When Visceral Games was shut down earlier this month, many critics and analysts suggested it was because the studio's single-player Star Wars game was behind-the-times. That EA wanted to make a games-as-service, multiplayer Star Wars game instead. However, a new report reveals that problems at Visceral went way beyond just a simple desire to "pivot" a game.
In a bombshell report, Kotaku's Jason Schreier reveals the story of why Visceral Games, who developed Dead Space and was readying an Uncharted-style Star Wars game led by Uncharted's Amy Hennig, ultimately shuttered. The reasons include multiple clashes between EA and Visceral, Visceral staff and Hennig's tense relationship, and severe budget constraints. Ultimately however, there's a sense that Visceral Games was at risk of losing control of the Star Wars project from the very start.
"It would take a lot more people to create that Star Wars magic, though. By one estimate, the Ragtag team only had around 30 people as they entered pre-production in mid-2015. The plan was for the Hardline DLC team to join them later, but even that would be too small-Visceral had fewer than 100 employees. When Hennig and her team looked at comparable games-Uncharted 4, Tomb Raider, etc.-they'd see production staffs in the 200s."
One of the earliest warning signs was the fact that Visceral just didn't have the resources to complete a project as ambitious as the Star Wars adventure game (codenamed "Ragtag"). Between 2015 and 2017 when Ragtag went from pitch to pre-production to production, Visceral Games was splitting its team (between Star Wars and Battlefield: Hardline), and borrowing members from EA Vancouver and Motive. All while bleeding employees who would leave over the stressful development.
However, along the way it became clear to Visceral employees that EA wanted the Vancouver team to take over the project. This created low morale among employees and steady departures. A previously established management structure that was meant to give Visceral employees more freedom, was taken over by EA Vancouver's more bureaucratic system.
On top of that was the need to run decisions through multiple channels of management. First the team at Disney in charge of Star Wars, who would take months or even years to approve design ideas.
"On an Uncharted game, for example, one of Nathan Drake's costumes might go through a few rounds of iteration at Naughty Dog, then be finalized in a week. "With Star Wars you could be talking months-potentially years," said one Visceral staffer... With Uncharted, they can build any world they come up with, because it's their world. With Star Wars you have to have that back and forth... People think, 'Oh it must be so cool to work on Star Wars.' It actually kind of sucks."
Then there was also director Amy Hennig, who Visceral staff said felt didn't trust them. This meant Hennig took over nearly every level of production, which ex-staff says created a similar situation with Disney where design approvals were on hold for weeks and months.
"Because she wanted to direct every aspect of the game, and many decisions had to run through her, it became difficult for Visceral staff to get her attention... Some told anecdotes about waiting weeks or months just to get her approval on something they'd done, only to find out that it didn't meet her standards."
A last ditch effort from Visceral managed to produe a "sample platter" of demos that would hopefully convince EA to keep the project. It was better than the brief E3 teaser from 2016 which ex-Visceral staff describes as pretty, but ultimately a whole bunch of nothing.
Alas the demos failed to save Visceral or their version of Ragtag, leading to studio's closure.
A statement from EA's Patrick Söderlund at the time of Visceral's closing suggested that EA was pivoting Ragtag to a more replayable, multiplayer structure. This narrative came to define the Visceral episode, but as the report reveals Visceral was struggling long before then.
"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."
Check out the full Kotaku report for the complete picture. While it's sad to see a studio like Visceral go down, the story behind its fall highlights the multitude of ways the business of game making can take its toll on employees and studios.