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.”
He says they started dreaming about over-the-top Force powers fairly early, starting with the Force Push, the power to manipulate objects, pushing or pulling them, or sending them flying. But The Force in this new game would be more devastating and powerful than ever before. Blackman told his team to make sure their Force Push was not “just knocking people over, but hitting with the force of a cannon ball. … We focused on the concept of kicking someone’s ass with The Force.”
They drew up a proposal and put together the video everyone has seen by now of a Jedi warrior using The Force to fling Storm Troopers around like rag dolls, at one point tearing a chunk from a metal structure and hurling it – Storm Trooper and all – across a vast distance. They felt they had it, the whole team was on board. It was time to take it to George.
“We were nervous,” Blackman said. They didn’t have to be. Lucas called the concept “perfect for a game” and gave them the green light almost immediately … and that’s when things got really interesting.
“We didn’t have a lot of technology, so we didn’t know what our limits were,” said Blackman. “Initially, as you could imagine, we bit off more than we could chew.” He said they went through several “resets.” “It is good for us to start shooting for the moon, but the team needs to be good about cutting often [and] aggressively.”
Blackman said beginning development without a lot of the tools they needed to make the game forced them to work on far more concept art than they would normally have ordered. A pleasant side effect of this was it allowed the artists to work more closely with the programmers once the tools were in place to start coding, making the final product much more fully realized.
But although the results were largely positive, Blackman said he wouldn’t necessarily do it the same way again. “If I had it to do over again, I’d set up a core team of prototypers.” He says having technology in-house to begin production earlier would have saved them some eventual headaches. Among them: bad middleware.
“Some of our third-party technology came back and bit us at the eleventh hour,” he said. “And it was really because we hadn’t done deep enough evaluation.” He said next time he’ll be more careful about buying tech.
And while we’re on the subject of next time, he had a little something to say about developing on the PS3 versus the Xbox 360. “Now that we know the inner workings of both platforms, it’s important for the next project we use the PS3 as the baseline.”
But the trials of working with other people’s tech paled in comparison to getting their own new tech working. The team was building technology not only for the game, but that also might be used by Lucas’ film unit, Industrial Light & Magic, most of which was breaking new ground for both videogames and movies. He said they were testing and developing so much new simulation technology that the main problem was getting it all to work well together. “If you’re doing this,” he said, “prepare for a massive bug count. Dealing with this stuff is incredibly unpredictable.”
Blackman hesitated to call his presentation a “post mortem” because the game is still in development. But he feels confident they rose to the challenges set before them almost four years ago, and that the new studio (and the new game and the new technology and the new development team) will all live up to expectations.
“We’re not building games for ourselves,” he said. “We’re building games for the consumers.” And judging from the crowd’s reactions to the all-too-brief glimpses of the story and combat still in development, I’d say they hit pretty close to the mark.
Russ Pitts is the Acquisition and Production Manager for The Escapist. His blog can be found at www.falsegravity.com.