In April of 2013, Disney shuttered LucasArts, LucasFilms’s longtime game studio and publisher, and cancelled Star Wars 1313. A month later, Disney announced that Electronic Arts would receive the exclusive rights to develop Star Wars games for the next decade.
Disney would continue to develop games for mobile and browser games, but everything else would go through EA. We were promised titles from Visceral Games, DICE, and BioWare.
It seemed like a good idea at the time — or at least not a terrible one. Visceral had done great work with Dead Space, DICE was a natural fit to resurrect Star Wars: Battlefront, and BioWare had previously developed Knights of the Old Republic. If Disney wanted a single publisher to work on Star Wars after LucasArts was shut down, there likely wasn’t a better choice than EA.
As we all know now, it didn’t work out.
Earlier this year, Disney made two major announcements. The first was the formation of LucasFilm Games, the new home for all games concerning LucasFilm’s IPs. The second was that Massive Entertainment, the studio behind The Division, would be developing an open-world Star Wars title. Disney didn’t come out and say it outright, but the message was clear — they viewed the exclusive deal with EA as a failure they wouldn’t be repeating.
Not only is Disney effectively signaling that the EA deal is over more than two years before it officially expires, it also signifies a big difference in the way Disney is handling their IPs in games. When Disney shuttered LucasArts (and later, Disney Interactive Studios) it seemed that they wanted to get out of the game development business. Disney Interactive had been bleeding money for years despite several solid releases like Blur, Epic Mickey, and Split/Second, and LucasArts hadn’t had a true hit in a while.
Now it seems like they’re returning to the strategy that LucasArts used in the late ’90s and early 2000s — license their IPs to the best studios available in the hopes of making hits. Disney’s change of heart may be surprising, but this breakup with EA was inevitable because EA didn’t deliver.
Things started off okay with DICE’s Star Wars: Battlefront, but it all went quickly downhill. For example, Battlefront II tied meaningful progression to loot boxes. You could unlock them in-game, but it would take dozens of hours. The system was obviously designed to get people to open their wallets and folks were rightfully upset. EA made changes, but only after receiving a call from Disney CEO Bob Iger.
“Yuma”, Visceral’s initial Star Wars project, was canceled, and its follow-up, “Project Ragtag”, a linear, story-focused game helmed by Amy Henning of Naughty Dog fame, was also canceled because EA wanted a game-as-a-service title they could monetize for an extended period. Visceral was also shut down. EA Vancouver would attempt to turn Ragtag into the game EA wanted, but that project was canceled, too, and the follow-up that was announced in its place never materialized.
More damning were the games that never even got off the ground in any fashion. Fans have been asking for another Knights of the Old Republic for a decade, and with EA in control of the license, a Star Wars RPG developed by BioWare seemed like a no-brainer. It never happened. DICE LA, which worked on the Medal of Honor series, would have been an excellent choice to develop a Star Wars shooter. It never happened. And while Criterion assisted other studios with Star Wars projects, they never got to work on their own.
EA did better with Star Wars Jedi: Fallen Order, DICE’s continued work on Battlefront II, and Star Wars: Squadrons, but it was too little, too late. EA’s struggles point to the core reason that this partnership was always doomed to fail — EA and Disney have very different ideas of what makes an IP valuable.
EA makes most of its money from heavily monetized things like FIFA Ultimate Team, yearly sports titles like Madden, long-running series like Need for Speed, or “forever” games like Apex Legends. While they occasionally release discrete experiences like Dragon Age or Mirror’s Edge, that isn’t their main focus, and they almost never develop new IPs. The last new IP to be developed internally at EA was Anthem in 2019. Before that, you’d have to go back to the original Titanfall in 2014 to find one.
For EA, value comes via something that can be exploited for long periods of time with minimal upkeep — things like yearly roster updates in Madden and FIFA, microtransactions in Ultimate Team, skins and other cosmetics, and exploitable franchises like Need for Speed that can be released over and over again. What EA likes best, however, is to be the only game in town.
Nothing competes with Madden or FIFA because nobody else has the rights to make those games — they’re exclusive to EA. If you want to play football, you’re going to play an EA title, which means EA can get away with making minimal changes each year and reaping maximum profit from microtransactions. Project Ragtag couldn’t be exploited that way, so EA canceled it since a singleplayer game that can’t be constantly monetized isn’t valuable to them. They thought they could get away with Battlefront II’s loot boxes because they’ve been getting away with them in sports games for years, but such a move isn’t in line with how Disney perceives value.
Value for Disney is entirely based on the perception of their brands and IPs. It’s something I learned when I worked for the company for a year and a half. For Disney, the health of their brand (and keeping people happy enough that they’ll keep buying their products) overrides everything else.
When you’re hired to work at a Disney theme park, you go through a training program called “Traditions” that’s focused on making sure employees know the history of the company and understand its values. If one lesson in Traditions stuck with me, it was this — Disney focuses on making people happy because happy people come back and bring family and friends. It’s why any employee in the park can fix most minor problems no questions asked, and when they can’t, they’ll direct you to someone who can. Disney knows that whatever they spend to ensure happiness is nothing compared to the loyalty they’ll get long-term, which is often passed onto friends and family, especially children. Disney doesn’t just want to make products that sell, they want to cultivate a generational fanbase. If you can win over a family, odds are you’ve won them for life.
Like EA, Disney does not like to compete with other companies, and they want to dominate any market they enter. However, the key for them lies not only in exclusivity, but also in consistently making better stuff than everyone else. The instant someone outdoes them (say, Universal’s Wizarding World of Harry Potter theme parks), they will spend enormous amounts of money to get back on top with something like Galaxy’s Edge or Pandora – World of Avatar.
But above all else, Disney hates to have their brand damaged.
EA simply wasn’t set up to make the kinds of games Disney wants. They don’t have enough studios to turn out enough games to support a franchise like Star Wars, and they didn’t use the studios they had efficiently. The bigger issue, however, is that EA makes most of their money on microtransactions. That might work in Madden and FIFA, but you can’t sell roster updates for Star Wars, and Disney isn’t letting you sell a pink Darth Vader skin.
EA’s misfires with Ragtag and Battlefront II also did the one thing EA wasn’t allowed to do — those failures damaged people’s perception of Star Wars, and with that sin committed, moving on from EA was only a matter of time.
Now, Disney realizes it now has to curate the IP more aggressively to protect it from further damage. They still don’t want to develop internally, but they need LucasFilm Games to oversee the process, and they’ll go back to the LucasArts approach – license the IP to good studios and supervise.
Ironically, this reflects how the company makes films — hire talented people who are creative enough to work within the parameters Disney wants, but won’t demand significant risktaking and creative freedom. It’s how they built the MCU, and now they’re going to apply it to games.
The future of Star Wars (and Disney’s other IPs) in the videogame space will involve lots of external licensing. Disney and LucasFilm Games will exercise tight creative control over the games that will be released to ensure that something like Battlefront II’s microtransaction fiasco never happens again. The games produced will be made by studios doing what they do well, handpicked to make what Disney wants.EA will still have a role to play in the future of Star Wars video games, but I doubt we’ll ever see anyone have an exclusive license again. LucasFilm Games will make sure that the games that release are good ones, and we’ll see them much more frequently than we did under EA. I imagine the future of Star Wars video games will be promising for fans – and profitable for a company that, above all else, hates to lose.
— Will Borger