After two years of teases, previews, E3 demos and an inordinate amount of press coverage, my most anticipated game of 2018 finally comes out in less than a month: Insomniac Games’ Spider-Man, featuring an older, more seasoned version of the web-slinger faced with the threat of a consortium of his greatest villains.
As someone who grew up on PS2 classics such as Spider-Man 2 and Ultimate Spider-Man, I’m thrilled that the notion of the open-world Spider-Man game is finally making a comeback for the first time since 2014’s The Amazing Spider-Man 2. The fact that it’s being crafted by minds at a AAA powerhouse studio such as Insomniac - famed for their understanding of what constitutes satisfying traversal across a large open world - only serves to amplify my excitement.
A new trailer dropped yesterday, this time showing off the myriad of activities that the player can engage in throughout Insomniac’s lovingly constructed New York City. Set to the radio commentary of one J. Jonah Jameson, it was equal parts charming and informative, showcasing Peter Parker’s abilities to swan-dive off of rooftops and high-five random pedestrians, among other skills.
Watching this trailer, I couldn’t help but marvel at the vivid clarity of Insomniac’s vision, and how much love and care they’ve put into understanding the titular hero, as well as the vibrant city that surrounds him. My excitement for the game increased tenfold – and then, as it usually does whenever I see things that I love adapted into games spectacularly, a thought struck me:
Why can’t I have a Star Wars game like that?
There are reasons, of course.
Back in 2012, when Disney bought Lucasfilm and the Star Wars IP was formally revived across all forms of media, games included, Disney chose to shutter LucasArts, the in-house studio that had been responsible for most of the iconic games in the franchise to date, killing long-awaited titles like Star Wars 1313 in the process. Rather than attempt to form a new team that would steer future Star Wars games onward into the future, Disney instead chose to place all of its bets on Electronic Arts, signing a ten-year deal with the behemoth publisher that would grant EA exclusive rights to develop games based on the Star Wars license going forward.
At the time, Disney’s partnership with EA was met with equal parts excitement on skepticism. On one hand, the notion that some of EA’s most celebrated in-house studios, such as DICE, Visceral Games, and BioWare, would have the chance to develop original Star Wars IP sparked significant speculation as to what kind of games we would see come out of this partnership. On the other hand, this was EA, multi-time “Worst Company in America”, a publisher renowned for attempting to nickel-and-dime their consumer base out of every possible cent imaginable through DLC, as well as for controversies regarding reports of publisher interference compromising the creative vision of some of their beloved franchises. (The EA/Star Wars announcement came right on the heels of 2012’s now-infamous Mass Effect 3 controversy, which failed to reassure some of EA’s more vocal critics that they wouldn’t butcher another beloved space opera.)
So far, it would seem that EA’s skeptics have discovered their fears to have been more than valid.
In the six years since the deal was struck with Disney and Lucasfilm, only two large-scale AAA Star Wars titles have actually made it to store shelves: DICE’s Star Wars Battlefront, a revival of the beloved 2000’s franchise of the same name, and its sequel, Star Wars Battlefront II. Timed to release in conjunction with the premieres of The Force Awakens and The Last Jedi, the two games have seen their fair share of criticism. The discourse surrounding 2015’s Star Wars: Battlefront largely concerned what many perceived to be a lack of content available in the game at launch. Many were disconcerted by DICE’s decision to forego a single-player campaign in favor of focusing on the development of Battlefront’s multiplayer suite, noting that doing so felt as though it flew in the face of what many people loved about Star Wars – the franchise’s rich universe and capacity to produce a vast expanse of compelling stories. Notably, this backlash would cause DICE to reverse direction for the sequel, introducing a single-player campaign with an original story crafted by writers at EA Motive.
Last year’s Star Wars Battlefront II, on the other hand, came under fire for different reasons, reasons that sparked one of the gaming sphere’s most prominent conversations of 2017: the discussion surrounding the ubiquity of loot boxes and pay-to-win mechanics in popular multiplayer titles. Many players expressed dissatisfaction with the notion that players could bypass the game’s built-in progression system by spending real money to unlock available weaponry and playable Heroes such as Luke Skywalker and Darth Vader. This would create a significant gap between two subsets of players: those who were attempting to grind their way towards unlockables through Battlefront II’s progression system and gameplay loop, and those who were starting with an advantage thanks to purchasing high-level randomized loot boxes. This conversation even threatened to expand far beyond the scope of games media; Hawaii legislators introduced bills to regulate the sale of loot boxes earlier this year, albeit to no avail – the bills were killed a month later.
EA’s struggles as they pertain to Star Wars have stretched beyond Battlefront. Another one of 2017’s biggest stories was the cancellation of Visceral Games’ single-player narrative-driven Star Wars title, which had been in development for years. Spearheaded by former Uncharted narrative director Amy Hennig, the game, code-named Ragtag, would have applied Uncharted’s linear cinematic storytelling sensibilities to an original Star Wars heist narrative. It was cancelled – and Visceral shuttered – at the end of last year, a month prior to Battlefront II’s launch.
At the moment, we know very little about EA’s future Star Wars plans. Battlefront II DLC adding characters and maps from the Prequel Trilogy will be available later this fall. It can be assumed that a third Battlefront game is in development to coincide with the release of next year’s Episode IX. And at E3 2018, Vince Zampella, head of Respawn Entertainment, announced that Respawn’s next project is Star Wars Jedi: Fallen Order, due out in Holiday 2019. Little is known about the game save for the fact that you’ll play as a Jedi, and that it will be set between Revenge of the Sith and A New Hope.
Beyond that, the future of EA’s work with the Star Wars license is hazy, at best. However, as Disney and Lucasfilm move forward with the franchise, pushing the films into uncharted territory through trilogies crafted by Last Jedi director Rian Johnson and Game of Thrones showrunners David Benioff and D.B. Weiss, they’re sure to be looking towards what happens after the EA licensing deal is up. And for inspiration, Lucasfilm should be looking towards its own sibling company: Marvel.
Until recently, Marvel’s IP were primarily licensed to Activision, who spent the mid-2000’s churning out Marvel games of varying quality, ranging from the heights of the aforementioned Spider-Man 2 to the lows of the critically panned X-Men Destiny.
However, the video gaming landscape had shifted since the days in which Marvel and Activision had forged that partnership. In 2009, Warner Bros. and Rocksteady Entertainment released Batman: Arkham Asylum, which quickly cemented its place in the pantheon of the greatest superhero games of all time, and was followed by three equally successful sequels. For the first time in conceivable memory, DC had a foothold when it came to controlling the popular conversation in regard to games based on superhero properties.
It’s clear that the lessons imparted by Arkham Asylum’s success – prioritizing quality over speed of production, entrusting IP to talented development teams, and rejecting the premise that licensed titles need to coincide with the launch of specific films or other products – were ones quickly taken to heart by Disney and Marvel. They chose their next partners carefully, and didn’t choose a particular successor to Activision – to date, they still haven’t signed an expansive deal with a publisher containing the rights to most of their IP. Rather, they chose to partner with talented studios who all excelled in different arenas.
They continued their long-standing partnership with Traveler’s Tales and Warner Bros., who continued to develop Lego Marvel games, including Lego Marvel’s Avengers and Lego Marvel Super Heroes 2, the latter of which released just last year. In 2015, Marvel announced that Telltale Games would be entrusted with one of their IP – this announcement culminated in the release of last year’s Telltale’s Guardians of the Galaxy, released over the course of eight months in 2017. The Marvel vs. Capcom franchise continued last year – to mixed results – with Marvel vs. Capcom: Infinite, while Marvel attempted to take a page from DC’s playbook through continued updates to its MMO, Marvel Heroes – a far less successful endeavor, as Marvel Heroes shut down in 2017, and the studio responsible for its development, Gazillion, shut its doors. And on the horizon, Marvel has partnered with Square Enix to develop a AAA title based on The Avengers, but there’s been little word about the project since it was announced.
The Marvel partnership that got the most people talking, however, was the one it made with Sony and Insomniac Games to develop Spider-Man. Unveiled at E3 2016 with a brief teaser, the game immediately took the public consciousness by storm as many pondered if it would be Marvel’s answer to Arkham Asylum. Over the past couple of years, information about the game has been doled out slowly, with a gameplay reveal in 2017 followed by a Game Informer cover story in 2018. (One of the things that I find impressive as we near ever closer to launch is just how little I feel I know about the game despite the all-consuming vortex of hype surrounding it.)
This approach to game development has been ingenious on Marvel’s part: rather than risk potential catastrophic loss by engineering high-profile titles in-house at a brand-new studio, Marvel has chosen to entrust their IP to hand-picked development studios renowned across a variety of different genres. This not only allows more IP the opportunity to grow and prosper, but it also encourages experimentation, and prevents Marvel’s licensed games from becoming overly stale and homogenized.
As we currently live in a world where the majority of Star Wars games released in the past three years are first-person shooters or free-to-play mobile experiences, I can’t help but feel that, moving forward, it might be smart for Disney to adopt a similar strategy in regard to its management of the most iconic film franchise of all time. The Star Wars universe is rife with stories to tell, fascinating characters and unique environments just waiting to be explored – and keeping management of the IP solely under EA’s banner limits not only the amount of Star Wars titles being released, but the diversity of potential developers whose perspectives could only serve to further innovate on the foundation George Lucas built back in 1977.