-heavy adventure.
Why does The Last of Us II get to exist and this Star Wars game doesn't? Money and time. (This game wasn't due to be released until 2019. Its release wasn't around the corner. At the moment, we have no idea if production issues might have contributed to the game's death.)
It's reasonable to think Uncharted 4: A Thief's End wouldn't have been greenlit by Sony if they didn't think it would make money. It's thereby reasonable to assert Sony would have backed off a very similar type of game with The Last of Us II if they became convinced it wouldn't make money. Sony does, on occasion, back prestige projects, even if the financials are a gamble. After 10 years, it's possible The Last Guardian failed to make back its budget.
What's overlooked with Uncharted, however, is how successful the multiplayer component has been. Introduced way back in Uncharted 2: Among Thieves, there was plenty of reason to be deeply cynical about Naughty Dog adding multiplayer to their otherwise single-layer game. Around that time, it seemed like every publisher's response to declining revenues for those types of games was to toss in a multiplayer mode. The wild part? It actually worked. Uncharted multiplayer was not only a massive hit with its audience, but crucially, it kept people coming back. Though Uncharted is looked at as a franchise driven by story, back in 2009, it became a service game, long before "service" became an overused buzzword.
Uncharted's microtransactions largely focus on unlocking cosmetic faster than it would take to unlock them organically. Had that not taken off, it's reasonable to wonder if the series would have been left behind when PlayStation 4 came around. Now, however, when Naughty Dog launches a new and expensive game, Sony can use its past successes to make a reasonable assumption a diehard audience will show up and spend more money. ( The Last of Us actually got in hot water because it experimented with asking players to pay for some weapons with unique benefits that went beyond merely changing cosmetics.)
There are exceptions to every rule, of course. How to explain The Witcher 3, a game with arguably too much content, yet none of the gross monetization hooks?
"AAA non service / single player games can succeed," said Niko Partners analyst Daniel Ahmad on Twitter, "but they really need to be the best in the genre and executed perfectly."
He's probably right. The Witcher 3, and games like it, are an aberration. (It will also be interesting to see if CD Projekt RED's next game, Cyberpunk 2077, will resist the siren call. Remember, they also own GOG.) Same with The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild. Or Super Mario Odyssey. Actually, maybe Nintendo should just make more games? (It probably helps they don't aim for photorealism.)
You can draw a throughline between EA's apprehension about moving forward on this and Warner Bros.' decision to deeply ingrain loot boxes into Shadow of War. Sure, yes, Warner Bros. made plenty of missteps when it came to implementing those loot boxes, but perhaps there's reason to both cynical and sympathetic. The cynicism comes from the reasonable expectation that publishers want to make as much money as possible—at whatever cost. The sympathy comes from realizing the games industry, despite its forward-facing success, might be on less stable ground than we think, and putting in additional methods of making money is the only way to get shareholders to sign off on the games many of us love to play.
The most upsetting takeaway might be an uncomfortable truth: without loot boxes, or opportunistic ideas like it, maybe these games can't exist.
Have you read this Rolling Stone piece about how Activision was recently granted a patent for a system that would "convince people in multiplayer games to purchase items for a game through microtransactions"?
I need a drink.
P.S. I want a new Dead Space.
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