May the force be with Electronic Arts. It’ll surely need all the help it can get to pull a Jedi-rabbit out of this sarlacc pit of a hat.
In case you missed it, the world’s third-largest video game conglomerate just swooped down, presumably with dump trucks full of cash, and scooped up the exclusive multi-year rights to make new Star Wars games for a “core gaming audience.” Disney, which bought LucasFilm and Star Wars from George Lucas for about $4 billion last October, will retain the rights to design games for mobile, social and online audiences.
This, after Disney shuttered historic game developer LucasArts last month. The AP apparently (and amusingly) read that as Disney possibly “giving up” on Star Wars video games. As if. That was just Disney winding up a developer that hadn’t made or published a really memorable Star Wars game — The Force Unleashed included — in over a decade.
Now the license falls to the company Trip Hawkins built, one of gaming’s behemoths and a player that already has skin in the game: EA subsidiary BioWare put together Star Wars: The Old Republic, the second Star Wars MMO (after Sony’s defunct Star Wars: Galaxies), and by most accounts a reasonably successful one, even if it transitioned to free-to-play much more quickly (and worryingly) than expected.
And yet EA has a spotty track record when it comes to franchise tie-ins. Whereas handing a major property off to a smaller, more creatively flexible studio can yield the occasional (and completely unexpected) Batman: Arkham Asylum, LEGO Star Wars, The Chronicles of Riddick: Escape from Butcher Bay or Star Trek: Bridge Commander, the challenge when you ritualize conceptuality, then attempt to wring creativity from individuals on exacting timelines complicated by multi-platform demands and implacable shareholders is…well, it’s all but insurmountable. The result, more often than not, is mediocrity, and that’s typically your best-case scenario.
With that in mind, here’s why I think the EA-Star Wars deal can’t possibly work…or, you know, maybe could, given the stars and planets aligning.
EA’s initial trip down Star Wars lane was confused and tedious
Star Wars: The Old Republic is a decent single-player romp masquerading as a mediocre massively multiplayer one. For all its nerdy narrative depth, The Old Republic runs out of steam too fast, sacrificing dynamic longevity for at best storytelling competency. Compared to NCsoft’s Guild Wars 2, the apotheosis of sprawling world-building MMOs, The Old Republic feels quaint and sadly upstaged.
The company’s tie-in track record is disgraceful
Observe the Harry Potter games, based on J.K. Rowling‘s ridiculously successful books: The films alone are among the highest-grossing of all time. EA had the Harry Potter film license from The Sorceror’s Stone to the final Deathly Hallows duology, and yet — with the arguable exception of EA Bright Light’s Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix — the games, in particular those final few, were utterly forgettable. Then you’ve got stuff like: G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra, Aliens Versus Predator: Extinction, Batman Begins, The Godfather II, Rango, the so-so 007 series and all of the depressingly pedestrian Lord of the Rings tie-ins (save for The Battle of Middle-earth II). Those two exceptions aside, I can’t think of a truly memorable EA video game/movie tie-in. Can you?
EA wrote the book on franchise fatigue
What if the bean counters at EA develop the Star Wars games into a once-a-year event, rolling out new titles with the regularity of more often than not ho-hum perennials like Madden or FIFA? By establishing metrics whereby the Star Wars games are required to meet certain revenue goals to bolster quarterly financials (and ultimately placate shareholders), the company’s almost surely condemning these games to failure (and the brand to further tarnishing), whether immediately or eventually.
The company has a troubled relationship with consumers
Remember Spore‘s launch in 2008? The DRM backlash? Will Wright’s swan song EA game still hovers at just above a single star on Amazon (with over 3,000 negative user reviews). Through the mid-2000s, EA had to fend off disturbing allegations of employee/workplace abuse, and in 2008, it signed an exclusive deal for the NFL license (viewed as anti-competitive, despite EA’s claim that the NFL pushed for the arrangement). And in 2012, the company won The Consumerist’s annual “Worst Company in America” award, easily beating Bank of America in the final round with over a quarter million voting. EA won again this year, too. In short, EA has debilitating public perception issues.
But okay, let’s round things out — here’s a list of reasons why, however improbably, the deal could produce something of consequence despite my concerns.
EA has the resources to pull it off
If anyone has the economic muscle to invest big in Star Wars gaming, it’s EA. The company’s revenue in 2012 alone ($4.143 billion) exceeds the price Disney paid Lucas for all of LucasFilm. How the company approaches this investment is everything, of course, i.e. using all that cash to identify then furnish talented developers with the creative environment needed to deliver more than flavor-of-the-week material.
The game engine already exists (and it’s a thing of beauty)
The new Star Wars games will reportedly use EA DICE’s forthcoming Frostbite 3 engine. I would’ve been thrilled if they used Frostbite 2.0, the engine that powered Battlefield 3 (not a fan of that game, but hello beautiful!). I’m really just extending my last point, but having pockets deep enough to basically hand a design team their game engine in advance should help whichever EA subsidiaries wind up getting the Star Wars gig focus more on designing the games themselves.
The company’s incentive to prove naysayers like me wrong is sky-high
I would love nothing more than to be wrong about EA’s prospects here — Star Wars games don’t have to be poor, or merely competent. So the best of luck to executive chairman Larry Probst and whoever backfills ex-CEO John Riccitiello’s shoes. Let’s hope a presumptive desire to flout cynical expectations yields something unexpected. LucasArts made some terrific and influential Star Wars games back in the day. It’s not too late for someone bold (and talented) enough to start again.