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EA’s Star Wars stranglehold is gone, just as the games were getting good

In 2021’s first bit of bombshell gaming news, Disney announced it had decided to end a long-running partnership with EA that granted the studio exclusive development rights to the Star Wars franchise. Instead, Disney opted to open the series back up to other developers and gave Ubisoft the reins to its first post-EA game.

Many gaming fans found the news to be a positive step for the franchise, and for good reason. EA has had a troubled history with the series since entering into the deal in 2013. While the change ultimately feels positive, it’s hard to shake the feeling that the rug is getting pulled out on EA just as it was finding its footing.

A new hope

EA and Disney’s Star Wars partnership started off strong enough. In 2015, EA successfully brought back the Star Wars Battlefront brand with a fun multiplayer revival. Players’ good faith was quickly squandered with its sequel, Star Wars Battlefront II. EA implemented an aggressive microtransaction strategy into the game that affected the game’s progression and created a “pay-to-win” environment. Players didn’t need to pony up to unlock paid content, but doing it the old-fashioned way required dozens of hours of grinding.

When a fan complained about the system on Reddit, EA replied by noting that the system was meant to inspire a sense of “pride and accomplishment.” The comment quickly became the most downvoted comment in Reddit history. EA responded by disabling microtransactions entirely prior to launch, but for many players, the well was irreversibly poisoned.

In the short few years since that historic fallout, EA appeared to take the backlash to heart. The studio went on to release Star Wars Jedi: Fallen Order in 2019, which focused on single-player storytelling with no hidden fees. Just last fall, it returned to multiplayer with Star Wars: Squadrons. The aerial combat game was imagined as a “you-get-what-you-paid-for” experience that didn’t feature any microtransactions or pricey DLC. EA even decided to break its own promise by offering unplanned free content based on the enthusiastic response from fans.

The difference between Squadrons and Battlefront II’s launches were night and day. While it would have been easy for the company to squeeze in a paid component, the restraint seemed to indicate that the company had learned from the mistake, at least when it came to the Star Wars brand. Add in the company’s long-term commitment to supporting Battlefront II, which received updates through 2020, and it seemed like EA was on the right track.

Perhaps most importantly, EA’s newer titles presented an exciting creative vision for the franchise. Jedi: Fallen Order successfully took elements from Dark Souls, Metroid, and Uncharted to create one of the better single-player Star Wars games to hit shelves yet. Squadrons found an exciting new way to bring the series’ epic space fights to life thanks to excellent VR support.

Taking exclusivity rights away from EA in 2018 would have been a justified decision that few would have disagreed with, myself included. The timing just feels off in 2021 as EA was finally sticking the landing and giving the brand its first era of consistency in well over a decade.

A step back

What’s especially puzzling is Disney’s decision to pass the baton to Ubisoft for an open-world Star Wars title. The shift makes sense on its surface. Ubisoft has the open-world formula down to a science thanks to series like Assassin’s Creed, and it’s easy to imagine titles in that vein becoming cash cows for Disney.

Assassin's Creed Valhalla Blacksmith

Still, it’s hard not to feel like Disney has taken a step backwards with the deal. From a PR standpoint, Ubisoft is in a more unstable standing with gamers now than EA was in 2017. The studio’s recent sexual misconduct scandal forced top executives out of the company, sending it into rebuild mode. Ubisoft has taken steps to right its wrongs since the news broke last summer, but players can’t be blamed for feeling like the rights to Star Wars simply moved from one problematic mega-studio to another.

Ubisoft’s reliance on microtransactions makes the move puzzling more than anything else. Games like Assassin’s Creed Valhalla and Immortals Fenyx Rising both utilize paid resource packs that speed up progression, not unlike the model used in Battlefront II. If Ubisoft’s open-world game uses a similar approach, it could undo the progress and positive growth EA has made for the brand in the past year.

Passing the torch

In truth, it’s hard to feel sympathy for a corporation as giant as EA. The company made serious missteps with the brand and has long been a symbol of the industry’s controversial financial models, even outside of Star Wars. EA is currently dealing with class-action lawsuits and fines issued over business models that some consider to be predatory practices akin to gambling.

On top of that, EA isn’t losing the rights to Star Wars altogether. In a statement sent to Digital Trends, EA says: “We are proud of our long-standing collaboration with Lucasfilm Games, which will continue for years to come … We love Star Wars, and we look forward to creating more exciting experiences for players to enjoy.” It’s not so much a loss as it is a symbolic passing of the torch.

Still, both the timing and solution don’t feel quite right. It would be different if Disney gave the ball to a smaller studio with more ethical practices. That could open the doors wide open for some creative takes on the franchise while avoiding the same modern gaming pitfalls that fans rejected in 2017. Imagine what Hades developer Supergiant Games could do with The Mandalorian.

Instead, it feels like Disney is putting a fresh coat of paint on an old strategy just as the brand was starting to enjoy some welcome consistency with EA. Star Wars will never find its footing as a gaming brand if fans don’t see the logo as a seal of quality.

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