Star Wars is Best Suited for AA Gaming, Not AAA
Isn’t it weird that Star Wars, as a franchise, is as relevant and as popular as ever, but is currently a laughing stock when it comes to gaming? Don’t you miss the days when Star Wars games were a dime a dozen, and more often than not, really freaking good?
I grew up playing more Star Wars games than I can count. The Nintendo 64 had fantastic titles like Rogue Squadron, Battle for Naboo, and Shadows of the Empire. The Gamecube had Rogue Leader, one of the few games I consider an absolute masterpiece, a true 10 out of 10, as well as other titles such as the greatly underrated Bounty Hunter. I could go on and on about the vast amount of excellent games released throughout the years. We would get loads of Star Wars games a year and we would never feel tired of playing them.
Back in the days when Lucasarts was the sole publisher behind all Star Wars releases, they would release a ton of games each year, but weirdly enough, the market never felt saturated. A lot of games would be released, for sure, but they were always focused on a different era, tone, and most importantly, gameplay style. In the year 2005 alone, we got the Episode III game, Republic Commando, Knights of the Old Republic II, Lego Star Wars, and Battlefront 2. Respectively, a by-the-books action adventure, a tactical shooter inspired by Rainbow Six, an RPG, a family-friendly platformer, and a multiplayer-focused game inspired by Battlefield. All of them were vastly different from one another. Those games were all developed by completely different studios, ranging from in-house teams like Lucasarts to RPG juggernauts such as Obsidian. If you had a cool idea for a Star Wars game, you could do a Star Wars game.
Lucasarts didn’t mind about releasing the craziest Star Wars games out there. They were fine with experimentation. We had Star Wars Demolition, a straight up Vigilante 8 clone. We had Super Bombad Racing, the Star Wars take on the Mario Kart craze. Masters of Teras Kasi, a game so bad it’s good, was Lucasarts’ attempt to ride the Tekken / Soul Calibur hype train. Hell, they even tried to make a dancing game with Star Wars Kinect. Sure, not all of those games were good, but they were made nonetheless. More often than not, some of these crazy ideas would pay off, like the aforementioned Galactic Battlegrounds and Lego Star Wars. There was a bit of experimentation. Lucasarts didn’t care, they knew that Star Wars sells itself on brand recognition alone.
Whenever a Star Wars game was more focused in terms of gameplay scope, with a longer and less troublesome development cycle, it ended up being more well-received. Even if five other Star Wars games came out in the same year. Whenever Lucasarts tried to put too many eggs in the same basket, or feature a tight and complicated development cycle with a AAA mentality, those games ended up being the least appreciated of the bunch, like Rogue Squadron III and The Force Unleashed II.
Let’s talk about the bantha in the room: Electronic Arts. Do I really need to stress how much of a failure EA’s tenure as the sole owner of Star Wars‘ game development rights has been? Even since their acquisition of the Star Wars license, EA has developed Battlefront, its sequel, has cancelled Amy Hennig’s promising title, and is planning to release Jedi Fallen Order later this year. Three games in six years. The first Battlefront was widely criticized for its appalling lack of content, expensive season pass, and unbalanced gameplay. Battlefront 2 became a laughing stock of the gaming industry and sparked enough controversy that even governments had to intervene. While I am hopeful for Jedi Fallen Order, I have to admit that the publisher’s track record with the license doesn’t make me feel optimistic about the game as much as I wanted to.
Lucasarts’ brief attempt at delivering fully-fledged AAA Star Wars games didn’t fare well either. While The Force Unleashed was moderately well-received at launch, its DLC releases were soon criticized for being really expensive for how little content they offered. The sequel was a great example of a rushed AAA title with a myriad of bugs and very little content to offer. It’s considered one of the worst Star Wars games of all time and easily the most disappointing. It’s safe to say that Star Wars has had enough attempts in the AAA gaming industry and results were mixed at the very best.
Notice how the best Star Wars games were always focused on one specific type of gameplay? Rogue Leader was solely a combat aircraft game. Episode I: Racer, as the title might suggest, was nothing else than a straightforward racing game. Knights of the Old Republic was janky as hell, but captivated everyone with its traditional RPG mechanics, as well as its pristine story. Galactic Battlegrounds didn’t even try to hide that it was little else than an Age of Empires game with a Star Wars skin, being developed by the same team and with the same engine.
Enter AA gaming. As I have stated in my previous opinion piece, the beauty of AA gaming is that developers can dedicate themselves to deliver a mid-sized product focused on a core demographic and a specific type of gameplay. Those games would usually feature decent, but lean budgets, and would usually sell well enough due to them catering pretty well to their target demographic, without the need of flashy and bloated advertisement campaigns. If you stop to think, that’s exactly what Lucasarts used to do with their games prior to The Force Unleashed. Which of course coincided with the company’s overall restructuring, the moment they started to think like your typical AAA company.
Thanks to the smaller budgets, AA developers can experiment, and that’s something that Star Wars desperately needs at the moment. The new Battlefront games feature flashy visuals and, according to the publisher’s blurbs, loads of different playstyles, but none of them are exactly fleshed out. The campaign is shallow, the vehicle controls are shallow, and the shooting is shallow. Yet it cost a truckload of money to develop. Have you thought about the vast amount of VR games that could be developed if smaller studios were given the rights to bring them to life? A VR podracing game, a VR Rogue Squadron, a proper lightsaber combat simulator. The possibilities are endless.
There is actually a very good example of how choosing to go make AA games based off a famous license ended up being beneficial. Take a look at the Warhammer franchise. Granted, Warhammer is nowhere near as big and influential as Star Wars, but its source material is as rich and varied, and its fanbase is probably even more loyal than the ones who follow Star Wars.
There have been loads of Warhammer games released over the past year alone. Based both around the classic franchise and the 40,000 iteration, but not a single one of them was something you could consider AAA. All of them were varied enough, developed and published by different companies, and focused on less gameplay elements, but with a lot more dedication and depth put into them. Over the past year and a half alone, we’ve had a Diablo clone (Chaosbane), a card game (Age of Sigmar: Champions), a few turn-based tactics titles (Space Hulk Tactics and Mechanicus), a spaceship strategy game (Battlefleet Gothic: Armada II), and a co-op title clearly inspired by Left 4 Dead (Vermintide 2). Just like Star Wars back in Lucasarts’ heyday, those Warhammer games don’t try to put too many eggs into one basket. They are focused on specific gameplay elements and released frequently, to the joy of the Warhammer fanbase, including our own writer Thomas Medina, who himself approves of the licensing strategy adopted by Games Workshop, the franchise’s owner. Just like Lucasarts back in the day, Games Workshop knows that their games will sell on their own due to brand recognition alone, so you don’t see Warhammer titles with bloated advertisement budgets out there.
This piece wasn’t meant to say that Star Wars‘ gaming future is ruined forever, nor that there isn’t a chance for a good AAA Star Wars game to come out in the near future. I need to reiterate that, yes, I’m looking forward to Jedi Fallen Order. Then again, as a massive Star Wars fan, like most of you I miss the days when we would get loads of titles a year, each one focused on one specific feature of the franchise. I’d rather have a slew of smaller Star Wars games being released every year, some good and some not as good, than one big generic title being released every two years. These are always at the risk of being criticized due to typical AAA practices like expensive season passes, cut content, or microtransactions. Had Disney allowed for anyone, especially mid-range developers and publishers, to bring their creative and risk-free ideas to life, I’m sure fans would have rejoiced. And Disney’s pockets would most certainly fill up faster than nowadays.