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Visceral's Death and The Many Shapes Their Star Wars Game Took

The shuttering of Visceral Games, shift in vision for the Star Wars adventure they working on, and EA's comments on that shift have sparked a huge discussion across gaming. Are single-player games dying? Is Wolfenstein 2 the last hurrah? How many studios will EA kill off? There are no definitive answers for any of these questions, but we do have a lot more information on Visceral's close and the Star Wars game courtesy of a newly published report.

A writer for Kotaku spoke with a collection of anonymous sources to fill in the missing puzzle pieces for EA's decision to close Visceral Games. This was heartbreaking news for fans of the team responsible for Deadspace and for those looking forward to their upcoming Star Wars experience, which was undergoing a direction shift via EA's official statement on the move. It turns out, as is usually the case, there's a whole lot more to this story.

The Yuma concept evolved from the canceled 1313 game from LucasArts.

The Star Wars game was codenamed Ragtag at the time of the studios close, but had also been known by a different name: Yuma. Yuma itself was the result of a pirate game codenamed Jamaica falling by the wayside in lieu of development on Battlefield Hardline, development that was essentially forced upon the Visceral team. The pirate concept of Jamaica was shifted into for Yuma and the concept for a "pirates in space" open-world experience took shape.

“It was going to be some hybrid between a linear action shooter, where if you’re on the ground it’s Tomb Raider-like, but then in space it’s gonna be Black Flag,” one person who worked on the project told Kotaku. Another added: “You flew your Millennium Falcon-esque ship around, boarded other ships, raided pirates, got booty, and that kind of thing.”

This wonderful-sounding concept was doomed, unfortunately, due to additional development for Battlefield Hardline. The team was splintered into those working on Hardline expansions and those working on Yuma, which caused an even deeper rift in the team. Those working on Hardline felt like an afterthought to the Yuma MVPs. This series of events resulted in Visceral having the worst results in EA's internal health survey for two years running.

Then there's Amy Hennig. She came along midway through Hardline's development (she had to work on it for a time as well) from Naughty Dog and brought a new concept for a Star Wars game. She had no interest in an open-world game, instead coming up with the linear action-adventure that would be codenamed Ragtag. The sources that spoke with the Kotaku reporter unanimously thought Hennig's concept was awesome.

“This was the coolest shit I’ve ever seen,” said one person who saw the story. “[Hennig] had total buy-in from the start on that. Everybody was buzzing.”

Unfortunately, things were incredibly turbulent even after Hardline shipped and the team shifted full focus to Ragtag. The studio's home in San Francisco was too expensive, the staff wasn't large enough to match the game's ambitions, and the Frostbite engine was a massive obstacle to overcome all on its own. The engine, created by Dice for the Battlefield games, had never been used for third-person action-adventure. 

“It was missing a lot of tools, a lot of stuff that was in Uncharted 1,” said a former employee. “It was going be a year, or a year and a half’s work just to get the engine to do things that are assumed and taken for granted.”

Not only did they need the engine to work for Hennig's vision for a linear experience, EA had mandated an additional multiplayer mode that mirrored the proposed outer space combat in Yuma. To add on, the Star Wars license caused a few issues. The team had to continuously get approval for things like costumes and this handcuffed the efficiency of the team. Hennig's take on the game was far removed from the Sith, Jedi, and other more popular elements of the Star Wars universe and EA executives were highly focused on those things.

These things plus concerns on the game's ultimate vision and innovation made for a tough 2015 at Visceral and then Star Wars Battlefront came along. EA Motive had been created in Montreal initially with plans to help Visceral with their game, but they were shifted to work on Battlefront 2's single player after EA recognized the major criticism of the first Battlefront title. Visceral was already struggling with staff and this was essentially the nail in the coffin. EA forbid them from hiring more staff and, with their smaller team, the multiplayer component was cut.

In 2016, more staff was laid off. Others left throughout the year and Hennig began to clash with others on the team due to differences in how things worked between Visceral and Naughty Dog. Vital roles remained unfilled, progress remained sluggish, and the departure of staff sped up into 2017. Despite adding EA Vancouver, who had worked on Plants vs Zombies in 2017, and delaying the game, differing visions caused even more problems. Vancouver's presence was essentially a takeover. When the shut down of Visceral happened, many expressed that it couldn't have ended any other way at this point.

“Honestly, it was a mercy killing,” said one former Visceral employee to Kotaku. “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.”

This tale is a wild roller-coaster ride and there are a couple of game concepts that sound incredible but were lost among the rubble. EA Vancouver is working on the game exclusively now and we'll just have to wait and see what they come up with.

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