GDC 2008

GDC 2008: Rebooting LucasArts

Russ Pitts | 22 Feb 2008 15:00
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In 2004, after almost a decade of dwindling relevance, the games division of George Lucas' empire received a shot in the arm.

LucasArts was tasked by the bearded one to reinvent itself, develop new technologies, revitalize the company's existing franchises with AAA game titles and rebuild the studio which had, through attrition and various other forces, been largely abandoned.

"If we were an independent developer," said Haden Blackman, LucasArts Project Lead, "any one of those risks would have raised huge doubts to a publisher." But not to Lucas, who basically said, and I paraphrase: "Eh, go for it."

"We didn't know what the game was going to be," said Blackman, "but it had to be an event in its own right. And couldn't be a sequel to an existing game."

The game was to be developed for Xbox 360 and PS3. It was to be a Star Wars game. And ... that's it. They were basically given a blank slate. One would think this would be a good thing - it wasn't.

"We didn't know what the game would look like," said Blackman. "Until we knew the game, we didn't know what the tech would look like." This created problems.

To make matters worse, LucasArts had just moved in to the new Lucas campus at San Francisco's historic Presidio. New studio, new game, new technology, new team ... oh yes, Blackman had to hire a new team.

"We were building the studio from scratch," he said. "The culture was changing rapidly."

Since they hadn't yet hired a recruitment manager, former President Jim Ward put on that hat and took responsibility for bringing the "as yet unnamed" game team from 10 to a size more befitting a AAA development team. This involved a lot of flying around the country, interviewing prospects and staffing positions that hadn't yet been decided upon, to make a game that hadn't yet been decided on using tools that ... you get the picture.

Blackman and his crew spent six months looking for the right game concept, writing and rejecting a number of game ideas, each one eventually coming before George Lucas. There was a smuggler game, a game about the first rebel agent and a game set in the far future of the Star Wars universe.

"One overriding fantasy we couldn't escape," said Blackman, "was 'I want to be a Jedi.'" So the team leaned heavily on concepts that would take the player down the path to the light or dark side.

Lucas emphasized the importance of story, a lesson the team took to heart - but not at first. Blackman recounted a harrowing tale of presenting a concept involving a superhero wookie. He called it "a humbling experience."

Lucas lambasted the team for wasting his time, wondering why, after talking with him for an hour about the importance of story and dialogue, they'd presented him with a game concept starring a protagonist who couldn't talk. "Let's move along," he said. And so they did.

Echoing Ken Levine's suggestion from his lecture on Wednesday that a story can be about an alien visiting Earth, or an Earthling visiting an alien world, but not both, Blackman wanted his Star Wars game to be at once familiar, but different. The team, as you probably know by now, settled on the time period between the two Star Wars trilogies. Blackman says Lucas filled them in on the politics of the time period, and agreed that Darth Vader should be a central part of the game.

They decided their main character would be Darth Vader's secret apprentice, starting the game as a dark-side Jedi warrior, "but that's not necessarily how he ends up," Blackman said. "We wanted to re-imagine Star Wars, re-imagine The Force."

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