It’s easy to forget now, but when EA acquired the exclusive rights to make games under the Star Wars license in 2013, fans were optimistic — even kind of excited. Between DICE bringing its long experience with the Battlefield series to Star Wars Battlefront, and Visceral making what was assumed to be a third-person action game in the vein of Star Wars 1313, the future seemed brighter than Tatooine’s twin suns.
Still more exciting was that the deal appeared to give BioWare another crack at the Star Wars license. Star Wars: The Old Republic — its much-hyped attempt to compete directly with World of WarCraft — had proven to be a bust, but the studio had yet to suffer the exodus of talent that would come a few years later. The door was open for BioWare to complete the trilogy and earn some much-needed goodwill.
It never happened.
Earlier this week, EA’s fraught tenure as the exclusive purveyor of Star Wars games effectively came to an end. EA’s deal technically runs through 2023, but in rolling out the Lucasfilm Games label and announcing that Ubisoft was making an open-world Star Wars game, Disney effectively announced that EA’s time was up. The run was disappointing at best, disastrous at worst, and (with maybe a few exceptions) will be remembered as an overall failure. Its biggest missed opportunity? Knights of the Old Republic 3.
KOTOR 3 was the anchor that EA’s Star Wars lineup badly needed, but never really mustered. For as much as EA pushed Star Wars Battlefront and even Jedi: Fallen Order, neither could have possibly hit as hard as a KOTOR sequel. In an era where RPGs are big business, it would have instantly been one of the biggest games of the year. It would have saved BioWare the misery of Mass Effect: Andromeda and Anthem.
Even now, close to 20 years after its original release on the original Xbox, the series looms large in the consciousness of Star Wars fans. It was the prequel that everyone truly wanted, effectively capturing the flavor of the original stories despite being set thousands of years before the rise of the Galactic Empire. It was also the first game to truly bring the Star Wars universe to life, allowing players to zip from Dantooine to Kashyyyk in the Ebon Hawk, assassin droid and Wookie warrior in tow.
Many consider it the finest Star Wars game ever made. USgamer’s Mike Williams summed up its appeal this way, “Imagine, following the Star Wars universe for years and stepping into the shoes of Luke, Han, Leia, Kyle Katarn, and other offshoot characters. These were fun experiences, but they weren’t really you. For the first time, a Star Wars fan could project themselves into a universe of Jedi, Sith, space pirates, and aliens. For the first time ever, I could be a Jedi. A black Jedi.”
It was a powerful feeling for Star Wars fans — one compounded by how many players had never experienced a PC RPG up to that point. In 2003, the year that Knights of the Old Republic was released on Xbox, studios like BioWare and Bethesda were still mainly seen as PC developers. Console gamers reared on Final Fantasy had never experienced the sheer freedom offered by Fallout and Baldur’s Gate II.
GameSpot reviewer Greg Kasavin wrote with admiration, “Knights is very different from the typical console RPG in that you’ll always be an active participant in the storyline, rather than a passive observer. You don’t just read, watch, and listen to a lot of text, cutscenes, and dialogue–your character is constantly invited and required to make difficult decisions, and that’s ultimately the most entertaining, impressive, and rewarding aspect of the game.”
Knights of the Old Republic proved to be a watershed moment for console RPGs. It paved the way for the success of Mass Effect, Fallout 3, and The Witcher 3. Its sequel, developed by Obsidian Entertainment, wasn’t quite as popular, but is nevertheless beloved in its own way. Some years later, BioWare attempted to spin the appeal of KOTOR into an MMORPG, but while Star Wars: The Old Republic was perfectly good for what it was, it was also… well… an MMORPG. It did little to slake the thirst for a true single-player successor to KOTOR.
That KOTOR 3 never managed to happen despite the overwhelming demand was, in some ways, down to the forces that KOTOR itself helped to create. After all, it was KOTOR that encouraged BioWare to streamline its games to appeal to console fans, and it was KOTOR that set BioWare on the path to being purchased by EA. The irony of KOTOR‘s success was that there could never be another game like it. At least not from BioWare.
KOTOR 3 was also the victim of circumstance. In the wake of KOTOR 2, Obsidian actually set out to make a sequel that would complete a trilogy. Alas, its quiet cancellation roughly coincided with LucasArts falling on hard times.
Still, KOTOR 3 continued to remain lodged in the collective memory. A cursory Google reveals how fans have tightly grasped every rumor that KOTOR 3 might still happen, no matter how slight. They weren’t the only ones. According to reporter Jason Schreier, the series had its boosters within BioWare as well.
But when EA acquired exclusive rights to the Star Wars license in 2013, it wasn’t focused on producing sprawling single-player experiences. Flush with money from FIFA Ultimate Team, a microtransaction-driven card game attached to its popular series of soccer sims, EA pushed for ever more evergreen online games that could continually bolster its bottom line.
Even as an RPG studio, BioWare was hardly immune to this push. The departure of founders Greg Zeschuk and Ray Muzyka in late 2012 — not long before EA acquired the Star Wars license — removed some of the crucial DNA that once made the studio such a success. The pressure to embrace more action-oriented experiences conducive to online play led to the studio exploring projects like Shadow Realms, a “4 vs. 1 story-driven online action role-playing game.” The year Muzyka and Zeschuk left was also the year BioWare began working on Anthem. This proved to be a fateful decision on many different levels.
In many ways, BioWare’s decision to pass on KOTOR 3 was a symptom of the studio’s larger flaws than any single mistake, but that doesn’t make it any less of a missed opportunity. BioWare would have been better off making KOTOR 3 than almost any game it released in the 2010s. That the studio changed to such a degree that KOTOR 3 became an unrealistic dream rates as something of a tragedy.
Whether or not a BioWare-developed KOTOR would have actually been good is more of an open question. Both Mass Effect: Andromeda and Anthem were hampered by questionable design decisions and a lack of clear vision, leading to major production problems down the line. Maybe KOTOR 3 would have been more straightforward, thus allowing BioWare to play to its strengths. Or maybe it would have suffered from the same problems with the Frostbite Engine that Andromeda did. Either way, we’ll never know.
For now, KOTOR 3 remains a rumor and a dream. BioWare’s future is squarely on Mass Effect and Dragon Age, effectively taking it out of the picture. That leaves Obsidian, which has already stated its desire to return to the franchise. With Star Wars games no longer exclusive to EA, the door appears open for Obsidian to finally finish that trilogy. Xbox would certainly appreciate having an exclusive Star Wars game on Xbox Game Pass, too.
Disney, of course, remains a question mark. With the High Republic setting rolling out over the next year or two, the company may not be that interested in returning to the earliest days of the Old Republic. Would a High Republic RPG hit as hard as a proper sequel to KOTOR? That probably depends on how well the new era is received by fans.
As for EA, it seems to have learned its lesson with Star Wars, its most recent games being relatively well-received. It will go on making Star Wars games. Some of them will probably even be successful. Though KOTOR 3 likely won’t be among them. Indeed, there may never be another KOTOR at all. And for the legions of fans with fond memories of journeying across the Star Wars universe alongside Revan, Kreia, HK-47, and the rest of BioWare’s memorable cast of characters, that’s surely a little heartbreaking.