Report: Visceral’s Star Wars was all sorts of troubled

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.

53 Comments

  1. Meat Circus says:

    Alice where did you get that photo of me and the boys going for a night out in Nottingham?

  2. Det. Bullock says:

    Nice picture of the crew of the Defiant, I imagine they are looking at a Cylon fleet near Baylon 5 but is it before or after their encounter with the Red Dwarf when on the run from Servalan?

  3. GrumpyCatFace says:

    Vibrant diversity.

  4. Jovian09 says:

    Counting Bioware Montreal, EA has now killed two studios whom they’ve forced to screw around with the Frostbite engine. EA needs to throw in the towel on that count and let their teams work with the tools that fit the task.

    On a related note, it might be time to buy Jason Schreier’s book.

    • wackazoa says:

      It should be noted that Frostbite runs all EA’s FPS, Sports & Racing games. Not to mention that Dragon Age and Mass Effect was built on it. Im no developer, but it confuses me that studio’s under EA’s umbrella aren’t able to share knowledge about this engine that has been used for ALL EA’s games for the last 6-7 years. Perhaps its EA’s fault for not fostering the environment for it. Or perhaps EA could just build a entire team who do nothing but work with Frostbite, and allow them to any developer in their network who needs help.

      • Furiant says:

        Dragon Age: Inquisition devs also complained about the engine being very hard to work with, and costing them a ton of time.

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        Ninja Dodo says:

        Well, probably *by now* it’s a versatile enough engine… but when these studios were setting up their pipelines it was still clearly mostly an FPS engine. The Mass Effect Andromeda Kotaku feature mentioned since they started long before Dragon Age Inquisition shipped they were forced to reinvent the wheel and solve many of the same problems on their side (link to kotaku.com).

        “By the time BioWare entered pre-production on Mass Effect: Andromeda, the Dragon Age: Inquisition team had built some of the tools that they’d need to make an RPG, but not all of them. Engineers on Andromeda had to design many of their own features from scratch, including their animation rig. “Frostbite is wonderful for rendering and lots of things,” said a person who worked on the game. “But one of the key things that makes it really difficult to use is anything related to animation. Because out of the box, it doesn’t have an animation system.” (Frostbite was later attached to an animation system called ANT, that source said, but it was full of “duct-taped issues.”)”

  5. R. Totale says:

    ‘Uncharted but Star Wars’
    Surely “UnSTARted?

  6. Premium User Badge

    Ninja Dodo says:

    It is indeed an interesting read. Seems I was wrong about it being canned for purely business reasons, although it sounds like (similar to ME Andromeda) in a lot of ways, however unintentionally, they were kind of set up to fail… insufficient resources, lack of genre experience in the team, the wrong engine, unrealistic expectations and expensive location on top of that. Still a damn shame. Hope everyone lands on their feet.

  7. Vedharta says:

    I feel i got a instant LSD flashback at that articles header photo…..

    (best tv series…evvah)

    • po says:

      And one of the worst games ever ;)

    • corinoco says:

      Indeed it was! Although why the picture is being used here is beyond me; FS wasn’t based on SW, it was based on B7 and B5 and a bit of BR. No, the other, older BR.

      Anyway. You’ll all be delighted to know that Pilot’s claws were soft and squishy, not chitinous as you would expect. Scorpie wore MAMBO-brand shirts, one of which indicates he was a member of the Australian Olympic Team in 2000, and Gigi Edgley is as cute in real colour as well, oh and Kar d’Argo’s favourite weapon is actually an Xbox controller and I once played Halo with him while drunk.

  8. Vegas says:

    “Kotaku report that EA executives kept pointing to market research that people associate Star Wars with Jedis, lightsabers, and all that.”

    Yeah this is why we’re only going to get games like Battlefront, that look pretty but have little to no depth. It sounds like this particular game was screwed from a few different angles, but at the end of the day the era of new and interesting Star Wars games like Jedi Academy or Knights of the Old Republic is long since done.

    Honestly, Disney has basically the same approach to the new movies – no other MO would produce CG Tarkin and Leia.

    • Talahar says:

      And both so very much beloved games were heavy on the Jedi and the Lightsabers. Huh.

      • wackazoa says:

        Exactly. Far too many people underestimate what the Star Wars universe is. Like, think of Star Trek. We think of the Enterprise, Spock, Kirk, Klingons. Or maybe Picard, Data, Klingons, the Enterprise. Or Striker, Klingons, the Enterprise.

        There are certain things that are essential to a universe. And in order for any story in that universe to remain believable you have to include them.

      • Vegas says:

        Yeah I wasn’t referring to Jedi and Lightsabers specifically (it’s Star Wars), but to the marketers’ birds-eye view of what Star Wars is supposed to be. Jedi Academy and KOTOR both had new settings, characters, and themes (or takes on classic themes), which the people at Disney and EA clearly see as risky.

    • fuzzyfuzzyfungus says:

      I wouldn’t be even slightly surprised if the other association with Star Wars really helped sink this one: being Big Serious IP.

      The days are gone(was Yoda Stories the last?) when a crazy-popular IP like Star Wars is something that a major publisher would let you release some little quirky game related to.

      This project could we’ll have been doomed out of the gate; but “space rascals heisting in space!” could have been approached on a much more survivable scale than “Star Wars space rascals heisting in space”; and (while Star Wars certainly has some space rascals), it isn’t obvious that bringing Star Wars into it was all that helpful when it focused on a little bit of relatively little-known extended universe.

      Again, it’s quite possible that this effort was doomed from day one; but a lower profile effort that didn’t bear the burden of being a Star Wars game would have had a better chance of being of actually doable ambition.

  9. Kelpie27 says:

    Yoda’s fairly piled on the pounds in that photo. But Chewie is looking particularly dapper.

  10. Jay Load says:

    “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.”

    I’ve heard similar from the guys that make Robot Chicken. They probably won’t be doing any/many more Star Wars specials because they now have to deal with a Mega-corp that wants to review every single detail, whereas previously they had direct access to George Lucas who could turn stuff around pretty quick. Sad times.

    • Turkey says:

      It’s weird. I was actually expecting EA to flood the market with bad Star Wars games when they got the license, but now it just seems like they can’t get anything out the door.

    • Ghostwise says:

      The approval processes for Star Wars are known for being a gigantic pain in the arse. That was already the case during the 1990s.

      It’s understandable.

  11. wackazoa says:

    I wont say I was surprise when I read the Kotaku article. After 3 years of work to have seen and heard practically nothing on it, pointed more toward dev problems than a publisher saying we don’t want a single player game. It was interesting to see how much was EA, how much was devs who had to ambitious a game for the people and budget, and that Disney played a role. Was a great read and further instilled that cancellations always fall into a non black and white blame spectrum.

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      Ninja Dodo says:

      I don’t know about always. There are definitely some examples where games have been cancelled for BS political or business reasons and the developers were doing fine or better until they had the rug pulled out from under them.

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    zigguratvertigo says:

    There’s a very ideological assumption running through that article that games can only get made in places with low-to-no tax. Presumably Dice in Sweden have discovered a font of eternal gold or something.

    • Dave L. says:

      It’s less the low-tax than it is the low living expenses. Sweden may have higher taxes, but those come with significantly lower per-developer expenses, especially factoring in exchange rates.

      Developing in San Francisco isn’t expensive as hell because of taxes, it’s because San Francisco is expensive as hell and if you want people to work there you have to pay them enough to live there.

      • MattM says:

        You can make $100,000 and will still need roomates.

        • Xerophyte says:

          If you work as a software developer in San Francisco and are making $100k then you are either extremely junior or badly undervalued, and you will also have trouble affording the rent on a small closet.

          It’s a truly weird place.

          And, yes, as a Swedish software developer living in San Francisco I can confirm that the cost per employee is going to be a lot lower in Sweden, much as it will anywhere else on the planet.

    • Asurmen says:

      As the article actually points out, they get tax back for the production of video games in Sweden.

      • Xerophyte says:

        That’s in Vancouver. Not in Sweden.

        The British Columbia tax break is also why near-enough every single visual effects studio has an office in Vancouver, and why a good chunk of “american” TV is filmed there.

  13. Kurokawa says:

    A lead wanting too much, a studio both underfunded and understaffed, Frostbite being not suited for the task…

    It’s Mass Effect Andromeda all over again!

    Too bad.
    I’d really have been interested in a Star Wars experience that goes beyond the same old glowsticks and battlemonks I’ve seen (and played) a thousand times before.

  14. SkyCry says:

    Wait so there was another Uncharted type Star Wars on the works? When people mentioned the cancelled Visceral’s Star Wars I always thought it the Star Wars 1313 game with Boba Fett that had a couple trailers out and kinda looked promising.

  15. Spacewalk says:

    Andromeda again Alice, you can’t just post the same photo over and over again it’s getting boring.

  16. TaylanK says:

    Pretty sure Vancouver beats San Francisco in lack of affordability.

  17. brucethemoose says:

    So what other EA games are in the pipe that might meet the same fate?

  18. Syt says:

    Great picture, I loved Guardians of the Galaxy!

  19. tomimt says:

    Sadly enough Star Wars audiences have proven that Star Wars isn’t a place for originality, it’s a place for true and tested things, where stuff is just seemingly different, but is, in the end, the same.

    It is a franchise by committee and if you are a developer with ideas that don’t mesh with that committee, it’s not really a franchise you should be working on.

  20. thomas16632 says:

    why is there a picture of the “Farscape” tvshow, when we are talking about a “StarWars” game.
    And why some people are mixing in Cylon (Battlestar Galactica) & Babylon 5 lol (i suppose this one knew there was something wrong here).

  21. TheAngriestHobo says:

    I’ll forgive the dead horse this time, since Farscape is the single best TV series ever produced.

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