In the world of videogames, the Star Wars license is a ticket to print money. Few franchises have its degree of widespread appeal; Star Wars transcends age groups, gender, and even social cliques to stand both as one of the classic pillars of cinema and an obsessive focal point for geek culture. It might, though, be the very enormity of the license that has previously stymied development efforts; studios have delivered games ranging from the sublime to the terrible. There are few who remember the original Phantom Menace or Star Wars: Obi-Wan games, fewer who actually enjoyed them.
With EA now the exclusive rights holder for the Star Wars license in the realm of videogames, the question they need to be asking themselves is not, “How do we capitalize on this?” That’s the easy part. Put something out with the Star Wars name on it and people will at least take notice. EA will be best served by instead asking, “How do we make a great game?”
The best Star Wars games have never been those that merely draw upon the license. Jedi Power Battles and Masters of Teräs Käsi both attempted to coast on the license’s prestige, resulting in middling third person action and sub-par 3D fighting respectively. You can try to ape Gauntlet and Tekken/Soul Calibur if you’d like, but you’d have to do it well and provide an experience that is, of itself, compelling. The X-Wing series is a good example of a game that compels on its own merits.
The X-Wing games are space combat “simulators” that follow in the footsteps of the extremely successful Wing Commander franchise. Rather than merely copy the form of Chris Roberts’ brainchild and slap it with a Star Wars coat of paint, though, the developers actually took the formula a step further. They intensified the simulation to the point where, Star Wars or no, X-Wing and its sequels would be compelling experiences. One could alter the balance of energy in one’s ship, balancing it in malleable increments between guns, shields, and engines. This could all be changed on the fly, immediately affecting top speed, the strength of one’s deflectors, and the recharging of one’s guns. Shield balance could also be shifted, moving them to the front, to the back, or balancing them evenly between both.
This was joined with compelling campaigns and stories that expanded on the Star Wars fiction. TIE Fighter, the second game in the series, famously introduced players to Grand Admiral Thrawn, whose tactical genius was instrumental in Timothy Zahn’s Heir to the Empire trilogy of Expanded Universe books.
What about Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic, which not only built on BioWare’s experience crafting RPGs in the D&D framework, but also built its own fiction far removed from the familiar tale of the Galactic Empire? This game is filled with characters who question the very nature of the seemingly black and white relationship between the Light side and Dark side users of the force. The compelling narrative separates KOTOR from most other soulless, Star Wars games.
Compare BioWare’s KOTOR to the company’s own MMO, The Old Republic. The Old Republic railroads your progress along a set storyline that doesn’t question the world it exists in. The borrowed MMO mechanics from more successful franchises like World of Warcraft weaken the game further. Because of disappointing profits, the MMO dropped its monthly subscription fee and adopted a free-to-play model.
So that’s EA’s challenge: to make games that would be excellent with or without the Star Wars license, and then use that license as the icing on the cake. The license should contribute to the game’s appeal and quality rather than act as a crutch for the game to use to not have to stand on its own. I know gamers everywhere are tentative about the fact that this is EA. They’re not exactly known for a gentle, reserved touch or putting quality before immediate profit. There’s also already been word that the studio they’ve formed specifically to create Star Wars games is focused primarily on the mobile and social sectors. That said, they do have the requisite talent at their disposal. Hopefully they’ll give it some free reign.