I love Titanfall 2. Respawn Entertainment’s second entry in its velocity-focused first-person shooter series is one of the best games I’ve ever played. Yesterday, news hit that another title “in the Titanfall franchise” is on the way. Under normal circumstances this would overjoy me. Titanfall’s universe deserves to be explored further with another game that embodies everything that made the second game incredible: tight level design, fun and powerful mechanics, and one of the best multiplayer modes around. However, it’s extremely difficult for me to ignore the context in which this news occurred. EA, which published the first two Titanfall games, announced that it has acquired Repsawn Entertainment. Why is this disturbing?
Last month EA upheld its long tradition of putting studios on the chopping block, adding Dead Space developer Visceral Games to the pile of studios that have closed under the publisher’s watch. The studio’s closure hit like a bomb, and for good reason. Not only was the Star Wars game, an action-adventure title, likely to be a blockbuster on the value of its IP alone, but EA executive vice president of worldwide studios Patrick Söderlund’s statement on the closure painted a grim picture for how EA sees the future of games saying, “It has become clear to deliver an experience that players will want to come back and enjoy for a long time to come, we need to pivot the [game’s] design… we are shifting the game to be a broader experience that allows for more variety and player agency, leaning into the capabilities of our Frostbite engine and reimagining central elements of the game to give players a Star Wars adventure of greater depth and breadth to explore.”
Söderlund’s brisk statement is couched in “it’s not personal, pals” business language. It’s also a declaration of how EA sees itself in relation to the industry – a company that refuses to buck trends but is instead more than willing to bow down to them even if it means degrading the quality of its products and of its players. Many in the industry have claimed that the so-called singe-player narrative decline, in which games like Titanfall 2 and Dishonored 2 offer paltry returns in comparison to their games as service peers like Destiny and Overwatch, is a matter of hysteria more than anything else. I disagree. Anyone paying attention to earnings calls cannot deny the growing importance that microtransactions are having for publishers, with Activision-Blizzard having made nearly $4 billion on in-game transactions in 2016 alone. Publishers are finding plentiful financial reward in investing in games as a service. Practically, it makes complete sense for EA to create games that have a long tail, stuffed to the brim with opportunities for players to spend even more money in-game on the likes of cosmetics and weapons.
Unfortunately, nearly everything that makes Titanfall 2 so special runs in counter to games as a service. The campaign is a brisk, immaculately constructed work that has no microtransactions and offers little incentive to return to it outside of how astoundingly enjoyable it is to play through. Titanfall 2’s multiplayer has microtransactions, but they are cosmetic and ultimately paltry, with no big incentive to spend money outside of certain killing animations. Titanfall 2 is a tight, lean experience that dazzles you with the intricacies lurking beneath its deceptive simplicity. Within six hours, the game transports you across a variety of settings, constantly introducing new and surprising mechanics, both in and out of combat, and even has a few touching moments. It is an action-packed and frenzied experience that definitively ends. In other words, it’s the type of campaign that Söderlund himself implies in his Visceral statement that the publisher is moving away from.
EA’s strategy thus far to turn the multiplayer component into something with a long tail has thus far failed. The first Titanfall was hamstrung but its console exclusivity as well as purchasable DLC packs that split the multiplayer community. Despite following the same DLC release plan as the Battlefield series, the game couldn’t even come close to matching those active user numbers. Titanfall 2 took a more relaxed focus with free DLC so the community would not split. It still wasn’t enough, and despite being critically acclaimed (with an 89% on Metacritic), the game didn’t meet EA’s sales expectations. Titanfall’s lack of a cemented online community as well as its newness as an IP opens it up to more creative tinkering than something like Battlefield, which has a huge playerbase with set expectations of what a Battlefield game is: huge battlegrounds filled with tons of players working together to wreak havoc and create emergent stories. Twice Respawn and EA have had the chance to make Titanfall’s community take hold in a big way and both attempts have more or less failed. It’s difficult to imagine a scenario where the two don’t make bigger creative changes to capture a wider net of players and keep them engaged. The identity of Titanfall 2 is in a more muddled place. The general audience knows it’s a series about mechs beating the crap out of each other, but the finer elements – the velocity of combat, the exciting architecture of Attrition mode, the brilliant level design of its singleplayer campaign – are hard to make stand out in the same way.
Other concerns exist in my mind as well. Mass Effect Andromeda, a new entry in a series that was easily the biggest name in games last generation, has ended up for many (myself included) being one of the biggest disappointments of this year. EA published titles like Star Wars: Battlefront II and Need For Speed Payback are not only packed with loot boxes, but confusing currency seemingly designed to frustrate you until you plop down actual cash to get past the headache of actually trying to earn the items you want.
Perhaps still the biggest concern in my mind was EA’s decision to release Titanfall 2 within a week of its other big published shooter, Battlefield 1, during the holiday season to essentially compete with itself for money.
Frankly none of these events point to a publisher that knows what it’s doing or that cares for its players outside of seeing them as walking bags of cash, attempting to increase its “revenue per player,” a new buzzphrase being bandied about during earnings calls. Respawn Entertainment founder Vince Zampella even talked recently to VentureBeat about the importance of the EA acquisition teaching the studio about transitioning to live services, 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.” While Zampella goes on to say that Titanfall isn’t “going to drastically change” because of the transition, I’m still apprehensive.
In an environment where leaders aggressively pursue trends, swiftly dumping studios and initiatives when they don’t look like they’ll turn as much profit as expected, can the kind of game that Titanfall 2 was – lean, beautiful, and finite – exist? Especially when shooters like Destiny are in the public light, raking in an obscene amount of money? I don’t think it can, to be honest. I imagine that Titanfall 3, if it will be called that at all, will be a very different game from its predecessor. I imagine it will have MMO-esque elements, maybe quests, loot caves filled with mech parts, Titan-occupied arenas, a cooperative element where you roam wastelands that all look kind of the same but with some nice color changes in the environment from time to time. I’m anxious it will trade away everything that made the second game so special and there will be some press release that calls it “ambitious,” when in reality it will be like everything else on the market: visually stunning and without any clear identity of its own. A dramatic and grim prediction? Maybe, but if EA is willing to break apart a Star Wars game and turn it into a different kind of experience, I wouldn’t put it past the company to do the same to a franchise with less pull like Titanfall.
Video games are a business, yes, but that does not mean that the pursuit of profit should come at the cost of bending a game’s design to that point. At this juncture, I have no faith in EA as a publisher of this game or any series, frankly, to find a happy medium between profitability and making a game exist outside of that pursuit as a noteworthy experience. I would love to be proven wrong about all of this and hope that I am! Maybe EA having a sizable investment in the series will keep it from doing stupid things like releasing it against its flagship shooter during the Fall season, but we won’t know until the moment arrives. Either way, Titanfall is a fantastic series that deserves to go on, but on its own merits, without its body being broken and reassembled as a slot machine.