In the history of video games, there are few games business brands that can raise as many mixed emotions as LucasArts.
Having released over 160 games as both a developer and publisher (it signs external products, but lets partners like Activision handle the actual box shifting), on paper it should be one of the most beloved studios in existence.
In some ways it is: the firm helped define the classic adventure category with games like Monkey Island and has released a number of best-selling and well-reviewed Star Wars games.
But in many way it isn’t so beloved. It effectively helped kill off the adventure game genre when it didn’t become financially attractive – and it released a lot of games based on Star Wars.
It was a strategy that meant the studio, after its 1990s hey day, lost its shine as no genre went unturned in the move to chase profits and turn Star Wars into everything from a respectable FPS to a kart racer. The headcount of its internal teams fluctuated in line with the over-milked licence’s fortunes. And as time went on games like LEGO Star Wars – not even developed internally – were the exception, not the rule.
Not ideal for a company that Star Wars creator George Lucas set up in 1982 to experiment in the new medium of games with the then cutting edge Atari.
This was something the firm’s newer CEO Darrell Rodriguez understood all to well when he joined the company two years ago.
Rodriguez may have kept a low-ish profile in the time since, but LucasArts has not. In the last year, it has turned around its reputation amongst the industry and fans with an increasingly active digital strategy.
Classic games have been re-released digitally for PC, while the firm has embraced its history with Monkey Island for iPhone, and an original episodic sequel on the Wii.
Although LucasArts was riding high off of The Force Unleashed when former Electronic Arts LA boss Rodriguez was drafted in, these new developments – even if they are simply older Lucas efforts given new life digitally – were the first steps in shifting perceptions away from LucasArts as ‘the Star Wars company’.
“Star Wars is very important to us, and we understand what makes a good Star Wars game,” he says.
“But now we are also looking for original IP – internally and externally – and we’re really open to those opportunities as they come along.
“The big change is that we listen to our fans. We listened to them in bringing back the old games, and reimagining them while providing the classic ones. We have a rabid fanbase – and we want to keep them happy.”
Keeping the fans happy has become a big issue for LucasArts while Rodriguez gradually pushes the firm into new fields and new ways of working.
That doesn’t mean things like 3D, Hollywood’s latest fad (“It’s an interesting field and I saw some demos for games in 3D a while back,” he says. “But it’s something to watch and see what the opportunity is.”)
Instead Rodriguez is more interested in reaching mass audiences, and the core fans, via a direct dialogue online, not box office showboating.
The iPhone, XBLA and WiiWare games the firm put out last year are quite a contrast to the Lucas of old, which was reluctant to acknowledge its history let alone stretch beyond Star Wars.
“Digital distribution is one of our pillars now,” explains Rodriguez, pointing out that demand from its audience drove the firm’s plans.
“I am one of those people that doesn’t think retail is going to go away, but digital is an area that consumers actually want us to be in – so we’ll go deeper in. We’ve learnt a lot in the last year from the way we’ve used Steam, Direct2Drive and XBLA.”
Twitter and Facebook have also become key vehicles for the firm as it looks to court established, lapsed and also new LucasArts fans.
“Consumers are evolving and changing quickly – they want social and accessible game and experiences. And the same goes for why we are all over Twitter and Facebook – we want to talk to them and they expect us to be there. It’s relevance.”
It seems to be working. When it came to talking about XBLA game Lucidity – the first internally-developed original LucasArts game since Grim Fandango in 1998 – the team first teased it through Twitter.
The game itself may end up a briefer note in the firm’s history, but it’s an example of the shift going on inside its publishing and development teams.
Meanwhile the re-release of some of its most treasured games has also reenergised fans.
“We’re now reaching both new audiences and old ones,” says Rodriguez. “We have a wall of fan letters – young people write to us, as do the old timers like me. The games are timeless, and re-releasing them maintains that.”
But LucasArts isn’t switching to just digital content – the firm has a healthy, if smaller than before, slate of big budget boxed games which rely on the clout of retailers. Given Rodriguez’s view that digital isn’t going to eliminate retail, it’s clear he thinks LucasArts can work in both fields.
And while the firm’s two big releases this year may just be Star Wars sequels – LEGO Star Wars III: The Clone Wars, and The Force Unleashed 2 – Rodriguez points out a number of added features in the games, rather than the incremental and arguably irrelevant changes provided by the overly-prolific line of Star Wars games in the past.
“The progress our internal team made from The Force Unleashed to its DLC, then to the Sith Edition which packaged it into one disc, and now TFU2 – well, it’s phenomenal. It looks great and plays well. We sold over 7m copies of the first game.”
“It has a big fanbase and we’re confident they will come back. And we’re still in a great relationship with [LEGO developer] TT Games.”
He adds that LucasArts “will continue to use external partners”, suggesting that there are more externally-made projects to talk about soon.
Beyond those two titles, there’s Star Wars: The Old Republic – a project with a huge production force (and budget to match, no doubt) that will take the franchise to MMO territory.
There’s still a year to go on The Old Republic, even though it was announced in 2008, and already LucasArts has shopped it around at Gamescom, E3 and other events.
“PR and promoting it is very important for this kind of game,” says Rodriguez.
“The technicality of building an MMO is a drastic undertaking – you don’t do it lightly.”
The Old Republic is being made by EA’s BioWare Austin studio and will be published by EA, too. That company’s publishing and development teams are a key ally when it comes to successfully transferring the Star Wars IP to MMO, and being able to turn it into a business that has the potential to challenge Blizzard’s World of Warcraft, he says.
There are other keys to making a Star Wars MMO work, says Rodriguez (Sony Online Entertainment tried before with the underwhelming Star Wars Galaxies).
“Our secret is story and characters. That’s something our phenomenal IP has, and a partner like BioWare is well known for. So far I’m excited by the progress The Old Republic is making – and the excitement from the industry and consumers when we’ve shown it proves it’s going to be a great game. A huge game.”
Of course, story and IP isn’t the real secret weapon for LucasArts – it still is, and always will be, access to the Star Wars label. It’s a brand that can sell just about anything. Hence why it is intrinsic to the firm’s retail releases.
So to everyone else in the video games space, it would seem like Lucas’ strengths are its – and its alone. But Rodriguez says there are lessons others can take from LucasArts’ transformation.
The first is authenticity. When it comes to talking to fans, “passion is important,” he says.
Rodriguez reckons it’s easy to tell when marketing on social networks aren’t handled with a fan’s mindset, and are treated like ‘just a job’. That extends to the way games are made, too – for Lucidity, the company shut down for a week and split its workforce into groups of five to brainstorm new game ideas.
The other element is its flexibility. He says: “LucasArts is at a size where we can be agile, and we can respond quickly – it’s exactly where we need to be.”
And when the two work together, LucasArts’ digital plan and direct dialogue with fans influences everything, from business strategy to production.
“It’s not just a marketing thing. It really does help the way we deliver and develop our games.”