A fanmade infographic made the rounds on Reddit this morning. On one side was LucasArts' output from 2002 to 2008, including classics such as Knights of the Old Republic and Republic Command. On the other was EA's Star Wars games from 2013 to 2019: Star Wars: Battlefront and Star Wars: Battlefront 2.
It's a fairly misleading graphic. It doesn't include EA's Star Wars mobile games, for one thing, which may not have much appeal to hardcore gamers, but nevertheless exist (and by all accounts makes a lot of money). It also conveniently omits some of the truly execrable crap coming from LucasArts in the 2000s, like Star Wars: The Clone Wars - Lightsaber Duels for the Nintendo Wii, also released in 2008.
More than that, though, it forgets that the 2000s were not a happy time for LucasArts. In fact, the major criticism of LucasArts in the 2000s was that it was making too many Star Wars games. And in the end, it proved to be LucasArts' downfall.
LucasArts in the 21st Century
LucasArts was a well-respected studio in the 90s. It produced a huge number of classics in this period, including TIE Fighter, Dark Forces, Grim Fandango, and Day of the Tentacle. It had a few duds—Shadows of the Empire comes to mind—but many more hits than misses.
That changed starting around 2000. The first LucasArts game to be released in the 21st century was Force Commander, a slow, miserable real-time strategy game with dated graphics even for the time. It wound up being a sign of things to come for LucasArts.
Keen to capitalize on the prequels, which were awful but nevertheless highly profitable, LucasArts began to let its formerly high standards slip. Console tie-ins like Jedi Power Battles, Star Wars: The Clone Wars, and Star Wars: Obi-Wan were roundly criticized for shallow gameplay, poor graphics, and often terrible controls.
Still, LucasArts was able to release many great games in the early 2000s. Rogue Squadron was one of the best games on the GameCube—a sterling starfighter shoot 'em up featuring immaculately reproduced setpieces from the films. LucasArts' collaboration with BioWare gave us Knights of the Old Republic, which is still revered as an all-time classic. Even games that might otherwise have been cash grabs, like Lego Star Wars and Republic Commando, became fan favorites.
In 2004, Jim Ward took control of LucasArts with a mandate to make more money, and the decline began. In Game Informer's 2015 feature detailing the decline and fall of LucasArts, he was described as a "challenging person to get to understand."
"His objective was nothing less than changing the way the entire industry worked by the sheer force of his own will," one source reportedly claimed. "He was quoted several times basically saying, 'I don't understand why video games can be late. When Industrial Light and Magic works on Harry Potter, they don't have a choice to be late. The movie's going to open. The effects have to be done. You don't get it. There's no choice. So I don't understand why we get in this situation where games can be late.' It turned out that he couldn't change the way the industry worked in the way he desired. But he was the type of guy who wouldn't take, 'That's just how it's done' for an answer."
LucasArts' reputation began to decline in this period. Rogue Squadron, Jedi Knight, and X-Wing were all quietly killed off. Star Wars Galaxies launched with the expectation that it would be the biggest game of the 2000s, only for World of Warcraft to launch a year later.
While it was still able to put out commercial successes like Star Wars: Battlefront and Star Wars: The Force Unleashed, the reviews weren't quite as glowing as before. Eurogamer wrote in its review of Force Unleashed that, "Enemy AI is laughably bad at times. It's cute to watch Stormtroopers desperately grabbing onto each other to avoid being blown away by your Force powers, but apart from that their primary directive seems to be to stand still and fire. LucasArts clearly hopes you won't really notice this when facing down a small army, but doesn't always get away with it."
The wheels began to come off in the late 2000s. First, there was the torturous development of Star Wars: Battlefront 3, which passed through multiple iterations and developers. Then there was Star Wars: The Force Unleashed 2, which was critically panned. LucasArts' output became worse and worse, with some truly awful releases including Republic Heroes and and Lightsaber Duels.
By the end of the 2000s, LucasArts still commanded some respect for its history, but the broad concensus was that it had lost its way. In the chase for more Star Wars money, its standards had fallen and it had lost much of what had made it so great. When Disney bought the Star Wars license in 2012, it was in the midst of Star Wars 1313—a last ditch attempt to make a triple-A Star Wars game worthy of the name. Six months later, it closed its doors for good.
Finding Balance in the Force
When I put all of this to Star Wars fans on Twitter, the general rebuttal was, "Yes, LucasArts put out plenty of crap, but at least it made more games than EA."
EA deserves plenty of criticism for its handling of the Star Wars license—it's been a disaster pretty much from the start—but it feels strange to knock it for not flooding the zone with Star Wars games. If anything, EA was probably right to hand the keys of the franchise to prestige studios like DICE, Respawn, and Visceral.
What fans are really crying out for is quality, not quantity. They remember classics like KOTOR and Rogue Squadron, and they want EA to give them more than that. To put it mildly, EA hasn't been able to deliver, leaving fans feeling upset and frustrated.
That EA hasn't even been able to meet the standards of 2000s-era LucasArts is surely a major disappointment, but the solution isn't "more." The solution is to give the series to the right teams, stop forcing in unwanted microtransactions, and let the professionals do their work. If Spider-Man showed anything in 2018, it's that Star Wars can be both a prestige series and a commercial success. EA should heed the advice given by Obi-Wan Kenobi to Luke Skywalker: "Patience."
The next big test for EA will be Respawn's Star Wars Jedi: The Fallen Order, which has both a strong pedigree (Titanfall 2 was amazing) and a single-player focus. A year from now, we may well be talking about how EA has managed to salvage a a bad deal. But for now, Star Wars is proving the undoing of two separate publishers, each for different reasons.