Blockbuster films are typically accompanied by video game tie-ins. A few years ago those games took the form of console titles that told largely the same story as the film, but more recently they’ve shifted to mobile, where it’s faster and cheaper to develop a game alongside a movie. No matter the platform, though, these games are almost universally terrible. Because of this, the most anticipated movie of 2015 won’t have a standard movie game — instead it’ll have many smaller tie-ins. While there’s no game called Star Wars: The Force Awakens, there’s a whole slate of titles that touch on J.J. Abrams’ new film through downloadable content and other add-ons.
"We all felt like the traditional movie tie-in is just, I mean you can look over the history of interactive entertainment, and there are very, very few exceptions," says Justin McCully, GM for the Star Wars franchise at EA. "Movie tie-in games have rarely been successful."
The biggest piece in the Star Wars onslaught is Battlefront, a multiplayer shooter that takes place during the events of the original trilogy. It’s essentially nostalgia in video game form, complete with startlingly accurate sound design. But a new add-on released this week lets players explore the "Battle of Jakku," an event alluded to in the upcoming movie, but never really explored before (it’s the reason you see all of those downed Star Destroyers rusting away in the desert in the trailers). But Battlefront is far from the only game to touch on the new film. Disney Infinity 3.0, the first game in the toys-to-life series to introduce Star Wars characters, will launch an expansion on December 18th that covers the new movie, and includes toys based on characters like Finn, Rey, and Kylo Ren.
There are also a number of mobile games. Strategy title Star Wars: Commander, which originally launched last year, was recently updated with new units and a planet inspired by The Force Awakens, while Star Wars: Uprising — an RPG that takes place between Return of the Jedi and the new film — is introducing a new update today that lets players learn Force powers and even wield a lightsaber. It’s a sizable update that brings the game closer to the movie in terms of the timeline. Meanwhile, EA just launched Galaxy of Heroes, which mashes together characters from every era of Star Wars for a free-to-play, collectible RPG where you create teams of iconic characters from the series.
"We're not making movie tie-ins."
It’s a strategy that aims to get around one of the central problems with movie games: making a movie and game in parallel is very hard to do well. With The Force Awakens, for example, the final edit of the film was only recently finished, making it next to impossible for a game studio to craft a compelling experience that closely mirrors the movie and launches at the same time. Instead, EA, Disney, and their partners are crafting much smaller experiences and grafting them onto existing Star Wars games. "We said from the very beginning of the partnership that we’re not making movie tie-ins," says McCully. "We’re going to be inspired by the entire universe of Star Wars, and create different experiences for different players."
The process requires a lot of coordination. McCully’s job is to organize all of the Star Wars games being made at EA — including Battlefront, the MMO The Old Republic, and unannounced titles from studios like Visceral Games — but there are also games being made by other teams. Mobile developer Kabam is working on Uprising, for example, while Avalanche Studios made Disney Infinity and Disney Interactive handled Commander.
"They are very carefully managing all of it," Daniel Erickson, senior design director on Uprising, says of Lucasfilm. "We have a lot of great communication with them, we have a lot of knowledge about what’s going on and what the other products are doing. They’re also very good about establishing and defending, if you will, our turf. There are parts of this timeline that we really do have staked out. So as other people are moving into it, we have precedence in some places."
"Star Wars is unique."
In other words, each game provides a tiny taste of the upcoming film, and each offers a very different experience. The fast-paced action of Battlefront, for instance, is great for showing off a huge battle, giving players a real sense of the scale and size of the conflict by actually putting them there. The more story-driven Uprising, meanwhile, was a better choice for filling in some of the gaps between the original trilogy and the upcoming slate of films.
The multi-game approach is something EA and Disney plan to continue as more and more Star Wars movies launch, but it might not be a strategy that can apply to other franchises. After all, there are few properties that can support multiple game releases, across mobile and console, simultaneously, the way Star Wars can. "I think Star Wars is unique," says McCully. "I can’t think of another franchise that has the depth and the lore and the ability to have that many different experiences."
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