Upon firing up Star Wars: Squadrons during my time off, I couldn’t help but chuckle a little.
It’s not as if people weren’t screaming at EA to make another space shooter from the day they got the Star Wars license. The old Star Wars space shooters were some of the best games of their time — not just the best shooters, but the best games period, especially the superbly crafted TIE Fighter.
And it’s not as if developers weren’t aware of this. Back in 2016, the developers behind Rebel Galaxy and Rebel Galaxy: Outlaw put together a small vertical slice trying to convince EA to greenlight what was basically a modern X-Wing / TIE Fighter. If you’ve played Rebel Galaxy, or the sequel, you can see where a lot of the UI elements and design has come from.
It took a few weeks to put together, according to developer Travis Baldree. EA were reportedly receptive to the pitch, but ended up shooting the indie studio down at the time.
“It was a long-shot, and we had near-nil hopes that it would be seriously considered, but we probably did it to please ourselves rather than out of any hope that it would get greenlit,” Baldree told Kotaku at the time.
As it turns out, the pitch would go somewhere. It was Motive Studios who eventually got a modern TIE Fighter / X-Wing / X-Wing Alliance approved. They even managed to incorporate a longer story campaign than what DICE shipped with Battlefront 2.
It’s the kind of game and pitch fans have been asking EA to greenlight for years. And sure, Squadrons certainly isn’t TIE Fighter 2.0. There’s a ton of performance issues on PC, including an especially nasty bug with higher refresh rate monitors. Some of the UI is really counter intuitive. There’s the natural multiplayer quirks with disconnects, lobbies and early bugs. Some HOTAS users have run into issues with deadzones, and there were some stability problems for those playing in VR.
It’s not perfect. And it’s certainly not being pitched as a big budget release with the support of hundreds of developers. But then again, if it was, Squadrons probably would have never been made.
It’s not hard to understand EA’s apathy towards games like Star Wars Squadrons in the past. EA’s entire business model — and their whole pitch to shareholders — exists on their ability to create live service platforms. Recurrent streams of revenue is EA’s answer to making the business of games more stable. Every publisher does this to some degree, but EA’s approach since the mid ’00s has been to focus on big multiplayer experiences that keep players around for years.
The other side of the coin? That generally means microtransactions, a focus on multiplayer — sometimes excluding singleplayer campaigns altogether — and a Ubisoft-esque attachment to only greenlighting games that can become decade-long franchises.
All things that, when combined, spell death for games like Star Wars: Squadrons.
But times change. Jedi: Fallen Order smashed all expectations, EA’s most of all. Respawn’s success, already burgeoned by the sustained popularity of Apex Legends and its potential on mobiles, forced the publisher to do almost a complete 180.
Years after saying “very few people actually play the single-player on these kinds of games”, and after surpassing 10 million copies sold — nearly double EA’s original projections — the publisher is appreciating the different subcultures within fanbases. It’s a part of the Star Wars fandom that has always been there — LucasArts’ Star Wars games were enormously successful for a reason, and it’s baffling that it’s taken EA this long to find a justification for games that aren’t designed to live forever.
“What we’ve come to understand, particularly with Star Wars, it’s a really, really big fanbase. And while social interaction, competition and multiplayer is really important for a large portion of that fanbase, what we have seen through the last quarter is also that inspiration and escape model, that the living the Jedi journey, living the Jedi story,” EA CEO Andrew Wilson said.
Or put another way — grand singleplayer adventures like Bloodborne, Spider-Man, The Witcher 3 and so on can be just as successful, because not everybody wants connectivity as part of their escapism. Some people just want to be lost in another world. Or, as Wilson has now publicly acknowledged, people want to live out their Star Wars power fantasy.
For many that might mean grand lightsaber battles, or massive multiplayer attacks on the Death Star. But the Star Wars universe has never been limited to that. Look at Pod Racer. The rebirth of Star Wars: Rebellion as a big-box board game, over a decade after its turn as a PC strategy game. The brilliance of Rogue Squadron. And even the games that weren’t as commercially successful, but still excellent in their own right, like Star Wars: Force Commander. And that’s not even touching on how good the recent Star Wars board games have been, like the X-Wing miniatures game, Star Wars: Destiny, or the bounty hunter fantasy Outer Rim.
Not all of these games are a good fit for Battlefront 2-style budgets. But LucasArts never greenlit every game to have that kind of scale in the first place. They were simply open to letting smaller studios take the IP in different and unusual directions.
LucasArts didn’t want to turn Star Wars into an RTS, for example. But the makers of the recent Command & Conquer: Remastered Collection, not long after founding their new studio, did. And that’s how Star Wars: Empire At War was borne.
Gaming is better when its filled with these smaller budget, more targeted projects. EA is clearly starting to understand the value of funding and supporting games of a smaller scale. It’s not like they have any competition. The Star Wars license isn’t up for renewal until 2023, being a decade-long deal. Disney themselves have encouraged developers to be more creative with its back catalogue.
“I’m here for one specific reason: to empower you to do really unique things with our [catalog] .. We want to tap into the power of creatives across the industry,” a Disney exec told devs at the 2020 DICE Summit.
Put another way: more games like Star Wars Squadrons, please.