Free Radical was a British game studio of ex-Rare devs best-known for the TimeSplitters series, and almost as well-known for the disastrous flop of PlayStation 3 exclusive Haze. Free Radical went bankrupt shortly after releasing Haze, but the death blow might've really come from the cancellation of Star Wars: Battlefront 3, an ambitious game intended to mix on-ground strategy with spacefaring dogfights: You controlled your character on the surface in gigantic battles, but could hop in a ship and zoom up into space. The above video is a leaked internal showreel from 2008.
Free Radical was several years into development when it decided the project needed a delay, went to LucasArts, and discovered that LucasArts would rather cancel the game and cut its losses. It was a brutal decision, especially considering the cancellation came when Battlefront 3 was "2 yards from the finish line," one of the former developers said this week. "An absolute crime."
Ever since news and footage of the project leaked, including irresistible stuff like the concept art for 'dark' Obi-Wan Kenobi, fans and the people who worked on it have wondered what might have been. Michael Barclay was a junior designer at Free Radical at the time and is now a lead designer at Naughty Dog, credited on games including The Last of Us: Part II and Uncharted: The Lost Legacy. Responding to one of those game dev twitter prompts about the "one that got away" in your industry career, Barclay said:
"I feel like it’s been long enough now to come out and say Star Wars Battlefront III was gonnae be legit incredible and the fact it got cancelled 2 yards from the finish line is an absolute crime. Gamers don’t know what they were robbed of."
Impressive internal footage is one thing, and does not a finished game make, but Barclay's sentiment is probably shared by anyone who loved Timesplitters and wondered what this last big Star Wars hurrah could have been. Battlefront 3 was concepted in the era when Jim Ward was LucasArts president and was looking to reboot some of its classic properties: A strategy that met mixed success with the likes of The Force Unleashed and an aborted Indiana Jones action game.
"They had good but very ambitious ideas about technology," said Free Radical co-founder David Doak. "And they seemed like nice people. We were fairly disappointed with where we were with Haze, and so even though we thought we didn't want to do work for hire as a principle, the fact that the work for hire was Star Wars did make a difference—it's not a bad one. It was also a fantastic tonic for the troops at Free Radical, because you don't have to go very far in development to find someone with Star Wars shit on their desk. It looked like a marriage made in heaven."
Free Radical worked on Battlefront 3 from 2006 until its cancellation in 2008. "It was so ambitious because you had to populate an environment like that on a scale like that, so we had some tough nuts to crack," says Doak. "We were continually trying to improve that, and it was going well, in fact it was going so well that we were going to make two, and they were letting us do some really interesting stuff with the mythology."
But LucasArts had lost faith in Ward's 'reboot', and in early 2008 he left the company. The new management immediately set about cutting LucasArts' outgoings by half and cancelling projects. Free Radical was hitting milestones but LucasArts simply stopped paying them.
"I've seen some people saying 'how can they cancel something that was finished,'" said Doak, "And to be fair [Battlefront 3] wasn't finished, but it was very far from a car crash and had interesting ideas. They had some edict from above about restructuring, had to save a certain amount of money per year, and there you go. Game over."
Free Radical's Star Wars: Battlefront 3 will always be a might-have-been, and who knows: It may well have turned out rubbish. I think what sticks around about this one though is it wasn't cancelled because it looked bad, but because bean counters somewhere decided it was too costly a project. Here's more about the events that transpired to cancel Battlefront 3, and bring Free Radical down.