Ever since the Frostbite engine expanded outside of DICE and became a way of life for studios under the banner of EA, developers around the world have spent precious days, weeks, months and even years beefing up the engine to make it feature-appropriate for games that aren't shooters.
Dealing with that lack of functionality has been a key bump in the road for many notable games. The lack of an inventory system was a key challenge for Bioware during the development of Dragon Age: Inquisition. The lack of an out-of-the-box animation system created many problems for those working on Mass Effect: Andromeda. And in a new interview, Uncharted director and former Visceral head Amy Hennig has spoken about how the shared Frostbite engine setback development on Visceral's now-defunct Star Wars game.
Tales of developers struggling with Frostbite aren't new. Back when Visceral's Star Wars game - codenamed Ragtag - was shut down, a former employee told Kotaku that the engine was lacking basic functionality in Uncharted 1's toolset:
"It was missing a lot of tools, a lot of stuff that was in Uncharted 1 ... It was going to 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."
Key art for Visceral's Ragtag, which told the story of a band of characters fighting against a mob boss. In the center is the protagonist, Dodger, a Han Solo-type rogue with a charming moustache. It seemed like a surefire hit: a Star Wars take on Uncharted, published by Electronic Arts and developed by the longrunning studio Visceral Games. But nothing is sure in the video game industry, and on October 17, 2017, when employees of Visceral were told that the company would be closing, some who had worked for the studio found themselves unsurprised. In many people's eyes, doom was inevitable.
But in an interview with Caty McCarthy over at US Gamer, Hennig has spoken a little more about how the challenges with Frostbite prevented Visceral from truly showing off what they were capable of.
"So I think Visceral was sort of beset with a lot of challenges. Even so, we were making a game; people have said it was an Uncharted Star Wars. That's sort of reductive, but it's useful because people can kind of visualise something in their head. But what that meant is we obviously had to take the Frostbite Engine, because there was the internal initiative to make sure that everybody was on the same technology, but it was an engine that was made to do first-person shooters not third-person traversal cinematic games," Hennig said.
In 2012, as work on Mass Effect 3 came to a close, a small group of top BioWare employees huddled to talk about the next entry in their epic sci-fi franchise. Their goal, they decided, was to make a game about exploration - one that would dig into the untapped potential of the first three games. Instead of visiting just a few planets, they said, what if you could explore hundreds?
"So building all of that third-person platforming and climbing and cover taking and all that stuff into an engine that wasn't made to do that. We did a lot of foundational work that I think the teams are still benefiting from because it's a shared engine, but it's tough when you spend a lot of time doing foundational stuff but then don't get to go ta-da! [laughs] You know, here's the game."
The veteran producer lamented the game's cancellation, as it was "a lot farther along than people ever got a glimpse of". "And it was good, you know? But it just didn't make sense in EA's business plan, ultimately."
That sentiment was echoed by other Visceral alumni after Ragtag and Visceral were publicly no more. The size and scope of the project, not just from what would be required to ship the product but the amount of work that was going into the Frostbite engine to make it all possible, ballooned the cost of development beyond all reason. One staffer estimated the game would have cost almost $140 million (approx $US100 million), which made little sense for a singleplayer only game, with a planned multiplayer mode shelved back in 2015.
The rest of Amy Hennig's interview, which touches on the early days of her career, her consulting work post-EA, developing games for a streaming-based model, can be read here. Hennig also mentioned that it'd be good one day for the general public to see what Visceral was working on. Footage of cancelled games always ends up in the public domain one way or another - like the beta footage of Free Radical's Battlefront 3 for the Xbox 360. Hopefully, one day, we'll be able to do side-by-side comparisons of Ragtag and Uncharted for ourselves.