This year at E3, two of the hottest titles on show will be Star Wars-based.
A Kinect game that finally marries motion controllers with Jedi skills and lightsaber battles, and the MMO The Old Republic.
However neither of them are developed or published by the ‘house of Star Wars’ itself LucasArts. That’s a pretty telling fact about the situation George Lucas’ owned studio faces right now. Although it has access to an IP with near-limitless potential, it’s having to let the likes of an internal Microsoft studio and EA’s prized BioWare do the heavy lifting.
Not for much longer, according to LucasArts’ newest president Paul Meegan.
A former exec from Unreal Engine and Gears of War creator Epic Games, his appointment was announced at E3 2010. But he refused interviews over the subsequent 12 months. Granted, he was probably too busy cleaning house to think about satisfying the media.
Last year, the firm downsized by a third as production wrapped on Star Wars:?The Force Unleashed II, a lukewarm sequel to the 2008 original – itself the only notable release after a tumultuous revamp during the last decade.
But that’s the end of the turmoil, Meegan tells MCV in his first interview since taking charge.
And his answer to our first question – what’s changed since you took over? – is the most telling. “LucasArts is a company with tremendous potential,” he says. “I think people look at it and wonder just why it hasn’t done better in recent years.
“Lucasfilm has some of the most beloved and powerful brands in entertainment, we have a loyal community of fans, and talented people in every discipline. We’re surrounded by staggeringly bright and creative people at the top of their games.
“And yet, in recent years, LucasArts hasn’t always done a good job of making games.
“We should be making games that define our medium, that are competitive with the best of our industry, but we’re not. That has to change.”
RETURN OF THE JEDI
There’s a fairly clear solution to that problem, he says: “For me, it all starts with good product, getting our teams focused on big opportunities, and giving them what they need to succeed. We’re making a commitment to quality, and for that to work, it’s something we have to demonstrate every day.”
So when it comes to that revamp last year, the company is now “structured to support our creative teams and to really focus on the fundamentals of gameplay and execution. We’ve got talented people in our San Francisco and Singapore studios, and are selectively bringing in more. We’re working hard, and we’re starting to have fun.”
A long time ago, LucasArts was that magic blend of developer-publisher; quality came first, many games cashed in on Lucas IP but didn’t cheapen them, and the boring stuff like distribution was left to someone else.
Those same aspirations are still true today, but haven’t been proven much of late. In fact, all of Star Wars’ biggest game plays recently have been developed by all and sundry outside of LucasArts – the kid-focused online Clone Wars game is by Sony Online Entertainment, the long-running LEGO spin-offs by British outfit Traveller’s Tales.
Meegan’s now focused on reclaiming those glories for the internal development staff.
He adds: “Our priority is to create authentic, immersive, high quality Star Wars games. We need to focus on that.”
USE THE FORCE, LUCASARTS
A recent announcement that LucasArts will be using the Unreal Engine, from Meegan’s old employer Epic Games, to build its next games was the first sign the company wants to cut to the chase.
“It doesn’t make for as juicy a story, but LucasArts was already evaluating Unreal Technology when I came to the company,” says Meegan when we ask about the correlation between his old and new employers.
“I have a huge amount of trust and respect for [Epic Games founder] Tim Sweeney and his team. They’re some very smart, very dedicated people, and Tim is always looking ahead.”
The choice of Unreal is based on a few factors, he explains.
“The tools and pipeline are well thought out and powerful, the technology supports a wide variety of platforms, we get online and multiplayer functionality out of the box, and it’s battle tested. Where we need to do something that Unreal doesn’t, we’re building on it. We’ve got some supremely talented engineers, and you’ll continue to see cutting edge rendering, lighting and animation – all things where we’ve demonstrated excellence.”
It’s a far cry from the ambitious but unfulfilled claims LucasArts was making at E3s past – most notably the 2006 show where demos of next-gen Star Wars (which would become Force Unleashed) and Indiana Jones games (a now dead project). Back then, Lucas execs were insisting that the games and film production processes could be merged, but only with expensive, bespoke technology. Meegan suggests that his predecessors were well intentioned but going about it the wrong way.
“What we’ve learned is that it’s not necessarily about merging game and film pipelines, it’s about convergence of expertise. It’s also about the right timing. Because we have so much hard-won institutional capability at Lucasfilm, with ILM and our other divisions, we have a unique opportunity to do something spectacular.
“Right now, our teams are taking a hard look at digital humans, advanced rendering, lighting and lensing. The fact that we get to apply all of this to intellectual properties that so many people care about makes it worthwhile.”
STRIKING UP THE EXCITEMENT
One of LucasArts’ few notable successes in recent years was a push to iPhone and PC/Mac with a revival of classic games. Will apps and downloads be a key part of the new strategy? “Digital is crucial to our strategy. But it goes beyond apps,” adds Meegan.
“Star Wars lends itself to all kinds of games – connecting players and giving them deeper experiences. Stay tuned.”
Outside of that, however, it’s no surprise that Meegan isn’t ready to say what those first ‘worthwhile’ projects are just right now. But clearly, he has taken to heart the idea that the development team has to be as excited about the project as the Star Wars fanbase that they will be serving.
“We’re not ready to talk about specific games yet,” he confirms.
“What I can tell you is that we’re taking a look at our big franchises, iconic characters that have never been featured in a game, and new properties within the Star Wars universe that are jaw-dropping.
“What matters to me is that people in the company are getting excited. We’re doing something we believe in – respecting our medium, and breaking new ground.”