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Why your favorite devs (probably) don’t want to make a Star Wars game

Licensed games only make sense for very specific teams

Visceral Games/Electronic Arts

EA recently canceled an open-world Star Wars game that was being developed at its Vancouver studio, and commentators are pissed.

Rogue One screenwriter Gary Whitta, who has also worked on the creative side of games development, blasted EA on Kinda Funny Games Daily. YouTube games pundit and former Destructoid editor Jim Sterling said EA should lose the Star Wars license. Kotaku wrote an explainer about EA’s troubles finishing Star Wars games.

The game was even an overhauled version of a different in-progress Star Wars title, known as Ragtag, that EA previously canceled in 2017.

While EA tends to earn scorn honestly, the publisher is getting a bum rap for failing to produce Star Wars games in this particular situation. The truth is that if a publisher has a talented, promising team of developers, it’s almost always better off creating an original game. Studios that are known and loved don’t make Star Wars games for one simple reason: Doing so doesn’t make any financial sense.

And if a single-player game doesn’t look amazing once it’s well into development? Pulling the plug may be the best option.

The problem with licensed games

EA signed a 10-year deal with Disney in 2013, sewing up the license to make Star Wars exclusively. The only non-mobile titles it has released under the deal have been the DICE-developed Battlefront and Battlefront 2. The rest have been canceled or postponed.

Gaming history is filled with Star Wars games, but EA’s struggles have meant that it has been a dry period for console and PC Star Wars games, despite large numbers of Star Wars movies, shows, and comics that have been released.

But EA isn’t the problem with Star Wars games, or at least EA isn’t the only problem with Star Wars games. The bigger shift has happened in the video game business itself, and the economics of licensed games with a large budget isn’t a good fit for the industry in general in 2019.

It costs developers and publishers money to license a world like Star Wars, and the owner of that world earns a percentage of each sale, with some deals including a substantial up-front payment.

Developers that don’t license someone else’s property have to make their own, but the trade-off is that they will then own that world and those characters. The downside is that it’s easier to get people interested in Star Wars than it is to get them interested in a setting they have never heard of before.

STAR WARS BATTLEFRONT
Would you care as much if these weren’t Star Wars vehicles?

While the specifics of each deal are complicated and almost never made public, we can think of it like this: A licensing deal is good business for the developer or publisher if it means the property will increase the sales of a potential game over what the developer or publisher would expect a non-licensed game to make. To be profitable, this difference needs to lead to more revenue than it costs to license the IP.

So if I have a chance to add the Star Wars name to my space combat game in exchange for a cut of the profits, but I believe interest in Star Wars will triple my sales? That’s good business. If I believe I can drum up interest in my game without the Star Wars name, build a valuable property of my own and keep all the revenue and control over details like release date? That means that the license would actually remove value from my game.

This means that the developers who stand to gain the most from attaching a licensed property to their games may not be your favorite developers in the industry. I’ll explain why.

Why gaming is filled with Halo and not the Avengers

Gaming is dominated by its own properties, with Halo, Destiny, Mass Effect, and Metroid games towering far above Star Wars or Star Trek titles. The best developers and publishers know how to create and launch a universe, and they can do so without inviting the controlling influence of Disney.

Heck, you might be thinking that Disney should break its contract with EA if the publisher can’t finish an open-world Star Wars game, and instead sell the license to a company that can. Maybe someone like Rockstar Games? That’s a publisher that knows how to make an open-world game with a large budget!

But Rockstar owns the Grand Theft Auto and Red Dead Redemption franchises outright, and both of those names signify quality in a way no non-gaming licensed property would be able to communicate as efficiently. Rockstar operates on its own schedule for each release, and the reviews of each game are usually exultant, and the sales are almost always enormous.

Red Dead Redemption - John Marston on horseback riding through grass at sunset
The biggest developers don’t need, or want, a license to succeed
Image: Rockstar San Diego/Rockstar Games

Red Dead Redemption 2 sold 17 million copies in two weeks, and currently holds a 97 Metacritic average rating, for instance. How many people do you think exist in the world who skipped Red Dead Redemption 2, but would have sprung for a Rockstar open-world game if it was tied into Star Wars? I’m guessing it’s not enough to justify paying whatever Disney gets for the Star Wars license, although the terms of EA’s Star Wars licensing deal were not disclosed.

It goes deeper than just financial arguments, however. Rockstar’s Dan Houser probably doesn’t want to be getting notes from Disney executives about how to handle story particulars, especially since he has final say over what happens in the series he owns. It’s better to keep the revenue, as well as the control, over your own games. And building those brands is how you create an empire.

Red Dead Redemption 2 isn’t just a successful game, it’s a property that could one day be turned into a movie or show. Star Wars is already all over movies and television; and no publisher will be able to make money by continuing that trend.

This sort of reasoning may explain why BioWare spent the last several years working on Anthem instead of a Star Wars game.

Sterling characterized the decision to allow BioWare to work on a new IP instead of a Star Wars game as a massive EA blunder in his video. But BioWare, despite a misstep with Mass Effect Andromeda, is still one of the most respected studios in gaming.

Players won’t mind if Anthem didn’t come wrapped in Star Wars trim if the game is great. If it’s not very good, on the other hand, it likely wouldn’t have been redeemed by the inclusion of lightsabers. Anthem could also lead to sequels, spin-off games, comics or anything else you can imagine if the game takes off. Star Wars games don’t come with the same growth opportunities.

EA, from a purely business-driven perspective, would have been risking more than it stood to gain from a BioWare-developed Star Wars game.

The market has grown challenging for these kinds of games

One of the main thrusts of the argument that EA has botched Star Wars is the fact that, prior to this deal, there used to be a lot of Star Wars games, and since the deal there have been very few. But this ignores the fact that a lot of Star Wars older games were not very good, and the market has changed to make things more difficult for games that aren’t good.

In the early 2000s, being a serious gamer meant you played a lot of games, and people who bought a couple of dozen games per year would wind up playing mediocre or above-average titles like Star Wars: Republic Commando or Star Wars: Bounty Hunter just because they would run out of better stuff to play.

Being a serious gamer these days often means spending hundreds or thousands of hours with a single online title like Fortnite, League of Legends, or Destiny. It has become much harder for mediocre games to find an audience, even with the benefit of a well-known license.

Meanwhile, games have become larger and more detailed, and therefore, much more expensive to make. The days when developers could make money with an unremarkable Star Wars-branded racing game or a version of Age of Empires with AT-ATs are over. Something needs to be extraordinary to make back the kind of budget that goes into these games, and it’s very challenging to make an extraordinary game.

On Kinda Funny, Gary Whitta described the cancellation of Visceral’s Project Ragtag as the killing of a Star Wars-branded Uncharted game. That was certainly the aspiration for Ragtag, and there’s tremendous appeal to the idea of a game designed by former Naughty Dog creative lead Amy Hennig and developed by the studio known for Dead Space.

However, the alleged reality of what was going on sounds much grimmer. EA reportedly cancelled Ragtag because the game wasn’t shaping up to be very good, and there’s no longer a market for games that aren’t very. EA had every reason to cancel the game in the current market; it sounds like the final product would have only been OK, sales would likely have been weak and EA would be sending Disney a cut of every game sold. EA’s decision to save the development budget by canceling or overhauling the game might have been one of the few good choices left.

But what about Spider-Man?

There have only been a handful of successful, high-quality games using licensed properties in the last decade, and most of them occurred under somewhat special circumstances. Marvel’s Spider-Man, by Insomniac Games, is one of the most recent examples of a licensed game that was a success for everyone involved.

For starters, the right studio got the license at the right time. Insomniac created the revered Ratchet and Clank series, but it had thoroughly explored that premise and needed something new. The developer’s most recent original game, Sunset Overdrive, had earned solid reviews but didn’t find much retail success as an Xbox One exclusive. This is the team you want on your licensed game: A developer with a long history of making good games that doesn’t yet have its own signature franchise. There aren’t many out there that fit that description.

Gallery Photo: Sunset Overdrive screenshots
Sunset Overdrive was a critical success that didn’t lead to high sales
Insomniac Games/Microsoft Studios

Marvel’s Spider-Man also had a publisher with a unique set of incentives. Sony was looking for a successful game using the Spider-Man license, and was willing to support a huge effort to make it happen. Sony owns the PlayStation platform, which means it would be paying itself platform licensing fees and sharing revenue from online sales of the game with ... itself. It also needed a family-friendly exclusive to package with its hardware for the Christmas season.

Sony had multiple good reasons to invest in the game, and Insomniac had a strong incentive to create something amazing. Both companies got exactly what they wanted out of the deal, and players were treated to one of the best modern superhero games ever created.

But this is a singular case. Although Marvel has dominated the box office for the last decade, Spider-Man is the only hero in its lineup with a recent hit PC or console game aimed at the core gaming audience. Most Marvel games are made for mobile platforms where development costs and quality expectations are a lot lower. The Avengers may be one of the most popular movie franchises ever created, but there has yet to be a hit game made using the characters from those films, not counting the flawed Marvel vs. Capcom: Infinite.

Square Enix, Crystal Dynamics, and Eidos are still supposedly working on a series of Avengers games, although we were told to expect news in 2018, and no new details have been shared.

EA isn’t messing up Star Wars in a notable manner, in other words. It’s simply betting smart and following the same trends in licensed games as everyone else. Marvel’s Spider-Man is the exception that proves the rule.

A New Hope

It’s not all bad news for EA. The publisher invested more than $300 million to acquire Respawn Entertainment in 2017. Respawn is the studio founded by Call of Duty creators Vince Zampella and Jason West, who left Activision in 2010 in the midst of a contract dispute that led to years of litigation.

Zampella and West’s Infinity Ward kicked off the Call of Duty franchise, and was responsible for Modern Warfare and Modern Warfare 2, which introduced the franchise’s central multiplayer mechanics of kill streaks and prestige progression. Those games are still considered the high points of the long-running series.

Respawn has since shipped Titanfall and Titanfall 2, which were multiplayer shooters that earned glowing critical reviews but did not wrest a large audience away from established genre heavyweights Call of Duty and Battlefield. That makes Respawn a studio with one of the most impressive track records in gaming, and no commensurate top-tier franchise of its own. A studio that is, as Insomniac was for Spider-Man, the right place at the right time to produce a great licensed game.

Respawn has been working on something called Star Wars Jedi: Fallen Order. EA has released few details available about the game, although we know it’s a single-player third-person action title and Respawn recruited God of War 3 director Stig Asmussen to work on it.

There’s reason to be skeptical; the public has seen nothing of this game, and Ragtag also sounded great before it was canceled.

But there are also reasons to be optimistic: Respawn has a great reputation, and it still has key creatives responsible for its past successes in place. Also, while the public hasn’t seen Respawn’s current work on the game, EA certainly saw it before it decided to purchase the studio. The decision to invest indicates that EA has a lot of confidence in what Respawn is doing.

Great Star Wars games have historically been few and far between. I can think of maybe six good ones in the last 30 years, and that’s being generous. If Respawn comes through with a game of similar quality to Titanfall, then EA’s troubled decade with the Star Wars license will be a decade in which we get at least one great Star Wars games and arguably a few good ones. That’s a good run for Star Wars, historically.

EA isn’t messing up Star Wars due to negligence or incompetence; the publisher is being prudent about the economics of working with a huge, expensive license. It’s fun to wonder about what a Rockstar-developed Star Wars game would be like, but we’d probably be just as happy with Grand Theft Auto 6 or Red Dead Redemption 3, and Rockstar would probably be a lot happier working on its own properties.

Licensed games are a hard business in which to make a buck, and I wish players had a better understanding of the economics and hard work that have to come together in order for one to be successful.