Welcome to another edition of the new weekly opinion column, EU Action/Reaction! Each week, I tackle a specific Star Wars EU event that has garnered a significant reaction from Star Wars fans and offer my own view to further the discussion. Once you read the article, feel free to leave a comment or hop on the forums and offer your own point of view! Also, please remember that these are just my personal opinions, not that of EUCantina as a whole.
This week, I’ll be discussing the crushing failures of LucasArts. But does a brighter future exist too?
There is no franchise with a more diverse selection of games than Star Wars. Think about it. In the last 20 years, LucasArts has helped cater to a huge fan base with games of every genre. Whether you are a fan of action/adventure, racing, role-playing games, first person shooters, flight simulation, fighting games, real-time strategy or something else, the odds are that you have played at least one Star Wars game that you’ve really enjoyed.
But in the last few years, the wellspring of ingenuity has seemed to run dry. There have been major mistakes that LucasArts seems intent on making over and over again, and it has gotten to the point where the company just seems to not even understand the era of gaming that it now exists in. But even through it all, redemption is not out of reach. What we all love more than to watch a fall from grace is to watch a comeback. Let’s not kid ourselves. A comeback is what LucasArts desperately needs. It holds some of the most beloved franchises in its hands, and the disservice being done to them is downright ugly. So how does the company move forward and fix itself?
Care About Your Product
I’m sure you’ve probably heard the news about how LucasArts laid off an estimated 60 people from its The Force Unleashed II development team. Yes, this comes under the action of the new LucasArts president, Paul Meegan. But people shouldn’t be too quick to pin the blame on him. After all, the same thing happened in 2008. What it does represent, though, is a lack of care about the Star Wars brand. Because while axing staff won’t affect the retail game, it will greatly impact any future downloadable content.
Remember the content for The Force Unleashed? A bunch of character skins, at first. Then a level, the Jedi Temple, which gave gamers absolutely no narrative as to when it took place and lasted less than 30 minutes. The next downloadable content level, Tatooine, suffered similar drawbacks. Little narrative, and extremely short. The one bright moment was that it expanded on the Infinities ending, and was squandered in its cliffhanger ending. And how did LucasArts reward the loyal gamers who bought the product and continued to support it through the purchasing of the downloadable content? Why, it released the same game in an “Ultimate Sith Edition” and informed gamers that the only way to play the last of the new content would be to purchase the new edition. Of course, they then released that content about six months later.
Between how LucasArts treated its staffers and its consumers in the last few years, it’s little wonder that they managed to fast-track The Force Unleashed II. It’s clearly all about the money. Sure, companies have every right to care about monetary gain. After all, they wouldn’t be a very good company if that wasn’t a driving factor. But to be so blatant about it, and to place its importance higher than what loyal consumers cry out for – and frankly, what they’re deserved – just smacks of bad ethics. I really hoped that this installment wouldn’t be a repeat disaster, but the layoff news just confirms it for me. After all, Hayden Blackman – the guy who practically invented this series – has already left LucasArts. I hope fans aren’t pulling for The Force Unleashed III. But hey, don’t be surprised if The Force Unleashed II: Electric Sith Boogaloo Edition hits shelves next year.
For me, digital distribution is a huge no-brainer. Now granted, I’m a consumer and I think like a consumer. Between the Xbox LIVE Arcade, PlayStation Network and WiiWare, every single gaming console has access to a feature that allows players to download games. For those unfamiliar with digital distribution, these services allow gamers to download games. In some cases, they’re brand new games made just for the service. Other times, they are older games from the Sega Genesis/N64/PC era. Right now, the current fad that developers are partaking in with regards to this service is to make HD upgrades to older games. This could not be more perfect for LucasArts, considering that its chairman (George Lucas, ever heard of him?) is constantly tinkering with his older material.
Let’s face it. We’re all fans of some game that should have gotten another sequel and never did. Maybe you’re a fan of TIE Fighter. Maybe you’re eagerly awaiting the next installment of Dark Forces with Kyle Katarn. Perhaps you want a new racing game like Episode I: Racer. As fans, constantly faced with disappointment when the next announcement isn’t Battlefront III or Republic Commando II, we’ve gotten to the point where we hope for the best and expect the worse. But what LucasArts doesn’t seem to understand is that there is a perfectly viable way to gauge actual consumer interest in potential sequels of older franchises: digital distribution.
When it comes to cost, digital distribution is a far cheaper way to produce a game than creating an actual retail disk. They’ve already created the game. Now it’s up to them to dissect it, add content or HD graphics if they want, and release it. It allows them to put new content out cheaply, and it gives gamers the Star Wars fix that they have been craving. It revives old franchises, and breathes new life into the fans that hold it dearly. Not only that, but it also opens the door to another aspect of gaming that LucasArts has shown a phenomenal lack of understanding in recent years.
This generation of gaming is THE generation of multiplayer. More than 20 million people pay a premium just to access it on Xbox 360 alone. You can’t have a discussion about video games without mentioning the mammoth titles like World of Warcraft, Halo, and Call of Duty, not because of critical acclaim but because they are all immense successes when it comes to online gaming. And why? Because people love to interact with each other. If LucasArts were to take me up on my idea and throw some older Star Wars games online (dudes, give it up on the Monkey Island series already. It’s fun, but it’s not Star Wars) with online multiplayer, it would create a perfect storm of gaming. Nostalgia mixed with online gaming? It’s perfect. Imagine going head-to-head against friends in TIE Fighter, co-op missions in Rogue Squadron, deathmatches in Dark Forces or racing against a bunch of friends in Episode I: Racer. Just a simple move like that, and gamers would be convinced that LucasArts has serious plans for the future.
Look at The Force Unleashed. I can’t have been the only one who was extremely disappointed that the first “next-gen” Star Wars game (sorry Wii) did not include multiplayer. The game was supposed to be all about unleashing the Force in crazy ways, but I couldn’t turn around and unleash it on my friends? Games are $60 now, and the longevity of games are weighed – especially in a tough economy. Gamers go for what gives them the most bang for their buck, and it was sorely lacking with TFU. I wasn’t shocked that TFU became the best-selling Star Wars game of all time, though. Think about it. The game released for seven different platforms. Then it released a “special edition” for three platforms later, making a total of 10 different versions of the game for a consumer. And finally, add the fact that fans have been really hungry for a Star Wars game. TFU was the first real addition to the franchise since 2005. I accepted that the first game didn’t have multiplayer. I figured that they wanted to concentrate on the new hardware first, and if a sequel were to be produced, then they would look seriously at multiplayer. It’s a testament to the popularity of the franchise that a game could get such mediocre reviews and still sell huge.
But do you know what the highest selling Star Wars game was before TFU? It was Battlefront II, a game that was released for only four platforms and was almost exclusively multiplayer (yeah it had single player – but the fun was in the multiplayer). When Xbox LIVE support for the original Xbox was discontinued in April, the game still had the second largest online community – five years after its release. The numbers were right there to prove that gamers love Star Wars, and they also love interacting with other players. You’d think that after selling over 6 million copies and pulling huge community numbers, Battlefront III would have been a done-deal. You’d be wrong, though. Gamers are still waiting for that sequel.
LucasArts just doesn’t get it. Here we are in 2010, two years after TFU was released. The Force Unleashed II drops next month… and still has no multiplayer. Well, the Wii gets a Star Wars version of Super Smash Bros., but that’s it. I don’t understand it. Was multiplayer simply cut in the rush to get this game out for the holiday season, or was it never a factor to begin with? I don’t know the answer to that question. I wish I did. All I know is that LucasArts is flushing countless dollars down the drain without its inclusion. And worse, it’s making me believe in them less and less. I just don’t understand how a game like Jedi Academy could have such a robust (and fun!) online community, while the multiplayer portion of Republic Commando – a game that is just perfect for multiplayer – was so poorly received.
Actually, yes I do! It all comes down to external development. Games not developed by LucasArts have, by and large, had a much more active online community than games developed internally at LucasArts. Whether that is because LucasArts doesn’t comprehend the online gaming aspect, or something else, I cannot say.
The other big rumor floating around right now, which you may have heard, is that LucasArts will be ending external development of LucasArts properties. Breathe easy if you’re eagerly awaiting BioWare’s The Old Republic, because that won’t be affected if the rumor is true. It would just make that game the last of the externally developed LucasArts games. At first, I thought this was good news. To me, it sounded like LucasArts wanted to get back to basics and control its properties better so we wouldn’t get terrible Clone Wars games year after year. But the more I thought about it, the more I realized how terrible this news actually is.
Quick, think of your favorite Star Wars game.
Well, here’s some information that may shock you. That game was probably developed externally. I’ll just let the list I’ve compiled do the talking.
Developed by LucasArts:
Dark Forces (1995)
Shadows of the Empire (1996)
Jedi Knight: Dark Forces II (1997)
Masters of the Teras Kasi (1997)
Episode I: Racer (1999)
Episode I: Jedi Power Battles (2000)
Jedi Starfighter (2002)
Bounty Hunter (2002)
Republic Commando (2005)
The Force Unleashed (2008)
The Force Unleashed II (2010)
Not Developed by LucasArts:
Super Star Wars (Sculptured Software – 1992)
X-Wing (Totally Games – 1993)
TIE Fighter (Totally Games – 1994)
Rogue Squadron (Factor 5 – 1998)
Rogue Squadron II – Rogue Leader (Factor 5 – 2001)
Jedi Knight II: Jedi Outcast (Raven Software – 2002)
Jedi Knight: Jedi Academy (Raven Software – 2003)
Knights of the Old Republic (BioWare – 2003)
Knights of the Old Republic II – The Sith Lords (Obsidian Entertainment – 2004)
Battlefront (Pandemic Studios – 2004)
Battlefront II (Pandemic Studios – 2005)
Empire at War (Petroglyph Games – 2006)
This list isn’t exhaustive, but it does paint a bleak picture. The truth is that the Star Wars franchise has really thrived under external development. Yes, there have been clunkers. The glut of bad Clone Wars games is just one example. But the important thing to note is that LucasArts has had the same problems. It has developed some great games that stand the test of time, and it has developed some downright awful ones too. It’s tough to imagine the Star Wars universe without Knights of the Old Republic. I’d hate to miss out on future games like that, all because of a decision to end external development. Truly, I hope this isn’t the case. It’s been too long since we’ve had a great Star Wars game. Whether LucasArts develops it or not, all I want is something with high quality. A game that lets me play online with my friends. In the end, all that really matters is the final product. Consumers don’t care where it comes from, as long as it’s great.
I truly believe that LucasArts can, and will, turn things around. It won’t be an easy road. But then again, the roads worth taking in life rarely are. LucasArts has shown that they can craft great stories. They’ve shown us that they can create games that are beautiful, both visually and auditory. But they are not pushing boundaries. Right now, they are playing it safe. While I don’t know what will happen in the future, I do know that LucasArts isn’t going anywhere. If there is one thing that Star Wars fans have shown me over the years, it’s that they are patient. Shoot, I’ve waited seven years for both a new Dark Forces game and a new flight simulator game. But even more than we have patience, we have a seemingly endless supply of hope. LucasArts will turn it around. Maybe not tomorrow, maybe not even next year. But it can’t get much lower than it is right now, and when it starts that inevitable climb back to the hearts of so many fans, we’ll be there to cheer them on louder than ever.