When Electronic Arts announced last week they were shutting down Visceral Games and giving the studio’s in-development Star Wars game to another team, they muttered about “fundamental shifts in the marketplace” and needing “to pivot the design”. You know, they spouted a bunch of empty business speak which didn’t say much about what had gone wrong with Visceral and the game. That’s publicly-traded companies for you. However! A report on Kotaku talks to a number of former Visceral folks, painting a picture of a deeply troubled game and studio. If you were into the idea of ‘Uncharted but Star Wars’ and are curious about what happened, it’s interesting reading.
The game, codenamed Ragtag, was to be an Uncharted-ish singleplayer action-adventure game about space scoundrels up to antics and heists in the world of Stars Wars. Amy Hennig, who wrote and directed the first three Uncharteds, was in charge. EA announced in 2013 that Visceral were working on making stars war but we’ve never seen much of the game and they never even named it. Going by what people told Kotaku (who go anonymous, because the video games industry is notoriously secretive and punitive), it’s been troubled for years.
Making a game to rival Uncharted is a huge task at the best of times, but that’s reportedly what EA expected from Visceral. One Visceralite says EA were pressuring them to have Ragtag score at least 90% on review aggregation site Metacritic (scores are daft, obvs). This despite the fact that Visceral had never made a game in the genre before, and the technology they were using supposedly wasn’t made for this purpose. Like many of EA’s modern games (from Battlefield and Mass Effect: Andromeda to Need for Speed and FIFA), Ragtag was built upon the Frostbite engine, and Kotaku’s sources say it wasn’t well-suited for action-adventure and required a lot of work to build in features and tools.
Work was supposedly also held up at times by Lucasfilm having the final say on the Star Wars universe, needing to approve Visceral’s creations. Some say Lucasfilm and Visceral could spend ages going back and forth negotiating designs for characters, weapons, and all that.
Another bottleneck, some of Kotaku’s sources say, was Amy Hennig. They report that she tried to do too much, having final say on many aspects and requiring too many decisions flow through her, sometimes leaving people waiting ages for approval.
Visceral were understaffed for the game they were expected to create, Kotaku’s sources suggest, and weren’t allowed to hire more people. The studio EA Motive were chipping in to create a multiplayer side but the core campaign still needed more people. EA didn’t even seem entirely sold on the idea of the game. Kotaku report that EA executives kept pointing to market research that people associate Star Wars with Jedis, lightsabers, and all that.
Overall, it sounds like Visceral was too small for the task, EA had unrealistic expectations yet offered insufficient resources, and development was hobbled by workflow and technological problems. This is an incomplete picture, of course, cobbled together largely from accounts from a handful of people who’ve just lost their jobs and had their work taken away, but it says more than EA themselves have.
And all this was happening at a studio just outside San Francisco, one of the most expensive places in North America. The game is moving to Vancouver in Canada, a region which is cheaper and also offers tax credits for companies making video games. I can’t say I have high hopes from the game after this fiasco, but it sounds like it’d end up troubled even if Visceral had been allowed to finish it as intended.
Do read Kotaku’s report for the full picture.