Former LucasArts employee on why Star Wars: Battlefront III failed
[UPDATE] Source says claim that project was sabotaged for financial reasons is "ludicrous," likens Free Radical to Ponzi scheme; studio cofounder Steve Ellis responds.
[UPDATE] Following the publication of this story, Free Radical Design cofounder Steve Ellis issued a statement to GameSpot on the development of Star Wars: Battlefront III and the claims of the anonymous source. His full statement is posted at the bottom of the original story.
Star Wars: Battlefront III has long been the subject of great rumor and speculation. Despite numerous and detailed attestments to its existence and development, LucasArts never confirmed the game was in fact in production. The most recent claim about the project came from Free Radical Design cofounder Steve Ellis, who said last week that Battlefront III was 99 percent complete at the time of its cancellation. But this claim has been contested.
"This 99 percent complete stuff is just bullsh*t," a former LucasArts employee who wished to remain nameless told GameSpot. "A generous estimate would be 75 percent of a mediocre game."
The source also took issue with Free Radical cofounder David Doak and audio director Graeme Norgate's claims this summer that LucasArts effectively sabotaged development of Battlefront III. "There are two sides to every story," the source said.
"I was at LucasArts during this time, working on Battlefront III, and remember it well. Everybody from producers to marketing was 100 percent invested in making the relationship work," the source said. "We were desperate for a next-gen followup to Battlefront (the claim that the project was sabotaged for financial reasons is ludicrous. The [Battlefront] franchise was a huge money maker at the time). When Free Radical continually missed dates and deliveries, [former LucasArts presidents Jim Ward and Darrell Rodriguez] made many 'good will' whole or partial milestone payments to keep the project going."
The situation surrounding Battlefront III may seem complex or convoluted, but according to the source, the game was a failure for three simple reasons. The first, he said, was that Free Radical's sci-fi shooter Haze was late by more than a year, and this took resources away from the first half of Battlefront III's development.
Second, it is the source's belief that Free Radical "underestimated" or "misrepresented" its ability to meet dates and create a compelling product. And third, the situation became even more problematic when Free Radical missed new assigned dates. "This was a huge confidence killer and ultimately their downfall," he said.
The source was employed at LucasArts during the production of the Pandemic Studios-developed Star Wars: Battlefront games. He said that as is the case with most developers, Pandemic at times underestimated its ability to meet dates. However, unlike Free Radical, they "were upfront about it."
GameSpot has also learned of a detailed development schedule for Star Wars: Battlefront III. According to the source, production started in mid-2006 for delivery in October 2008. However, Free Radical missed numerous milestones, he said, noting that though some cases were due to subjective quality issues. Other times, functionality was simply not present.
"For much of 2007, Xbox 360 builds simply did not work. Initially, Free Radical claimed it was a US/UK kit difference, but when we asked to FedEx one of their working machines to the US for a build review, they declined."
"In December 2007, Free Radical still did not have simple AI working in levels," he said. "For much of 2007, Xbox 360 builds simply did not work. Initially, Free Radical claimed it was a US/UK kit difference, but when we asked to FedEx one of their working machines to the US for a build review, they declined."
Additionally, the source claimed several game modes were not implemented, and the only gameplay in place was team-based free-for-all. On top of this, maps "generally tested poorly with no focus for action," he said.
This was only just the beginning of problems for Free Radical and Battlefront III. In 2007, the source began to suspect that its payments to Free Radical were in fact being used to complete Haze and not Battlefront III. What's more, during this time, Haze became a PlayStation 3 exclusive, which affirmed LucasArts' belief that the studio's engine was not compatible with Xbox 360 at the time.
In August 2007, the source said Free Radical was "struggling" with Haze and Battlefront III and thus began to (as time would prove unsuccessfully) shop around TimeSplitters 4. It was also during this time that the source levied his most serious claims against Free Radical.
"At this point, I felt that Free Radical was akin to a Ponzi scheme where time and budget from the next game was being used to finish the previous, late, title," he said.
During January 2008, the source said Ellis himself told LucasArts that Free Radical would not be able to meet development milestones for 2008. LucasArts and Free Radical then agreed to a new street date of April 2009, with LucasArts consenting to cover the costs of the extra seven months of work.
"At this point, I felt that Free Radical was akin to a Ponzi scheme where time and budget from the next game was being used to finish the previous, late, title."
If LucasArts' new agreement with Free Radical instilled any confidence that further development time would lead to a better product, that feeling would be short-lived.
A critical milestone came in May 2008 when Haze finally shipped. The game was more than a year late and received generally poor review marks. "The quality of the game was extremely alarming to us," he said. "Free Radical insisted that the delays were to ensure the game was a gem with 85+ review, but that was very clearly not the case."
Development on Battlefront III continued to suffer from there. By late 2008, Free Radical was again missing its previously agreed upon dates. "It now looked like the April 2009 street date could not be met," he said. Then in September 2008, "key staff" left Free Radical, and by October of that year, the company did not deliver work due for its August and September milestones. "And the October milestone was not going to be met either," he said.
The next point on the beleaguered and strained development of Battlefront III was its last: cancellation.
"The failure of Battlefront III was tragic for everyone involved, not least the fans," the source said. "There's a lot of blame to go around and many different perspectives. I won't though let Steve Ellis whitewash the part that he and Free Radical played. I'd suggest that everyone keep this as something tragic to muse over with a beer rather than throwing stones in public."
[UPDATE] Steve Ellis has issued a lengthy statement to GameSpot on the development of Star Wars: Battlefront III (as well as Battlefront IV) and how its development progressed over the years, warts and all. Ellis said it is "nonsense" that he tried to whitewash the part that he played in Battlefront III's failure. He also took issue with the source's belief that Free Radical was, at a time, akin to a Ponzi scheme. Lastly, Ellis admitted Free Radical was "not perfect" and made mistakes, but made clear that "third-parties had a hand in our failure."
Ellis' full comments are below:
"I want to set the record straight because a lot of people worked very hard on BFIII (and BFIV) and they don't deserve their efforts to be distorted in this way."
"From the personal tone of the comments it is clear that the source is someone whom I personally dealt with. It's unfortunate that they are making this kind of criticism while choosing to remain anonymous."
"What annoys me about the article is that I personally am accused of a whitewash, which is nonsense. While I don't know everything that my ex-colleagues and staff might have said on the subject, personally I have tried to explain what happened as completely and accurately as possible. I have nothing to gain from a whitewash. I've gone on record saying that we had had difficult times at Free Radical Design. I've admitted that the transition to the latest generation of consoles was more difficult than we anticipated, that we may have made some poor tech choices, and that growing the company to the necessary size for 'next-gen' development wasn't easy. I've said that these things had an impact on the development of Haze and that for this reason - and a number of other reasons - Haze didn't reach the level of quality that we always aimed for at FRD. None of this is new information, so it's a little strange to see it presented as 'here's what these guys aren't telling you, and since I'm telling you this you'll also believe me when I tell you all of this other stuff.'"
"The allegation that we used the LucasArts money to fund the completion of Haze is false. Aside from anything else, we didn't need to. When Haze slipped, Ubisoft supported us by increasing the dev budget to cover the extra time. The ironic thing about this allegation though, is that just about every publisher we worked with would simultaneously worry that we might spend their money elsewhere, but they would invariably ask us to move resources from another project onto theirs. Our answer was always the same: 'If we do that for you now, how do you know we won't do it for someone else later?.' They never liked it, but it seemed like the only way to treat everyone fairly."
"The suggestion that we kept our difficulties to ourselves is also false. We may have been guilty of this in our earlier publisher relationships, believing that we could quietly deal with our problems by ourselves and not have to risk instigating a situation where the publishers response added further risk to the project or our company. However, with LucasArts this was absolutely not the case; it was the best publisher relationship we had ever had, so when it became clear that the design changes that we had mutually agreed to make meant that there was a risk to the end date, the first thing we did was to bring it to the attention of LucasArts senior management, almost a full year before the scheduled release. There was a lot of discussion and it was agreed to push back the release date. There were no secrets."
"I don't know who he might be referring to when he says that 'key staff' left in September 2008. During that month we lost a couple of mid-level programmers, a couple of artists, and a member of our admin staff."
"I don't know what problems he's referring to in August or December 2007. In December 2007 they signed us to develop the sequel concurrently, asking us to grow our company further to do so. I'd say that that was a pretty strong vote of confidence in us, not the actions of a company that was concerned about our abilities to deliver on such an important project."
"It was 75% of a mediocre game.' Again, false. Until very recently there was a gameplay video on YouTube that showed exactly where the game was. It was leaked by people who were very proud of the game that they had spent over 2 years developing and wanted the world to at least have an opportunity to see it before it was consigned to history. Unfortunately, four years on, LucasArts have chosen to have the video removed. Objectively though, the game was 'content complete' and we were fixing bugs. At that stage in development, the way that completion is measured is by looking at the number of open bugs in the database. These are tracked and people spend a lot of time analyzing the fix rate and the rate of discovering new bugs and projecting a completion date when the game will be ready for release. At the time that the development on BFIII was stopped, the figures showed that we would close our 'must-fix' bugs with 3-4 weeks. So yes, maybe on reflection 99 percent was a little of an exaggeration. I probably should have said 97 percent or 98 percent."
"In 2008, LucasArts was a company with problems. Of course I don't know the full details of or explanation for what happened internally, but some of the facts are clear: the entire management team who were there when we started working together were replaced in the first half of 2008. They made mass redundancies on their internal teams. They cancelled a number of projects. Then our milestones started being rejected. We were told (and it seemed wholly believable given the aforementioned facts) that they could not afford to continue development of both BFIII and its sequel, so they negotiated the termination of BFIV, then later BFIII. There was no 'termination for breach.'"
"If the problem really was that we had failed to meet their desperate need for a new Battlefront game, you might ask why after all this time they still haven't released a new Battlefront game using a different developer. I can only speculate."
"As the 'anonymous source' says, there are two sides to every argument. However, it's easy to make anonymous allegations and not have to back them up. I stand by everything I've said. All I've ever tried to do is explain the series of events that led to the failure of Free Radical. We were not perfect. We made mistakes, but third-parties had a hand in our failure. Personally I am very proud of the efforts made by the former staff of Free Radical through 2008. They are an incredibly talented group of people who through no fault of their own found themselves in a no-win situation. I'm happy that most of them have had the opportunity to demonstrate their abilities subsequently on games such as Crysis 2."