The rise and fall of Lucasarts

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The rise and fall of Lucasarts
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LucasArts, the company responsible for defining certain game genres in the ’90s, is dead. Nathan Lawrence takes a closer look at the history, the legacy, the future and what could have been with Star Wars 1313.

Studio closures are hardly uncommon things nowadays, but it wasn’t so long ago that the gaming industry was being torn asunder by the terrifying realities of the Global Financial Crisis. Smaller studios were closing down every week, but when it came time for Ensemble Studios – makers of the Age of Empire series and juggernauts of the RTS genre – to close, it seemed that even the bigger names weren’t safe.

Thankfully, that maelstrom passed and weekly news reports were less fixated on studio closures, as there were far fewer to report. But that doesn’t mean it’s stopped entirely. In fact, in more recent times, studios both small and large have reported the tragic realities of final closure. But none have been as heartbreaking as Disney’s announcement that it would cease internal development at LucasArts and would lay off most of its staff on the 3rd of April, 2013. It will be a day long remembered.

Considering the awesome potential of the now-cancelled Star Wars 1313 and the embarrassing reality that the last LucasArts-branded game was the Jar Jar Binks-like Kinect Star Wars, it’s a deflating footnote for a company that helped to define genres and created a slew of quality titles both within and without the Star Wars universe.

We break down the ups and downs of the LucasArts story, what could have been with Star Wars 1313 with exclusive behind-the-scenes interviews, as well as taking a closer look at the future of Star Wars in the gaming world.

A long time ago
Back in 1982, two years after the release of The Empire Strikes Back and a year after Raiders of the Lost Ark hit screens, George Lucas was expanding his empire. He’d already created movie-powerhouse Lucasfilm, special-effects studio Industrial Light & Magic (ILM), sound-standard company THX and audio-wizards Skywalker Sound, and he now had his sights firmly set on the growing popularity of videogames. Lucasfilm Games was born in May 1982 and set up onsite with the aforementioned studios on the Lucasfilm Ltd campus in San Francisco, California.

Despite Lucasfilm Games’ crossover access to insanely popular IPs such as Star Wars and Indiana Jones, Star Wars games were licensed out to third-party developers for exclusive release on Nintendo consoles or in games arcades, while Indiana Jones was unknown in the gaming wilds. In cooperation with Atari, Lucasfilm Games’ first collaborations included 8-bit fly-and-rescue game Rescue on Fractalus! and sports-style title Ballblazer. Unfortunately for Lucasfilm Games, these first games leaked to pirate bulletin boards when Atari dropped the ball with unprotected marketing copies; both titles were in wide circulation months before official release.

Adventure has a name
While Lucasfilm Games was cutting its teeth on new IPs, it released Labyrinth: The Computer Game – based on the Lucasfilm movie of the same name. That title would act as a primitive precursor to the Script Creation Utility for Maniac Mansion (SCUMM) game engine, that would help to define a generation of point-and-click adventure games. As the expanded acronym suggests, Maniac Mansion was the first title to officially use the SCUMM game engine in 1987, which would continue to be used in adventure titles until 1998, when LucasArts switched to the 3D-friendly GrimE game engine for Grim Fandango and Escape From Monkey Island.

Before point-and-click went 3D and, ultimately, came close to genre extinction for many years post-Escape From Monkey Island, Lucasfilm Games – renamed LucasArts in 1990 during a re-organisation of all Lucas-prefix properties – was part of an adventure duopoly, competing directly with Sierra On-line for dominance in the popular genre. Famed titles such as Loom, The Secret of Monkey Island, Indiana Jones and the Fate of Atlantis, Sam & Max Hit the Road, Full Throttle and The Dig are a few strong examples of the beloved adventure titles LucasArts was producing.

A new hope
It wasn’t until 1993 that LucasArts alone developed and published a Star Wars title – Star Wars: Rebel Assault, a rail shooter that was considered to be a killer app for CD-ROM drives. But this was only the beginning of the early years of well-received LucasArts-made Star Wars games. In 1993, X-Wing (developed by Totally Games) was released, putting a Star Wars spin on the popular space-sim genre. One year later, TIE Fighter blasted its way onto CRT monitors, before LucasArts shifted genres to add Star Wars to the rising popularity of the first-person shooter with Dark Forces in 1995; its 1997 sequel, Jedi Knight: Dark Forces II, was credited with supporting the rise of dedicated 3D video cards.

Totally Games continued to take care of Star Wars space-sim entries, while LucasArts developed Dark Forces games (which would later become Jedi Knight titles and were outsourced), and forged the extremely well-received Nintendo 64-exclusive Shadows of the Empire in 1996. As the Star Wars IP continued to gain traction with gamers, there was an inevitable countdown to the release of the highly-anticipated return of Star Wars to the big screen in 1999: The Phantom Menace. To coincide with the release of The Phantom Menace and the subsequent Star Wars prequels, there was a saturation of Star Wars-branded games that favoured quantity over quality. With the exception of a few titles developed externally, LucasArts didn’t develop a quality Star Wars title until 2005’s Republic Commando, with its last quality Star Wars title being the original The Force Unleashed in 2008 – which was received well commercially and proved to be the best-selling Star Wars game of all time.

Lucky number 13
The lead up to and subsequent disappointing release of The Force Unleashed II was surrounded by internal controversy at LucasArts. One month prior to the release of The Force Unleashed sequel, LucasArts downscaled its internal development studio, and there were more staff layoffs after its release. Haden Blackman, the BAFTA award-winning mind behind the original The Force Unleashed game, unexpectedly left in July 2010, while Clint Hocking, a high-profile game director who’d been poached from Ubisoft, bowed out similarly before The Force Unleashed II hit shelves. The Star Wars name needed a facelift, and that intended new look was Star Wars 1313.

In July 2012, just one month after Star Wars 1313 had been revealed to the world at E3, we were living out a geek fantasy and visiting LucasArts to take a closer look behind the scenes of this bold attempt at reviving Star Wars on LCD screens. While LucasArts didn’t have a whole lot new on offer – in fact, they were showing off the same E3 demo and simply proving that it wasn’t pre-rendered – we left San Francisco believing that it was forging something truly special: a Star Wars tale that understood the perfect balance of story, characters and special effects, in that all-important order.

 

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