I was standing in a replica of the Hoth Rebel base from The Empire Strikes Back, part of a massive line to check out the multiplayer demo of EA’s upcoming title Star Wars: Battlefront. Dry ice pumped in from somewhere, and as we waited, an R2-D2 unit in the corner made the occasional deedly-bleep-boop. I asked the man in front of me how long he’d been waiting to try the game. “Three hours,” he said.
Make no mistake: Star Wars was huge at E3 this year. Along with Battlefront, three other titles were either shown off or announced during the show. Disney Infinity 3.0 adds characters and locations from the franchise to the game’s cast of Pixar, Disney, and Marvel faces. BioWare’s Knights of the Fallen Empire expands its MMORPG The Old Republic with a new series of episodic storylines, and during its press conference EA announced Galaxy of Heroes, a card collecting game for mobile devices. While the last few years of Star Wars gaming have been full of chaos and cancellations, Disney and Lucasfilm are now opening the floodgates with a coordinated blitzkrieg designed to bring Star Wars to every possible gaming audience in the galaxy — if people don't get sick of it first.
“This is definitely part of our plan,” says Ada Duan, Lucasfilm’s VP of digital business and franchise management. Duan and her team are responsible for overseeing all of the gaming and interactive Star Wars products coming into the market, something that’s become even more important since Disney disbanded developer LucasArts in 2013 and signed an exclusive deal with Electronic Arts for new games. “I’m really excited because our two biggest console gaming beats this year leading up to the film are right here at E3, and we planned for them to come out in advance of the theatrical launch to engage all of our Star Wars fans.”
That theatrical launch, of course, is the December 18th release of J.J. Abrams’ Star Wars: The Force Awakens, and it’s become the focal point for a multi-tiered marketing hype wave designed to jumpstart the franchise across film, television, and gaming.
A multi-tiered marketing hype wave designed to crest around 'The Force Awakens'
It’s a far cry from the wreckage strewn over the past few years. Interest in the movies began to cool after the disappointing prequel trilogy wrapped up with 2005’s Revenge of the Sith, but in the gaming world there were still standout titles like the original two Star Wars: Battlefront games and The Force Unleashed series. Momentum was hard to find after that, and after Disney purchased Lucasfilm in 2012, nearly ever single Star Wars project in development was canceled, no matter the medium. That included the highly anticipated action game Star Wars 1313, which reportedly would have put players in the boots of Boba Fett himself.
But just like the trailers for The Force Awakens have reignited the passion of the faithful, this new series of games are trying to do the same thing by providing what Duan calls “authentic” Star Wars experiences. “We really want people to get immersed into the Star Wars universe, but we also want to make sure we stay true to character, and true to the universe,” she says. “Making sure whatever story gets into the games, it still follows continuity, as well the characters — that they act like the characters would, whether it’s from the films or the television shows that are coming.”
For something like Disney Infinity, that presents a bit of a balancing act, as the series has to put a character like Darth Maul into a cartoony, kid-friendly style of gameplay without making him such a caricature that he can’t be taken seriously in other incarnations. (Lucasfilm allowed the Infinity team to soften the look of Maul’s horns, for example.) On the Knights of the Fallen Empire expansion, its developers say they had the freedom to go relatively crazy, simply because The Old Republic is set so long before the various film trilogies. And while something like Battlefront seems pretty straightforward — a lot of the emphasis has been on recreating the visuals, vehicles, and battles from the original series of films — game developer DICE received guidance when it came to stepping outside those confines.
“We are working very closely with Lucasfilm in making sure that the [non-movie missions] are still a part of the universe and still feel authentic to what Star Wars is all about,” DICE GM Patrick Bach says. “By letting us explore the universe and going even further, so we create an even deeper, and broader, and more exciting game.”
It’s a broad, orchestrated strategy, and that’s not even including unannounced titles like the secret project Visceral Games has been cooking up. But while The Force Awakens appears to be building into an epic cultural tidal wave that will carry this first wave of games along with it, for true long-term success, EA and Lucasfilm will need to ensure they’re publishing games that people actually want to play. The gaming market is just too crowded, filled with too many excellent franchises for Star Wars to simply come back to the well year after year and expect long-term success on its name alone. And that’s to say nothing of the issue of over-exposure and burnout.
Along with all the games and The Force Awakens, there are two more movies coming to complete the new trilogy. And a series of stand-alone “anthology” films. And a second season of the Rebels TV show. And a live-action series in development. And the new, now-canonical set of comic books and novels. And Playmation. And VR experiences. A veritable flood of mobile games, like the upcoming RPG Uprising. An onslaught of physical toys coming this September. And hey, don’t forget — you can still buy those ringtones if you want ‘em.
That’s a whole lot of Star Wars, even for the most hardcore fan, and if you don’t like it you won’t be able to escape. “It’s a big challenge,” says Duan. “But I think we make sure we give enough air space for each of the games to be successful, and we want to take our time making sure that [audiences] can enjoy those experiences before we come out with new ones.”
One thing’s for sure: Star Wars fans are going to have plenty of choices.