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Babu Frik

Why the Rise of Skywalker broke me

So, four months on, it would appear that I’m still not over the Rise of Skywalker.

(Spoilers ahead, obviously. But if you haven’t seen it by now, do you really care at this stage?)

So, first of all, I should say what kind of Star Wars fan I am. I was two when the original film came out, but because my parents were kind of nerds, I was almost weaned on it and Spielberg’s early blockbusters. I had some of the Kenner toys (although not as many as my friends), obviously. Aside from reading the Dark Empire comic and its follow ups (quite liked the first at the time, although it hasn’t dated well – hated the rest), I never really bothered with the Expanded Universe stuff, which I generally considered to be hackneyed trash (an opinion I still broadly hold having read some of the “classics”). Didn’t think much of the Special Editions. Don’t rate the Prequels, although I was never one of those “these films simply don’t exist” people. Liked the Tartakovsky Clone Wars. Was slow to warm up to Filoni’s The Clone Wars, but when I did at around season three, I fell for it hard, and there for Rebels. I was going through some stuff when the Disney era of Star Wars media began and, as such, consumed most of the early comics and novels, although I’ve fallen off the wagon over the past couple of years. Broadly liked The Force Awakens and Rogue One and while I don’t think Solo was great, I can name many many worse films that have a better reputation.

Oh, and, most defining of all (it would appear), I’m very much Team The Last Jedi. Not because I think it’s a perfect film; I’ve watched it several times and could spend many hours pointing out all of the bits that don’t work for me. But when it does work, it’s wonderful. I guess I’ll get more into that later.

I’m a fan who considers this to be a film franchise first, a TV franchise second, and I can take or leave most other things (with the exception of the tabletop game X-Wing, which I’m a little obsessed with).

So, back to the Rise of Skywalker. By now this has been a very widely dissected film – and I’m by no means the only person who didn’t like it. I think my position is probably best summarised as being somewhere between these two video essays:

I don’t have an awful lot else to add to those essays. I do take issue with the argument often stated in various parts of the internet that the films should have been “planned” better. The original trilogy wasn’t planned at all, and the Prequels were presumably better planned than any other films in the franchise, but it didn’t make them any better. The first two Sequel films actually complement each other well; the problem is that while Rian Johnson very much took a “yes, and” approach to The Last Jedi, Abrams is clearly a much less generous collaborator. As Patrick Willems said in a previous video, Abrams is someone known for starting series not for ending them – and that ended up being a major problem.

I also wonder to what extent Lucasfilm had actually planned for this film, which ended up getting trashed at a fairly late stage. I got the Art of the Rise of Skywalker a few weeks ago and it is notable that not a single piece of pre-production art of Palpatine exists in it (as opposed to this mysterious Oracle), and only one image of the Sith planet Exegol. Given that this book was mysteriously delayed for four months, they had time to insert this art if it existed.

Similarly, if you read the Aftermath novels it’s established that part of the Emperor’s Grand Design in the event of his death was to have a loyal cadre of Imperials go off to find a mystery place somewhere in the Unknown Regions that he had identified and build the First Order. You can still see the skeleton of that idea in Rise, but it ultimately contradicts this. For one thing, how did they get there if they didn’t have either of the Wayfinders? Secondly, why are the First Order and the Final Order different things? It’s all such a mess.

And then there’s Snoke. The most baffling thing for me is why Snoke just got casually dismissed as a clone instead of being something interesting – the idea was he was always intended to be little more than a head in a jar seems unlikely. People have picked up on how Rise seems to trash so much of The Last Jedi but there’s a lot set up in The Force Awakens which is treated with similar disdain. It’s such a depressing experience. This for me is a far more egregious contradiction than the “Rey nobody” twist in Last Jedi that upset so many people.

Interesting Failures

Of course, to be a Star Wars fan is to live in disappointment. Return of the Jedi was fairly critically panned at the time, and while I think I was too young to see it then, it certainly feels like a step down from the first two now. I had spent much of my early life looking forward to nine Star Wars films, which I imagined would be coming out like clockwork, every three years, from 1986 to 2001 and, well, that didn’t happen. In fact for a long time it didn’t look like it was going to happen at all. What we did get were the Special Editions which did some frankly horrible things to some of my favourite bits of the original trilogy. And when we finally did get episodes 1 to 3, it’s fair to say that they weren’t rapturously welcomed by those of us who had spent the best part of 20 years waiting for them.

But at the same time, people have short memories. People forget that Return of the Jedi was panned, and even the Prequel loathing has softened over time. And I guess you can shrug and dismiss the Rise of Skywalker hatred as just part of the same cycle. For me it’s different though.

You see, for all of Return of the Jedi‘s flaws, it does ultimately satisfyingly complete the story started in A New Hope and Empire Strikes Back. It is harder to defend the Prequels, which are objectively bad movies, but they are at least interesting failures, with interesting things to say. I’d rather watch films like that – the Matrix sequels also fit into this category – than safe cash grab sequels.

That are the Prequels about? It is admittedly sometimes hard to see through the terrible dialogue and garish CGI, but ultimately the story they tell are about how civilisations fall: it isn’t because a cackling villain turns up and ruins everything, it’s because the institutions designed to stand as a defense against tyranny (in the case of the Prequels, the Republic and the Jedi Order) grow complacent and lose their sense of purpose. And yeah, Palpatine has to come along to push it over, but the edifice was already crumbling before he came along.

That, to me, feels incredibly relevant right now – as it did back in the early 2000s when we were fighting a stupid preventable war like the one that informed Lucas when he set out to make the original films (Vietnam).

I kind of hate the fact that the themes of the Prequels resonate as strongly for me as they do, because I so dearly want them to be part of much better films. Fortunately I now have the Clone Wars to tell that story far more dramatically and entertainingly. But I give Lucas credit for trying to say something complex and nuanced in a film about space wizards.

But what does Abrams have to say? I know exactly what Lucas is saying in both his trilogies; and it’s clear what Johnson is saying in The Last Jedi, but ultimately in the Abrams films, it’s just stuff… that happens. I can give him a pass for The Force Awakens, which is just setting up the trilogy and is entertaining enough, but how do you set about finishing a epic a series as the Skywalker Saga without having anything to say?

Nostalgia and World Building

The biggest fundamental problem with Abrams’s films is that they are rooted in nostalgia at the expense of everything else. With The Force Awakens, that is understandable: the anger which certain parts of the fandom felt towards the Prequels is pretty hard to ignore. The Force Awakens was a useful reset button which should have given Lucasfilm the creative space to go in new directions with the franchise. That certainly seemed to be the plan with The Last Jedi – of course for a lot of fans that was a step too far. And that’s a hard schism to bridge: ultimately for a lot of people, all they wanted was more of the same and a film that took took the same material and ultimately asked different questions was just not on their checklist at all. It’s understandable why Lucasfilm got frit over the outrage over it and decided to make something that was comfortable, but given how many TLJ haters who seem as disappointed with it as the TLJ fans, I think that was the wrong call.

In retrospect, we’d have probably had better films if the anger over the Prequels had been a little more restrained. By the time Disney bought Lucasfilm and announced a new film series in 2012, it had just become a “known” fact that the Prequels were an unmitigated disaster and that the Sequel trilogy should be nothing like them. People like Simon Pegg had popularised the notion that they were unspeakable.

I especially remember this video, by a copywriter called Prescott Harvey, which came out in advance of The Force Awakens. It is an open letter to JJ Abrams and, at the time, was accompanied by a petition which thousands of people signed:

Post-gamergate and The Last Jedi nerdrage, I find this film a little uncomfortable to watch. The entitlement feels eerily famliar. That bit when his voice rises to almost a shouting pitch about how Star Wars must never be cute (which, even ignoring Return of the Jedi, dismisses much of the appeal of R2-D2, the jawas, Yoda and the ugnaughts in the first two films and seems to ignore the fact that there is significantly more graphic violence in the Prequels than the original trilogy), sounds like the archetype of every angry white nerd throwing his toys out of his pram we’ve heard ad nauseum in the years since.

And yes, superficially, there’s nothing too much to disagree with in this video: it does a fairly good job at encapsulating what the Original Trilogy was in essence. The problem is the suggestion that Star Wars shouldn’t strive to be anything more than that, that it should be kept in a safe little box. The logic is that Lucas tried to mix things up in the Prequels, they weren’t good, so that shows you shouldn’t mess with a winning formula. But the bad things about the Prequels wasn’t their ambition, it was their execution. And pushing so hard for future filmmakers to impose limitations like that was always going to be a monkey’s paw.

Prescott Harvey got the filmmaker he could only have dreamed of in the form of JJ Abrams. His previous film Super 8 seems to exist purely to make you think that Steven Spielberg made a horror film at around the same time he was making Close Encounters and Poltergeist (it was an entirely forgettable affair and I can pretty much guarantee you that everything memorable you think happened in it was actually a bit you remember from Stranger Things). His Star Trek films are basically an exercise in mashing up all the cool bits Abrams remembered from the Star Trek films he grew up with, mashed together (he just about pulled it off in his first film but, echoing Star Wars, came horribly unstuck in his messy second effort).

What is remarkable about both Abrams films is quite how pathologically they copy the Original Trilogy. It isn’t enough to have space ships that look like the TIE Fighters and X-Wings of old, they had to have actual TIE Fighters and X-Wings. The Empire and Rebellion were replicated as close as possible as they could be. And of course we had to have yet another Death Star.

And much of this was at the expense of world building and even the impact of the Original Trilogy. The sacrifice of the Rebellion over the course of those films has now been revealed to have achieve almost nothing; not even the Emperor actually died. In the years since The Force Awakens, Lucasfilm has authorised several novels, comics and even a TV show (The Resistance) to flesh out the Star Wars galaxy as it existed at the start of Episode VII, but even having read much of this it still feels pretty hollow.

Much of this replication can be excused away by the argument that, as George Lucas himself put it “Star Wars rhymes“. But rhyming isn’t the same thing as repetition, and that doesn’t mean that things that have dramatic justification in the originals have to happen in the Sequels simply because. So many of the beats in The Rise of Skywalker feel like characters going through the motions and beats of another film rather than getting there by themselves. Perhaps the most egregious is the notion that Rey is somehow conflicted about possibly, maybe, turning to the Dark Side when she is only ever presented as being repelled by the idea. We have the throne room sequence in Return of the Jedi replicated but she’s never actually tempted in the agonising way that Luke is; at worst she appears to briefly flirt with the idea of sacrificing herself to save her friends. Contrast that with the throne room scene in The Last Jedi which clearly echoes similar scenes in past films including Return of the Jedi, but doesn’t simply regurtitate past dramatic beats and comes at the climax of a film that has spent much of its time getting you to that point.

And in order to disguise how slavish this all is, they mask it by making everything bigger. It was bad in The Force Awakens when Starkiller Base could not only blow up planets, but multiple ones at once from across the galaxy. Where do you go from there? Well, you simply give every single Star Destroyer (which look identical to the original Star Destroyers but are now canonically bigger) a planet destroying ray gun. But all the bigger stuff does is serve to make everything feel more hollow, especially when you’ve done so little work fleshing out the galaxy which is now apparently under threat.

Retcons and Cash-ins

Admittedly, it has taken me a while to warm up to the Prequels, and a large part of that was The Clone Wars, which has spent much of the past 12 years clarifying and expanding on the material that was in the Prequel trilogy. We’re already seeing that with Rise of Skywalker with the publication of its novelisation which seems to have been written specifically to smooth over many of the film’s cracks. So it is that we now know that Palpatine didn’t have a son so much as a renegade “failed” clone, and that Rey and Ben Solo’s kiss was strictly platonic.

But this is where we come to the worst aspect of Star Wars fandom and how it has intersected with Disney corporatism; the need to explain everything. Star Wars has always had this. Its pretty harmless when it boils down to anthologies about every single background character ever, such as Tales from Mos Eisley Cantina, but there’s always been a tendency to take this too far. So it is that we have Skippy the Jedi Droid, and the explanation that there is a reason why some of the garbage spotting in the scene in Empire Strikes Back looks vaguely like the robot IG-88 who popped up in the bounty hunter scene a few minutes earlier (Boba Felt killed him! Oh, and there’s four of him. Oh, and he ended up merging with the Death Star shortly before it blew up in Return of the Jedi).

We don’t need any of this stuff, and much of the time it cheapens the original stories, relegating them to trivia. And while I am a big fan of The Clone Wars, which is in some respects a massive retcon, it’s not a good thing that the show had to do as much heavy lifting as it did; the Prequels should have done that in the first place.

But while this has been a part of Star Wars for as long as Obi-Wan Kenobi started wittering on about “a certain point of view” in Return of the Jedi, it has become a mania in the modern Disney corporation, filling its live action adaptation of their classic animated films with retcons intended to “fix” the original (I recommend a couple of videos by Lindsey Ellis for more on this). It’s no surprise that the first two standalone Star Wars films which came out, Rogue One and Solo, both ostensibly exist to “fix” and “explain” bits of the original films.

And that’s only one half of it. I think I liked Rogue One a lot more than some people because I’d read Catalyst first, which is entirely about Galen Erso. So I understood him, Jyn and Saw Garerra’s characters a lot better going in than most people did. But you shouldn’t have to read a book to properly enjoy a film. Yet this is now a feature. Starkiller Base made no sense to you in the Force Awakens? If you buy the Force Awakens Visual Dictionary it will helpfully explain how that works. Indeed, if you buy the Rise of Skywalker Visual Dictionary, it will tell you that it was built out of the planet Ilum, which appears in the Clone Wars.

We’ve reached a point now where shoddy explanations and poor characterisation no longer feel like a bug in the new Star Wars films, but a feature. Most people just want the big explosions and if you want the films to make sense, why there is helpfully a whole range of books out there to make it all make sense in your head. And, presumably, eventually a spin off TV show which will do all the heavy lifting for you.

There comes a point where this stops feeling like spin off merchandise and starts to feel like a confidence trick. It seems to all but encourage lazy writing; the worse the film turns out to be the more books get to come out to “fix” it. This seems to be what “plot hole culture” seems to have been leading up to, and it feels deeply cynical and dispiriting.

I should emphasise that I’m not puritanical about all this. I don’t expect a company like Disney to be making films for the sake of the art, just as Lucas wasn’t. Indeed, it’s actually a little weird to me that Disney has eschewed Lucas’s tendency to fill his films with kewl new spaceships that the fans will want to rush out and buy. But that would mean producing something novel rather than focusing exclusively on nostalgia by making everything look and feel like the films they grew up watching.

Ultimately no amount of retroactive fixes can make a film devoid of substance a good film. And this is ultimately the difference between the Prequels being redeemed by later media and the Rise of Skywalker receiving similar treatment. No amount of retconning can avoid the fact that that film ultimately has nothing to say.

A New Hope?

So my dislike of Rise of Skywalker is not just rooted in the film itself, but in the corporate culture in which it developed and how its rooted in an obsession that sees Star Wars in terms of nostalgia and facts but is less interested in things like theme and meaning.

But it isn’t despair that kills you, it’s the hope. And there is a part of me that is still rooting for the franchise. I quite liked the Mandalorian, although it was pretty unchallenging. And while the recent “Final Season” of the Clone Wars was, for the most part, fairly solid but run of the mill, its final arc, which echoes the events in Revenge of the Sith, is emotionally shredding.

And while I definitely get the impression that The Rise of Skywalker is the film that the producers ultimately set out to make, as something of a Lucasfilm-watcher, I do get the impression that the studio was concerned that it was going to be a bit of critical flop.

For one thing, Disney decided not to market it in its own right but as part of a season of Star Wars alongside the new video game Jedi: Fallen Order and the Mandalorian. The Mandalorian was particularly interesting because it meant releasing a show which had a massive spoiler in it that had been kept secret before airing, but at a time when they couldn’t launch Disney Plus across Europe – meaning that a very large market didn’t legally have access to the show. That always felt like a weird decision to me, but it did mean that thousands of people were ecstatically tweeting about The Child/Baby Yoda instead of expressing their concerns about the upcoming film. I think it paid off for them, but I doubt they’d have done it if they truly believed that The Rise of Skywalker could have stood on its own feet.

The other thing that reassures me that that they are taking their time not to rush into any more films, having axed the Weiss and Benioff series – which had lots of alarm bells wringing – and not yet having axed the promised Rian Johnson series – which will be alarming to some but very reassuring to others (especially after his triumphant return to the big screen with Knives Out). Indeed, taking their time is something I wish they’d done with the Sequel Trilogy. I can’t help but feel we’d have ended up with a stronger Episode Nine, irrespective of curveballs such as Carrie Fisher’s tragic death, we’d had the traditional three year wait between films (meaning that Episode IX would be due for release in 2021) rather than two.

UPDATE: I’m similarly encouraged by today’s announcement that Taiki Waititi will be directing a new Star Wars film.

Hopefully the departure of Bob Iger from Disney means that the corporation as a whole becomes less obsessed with this idea of making sequels and remakes as a way to retcon existing properties. And, ultimately, finishing off the Skywalker Saga always was going to be a far harder task than making tangential Star Wars films in the future. It’s just such a shame they dropped the ball so badly with this one.

Star Wars Episode VII: your republic is my empire

The teaser trailer for Star Wars Episode VII is out and it is causing much excitement, ridicule and exasperation at all the excitement and ridicule (delete as applicable):

One of the things that has got a lot of people buzzing is the presence of stormtroopers, albeit Apple circa 2001 stormtroopers. Wasn’t the Empire destroyed at the end of Return of the Jedi? How can they still be around?

It strikes me that there are two possibilities. One is boring as all hell. The other is much more interesting.

The boring option is the one they went for with the now defunct Expanded Universe (disclaimer: I haven’t read much post-Jedi EU; I just didn’t like what I did read): after the Emperor was killed a breakaway group of Admirals split off to form their own Imperial Remnant who continued to bother the good guys for years afterwards. This is sort of how I would have imagined things when I was nine and presupposes a simplistic goodies vs baddies approach. And while it’s true that George Lucas himself rather encourages this with his focus on the dark and light side of the Force, in reality there is a lot more ambiguity even in the original film series, with bored stormtroopers having casual conversations and careerist generals doing their best to manage Darth Vader’s mood swings in Empire Strikes Back. The implication that there are enough true believers in the Imperial Navy to break off and form a significant threat to the New Republic just doesn’t make any sense to me. There isn’t much of a (real world) historical precedent to suggest that this is what is likely to happen either.

What is more interesting to me is this: after the fall of Palpatine, the entire galaxy is likely to erupt into civil war. After all, immediately preceding his rise to power, the galaxy bubbling under with petty disputes and this was stoked by Palpatine and Dooku which lead to the Clone Wars. It is unlikely that after 20+ years of oppressive dictatorship that the Empire would simply turn into a happy clappy New Republic, much more likely that the vast majority of planets will either declare independence or form new alliances of their own. It is very unlikely that even after 30 years there wouldn’t still be tensions and trade disputes across the galaxy.

The people taking over the New Republic, who we might speculate are lead by Mon Mothma and Princess Leia, are unlikely to dismantle everything they’ve inherited. Whoever takes over as Commander in Chief is going to have to immediately make some very difficult decisions: do we let planet X invade planet Y or do we try to maintain the peace? Are these people really freedom fighters or are they pirates? Democratic ideals only get you so far. There are going to be a lot of people who, having won the war, are going to be deeply disaffected by the subsequent regime and its tough choices.

So while I think it is very likely that there will be some stringent measures to de-Sithify the Imperial armed forces, at the end of the day they are unlikely to be decommissioned. This shouldn’t be a huge surprise to people: after all, during the prequels the stormtrooper’s predecessors the clone troopers were the good guys (gliding over Order 66 for a second there).

George Lucas got an awful lot wrong with the prequels, but much of the world building was spot on. People derided the focus on politics and trade disputes, but that made it feel much more real to me. Scratch behind the surface and the prequels aren’t a simplistic battle between the light and the dark, but a much more subtle tale of a decadent republic reaching the end of its usefulness, dominated by a religious order, the Jedi, who had become horrifically complacent and meddling in political affairs they should have left well alone. These themes are all there in the films and explored in greater depth in the Clone Wars (the irony of this being achieved in a watchable kids’ show is not lost on me).

The key thing that concerns me about these new films is that they will look at the criticism of the prequels and seek to simplify that political situation. If they do, my suspicion is that the films themselves will feel quite vacuous and empty. I’m not suggesting that the films should be about affairs of state and politicking in the way that I would agree that the prequels focus too much on scenes from the Galactic Senate which would have been better relegated to the background and opening crawls. But if they open with Luke and Leia doing everything right and bringing back and idyllic New Republic that only starts to go wrong when a new bad guy emerges, I will be deeply disappointed.

So, to summarise, I’m hoping those Stormtroopers are under the command of Leia who, if not an actual villain, is certainly worn down after decades of making hard choices and not getting everything right. That’s drama right there, that is.

How JJ Abrams could severely hurt tabletop gaming

Typical. Just after I write a blog post praising Fantasy Flight Games, they go and do something that makes me wary. Yesterday, FFG announced their intention to be taken over by French board game company Asmodée. This comes just months after Asmodée took over Days of Wonder, publishers of the enormously successful Ticket To Ride board game (among many others).

The Days of Wonder/Asmodée takeover didn’t especially concern me as, despite their success with a number of product lines, Days of Wonder seems to have been struggling for some time to come up with another big hit; I can see how that merger could potentially be in their interests. Fantasy Flight on the other hand is a much larger company currently in its prime; it isn’t immediately obvious what they’re getting out of this, but I assume they have their reasons.

I’m especially nervous about this because Asmodée itself is part of the Eurazeo group, a publicly listed investment company with its fingers in a large number of different pies. To say the board game industry has had a fairly difficult relationship with the stock market would be an understatement. The most notorious example is that of Hasbro’s buyout of Wizards of the Coast and Avalon Hill. Hasbro began the 2000s owning the largest war games company (Avalon Hill), RPG (Dungeons and Dragons) and card game (Magic: the Gathering). It ended that decade having royally screwed all of them up, although Magic has since clawed its way back and D&D has just had a successful relaunch.

The problem is that PLCs’ main focus is on shareholder value, not necessarily on delivering good product for consumers. Add to that the fact that they almost always have to borrow to afford these buyouts and the focus within those companies inexorably becomes about profit. And if they don’t return the right numbers to keep the board happy, they have their work cut out explaining how their business works to a bunch of people with no knowledge of the industry. The result, if Wizards is anything to go by, is creatives getting the chop, gouging and a company which is less viable than it was before the takeover.

With all that said, as I said before, Fantasy Flight have always seemed like a sensible company which has learnt from the mistakes of its predecessors. It’s entirely possible that their current business model, with several highly successful product lines and more on the way, are the perfect fit for a PLC and that all this takeover will mean for them is access to resources and in particular capital to allow them to expand. There is a bigger question in continental Europe where a lot of FFG’s games are licensed to companies which are not part of the Asmodée group and what will happen to those companies (either merger or they’ll take a big hit being the most likely answer), but generally, this could be all steam ahead for FFG.

What makes me worry though is this: it has already been clear for quite some time that FFG have been lining their ducks in a row in anticipation for Star Wars: Episode 7. They currently publish or will soon be publishing three Star Wars roleplaying games, two Star Wars card games and three Star Wars miniatures games. Of these, Star Wars LCG and X-Wing are two of their biggest sellers, and the incoming Imperial Assault looks set to be as popular if not more so than these two. Like Disney-Lucasfilm, they have opted to ditch support for the prequels-era in favour of a line of products that very much harken back to the original films.

By December 2015, all these product lines will be very firmly established, and no doubt FFG are keen to have these games on the shelves of every supermarket, toy and book shop in time for Black Friday next year. No doubt, Asmodée’s takeover will help them in that respect (let’s ignore the plight of the specialist retailer here for a second), and there is a good chance they will be wildly successful. If, as everyone hopes, Episode VII is a hit and results in a new mega-franchise to rival Marvel’s (owned by the same company), then this could result in a significant boost for the company.

But there are two things that concern me here. Firstly, what if the new JJ Abrams’ film is rubbish? I’m sure it will make a lot of money either way, but a weak film will lack the sort of fanbase that FFG are hoping for. They’ll probably be safe for Christmas 2015 either way, but Christmas 2016 will be another story if the film is widely perceived to be another Phantom Menace. That potential will dry up and if any of those games are produced in large, unsellable numbers, a lot of money will be lost.

If the film is good, there’s still the question of what happens when the franchise winds down. Again, past precedent is not encouraging. Games Workshop almost collapsed in the mid-2000s when their cash cow in the form of the Lord of the Rings films came to an end. If FFG get big based on a film franchise, they are unlikely to be able to convert huge amounts of the mass market over to buying Twilight Imperium 4; they’ll be dependent on more franchises.

Under either scenario, there will come a point in which the company, while still profitable, will need to contract compared to its height, at which point the money men step in. And that’s when I get nervous. When Asmodée’s expansionist plans were limited to companies like Ticket To Ride, we weren’t looking at an investment company navigating its way through a boom (as distinct from a more sustainable period of growth). Now the fortunes of what amounts to a very large chunk of the industry is going to be at their mercy.

Hopefully, Episode VII will be a success and FFG will find the success it is hoping for for several years before it reaches that crossroad, by which point the relationship with the money men will have matured enough to avoid any panics making things worse during the inevitable lean years. But as of yesterday, an awful lot of my hobby suddenly became hitched to the fortunes of JJ Abrams’ film career, and so I’m nervous.

Rotation and Tabletop Economics

Wednesday was a big day in the world of tabletop gaming. While in the UK we were having bonfires around the country, in Roseville, Minnesota Fantasy Flight Games announced a bonfire of the Living Card Games. Well, a light singeing at any rate. To any non-tabletop gamer, and indeed any non-LCgamer, this will probably mean absolutely nothing. But it’s an interesting response to a growing problem which the fans of these games have recognised for a long time.

Ever since I worked in a comic shop in the early nineties during the speculator boom (and arguably going back to when Games Workshop decided to change their business model in the late 80s and alienate fans like myself), I’ve always had an interest in how economics impacts on hobbyist interests. Tabletop gaming is currently going through a bit of a renaissance, with convention visitor numbers up, the number of games exploding, and games starting to enter mainstream consciousness. To what degree this period of growth will be sustainable in the long term is an interesting moot point, and there have been a lot of busts in the past. Reading the excellent four volume Designers & Dragons as I did recently, it was made painfully clear how vulnerable tabletop gaming – in that case RPGs – are to such cycles, and the severe consequences when the industry takes a dive. Fantasy Flight Games in particular appear to be on a high right now – they more or less owned Gen Con this year with a succession of announcements which had their fans – especially Star Wars gamers – frothing at the mouth. Past experience suggests that at some point someone is going to make a big mistake and for this to all come crashing down around our ears. The question is, when?

I don’t want to suggest in any way that Fantasy Flight’s announcement on Wednesday is an early warning that that crash is imminent; quite the opposite. In fact it’s a sign of something I’ve felt for a while, which is that FFG are a generally very cautious and sensible company that is all too aware of the risks inherent in the industry.

CCGs and LCGs

First of all, a bit of terminology. Living Card Games is a trademark of FFG which they use to describe their customisable card games and the business model they use to market them. The model itself is now being adapted by other companies as a sign of its success. Customisable card game may require a little more explanation for people not familiar with the concept.

Most people will know what a card game is, whether its poker or Uno. The most significant thing that makes customisable card games different is that the players have their own decks of cards which are kept entirely separate from their opponent’s. What’s more, while a standard deck of cards might be finite – 13 cards for each suit plus one or two jokers – the different cards that might appear in a customisable deck is potentially infinite. Before the game itself, players will “build decks” by selecting cards from a pool of cards that they own. They can customise their decks however they like, as long as they stick to certain restrictions laid out in the rules of play.

The difference between a Collectable Card Game and a Living Card Game is how players acquire that pool. The first customisable card game – and the first Collectable Card Game – was Magic the Gathering. This game and its hundreds of imitators sold players cards in the form of starter decks and booster packs. The business model was essentially cribbed from trading cards (or football stickers, cigarette cards or bubblegum cards depending on what you’re more familiar with): the cards came in randomised packs, with some cards especially rare and hard to find. If you want a full set, you would need to buy many thousands of cards (seriously; I recently acquired a bunch of retail packs of a long out of print CCG called On the Edge. I’ve ploughed through two boxes – 1,800 cards – and still don’t have close to a full set of the basic 270 cards).

The Magic the Gathering CCG model was wildly successful in the mid-90s until it all came crashing down, taking retailers, distributors and publishers with it. Since then, Magic itself has remained a strong contender and a number of companies continue to do good business that way, but the mania that surrounded it has died down. Fundamentally, there are people who hate it as a model and won’t go anywhere near it. Even Wizards of the Coast, the publishers of Magic, have recognised this and increasingly sell pre-made decks for more casual players.

Fantasy Flight dipped their toes into the CCG business but in 2008 decided to switch to the LCG format. In their business model, there are no randomised packs (let’s park discussion about draft play for now). Instead, they sell core sets, boxed expansions and cycles of smaller packs of cards, all of which contain exactly the same cards. What LCGs lose by abandoning the random factor they gain in an increased focus on optimising decks and keeping up with the “meta” (the groupthink of the player base in which certain cards and strategems fall in and out of favour as more cards are published).

Rotation

The LCG model has been extremely successful for Fantasy Flight. Beginning by reformatting their Call of Cthulhu and Game of Thrones CCGs to the new model, they currently publish six games – including the wildly popular Netrunner – and retired a seventh earlier this year. The announcement they made on Wednesday is in response to that success.

The one thing FFG are good at doing is supporting their successful games, and that means expansions. For their more traditional board and card games, that’s relatively straightforward: sell a game, offer players the options of expansions and they can pick and choose what they want depending on their enthusiasm. The prevalence of expansions aren’t a huge barrier to entry for board games; they give you more variety and options but since all players are playing with the same set, there’s no competitive need to buy expansions.

LCGs are different. If you don’t buy all the cards, you have a competitive disadvantage to the players who do. At least, in theory; skill and practice is a generally a far bigger factor. Nonetheless, that drive for completion is real. Right now, completing the Game of Thrones card game means acquiring the core set, six boxed expansions, and 72 smaller packs. Each of those smaller packs will set you back a tenner, meaning that if you want to buy everything available right now, you will end up spending just shy of £900. The other games are less extreme, but by the end of this year, relative newcomer Netrunner will consist of a core set, three boxed expansions and 18 smaller packs, costing just under £300. That isn’t just a challenge for players; that’s a challenge for retailers who only have so much shelf and storage space.

There’s also another problem, and a different economics. Fundamentally, the more cards in the pool, the smaller an impact each additional card will make. This is mitigated by FFG deliberately taking note of and attempting to disrupt the aforementioned meta from time to time. Thus, if they spot that a specific card is being used in all the winning championship decks, they will set themselves the task of coming up with a new card that will weaken the power of the old one. It’s one of the most exciting aspects of LCGs, which is that play in the real world has a direct impact on future releases. But over time, their ability to keep evolving the game in that way becomes increasingly limited as more and more options become available to players. At that point, the theory goes at least, the game will become less exciting; it will no longer be “living”.

I haven’t ever played the Game of Thrones LCG for precisely the prohibitive entry restrictions that I outlined above, but I understand that the problems with the metagame outlined above have become acute with that game. Rather than try to fudge it, FFG have opted instead to simply bring out a new edition of the game and be done with it. For the other games however, they have decided to introduce a new system called rotation. What that amounts to is the smaller packs over time being declared not tournament legal and falling out of print.

The most interesting thing about all this to me is how modest a change this new policy amounts to. Because rotation will only kick in when a game reaches its eighth “cycle” (a cycle is a set of six thematically linked packs), at which point the first two cycles will be taken out of circulation. With FFG pumping out slightly less than two cycles a year for each LCG, that means that cards will have a tournament life of around four years. Contrast that with Magic the Gathering, which I understand has a rotation cycle of roughly 18 months.

The total tournament legal card pool will remain huge. For us Netrunner players, we still have five and a half cycles to look forward to before our cards start becoming obsolete and I personally can’t even visualise what a card pool that large will look like. It isn’t obvious to me how this will especially lower the barrier of entry for new players, although I suppose it will at least encourage them to invest in the newer cycles and box sets and not bother with the older ones which have less tournament life in them.

I suspect, also, that in reality a game will have to be doing extremely well to actually reach the stage when a cycle is rotated out. Hidden amongst all the announcements on Wednesday is the news that rotation won’t actually affect the Call of Cthulhu LCG because they won’t be producing any new cycles for it; it’s a complete game. The same has already effectively happened with Warhammer: Invasion. The Lord of the Rings is a cooperative game and thus players don’t have to worry about tournaments. It is by no means certain that the other LCGs – Netrunner, Star Wars and Warhammer 40,000: Conquest – will survive long enough.

The Future

I presume that Fantasy Flight wrestled over this a lot before settling on a change that will have such a modest impact. While I don’t think it is a backwards step, I do think they have hedged too much to avoid alienating the existing fanbase. For all its flaws, Magic the Gathering offers far more frequent jumping on points for new players, which explains its longevity (20 years and counting). I suspect that once the concept of rotation has bedded down, they will tweak it more in favour of bringing in new players.

What’s fascinating is seeing a tabletop games company explicitly planning over a period of five years. This represents a level of maturity generally unheard in the industry. The business plan of most games companies seems to be: produce a new game on a regular basis and, if it’s a hit, rush out a series of expansions and spin offs until the cashcow has been squeezed dry. To be fair, an increasing number of companies seem to plan their release schedule 1-2 years ahead, but Fantasy Flight seem to have a bigger picture in mind. And it seems to be working for them.

You can especially see this in their Star Wars game range. They’re currently supporting 8 Star Wars games (counting the three RPGs separately despite their compatibility), and it’s clear that they’ve had quite a far sighted release schedule in mind. With the new films on the horizon, it’s increasingly looking as if their game ranges will be maturing at exactly the right moment; a completely unprecedented bit of marketing synergy (if you can pardon the expression).

The million dollar question is, how much is too much expansion? LCGs, while apparently cheaper than CCGs, expect their players to sink around £170 into the game every year, and rotation won’t change that. The X-Wing miniatures game, while allowing for more specialisation (i.e. in LCGs, you have to buy all the different “factions” which are available to play in the packs; in a game like X-Wing you can focus on a single faction or even a handful of specific ships), costs even more to buy the entire range, and that is about to be joined by two more miniatures games this winter. If enough players suddenly snap and stop buying product, these games could suddenly see sales plummet. It hasn’t happened yet in this case, but there are past precedents (such as RPGs in the early 80s).

Fantasy Flight themselves appear to be quite mindful of that, and produce games in modest print runs. What’s mildly irritating to us consumers in terms of product being out of stock all the time, makes perfect sense for them. But the downside of this approach is cost. This was drilled home to me when I attended the giant Spiel convention in Essen this year, where you can buy German board games intended for the high street for literally half the equivalent US games typically cost. The former is produced in print runs of 500,000+ while the latter is frequently produced at runs lower than 5,000. The reason FFG charge £12 for a pack of 60 cards is because they don’t want to be left sitting on thousands of unsellable packs and come unstuck in the way that so many of their predecessors have done.

I’ve already heard grumblings about how much better value AEG’s new Doomtown Reloaded customisable card game compared to its Fantasy Flight equivalents. The reason is simple: AEG are looking to break into the market and only have one game to support: they have both the capacity and the incentive to undercut FFG. As FFG grow, an increasing number of their competitors must be making the same calculation. And while I think FFG are too cautious to create a boom (and AEG are a veteran company – this is not their first rodeo), I’m not so sure about everyone else. That’s a cause for some concern.

This year, the US gaming convention Gen Con is believed to have eclipsed the German Spiel for the first time in terms of attendance figures. Even here in the UK, Games Expo has been enjoying exponential growth over the last few years (of course, these conventions are still tiny compared to the largest computer game cons). It very much looks as if we’re on the cusp of a boom. We’ll almost certainly see a market contraction at some point; the question is when, and by how much. In the worst case scenario, this could see high street gaming stores – already in long term decline – obliterated. But if the lessons of the past can be learned, the overall impact – with the rise of board game cafés and mainstream consciousness – could still be positive. FFG’s announcement on Wednesday suggests to me that at least one company is very mindful of the risks and rewards at stake.

The Disney Star Wars films could at last bring a balance to the force

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NaBloPoMo November 2012My initial shock of discovering that George Lucas has sold Lucasfilm to Disney has given way to contemplation about what a post-Lucas Star Wars universe might look like.

For many people this is bad news; it simply means more bad films cashing in on the goodwill of a dwindling generation of fans who are destined to be disappointed. Sometimes I think Star Wars fans have very selective memories, choosing to forget not only that Star Wars all but invented film related merchandising as we now understand it, but that they lapped it up as kids as well. Would either Empire or Jedi had been anything like as successful as the were if their prospective fan bases hadn’t spent the previous three years tirelessly playing with their action figures and dreaming about what might happen in the next sequel? I doubt it.

The prequels failed for several reasons: bad scripts, an over reliance on CGI, poor directing and poor continuity with episodes 4-6. Most of the problems can be laid at George Lucas’ own door. If he had recognised his limits and handed directorial duties to other people – precisely as he had done with both Empire and Jedi – we would almost certainly have ended up with better films. Both iterations of the Clone Wars animated series have been both superior to the prequels and felt more Star Wars-y and it cannot be a coincidence that Lucas has been for the most part at arm’s length from them.

But there’s a more fundamental problem, and that is that they were prequels. Prequels are inherently problematic because you always know how they’re going to end – and what might make for satisfying backstory will often fail to work as drama itself. So, for instance, Padme always was a doomed character and making her more interesting would have been problematic in terms of tying into the later episodes (which isn’t to say that pretty much anyone could have done a better job with her than Lucas managed). To make things worse, the episodic format meant that they were stuck with telling a linear story that couldn’t really reference anything which we knew was to come later (see the Godfather Part 2 for an example of how a less restricted prequel could work – I understand there’s a TV edit somewhere with the story of both Godfather films put in chronological order; it sounds like an utterly awful idea).

And finally, you have the problem that, more than 30 years ago, Lucas chose rather arbitrarily to make A New Hope episode 4. The series could have sustained one prequel – two at a push – but it is pretty hard to deny that there simply wasn’t enough story to sustain three films (this is one of the reasons why I personally feel that Attack of the Clones is a worse film than Phantom Menace, but I won’t get into that right now).

In short, the two biggest handicaps of episodes 1-3 – the fact they were prequels and George Lucas himself – will not apply to episodes 7-9. It is hard to imagine how they could in any way be worse. And we should also be a little fair here: I would regard Attack of the Clones at its worst to be light years (never mind parsecs) ahead of a film like the latest Total Recall or any of the Twilight films. The Harry Potter films at their best fall far short of episodes 4-6. So the idea that making new Star Wars films will lead to a new dark age of commercial cinema is simple nonsense.

So, with that out of the way, what are my hopes for episodes 7-9? Well, for starters, I’m hoping they’ll be a continuation of episodes 1-6, not just a sequel. For me that means two things: it has to be about this whole “balance of the force” thing, and it has to feature Anakin/Vader as a significant character. However tempting it might be to simply ignore episodes 1-3, ultimately the final three films have to reflect on the prequels’ ideas – especially if they are to be in keeping with Lucas’s idea about repeating motifs and themes throughout the films as if they form an overall symphony (I might not like Lucas’s execution, but I’ve always thought he had some great ideas behind his films).

I’m not terribly familiar with the Star Wars New Republic expanded universe beyond the Dark Empire comics – and since there’s so much of it (and since no one will buy me the encyclopaedias – I probably never will). Generally though, I think they should avoid adapting anything which might have been written before. I also think they ought to resist the temptation of featuring the cast of episodes 4-6 too heavily, leaving them instead as mentor figures. The focus should instead be on a new generation of Skywalkers/Solos.

I said it should reflect on the balance of the force. This prophecy was discussed a lot in episode 1 but was barely touched on in the later films, except (and my memory may be flakey here), when it is announced that the prophecy is clearly wrong because Anakin has turned to the dark side. But it has long been speculated that, in fact, the prophecy was true. Anakin brings balance in two ways: firstly in bringing down the Old Republic, which has become infantilised by its over reliance on the Jedi (and here, Ryan Britt’s recent article about illiteracy is particularly instructive) and secondly by being instrumental in bringing down the Emperor. So we’ve seen him redress the balance, but what we haven’t yet seen is him restore some modicum of equilibrium.

The agenda of episodes 7-9 therefore must surely be to recount how that equilibrium was eventually achieved. Possibly this means getting to the roots of the Sith-Jedi conflict (and even how the Mandalorians fit into that).

As for Anakin himself, both 3 film cycles thus far have focused on his life as a Jedi Knight and as a Sith Lord. Both cycles end on him transforming into something new. The Revenge of the Sith states at the end that the blue glowing “life after death” form that we see both Obi Wan, Yoda and Anakin eventually become is a relatively new innovation discovered by Qui Gon Jinn, but this is thrown in as an almost throwaway line. For me, the films have to ultimately be about how Anakin in this new incarnation somehow plays a decisive role in restoring this final equilibrium.

Episode 9 therefore needs to be a real resolution in the way that episode 6 never was. That isn’t to say there can’t be any Star Wars films after that – indeed, by all accounts it is Disney’s plan to keep churning out Star Wars films after that for as long as they keep making money. But these films can be set in other times or focus on other characters.

Anyway, that’s how I see the films developing. I may well find myself disappointed, but I’ve never really understood why Star Wars has been treated as a a sacrosanct film series which should have a finite number of films, while it seems fine for other franchises to continue to churn out sequels endlessly. If this move to Disney means slightly less reverence, the franchise can only benefit.

UPDATE: I also wrote this for Unlock Democracy today, about the parlous state of democracy in the Old Republic: Unlock the Galaxy.

Just not Wicket

Wicket 4 LondonI’ve just heard that the Tories have shortlisted Warwick Lightfoot, star of Return of the Jedi, Willow and, of course, Leprechaun, for their candidate for London Mayor. I’ve always been a big fan of his work.

Seems like just the candidate to stuff Boris. After all, look as the mess he made of that Scout Walker!

UPDATE: I should have added a few gags about Professor Flitwick standing for Mayor of Diagon Alley – you know, for the kids – but you get the idea.