Several former executives at Nottingham studio Free Radical have accused LucasArts of using "stalling tactics" to avoid paying the studio for its work on Star Wars: Battlefront 3.
Speaking to Eurogamer, co-founder and director David Doak, co-founder Steve Ellis, and ex-audio director Graeme Norgate described how a change of management at LucasArts was followed by obvious efforts to ensure Free Radical failed to meet development milestones, describing the people he dealt with as "psychopaths" and saying the saga led to him having a nervous breakdown.
LucasArts approached Free Radical in 2006, with then-president Jim Ward asking the Timesplitters studio to make Battlefront 3 as part of his strategy to reboot LucasArts IPs. After that strategy was deemed a failure, Ward left the company, and his replacements were, it appears, anything but supportive of Doak and his team.
"[Ward's exit] was worrying," Doak said, "but it didn't seem like it would be a bad thing. And then we went from talking to people who were passionate about making games to talking to psychopaths who insisted on having an unpleasant lawyer in the room."
Ward's replacement was Darrell Rodriguez, and in the months that followed LucasArts laid off huge numbers of staff in a bid to reduce its outgoings by half. "For a long time we talked of LucasArts as the best relationship we'd ever had with a publisher, co-founder Steve Ellis said. "Then in 2008 that disappeared, they were all either fired or left. [Rodriguez] had been brought in to do a job, and it was more to do with cost control than making any games."
The description of what followed is shocking. The publisher embarked on a campaign of what Norgate calls "stalling tactics," shifting the goalposts to ensure the studio failed to meet milestones and therefore wasn't paid as agreed. "If a publisher wants to find something that is wrong with a milestone, it's very easy for them to do so as there are so many grey areas within a deliverable.
"If the contract says, 'graphics for level X to be release quality,' who can say what's release quality? And there you have it… We hadn't been paid for six months."
Doak elaborates: "In many ways it was a depressing farce talking to them. They had an agenda motivated by purely financial concerns. Their goal was to stop doing it. And it didn't matter that we had a contract that protected us." Ellis puts that into context: "What we found out in 2008 is that your contract is only worth as much as how far you can pursue it in court."
Doak says these "unpleasant high-level discussions with psychopaths" drove him to a nervous breakdown, and after unsuccessfully attempting to get Timesplitters 4 signed by a publisher, Free Radical went into administration, with 140 staff losing their jobs before Crytek stepped in and turned the company into Crytek UK, which is still trading today and is currently developing the Homefront sequel for THQ.
With all this in mind, it's perhaps no surprise that co-founder Steve Ellis has set up Crash Labs, a studio focused on small mobile games, with fellow ex-Rare staff. He told us this week that he was happy to have turned his back on the industry he helped build, eschewing risky big-budget games and loss-making FPSes.