We Need More Games That Take Chances With Major Franchises

From Star Wars to Star Trek, we're better off when creators take risks on an established IP.

by Carli Velocci
Dec 5 2017, 4:00pm

All images courtesy of EA

Earlier this week, EA once again spoke about the canceled Star Wars project from Dead Space developer Visceral Games. CFO Blake Jorgensen reiterated that part of the reason why it was scrapped was because players are moving away from single-player experiences.

“As we kept reviewing the game, it continued to look like a much more linear game [which] people don’t like as much today as they did five years ago or ten years ago,” he said during a talk at the Credit Suisse Technology, Media & Telecom conference.

Ever since the news broke that EA would be shooting the game, known as Ragtag, into the vacuum of space, I’ve been thinking about how publisher perceptions of audience desire can limit the creative breadth developers may want to explore, especially when it comes to an IP as special and gigantic as Star Wars. This doesn’t even pertain exclusively to the single-player debate.

According to a Kotaku report, EA executives would question developers about if Star Wars iconography like lightsabers or characters like Chewbacca would appear in the game, which was supposed to contain an original story and characters.

“EA would get obsessed with market research and start asking people what’s important to them about Star Wars,” a former staff member said. “You’d get, ‘Oh, the Force, lightsabers, the usual Jedi continuum.’ They’re hyper focused on that stuff, and it’d be a topic of conversation in every pitch meeting.”

It’s convenient that Battlefront II came out soon after Visceral’s closing, since it affords a comparison for the iconography argument. The single-player campaign allows users to play iconic characters such as Luke Skywalker and Princess/General Leia Organa while the multiplayer affords them the chance to unlock Darth Vader, Emperor Palpatine and, of course, Chewbacca.

Putting popular characters like Darth Vader originally behind an obscene number of credits—before pushback forced EA to make them more accessible—shows that those behind the game understood the demand. In order to compel users to spend money on the game or put more hours into it, developers needed to create a product. In Battlefront II, it was some of these iconic and powerful characters that would not only allow players to fulfill fantasies, but also to level up their play in multiplayer.

There’s certainly something enjoyable as playing your favorite characters, but from their statements, EA seems to worry that any tweak to a classic character or the introduction of a new one goes against consumer needs.

Jorgensen expanded on his thoughts in his previous statement, noting that even aesthetic changes might be too jarring for players to handle. Franchises like Star Wars are so recognizable and ingrained in our culture that any changes are risky.

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"The one thing we're very focused on and they're extremely focused on is not violating the canon of Star Wars," Jorgensen said. "It's an amazing brand that's been built over many, many years. So if you did a bunch of cosmetic things, you might start to violate the canon. Darth Vader in white probably doesn't make sense, versus in black. Not to mention you probably don't want Darth Vader in pink. No offense to pink, but I don't think that's right in the canon."

For one thing, a pink Darth Vader would be worth the price of a game. Not sure why that’s considered a negative.

Secondly, while Jorgensen is speaking from a business perspective, he also comes from a place many creators on established IPs are living in. Making changes to an established, popular canon has led to great things (the first example that comes to mind is Batman: The Animated Series’ creation of Harley Quinn), but it’s considered a dangerous move. Take an audience out of their comfort zone and it’s easy to see where something might go wrong. Or at least, it’s easy to point the blame.

You see it in other media too, such as Star Trek: Discovery, a prequel that is at its best when it isn’t harkening back to other installments. However, it still has to contain references to some of the IP’s most iconic characters, such as Spock. The problem with Discovery is while it wanted to avoid any large changes to the established timeline, it only raises more. Where has Michael Burnham been all this time if she had such a close relationship with Spock and Sarek? Why do the uniforms look different? Why do the Klingons look so weird? While creators stressed that this was their own take on Star Trek and that things will eventually make sense, it’s impossible to not think about Discovery in its full context.

If the bottom line is money, wouldn’t you take the easiest journey to that line?

Battlefront II takes place after the events of Return of the Jedi. While it features some original characters, such as Iden Versio, they weave in and out of the lives of more recognizable characters, and throughout the game’s marketing, the focus has been on the most familiar Star Wars, iconography.. A brief glimpse at the official website highlights the single-player, but also “legendary locations” and “characters from every era” with a photo of Luke. It’s not so much that you can play a new character, but that you play through everything else (to the game’s detriment).

I can’t speak for EA, but I can understand that executives behind giant franchises are afraid to take risks. This goes for both games and Hollywood. The latter is filled with reboots, sequels, and prequels in movies and television because media based on lesser-known brands or original ideas can fail disastrously. Jupiter Ascending and Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets are just two examples . Any successes are in the indie space, such as with Ex Machina, Stranger Things, or Black Mirror and those are most often exceptions to the norm.

The internal debate in games about original IPs and single-player games are similar, since both come from a place of fear. EA’s biggest hits, such as FIFA, have been multiplayer and some of the most high-profile single-player games such as Dishonored 2 underperformed. If the bottom line is money, wouldn’t you take the easiest journey to that line?

But then you look at something like the Star Wars expanded universe, filled with non-canonical characters and events, and you can see how it’s affected generations of fans. Think of Thrawn, the character introduced in the 1991 novel Heir to the Empire and how he continues to be a part of the canon to this day. For expansive universes like Star Wars, fans want new stories.

One of the most satisfying experiences I’ve had this year was reading Phasma, Delilah S. Dawson’s take on Captain Phasma, which worked as an origin story, but also gave us a logical, post-apocalyptic world filled with tragedy and tension. It created a planet I had never seen in Star Wars before: one with a long history, but culturally and environmentally ravaged. It not only gave me a new way to live in the Star Wars universe while I waited for The Last Jedi, but also made the world richer. Phasma is a risk since it only features three previously-established characters and doesn’t factor in at all with the main trilogies, but it made Star Wars feel complicated. And that got me.

Battlefront II is risk-averse on two fronts, showing EA’s fear of single-player campaigns and in original storytelling. It’s tough to say whether the game suffered from either, since most sales figures can be attributed to the lootbox controversy, but EA isn’t the only company guilty of playing it safe. It’s a trend across mediums, not just in games, and has resulted in the failure and disappearance of promising stories.