It seemed like a surefire hit: a Star Wars take on Uncharted, published by Electronic Arts and developed by the long-running studio Visceral Games. But nothing is sure in the video game industry, and on 17 October 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.
Visceral Games had been an odd fit at EA for several years now. First founded in 1998 as EA Redwood Shores, the studio developed a mishmash of assorted games in the 2000s before finally finding an identity with a horror-action-adventure series called Dead Space. After three Dead Space games (and a couple of spin-offs), the company went on to make the first-person shooter Battlefield Hardline, which came out in 2015.
Around the same time, under the iconic director Amy Hennig, who was best known for writing and directing the first three Uncharted games, Visceral launched a project called Ragtag. This was meant to be EA’s entry into the action-adventure market—a linear Star Wars story set between the episode IV and V movies that would compete with the likes of Uncharted and Tomb Raider.
In the weeks leading up to the studio’s closure, the staff of Visceral Games had crunched hard, working long hours to make a demo for Ragtag that they hoped might impress EA. Alongside the Canada-based studio EA Vancouver, Visceral’s employees made a set of high-octane demos in which Ragtag’s main characters would get chased by an AT-ST walker, get into a shootout on the desert planet Tatooine, and embark on a rescue mission within the dungeons of Jabba’s palace. One person who worked on the game described these demos as a “sampler platter,” something that would show EA’s executives what Visceral’s vision of Uncharted Star Wars could become.
The demos weren’t enough. Former Visceral employees don’t know when EA made the decision to shut down their studio, but on 17 October 2017, it became official. Visceral, which employed around 80 people, was no more. Staff say they were given three weeks to put together portfolios and look for other employment, both in and outside of EA.
This news immediately led to a glut of opinions and editorials about the death of single-player video games. Visceral, best known for making a linear action-adventure game series called Dead Space, did not fit into EA’s focus on “games as a service,” a common phrase referring to games designed to be playable, and to generate money, long after they’ve launched. EA’s statement made the same implications, stating about Ragtag:
In its current form, it was shaping up to be a story-based, linear adventure game. Throughout the development process, we have been testing the game concept with players, listening to the feedback about what and how they want to play, and closely tracking fundamental shifts in the marketplace. It has become clear that to deliver an experience that players will want to come back to and enjoy for a long time to come, we needed to pivot the design.
But the story behind Ragtag is more complicated than critics and pundits have assumed, and the project was more troubled than EA has admitted publicly. Among game developers, it’s been an open secret for months that Visceral’s game was in danger. The studio had been bleeding staff for years, and recruiters across the video game industry exchanged whispers about Visceral employees who were looking for new work, according to several people who have shared these rumours with me over the past couple of years.
Over the past week I’ve talked to nearly a dozen former Visceral employees who worked on Ragtag, all of whom spoke anonymously because they did not want to risk damaging their careers. I’ve also spoken to several other developers who are tangentially connected to Visceral. They all share similar stories. Ragtag was a project sunk by many factors, including a lack of resources, a vision that was too ambitious for its budget, a difficult game engine, a director who clashed with staff, a studio located in one of the most expensive cities in the world, a reputation for toxicity, multiple conflicts between Visceral and EA, and what can only be described as the curse of Star Wars.
Some say that EA was never quite committed to Ragtag, in large part because it represented the type of game that the publisher has mostly abandoned: a single-player, “play it once” game that would need to sell millions just to break even. Yet Visceral’s problems had deeper roots. “It felt like we were always under the threat of closure,” said one former employee. “It was a really unhealthy place.”
Art from Dead Space, by Visceral Games
In the course of reporting this story and learning about the struggles of Ragtag, we wound up with a lot of questions for EA. When presented with some of these questions, the company chose not to answer them one-by-one, but instead to provide a statement by executive president Patrick Söderlund that provided a general sense of his philosophy on game development.
“Making games is hard,” he said. “That’s not new, but it bears saying again because if anything, it’s getting more complex. But that’s what gets us up in the morning, we love it. We have amazingly talented people making games, and very powerful tools… but expectations are going up at an even faster rate. We see it when we talk to players. We see it in our own games, in the feedback people give us, and how they play. We see it from what other games people love…and which ones they don’t. There are a tonne of factors.”
EA, for its part, also disputes the notion that it killed Ragtag for being single-player. “This truly isn’t about the death of single-player games—I love single-player, by the way—or story and character-driven games,” said Söderlund. “Storytelling has always been part of who we are, and single-player games will of course continue. This also isn’t about needing a game that monetises in a certain way. Those are both important topics, but that’s not what this is. At the end of the day, this was a creative decision. Our job is to give people a deep enough experience and story, and it’s also to push the boundaries forward. We just didn’t think we were getting it quite right.”
Söderlund, like many close to this project, has his own perspective on what happened. To many who worked at Visceral Games in its last few years of operation, it seemed like they were on borrowed time. It was a near-certainty that this time would run out.
If you wanted to pinpoint the exact moment that Visceral Games became doomed, you’d need to go back to the beginning of 2013. On 5 February of that year, Visceral released what would turn out to be its last Dead Space game, Dead Space 3. The third Dead Space disappointed many fans, and it was a commercial flop for EA, failing to hit the company’s lofty sales expectations. “Dead Space 3 came in below our forecast,” an EA executive said during an earnings call in May 2013. The company did not give out specific numbers, but by some estimates, a Dead Space game would have needed to sell five million copies just to break even.
It became clear then that EA no longer had much appetite to make expensive games that people would only play once. Rather than allowing Visceral to make a fourth Dead Space, EA entrusted the studio with a new game in its huge Battlefield franchise, which was mainly popular because of its multiplayer component. The idea of moving from third-person action games to a first-person shooter was unappealing to many at Visceral, but management saw it as the only way to keep their studio afloat, according to two people familiar with the company’s thinking.
Shortly after the February release of Dead Space 3, Visceral split up into two teams. One larger team began preproduction on what would eventually become Battlefield Hardline (2015), a first-person shooter about cops in Miami. A second, smaller team started working on an open-world pirate game, code-named Jamaica.
Then, 30 miles north of Visceral, the video game world shifted. On 3 April 2013, Disney shut down LucasArts, cancelling the highly anticipated Star Wars 1313 and firing all of the studio’s staff. That same week, as I reported in my recent book Blood, Sweat, and Pixels, a contingent of LucasArts leads went to Visceral to pitch them on hiring key employees and taking over production of Star Wars 1313. Visceral GM Steve Papoutsis turned them down, instead offering to hire some ex-LucasArts staff for Visceral’s own projects.
A month later, in May 2013, the picture became clearer as EA announced that it had struck a deal with Disney, snagging the exclusive rights to release Star Wars games on consoles (not counting “casual” games, like the Lego series). In that announcement, EA said that it would develop Star Wars games in three studios: BioWare (Star Wars: The Old Republic), DICE (Star Wars Battlefront), and Visceral, whose project remained a mystery.
This was bad news for the pirate game. EA, nervous about the upcoming Assassin’s Creed: Black Flag that was coming from rival publisher Ubisoft in late 2013 and eager to take advantage of the Star Wars deal, canceled Jamaica in favor of a new Star Wars game. Visceral called this project Yuma, after the Arizona desert where Jabba’s Palace had been filmed in Star Wars VI: Return of the Jedi. The team decided to keep the pirates, but bring them to outer space, pitching Yuma as a “space scoundrel” game in which players could explore the galaxy as a Han Solo-like rogue.
“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,” said one person who worked on the project. Added a second: “You flew your Millennium Falcon-esque ship around, boarded other ships, raided pirates, got booty, and that kind of thing."
As cool as it may have sounded, Yuma was ill-fated from the start. Battlefield Hardline was going through too many problems, and throughout 2014, progress on Yuma slowed to a crawl as Visceral asked all of its employees to help out on the cop game. Switching from third-person action-adventure games to a first-person shooter had been a rough adjustment for many people at Visceral, sources said, and a lot of them still didn’t actually want to make Hardline. Morale had sunk at the studio by then, and Visceral was already losing key artists and engineers who weren’t interested in working on the game. “EA does internal health surveys,” said one person who worked on the game. “Throughout most of Hardline’s production, Visceral had the worst team health survey at EA, for like two years running.”
Battlefield Hardline, the final game released by Visceral Games
At least they had Amy Hennig. Hennig, a well-known director with a sailor’s mouth and a head for storytelling, had joined Visceral while it was midway through Battlefield Hardline. She had worked in video games since the 1980s but was known best for Uncharted, the high-octane action-adventure series she had helmed until an ugly quarrel with others at her studio, Naughty Dog, in early 2014 that led to her leaving in the middle of production on Uncharted 4. Fans and industry observers spent weeks speculating about what she might do next, and in April 2014, she announced that she was joining EA and Visceral to make a Star Wars game.
At first, Hennig didn’t get to work on Star Wars for very long. She was pulled on to Battlefield Hardline for a few months to help with scripts and cutscenes, according to three sources. When she did start figuring out her next project, at the end of 2014, it became clear that Yuma wasn’t going to happen. Hennig wasn’t interested in making an open-world space game; she wanted to write a linear action-adventure game, like Uncharted. They’d keep the idea of scoundrels in space, but for this new project, Hennig wanted to tell a heist story. Star Wars meets Ocean’s Eleven. Soon it had a new codename: Ragtag.
Everyone I asked about Ragtag’s story was unanimous about one thing: They all thought it was awesome. The lead protagonist was Dodger, described as a “cracked mirror version” of Han Solo, and over the course of the game he’d battle alongside a band of fellow misfits like Robie, a gunslinger and Dodger’s partner in crime; Oona, the daughter of a mob boss; and Buck, the veteran leader and mentor of the crew. Set between the original Star Wars and The Empire Strikes Back, Ragtag would focus on the impact of Alderaan’s destruction and tell a story about criminal families, scoundrels, and action-packed heists. “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.”
In order to distinguish Ragtag from Uncharted, a point that EA’s executives felt strongly about, Hennig and her team came up with some lofty ideas for gameplay. You’d play as multiple members of the team, and each would have their own AI minds and abilities when you weren’t controlling them. There were no Jedi powers, but one big theme was “sabotage”—you’d be able to manipulate the environment to distract and divert enemies in non-violent ways.
These ideas were incredibly ambitious. “Picture the Death Star, and they all have jobs,” said a person who worked on the game. “One Stormtrooper was on a command unit, moving boxes around. Some guys would be droids. It was supposed to be set up so it was all real, and it felt like they had jobs to do. We wanted to tap into emotions, so you could mess with Stormtroopers’ emotions. Go into a room, turn the lights off. He goes back in and turns them back on. Then you turn them off again. At a certain point he starts getting spooked, acting irrationally, and bringing friends in.”
“This was the coolest shit I’ve ever seen. [Hennig] had total buy-in from the start on that. Everybody was buzzing.”
On 17 March 2015, an exhausted team at Visceral Games finally shipped Battlefield Hardline. A few weeks later, EA let go of Visceral’s polarising general manager, Steve Papoutsis, as well as some other executives and producers. The studio’s new GM, Scott Probst (son of board chairman Larry Probst), then announced plans to flatten Visceral’s structure. Instead of operating as a hierarchy, with a GM on top and then various layers of management underneath them, the studio would minimise management and give as much say as possible to creative leads. It was inspired by Hennig’s old studio, Naughty Dog, which is known for having no producers. “It was awesome—really empowering—it was going to be a really creative environment to start working in,” said one person who was there. “It made us think we were really going to solve all these problems.”
Then the company again split in two. Half of the staff went on to do the expansion packs for Battlefield Hardline, which had been mandated by EA, while the other half moved to Ragtag. This caused some friction, according to two people who worked on that Hardline downloadable content. One person said it felt like the Ragtag team were the “chosen ones.” Said a second: “It was made very clear that the development team MVPs were the ones creating Star Wars magic while us lowly mortals slaved away on Hardline DLC.”
It would take a lot more people to create that Star Wars magic, though. By one estimate, the Ragtag team only had around 30 people as they entered pre-production in mid-2015. The plan was for the Hardline DLC team to join them later, but even that would be too small—Visceral had fewer than 100 employees. When Hennig and her team looked at comparable games—Uncharted 4, Tomb Raider, etc.—they’d see production staffs in the 200s.
One of the big issues was where they lived. Expenses in San Francisco were so high, between salaries and rent and costs of living, that by one source’s estimate each employee could cost over $16,000 (£12,194) a month. (That number, which includes salary and other expenses, dwarfs the widely accepted average estimate of $10,000 (£7,621) a month.) Compared to EA’s studios in cities like Vancouver, Montreal, and Austin—all of which offered tax benefits to video game companies—Visceral was way too pricey to maintain a staff as large as they needed. “Visceral was the most expensive studio that EA had,” said one person who worked there. “Even during Dead Space 3 and then Hardline, we would always joke, ‘I don’t understand why [EA] still has a studio here.’ Financially, it made no sense.”
EA had a somewhat elegant solution for this staffing problem. During the first year of preproduction, as the Ragtag team wrote, designed, and prototyped, Hennig would work with newly hired producer Jade Raymond to build a studio in Montreal, where game development costs significantly less thanks to a lower cost of living and tax benefits provided by the Quebec government. This studio, called EA Motive, would add another 70 people to Ragtag, helping out both with the single-player campaign and a multiplayer “second mode” that EA had demanded. (At that point, per four sources, the second mode was going to be a space combat game that was sort of like a scaled-down version of Yuma.)
By the time they were ready for production in 2016 the Ragtag team was meant to be roughly 160 people, according to a source. Getting the game out for their scheduled release in May 2018 would be challenging, but doable, if everything went according to plan.
Of course, it wouldn’t be Star Wars if everything went according to plan.
Before entering development on a big-budget game, the people in charge will often put together a list of risks they’ve flagged—problems that they anticipate might emerge over the course of production. In an ideal world, developers will identify and solve these problems before they even pop up. Of course, most game productions don’t live in an ideal world. And Ragtag had a lot of flags.
There was the engine, Frostbite, which had never been used to make a third-person action-adventure game. In the video game world, an “engine” is a collection of code that is reused across games, often including basic, boring features like physics simulators, graphics renderers, and animation systems. For the past half-decade, EA has mandated that all of its studios use the Frostbite engine, which was designed by the EA studio DICE in Sweden to make Battlefield games.
Frostbite had been challenging enough for Visceral during Hardline’s development, and that was a Battlefield game. For Ragtag, Visceral would have to build key features from scratch. Like BioWare on Dragon Age and Mass Effect, Visceral found itself trying to make a third-person game on an engine built for first-person shooters. “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.”
Uncharted 1, written and directed by Amy Hennig, was one of Sony’s premier games on the PlayStation 3.
Another red flag was Star Wars—or, more specifically, the fact that Star Wars was owned by a different company. Visceral staff say that the creative cabal at Star Wars owner Lucasfilm treated them well, giving them flexibility and freedom, but one of the drawbacks to working with another company’s franchise was that they had to get approval for everything.
On an Uncharted game, for example, one of Nathan Drake’s costumes might go through a few rounds of iteration at Naughty Dog, then be finalised in a week. “With Star Wars you could be talking months—potentially years,” said one Visceral staffer. “Oh, would Dodger really look like this? What would his weapon look like? Potentially years of that. Would he carry this? Would that really work in the Star Wars universe? With Uncharted, they can build any world they come up with, because it’s their world. With Star Wars you have to have that back and forth… People think, ‘Oh it must be so cool to work on Star Wars.’ It actually kind of sucks.”
Ragtag’s scope was a glaring red flag. All of those ideas surrounding multiple protagonists and sabotaging Stormtroopers sounded wonderful in theory, but some high-level staff at Visceral were concerned that they didn’t have the time or budget to pull everything off. In video game development, it’s standard for a team to come up with wild, ambitious ideas in preproduction and then narrow the scope later, but to some who worked at Visceral, Ragtag seemed less like a set of great ambitions and more like a fever dream. As one team member told me, throughout 2015 it started feeling unlikely that Visceral could even pull off one fully fleshed-out companion (think: Ellie from The Last of Us), let alone the five or six that they wanted to implement. “We started getting design ideas and figuring out structure, and it was gonna be bigger than Uncharted 4,” said a Ragtag developer. “It wasn’t gonna add up.”
Perhaps the biggest red flag was the tension between Visceral and EA. Game developers and publishers have always butted heads—creatives vs. money guys; you know the drill—but on Ragtag there were two particular arguments that remained contentious from 2014 all the way until the studio shut down.
Argument #1: How much Star Wars should there be? With Ragtag, Hennig and crew were planning on making a gritty game about scoundrels and criminals. They had Lucasfilm’s blessing to tell a story about new characters, with no Sith or midichlorians or members of the Skywalker clan. But when EA’s executives thought of Star Wars, they thought of robed Jedi using powers of the Force, not mob families.
Two former Visceral staff recall EA looking at Ragtag and asking where Chewbacca was. “EA would get obsessed with market research and start asking people what’s important to them about Star Wars,” said a former staff member. “You’d get, ‘Oh, the Force, lightsabers, the usual Jedi continuum.’ They’re hyper focused on that stuff, and it’d be a topic of conversation in every pitch meeting.”
Chewbacca makes an appearance in DICE’s Star Wars Battlefront
Argument #2: What, exactly, was the game they were making? Several Visceral employees recalled getting constant questions from EA executives like Jade Raymond about what Ragtag’s big innovation was. The thought was that in order to compete with the likes of Uncharted 4, Visceral’s game needed to have a strong hook. To many on the team, that premise seemed absurd. They were starting from scratch on a brand new game, the first game like this that most of them had made, and EA wanted them to compete with Naughty Dog? Visceral hadn’t even made their own version of Uncharted 1, yet their game was supposed to be better than Uncharted 4?
According to one source, EA was pressuring Visceral to hit a 90 or higher on Metacritic, the video game review aggregator that big publishers rely upon as a rubric for quality. But the Ragtag team knew that even under the best circumstances that would be impossible. Other similar games across the industry, like Assassin’s Creed and Watch Dogs and even the first Uncharted, were viewed as first steps, games that could be used as stepping stones to reach the heights of something like Uncharted 2. Reaching 90+ Metacritic on Ragtag seemed unattainable. “We didn’t have the foundation; we don’t have 13-14 years building on a single engine, doing this specific game like Naughty Dog did,” said a former Visceral staffer. “When you look at that, you can’t just assume you’re gonna leapfrog Uncharted 4. It’s impossible. Especially considering we knew from the get-go our budget would be less, and we definitely knew that our manpower would be less.”
Of course, one pivotal person on the team did have experience making games like Uncharted: Amy Hennig. When Hennig joined Visceral, she had been midway through production on Uncharted 4, and before that, she’d spent nearly a decade with Nathan Drake as creative director of the first three Uncharted games. No name was more associated with Uncharted than Hennig’s, and few people in the world had as much experience making linear action-adventure games. People at Visceral say they were hopeful that Hennig would mentor them and help them make something awesome.
Then the problems started. Throughout 2015 and then the rest of development, Hennig began clashing with others at Visceral, particularly the design team, according to all of the staff who spoke to me for this story. Designers described Hennig as a brilliant writer and story-teller who was spread too thin on Ragtag. Because she wanted to direct every aspect of the game, and many decisions had to run through her, it became difficult for Visceral staff to get her attention. She would work long hours and weekends, but she also spent a great deal of time flying down to Los Angeles to record with actors. Some told anecdotes about waiting weeks or months just to get her approval on something they’d done, only to find out that it didn’t meet her standards.
When reached by Kotaku, Hennig said she was not authorised to comment without approval from EA. Some have suggested that she was put in a difficult position. As one former Visceral employee pointed out, Hennig may have had a hard time trusting a team that had no experience working on games like Uncharted, which made her feel compelled to have her hands in everything. Visceral’s flattened structure was brand new, and its employees were not accustomed to having this much autonomy, which may have been frustrating to Hennig. “You’re not gonna make a Naughty Dog-like game without people who are behaving in a way that’s nimble and autonomous and initiative-taking,” said one person close to the studio.
All of these tensions led to a slow, difficult 2015 for Ragtag, but there was hope at Visceral that progress would improve once they got more people. And they’d get more people once EA had established its new studio in Montreal, Motive, which was specifically hiring for development on Ragtag and even briefly started helping out on the project in small ways, according to three people familiar with goings-on there.
Then Star Wars Battlefront came out and changed everything.
Star Wars is never easy. On 17 November 2015, EA released the much-anticipated Star Wars Battlefront, the first Star Wars game to be released after LucasArts’ demise. Battlefront was a massive success, shipping 13 million copies by the end of 2015, but fans and reviewers criticised it for lacking content, and most crucially, for not including the single-player campaign that people had wanted to see from a new Star Wars game.
It’s not clear when or why EA’s executives decided to pivot, and EA declined to specify, but by the beginning of 2016, Motive was no longer going to help Visceral. Staff who had been interviewing to work on Amy Hennig’s Star Wars game were told that they no longer had positions there, according to two sources. Instead, EA put the young studio in charge of the single-player campaign for Battlefront II, scheduled for autumn 2017.
That meant Ragtag was screwed. Throughout 2015 the team had consisted of around 30 people, with another 40 or so planned to join once they’d shipped the DLC for Battlefield Hardline. But in order to make an Uncharted-style game of the size and scope that EA wanted, Visceral would need many more developers. “We didn’t have a plan to make this game without a 160-person team,” said one former Visceral employee.
The San Francisco-based studio was forbidden from hiring more staff, according to three sources. “EA didn’t allow us any more resources,” said one. “At that point it was hard to even consider doing anything other than the campaign. Effectively the second [multiplayer] mode went away at that point.”
Star Wars Battlefront, released in 2015, was widely criticised for lacking content and not having a single-player campaign.
It’s easy to see why a risk-averse publisher like EA wouldn’t want to spend more money on a company in San Francisco, as opposed to its studios in the tax-friendly hubs of Vancouver and Montreal. “The differences are insane,” said a former Visceral employee. “People in Montreal and Vancouver are a third of the cost of people in the Bay Area.”
Video game development is risky and complicated, and there is no shortage of stories from game-makers who felt like their projects were doomed before proceeding to release fantastic games. Maybe, some thought, Ragtag could follow a similar trajectory.
Or maybe it couldn’t.
Morale was not great at Visceral Games at the beginning of 2016, and it was only getting worse. In May 2016, EA laid off roughly a dozen Visceral staffers, and throughout the year, more people left the studio for other jobs. Progress remained as sluggish as it had been the previous year, due to the same problems that had been plaguing the Ragtag team from the start. Frostbite still made everything more difficult, EA kept questioning Visceral’s decisions, and Hennig continued to clash with others on the team. “The people at Visceral were used to working a certain way,” said one staffer, “while Amy was used to working a certain way.”
At Naughty Dog, Hennig had always worked in tandem with a second director whose job was to manage gameplay. On the brilliant Uncharted 2, that role was filled by Bruce Straley. According to three people familiar with the situation, Hennig said didn’t feel like she had anyone who could fill that role on Ragtag. As a result, sources said, Hennig took control of every aspect of the project, from story to gameplay to level design. “Amy is amazing with story, tone, a lot of stuff,” said one person who worked on the team. “But she’s not a level designer, so if you’re a gameplay person, you would not be not as into Amy controlling everything. Whereas if you’re a story person, you’d be like, ‘Sure, man, lead the way.’”
At least three former Visceral employees told me they left the studio because they felt frustrated by Hennig’s direction. Said another person who worked with Hennig: “Amy’s phenomenally smart, fiercely smart, talented, incredibly good at cutscenes. But she was balanced by other talented individuals at Naughty Dog… This was a team she hadn’t worked with before. I felt like she didn’t really trust us.”
Because Visceral had such a hard time hiring new staff, some pivotal roles on the project remained unfilled. Throughout 2016 Ragtag still didn’t have a dedicated art director, for example, whose job would be to supervise the art department and ensure they were all sticking to vision. Instead they had to rely upon an art director at Lucasfilm, who by one account was “incredibly talented but overstretched.” With gaps like that, it’s not hard to see why Hennig might have been frustrated. (Later, the studio would bring in a new art director from EA’s office in Los Angeles.)
Hennig also wasn’t used to working with a corporation like Electronic Arts. Despite being owned by electronics giant Sony, Naughty Dog had been able to operate autonomously, in large part because they were widely perceived as the corporation’s prestige video game studio. Uncharted’s sales revenue wasn’t as important as its ability to help sell Sony PlayStations. At EA, however, things were different. “She was giving these massive presentations on the story, themes,” said one person who worked on Ragtag. “EA executives are like, ‘FIFA Ultimate Team makes a billion dollars a year.’ Where’s your version of that?”
The team had accomplished a few cool things so far. They’d built a traversal system for Dodger and his partners, and at least graphically, their work was looking great. At E3 2016, Visceral showed off a short clip from Ragtag, part of a larger demo that the team had been developing. The demo looked phenomenal, sources said—Hennig had insisted on getting the best technology possible, and they were working both with Lucasfilm’s ILM and Sony’s studio in San Diego to create gorgeous lighting and effects. In the clip, we see the protagonist Dodger exit the cantina on Tatooine, brushing his arm against the door as he leaves.
You might not even have noticed the way Dodger touched that door, but for Visceral, that simple animation was months in the making. They spent hours and hours of development time just working on the way in which Dodger would touch the door. This was a frustrating experience for some members of the team, who felt like they didn’t have enough core features in place to be spending so much time on a demo. That demo may have looked good, but people who worked on it said you couldn’t play very much. “Dodger couldn’t even shoot his gun and we’re fine-tuning where his hand placement needed to be,” said one Ragtag developer. “We don’t have a single environment for Dodger to exist in... How do you build a system if you don’t know what your average area is gonna be?”
Working with a big publisher often means embracing poor game development practices just to impress fans and executives, which is what Visceral had done, according to people who worked on that demo. “If you looked at it objectively, you’d be like, ‘There’s nothing here,’” said one. “Dodger can do like three things. But it was cut in a specific way that looked interesting, and visually it was really nice looking.”
Having such a good-looking demo helped Ragtag going throughout 2016. Visceral still had a staffing problem, though. More people were trickling out of the studio, and EA still didn’t want to hire more developers in San Francisco. “We’d been having a pretty steady loss of people, but by 2017 the trickle sped up,” said one person who worked on the game. “We lost our animators, [our] tech department, the engineering leads all left, the artists filtered out. It become obvious by the start of 2017 that Ragtag wasn’t going to get done unless major changes happened.”
So at the end of 2016, EA came up with a new plan.
Up at EA Vancouver, the publisher had just cancelled a Plants vs. Zombie game and had a team free to help out on Ragtag, according to people who were on the team then. This new group would join development at the beginning of 2017 and add some muscle to Visceral. By now the project had been delayed to December 2018, which gave both studios a solid two years to finish. Finally, there was reason to be optimistic again. Wasn’t there?
Back in 2015, after shipping Battlefield Hardline, Visceral had flattened its structure in an attempt to boost morale and do things more nimbly. When EA Vancouver came along, that idea went out the window, according to a former employee. Suddenly there were producers and development directors and other layers of management that Visceral had been attempting to avoid. People at EA Vancouver were happy with their processes—they liked having a managerial structure—but almost immediately, this led to a clash of cultures.
While at first the staff of Visceral were optimistic about the extra manpower, it soon became clear that EA hadn’t just brought in Vancouver to assist on the project. It appeared that EA wanted Vancouver to take over the project, according to three people involved with the game. Suddenly, Ragtag had a new executive producer, lead designer, game director, and many other lead roles—all of whom were in Vancouver. “Visceral is pissed, obviously, because all of a sudden this other studio comes on and gets to call the shots,” said one former staffer. “There were so many meetings where people at Visceral were so mad about this.”
One person who worked on the game said EA Vancouver was “horrified” by how little progress Visceral had made on Ragtag. Some on the team theorised that EA was trying to wrest control of Ragtag away from Hennig, but the merger just made a messy situation messier. There were even more clashes, as EA Vancouver would propose ideas for gadgets similar to those in Rocksteady’s hit Batman Arkham games that the characters could use in addition to shooting and climbing. Hennig pushed back against these ideas, according to two people who worked on the game. She didn’t want to turn Dodger into the gadget guy.
Uncharted 4, released in 2016, was seen as a bar that Visceral wanted to hit with Ragtag
Tension aside, with the extra people, it finally felt to the Ragtag team like they were making some progress. Throughout 2017, developers at both Visceral and EA Vancouver worked hard on that “sampler platter” that they hoped would both serve as a target for their own team and show EA’s executives what they were capable of doing. There was the AT-ST chase, the Tatooine shootout, the descent into Jabba’s palace. But both teams were also battling over fundamental features, like the cover system, which two sources said became a point of contention over the entire development of Ragtag.
Different people who worked on the game have varying opinions on just how much the team actually accomplished throughout 2017—and Visceral staff were still regularly quitting—but some say that they were more optimistic this year than in the last two, although Ragtag’s scope remained more ambitious than anyone thought they could handle. “A lot of things started turning around,” said a source, “but I think there was a little bit of a too-little, too-late aspect to it. I don’t think it mattered.”
At EA, video game projects go through a set of milestones that the publisher calls gates—opportunities for EA’s executives to come see what a studio has been doing. Failing a gate could lead to delays, resource shifts, or even cancellations. By April 2017, Ragtag was up to Gate 3. EA executive vice president Patrick Söderlund gave them the greenlight, two sources said, but said he wanted to do another check-in after six months, calling it Gate 3.5.
For years, four sources said, Söderlund and Jade Raymond had been asking about what Ragtag’s innovation would be. “What was this game’s ‘gravity gun’?” they would ask, a reference to Half-Life’s iconic weapon. And while the team had come up with lots of ideas—sabotage mechanics, a rotating cast of companions, and so on—executing those ideas had proven difficult. By the middle of 2017, people who saw the game say it resembled Uncharted too much for EA’s liking. “The three levels we made for the 3.5 gate, every single one of those levels you could hold up a video of Uncharted beside it,” said one former Visceral employee, “and you could literally say, ‘OK, this part is like this part from Uncharted. This level is like this level from Uncharted.’”
The team crunched hard on those demos for Gate 3.5, which landed in the middle of October. There’s confusion on the exact timing here—and EA declined to get into specifics—but in the days after coming to see Gate 3.5, EA’s executives made it official. After nearly two decades, Visceral’s time in the video game industry was coming to an end. Amy Hennig’s project would be cancelled, too.
“Decisions like this are never easy,” said Söderlund as part of his statement to Kotaku. “In fact, they are really, really hard. They are also not fast – that’s a mistake some people often make. You know how much work people have put into it, how much creativity has been poured out. We will always look at every way we can keep working on the ideas, and we did a lot of that here. We supported the team and their creative process, and we tried a lot of things. We cut scope. We added things, too. We rethought, redesigned, reimagined. But at some point, you have to be honest with yourselves, and realise that we’re not going to be able to get to where we want to be. And that becomes a very tough call to make.”
While there are dozens of perspectives on whether or not EA’s decision to axe the studio was justified, many who worked at the studio say they couldn’t see this ending any other way.
“Honestly, it was a mercy killing,” said one former Visceral employee. “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.”
Looking back at the last few years of Visceral, people who worked for the studio have a lot of opinions. They have a lot of fingers to point: at EA, at Patrick Söderlund, at Amy Hennig, at themselves. One common theme, conveyed to me by at least three different people, was that changes should have been made years ago. “I think EA gave us too much leeway,” said one. “If anything, EA should’ve probably cancelled this project earlier. I think Söderlund and them were too nice, gave us too many opportunities.”
Perhaps it was inevitable that, in 2017, a game like Ragtag wouldn’t be possible at a publisher like EA. It was too big, too expensive, and too risky. Seeing it to completion might have cost $100 million (£76.2 million), by one person’s estimate, which was a huge investment for a game that people might play just once and then trade into GameStop, costing EA a sale. “Ultimately, the idea of doing a game of this scope, this expense, this fidelity, at this studio never made sense,” said a former Visceral staffer.
Posited another: “The only way we could’ve made this work was to say, ‘Hey everybody, Ragtag’s not gonna make money. But we’re going to add a ton of features to Frostbite that’ll make [EA Motive’s] big adventure game possible, and amortise the costs over the future. Think of this as an investment product.’”
Star Wars Battlefront II, featuring EA Motive’s single-player campaign, will be out in November 2017
Those who remained at Visceral on 17 October 2017 certainly did not come into work expecting to hear that EA was shutting down the studio. They knew it’d be a tough road to finish Ragtag in the next year, and they knew it’d mean lots of crunch, but they thought the task ahead was feasible. After all, this was Star Wars. How could it fail? “I woke up that day thinking it was a perfectly normal Tuesday,” said one person on the team. “I went into work, and we had a mandatory all-hands meeting at 11:30am. That was when they told us. It came out of nowhere. I had no idea that anything like that was going to happen.”
Since the closure, EA has given Visceral’s staff the opportunity to look for other positions within the publisher, which many have taken. Some have found new jobs at other studios across the industry, and a Twitter hashtag last week helped people connect to new gigs.
Meanwhile, EA Vancouver is essentially starting from scratch on their own Star Wars game, as the publisher announced when it said Visceral was closing. In some ways things are coming full circle. Back in 2014, EA cancelled the open-world Star Wars game Yuma to make a linear action-adventure; now, in 2017, EA has cancelled its linear action-adventure to make an open world Star Wars game. There’s no official word on Hennig’s next move.
“There’s a reality in this that great creative pursuits are inevitably challenging,” said Patrick Söderlund in EA’s statement. “Sometimes you have a huge hit. Sometimes you have failures. Sometimes you need to shift your thinking. I’ve been a part of them all. This was not where we wanted to find ourselves. We’re going to go back to work, use a lot of the great work that we have, and go make something that we think Star Wars fans are going to love.”
With Ragtag, Amy Hennig and Visceral set out to make something that fans wanted—a proper single-player Star Wars game the likes of which we haven’t seen for nearly a decade. Like 1313 before it, things didn’t work out. It’s starting to look like a pattern that will require Star Wars fans to do something they’re asked to do a lot: Wait. Maybe things’ll finally work out next time.