Opinion: EA will eventually shut down Respawn Entertainment

After EA bought out Titanfall developer Respawn Entertainment, the gaming community has been in a fierce debate about what this means for the future of the studio. Well I’m going to tell you the future of the studio right now: EA is going to shut them down.

They aren’t going to shut them down any time soon. It might be several years, maybe even a decade or so, before Respawn gets the axe, but sooner or later, Respawn will be shut down.

A proven track record

How do I know this? Because EA’s behavior isn’t hard to track. Only a few weeks ago EA shut down Visceral Games, known for the Dead Space trilogy. They were in the process of working on a new Star Wars title, but after negative playtesting, EA decided to change direction. Part of that direction change just so happened to be the closing of Visceral’s doors.

This was expanded upon further by EA CEO Andrew Wilson on an earnings call saying:

Anytime you close a studio, it's a very, very tough decision and something that we take very seriously, and we spend a lot of time working through before we make such a decision. But it does happen from time to time as part of the creative process.

During the development process of the game that they were working on, we've been testing the game content with players, listening to their feedback in terms of what and how they wanted to play and really tracking that closely with fundamental shifts in the marketplace and we are seeing an evolution in the marketplace. And it became clear to us that to deliver the experience that players wanted to come back and enjoy for a long time, that we needed to pivot the design.

In particular, the dispute was about the game’s single-player format. Visceral games was going to make a largely narrative experience, with multi-player as an afterthought, should it even be included. EA, however, is pushing toward a games-as-service model, similar to Overwatch. They are pushing microtransactions and other methods of continuous revenue in their recently developed games. We have seen this with Ultimate Team modes in their sports franchised and the loot box controversy in Star Wars Battlefront II.

Just business?

But we aren’t here to talk about the merits or flaws of the “games as service” model. We are here to talk about EA and Respawn. So what does Visceral’s closing have to do with Respawn? Well, Visceral is a pretty good indicator of what happens to studios when bought out by EA. Allow me to talk about them for just a little longer.

 It would be easy to look at this as a black and white scenario. Visceral started making a “bad game” and was shut down because of it. Unfortunately, the real story of game development isn’t nearly that simple.

Game development takes time. It’s not uncommon for major IPs to take three to five years to develop. Some titles have taken even longer (looking at you Duke Nukem Forever.) Gaming culture, on the other hand, evolves at a rapid pace. If you asked me five years ago what the most popular shooter on the market would be in five years, I’d probably shrug and say Call of Duty. Ask me today, and I would say Overwatch or PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds. The very concepts of these games weren’t even public knowledge five years ago.

Studios frequently find themselves in positions where they start developing a game that fits market trends at the time but doesn’t fit the market it eventually releases in. I’d wager that this is exactly what happened to Visceral games. The development of their new Star Wars IP was confirmed in 2013. What were the biggest games in 2013? The Last of US, Tomb Raider, Bioshock Infinite, and other narrative driven games. Telltale had just hit it big with The Walking Dead and was moving on to The Wolf Among Us. Gone Home and Papers Please were the surprising hit indie smashes of the year. Even the mediocre games on the market, like Beyond: Two Souls, were primarily single-player narrative experiences.

So Visceral started making a single-player experience, only to have the market shift under their feet. Would their game still play well in today’s market? Maybe, but that’s beside the point. They don’t have a say in the matter. EA has the final say in the matter.

Visceral is obviously not the first studio EA has closed. In fact, it’s the thirteenth. Maxis, Mythic Entertainment, Pandemic, Westwood, all fell under the EA umbrella and all were eventually closed. Some studios lasted ten or twenty years, while some lasted only two or three.

This is why I think Respawn Entertainment will eventually be closed by EA. The phrase “nothing lasts forever” is very apt here. No studio will have a 100 percent success rate. Respawn will, eventually, start developing a game that seems like a fantastic idea but will be outdated by its release. This failure will put them on the chopping block and it will be EA’s decision whether or not they lower the knife. If they weren’t bought by EA, Respawn could endure a failure and decide to keep on trucking, but now that decision is out of their hands.

It’s not all bad, though. Being bought by EA does have its perks, and those perks are resources. Time, staff, money, all of EA’s resources can now be put behind Respawn’s new endeavors. Vince Zampella, Respawn CEO, confirmed as much in an interview with Venturebeat saying “We see the need for bigger resources to make bigger games that are at the right level of competitiveness. EA has great knowledge for live services stuff that we are looking at and the game industry is transitioning to that. We can learn a lot from.” When asked about Visceral’s shutdown, Zampella responded “We have to stay successful. Just as we have done independently. We constantly have to push ourselves to be more and more successful and that will breed our success within EA.”

And as I said before, no studio can remain successful forever. In fact, being allowed to make bigger projects just means those projects will have a greater impact when they fail.

Imagine Respawn is a flame. EA is adding gasoline to that flame. They will allow Respawn to burn brighter than ever before… but they will also burn out quicker.

How much is creative freedom worth? 

What does this mean for Respawn’s games? Well I, for one, believe Zampella when he says that EA will give him as much creative freedom as they need. However, that freedom only goes so far. After all, Visceral had creative freedom and they were essentially shut down because their creative freedom didn’t match up with EA’s current plans for the market. So, yes, this does mean you will see microtransactions in Titanfall 3. Yes, this does mean Respawn will shift their development toward “games as service” models and yes, this does mean that EA will be able to influence their development, if only indirectly. Some gamers are not OK with that, but I’d also argue that every design decision by every designer is influenced by something. That something is usually current market trends. EA is just going to tell Respawn which market trends to follow.

It would be very easy to shake my fist and shout “RABBLE RABBLE RABBLE EA IS EVIL” but good and evil rarely factor in to complex business decisions like this. That’s what this is, a complex business decision. No one forced this deal to happen. This is a deal that both companies think is for the best. It’s a deal that will eventually end in Respawn’s closing, and it’s a deal that will certainly change the way Respawn develops games, but our great hope is that Respawn will make bigger and better games in the meantime.