October 2017 brought disconcerting news that Electronic Arts had shut down Visceral Games and “pivoted" the design of its unnamed Star Wars project from "a story-based, linear adventure game" to something different altogether. As a result, the games media and gamers alike started questioning whether there's a future for the ambitious, single player centric, story-driven games in the Star Wars canon. The thing is: such games have been a thing of the past for a few years already. Seven years to be exact.
The last of what you'd call "ambitious, single player centric, story-driven games in the Star Wars canon" was The Force Unleashed 2, which was released in 2010. A high-budget, AAA title supplementing the movie canon with its own story. Ambitious doesn't always mean successful, though, and TFU2 disappointed in both quality and sales.
Of course, the stream of Star Wars video games didn't run dry after TFU2’s underwhelming performance. What followed was a plethora of safe spin-offs, Lego Star Wars games (which, although great, merely comically ape the movies), and mobile titles capitalizing on the hottest trends of the moment.
The biggest Star Wars video game released after 2010 was without a doubt The Old Republic. Electronic Arts's take on an MMO with Jedi and Sith was as ambitious as it was misguided. The game was released in December of 2011 and by July of 2012 switched to a free-to-play model to remain profitable. Despite early struggles, Old Republic remains live today, so the creators eventually got the formula correct.
2012, however, brought fans of the saga something to look forward to. For the first time in a while, the reveal of Star Wars 1313 at the E3 2012 made them optimistic for the future.
1313 was shaping up to be the best thing bearing the Star Wars name in years. A game that could not only capitalize on the power of the new consoles to depict a believable seedy underbelly of Lucas's universe, but also help LucasArts out of a creative and financial slump. In reality, 1313's development was problematic. For example, in an effort to broaden its commercial appeal, the game was rebranded as a Boba Fett adventure. Yet, even the most likable bounty hunter in the galaxy couldn't save the game from what happened after Disney bought the Star Wars brand from Lucas.
"After evaluating our position in the games market, we’ve decided to shift LucasArts from an internal development to a licensing model, minimizing the company's risk while achieving a broader portfolio of quality Star Wars games. As a result of this change, we've had layoffs across the organization," read the official statement following Disney's decision to shut down LucasArts and cancel all the projects the studio was developing.
That meant canning 1313, as well as at least one game LucasArts was working on in secrecy: Star Wars: First Assault, a Battlefront-like multiplayer shooter.
Last in, first out
First Assault, in a way, was reincarnated as Battlefront. 1313, much like the Visceral game a few years after it, became just another entry on the long list of shelved single player Star Wars games that will never be brought back from the dead. Most of these games fell victim to the troubled condition of LucasArts in the 2000s. Throughout the years, at very different stages of development, LucasArts worked on and eventually killed off such games as:
The Force Unleashed 3, which would re-unite Starkiller and Vader, thanks to a co-op mode.
The Knights of the Old Republic 3 which would let us play as a new female protagonist named Naresha.
Imperial Commando, which would follow in the footsteps of a squad-based Imperial Commando.
Episode 7: Shadows of The Sith, which would beat J.J. Abrams to the punch.
Jedi Knight 3, which would wrap up Kyle Katarn's story and a whole sub-franchise of games like Rebel Agent, Rebel Fury, Rebel Jedi and Rebel Scum.
We don't know much about most of these games. Some of them were merely ideas for games, some made it to production, some remained somewhere in between in the concept stage limbo. We will never know why each of them was cancelled but the one thing is clear: making games in the Star Wars universe isn’t easy. It’s in fact so difficult that it led, along with the notoriously bad management, to LucasArts’ demise. And that was the company that owned the rights to the franchise and - with Lucas’ blessing, that is - could take it any direction.
That's the past. What about the present and the future?
The single-player campaign tacked on Star Wars Battlefront 2 turned out to be exactly what it was shaping up to be: EA's way of addressing the lack of content for those who prefer to fly Solo (pun intended), which was one of the first Battlefront's most widely criticized missteps. It's by no means the self-contained cinematic experience the fans of Star Wars games crave. It's more of an excuse to get more mileage out of the environments designed for the multiplayer portion of the game. Andy Hartup said it best in his review: "Overall, though, it’s a fairly unimaginative, short collection of winks and nods to fans that severely lacks an identity of its own"
And that would be fine if we knew there's a proper single player Star Wars game on the horizon to make up for it. The way things are going now, we can't be too sure there is one. Or if there ever will be.
BioWare’s Austin studio was reportedly working on a new game in the Knights of the Old Republic series that never made it past the prototyping stage. Perhaps for the best. The makers of The Knights of the Old Republic returning to the saga sounded like great news a couple of years ago. These days, not so much. Mass Effect: Andromeda, BioWare's last space opera focused on telling a story for a single player, fell well below everyone's expectations. The studio's next game, Anthem, is more of a Destiny contender with a robust online component than a successor to story-driven games from the BioWare's respected past. It remains unlikely, to say the least, for Electronic Arts to bankroll a multi million-dollar single player project in the current fiscal climate. If BioWare is to ever make a new Star Wars game, another crack at an MMO in the vein of The Old Republic is a much more likely direction.
And then there's Electronic Arts' newest acquisition: Respawn Entertainment, the studio long rumored to be part of EA's Star Wars plan. The maker of Titanfall 2 has proven its excellence in crafting a rollercoaster of a campaign, but from now on it's EA calling all the shots because TF and TF2 fell well below commercial expectations. Despite this EA remains "committed to the franchise" and the team behind it. That commitment, though, paired with full creative control over Respawn's next titles will most likely mean a shift towards the more financially sustainable business model - ‘games as service’. Games as a service allows publishers to continually make money on titles months and years after release, via regular DLC drops, microtransactions, loot crates, and subscription models. As we’ve learned from Visceral… you can’t keep a studio alive that loses millions of dollars every year, with no realistic expectation of recovering those costs.
So, instead of Amy Hennig's and Visceral's take on Uncharted in the Star Wars universe (which fell exactly into the trap of being too expensive to ever be profitable), think more along the lines of Destiny in the Star Wars universe. That's the direction the video game industry is taking in general, and Star Wars is along for the ride.
New battles, new fronts
The Star Wars: Battlefront franchise is already there. DICE nailed the gameplay formula right out the gate, and now it's a matter of tweaking it every year or two to keep things fresh. The catastrophic launch of Battlefront 2 is no more than just another turn on the road to perfecting the formula, and the publisher and developer have already taken huge, generous steps to making it more in line with what players are comfortable with.
The idea of Star Wars not having to follow the rules other franchises do doesn't really apply to video games. The Star Wars brand - as strong as we think it is - isn't enough to go against the industry trends, and EA has this week made another climb-down on Battlefront 2 to keep it in line with player expectations. Or the expectations of the vocal corners of the internet, at any rate.
But you can't please all the people all the time. Out of more than a hundred Star Wars video games released throughout the decades, only 12 managed to sell more than a million copies. It's a feat reserved for the heavy-hitters like The Knight of the Old Republic, Shadows of the Empire and Lego branded titles. For convenience, we can round that up to 10% of all Star Wars titles becoming successful enough. Even a million copies, in 2017, isn’t enough to be considered a commercial victory in AAA games, given the size of development costs and marketing budgets. The market for the Star Wars software has been clearly spoiled by years of uncoordinated, half-baked releases.
Sure, the movie franchise has suffered its share of bad moments as well. Yet, even the critically panned prequel trilogy managed to smash box office records and introduce the saga to a new generation of fans, so isn't without merit to accompany the profit. The difference here is that Disney will move heaven and earth to avoid releasing a potential bomb of a movie, as evidenced by the heavy reshoots of both Rogue One and the upcoming Han Solo movie, but the same can’t be said for the Star Wars games. We either accept many of the games aren't up to standard, or we don't get them at all.
While comparing 100+ video game releases to eight Star Wars movies (to date) may be a stretch, there's a clear disparity between the value of the Star Wars brand for cinema goers and for gamers. Rightfully so. Years and years of middling releases taught gamers to approach the Star Wars games with caution, tempering our desire to see new, exciting single player stories in digital form. For years, we haven't seen a release proving that Disney holds the Star Wars games and movies to the same, high standard when it comes to narrative and storytelling. It's much easier, it seems, to simply have the games reflect the movies and play the adoring fan. Will we ever see a game that truly innovates in the Star Wars universe? I think there’s a better question waiting to be asked.
Are we lucky to get Star Wars games at all?
Let’s face it: If only one in ten Star Wars movies topped the box office, we wouldn't get any Star Wars movies at all. And given how hard fans have kicked back at high-profile games like Battlefront, it must give publishers second thoughts when planning to release into that market.
One thing is certain: ambitious, story-driven, single player Star Wars games have been a thing of the past for many years and - given the current climate - that's not going to change anytime soon. If it's well-paced, cinematic stories with lightsabers we're after, we'll have to stick to our annual trips to the cinema. The sooner we accept that, the less disappointed we will be with the future of Star Wars video games.