Haden Blackman’s surprise exit from LucasArts today will leave a Death Star-sized creative vacuum at the distinguished games firm. The producer and writer abruptly brought an end to his distinguished thirteen-year spell at LucasArts, where he became a familiar face across the industry and a frequent and illuminating speaker at trade events.
When Develop recently caught up with Blackman, not knowing of his departure, he appeared upbeat about the prospects for The Force Unleashed 2. The prequel, however, nearly killed the studio.
In his last interview at LucasArts, Blackman speaks candidly about the unrelenting problems, challenges and nightmares that came about regarding the first game in the Force Unleashed trilogy.
How satisfied was the LucasArts team upon the release of Star Wars: The Force Unleashed?
I think we were satisfied from the fact that we got it done. Building a game, while building a team, while building a studio, while building an engine, while building a toolset was a huge undertaking.
We obviously didn’t expect critics to take that into account when the reviews for the game came in, but for us personally we felt like we had a number of victories with the game.
Just the fact that we got the game done at all… just a huge success for us. That phrase that a poem is never finished, only abandoned, I think is true to videogames as well.
A lot of people, such as David Braben, said the potential of the game was huge.
Yeah absolutely and that’s the thing for all game developers. Even if you get a [review score] 95 game, there’s still that five per cent. There’s always ideas on the cutting-room floor, and there’s always things you could have spent more time on, there’s always all that potential there. That was frustrating for us.
So it was especially frustrating when we read about criticisms that we identified, but hadn’t found the time to address or prioritised too low. We noted down a lot of the things that the consumers and critics pointed out, and compared it to our own feedback and there was a lot of overlap.
With the sequel one of our priorities was to improve the AI. I was surprised when I heard people saying the game was too easy, so looking at what people were saying a little closer, we saw that people felt the game didn’t force them to thin a little more tactically. We took that to heart, and we listened when people made criticisms of enemy design as well.
In fact enemy design was a huge one for us, we’ve got less enemies this time but each one we build now are tactically different to each other.
Pacing was another issue, as was targeting, and another huge thing was bugs and polishing the game. We shipped the first game with more bugs than I would have liked, so we looked at getting a dedicated team to have more time on that.
LucasArts is investing in the Euphoria engine again for Force Unleashed 2. The benefits of the tool are clear, but what are the limitations with using them?
Speaking as a designer, it’s the loss of control that’s a really difficult thing to swallow. So much of what you create are hand-crafted experiences, and I think for designers it’s easier to get your head around things you make for yourself.
What we’ve tried to do with Force Unleashed is find a delicate balance between using tools and doing our own things. There are limitations, of course. You only have so much processing power and everything you use will take up something. Euphoria is by no means super-demanding from a processing standpoint, but with other tools and engines I’m sure people won’t like the trade off.
It depends on the type of game as well. I don’t know if Euphoria would be the right choice for a close-quarters fighting game, because so much depends on the impact in the action. But of course I look at backbreaker and think ‘this should be in every football game?’
But there is always a trade-off with every tool you use, and they’re hard to integrate – not because it’s Euphoria – but it’s hard to integrate different physics systems together. We were insane and integrated three together, and it almost killed the project a couple of times.
Would you ever encourage another studio to try three technologies at once?
No. If I was told how much I’d have to do to make it work, I don’t know if I would take up the offer. It was the culmination of everything. We started The Force Unleashed with ten people, so we built a brand new team, the studio was going through a lot of changes and we were building a brand new studio, a brand new engine, a brand new toolset, three different integrated technologies – one which we never worked with before and two others that hadn’t shipped before.
Oh, and we were building this on new platforms. When we started we didn’t even have a 360 or PS3 dev kit. If we were to sign on an external developer, and they showed three or four of those risks, we would cancel signing them on.
We started development on the 360 as soon as we could get our hands on the dev kit, and we knew the PS3 was coming, but we didn’t know enough about it. Again, that was a challenge, building for a platform that hadn’t yet been released.
We made a lot of decisions about how to architect the game engine based on the 360 as well as what we thought we knew about the PS3, which by the way turned out to be wrong. So we had to go back a change a lot of stuff, to the point where the PS3 was… well I wouldn’t say lead platform but we had a concentrated effort to get the team and testers on the PS3 version of the game.
I felt that, at the time, the team were so confident with the 360 version of the game that they weren’t working enough on the PS3 version of the game. We actually took away 360s from people if they weren’t testing on PS3, and they couldn’t get them back until they finished their work.
But no version of the game, I don’t think, turned out to be better than the last.
I think LucasArts were relieved that we finished the game and survived. When we pitched it to George Lucas we had a video of all this destruction and lots of interaction going on, and he said he loved it. I remember walking out of the meeting thinking ‘oh god how do we make this game’.