In many ways, it's not the best time to be working on a Star Wars game. Over the last 18 months, a lot of negativity has built against Electronic Arts, currently the sole holder of the licence when it comes to video games, meaning Respawn's Jedi: Fallen Order faced a cynical -- yet still hopeful -- audience ahead of its reveal this weekend.
The reasons for this hostility are manifold. In part, it was triggered by EA's use of loot boxes to monetise Star Wars: Battlefront II -- a model that prompted angry fans to petition Disney to remove the licence. Tellingly, the publisher had to emphasise that Jedi: Fallen Order would not have microtransactions of any form (and that they won't be added later) via Twitter around its unveiling.
There has also been grumbling over EA's decision to close Visceral Studios, which was working on a hotly anticipated Star Wars adventure with Uncharted director Amy Hennig -- reportedly because it did not lend itself to a live service EA could monetise, but the publisher denied this. The project was restarted by the publisher's Vancouver studio, but this too was scrapped.
It falls to Jedi: Fallen Order, a single-player adventure about a padawan (a Jedi trainee) evading the empire in the wake of Order 66, to restore faith in the publisher's ability to wield the licence. Speaking to GamesIndustry.biz at Reboot Develop last week, the game's writer Chris Avellone admits there is "some pressure" on the project.
"But one bright shining point of light is Respawn's track record," he says. "Even when they don't advertise a game, like Apex Legends, it still comes screaming out of the gate."
Further reassurance can be found in the fact that Respawn knows how to do a good campaign. Founded by Infinity Ward co-founders Jason West and Vince Zampella -- and still under the leadership of the latter -- the studio is staffed by many past Call of Duty developers, and received high praise for the single-player mode of its previous release Titanfall 2, as many players are discovering or rediscovering for themselves in the wake of Apex Legends.
"I'm very much an Empire Strikes Back kinda guy and the purist, kinda dark Star Wars felt more honest to me"
"They have the knowledge of how to make a good, solid gameplay experience, and they've proven that," says Avellone. "There's that level of confidence to it -- you know it's going to be done right because the studio culture is enforcing it, and not only is it going to be done right but it's going to be like Apex Legends, where that came out and suddenly Treyarch was scrambling to add features Apex has because everyone is catching up.
"We have a studio that is actually helping to advance the genre, so we're in a really good place. So I hope Fallen Order will come screaming out of the gate too. It's going to be like a Millennium Falcon coming right at you."
Avellone was actually requested specifically by Respawn, who admits he'd, "have said yes before they even asked me." The writer has always been keen to work with lead narrative designer Aaron Contreras -- known for his work on Mafia III -- and after getting to know Stig Asmussen -- Fallen Order's game director, who previously worked on the original God of War trilogy -- was glad to be on the same project.
Avellone, of course, is no padawan himself. He was lead designer and writer on the still-revered Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic 2 -- although, interestingly, he was unhappy when first began work on that project.
"I didn't want to work on Star Wars," he says. "I couldn't believe I'd left Black Isle to go work on a Star Wars game. By this time, the first KOTOR hadn't come out at all. I just knew it was a sequel to a BioWare game, I didn't know what it was about. I then had to get immersed in a franchise which, I'll be honest, at that time I did not like. I didn't really like where the arcs were going, I'm very much an Empire Strikes Back kinda guy and the purist, kinda dark Star Wars felt more honest to me."
This was in the early 2003, when two of the three prequels had hit the cinemas, bringing with them (among other things) trade route taxation debates, midichlorians and Jar Jar Binks. A dark time for Star Wars fans.
"It seems like Clone Wars and Rebels are aimed at kids but the stories end up being surprisingly rich for supposedly family-oriented shows"
"And we had to design for it," Avellone says. "But as I got into it, I did my research and tried to get back up to speed with what was going on with Star Wars. I watched the original movies again and they were still pretty cool. As I watched them, I started to see all the positives that I used to love as a kid, and some of those elements still rang true. And for the parts of the universe I had a problem with, I was like, 'Well, why don't I make that part of the story?' and suddenly that gets interesting.
"LucasArts was pretty supportive. They only had five or six comments on the entire storyline -- like we misspelled Atton in one place, or a Devaronian's horns were too long. I was like, 'either their approval department is really busy right now or all that research paid off.' Because part of our philosophy was if we're going to do a Star Wars game, or any other franchise, we need to know everything about it. You have to make sure you represent it in the way it should be represented, and I think that helped a lot. And that's obviously helped out in Fallen Order too."
This time around, it's a more positive experience for Avellone. While he's not as enamoured with the new films as he is the originals -- he's particularly disappointed by The Last Jedi -- he's pleased there are "new chess pieces to play with" and that the "basic tenets of Star Wars remain the same" in the new trilogy. He assures that Fallen Order will also uphold, "certain pillars of the franchise."
He is more interested in what Disney has been doing around the new trilogy. In addition to the anthology films Rogue One and Solo, he has watched the entirety of the two TV shows: Clone Wars and its follow-up Rebels.
"Both of those were a joy to research," he says. "I didn't like the pilots for each one, and I never had a chance to watch them [all the way through], but actually they're pretty great. I actually really liked Clone Wars, and surprisingly I liked Rebels. I don't think I'd have watched Rebels if I didn't have to do research on it, but I was like 'Wow, this is a great show.'"
It may seem easy to dismiss them as Saturday morning cartoons made to draw kids into the Star Wars universe, but Avellone says the storylines for both, "can be pretty mature at various points."
"Not in the sense that there's sex and gory violence, but more about the fact they really deep-dive some of the characters in ways like how relationships can go sour, or here's the potential danger of drug addiction but the metaphor is the Dark Side," he says. "All this stuff they introduced they did in really clever ways, and the voice actors did an amazing job with it. So it seems like it's aimed at kids but I think the storylines end up being surprisingly rich for supposedly family-oriented shows. They don't shy away from some topics."
He continues: "One thing Rebels was doing was looking at new ways other cultures interpret the force. That was very much part of that series, so seeing them being willing to explore the force outside of Jedi and Sith and how those philosophies come in was really interesting. That surprised me."
"You figure out all the stories that have already been told -- the smuggler power fantasy, the Jedi power fantasy, the Sith power fantasy. We can't do those again"
The longer-running Clone Wars, meanwhile, opened Avellone's eyes to the sheer variety of stories that can be told in the Star Wars universe without feeling out of place. Writing in any universe brings with it creative limitations, but Avellone has gone into Fallen Order focusing on the freedoms that Star Wars affords.
"It's okay to do a big monster Godzilla story in Clone Wars," he says by way of example. "Because having big monsters is part of the Star Wars universe -- there's always a moment where they have to confront some huge beast or alien, that's part of the franchise.
"However, when you suddenly find a huge space station in the middle of nowhere, where time doesn't seem to pass, and it's more of a Star Trek homage, suddenly you realise, 'Hey, that doesn't fit. Star Wars isn't about time travel.' So it's a matter of knowing your franchise and its strengths, rather than just adding elements in you haven't seen before. You've got to be careful."
You can see hints of Rebels' influence in particular in the reveal trailer. Protagonist Cal Kestis is hunted by Second Sister, a sibling of the show's Seventh Sister -- both of whom are members of the Inquisitors, the Force-sensitive group hired by the Empire to hunt escaped Jedi throughout Rebels.
Rebels and Clone Wars give Avellone even more lore to draw on, but in many ways the shows have actually made his job even harder. So many stories have now been told in the Star Wars universe -- even after Disney and LucasFilm wiped the original expanded universe of novels and comics -- and Fallen Order needs to bring something new to the table. Like the divisive current trilogy, it has to hit the same emotional beats that made the first films a success but also avoid simply recycling them.
Set soon after the events of Revenge of the Sith, Respawn's game also has to feel in keeping with the family-friendly prequels and their TV successors, while also appealing the mature console and PC owners that are most likely to pick this up come November 15. Again, for Avellone, the secret is extensive research.
"You figure out all the stories that have already been told about this particular power fantasy -- the smuggler power fantasy, the Jedi power fantasy, the Sith power fantasy," he says. "We can't do those again. Suddenly your stories have to be something different, because otherwise you fall into the trap of regurgitating the same plot. When you've done your research, you know what not to do.
"You also recognise what those archetypes, those protagonists and what that power fantasies of Star Wars are, and you work out how to embrace that so the player is feeling that in the gameplay, the narrative and the systems. But also you want to put a new wrinkle or a new spin on it, so they're like, 'Well, I didn't really consider it that way before. I'm still having the power fantasy, but I'm thinking about it in a different way that makes it interesting.' And hopefully when they leave the game they're still thinking about it, and that's when you know you've done something really special."
GamesIndustry.biz are media partners of Reboot Develop and attended with the assistance of the organisers.