I see  that Electronic Arts has gotten the exclusive rights to Star Wars video games.  I remember another thing EA got exclusive rights to, and that didn’t work out so great…  but we’ll see.

I’m not saying this is necessarily bad news–for one thing, if I understand correctly, EA can still publish games that other developers make. To my mind, it could be good or bad.

I’ve been thinking about the Mass Effect series again, and how weirdly uneven it was for a trilogy that was supposedly mapped out in advance.  The first Mass Effect had a very interesting story, but the gameplay was a little wonky, at least to people like me who aren’t really familiar with RPG mechanics.  Combat in ME1 feels very awkward.

Then Mass Effect 2 streamlined the combat, making it much more like the popular Gears of War series.  The hardcore RPG people may disagree, but I think this made for a superior game, even if they had to mess with some established background information of the setting to make it work.  ME 2 is still my favorite in the series, even though parts of the story don’t make sense.  And I think it’s interesting that EA acquired BioWare between ME1 and 2, and in the latter, the game suddenly became much more  accessible to the average gamer.

But then you have Mass Effect 3, which had many well-known problems with its infamously unsatisfying endingBioWare insists that they had total creative control, so you can’t blame EA for the ending.  (Then again, the Illusive Man insisted he had control of the Reapers, too…) But in addition to all the in-game problems, it was criticized for forcing players to buy a bunch of additional stuff in order to get the “full” ending.  Again, it’s just interesting to me that there was no comparable marketing scheme for, say, BioWare’s Knights of the Old Republic (2003) or Jade Empire (2005) or even the first Mass Effect (2007).

So, I think we have a pretty good roadmap already for what is going to happen to a beloved science-fiction franchise whose video games department is now being run by EA.  But wait!  There’s more!

Everyone thinks that this means Star Wars game will become increasingly Call of Duty-like, and you will see a lot of polished but simplistic games.  Pretty much everyone feels that the  Battlefront series or something like it will be making a comeback. And why not?  If EA can make something Star Wars themed that can compete with the highest-grossing game series in history, why wouldn’t they?

This isn’t so bad, really.  Battlefront was a fun game.  It’s just that I think everyone feels EA is just too big, and when a company gets that big, it’s hard for them to function the right way.  They can keep making money off of AAA blockbuster games for a while yet, but they can’t really innovate, because that involves risk. Which means we probably won’t be seeing any deep, philosophical,  Star Wars RPGs like the great Knights of the Old Republic II anytime soon.

But more than that, there are indications that EA is just generally mismanaged.  As Shamus Young says in that article, they are not running their company as well as they might, just from a pure business point of view.  However, I think their model is sustainable for the near-term future.  Star Wars has been popular since the 1970s–people will continue to buy any heavily-hyped game that ties with that franchise for a few more years.  This is where we see the similarity to EA’s NFL license monopoly–the NFL has been popular since the 1960s, and for those who play sports games, it’s the only show in town.

The difference, of course, is that the NFL, while not technically a monopoly is the only widely-watched pro football league in America. Star Wars is not the only major science-fiction franchise. There are still more of those to compete with Star Wars games.

That’s why I think the monopoly on Star Wars has a greater chance of blowing up in EA’s face than their NFL  monopoly–the latter is essentially a monopoly on a near-monopoly, because the NFL controls a huge amount of market share in the market for football.  EA is building off of that. But it’s different with the market for sci-fi games–it’s more of an oligopoly, with just a few competitors: Star Wars, Star Trek, and so on.

If we assume that consumers are indifferent as to which science-fiction franchise’s video games they choose to spend money on, this means there is still an element of competition in the market.  But, of course, not all consumers are not indifferent–they have preferences for franchises.  So, I want Star Wars to have the better video games, among other reasons, to show up the Trekkies. (Not that I dislike Star Trek, but still.) Branding is always very important in oligopolies.

The point is, this arrangement coupled with EA’s past problems with understanding different markets as mentioned in the Shamus Young article linked above and… well, the title of this post says it all.

I have a question: if the nearly universally despised prequel movies “ruined” Star Wars, how is it that the 1960s-era Adam West show didn’t ruin Batman?  People keep telling me that the new Batman movies, especially The Dark Knight, are great.  I wouldn’t know, having never seen them.  The only Batman thing I’m really familiar with is the ’60s show, and I can see at a glance that its tone is utterly incompatible with the grim new movies.

If Jar Jar Binks is so damaging to the franchise that includes The Empire Strikes Back, then surely Vincent Price’s Egghead cannot exist in the same franchise that includes Heath Ledger’s Joker.  Is the difference simply that  The Dark Knight series came after the Adam West series?  So, franchises are only permitted to get thematically darker as they go on, never lighter; is that it?  Or is it that the Batman thing is a “reboot”, whereas the prequels aren’t?

I was too busy to address this when the news broke; but let me just say that I think the Star Wars/Disney thing is terrific news.  I am an avid, if somewhat unorthodox, Star Wars fan.  I like the prequels more than the originals.  I think most of the “Special Edition” changes were good.  I think the end of KotOR II is perfect, and that the game as a whole is the best thing ever set in the Star Wars universe.

Many fans are worried about it; they’re scared it will “ruin” Star WarsStar Wars fans are, I have come to realize, about the most fragile bunch of pessimistic nervous Nellies I’ve ever seen.  Honestly, they’re worse than Democrats when it comes to having no confidence in their own side.

I’m not saying it’s a sure thing that the new movie will be good.  Maybe it will be worse than the “Holiday Special”.  But Star Wars isn’t going to continue at all unless somebody is willing to take some risks.  It all goes back to what I said here, during the most recent existential threat to Star Wars.

Sure, it won’t be exactly like A New Hope all over again, but so what?  As a melancholy Vrook remarks to Zez-Kai Ell in KotOR II when they return to the destroyed Jedi Enclave: “It is not as it was…”  And as Zez-Kai Ell thoughtfully responds: “But, perhaps, that is for the best.”

I touched on this with my last post about the movie Rudy: it can be fun to come up with alternative interpretations of movies that the directors and writers didn’t think of.  With Rudy, I was saying that I found the hero character’s fixation on football to be an unhealthy obsession, rather than the inspirational determination it is presented as being.

Some movies have much more elaborate alternative interpretations.  Take the Star Wars movies for example: most people assumed that the Empire is evil just because the opening crawl said so.  But, in Phantom Menace, it’s pretty clear that what Palpatine says about the Old Republic being “mired” by “bureaucrats” is true.  They can’t even get it together to go do something when one of their planets gets invaded and occupied.  If nothing else, the Empire runs a more efficient operation.

If I know politics, a few years after ROTJ, there would be a massive campaign to rehabilitate Palpatine’s image.

This does not even take into account the Jedi, who claim to be good–although the only people who really seem to feel this way are the Jedi themselves–but who are shown to brainwash people from a young age to indoctrinate them into their cult.  They say the Sith are evil, but in the movies, at least, the Sith wait until you’re an adult before asking you to join.  Count Dooku was a former Jedi and an aristocrat of some sort before he opted to try his hand at Sith Lording in his retirement.

Also, of course, there’s the fact that everything the Jedi do turns out to be an abysmal failure.  The Sith are clearly the only ones capable of creating a plan and seeing it through to the end in that galaxy.  Even at the end, in Return of the Jedi, all the Jedi stuff Luke had been taught goes by the boards, and the Emperor is overthrown not by him, but by the actions of a renegade Sith.

George Lucas probably didn’t intend any of these interpretations (and the “Expanded Universe” contradicts a lot of them), but I think the movies can definitely be viewed that way.  Personally, I think it makes more sense in some ways.

Or take Oliver Stone’s movie JFK.  It was controversial for its promotion of conspiracy theories.  I have a different take on it: I think Kevin Costner’s character is an unreliable narrator (he’s not really the narrator, but the film is very much from his perspective) who has this weird obsession with conspiracies.  Donald Sutherland’s character “X” is a figment of his imagination, whom he created to fulfill his dreams of uncovering a massive plot.  Try watching JFK and then A Beautiful Mind and see if you don’t agree.

I know there’s also a famous alternate interpretation of Ferris Bueller’s Day Off–although Freddie DeBoer doesn’t buy it–but I have never seen that movie, so I wouldn’t know.

What movies do you interpret differently than may have been originally intended?

I can’t say I’m terribly excited about it. From the description, it sounds like “Gears of Star Wars”. Actually, more than anything, it sounds like Star Wars: Bounty Hunter. I think it even included a level that was set in the underbelly of Coruscant.

More than anything, though, it makes me uneasy how everyone is going “oooh, it’s Star Wars but with ‘darkness’. This has never been done!” Yes, it has. I know KotOR II was rated “T”, but the underlying story, as well as some of the stuff that’s hinted with characters like Visas Marr, is more mature than anything I’ve seen in a lot of “M” games. And while we’re at it, it’s not like Dark Forces and Shadows of the Empire were brimming with sunshine and joy.

Maybe it will be good. But so far, the reports don’t make me hopeful.

If the Defenders of High Culture didn’t have enough to worry about with the Harry Potter conference, there now comes an announcement that a new Harry Potter game will be coming out this fall. Perhaps the 2013 conference will feature an in-depth examination of Harry Potter for Kinect and what it means to our society.

If it’s anything like Star Wars Kinect, it might not be such a great thing, although I think Potter fans might be more receptive to that sort of thing than Star Wars fans. As long-time readers probably know, I think that J.K. Rowling’s series is fun, but deeply flawed. (Someday maybe I’ll write about that at length.) I’ve never played any of the games based on it, as they all seem to have about them the feel of something done just to cash in on the popularity of the name.

As far as I can tell, all Potter games have been based to a large degree on the books and movies. As a Star Wars fan, I know from experience that this usually means trouble. Star Wars games are either excellent or really bad. And the bad ones are often the ones that try to follow the movies, and have you playing as Luke or Anakin or someone. (The LEGO ones don’t count; they follow the movies, but with an original twist.)

The great Star Wars game series everyone thinks of are original stories like Rogue Squadron, Jedi Knight and Knights of the Old Republic. These take place in the Star Wars universe, and though in some cases they overlap with events or characters from the movies, for the most part they are their own stories. They don’t let the established stories dictate their course too much.

Are there any Harry Potter games that take place in the Potter universe, but don’t more or less follow the established story and timeframe? That would have the potential to be good, and to keep the franchise going. Now, for all I know, Rowling has forbidden this. Which she, as the creator of the series, is totally within her rights to do. But it would be the best thing for it as a franchise.

So, Star Wars fans everywhere are outraged over this video:

The fact that it started getting publicity around April Fools’ Day makes me wonder, but it seems like it’s genuine.

Well, what else are you supposed to do with the Kinect? They already have some kind of lightsaber minigame in it, so they had to throw in something else for filler.

I also seem to remember that in the intro to one of the Rogue Squadron games (I forget which one) there was a brief sequence of the Star wars characters dancing a disco. Nobody complained about that. And for my money, the elaborate dance sequences in Return of the Jedi pose a far bigger threat to the integrity of Star Wars as a space opera than this does.

Look: Star Wars is a whole mythos. It’s a fantasy universe, and as such it is only to be expected that laughable and ridiculous ideas occur in that universe as well as serious and powerful ones. It’s that way in the real universe, and so it might as well be in any fake universe. It doesn’t ruin the movies to have a video game where Han Solo dances, anymore than Rosencrantz and Guildenstern ruins Hamlet.

Also, it’s only a movie series, after all. If it were ruined, the sun would still come up tomorrow.