Details for Visceral's Star Wars game leak; Why it was cancelled, story, and more
A heartbreaking story of what could've been.
Earlier this month, EA announced that Visceral, one of the best single player game developers out there, would cease to exist by the end of October. Their Star Wars project would be canned and the assets that they had made would move to another studio in hopes of creating a new Star Wars game.
Many Twitter users and members of the press assumed that the cancellation of the game was due to EA's shift into the "games as services" business model which benefits from having multiplayer games that can be stretched out via microtransactions and DLC. The real story is much more complex.
Kotaku's Jason Schreier revealed today in a lengthy piece about the dead Star Wars game that there were a number of factors that lead to its closure. Things like lack of team members, high expectations from EA, internal debates regarding various mechanics and concepts, seeking approval from Lucasfilm, and so much more. Making a Star Wars game is complex, especially one that attempts to create a large-scale story that builds off of the lore in new ways without leaning on the help of The Force, Jedi, lightsabers, or recognizable characters.
Visceral's game had two ideas for a Star Wars game. One was a Black Flag-esque game with a linear story and setpieces on planetside, but once you got up to space in your Millenium Falcon-like ship... you'd attack other vessels and board them for loot similar to the ship battles in AC 4. The other game which eventually became the one that went into active development was known internally as Ragtag (it's unclear if this would've been the final title or if it was simply a placeholder) and it would've been an Ocean's Eleven-like take on the Star Wars universe with a band of misfits lead by a Han Solo-like character known as Dodger, the man seen in the center of the concept art at the top of this article.
The heist story would've been set between A New Hope and Empire Strikes Back, focusing on characters affected by the destruction of Alderaan and the criminal underbelly of the Star Wars world that has only been briefly touched on in the films.
“This was the coolest shit I’ve ever seen,” said one person who saw the story. “[Hennig] had total buy-in from the start on that. Everybody was buzzing.”
Players would get the chance to play as multiple characters in the heist crew, each with their own traits and ability to hold their own when you're not controlling them, and a mechanic known as "sabotage" would've been one of the key mechanics. The idea of the gameplay mechanic was to use the environment in creative ways to distract enemies and destroy their psyche.
“Picture the Death Star, and they all have jobs,” said a person who worked on the game. “One Stormtrooper was on a command unit, moving boxes around. Some guys would be droids. It was supposed to be set up so it was all real, and it felt like they had jobs to do. We wanted to tap into emotions, so you could mess with Stormtroopers’ emotions. Go into a room, turn the lights off. He goes back in and turns them back on. Then you turn them off again. At a certain point he starts getting spooked, acting irrationally, and bringing friends in.”
From the get go, the game was troubled. Visceral had their team split to work on Battlefield: Hardline (which many didn't even want to do), leaving a small team of roughly 30 people to work on the single-player focused Uncharted-like crime epic. Since Visceral was in San Francisco, the cost of living was incredibly high so the ability to pay salaries that allowed employees to live comfortably affected how many people could be hired. It was estimated that each developer was paid $16,000 a month, a major step up from the average $10,000 at other studios.
“Visceral was the most expensive studio that EA had,” said one person who worked there. “Even during Dead Space 3 and then Hardline, we would always joke, ‘I don’t understand why [EA] still has a studio here.’ Financially, it made no sense.”
A studio known as EA Motive which is now working on the campaign for Star Wars: Battlefront II was built in Montreal for tax benefits and 70 additional team members were added onto Ragtag to help develop the campaign and a multiplayer mode that would've built off of the space battles concept in the Black Flag-like Star Wars idea.
The team was also forced to use the Frostbite engine, which at the time had been used to make almost exclusively first-person shooters in the Battlefield franchise, meaning the team had to spend a lot of time adjusting to the engine and making things from scratch to develop their third-person action/adventure game.
“It was missing a lot of tools, a lot of stuff that was in Uncharted 1,” said a former employee. “It was going be a year, or a year and a half’s work just to get the engine to do things that are assumed and taken for granted.”
Ragtag also had to go through a lot of different hands to get concepts and ideas approved since it was set in a beloved universe like Star Wars. While the team at Lucasfilm was kind to Visceral, their approval process was long and slowed down progress significantly.
“With Star Wars you could be talking months—potentially years,” said one Visceral staffer. “Oh, would Dodger really look like this? What would his weapon look like? Potentially years of that. Would he carry this? Would that really work in the Star Wars universe? With Uncharted, they can build any world they come up with, because it’s their world. With Star Wars you have to have that back and forth… People think, ‘Oh it must be so cool to work on Star Wars.’ It actually kind of sucks.”
Then there was EA who wanted to have more recognizable, iconic Star Wars elements to draw people in. “EA would get obsessed with market research and start asking people what’s important to them about Star Wars,” said a former staff member. “You’d get, ‘Oh, the Force, lightsabers, the usual Jedi continuum.’ They’re hyper focused on that stuff, and it’d be a topic of conversation in every pitch meeting.”
The demos that were built for EA didn't sell them enough. It included a rescue mission at Jabba's Palace, a firefight on Tattooine, a sequence which saw the main characters getting chased by an AT-ST. They were cool but Visceral ultimately cut corners, the demo was almost purely visually and hoped to sell them on wow factor because they didn't have much to show in the form of gameplay. “Dodger couldn’t even shoot his gun and we’re fine-tuning where his hand placement needed to be,” said one Ragtag developer. “We don’t have a single environment for Dodger to exist in... How do you build a system if you don’t know what your average area is gonna be?”
“If you looked at it objectively, you’d be like, ‘There’s nothing here,’” said one. “Dodger can do like three things. But it was cut in a specific way that looked interesting, and visually it was really nice looking.”
There's a lot more to this story but we don't want to steal all of Jason Schreier's thunder, you can click here to read his full story. Ultimately, the game wasn't canned just because it was an ambitious single-player title, it may have been a factor that helped EA make the final decision but it wasn't the leading cause. The game and studio were doomed from the start, it was pretty messy.
"Decisions like this are never easy,” EA's executive VP Patrick Söderlund told Kotaku. “In fact, they are really, really hard. They are also not fast – that’s a mistake some people often make. You know how much work people have put into it, how much creativity has been poured out. We will always look at every way we can keep working on the ideas, and we did a lot of that here. We supported the team and their creative process, and we tried a lot of things. We cut scope. We added things, too. We rethought, redesigned, reimagined. But at some point, you have to be honest with yourselves, and realize that we’re not going to be able to get to where we want to be. And that becomes a very tough call to make.”
Söderlund assured Kotaku that this really wasn't for the sake of eliminating a costly game that didn't have multiple streams of revenue.
“This truly isn’t about the death of single-player games—I love single-player, by the way—or story and character-driven games,” said Söderlund. “Storytelling has always been part of who we are, and single-player games will of course continue. This also isn’t about needing a game that monetizes in a certain way. Those are both important topics, but that’s not what this is. At the end of the day, this was a creative decision. Our job is to give people a deep enough experience and story, and it’s also to push the boundaries forward. We just didn’t think we were getting it quite right.”
It's silly to think that EA really is out to kill single player games. They continue to allow Bioware to make games like Mass Effect and Dragon Age, they're greenlighting multiple indie games that have a strong focus on story like the upcoming two player co-op game A Way Out, and a lot of their big franchises still include campaigns. Maybe one day a narrative-driven Star Wars game will come out of EA but for now, we must wait and enjoy the movies coming from Disney and the campaign of the upcoming Battlefront II.