Every genre needs its Arkham City. South Park got it recently, as did The Walking Dead, but its the Caped Crusader that stands at the top of AAA action games, earning untold number of honors. Both Batman: Arkham Asylum and Arkham City achieved a rare level of recognition for any game regardless of origin, and EA now hopes to replicate that success in its upcoming Star Wars games. I hope the publisher can actually meet that admirable goal, because many gamemakers have missed the crucial details of Arkham’s singular achievement in licensed gaming.
It’s laudable that EA CEO Andrew Wilson wants their Star Wars game to replicate Batman’s “interactive experience that had real ties to what you would see in the films and what you had read in the comics, while having its own life because it could provide such deep and more immersive storylines.” Sadly, similar tie-in adventures have eyed the same prize and came up short. Middling titles like Captain America, TMNT: Out of the Shadows, and The Amazing Spider-Man all clearly followed the Arkham example, but failed in the end. Why was that? And how can EA avoid that with its upcoming Star Wars releases?
A large reason for so many other licensed games failing to match Arkham’s quality comes down to resources. Speaking as a spectator that played so many Bat-wannabes, it was painful to see promising titles get hamstrung by a lack of time or money. 2012’s Amazing Spider-Man showed potential, but meeting a hard deadline of the film’s release likely contributed to it being half-baked. Meanwhile, TMNT: Out of the Shadows had the makings of an iconic turtles adventure, but a downloadable release means a budget that’s likely a small fraction of Arkham City’s, so it too disappointed.
EA’s Star Wars game at least has time on its side, because the EA CEO used the same interview to make it clear their upcoming Star Wars titles aren’t based on 2015’s Episode VII. With the upcoming game freed from an impending release date, that hopefully means the developers will get the time they need, but will they get the money? EA certainly has the cash to pay for a triple-A experience like Arkham City, but I have my doubts that it will have that big a bankroll.
Thing is, it’s not in EA’s best interest to invest in Star Wars as much as they would in Battlefield or The Sims. EA owns those brands, while Star Wars is only theirs for as long as its deal with Disney lasts. If EA’s Star Wars games win scads of awards and honors, that’s good for the publisher in the short term, but that ultimately builds up the portfolio of a company that isn’t Electronic Arts. That economic truth is why most licensed games suck. Warner Bros. Interactive both publishes and owns the Batman franchise, so it has actual monetary incentive to build up the franchise. Does this mean we’ll only see truly great Star Wars and Marvel Comics games when Disney handles development themselves?
Then again, EA’s history with the Star Wars brand makes it appear possible it'll break this troubling trend. The company spent a ton of money on The Old Republic MMO, on top of spending big money of sports franchises like UFC, FIFA, and Madden. Perhaps it knows it needs to invest heavily just to buck player expectations of a middling Star Wars game. If it's successful, there's no reason that Disney wouldn't renew that contract--or, hell, maybe they'll just buy EA. They do that stuff a lot nowadays, and I don't think EA would turn that down. Meanwhile, LucasArts reached for greatness with Force Unleashed and definitely came up short.
History like that gives me more hope that EA’s desire for “deeper and more immersive storylines,” will pay off better than most of its competitors licensed schlock. Otherwise, I fear that the best gamers can hope for is the damning praise of “good for a movie game.” Until developers are ready to give up the resources needed for true action greatness, Batman will remain in a class of his own.