“There’s a lot of talk about synergy and Hollywood, but we’ve been doing it for a long time anyway – it’s that until now it hasn’t been that clear.”
So says Peter Hirschmann, vice president of product development at LucasArts and the man who has overseen the studio spun out of Lucasfilm, the entertainment company wholly-owned by Star Wars creator George Lucas, transformed from an overlooked team churning out disappointing product into a technology-driven studio plugged straight into Hollywood’s most famous effects house, Industrial Light and Magic. “For heavens sake, George Lucas created the first multimedia company 30 years ago,” adds Hirschmann when he mentions ILM – and he’s right, but it wasn’t always this way.
THE STATE OF THE ARTS
Coming out of E3, LucasArts’ games generated a huge level of attention, but to achieve this took some doing, with a drastic overhaul of how the games division operated as a development studio having taken place over the past few years.
Hirschmann describes what happened three years ago as a “pretty significant reboot”. President Jim Ward took charge, surveyed the games division’s direction and pretty much razed the disappointing parts of the business to the ground. Says Hirschmann: “There was a complete executive shuffle and we downsized the studio fairly dramatically. Since then we’ve been building back up. It was in summer 2004 when the reboot was in high gear – we cancelled some projects, consolidated resources and focused our resources into two major teams.” Those teams were set to work on turning the two well-known Lucas film series – Star Wars and Indiana Jones, of course – into new games.
However, a far more embedded change happened as well. With the team shrunk down, and the production of the Star Wars’ prequels nearing the end, all the Lucasfilm teams were brought together in one place, at the Letterman Digital Arts Centre in San Francisco. Before then, the teams were scattered across California – “I didn’t meet my first ILM person until two years working for the company,” says Hirschmann. It’s easy to get the feeling that morale at LucasArts was low when Hirschmann describes the situation as “absolutely positively ridiculous,” especially when the company’s corporate mandate was to pioneer in the digital arts world.
In the new offices things are very different, with the proximity of the LucasArts and ILM teams causing an overlap that’s had a knock-on consequence amongst those two internal game development teams.
“Productivity and collaboration has gone up exponentially,” adds Hirschmann. To formalise the new way the groups were in sync, LucasArts’ tools team rebuilt its game pipeline network straight on top of ILM’s proprietary Zeno art tool.
Adds Hirschmann: “It was a huge gamble, as building any new game tool is. But ILM engineers can now seamlessly go from the stuff they were doing for movies to LucasArts stuff because the environment is the same. There is no way we would be where we are today without them.
“We’ve got access to the same network and renderfarm – we run all our lightmaps on the same renderfarm,” Hirschmann explains, boasting about a recent job queue on the server that included Poseidon, Pirates of the Caribbean 2 and E3 light maps for the new in-house games.
“We’ve had a portion of the R&D team from ILM work with the games team – the head of ILM R&D sits next to the game team,” adds Hirschmann on how the day-to-day ILM-LucasArts crossover occurs. “We’ve been lucky because they’re all game nerds of their own accord and want to do it, but there’s a corporate mandate to truly be a digital arts company, which is what we are pushing.”
Any lessons a non-LucasArts development person could take from these working practices at this point, however, are a touch moot. The details, pitfalls and joys of constructing your own in-house tool will be familiar to a number of studios, as will the collaboration over working with someone else’s intellectual property or moving into new offices and successfully managing the scale of your business.
But Hirschmann says the experience has afforded him and the rest of the team a key lesson about games design.
“We decided we wanted to spend our time focusing on gameplay,” he explains, before defining the hyperbole. The key detail, he explains, was to take their eye off the graphics ball, and leave it as a given that next-gen machines would fulfil their needs: “We made the assumption that working with ILM would get us to a position of visual fidelity that was next-gen and that it would pay dividends, leaving us to think about the game itself.”
Instead, Hirschmann wanted to take the element that makes ILM’s special effects so important – the fact that “they are described as ‘special’” – and make that part of the game experience. “Sandbox is definitely the story of this gen,” he explains, but reveals that the decision was made to shy away from the GTA cookie cutter that everyone else was following: “We thought it was worth focusing on simulation.
“Shaders, lighting, HDR – everyone is going to be doing that, we need to get away from stuff that is ‘current gen, but res’d up’. Going simulation-based was the way we felt we would make a difference.”
LET THE TECH DO THE TALKING
In striving for simulation-driven work, LucasArts has done something else its ILM brethren is good at – using technology as the talking point for its productions, rather than trying to boast faithfulness to the property it is based on, or the quality of the story it is telling.
Much has already been written about the decision to use NaturalMotion’s runtime animation tool euphoria and Pixel Lux’s environmental physics and effects software Digital Molecular Matter to give life to the characters and environments in upcoming Lucas titles, but that’s the point. When game tech surprises it is written about, but LucasArts has pushed these tools right into the spotlight – were as many references to Renderware made in the garish pages of the specialist press as there have been of euphoria since E3? Instead, the tech is written about in almost revered ways – an echo of ILM’s endeavours in the CG space, where the Star Wars prequels are heralded for technical prowess rather than creative gravitas. That seems to be what excites Hirschmann, too.
“Our mandate is to focus on story and character. To tell the best stories you need the best characters – which is why euphoria is so important to us,” he says. “We really want to create a game that is dynamic, so that any given game environment is fun to look at regardless of the game.” The whole simulation-driven angle, he says “was another huge risk to go after,” adding: “It’s a lot of tech and completely unproven, but the results have been amazing.”
MAY THE WORKFORCE BE WITH YOU
Pushed further on the lessons LucasArts’ actual and ethical pipeline into the ILM factory has given his team, Hirschmann bats the topic into a wider field – saying that the lessons as such are just common sense with regard to project scope and staff morale.
“One of the classic mistakes people make – which we’re already seeing on some next-gen projects – is the crazy wishful thinking people are coming up with. ‘I want thousands of people on screen!’ and stuff like that,” says Hirschmann on what he’s learnt from the process of rebuilding LucasArts. “The secret to gaming – and, to be honest, it’s not really a secret – is that it’s hard and it takes a long time. There are no shortcuts to quality and no formulas to success. It’s a lot of hard work – and being organised and being disciplined is not mutually exclusive to being creative. When people making games can define their boundaries that’s when people do their best work.
“Work out where your limit is and work to that – once you know what the rules are that’s when you can break it. So for us one of my biggest rules is getting the team together and ask them one question: ‘what is the game about?’ and the lead engineer, the producer, the sound technician, the junior artist everyone in the room has to have the same answer. If they don’t that’s when you have a problem. People need to be personally commited to achieving that – you have to create an environment that encourages it.”
He adds: “Really innovative stuff doesn’t happen automatically or easily – if it were easy to make a great game then everyone would be doing it. It’s hard enough just to make a mediocre game – it’s hard enough to get something running that will just about pass approval with a format holder.
“So to make something that’s worth someone’s time is an amazing, but huge, achievement – but the only way to get true innovation or to a level that would honestly be considered triple-A is by being committed. That extra bit – you can’t mandate or force people to do that.”