In fact, Lucasfilm’s moves in the gaming space this week appear to be following in the footsteps of another Disney-owned entertainment – Marvel.
There’s Been an Awakening
Lucasfilm Games revives the pre-LucasArts branding from the ‘80s, and evokes classic adventure games like Indiana Jones, Monkey Island, and Sam and Max. However, its name appears to be a nod to the past, not a return to it – Lucasfilm promises to be “the official identity for all gaming titles from Lucasfilm, a name that encompasses the company’s rich catalog of video games and its eye toward the future.”
The rebranding announcement preceded the, erm, massive news that Division 2 developer Massive is working on an open-world Star Wars game to be published by Ubisoft, billed as “the beginning of a long-term collaboration with Disney and Lucasfilm Games,” as well as a new Indiana Jones adventure from Wolfenstein studio MachineGames and publisher Bethesda.
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Lucasfilm Games’ mission statement and announcements, at least for now, indicate that the company isn’t opening its own internal game development studio. Gaming has long been something Disney has endeavored to have more of an impact on, even if just a couple years ago then-CEO Bob Iger admitted Disney “just never managed to demonstrate much skill on the publishing side of games.” Despite holding the keys to an increasing number of the biggest properties in entertainment. This was perhaps most obvious when Disney Interactive Studios shuttered in 2016 alongside the end of support for Disney Infinity, which threw Star Wars, Marvel, and all things Disney into one toys-to-life toybox that never quite took off.
But while Disney’s gaming brand nursed its wounds, and Star Wars remained locked (outside of VR, mobile, and LEGO games) in the hands of EA, Marvel quietly rebuilt itself into a formidable force in gaming.
A Disney (Business) Crossover
So far, this roadmap has worked for fellow-Disney owned Marvel Games. In 2016, Marvel Games publicly became the stewards of the brand, having previously been hamstrung by an exclusive deal similar to EA and Lucasfilm’s Star Wars arrangement. Marvel and Activision had an agreement stemming back into the early 2000’s for exclusive rights to X-Men, Spider-Man, Fantastic Four, and Iron Man games. The partnership appeared to do so well in its earliest days, with hits like the Spider-Man 2 movie adaptation and the X-Men Legends line, that the two companies renewed the deal for Spidey and the mutants through 2017. But that partnership, as it continued on, resulted in underwhelming returns as the Spider-Man franchise lost its acclaim, and Marvel felt the pull of movie licensing for the MCU elsewhere. The relationship was eventually seemingly dissolved in 2014, but through the early 2010’s Marvel’s movie tie-ins led to a string of disappointing Iron Man, Thor, and Captain America games based on market needs rather than game ideas.
With its rebranding, Marvel Games made partnerships with different developers and publishers to produce a range of different games, unbeholden to any one exclusivity contract with a certain company or to satisfy tie-in needs for movies or TV. It’s partially why we can see an Insomniac-developed, PlayStation-exclusive Spider-Man series alongside a multi-platform Avengers series (that will also see Spider-Man… be PlayStation exclusive, but that’s another story entirely) released near to a Nintendo-exclusive Marvel Ultimate Alliance sequel.
Sure, each one of them hasn’t been the runaway success that Marvel’s Spider-Man has been, but it’s clear that Marvel isn’t precluding developers from getting to play around with the heroes they want to develop games for, or the types of games those heroes can play around in. Camouflaj can develop an Iron Man VR game and Crystal Dynamics can still use Tony Stark as a playable character in Marvel’s Avengers. Entirely different games with entirely different visions can be produced under the Marvel Games name, without console or publisher agreements prohibiting a specific company from working with Marvel. Marvel has already worked with Telltale Games, Capcom, Crystal Dynamics, Insomniac, Camouflaj, and more.
Keeping things centrally tied to a Marvel company has allowed for more experimentation and general variety than we might have seen had Marvel agreed to only let a single publisher or developer tackle certain Marvel characters. And that’s led to a dual benefit – when a partnership works, Marvel can continue working alongside a developer, and when a project doesn’t quite work out, Marvel isn’t locked in to only one deal with its vast wealth of memorable and beloved characters.
That’s of course the most exciting part about Lucasfilm Games being able to stretch beyond the EA-Disney deal. EA’s time with the Star Wars license has been, to put it politely, turbulent, remembered for publicly canceled, high-profile games like Amy Henig and Visceral’s Ragtag; years entirely absent of Star Wars games, and microtransaction debacles around the launch of Star Wars Battlefront II. Of course, not everything has been bad news, and EA turned the ship around in recent years – Battlefront II’s team continually added DLC, Star Wars Jedi: Fallen Order delivered the Jedi action-adventure game fans have wanted since, well, the partnership began, and Star Wars Squadrons proved smaller-scale projects could fit into the EA pipeline and offer entirely different wish-fulfillment out of the galaxy.
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But even though things have improved in the last couple of years, there’s no denying that Lucasfilm’s new direction gives us hope. A more free Lucasfilm Games could indeed mirror Marvel Games, and deals with Ubisoft and more could signal the start of a much more plentiful era of Star Wars gaming.
It’s also worth noting that with Marvel Games-published titles, there’s no single canon developers have to adhere to, comics, MCU, or otherwise. On the other hand, every piece of Disney-owned Star Wars property, including games, has to seemingly stay true to and fit within the canon of the Star Wars universe. It’s unclear whether that will continue to be the case with Lucasfilm Games, but it might mean we see fewer studios doubling up on characters or specific eras, and instead start branching out, making something like the newly launched The High Republic a perfect place to carve out new stories that wouldn’t contradict existing narratives.
What Does This Mean for EA and Star Wars
But does the Ubisoft deal signal that Lucasfilm Games is entirely moving on from EA-produced Star Wars games? No, and, thankfully, it could mean an even stronger partnership between Lucasfilm and EA.
Alongside the Ubi news, EA released a statement, saying “We are proud of our long-standing collaboration with Lucasfilm Games, which will continue for years to come. Our talented teams have created some of the most successful games in the history of the Star Wars franchise, including Star Wars Jedi: Fallen Order, Star Wars: Battlefront, Star Wars: Galaxy of Heroes and Star Wars: Squadrons. We love Star Wars and look forward to creating more exciting experiences for players to enjoy.”
Removing the pressures of being the only Star Wars developers will let EA focus on what has worked for them so far. EA can work on a Battlefront III or a Jedi: Fallen Order 2 and not have to worry about it carrying the weight of an entire gaming universe of expectations.
Jedi: Fallen Order was in the top 10 best-selling games of 2019, and Squadrons apparently earned enough goodwill that the development team produced free DLC after launch, even though there were no intentions to keep making content after its debut. Some great games have come from EA’s partnership with Lucas, but it’s a partnership that is mired with the aforementioned cancellations, studio closures, and reshifting of projects. Freeing both companies from the pressure of the previous arrangement will likely lead to a better future for both, and, hopefully, for all Star Wars fans. And we’ve seen success like that come from Lucasfilm’s Star Wars gaming past when it could partner with a variety of companies. In the late ’90s early 2000’s, we saw such varied projects as the acclaimed Knights of the Old Republic series, Star Wars: Episode I – Racer, Republic Commando, and the Jedi Knight series. Sure, with every KOTOR there was also a Masters of Teras Kasi, but the sheer variety and freedom Lucasfilm had in licensing to so many developers just wasn’t possible under the recent EA deal.
More Than Just Laser Swords
Of course, Star Wars is, naturally front and center in the discussion of what Lucasfilm Games’ future will hold, but it’s worth noting that Lucasfilm has long produced non-Star Wars games, and some acclaimed ones at that. Lucasfilm Entertainment has also got a slew of other film and TV projects in the works, from Indiana Jones to Children of Blood and Bone to Willow, and the expectation should be the same on the gaming side.
We’re already seeing that play out – the first project announced under the new Lucasfilm Games is an Indiana Jones outing from Bethesda’s MachineGames. This partnership is important for a couple of reasons – as an opening statement, it makes clear Lucasfilm Games won’t just be about Star Wars games, and given the brand’s history, that’s a great thing. And second, MachineGames is a partner completely outside of recent Star Wars projects but is still a developer known for making acclaimed, mature games. It’s clearly an indicator that Lucasfilm has an eye on picking the right teams for the right projects.
While new franchises are always welcome (and needed), it isn’t surprising to see Lucasfilm jump into another of its beloved properties as one of its first game projects. Nostalgia, after all, is at the heart of much of Disney and its many subsidiaries’ success. Does that mean we’ll see the revival of other classic Lucasfilm or LucasArts franchises, like Monkey Island? Quite possibly. Might they always play second fiddle to Star Wars commercially? Sure, but Lucasfilm Games is a name that carries plenty of meaning for plenty of reasons, and it would be shocking if the compay didn’t attempt to revitalize all aspects of what made it, and subsequently LucasArts, such a beloved name in gaming for so long.
However it chooses to carry itself from here, we’ve already learned quite a lot about Lucasfilm Games’ intentions as a revived brand in gaming. It’s a company that’s more than just Star Wars – though also very, very much about Star Wars – and is aiming to take big swings with its biggest franchises. Will everything be a knockout success? Like with Marvel Games, possibly not, but also like its sister company, seeing Lucasfilm make these big bets for the future and learn from both its and Marvel’s past is enough to offer fans a renewed sense of something Star Wars is fundamentally built on – hope.
Jonathon Dornbush is IGN’s Senior News Editor, host of Podcast Beyond!, and PlayStation lead. He is currently reading and loving Light of the Jedi. Talk to him on Twitter @jmdornbush.
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