At the start of the video game industry in the early 80s, George Lucas invested in game development and let them do whatever they wanted.
We hear a lot about the spirit of indie games, and how they are able to do new things in games – things we couldn’t even imagine were possible. That spirit infected even some of the studios that had the financial weight of Star Wars behind them. As Noah Falstein explained at the LucasFilm Games postmortem at GDC 2014, George Lucas made a lot of money on his movies and needed somewhere to invest those millions so that it wasn’t just taxable income for him. He invested heavily in computer technology for his special effect teams, but also gave a lot of leeway to the group called LucasFilm Games. Many of the original members of the team were on the panel, as well as those who joined later like Ron Gilbert and Chip Morningstar, and they all confirmed the creative spirit was why the company’s games were so memorable and influential.
The team made games like Ballblazer and Rescue at Fractalus in part because they needed to prove the systems and tools they created worked. When David Fox joined the company, he was the first true game designer rather than a computer scientist. He was put in an office with Loren Carpenter, who was the guy behind the fractals in the Genesis Effect animation seen in Star Trek II. “I asked Loren ‘Is there any chance we could do a fractal based game on the Atari 6502?’ He laughed in my face,” Fox said. But then the next day, Carpenter came in and said there might be a way he could do it. He wrote a demo in three days, proving the concept and that was the genesis of the game that would be called Rescue at Fractalus.
“I wanted an environment that encouraged creativity and not marketing deadlines,” said Peter Langston. Although he admitted that he sometimes had to beg for the marketing team to release their games (“That’s the first time that ever happened”), the freedom allowed them to play and increase the “funativity quotient” of their games.
“My goal was to manage the group as a group of peers,” Langston said. LucasFilm games ran on a flat structure, now made popular by companies like Valve. If your idea for a game got the green light, you were suddenly a project manager and not just a programmer.
That’s what happened to Chip Morningstar, who had the idea for the first online multiplayer game that was called Habitat. Back in the late 80s, Quantum Link, the progenitor of America Online, came to them and wanted to hear pitches for something to use their new online service that connected Commodore 64 computers over a 300 baud modems. They liked Morningstar’s idea
“LucasFilm Games was egalitarian,” he said. “It didn’t matter if you were a designer or a programmer, everyone was entitled to contribute. Even though I was the tools guy. When this project got the green light, there I was.”
Habitat never ended up being played over the phone lines like it was designed, and that was partly due to the fact that it was so groundbreaking. “There was always a faction at Q-Link who didn’t understand how to talk about it,” Morningstar said. So it was killed. But the things Habitat did had lasting impact. Morningstar had to come up with ways to send packets of code over the small data limits modems had at the time. He’s still using the basic architecture he come up with then today.
“People said ‘You can’t do that.’ Well, we didn’t know we couldn’t do it so we did it anyway and it worked,” he said.
LucasFilm Games was told they couldn’t work on any Star Wars games. “I wanted [Rescue at Fractalus] to be a Star Wars game and I was told right off the bat that I couldn’t do that,” David Fox said, and he was pissed off at first. “I joined the company because I wanted to be in Star Wars.”
But the rest of the panel agreed that being forced to create new ideas and new stories was actually a very important part of their success. They didn’t have to work on the constraints of that sci-fi story. They could create their own. “We got to do our own creation,” general manager Steve Arnold said. “We were the only ones, other than George, who got to create new stories.”
Falstein said that had some strange effects within the whole of the LucasFilm empire. “I learned later that there was a lot of jealousy from the rest of the company,” he said. “These creative people were constrained by having to work within Lucas’ vision and here we were making whatever we wanted.”
In fact, the funny thing was that George Lucas had very little to do with the team. “George spent two or three hours per year working with our team directly,” Falstein said. Initially that felt like they were being neglected, but it ending up being a net positive.
Ron Gilbert was the young buck who made Maniac Mansion in 1987. “The first time I met George Lucas, he and Steven Spielberg had shaved off their beards to sneak into a showing of Star Wars without being recognized,” he said. “I first met a George Lucas without a beard. I felt ripped off.”
Gilbert is, of course, the mind behind some of the most memorable LucasFilm Games (and LucasArts titles like Monkey Island) but that all started with a crazy adventure game about teenagers getting trapped in a mansion. But it almost wasn’t. In fact, Gilbert thought he was going to be fired. “At one point, Steve pulled me into his office, and I had a talking to,” Gilbert said. “The game wasn’t progressing. David Fox came on because we needed an ‘adult’ on the team.”
What Maniac Mansion needed was a scripting language. Gilbert actually spoke to Chip Morningstar and the tech wizard created the backbone of famed SCUMM engine over a few days. It’s that engine which laid the groundwork for all of the LucasArts adventure games to come.
It’s those adventure games which shaped one of the most interesting competitions between game companies, mostly friendly. “I was jealous of their success,” Gilbert said of his relationship with Sierra. “King’s Quest sold like 10 times the amount of Maniac Mansion.” But Gilbert also said that the popularity of Sierra pushed those at LucasFilm to make even better games.
“We actually had a friendly baseball game once,” Gilbert said. “Which they won. But I’m not bitter.”