The Needles

The Needles: What's Become Of LucasArts?

Andy Chalk | 23 Sep 2008 21:00
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RPG players did well with the very solid Knights of the Old Republic, although the sequel could've been handled better, while MMOGers got Star Wars Galaxies, which is apparently still grinding away somewhere, or so I'm told. Maybe you'd fancy something a little more exotic: A racing game, perhaps? Try Star Wars Episode 1: Racer. You're a small child? LEGO Star Wars. Board game fan? Star Wars Monopoly.

Yes, Star Wars Monopoly, and yet nobody at LucasArts seemed to think that their licensing efforts had just maybe gotten a little out of hand. Despite a brief burp of releases a few years ago that included the sadly underrated Armed & Dangerous (pictured) and the horribly bastardized Secret Weapons Over Normandy, LucasArts has held fast to the Star Wars franchise for well over a decade, and shows no signs of letting go.

The company's latest title, Star Wars: The Force Unleashed, is a fine case in point. Despite huge levels of hype and a generally positive response to the "multimedia project" as a whole, the game itself has earned relatively low marks. It currently sits with an average Metacritic score of just over 68 across all platforms; not an abject failure, perhaps, but far from good by any measure. Worse for LucasArts, it's not just a sub-par game but also a sign that the buying public, who at one point would have lined up for days to buy crap on toast if it was an official Star Wars product, is growing more critical and demanding of solid entertainment in their licensed videogames. That's bad news indeed for a company that's grown accustomed to doing little but shamelessly milking a franchise.

So how does a widely respected force in the industry slip to such a pale and largely irrelevant shadow of its former self? Put simply, LucasArts fell prey to a phenomenon familiar to gamers who were lucky enough to spend time with its early flight sims: "Target fixation," a kind of tunnel vision in which fighter pilots become so focused on what they're shooting at that they fail to take notice of the ground rushing up at them at 250 miles per hour. It's easy to fall into, and it can be deadly.

Other companies have stumbled down similar paths (EA Sports, anyone?) but none have embraced the journey quite as willingly as LucasArts. While this is no doubt due in part to its unique access to the Star Wars brand, it should nonetheless serve as a cautionary tale to other developers searching for their own particular Holy Grail. A great licensed property can be a tremendous boon, but it can also lead to aimlessness, bloated over-reliance on formula, creative bankruptcy and ultimately, an ignominious downfall. LucasArts shows absolutely no sign of making a significant shift away from George's most famous franchise, and by all appearances the company will live and, eventually, die on the Star Wars name and whatever it can wring out of it. It's a sad fate for a company that two decades earlier was one of the industry's brightest lights - but man, you shoulda seen 'em back in the day.

Andy Chalk has nothing against Star Wars, really, although he thinks all this "Episode IV" nonsense is kind of silly.

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