Star Wars Jedi: Survivor, the latest release from Electronic Arts Inc, is something of a miracle in modern video-game development. It is entirely single player, has no microtransactions and was made during a pandemic in roughly three years – half the time it takes to produce many of today’s big games.
But Stig Asmussen, the director of Star Wars Jedi: Survivor, is quick to dismiss any suggestion that the game’s development was miraculous. “If anything, it’s a testament to the team,” Asmussen said in a recent interview, adding that it was easier to plan out the schedule because it was a sequel rather than an entirely new type of game. “And, to be fair, it was three-and-a-half years.”
Star Wars Jedi: Survivor, which comes out April 28, immerses players in the expansive universe of the ubiquitous sci-fi franchise. Set between the big-screen prequels and the original trilogy, the action-adventure game stars Cal Kestis, a Jedi who is on the run from the malevolent, fascistic Empire. Survivor is the sequel to 2019’s Star Wars Jedi: Fallen Order, which EA said has surpassed 20 million players. Both games were developed by EA’s Los Angeles-based Respawn Entertainment.
EA is looking at Star Wars Jedi: Survivor to bounce back from a rocky stretch. In January, the video-game publisher shuttered a game studio and cancelled several games, including a different project at Respawn. Last month, EA laid off 6% of its workforce. The future of EA’s lucrative, annual, soccer-video-game franchise is also in question after it parted ways with FIFA last spring and plans to release this year’s game under new branding.
Early indications suggest that the newest Star Wars game could be a hit. I’ve spent about 10 hours with Star Wars Jedi: Survivor and am enjoying its particular blend of lightsaber combat and open-ended exploration. Rather than re-create the common sequel trope in which the hero’s abilities are reset and must be accumulated again from scratch, Star Wars Jedi: Survivor lets Cal keep everything he learned in Star Wars Jedi: Fallen Order, including the double-jump feature, which makes moving around a blast. The game is full of cliffs to climb, strange animals to ride and Stormtroopers to hack apart.
Respawn began conceiving Survivor in the fall of 2019. Several months later, when the pandemic hit, Asmussen and his team quickly adapted to remote work. “I think we were somewhat fortunate because we were really early in production,” he said. “The lion’s share of Star Wars Jedi: Survivor has been working remotely.”
Respawn’s developers shifted their regular show-and-tells to Zoom and introduced a weekly open forum, “Jedi conversation,” that allowed anyone on the team to ask questions or share grievances. Asmussen said the biggest challenge was having to “relearn how to communicate with each other,” a process complicated by the intricacies of text-based Slack conversations, in which tone and nuance could get lost. “There’s course-correcting that has to happen,” Asmussen said.
The success of these adjustments has led Respawn to embrace remote work. EA has allowed each of its subsidiaries to choose how to handle its return-to-office policy, and over the past three years Respawn has permitted employees to relocate and has broadened hiring to any location. It’s a stark contrast to some competing game publishers, such as Activision Blizzard Inc, which have required many employees to return to the office.
Even without the pandemic’s challenges, the three-and-a-half year development cycle of Star Wars Jedi: Survivor would be a remarkable achievement. Other games due to be released in 2023, including The Legend Of Zelda: Tears Of The Kingdom, Diablo IV and Final Fantasy XVI, have all been in development for more than six years. Comparatively straightforward sequels, such as Sony’s God Of War: Ragnarök and Horizon: Forbidden West, also took at least four years to produce.
Asmussen said the team developed chemistry and grew familiar with production pipelines on Star Wars Jedi: Fallen Order. Perhaps most crucially, he said, they were willing to iterate quickly and cut features from the game when necessary.
“We want to be ambitious but we don’t want to get in a position where we’re kind of setting ourselves up to not hit all our marks,” Asmussen said. “Our philosophy is: ‘It’s OK to fail, but fail fast, fail early’.”
The results are impressive. The game has some bugs and glitches, but the combat and navigation feel satisfying. There’s a big focus on aesthetic customisation options that transform Cal’s facial hair, outfits and even his lightsaber. There’s something delightful about opening up a treasure chest in an ancient Jedi temple and simply finding, “beard”.
Respawn has become one of EA’s most important studios thanks to a nonstop string of hits including Star Wars Jedi: Fallen Order and the popular, multiplayer shooter game Apex Legends. With Star Wars Jedi: Survivor, the studio appears to have pulled off another success – even if the developers don’t want to call it a miracle. – Bloomberg