On October 17th publisher Electronic Arts announced the closure of one of its studios, Visceral Games. The studio was working on an unnamed Star Wars game with an anticipated release date of late 2018/early 2019. The project was headed by Amy Henning, ex-writer and co-creator of the Uncharted Series for Naughty Dog studios. EA issued a press release (more on this later on) that raises more concerns than explanations on the studio’s dismantling.
Since the story broke, I can’t help but feel this is all a major joke on gamers. A snow job by one of the biggest publishers in the business, and then echoed verbatim by some game journalists. It’s like, a major publisher walks into a bar (stop me if you’ve heard this one), he sits down and says, “Bartender, I’m feeling generous, ask everyone in the bar what they would like to drink.” The bartender does just that, and he comes back with a varied list of drinks the patrons wanted. Publisher looks at the list, chuckles while then says, “Ok instead of buying drinks, I’m going to sell everyone video slot machines for $60.00 that drop coupons for free drinks once every 400-600 games played. You might not get the drink you want, but just keep trying! But if you really want more chances at free drinks, you’re going to have to pay $1.99 for a special token that lets you roll 5 times for drink coupons! Whaddya say!” What’s the punchline? There isn’t one. This isn’t really a joke, more of an analogy for gamers in 2017. While most gamers are noticeably upset at this trend, it’s puzzling to see game journalists roll over and even find excuses to agree with Electronic’s Arts market assessments that single player is dead and the rise of open world microtransactive games is the answer. Is it?
The Closure And Press Statement
I assumed the sudden closure of Visceral Games was due to procrastination and mismanagement of funds. The studio had a mixed record with games. It had success with the Dead Space series but mishandled production of The White Council, a 2007 Lord of the Rings game. It wouldn’t be the first time a developer procrastinated, over promised, and ultimately failed to deliver to its publisher. That situation does not seem to apply to Visceral’s unnamed Star Wars game.
The canceled Star Wars game was intended to be akin to the Uncharted series, a third person story-driven adventure. Amy Henning, the main writer, and designer from that series, was brought on board to shape the project. EA intended to duplicate an Uncharted-like title while putting to use their expensive and exclusive Star Wars rights–a wise move. Fast forward three and a half years later, and the studio is now dismantled, but the project (and some personnel) have moved to EA Vancouver. The retention of the production, and its continuance, denotes there was something worth saving, as some of its early screenshots would lead us to believe.
Now let’s take a look at what EA released in their statement regarding Visceral’s closure. Patrick Söderlund’s (Executive Vice President, Electronic Arts) posted the following:
“Our industry is evolving faster and more dramatically than ever before. […] In this fast-moving space, we are always focused on creating experiences that our players want to play…and today, that means we’re making a significant change with one of our upcoming titles.[The Star Wars game] In its current form, it was shaping up to be a story-based, linear adventure game. Throughout the development process, we have been testing the game concept with players, listening to the feedback about what and how they want to play, and closely tracking fundamental shifts in the marketplace. It has become clear that to deliver an experience that players will want to come back to and enjoy for a long time to come, we needed to pivot the design. […] we are shifting the game to be a broader experience that allows for more variety and player agency, leaning into the capabilities of our Frostbite engine and reimagining central elements of the game to give players a Star Wars adventure of greater depth and breadth to explore.”
On the surface, this appears to be a logical and well-formed press statement. EA cares about its customers, right? EA felt that the unnamed Star Wars project just wasn’t up to snuff, it wouldn’t sell well, thus wouldn’t earn goodwill with gamers. Sounds protective of its customers, and a shrewd analysis based on its customer group research. Well, what’s wrong with that? Nothing, but is it true? Does the real world data agree with EA’s assement that story-based linear adventure games (in whole, or in part) are not what gamers want?
Publishing Industry Evolving
In the first sentence of Söderlund’s statement, he claims that the industry has evolved much faster and dramatically than ever. I tried to find validity to this statement and came up short. In EA’s casethey appear to be business as usual as they have been for the last couple of decades. Once EA has an IP that earns some coin, their developer houses make 6-9 iterations of it until it starts to wane in public interest. The most recent example of this is Mass Effect: Andromeda, whose sales figures made it a commercial success, but not to the level of EA’s satisfaction and it dropped all additional single-player DLC expansions for it.
This isn’t new behavior for Electronics Arts as seen with Dead Space, Medal Of Honor, and The Lord of the Rings games have all been run into the proverbial ground. Major publishers are not undergoing some kind of major game design revival or technology race. The only major change in recent triple AAA trends is the hotly debated microtransactions. The most egregious of these have been games like Grand Theft Auto V and it’s “shark bucks”, Middle-Earth: Shadow of War, and Overwatch’s loop pack ploy for skins.
Is this what Söderlund’s refers to as “fast” changes in publishing paradigms? There seems to be no other significant change in publishing concepts in the last five to six years that would matter to EA. If that is correct, then EA’s major concern is not being able to nickel and dime gamers with grinds with this unnamed Star Wars title in its current state.
What Players Want to Play
Electronic Arts does not seem to keep accurate data regarding what their own players want to play or choose to ignore it on a whim. At one point all of their sports simulators were on PC until game piracy essentially scared them away. They claimed to be losing millions of dollars due to illegal piracy of PC games. It’s difficult to verify those claims, but let’s not kid ourselves into believing that console versions of games are not pirated with equal ease. After the rise of Steam, Origin, and other more secure (less pirated) platforms, gamers began to wonder when the return of EA’s sports titles to PC would happen. It has not, EA’s response was that there “simply was not a market” for most sports games on PC despite the fact users have made petitions, threads, and online forum posts asking for them.
Has EA given those players what they want? Not at all. In fact, EA has continued for years providing minute and insignificant upgrades to their sports title, changing the year on the cover and releasing the title again. Players on all platforms have been asking for major improvements in AI, improvements equal to the advancements in technology in today’s PCs and consoles. Players have been asking for realistic physics. Improvements in strategy, micromanagement, and all the other aspects that would make their sports titles accurate simulations. All of these requests have fallen on deaf ears. Instead, this year’s Madden features card based microtransactions and loot boxes. Something no one (except EA) asked for.
To be fair, EA did acquiesce and included a single player campaign for Battlefront II, after thousands clamored for it. How come their player testing groups didn’t see that one coming with the release of multiplayer-only Star Wars Battlefront (2015)?
Story-Based Linear Adventures Are Bad
From a publisher’s point of view, a bad game is rarely about quality–but its commercial success. Investing in a game that will not cover the development costs, and salaries for its own employees, as well as, some profit for the future then what is the point? Bad investments will lead to a publisher’s own demise. So had Visceral’s SW project come to fruition, would it have been a financial catastrophe as just a single player adventure game? EA believes it would be doomed in terms of sales. Polygon in a recent article had no issues parroting EA’s woes that for sixty bucks a game in a high def world, doesn’t begin to cover costs any longer. EA and these other journalistic sources even note that this is possibly the end of single-player focused games. Is that really the case?
A closer look at Uncharted 4 (what this unnamed Star Wars project was trying to emulate) proves the game was neither bad nor unprofitable. Neither the critics (93 aggregate score on Metacritic) nor gamers (85 score on Metacritic) thought the game was bad. According to VG Chartz (which isn’t wholly accurate as it tracks only retail store sales) sold over 9.53 million copies worldwide. That represents somewhere above 570 million dollars in gross sales not including editions sold through the PlayStation Store.
Was that estimated profit enough to cover the costs of creating and marketing Uncharted 4? How much does it cost to develop a top-tier game? According to Kotaku’s report two years ago, top tier games could cost an estimated $60-70 million dollars to produce two years ago–and according to EA’s own calculations, 50-75% of that development cost is spent on marketing the game not creating it. If we take this verbatim, then Naughty Dog was given a check for $23 million dollars, with it Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End came to light. Sony could have spent an estimated $47 million dollars in commercials during football games, online ads, and ad placements for the $500+ million dollars in gross sales, and the undetermined amounts of consoles and accessories sold as result of players wanting this exclusive.
All of the Uncharted games have been lucrative for Sony, the series’ publisher, which admitted the Uncharted Collection was even a system seller. Imagine that, a story-driven single-player adventure game is not only profitable but capable of propelling Sony’s console ahead of two other competitors. Yet EA would have consumers believe its unnamed Star Wars project that would have been Jedi Uncharted is something gamers would not come back to time and time again. It simply doesn’t make any sense.
Uncharted 4 is not an aberration, there are plenty of blockbuster games that are single-player, story-driven games. Visceral’s own Dead Space series has sold approximately 12-13 million copies across all platforms. Fallout 4, not the best RPG ever made, sold a paltry 18.76 million copies on all platforms. Wolfenstein: The New Order sold roughly 5.35 million, and is releasing a sequel early 2018. Horizon Zero Dawn, 3.53 million units sold. The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim has sold approximately 42 million copies sold across all platforms and editions.
But these are single player AAA games, is that the only reason they turned out so profitable. Not exactly, Larian’s Studios Divinity: Original Sin, a crowdfunded game sold close to 2 million copies and was able to crowdfund a sequel. Klei Entertainment’s Don’t Starve is nearing 4.5 million. Don’t tell TellTale Games that single player games are not profitable, they’ve sold over 24 millions of nothing but story driven single player games. Perhaps the most impressive example is CD Projekt Red’s self-published Witcher series, which as of March 2017 has earned $250 million dollars in profit worldwide (and doing so with DRM free sales through their own GoG distribution platform). How many single player games (indie and AAA) sell enough units to not only be profitable for the developer but help fund subsequent games? Too many to count. The real point here is gamers do not only buy open world multiplayer games.
So what is EA really really saying here? It is obvious single player games are a profitable business for publishers, and still in demand. In fact, like all releases, certain genres may have more of a following, but it does not exclude them from being profitable. The facts do not agree with EA’s assessment that single-player is dead.
A Broader Experience That Allows For More Variety
Broad, wide spectrum audience games have their place. It’s the reason Overwatch is making a killing in profits. One major issue that I have with EA is that they want to make millions of dollars with the least bit of effort. It’s still an insane turn around if a company can invest $100 million dollars and netback $500 million (and this is a low-ball figure) on a well-made title. There have been other methods to increase revenue as well, including deluxe editions and expansion content that tend to be less expensive to produce and would earn the publisher even more on their initial investment. EA doesn’t seem to think this is enough anymore. It wants the billions of potential loot box money there is to be had. Is there any way of knowing if that is Electronic Arts true intention?
Re-using the same Frostbite Engine 3 is a major cost-cutting move, and EA has been urging its development houses to utilize it. Eliminating the need to develop a new engine for each new game, then development time is reduced. Does that mean EA and its partners are diverting its savings towards cutting edge software technologies like ultra-advanced AI, destructible and adaptive open world systems, realistic physics, advanced VR gameplay, or other immersive cutting-edge techniques? No. They do not.
EA is not interested in becoming the “best” publisher in terms of game quality. Broader means rarely means definitive or genre-defining. In publisher terms, it’s usually a request to make the game more accessible to younger (ages 10-14) audiences, easier less involved gameplay, an insurmountable grind, and less niche. It is possible Visceral Games were not willing to “dumb down” their efforts in order to appeal to EA’s broader audience. EA saw enough potential in this unnamed Star Wars game, but not the cash cow machine Grand Theft Auto V and Overwatch have been with useless microtransactions.
An Experience that Players Will Come Back To
If you can’t make a Star Wars game that players will come back to, there’s something seriously wrong with all of your developers. According to SteamSpy, there are thousands (yes thousands) of people playing Star Wars games. Games like Xwing vs Tie Fighter, Dark Forces II: Jedi Knight, Knights of the Old Republic, and Battlefront II (2005), have a dizzying number of fans still playing these games that are 12-20 years old! If you really want to make games that players will come back to, just slap Star Wars on the title. It works!
EA’s comments that it wants to carefully craft an unforgettable experience feels disingenuous, to say the least. It will be a while before this unnamed Star Wars game rematerializes with whatever changes EA wanted in place. In the meantime we will be beholden to whatever Battlefront II brings (loot boxes) and whatever Remedy Entertainment has planned (a game probably called AT-STFall with Loot Boxes).
Is that really the kind of experience players crave? Carnival fairground type mini-games inserted in hopes to sucker a few more bucks from young players? Judging from the massive moans and groans from the majority of the player community this is not something anyone really wants. There is also the law of diminishing returns. We already have Overwatch, Shadow of War, Destiny 2, Grand Theft Auto V, and Battlefront II all vying for user microtransaction dollars. When every game comes to market with their own gambling equivalent, what then? Think each game makes billions of aftermarket dollars? Doubtful. These things have a ceiling and an eventual interest will wane.
Bringing players back has nothing to do with microtransactions, instead, it is making consumers angrier. Bringing players back has, and always will have to do with quality. There is a reason why consumers wait for a game to drop to $20 from $60. In most cases, they do not see the value in it. Prior to EA, famed Lucasarts studios produced Star Wars, and a bevy of classic PC adventure games. Those games are still being played today because the quality and nostalgia are great enough to warrant it in the minds and hearts of gamers.
That is what EA should aim for. If it hopes to get $120-150 per customer for a game, then they damn well need to earn it. Do better. I don’t mean try to con me like I’m some fool with three card Monty transaction tricks. I mean really work for it. What kind of game should have a sticker price of $150 for a base game? Maybe EA and their player groups can put their heads together and figure that one out.
Yes, it is fair for publishers who employ thousands of people to want to not just cover costs but grow. No problem, and if microtransactions really are the only way to grow fine–although sales statistics show you don’t need an ounce of it to make millions. But if you would like me, as a consumer to hunk over money for a base game, and additional monies periodically, it better be very worth it. I want to see the 2nd biggest publisher in the world (looking at you EA) aggressively pushing the envelope of immersive gaming. I want to see simulators that approach real-world statistics and scenarios. I want to see Pulitzer caliber writing. I want to see Oscar-worthy cinematic moments. I want to play the next Mass Effect game in VR, with 90,000 NPCs walking about in every port. Games with mechanics that are outside the box, you know the kind that PC indie devs release from time to time. No one wants a simplistic “broader” experience with cheap video poker machine in the center. That’s not what gamers want, and its time everyone should push back demanding EA do better, listen harder, and up their quality before they ask for more money.