Yesterday was a strange day to be a Star Wars fan. First we learned the name of the Han Solo solo movie would simply be called Solo: A Star Wars Story. Very inspired there Disney. So there was that. Later in the afternoon we got another piece of Star Wars news that actually made me feel something, but it wasn’t something positive. EA announced, via press release, that they were “making a significant change” to the much anticipated action-adventure Star Wars game in development at Visceral Studios (Dead Space, Battlefield: Hardline). Apparently they “needed to pivot the design”. Which is really just a crappy way to nonchalantly tell us that they were also closing the studio that had been working on the game since 2013. The whole press release, written by Patrick Soderlund, Executive Vice President of EA, felt hollow and detached. Partially because he probably didn’t actually write it. At first I was just angry but later that anger became disappointment (dissapangry?). I’m disappointed in EA for making this decision, in announcing it in such a insensitive fashion, and most of all I’m disappointed in the direction the games industry seems to be moving as a whole.
As a business school graduate, and even more so as a podcaster, I have some background in communications and in turn understand how difficult crafting these types of announcements can be. But I’m not a business robot and as a human being I have a hard time ignoring the use of some strategic keywords and phrases that made this announcement feel gross. So before we get any further, if you haven’t done so already, take a moment to read the full press release before I get into the nitty gritty.
First and foremost the title is somewhat disingenuous. “An Update on the Visceral Star Wars Project” implies that it’s still Visceral’s game when, in fact, it is not. At the end of the day the news that the game is undergoing significant changes (we’ll get to that) isn’t as important as the fact that the whole project is being moved to another studio. The title is so flaccid and ambiguous that it could mean basically anything. Which is the point. EA doesn’t want to call attention to the fact that this is actually a significant announcement that impacts people’s livelihoods.
As for the message itself, the rest was delivered with about as much tact as the title - that is to say, almost none. Starting with a brilliantly insidious sentence (so THAT’S why he’s called Darth Sidious!) that reads “In its current form, it was shaping up to be a story-based, linear adventure game”. The implication here being that the game’s “form” will be changing, likely in a significant way. Change into what though? Well if you read on they actually give you a hint as to what they seem to have in mind.
Much of the rest of the press release could be taken to mean basically anything, but there are some subtle specifics that, when taken together, point toward what type of “pivot” (that word is one of the worst examples of insensitive business jargon and I absolutely hate it.) that EA is intending here. Take for instance these separate but equally important sentences: “deliver an experience that players will want to come back to and enjoy for a long time to come”, “ we are shifting the game to be a broader experience that allows for more variety and player agency”, and “give players a Star Wars adventure of greater depth and breadth to explore”. It’s no secret that “games as a service” has become incredibly popular with publishers and I have no doubt, based on what I read in this announcement, that this is exactly where they want to take this game. Destiny and The Division are both perfect examples of “games as a service”. A game that never ends, that keeps you coming back over and over again with the use of addictive gameplay loops and loot collection. There’s a variety of ways to implement the “games as a service” model but one of the key features is that even though they have a story, it’s rarely the focus. They instead almost always have some type of blend of single player and multiplayer. This type of game model has gained steam for one key reason though: they excel at driving long term income for the publishers. A single player, linear, story-based game does not fit that mold. How can EA extract extra money out of you after you purchased the game? That seems to be the question they're asking first when it comes to these sorts of decisions.
EA and other AAA publishers appear to no longer be interested in making single player focused games and it’s this trend that really irks me. Of course the closing of Visceral is terrible in its own right, but that seems to be more of a symptom of the larger problem. As someone who’s spent dozens of hours playing single player games this year, The Legend of Zelda Breath of the Wild chief among them, many of my favourite games are single player focused; the Uncharted, Bioshock, and Arkham series’ feature just a few of the titles I have connected with most in gaming. They are focused and tight and the idea that these types of experiences are “old hat” bothers me. Visceral’s Star Wars game was shaping up to be a confluence of everything I love: an Uncharted-esque linear story by Amy Hennig, designed by the Dead Space guys and, oh yeah, it was a Star Wars game! I can’t imagine a world where that game wouldn’t have been a huge success, but if what EA is arguing here is that a game isn’t worth making unless it’s making Destiny level money then what are we even talking about anymore.
For now I’ll take some solace in the fact that this might be a shift forced on us by the publishers and not necessarily represent what gamers actually want. My heart was lifted a bit after reading a tweet from Dan Stapleton, executive editor of reviews at IGN, who said “Despite all the doom and gloom around single-player adventures right now, they are represented well among IGN's top-trafficked reviews of the year. Zelda, Horizon, Nioh, RE7, Neir Automota, Persona 5, Prey, Mass Effect, and more all had big numbers.”. Of course, as he later points out “that doesn't necessarily translate into great sales numbers”, but I choose to remain optimistic.
Finally, we need to address the fact that EA chose to announce the shuttering of Visceral with the same gravitas I would use to order a side of fries at McDonalds. I understand that the business world is at times cold but this felt like a particularly insensitive way of telling us that people would be losing their jobs. At least they chose to announce that before they revealed that the game would be delayed, but considering that they use the final paragraph to shill Star Wars Battlefront II and Star Wars Galaxy of Heroes it feels like an empty gesture.
What is most galling about this press release is EA’s insistence to not simply say what they mean; they insist on masking their intentions behind platitudes and jargon. They knew that this news would be unpopular and instead of owning it they chose the easy way out. It might not be wholly justified but there’s a reason that EA keeps getting voted the “Worst Company in America”, and right now they are showing us why.
Check back to The Tower of Babble Blog every week for more of my written content touching on a variety of topics in the geek world.