interview

Frontwire Studios Plots Future For Its Battlefront Game Stripped Of Star Wars

by Mike Futter on Aug 01, 2016 at 01:03 PM

It’s easy to picture a massive, imposing entity like the Death Star looming over Frontwire Studios’ attempt to make a fan interpretation of Star Wars Battlefront. From the moment the Galaxy in Turmoil project made headlines in June, we envisioned a super laser charging to obliterate the project from high orbit. The reality is Lucasfilm using the Force of its legal might with a lighter touch and willingness to chat with the nascent studio.

The end result is the same. Frontwire must leave its aspirations of a Battlefront-like experience with actual Star Wars locations and vehicles behind. 

On June 22, Frontwire president Tony Romanelli received a cease and desist letter from Lucasfilm. The studio was responding to the developer’s request for permission to use a variety of Star Wars iconography in its multiplayer game.

While the intent of the letter is clear, Lucasfilm counsel applied a softer touch. In the document Frontwire provided us, but that we have been asked not to share verbatim, Lucasfilm acknowledges the studio’s “affection and enthusiasm for the Star Wars franchise and previous Battlefront video games.” 

The ultimatum, promising legal action if all Star Wars assets were not scrubbed within seven days, was delivered with one hand while an offer to meet by conference call was accepted with the other. “We scheduled it and sat down with them,” Romanelli tells me. “They’re great people. I wasn’t kidding in that press release. We laughed, we joked, we were cracking up talking about Star Wars.”

According to Romanelli, Frontwire and Lucasfilm discussed licensing, but ultimately the conversation was stalled due to EA. The Star Wars Battlefront publisher has a multi-year exclusive license for core games and has a number of other titles in the works including a sequel due out in 2017.

“It was 100 percent,” he explained. “I straight-up said, ‘If EA wasn’t involved, what could we do?’ They said, ‘We’d be willing to look at getting you a license somehow, but it comes down to EA and our agreement with them. We have to follow what they say in this.’”

Frontwire hasn’t received a response from EA, but Romanelli says that Lucasfilm relayed the publisher’s concerns. These included fears of Galaxy in Turmoil overshadowing Battlefront and Frontwire’s project diverting audience from EA’s game on PC. 

“This is really just a passion project,” Romanelli says. “We’ve said it on social media since day one. We’ve never wanted to take away from their player base. We all love EA’s Star Wars Battlefront. It’s not the best game. It’s not the game we wanted, but at the end of the day it’s a great game. We never wanted to hurt them or their cashflow.”

He says that he even offered to put the game in EA’s hands for the purposes of protecting Battlefront. Romanelli explains that he pitched tying access to Galaxy in Turmoil to Star Wars Battlefront ownership on Origin. “[Lucasfilm] went and talked to EA, and EA wasn’t having it,” he explains. 

While EA allegedly didn’t have interest in sitting down with Frontwire, Romanelli says the publisher attempted to meddle with the developer’s lengthy statement about the situation. The suggested statement from Lucasfilm and EA is significantly shorter and almost entirely eliminates details of the conversation between the parties about Galaxy in Turmoil.

“They came back to us again and told us they re-wrote the press release, because EA didn’t want to be part of it at all,” Romanelli says. “EA wanted it scrubbed, and they turned the press release you read into something way smaller. We weren’t going to put that out. We weren’t going to let EA force Lucasfilm to rewrite our press release, especially since EA is doing their EA Originals thing. They’re trying to help indie developers, but they’re going to quash us and re-write our press release? Lucasfilm eventually told us to do it our way.”

We’ve reached out to both Lucasfilm and EA for comment directly. As of publication, we have not received a response.

With Star Wars and everything related to it left behind, Galaxy in Turmoil is going in a new direction. That means Romanelli must redirect approximately 50 volunteer developers, artists, and composers on nearly every continent. 

Even though these individuals aren’t paid and aren’t co-located, the group is split up into teams with department heads and assistant department heads guiding the efforts. The team uses Discord (a group communication tool for text and voice), as well as a private intranet and Apache Subversion (SVN) for coders. The group has weekly department meetings and twice-monthly full-staff meetings.

Despite having to say goodbye to Hoth and Coruscant, Romanelli believes the future is bright. The team was preparing in advance for such an eventuality and isn’t starting from scratch entirely. In fact, Frontwire says the team has been growing in the past few days.

“We have a ton of new people joining us, some great concept artists and organic modelers. We have a full plan for where we’re going. We’re pumped to bring our vision to life now without being tied down by the Star Wars lore. We have more room to experiment and do something we’ve never done before. We’re taking a sci-fi/fantasy mix approach.” 

In order to get there, Frontwire must shed anything and everything tying itself to Star Wars. Romanelli says that includes approximately 20 percent of the game that featured Star Wars vehicles and locales. However, he maintains that no code was taken from the leaked version of Free Radical’s aborted Star Wars Battlefront 3. The only thing that came from that game, some art assets, had already been removed.

Prior to the cease and desist, Frontwire believes it would have been ready for a public test in about two months. The sample would have featured the Imperial capital planet, Coruscant.

“We had everything: droideka, battle droids, rifles, starships, everything,” Romanelli explains. “The only thing we hadn’t done yet was the capital ships, because those are so time consuming. It was all our own art.”

Still, that art was taken directly from Lucasfilm-owned Star Wars films, books, and television shows. Even though they were created by Frontwire’s cadre of volunteers, they still infringe on copyright.

That means the schedule has been set back, as artists start crafting their own vision for Galaxy in Turmoil. The team hopes to have something for the public in nine months, which would include both single-player and one or two multiplayer maps and modes.

Frontwire won’t be implementing an intricate dedicated server framework. Those that want to play can use peer-to-peer hosting that can support 14 players on each team. Otherwise, individuals can host their own dedicated servers for full 64-player matches. 

The group is managing costs, which are currently limited to web hosting. Marketing has been driven naturally by publicity at this point.

Eventually, Frontwire hopes to head to Kickstarter or another crowdfunding platform. That won’t happen until the game is playable, though. Any money raised would be used to compensate volunteer developers with honoraria, pay a motion capture studio, and possibly pay for marketing and boxed copies down the line. 

Despite the publicity bump related to Galaxy in Turmoil’s birth as a Star Wars project, Frontwire knows that the road ahead won’t be easy. “I’d like to say the hardest thing is going to be keeping the interest in the community,” Romanelli says. “It’s hard enough to keep them interested when you’re working on a triple-A game, let alone an indie game. I think keeping people interested long enough for us to get that demo out is going to be the hardest part.”

You can see some of what Frontwire has been working on its official website.