Last week, it was formally announced that Electronic Arts had purchased Respawn Entertainment for over 400 million dollars. This news, of course, comes fresh from the recent closure of Visceral Games, another EA subsidiary, who was developing a hotly anticipated single-player Star Wars game. The blow of that project being canceled followed so closely by EA’s purchase of Respawn has inevitably prompted discussion among the gaming community.
Whether you love or hate them, there’s no denying that EA has closed a number of studios in the past. Among them were some esteemed figures as well, including Maxis, Mythic, and Pandemic. More recently, the re-branding of Bioware Montreal after the lackluster reception to Mass Effect Andromeda caught the attention of the gaming community. And, of course, the recent and highly controversial cancellation of Visceral Games’ Star Wars project was not well received. In light of this track record, the key takeaway from EA’s purchase of Respawn has centered around a discussion of concern with regards to the future and direction of that beloved studio. Not only have fans bemoaned EA for purchasing a studio so soon after foreclosing another, but all of this comes hot off the heels of EA’s recent announcement that it planned to shift away from single-player focused games, something that Respawn went out of its way to adopt into Titanfall 2. The question now is, where does all of this leave Respawn?
Respawn is, of course, the team behind Titanfall 1 and 2, both respectable AAA games that were released to critical acclaim. The latter, however, fell far short of sales expectations due to the time of its release and sold less than projected. This is important because, unlike most AAA games of 2017, Titanfall 2 did not embrace the games as a service business model. It was a well-balanced game with a highly praised single-player campaign that improved on virtually everything the original Titanfall had done. By all accounts, the game was considered a vast improvement and did everything right. It just didn’t have the sales to match its quality, likely thanks in no small part to the highly competitive time it was released.
The worry now is that with EA’s commitment to games as a service, the essence of what made Titanfall 2 such a critical success might be muddied. What we absolutely don’t want to see is a heavier emphasis on multiplayer at the expense of a solid single-player campaign. Worse still, the inclusion of intrusive microtransactions or a gameplay loop built around pay-to-win loot boxes, something that has plagued the launch of EA’s most recent title, Star Wars Battlefront II. To a lesser extent, other EA titles have also incorporated aspects of this unsavory practice. Battlefield One was similarly molded around a gameplay loop called the Battlepack system that encouraged players to earn or purchase unlockable skins and parts to be used in-game.
There are frightening parallels with Visceral’s Dead Space series, too. The iconic franchise began as a linear survival-horror experience but later shifted more towards action as it went on under EA’s umbrella. The studio’s partnership with EA, much like Respawn’s with Titanfall 2, was partly forged due to Dead Space 2’s poor commercial performance. Visceral turned to the vast resources of EA to develop Dead Space 3, but the design of the game was fundamentally altered in the name of appealing to a broader audience and maximizing monetization potential. Its survival horror was downplayed, instead emphasizing co-op action gameplay and a micro-transaction enabled crafting system. At the time, fans criticized Dead Space 3 for becoming too homogenized and losing sight of what made the series great in the first place. Not only did this sacrifice the uniqueness that the series had earned acclaim for, but the shift in design failed to impact its ability to commercially perform anyway. The notion that Titanfall 3 could end up as another Dead Space 3, then, isn’t too difficult to imagine.
Of course, it’s easy to get overly caught up sensationalizing all of the negatives, but EA’s purchase of Respawn could just as easily allow for great things as well. Titanfall 2 was considered a great game by fans, and with EA’s added budget and marketing, it could turn into a successful franchise alongside EA’s other heavy hitters. The added resources that come with a publisher of EA’s magnitude could just as easily result in a bigger, superior game as it could an inferior one. What it ultimately boils down to is how Respawn chooses to use its new resources and how much EA influences the foundation Titanfall 1 and 2 have already established. After all, it isn’t only a publisher’s decision as to whether a gameplay loop facilitates monetization methods. Often times, it is the developers themselves that build it into the game.
Moreover, the recent slew of negative press surrounding the company has made it easy to forget that EA is no more guilty of studio closures than any other publisher. Unfortunately, it has become an upsettingly common practice in AAA gaming. Sony, Microsoft, Activision, 2K, have closed studios down in the recent past. Sony, for example, closed Guerrilla Cambridge and Evolution Studios earlier this year. So while it is easy to paint EA as a villain due to recent controversies, it’s important to note that in the broader context they aren’t notably worse than many other publishers. Whether or not that is an acceptable state of affairs is a separate discussion entirely.
Visceral’s closure was unfortunate, but it wasn’t simply a sudden decision that had been made overnight. It was a decision that had been the result of months of internal strife, much of which has been laboriously covered by Kotaku’s Jason Schreier. And regardless of how the timing may look to the public, Respawn’s acquisition was something that happened aside from any ongoings with Visceral Games.
Ultimately, though, Titanfall 3 will provide an interesting case study as to what extent EA is committed to games as service, and its subsequent success or failure under whichever monetization model it employs might be instrumental in shaping EA’s future direction. Should the game adopt a games-as-service model and prove successful, it will likely motivate Electronic Arts to continue with its current trend of embracing micro-transactions and loot-based multiplayer economies. On the other hand, should the game remain as it is and prove another commercial flop, it might serve as proof in EA’s eyes that the traditional model is no longer viable in the mainstream gaming market. Likewise, should Titanfall 3 buck the current trends it may give the company some faith in different gaming models.
Regardless of what Respawn Entertainment’s ultimate fate in the gaming space is, what sort of game it makes will be indicative of EA’s plans for the future. In a sense, the situation is a microcosm of where the AAA game industry as a whole is moving. As has been mentioned already, EA is not alone in embracing these trends or in closing down studios. The business of making video games is… a business, and it exists to make games to turn over profit. EA will embrace whatever trends in the market yield the best results. If it could take a game that failed to sell and make it successful with a games as a service business model, then that would be another example to the industry at large that the formula works.
EA may just be one of many big publishers, but they do all ultimately want the same thing; if there’s a dominant strategy they can use to turn a profit they will. Whether that results in the sort of robust gaming experience we’d like to see or the whether it negatively impacts the market remains to be seen.
EA’s commitment to games as service could be damaging for Titanfall fans should the next game launch void of all the improvements Titanfall 2 made. Or worse yet, if those improvements were locked behind a paywall or an unnecessary grind. Right now, Respawn is a good representative of traditional AAA gaming: a blend of both single and multiplayer with plenty of quality content for fans to sink their teeth into. The studio’s next project, however, will be indicative of whether that sort of experience will last much longer.