We've seen this before: The massive ambition, the technical hangups, the crossed wires as studios on opposite sides of the country try and work with one another.
As it turns out, Visceral's Star Wars game was done in by many of the same problems that tanked Mass Effect Andromeda. But it also had its own problems, all of which dragged down and ultimately killed the project dubbed "Ragtag."
Jason Schreier's massive report methodically runs through the demise of Ragtag, painting a damning picture of a deficient corporate culture that has repeatedly run promising games into the ground.
Visceral's Star Wars Game: Executive Meddling, Communication Problems, and Battlefield Hardline
It appears to have begun with Battlefield Hardline, which Visceral was effectively railroaded into making following the failure of Dead Space 3. The forced move prompted an exodus of talented artists and engineers, seriously weakening the studio. Hardline had many problems, which sapped the studio's resources, with one casualty being Yuma: a "space scoundrel" game set in the Star Wars universe.
As cool as it may have sounded, Yuma was ill-fated from the start. Battlefield Hardline was going through too many problems, and throughout 2014, progress on Yuma slowed to a crawl as Visceral asked all of its employees to help out on the cop game. Switching from third-person action-adventure games to a first-person shooter had been a rough adjustment for many people at Visceral, sources said, and a lot of them still didn’t actually want to make Hardline.
The resentment fostered by Hardline carried through its release, when part of the studio was left to "slave away on Hardline DLC" mandated by EA while Amy Hennig and her team made "Star Wars magic."
As with Andromeda, Visceral was also badly hurt by EA's reliance on collaboration between studios. When Stars Wars Battlefront proved a critical disappointment, EA Motive—which was originally tasked with helping with the development of Ragtag—was pulled to work on a Battlefront 2 single-player campaign.
Throughout 2015 the team had consisted of around 30 people, with another 40 or so planned to join once they’d shipped the DLC for Battlefield Hardline. But in order to make an Uncharted-style game of the size and scope that EA wanted, Visceral would need many more developers. "We didn’t have a plan to make this game without a 160-person team," said one former Visceral employee.
Later, when Visceral was paired with EA Vancouver—the studio primarily responsible for FIFA—the two suffered from a significant clash of cultures.
One person who worked on the game said EA Vancouver was "horrified" by how little progress Visceral had made on Ragtag. Some on the team theorized that EA was trying to wrest control of Ragtag away from Hennig, but the merger just made a messy situation messier. There were even more clashes, as EA Vancouver would propose ideas for gadgets similar to those in Rocksteady’s hit Batman Arkham games that the characters could use in addition to shooting and climbing. Hennig pushed back against these ideas, according to two people who worked on the game. She didn’t want to turn Dodger into the gadget guy.
But Hennig herself, so highly regarded for her work on Uncharted, was apparently not immune to criticism.
Throughout 2015 and then the rest of development, Hennig began clashing with others at Visceral, particularly the design team, according to all of the staff who spoke to me for this story. Designers described Hennig as a brilliant writer and story-teller who was spread too thin on Ragtag. 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. She would work long hours and weekends, but she also spent a great deal of time flying down to Los Angeles to record with actors. 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.
Those were just a few of the problems that Visceral's Star Wars game suffered over the years. Schreier's report also points to enormous executive meddling, with EA leadership demanding a multiplayer mode and constantly shifting resources. They were also seemingly confused by the game's premise, pointing to market research that equated Star Wars with robed Jedi Masters rather than smugglers.
But perhaps the worst example of meddling was EA's repeated insistence that Ragtag have some sort of "innovation." Their demands are reminiscent of the issues that dogged Madden throughout much of the 2000s, where marketing frequently drove design. It wasn't until the Madden team actually incorporated a roadmap in which they focused on methodical improvements over splashy innovations that they began to improve. Unfortunately, the sports sim culture of innovation for innovation's sake appears to still be infecting other parts of EA's business.
Visceral Games was ultimately given until Christmas 2018 to finish their game, but the writing was seemingly already on the wall even as they strove to reach their goals. Despite crunching hard to reach the milestones put in place by EA, the Visceral was ultimately shut down and the project sent to the boneyard with the publisher's other promising failures.
A Damning Indictment of EA's Culture
It all adds up to an unbelievable mess of a development cycle: an indictment of EA's leadership and their handling of what should be a surefire blockbuster license.
Unfortunately for EA, this is a chronic problem that extends back at least 15 years: from the embarrassment of NBA Elite to the EA Spouse revelations and beyond.
Short of a total rethink of their process, EA is unlikely to get better any time soon. And that will only mean more Mass Effect Andromedas and Viscerals in the years to come.