Free Radical co-founder Steve Ellis has revealed just what happened with the studio's planned 2006 title for LucasArts, suggesting that the game in question, rumoured to be Star Wars: Battlefront 3, was in the final stages of QA testing and "fixed for release" before it was canned. In fact, the game was so close to completion before it got the chop that the team had already started drafting up concepts for a further sequel.
For a while it seemed that everything was rosy. LucasArts president Jim Ward and VP of product development Peter Hirschman "were big fans of [Free Radical's] work", and development had been underway on "a game that was never officially named but is believed to have been Star Wars: Battlefront III". Free Radical, previously a studio determined to retain ownership of the IPs upon which its staff worked, was tackling licensed material.
"Over the years we often ended up fighting with our publisher for one reason or the other because making a game where the developer keeps the IP is always a contentious thing," explained Ellis, talking to GI.biz. "For a long time we would describe that as the best relationship with a publisher we have ever had. We got on well with the production staff that we worked with, we had good access to the LucasArts management and we didn't fight very much at all, we were just getting on with making the game."
In fact, things were so cosy that LucasArts floated the idea of teaming up for a sequel.
We were still at that time probably a year out from completing and releasing the first game and they asked us to sign up for the sequel," continued Ellis. "That was a big deal for us because it meant putting all our eggs in one basket. It was a critical decision - do we want to bet on LucasArts? And we chose to because things were going as well as they ever had. It was a project that looked like it would probably be the most successful thing we had ever done and they were asking us to make the sequel to it too. It seemed like a no-brainer."
Sadly, the proverbial then proceeded to hit the fan. Falling revenue, and job losses in upper management meant the departures of Ward and Hirschman, with those brought in to replace them tasked with cutting costs, tightening everything up, and culling those who began to fall behind.
"The really good relationship that we'd always had suddenly didn't exist anymore," said Ellis. "They brought in new people to replace them and all of a sudden we were failing milestones. That's not to say there were no problems with the work we were doing because on a project that size inevitably there will be, there's always going to be grey areas were things can either pass or fail. And all of a sudden we were failing milestones, payments were being delayed and that kind of thing."
In Ellis' opinion, LucasArts underwent a massive change of direction, implementing drastic measures, and binning projects to avoid winding up in a series of expensive marketing battles at the highest level.
"It was a change of direction for LucasArts as a company rather than for the games that we were working on. I think what had happened was the new management had been bought in to replace the old and given an impossible mandate. It was a financial decision basically and the only way they could achieve what they had been told to do was to can some games and get rid of a bunch of staff. So that's what they did but it was quite a long, drawn out process."
Thus the two projects, suspected to have been part of the Battlefront stable, were cancelled, one of them bitterly close to completion. Since then, pre-alpha footage has been cropping up heavily online, pointing gamers towards what might have been.
"It was pretty much done, it was in final QA," Ellis lamented. "It had been in final QA for half of 2008 it was just being fixed for release. LucasArts' opinion is that when you launch a game you have to spend big on the marketing and they're right. But at that time they were, for whatever reason, unable to commit to spending big. They effectively canned a game that was finished."