This week’s news that EA has chosen to shutdown Visceral Games and its unnamed, narrative-driven Star Wars title is the talk of the games industry. Pretty much everyone, myself included, is in agreement that the game didn’t fit with EA’s strategy of capitalising on games-as-a-service titles (GaaS) which retain player interest for long periods of time. For a well-argued example head over to Tweaktown.
However, there a couple more points that should be added, which were also potential causes of the demise of Amy Hennig’s much-awaited title.
First up is the increased importance of IP for publishers. While EA has been incredibly successful with Battlefield 1, many of its biggest brands globally – such as FIFA, Madden and Star Wars itself – rely upon IPs from others. And even the biggest such brands have hiccups – look at recent protests in the NFL, the tarnishing of FIFA’s reputation and the possibility of a bad Star Wars trilogy.
Now, none of these events have looked to affect EA’s bottom line as of yet, and they probably won’t. But when you’re looking at building a long-running IP such as Battlefront, it’s best to own the core IP yourself and not be reliant on a partner to maintain it. Or, worse still, worry about the possibility of losing the license altogether further down the line.
Looking at Activision Blizzard for comparison, we can see the company is starting to make full use of its home-grown IP. Call of Duty has radically switched direction with its return to WWII and there’s a beefed-up range of merchandise alongside it, as well as an upcoming movie – none of which would be possible for a licensed brand. While on the Blizzard side, the company is free to develop the Overwatch brand as it sees fit, with a huge merchandise range, digital comic books and even rumours of a spin-off game.
Now let’s be clear here, EA does very well out of its licensed brands, but a balance of home-grown IP and bought-in brands would put the company on a steadier playing field – which is why it looks to be investing so heavily in its Destiny-Mech-hybrid and GaaS title Anthem. And especially as its rivals look to monetise their brands across a broader multi-media space.
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A second consideration for EA could have been that launching a sumptuous single-player narrative game in the same universe as your ongoing GaaS title might not be a great way to retain players.
Battlefront players are more likely than most to want to play the new game. In fact, EA would be prominently promoting it to them, no doubt. However, GaaS players have to carefully-managed and moving a large number onto a different title, even for a relatively short period, comes with risks that they might go elsewhere once they’re done with that game.
The idea of cannibalising your own player base isn’t a great one for any company, but that you might spend countless millions of dollars developing a game that could actually disrupt your ongoing business is pretty galling.
All that said, Respawn’s ‘third-person, action/adventure’ Star Wars title is still in development. From the brief description given, it sounds like another single-player title, so why it survives while Visceral’s title is given the chop is anyone’s guess.
So is this the end for high-budget narrative titles? Well, it’s certainly not good news. Having learnt lessons from mobile titles over the last few years, some of the biggest publishers (EA and Activision most notably) have decided that they are better off investing in GaaS over single-player titles.
Single-player games sell console hardware, though, which is why platform holders still make them. Sony is heavily invested in such titles with the likes of Uncharted and Horizon: Zero Dawn, while Nintendo has both Zelda and Mario this year. Meanwhile, for contrast, Microsoft appears to be shifting away from the narrative blockbuster, possibly related to its closer relationship to PC gaming. Its big Xbox winter exclusive is the very antithesis: PUBG.
The narrative title is still alive and kicking, though, with numerous examples from major and indie publishers: Ubisoft, Square Enix, Bandai Namco, Capcom and many more have released such titles in the last year.
The triple-A narrative game is far from dead, then. Some companies are certainly moving away from it, but there’s still a big market to service here, and there will always be console hardware that needs shifting.