The Star Wars franchise has had a hell of a week. With both a big game and a new film installment due out just weeks apart, the franchise should have hit a fever pitch of positive hype and anticipation. Instead, Star Wars Battlefront 2 — and its publisher, Electronic Arts — became the embodiment of what fans see it as the industry’s most egregious issue: confusing, expensive loot crates.
It was surprising that EA, after several meager defenses that only riled up people further, caved to consumer pressures to change Battlefront 2’s paid economy. It was more surprising that the publisher did so at the eleventh hour, informing players that it would deactivate the option to buy currency at launch as it figured out how to retool the microtransactions.
But if we consider who owns Star Wars, none of this is surprising at all. Because Disney’s put a whole bunch of money into this series, and there’s no way anyone is going to ruin it for them.
We’ve seen Disney do this before
There’s a lot riding on the next Star Wars movie, Star Wars: The Last Jedi. First off, it’s the second in the new trilogy; those films are historically a turning point for the series. But it’s also the debut of Rian Johnson’s vision for Star Wars, which Disney needs fans to get behind. The company has already committed Johnson to another entire trilogy of his own design, entrusting the director with one of the most well-protected universes in media.
Johnson’s appointment as Star Wars’ new steward came after several setbacks. First off, Lucasfilm (now owned by Disney) sacked the directors of 2018’s Han Solo spinoff film over major creative differences. The film was set to end production just weeks after co-directors Phil Lord and Chris Miller left, leaving top brass to scramble for a replacement.
In came replacement director Ron Howard, whose reputation as affable and non-problematic made him a safe, if unexciting, choice. But that didn’t erase the memory of the high-profile mess, and it didn’t exactly restore confidence that Solo: A Star Wars Story would be anything but a disappointment.
When Episode IX director Colin Trevorrow exited that film in September, two years after he signed on, it really left us to wonder what was going on with the franchise. J.J. Abrams of The Force Awakens was brought back in to take over, which made things clear: Lucasfilm and Disney were done messing around and taking risks. Star Wars was a big investment, and the company expected to reap the rewards — not let creatives inflict their own unique visions on the property.
The speed at which all of this happened made us ask, What is going on back there at Lucasfilm? It’s not like Episode VII or Rogue One failed critically or commercially. But even Rogue One faced hefty, late-stage retooling, reportedly to make it less of a traditional war film. Star Wars is a family-friendly fantasy series, after all; that’s what Disney has always been in the business of making, and that’s likely what it it signed on for.
But EA’s made things tough lately
Even if not all of our doubts about Star Wars’ film future have been quelled, it’s unlikely that Disney would allow Episode VIII or any other upcoming movie to fail. Plus, Lucasfilm has handled those movies since their inception; more often than not, we can trust that it knows what it’s doing.
The same can’t be said for Electronic Arts, the exclusive publisher of Star Wars games, now that Disney’s no longer in the ring itself. EA’s buzzy announcement that it had picked up the license hasn’t actually amounted to much thus far: In 2013, the company said it had two new Star Wars games in development. One of those was Star Wars Battlefront, a multiplayer-focused title that failed to make use of anything from the seventh movie. That, plus the lack of a single-player campaign, gave Battlefront a short shelf life.
The other project was in development at Visceral Games. We hardly saw the project, although it sounded promising; it was set to be an Uncharted-esque adventure game, an original story set in the Star Wars world.
Well, we remember what happened to Visceral Games not long ago. More than four years after it announced Visceral’s involvement with the Star Wars franchise, EA pulled the plug on the entire studio. What has become of the team’s project, now handled by EA Vancouver, is mostly unclear — although EA sure made it sound like we should expect something more like Destiny and less like Uncharted, as originally pitched.
It was a striking blow for EA, Star Wars fans and lovers of story-based games. Not only was this a devastating turn of events (Visceral Games was beloved for the Dead Space series), but it was a reminder that EA has failed to produce much under its Star Wars agreement. Surely Disney’s watchful eye over the universe and lore hasn’t helped matters, but whatever is happening behind the scenes hasn’t been sympathetically translated.
Fans are, in a word, mad. And they’ve never been madder than this whole Battlefront 2 debacle, beginning with swirling rumors about the amount of time and money it would take to access much of the game’s content — not to mention upgrade abilities and weapons so as to stand a chance in multiplayer. First, EA tried to defend itself against the charges that Battlefront 2 was a $60 game with a potential to spend thousands more on loot crates. That only made things worse, though; stories about reps’ failure to address the issues blew up. (Even more mainstream outlets like CNN and NPR have picked up on the backlash.)
In a last-ditch effort to take back control of the pre-release cycle, EA slowly acquiesced to the angry voices on Reddit and social media that demanded restructuring. Unlockable hero costs were slashed; then, just before the game’s final release, the company said it was temporarily taking out for-pay currency altogether as it figured out how to make it better.
Disney’s name wasn’t mentioned in any of these announcements. It didn’t need to be: There’s already precedent for how the company exerts its control. Word that Disney Interactive Media chairman Jimmy Pitaro made a call to EA head Andrew Wilson about the Battlefront 2 situation only makes it seem more likely that this was as much Disney’s call as it was EA’s.
As the biggest media company in the world and owner of one of the biggest media franchises in the world, it makes sense. There was no way that Disney would let EA do any more damage to the stellar Star Wars name — it’s done enough already.