Lucas Arts: Rise and Fall of a Pioneer

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LucasArts Entertainment Company, LLC was an American video game developer and publisher. The company was once famous for its innovative line of graphic adventure games, the critical and commercial success of which peaked in the mid 90′s. In its final years, it primarily published games based on the Star Wars and Indiana Jones franchises.

Following the acquisition of Lucasfilm by The Walt Disney Company in 2012, Disney closed down LucasArts as an internal developer on April 3, 2013, and laid off its staff, shifting the company into a licensing entity to develop future games based on Lucasfilm’s properties.

Company history

The company was founded in May 1982 as the video game development group of Lucasfilm Limited, the film production company of George Lucas. Lucas wanted his company to branch out into other areas of entertainment, so he cooperated with Atari to produce video games.

The first results of this collaboration were unique action games like Ballblazer in 1984, and Rescue on Fractalus!. Beta versions of both games were leaked to pirate bulletin boards exactly one week after Atari had received unprotected copies for a marketing review, and were in wide circulation months before the original release date. In 1984, they were released for the Atari 5200 under the Lucasfilm Games label. Versions for home computers were not released until 1985, by publisher Epyx. Lucasfilm’s next two games were Koronis Rift and The Eidolon. Their first games were only developed by Lucasfilm, and a publisher would distribute the games. Atari published their games for Atari systems, Activision and Epyx would do their computer publishing. Maniac Mansion was the first game to be published and developed by Lucasfilm Games.

In 1990, in a reorganization of the Lucas companies, the Games Division of Lucasfilm became part of the newly created LucasArts Entertainment Company, together with Industrial Light & Magic and Skywalker Sound. Later ILM and Skywalker Sound were consolidated in Lucas Digital Ltd. and LucasArts became the official name of the former Games Division. In 1993, LucasArts decided to base a game on the Star Wars franchise.

Logo

The original Lucasfilm Games logo was based upon the existing Lucasfilm movie logo. There were a number of variations on it.

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The long-lived LucasArts logo, affectionately known as the “Gold Guy”, was introduced in 1991 and consisted of a crude gold-colored figure resembling a petroglyph, standing on a purple letter “L” inscribed with the company name. The figure had its hands up in the air, as if a sun were rising from behind him. It was also said to resemble an eye, with the rays of the sun as eyelashes. The logo was revised in late 2005, losing the letter “L” pedestal and introducing a more rounded version of the gold-colored figure. In the games, the figure sometimes does an action like throw a lightsaber or cast Force Lightning. The logo is possibly a reference to the ending of George Lucas’ first film, THX 1138, in which the main character stands silhouetted with his arms raised during a sunset.

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Adventure games

The first adventure game developed by Lucasfilm Games was Labyrinth (1986), based on the Lucasfilm movie of the same name. Maniac Mansion introduced SCUMM, the scripting language behind most of the company’s later adventure offerings. The adventures released in the following years, such as Zak McKracken and the Alien Mindbenders (1988), Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade: The Graphic Adventure (1989), LOOM (1990) and especially the critically acclaimed The Secret of Monkey Island (1990), helped Lucasfilm Games build a reputation as one of the leading developers in the genre. It was often referred to as one of the two big names in the field, competing with Sierra Online as a developer of high quality adventures. The first half of the 90′s was the heyday for the company’s adventure fame, with classic titles such as Monkey Island 2: LeChuck’s Revenge (1991), Indiana Jones and the Fate of Atlantis (1992) and the Maniac Mansion sequel Maniac Mansion: Day of the Tentacle (1993).

In the latter half of the decade, the popularity of adventure games faded and the costs associated with game development increased as high-resolution art and CD quality audio became standard fare. The PC market wanted titles that would show off expensive new graphics cards to minimal effect, a change replicated in the home console market as the 3D capabilities of the PlayStation, Sega Saturn and Nintendo 64 dictated the nature of the majority of games produced for those platforms. The adventure genre—two-dimensional, focused on story, script and puzzle solving—was no longer popular with the masses of new casuals.

LucasArts still managed to release moderately commercially successful titles: The Curse of Monkey Island (1997) was the last LucasArts adventure game to retain traditional two-dimensional graphics and point-and-click interface. Grim Fandango (1998) was LucasArts’ first attempt to convert 2D adventure to a 3D environment. The highly stylised visuals, superb voice acting and sophisticated writing earned Grim Fandango many awards.

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Escape from Monkey Island (2000), the fourth installment to the Monkey Island series, featured the same control scheme as Grim Fandango and was generally well received. It is to date the last adventure game the company has released. A sequel to Full Throttle and a new Sam & Max game were in development but these projects were cancelled, in 2003 and 2004 respectively, before the games were finished. When the rights to the Sam and Max franchise expired in 2005, the creator of Sam and Max, Steve Purcell, took ownership. He then licensed Sam and Max to Telltale Games to be developed into an episodic game. Telltale Games is made up primarily of former LucasArts employees who had worked on the Sam and Max sequel and were let go after the project was canceled.

LucasArts halted adventure game development for the next five years, focusing instead on their Star Wars games. They remained silent and did not re-release their old games on digital distribution platforms, as other studios were doing at the time. However, in 2002, the company pledged that at least fifty percent of its releases would have nothing to do with Star Wars. It was not until 2009 that LucasArts returned to the genre. On June 1, 2009, they announced both The Secret of Monkey Island Special Edition, a high definition remake of the original game with updated graphics, music and voice work, and Tales of Monkey Island, a new episodic installment in the Monkey Island series developed by Telltale Games.

Then, on July 6, 2009, they announced that they would be re-releasing a number of their classic games, including Indiana Jones and the Fate of Atlantis and LOOM, on Steam. The re-releases were, for the first time, native versions built for Microsoft Windows. This was the first time in many years that the studio had offered any support for its classic adventure titles.

The second game in the Monkey Island series also received a high definition remake, entitled Monkey Island 2: LeChuck’s Revenge Special Edition in 2010. Both Monkey Island special edition games were released in a compilation, Monkey Island Special Edition Collection, exclusively in Europe in 2011.

The release of the unofficial SCUMM virtual machine, ScummVM, has led to something of a resurgence for LucasArts adventure games among present-day gamers. Using ScummVM, legacy adventure titles can easily be run on modern computers and even more unusual platforms such as video game consoles, mobile phones and PDAs.

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Military simulations

In the late 80′s and early 90′s, Lucasfilm Games developed a series of military vehicle simulation games, the first of which were the naval simulations PHM Pegasus in 1986 and Strike Fleet in 1987. These two titles were published by Electronic Arts for a variety of computer platforms, including PC, Commodore 64 and Apple II.

In 1988, Battlehawks 1942 launched a trilogy of World War II air combat simulations, giving the player a chance to fly as an American or Japanese pilot in the Pacific Theater. Battlehawks 1942 was followed by Their Finest Hour: The Battle of Britain (1989), recreating the battle between the Luftwaffe and RAF for Britain’s air supremacy. The trilogy ended with Secret Weapons of the Luftwaffe in 1991, in which the player could choose to fly on either the American or German side. The trilogy was lauded for its historical accuracy and detailed supplementary material—Secret Weapons of the Luftwaffe, for instance, was accompanied by a 224-page historical manual.

The World War II trilogy was created by a team led by Lawrence Holland, a game designer who later founded Totally Games. Totally Games would continue to develop games almost exclusively for LucasArts, the most noted outcome of the symbiosis being the X-Wing series. They were also responsible for LucasArts’ 2003 return to the aerial battles of World War II with Secret Weapons Over Normandy, a title released on PlayStation 2, Xbox and PC.

First Star Wars games

Even though LucasArts had created games based on other Lucasfilm properties before (Labyrinth, Indiana Jones), they did not use the Star Wars license until the early 90′s. Star Wars action games began appearing on the Nintendo consoles, but were developed by other companies for LucasArts. The first in-house development was the space combat simulator X-Wing, developed by Larry Holland’s independent team, which went on to spawn a successful series.

The CD-ROM-only Star Wars game Rebel Assault became one of the biggest successes of the company and was considered a killer app for CD-ROM drives in the early 90′s.

From 2005 to 2007, LucasArts published the three games in the Lego Star Wars series.

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First-person shooters

After the unprecedented success of id Software’s Doom the PC gaming market shifted towards production of three-dimensional first person shooters. LucasArts contributed to this trend with the 1995 release of Star Wars: Dark Forces, a first person shooter that successfully transplanted the Doom formula to a Star Wars setting. The Dark Forces Strategy guide claims that development was well underway before Doom was released and that the game was pushed back once Doom hit shelves so that it could be polished. The game was well received and spawned a new franchise: the Jedi Knight games. This began with the sequel to Dark Forces, Jedi Knight: Dark Forces II released in 1997; this game reflected the changing face of PC gaming, being one of the first games to appreciably benefit when used in conjunction with a dedicated 3D graphics card like 3dfx’s Voodoo range. The game received an expansion pack, Mysteries of the Sith, in 1998 and a full sequel in 2002 with Star Wars Jedi Knight II: Jedi Outcast. 2003′s Star Wars Jedi Knight: Jedi Academy can be seen as a spin-off from the series, but was less well received by reviewers, who complained that the franchise was becoming formulaic.

Apart from Star Wars-themed 3D shooters, LucasArts also created the western-themed game Outlaws in 1997 and Armed and Dangerous (in collaboration with Planet Moon Studios) in 2003.

In the New Millennium

As the quantity of Star Wars games increased, many critics felt the quality began to drop; this was especially noted with the titles released since the cinematic release of The Phantom Menace.

In 2002, LucasArts recognized that the over-reliance on Star Wars was reducing the quality of its output, and announced that future releases would be at least 50% non-Star Wars-related. However, many of the original titles were either unsuccessful or even cancelled before release and lately LucasArts had mainly Star Wars titles in production.

2003 saw the fruitful collaboration of LucasArts and BioWare on the exceptionally well reviewed role-playing game, Knights of the Old Republic. Combining modern 3D graphics with high-quality storytelling and a sophisticated role-playing game system, this game reinvigorated the Star Wars franchise. Its 2004 sequel Knights of the Old Republic II: The Sith Lords continued in the same vein, but LucasArts was criticized for forcing the developer Obsidian Entertainment to release the sequel unfinished, resulting in a significant amount of cut content, a disappointing ending and numerous bugs.

In 2003 LucasArts and the Star Wars franchise also branched out in a new direction—the world of the MMORPG, with the creation of Star Wars Galaxies. After a successful launch, the first expansion, Jump to Lightspeed, was released in 2004. The new expansion featured the addition of real-time space combat. This was continued in Rage of the Wookies, an additional expansion which added an additional planet for users to explore. Also, a new expansion, Trials of Obi-Wan was released on November 1, 2005 consisting of several new missions focusing on the Episode 3 planet, Mustafar. Star Wars Galaxies was shut down on December 15, 2011 and made way for the launch of EA’s Star Wars: The Old Republic a few days later.

 

Restructuring under Jim Ward

CompleteonlineSWGIn April 2004, Jim Ward, VP of marketing, online and global distributions at Lucasfilm, was appointed president of LucasArts. Ward performed a top-to-bottom audit of LucasArts infrastructure, describing the company’s state as “quite a mess.” In 2003, LucasArts had reportedly grossed just over $100 million according to NPD, primarily from its Star Wars titles. Ward produced a five-year investment plan to refit the company. Previous Star Wars games had been produced by external developers such as Raven Software, Bioware and Obsidian; Ward now prioritized making LucasArts’ internal game development work effectively and adapt to the evolving games industry. Star Wars: Battlefront, Star Wars: Republic Commando, and Star Wars: Episode III survived cuts that closed down other in-development games and reduced staff from about 450 to 190 employees.

The rapid scaling down of internal projects at LucasArts was also reflected in its handling of 3rd Party developed games. During the tenure of John Ward, Free Radical was contracted to produce Battlefront 3 and had been in production for 2 years. Free Radical co-founder Steve Ellis described how working with LucasArts evolved from being “the best relationship we’d ever had with a publisher” to withholding money for 6 months and abusing the independent developer’s position to withhold the full project cancellation fee – ultimately resulting in Free Radical entering administration.

Development under Rodriguez and beyond

Jim Ward left the company early February 2008, for personal reasons. He was replaced by Howard Roffman as interim president. Darrell Rodriguez, who came from Electronic Arts, took Roffman’s place in April 2008. About a month prior to release of Star Wars: The Force Unleashed II LucasArts scaled down the internal development studio. The aforementioned game received a mediocre score from some media outlets such as IGN, Gamespot and GameTrailers. After release, minor adjustment in staffing resulted in even more layoffs.

The company began experiencing turnovers in layoffs in 2010. Darrell Rodriguez, left in May after just two years on the job. A Lucasfilm board of Directors and a games industry veteran, Jerry Bowerman, filled in during the transition. Rodriguez was ultimately replaced in June by Paul Meegan, formerly of Gears of War developer Epic Games.

In July 2010, Haden Blackman, who served as creative director on the original Star Wars: The Force Unleashed, LucasArts’ most successful internally produced title of recent years, and the sequel, unexpectedly left. However, the company scored a surprise coup in August 2010 when Clint Hocking, a high-profile game director from Ubisoft, announced that he would be joining LucasArts. His tenure at LucasArts was short lived however, as Clint Hocking left LucasArts in June 2012 before the game he was working on was released. In September 2010, a third of the employees at LucasArts were fired.

On April 26, 2011 LucasArts announced that they have acquired a license from Epic Games to develop a number of future titles using the Unreal Engine 3 for a number of platforms. Star Wars 1313, an upcoming action-adventure about a bounty hunter navigating Coruscant’s subterranean level 1313 underworld, has been confirmed to use the Unreal Engine 3.

In August 2012, Paul Meegan, who replaced Rodriguez as president in 2010, also left his position at LucasArts after just two years on the job. Kevin Parker and Gio Corsi were named to co-lead the studio until the studio would choose a permanent president, with the former as interim head of business operations and the latter as interim head of studio production.

Acquisition by Disney and closure

On October 30, 2012, LucasArts was acquired by The Walt Disney Company through the acquisition of its parent company Lucasfilm in a deal for $4.05 billion dollars. Disney stated that its present intent was for all employees at Lucasfilm and its subsidiaries to remain at their present positions. A LucasArts representative said that “for the time being, all projects are business as usual”, but information that surfaced in March 2013 suggested that Star Wars games already in development, such as Star Wars: 1313 and First Assault, may have been put on hold in order to put more focus on Star Wars Episode VII. At the time, LucasArts also had three untitled games in development: an open-world RPG, an FPS, and an aerial combat game. According to a job listing posted via the Lucasfilm website, LucasArts was also planning on creating a new online service which they claimed would “revolutionize the industry.”

On April 3, 2013, Disney confirmed that LucasArts would cease to operate as a video game developer and serve as a licensor, with video games being developed by either third-party companies or Disney Interactive Studios. As a result, all of its future projects were cancelled, and most of its staff was laid off from the company. Disney indicated that the new business model would “[minimize] the company’s risk while achieving a broad portfolio of quality Star Wars games.” Around 150 staff lost their jobs as a result of the closure.

RIPLA

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