Friday, October 27, 2017

Report: The Story Behind The Fall of Visceral's 'Star Wars' Game And What It Would Have Been

By: Dominic Jones

A little over a week and a half ago, Electronic Arts announced that they would be shutting down Visceral Studios and that work on the Star Wars game that Visceral had been working on since 2013 would be moved to EA's Vancouver studio.  Since the announcement there has been much speculation about what caused the downfall of the game and what the game would have been had it ever been released.  Tonight, two phenomenal reports were released by Jason Schreier over at Kotaku and Jason Ward over at that answer these two questions.

Starting with the real world history of the game and why it was cancelled, there has been much speculation about why this all happened.  Much of the speculation centers on EA's seeming lack of interest in story driven, single player games.  However, according to Schreier's story the real reason for the game's cancellation has more to do with a troubled studio, less than ideal working conditions, and a disagreements over what the game should be.

“Honestly, it was a mercy killing,” said one former Visceral employee. “It had nothing to do with whether it was gonna be single player. I don’t think it had anything to do with that. That game never could’ve been good and come out.”

The story behind the game that would become known as "Project Ragtag" (or just Ragtag) starts back in 2013 when EA first obtained the license to create Star Wars video games from Lucasfilm and Disney.  At the time Visceral had been working on two games, Battlefield: Hardline and a pirate game.  The team working on the pirate game shifted to working on a space pirate game set in the Star Wars galaxy.  Ironically, this would have been an open world game, which is what EA appears to want to shift back to.

Work on the game stalled as much of the team was pulled over to work on Battlefield: Hardline and the project was eventually scrapped in favour of a single player, linear action-adventure game at the behest of Amy Hennig, who had been brought in as creative director and was best known for her work on the Uncharted series.  Hennig came up with the story for Ragtag and got the team excited about the project.

They’d keep the idea of scoundrels in space, but for this new project, Hennig wanted to tell a heist story. Star Wars meets Ocean’s Eleven. Soon it had a new codename: Ragtag. Everyone I asked about Ragtag’s story was unanimous about one thing: They all thought it was awesome.

Key art of the cast of Project Ragtag, via: Kotaku
Unfortunately, development on the game was slow, due in large part to EA moving members of the team off the project to work on Battlefield: Hardline DLC and the company not allowing Visceral to hire the workers needed to advance the game.  They got help from the new EA Motive Studio in Montreal, however that team was moved off of Ragtag to develop the campaign for Star Wars Battlefront II after the response to the first Battlefront's release in 2015.  Eventually, EA's Vancouver studio would be brought in in 2017 to assist on the game, but by that point it may have been too late.

Ultimately, the game's biggest issues came down to friction between EA and Visceral over what the game should be.  EA was pushing Visceral to develop something new and also achieve top rankings on review websites, despite the fact that Visceral was struggling to create the game they wanted using EA's Frostbite engine.  In addition, the game that Visceral was developing wasn't "Star Wars-y" enough for EA.  Ragtag would have focused on entirely new characters, who weren't Jedi or Sith, which made EA feel that they weren't using the Star Wars brand to its full potential.

With Ragtag, Hennig and crew were planning on making a gritty game about scoundrels and criminals. They had Lucasfilm’s blessing to tell a story about new characters, with no Sith or midichlorians or members of the Skywalker clan. But when EA’s executives thought of Star Wars, they thought of robed Jedi using powers of the Force, not mob families. 

Two former Visceral staff recall EA looking at Ragtag and asking where Chewbacca was. “EA would get obsessed with market research and start asking people what’s important to them about Star Wars,” said a former staff member. “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.”

Ultimately, what killed the game was when Visceral showed EA a "demo platter" and the response was that what they had developed was too close to what could be found in the Uncharted games.  The deadline for these demos to be completed was in mid-October and after seeing them, EA quickly made the decision to shut down Visceral, cancel Ragtag, and give the Vancouver studio control over what the game would become.

That was a condensed summary of what went down behind the scenes over the past few years with Project Ragtag, based on the reporting by Jason Schreier.  I highly, highly recommend reading Schreier's full report, it goes into far more detail about what life was like at Visceral studios, the problems they had, their relationships with other studios, and what they actually developed.  There's also details on the demos they produced (including the one for E3 2016 that was featured in EA's presentation), and an interesting story about how Visceral was offered the chance to work on the ill fated Star Wars 1313 before its cancellation.  It is phenomenal reporting and well worth the read.

Now that we know the real world history of Project Ragtag, what would the in-universe story have been?  For that we turn to Jason Ward of  MSW had been reporting interesting tidbits about the game's story throughout last summer, but now that the game is officially cancelled they're not holding back and have released a full synopsis of what the game would have been.

According to MSW, the main cast of the game would have been Dodger Boon (Alderaan survivor and Imperial draft dodger turned scoundrel), Robbie Mattox (a gunslinger who was raised by the Wandering Star crime family), Buck (Dodger's mentor), Lunak (Dodger's mechanic), Doc (Dodger's medical droid), Wil Nightstar (Dodger's old friend), Oona Sable (daughter of Korzan), Zanni (a sort of Force-sensitive crook), and Korzan Sable (a Rang Clan boss and mother of Oona).
Below is an excerpt from MSW's synopsis of the game,

"The criminal families were in disarray after new regulations came down from the imperials in their sectors. Just like everyone else, some profiteered and others were less than thrilled with the Imperial occupation of the black markets.

The Rang Clan are based on Coruscant but they moved in on the lucrative geography of Tatooine. Their relationship with the Empire allowed them to essentially gain permission to operate on the planet run by Jabba the Hutt. This of course makes for friction in the underworld as the Hutts and the Rang vie for power under imperial rule.

Jabba the Hutt pressures Dodger, our hero, to work for him on a job uncharacteristic of his normal gigs. Dodger Boon and his sidekick Robie Mattox are to kidnap Korzan’s only daughter, Oona Sable. Jabba wants to use her as leverage to push the Rang off Tatooine."

As the game goes on it is revealed that the Alderaan graveyard is being used by Korzan to develop a weapon for the Empire.  Throughout the story we would see Dodger have confront his survivors guilt and what it means to be Alderaan survivor, as well as Oona come to terms with who her mother is and how to distance herself from her.

You can read the entire synopsis here.  It does go into detail about how the game would have ended, but seeing as the game is basically cancelled it's more of a look down the road not taken than spoiler for an upcoming project.  Again, I highly recommend reading Jason's report.

So what does this all mean for Star Wars fans?  At the very least, it sounds like we're missing out on what would have been a very interesting game that would have told a type of story set in the Star Wars galaxy that we don't usually see.  And that's a real shame. 

But what's more telling is EA's reaction to the idea of telling this sort of Star Wars story.  The fact that they were afraid to tell a story like Ragtag because it lacked the familiar trappings of Star Wars is concerning.  Star Wars is such a vast universe with some many potential stories to tell, limiting what can be done to stuff that's like what we've already seen before feels like wasted potential.

Let's compare for a moment, the stories of Battlefront II to Project Ragtag.  This may seem unfair given they are such different games, but let's consider for a second the type of stories they are.  What's exciting about Battlefront II's story is the idea of learning more details about what happened between Return of the Jedi and The Force Awakens.  In some ways, it's more of a history lesson than a story.  That's not to say we won't get a compelling story about Iden Versio and the other members of Inferno Squad, but my interest in the story (at least right now) has more to do with my interest in learning what happens in the new films.

Conversely, what we would have gotten with Ragtag is a more in depth story which is largely detached from the story of the films.  Yes, it gets its launching point from the destruction of the Death Star in A New Hope but its story is otherwise a stand alone adventure that would have explored a new part of the Star Wars galaxyThe story would have expanded Star Wars into new territory and told a story unlike anything we've really seen before.

I'm not saying type of story is definitely better than the other.  In fact, I believe that for the Star Wars brand to thrive we need a healthy mix of both.  But if EA (and it is EA who had this issue, from the reports Lucasfilm was on board with the story of Ragtag) is only going to push for one type of story then we may see continued struggles with getting Star Wars video games that are exciting to both gamers and Star Wars fans made.

We now have to wait and see what EA's Vancouver Studios can come up with and if they can even get it done.

Again, shout out to Jason Schreier and Jason Ward for their excellent reporting on this story!

Follow The Star Wars Underworld on Twitter @TheSWU for more updates about this story and other breaking Star Wars news.


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