GDC 2014 - LucasArts Post-Mortem

LucasArts post-mortem
LucasArts post-mortem

“Stay small. Be the best. Don’t lose any money.” – George Lucas’s original directive to the team of Lucasfilm Games

In providing a forum to discuss the design, philosophy, ambitions and future of interactive storytelling, the Game Developers’ Conference (GDC) has hosted a number of post-mortems for computer games throughout its more than 25-year history. At GDC 2014, however, the conference held its first ever post-mortem dedicated to the story of an entire studio. In this case, it examined the rise and fall of one of the great adventure gaming companies of the 1990s, Lucasfilm Games (which became LucasArts in 1990).

Noah Falstein

The post-mortem was moderated by Noah Falstein, who was one of the first designers that George Lucas tapped to begin a games division under the rapidly expanding Lucasfilm empire of the early 1980s. Falstein performed his duties wearing Google Glass, a nod to his most recent employment as chief game designer for Google.  He opened the session by asking how many people had ever played a LucasArts game. Nearly everyone in the audience clapped or raised a hand. Joining him on the panel were fellow Lucasfilm Games alumni Steve Arnold, Peter Langston, David Fox, and Chip Morningstar, as well as adventure gaming legend Ron Gilbert.

More than just a nostalgic journey through the company’s past, the post-mortem also provided a compelling analysis of what made it possible for the company to take so many chances while creating a corporate community that nurtured innovation and creativity. (Although the panel was a little rose-colored about the studio’s history: the company’s eventual downfall and dissolution, and the reasons behind it, were barely mentioned.)

Lucasfilm / LucasArts logos over the years

Lucasfilm Games was initially conceived as a method to avoid the tax penalties incurred from the runaway commercial success of George Lucas’s film franchises – most notably Star Wars and Indiana Jones. Lucas could avoid the fees by reinvesting in his own company, so he created a computer division of Lucasfilm. After the release of the final film of the original Star Wars trilogy, Return of the Jedi in 1983, Lucas directed the computer division to explore what he believed could be a revolutionary creative field: computer gaming. His first decision was to hire Langston to recruit and manage a new team of gaming pioneers. “I wanted to create an environment that allowed and encouraged creativity, not marketing deadlines,” said Langston. “I tried to manage the group as a group of peers.”

Lucasfilm’s initial games, designed for Atari’s primitive 800 and 5200 computer systems, may seem crude by today’s standards – it wasn’t until much later that they would create classic adventure games for personal computers – but they did provide several interesting historical technical and aesthetic innovations. Langston himself wrote the music for 1984’s Ballblazer, which featured an improvisational musical algorithm designed to give context to what was happening during the frenetic arcade game’s play. Another game, Rescue on Fractalus! (1984), featured a fractally-generated alien landscape for the player to fly over in a spaceship (as well as one of the very first surprise twists in a game).

Peter Langston. Photo by Rick Browne / Picture Group for San Jose Mercury News,
May 9, 1984. Click to view the article.

After bringing in Langston and committing resources to the division, Lucas’s direct involvement with the company was minimal. “The joke with George was that when we were presenting to him… he would look at something and consider it very deeply and say ‘great!’ and that was it,” said Arnold, who was poached directly from Atari by Langston. “Getting a ‘great’ was a good outcome when you were presenting to George.”

Beyond providing the brief philosophical edict quoted above, Lucas had only established one more rule for the new team. They were forbidden to use any of the film division’s artistic properties. “We were told right up front that we were not allowed to do Star Wars titles,” said Fox, one of the team’s first full-time game designers. “I was really upset – I had joined the company because I wanted to be in Star Wars.”

This restriction, however, was cited by the panel as one of the main reasons for Lucasfilm Games’s early creative success. The limitation forced the young team to create entirely new worlds from scratch that weren’t bound to existing narrative canon or physical rules. “We were creating a culture that was designed around innovation… We had the brand of Star Wars, the credibility of Star Wars, and the franchise of Star Wars, but we didn’t have to play in that universe. We were a group that lived inside a super-creative, technologically astute company and we got to do our own invention… We got to make up our own stories and call them Lucasfilm,” said Arnold.

The team on the cover of Atari Connection, Spring 1984. (L-R) David Levine, Peter Langston, Gary Winnick, David Fox and Charlie Kellner. Click to view the full cover.

Interestingly enough, the direction to create new IPs also caused some tension within the company itself. “Unbeknownst to me at the time, it [the freedom] turned out to be the source of a lot of jealousy in other parts of the company, because here we were getting to create our own stuff, and all of these other really creative, really capable people were forced to march to George’s vision,” said Morningstar.

The panel likened the experience of working for Lucasfilm Games during the early days to a contemporary independent game or film company. The videogame industry was still in its infancy, and the rigidity of catering to market projections and demographic metrics was still years away, which allowed the game designers a singular opportunity for playful experimentation. “We were really driving towards trying to figure out how we could we take this franchise that people associated with George and Lucasfilm, which was innovative storytelling, and apply it to this new interactive world. We invented lots of different things because we had permission to do that,” said Arnold.

Perhaps one of the most interesting (if potentially ill-fated) experiments by Lucasfilm Games was Habitat, conceived before the term Massively Multiplayer Online game (or MMO) had even been invented. Predating Linden Lab’s Second Life by decades, Habitat allowed players to connect their computers, such as the popular Commodore 64, through the era’s primitive modems to a virtual cartoon space that they could explore with other users. A product well ahead of its time, Habitat was one of the company’s few early commercial failures, although it is still lauded for its extraordinary ambition. (The idea of pushing such large quantities of data through 300 baud modems had been previously considered a nearly heretical impossibility.) “We didn’t know you couldn’t do that, so we just went and did it, and it worked!” said Morningstar, one of Habitat’s designers who even helped coin the now-ubiquitous term “avatar” for players in the game’s virtual playground.

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May 24, 2014

Great write up.

I just wish that AmberfishArts would crack on with the unofficial ‘Fate Of Atlantis’ follow up.

May 26, 2014

Great Article - also explains why originality and soul was too be found within games. One of the major contributing reasons, why people hold such fond memories of these titles. 

The indie scene is taking up this void- and Kickstarter efforts are certainly reaching for that magic ! - it will only be a matter of time, before that ineffable ‘awesomeness’ is located soon :-)

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