Electronic Arts is buying Titanfall developer Respawn Entertainment, with a potential price tag of $455 million in total. Titanfall 2 was one of last year's best first-person shooters in my opinion, with an absolutely amazing campaign from beginning to end. Unfortunately, Titanfall 2 got swallowed up in the holiday rush and ended up performing below expectations. So, I should be happy that Respawn Entertainment is getting a chance to develop more titles with all the resources EA can provide. I should be happy we're getting more Titanfall and Respawn's Star Wars.
And yet, there's a rumbling in my stomach. A feeling of anxiety and unease.
That's because Respawn's acquisition comes not even a month after EA shut down Visceral Games. The studio offered its blood and sweat on titles like the Dead Space franchise and Battlefield Hardline. Visceral was working on its own original Star Wars title, code-named Ragtag, before EA summarily decided to close the studio and move the production assets to another EA studio.
Perhaps my anxiety is because more than any other major publisher, EA has a history of acquiring great studios, mishandling them, and ultimately shutting them down. Bullfrog Productions in 2001, Westwood Studios in 2003, Maxis in 2004, Origin Systems in 2004, Pandemic Studios in 2009, Phenomic Game Development, DreamWorks Interactive, Playfish and Black Box Games in 2013, Mythic Entertainment in 2014. Those are the studios behind classics like Populous, Dungeon Keeper, Command & Conquer, SimCity, The Sims, Ultima, Mercenaries, Star Wars: Battlefront, Medal of Honor, Need for Speed, and Dark Age of Camelot. And none of that counts internal or satellite studios that have been killed, like Danger Close, Bioware Montreal, DICE Canada, and Easy Studios.
Activision is the other major publisher that has slashed and burned a ton of studios in its time (Neversoft, Luxoflux, and Bizarre Creations say 'Hi'), but Activision Blizzard at least feels like it's stable these days. Raven Software, Beenox, and High Moon Studios don't get a lot to do on their own these days, but they're still vaguely around. There's a solid, unstandable fear that EA ruins studios slowly.
The question is "Why?"
The Freedom To Dream, The Weight of Reality
Reporting on the inner workings and deaths of Bioware Montreal and Visceral Games by Kotaku's Jason Schreier points to a publisher that doesn't quote know what it wants to be. EA is a publisher that wants to allow for some degree of creative freedom. Mass Effect: Andromeda's original idea was described as "No Man's Sky with BioWare graphics and story." Ragtag, Visceral's Star Wars project with former Uncharted lead Amy Hennig, was equally ambitious.
"Picture the Death Star, and they all have jobs," one anonymous developer told Kotaku. "One Stormtrooper was on a command unit, moving boxes around. Some guys would be droids. It was supposed to be set up so it was all real, and it felt like they had jobs to do. We wanted to tap into emotions, so you could mess with Stormtroopers' emotions. Go into a room, turn the lights off. He goes back in and turns them back on. Then you turn them off again. At a certain point he starts getting spooked, acting irrationally, and bringing friends in."
Bioware Montreal was built from the ground up to handle the new Mass Effect, but the project apparently floundered from 2013 until 2015, when creative director Mac Walters came onboard to whip everything into shape. Likewise, Visceral Games changed its entire operating hierarchy, minimizing management and offering a system that gave creative leads more leeway, but Hennig and the rest of her team reportedly clashed.
Despite offering this freedom, both reports also state that the teams lacked resources from EA: their dreams were bigger than the resources available. Sources at BioWare said the team felt understaffed; the animations were where Andromeda took its lumps, but that specific team just didn't have the manpower during development. Visceral lost people to further development on Battlefield Hardline DLC and even then the studio wasn't well-employed for a huge triple-A project. The studio had less than 100 employees and it was located in San Francisco, meaning salaries and costs were way too high.
EA wants to give its studios space to breathe, but it also wants to be like other publishers. EA would prefer to use a few proprietary internal engines for development, like Ubisoft does across a number of titles. When EA acquired DICE in 2005, it finally had a team focused purely on high-end engine development. DICE maintained Frostbite and EA wanted every one of its subsidiaries to be using the engine. The problem is Frostbite was originally built for one type of game—the first-person shooter—and getting the engine to work with other genres was a costly process.
When BioWare started using Frostbite in 2011 for Dragon Age: Inquisition, they had to design all the tools needed to make a massive RPG. Many of those tools would transition over to Mass Effect: Andromeda, but BioWare Montreal still had to build most of what it needed from scratch.
"Frostbite is a sports car. Not even a sports car, a Formula 1. When it does something well, it does it extremely well. When it doesn't do something, it really doesn't do something," said one developer in the report. "Whenever you're trying to do something that fits the engine-vehicles, for example-Frostbite handles that extremely well. But when you're building something that the engine is not made for, this is where it becomes difficult."
Andromeda needed bigger maps than Frostbite could handle and better animation for its extensive dialog scenes. Likewise, Visceral's team on Ragtag had to build out tools that Naughty Dog had been using since the first Uncharted. It was a tall order, especially when you're supposed to be competing with other titles built on existing, evolving technology.
Recurrent Player Spending
EA also wants to be a moneymaker. Over at rival publisher Take-Two, Grand Theft Auto Online and NBA 2K rake in loads of money every year on microtransactions and online multiplayer. Even EA itself sees a significant amount of revenue from FIFA and Madden Ultimate Teams. It's hard to be in an executive position, see that kind of money, and not try to make a few changes.
Mass Effect: Andromeda didn't land like EA and BioWare hoped. It came in rough and BioWare Montreal never recovered from the poor launch. But while there are "no planned future patches" for the single-player, BioWare will continue to add multiplayer content to the game.
"In the coming weeks, our multiplayer team will provide details of their ongoing support and upcoming content, including new multiplayer missions, character kits, and what's in store for N7 Day. We appreciate all the millions of people who came with us to the Andromeda galaxy. We hope to see you again in the Mass Effect universe," said the company at the time.
In Visceral's case, the additional studio working on Ragtag, EA Motive, was eventually moved to work on the single-player campaign for Star Wars: Battlefront II. This move made sense, as Battlefront was a proven property with 13 million units shipped. Battlefront II even added loot boxes as a new form of progression, offering enhanced monetization.
EA insisted that it wasn't a war between single-player content versus a live service that killed Ragtag. One former developer at Visceral Games even called Ragtag's cancellation a "mercy killing." But you can read between the lines of EA CEO Andrew Wilson's statements on the studio's closure.
"During the development process of the game that they were working on, we've been testing the game content with players, listening to their feedback in terms of what and how they wanted to play and really tracking that closely with fundamental shifts in the marketplace and we are seeing an evolution in the marketplace. And it became clear to us that to deliver the experience that players wanted to come back and enjoy for a long time, that we needed to pivot the design," said Wilson.
"It has become clear that to deliver an experience that players will want to come back to and enjoy for a long time to come, we needed to pivot the design," added EA's Patrick Söderlund.
It's not hard to see those "fundamental shifts" as a move towards games as a service, with monetization, loot boxes, and endless DLC. Especially if you want to keep players coming back for a long time.
All of this is what feeds into this anxiety over Respawn Entertainment's prospects. You don't have look back at EA's long history to find cautionary tales. You can look over the past year and find two studios that the publisher has outright killed. We already know that Respawn Entertainment is developing a third-person action-adventure game in the Star Wars universe. With today's news we also know the studio will be working on something Titanfall-related.
The question is, how many of the problems above will repeat themselves at Respawn Entertainment? Will they have enough staff? Will they be forced to work with Frostbite? How much will be added in the name of additional monetization? And ultimately, will I be writing an article about the "death of Respawn" 5-to-10 years down the line, lamenting the slow decline of the studio after the great Titanfall 2?
I don't know. And that's why myself and others are afraid.
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