Visceral's Star Wars Game Was Killed by the Same Problems That Dogged Mass Effect Andromeda

Executive meddling, poor communication, and dogged perfectionism leaves EA with another massive failure.

Analysis by Kat Bailey, .

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.

A glimpse of what might have been.

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.

Between the struggles of Mass Effect Andromeda, the demise of Visceral, and the EA's tone deaf handling of loot boxes in Battlefront 2, it's been a very bad year for the publisher.

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.

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Comments 10

  • Avatar for riderkicker #1 riderkicker 5 months ago
    EA may make a lot of video games, but it really does not diversify especially with how the content is presented. Amy Hennig and Visceral appear to be a decent match, as both are known for their story driven work, but in a hundred-million dollar budget, microtransaction driven marketplace, it was clear that both would clash with the "corporate culture". And it definitely doesn't help that all these execs more or less have the same business tactics, nickle and dime the consumer.

    I heard a comment about how Japanese developers reorganized themselves to be more niche to deal with the marginalization of their video game market, especially controlling how much they spend to produce a game. But it feels like Western developers are going to crash hard if they keep engaging in this style of a "games as service" behavior. They are going to eat themselves, or have the consumers revolt, and with current events, it could be both.
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  • Avatar for jcgg1983 #2 jcgg1983 5 months ago
    Poor management of limited resources versus grand expectations and no real control over scope killed what sounded like an awesome game. They should have tried to go for something that was workable within their team size limit and budget and, if that made money, wait for the sequel in order to really push the envelope.Edited October 2017 by jcgg1983
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  • Avatar for LBD_Nytetrayn #3 LBD_Nytetrayn 5 months ago
    @riderkicker Reminds me of what I heard Capcom's budget for Marvel vs. Capcom Infinite was -- less than half of what they have for Street Fighter V's DLC.

    I never got into EA's games very much, and they seldom hesitate to remind me why.

    So, any bets on whether Bioware hitting the chopping block is a matter of "when" rather than "if"?
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  • Avatar for merica-bru #4 merica-bru 5 months ago
    Not all details were disclosed here, and I believe it's biased writing to make EA look like a corporate monster that has intent to screw over Visceral, which is not how it all went down. ...The game was primarily killed because game testers were bored with "Ragtag" and could complete the entire game in 8 hrs. Does that sound awesome? No, no it doesn't. If anything, Visceral is starting to sound like a one hit wonder and getting contracts by talking a good book and unable to deliver on the parent company's original vision of online interactions. ..EA wants gamers to return if they're paying premium for a game - much like they do with Battlefront 2015 (btw, that game set records for any Star Wars Game).. Playability day-in & day-out is crucial. Also, gaming is a business. They're massive projects, and getting everyone on the same page is a nightmare. Liberty One World Trade Center had the same issues. It's how it goes.

    We all want an open ended Star Wars universe game, but in order to please everyone and get it down to LucasFilm's detailed specs, it would take 10 years to make, and cost the gamer $5K+. Can't have it both ways whilst complaining about the people working their tails off to produce the best possible game.Edited October 2017 by merica-bru
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  • Avatar for VotesForCows #5 VotesForCows 5 months ago
    I currently run a very large project that has some similar issues - mostly around staff. Like Visceral, we're under-staffed, and for various reasons many of the best staff don't want to work on this project. That makes it very difficult for everyone who's left, and I can absolutely empathise with Amy Hennig - in those sorts of circumstances you definitely feel the need to oversee everything to make sure nothing else goes wrong.

    I may be projecting! Hard on everyone at Visceral anyhow, especially after working so hard for so long.
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  • Avatar for yuberus #6 yuberus 5 months ago
    @merica-bru A really good 8 hour game is always great in my book. That's a good length to come back to and play again if it's solid enough - I can't tell you how many times I've played through games like Mario World, Star Fox 64, Sonic 2, etc. just because they aren't 100 hour timesinks. But more to your specific claim based on the article the game didn't progress far enough that I imagine a tester could have "completed" the whole thing, let alone in any state resembling what they were aiming for.

    EA needs to cut the Frostbite mandate for games that it simply isn't designed for and needs to hold off on projects that it doesn't want to spend the resources to make (or make it clear, otherwise, that X is what they got and stick to it as all they can expect).
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  • Avatar for merica-bru #7 merica-bru 5 months ago
    @yuberus I agree that a better roadmap is always preferred to establish & maintain consumer expectations that fandom has for this type of gaming experience. But Star Wars specifically, is an entirely different animal, a very unique property and there's many legends who control the vision - in not only the film industry that you need to please, but also in gaming production. And then you have shareholders and fans, both full-time & casual gamers. The higher ups at LucasFilm are not going to accept an 8hr pump & dump adventure that took a studio 3 years to develop. The fans will s@#t on it, and Start Wars will become, meh. They cannot afford to produce content like that. End of story.

    Re-reading this article, there's some major digs & unwarranted hatred...There's nothing wrong with EA's culture, they've produced the most favored and successful games in history. These big looming decisions also come down to LucasFilm's say as well. They could easily given their vote of no-confidance to Visceral's 12 months in the can, much like the Han Solo film. And that would mean the "culture" at LucasFilm is also ruining the gaming industry. None of us know what exactly is going down, The game probably sucked, the story was probably weak, and the creative execs pulled the plug. $@#t happens.Edited October 2017 by merica-bru
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  • Avatar for rommy667 #8 rommy667 5 months ago
    Ah suurr twill all be ok because brain dead zombies will keep paying up for fifa lol
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  • Avatar for UnskippableCutscene #9 UnskippableCutscene 5 months ago
    While it does “print money”, I never understood EA’s direction to put all their studios on Star Wars games. Dice or Respawn, I’d understand. But both of them and Visceral and Criterion and so on and so forth?

    I thought Titanfall 2 was alright (at least campaign wise, the multi looked fun but I’m not a COD fan so I didn’t spend time) and I’m looking forward to NFS Payback.
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  • Avatar for davidwurzel94 #10 davidwurzel94 5 months ago

    "The game was primarily killed because game testers were bored with "Ragtag" and could complete the entire game in 8 hrs."

    This sounds like nonsense.

    All accounts on record have been pretty definitive that, in terms of a tangible, playable build, there was barely enough to throw together a vertical slice that would appease EA management. Plenty of stuff existed as design docs but the only thing even remotely resembling a finished game simply consisted of the Dodger character walking around a small environment with very limited interaction.

    But no, you've got the inside scoop that not only is every account on record incorrect, but that the game was in a start-to-finish playable form (eight whole hours!) and was so far along in development that it was in the testing stage. And also, all the testers hated it.

    Shockingly, I think I'm going to go with the extensively-researched journalist's account of the situation as opposed to...whatever it was that you were saying.Edited October 2017 by davidwurzel94
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