The earliest incarnation of the project was an open-world pirate game, unrelated to Star Wars, code-named Jamaica.
On May 6, 2013, a Star Wars game from Visceral Games was confirmed to be in production when Electronic Arts, the parent company of Visceral Games, and The Walt Disney Company signed an agreement giving Electronic Arts and its subsidiaries an exclusive license to create Star Wars games on consoles.
Fearing a similarly themed game from the rival studio Ubisoft, Assassin's Creed IV: Black Flag, EA chose to cancel Jamaica in favor of their new Star Wars game, which received the code name Yuma. This new game would use the pirate concept of Jamaica, but in a space setting.
- "It was going to be some hybrid between a linear action shooter, where if you're on the ground it's Tomb Raider-like, but then in space it's gonna be Black Flag. You flew your Millennium Falcon-esque ship around, boarded other ships, raided pirates, got booty, and that kind of thing."
- ―A person who worked on the project
Nevertheless, the development of Yuma had been going slowly, thanks to most of Visceral Games working working on the problematic development of Battlefield Hardline. Overall morale at the studio was low, and employees began to leave the company in favor of other studios.
On April 3, 2014, it was confirmed that Amy Hennig joined the project as creative director. Later that month, it was revealed that Todd Stashwick would write the game's storyline with Hennig. The two have previously worked together on games in the Uncharted series. However, Hennig only got to work on Yuma for a short period of time before being pulled onto Hardline to help with its story. In June 2014, Scott Warner joined the project as game director.
By the end of 2014, when Hennig had finally gone back to the Star Wars team, it became clear Yuma, an open-world space game, wasn't the game she wanted to make. She wanted to create a more linear adventure game in line with her previous work on the Uncharted series, a heist story similar to the 2001 film Ocean's Eleven. This new game would get the code name Ragtag, which would stick until the end of development. The team was very enthusiastic about the idea.
Executives from EA wanted Ragtag to distinguish itself from the Uncharted series. Hennig's team came up with new gameplay features like being able to play as multiple members of the team, with the player controlling one and others being controlled by the AI. Another big theme of the game was the ability to "sabotage" enemies, such as stormtroopers, to defeat them in nonviolent ways. The ideas were described as incredibly ambitious.
- "Picture the Death Star, and they all have jobs. One Stormtrooper was on a command unit, moving boxes around. Some guys would be droids. It was supposed to be set up so it was all real, and it felt like they had jobs to do. We wanted to tap into emotions, so you could mess with Stormtroopers' emotions. Go into a room, turn the lights off. He goes back in and turns them back on. Then you turn them off again. At a certain point he starts getting spooked, acting irrationally, and bringing friends in."
- ―A person, who worked on the game
After shipping Visceral's other game, Battlefield Hardline, various executives and producers of the studio were laid off, with the general manager being replaced by Larry Probst, who announced his plans to "flatten" the studio structure. The studio would minimize management and give as much say as possible to creative leads. This was met with great approval by the studio's staff. However, it did not mean the studio would again be one. Half of the team was still required to work on downloadable content for Hardline, while the other half would get to work on Ragtag. This did not help morale, as the Hardline developers felt lesser in comparison.
That also meant the team working on Ragtag was very small, being made up of only about 30 people by mid-2015, which wasn't nearly enough. After the Hardline team would finish their work, the plan was for them to join the Ragtag development, but this wouldn't be enough either, as Visceral as a whole had less than a hundred employees. This was because Visceral was based in San Francisco, where expenses were very high compared to other EA subsidiaries. This eventually got somewhat resolved by Jade Raymond announcing her new Electronic Arts subsidiary, Motive Studios, in July 2015, who would work on the game alongside the developers at Visceral Games. Motive was based in Quebec, where costs were much lower, which would allow for around 70 more people to be added to the Ragtag team, where they would help with both the single-player mode and a "second" multiplayer mode, which EA demanded the game to have, so players would return to it, something which would generate more revenue past the initial sale of the game.
However, the game soon faced several big problems. One of these was EA's demand that they use the Frostbite 3 engine. The engine was made for a first-person shooter-type game, as it was developed by DICE for their Battlefield series of games, and not the third-person action game Ragtag would be.
- "It was missing a lot of tools, a lot of stuff that was in Uncharted 1. It was going be a year, or a year and a half's work just to get the engine to do things that are assumed and taken for granted."
- ―Former Visceral Games employee
The second problem was the Star Wars license. While many on the team described Lucasfilm's attitude as them giving Visceral much flexibility and freedom, everything still had to be processed through them, which slowed the process immensely.
Developers at Visceral were concerned they would not have enough time or budget to fully pull off all of the ambitious ideas, like multiple protagonists or sabotage. Throughout 2015 it started feeling unlikely that Visceral could even pull off one fully fleshed-out companion, let alone the five or six that they wanted to implement.
Another problem the studio faced was EA themselves, which executives from did not like how the game did not feature themes they deemed core to Star Wars through market research like lightsabers or the Force. They also demanded the game to hit very high scores from critics, so the game would hit at least 90 percent on the review aggregator Metacritic, and for it to compete with the likes of Uncharted 4, the fourth installment of the Uncharted series from the developers Naughty Dog, which Amy Hennig and Todd Stashwick, who now worked on Ragtag, worked on previously. To many of the team, this seemed absurd and unattainable, as they were developing only the first game like this, something which they thought would only be a foundation to build on with more project, like it was with other games series, and they were already supposed to be as good as the fourth installments of older acclaimed series.
Designers described Hennig as brilliant, but overstretched. She wanted to work on every aspect of the game and would work long hours and on weekends to do it. Nevertheless, some had to wait up to months for her to review their work, only for it to be turned down. Hennig needed the studio to work like her previous employers, Naughty Dog, but did not have enough confidence in them. Visceral employees were also not used to having such autonomy, which was a result of the still-new flattened structure of the studio. Hennig wasn't used to working with a big corporation like EA. Despite Naughty Dog being owned by Sony, the studio would still have a lot of creative freedom. EA would, however, often ask questions like how much money the game would make, comparing it to its most profitable titles.
- "Amy's phenomenally smart, fiercely smart, talented, incredibly good at cutscenes. But she was balanced by other talented individuals at Naughty Dog… This was a team she hadn't worked with before. I felt like she didn't really trust us."
- ―A person who worked with Amy Hennig
Around the end of 2015, Motive Studios began hiring for the project and even helping in small ways.
Much would change after the launch of EA's first new Star Wars game, Star Wars Battlefront, on November 17, 2015, and its highly critical response, citing the lack of content and a single-player campaign. That said, the game still sold very well, which guaranteed it a sequel. Motive Studios was soon pulled from Ragtag to work on the single-player campaign of said sequel, Star Wars Battlefront II, at the start of 2016, making the Ragtag development team again much smaller.
Only around 30 people were working on the game at that point, with another 40 coming along once the downloadable content for Hardline was finished. The studio was, however, still not allowed to hire more resources, because of the high costs of living in San Francisco, where Visceral was located. The "second" multiplayer mode had to have been scraped.
In May 2016, EA laid off roughly a dozen Visceral staffers, with more quitting throughout the year for other jobs. At this point, the game still lacked an art director. Doug Chiang from Lucasfilm would be brought on board, but like Hennig, he too was overstretched among the team. Later, the studio would bring in a new art director.
At E3 2016, EA showcased a small clip of a larger demo Visceral had build for Ragtag, showcasing the few features they had built so far. People who were able to see the demo said it looked very impressive, especially praising its graphics, but those who looked at it objectively described it as lackluster.
- "If you looked at it objectively, you'd be like, 'There's nothing here.' Dodger can do like three things. But it was cut in a specific way that looked interesting, and visually it was really nice looking."
- ―A person who worked on the demo
Regaining some confidence in the project thanks to the demo, EA freed up a team at EA Vancouver to work on Ragtag, delaying the project to December 2018. EA Vancouver, however, did not have the flattened studio model Visceral had and was happy with, which led to clashes between the studios. Soon it became clear EA did not want Vancouver to simply help, but eventually take over the whole project.
- "Visceral is pissed, obviously, because all of a sudden this other studio comes on and gets to call the shots. There were so many meetings where people at Visceral were so mad about this."
- ―A former Visceral Games staffer
Throughout 2017, developers at both Visceral Games and EA Vancouver worked hard on that "sampler platter" that they hoped would both serve as a target for their own team and show EA's executives what they were capable of doing. Three missions would be a part of it: An AT-ST chase, a Tatooine shootout and a descent into Jabba's Palace located on the planet. The people who saw these thought the experience was all too similar to Uncharted, however, and Visceral Games would be shut down and Ragtag cancelled with it on October 17, 2017.
EA Vancouver took over the whole project, using as many of the already built assets as they could, but the focus of the game shifted entirely to a multiplayer game, which players would come back to. The game was also pushed without a new release date given.
- "Decisions like this are never easy. In fact, they are really, really hard. They are also not fast – that's a mistake some people often make. You know how much work people have put into it, how much creativity has been poured out. We will always look at every way we can keep working on the ideas, and we did a lot of that here. We supported the team and their creative process, and we tried a lot of things. We cut scope. We added things, too. We rethought, redesigned, reimagined. But at some point, you have to be honest with yourselves, and realize that we're not going to be able to get to where we want to be. And that becomes a very tough call to make."
- ―Patrick Söderlund
Many now-former employees of Visceral Games were offered new positions at other subsidiaries of EA. The company said they were "in negotiations" with Hennig, though she was working independently on other projects. In October 2018, it was announced that Jade Raymond had left EA.
EA cancelled the game in early 2019. Star Wars film writer Gary Whitta claimed to have viewed footage from the game, and compared it to Uncharted. Hennig commented: "I wish people could have seen more of it because it was a lot farther along than people ever got a glimpse of. And it was good, you know? But it just didn't make sense in EA's business plan, ultimately. Things changed over the course of that time I was there. So you know, what can you do."
Notes and references
- Project Ragtag on Wikipedia
- The Collapse Of Visceral's Ambitious Star Wars Game on Kotaku (Backup link)