Technology

An ode to LucasArts: Star Wars was its biggest asset—and its biggest liability

At first, LucasArts wasn't even allowed to make Star Wars games

CB08_B_ODE01_MERGEIt was 1982—not long after we learned the true identity of Luke Skywalker’s father—when George Lucas first decided to get into the video game business. LucasArts, then called Lucasfilm Games, began by making games for Atari, later branching out to other consoles. Its first releases, Ballblazer and Rescue on Fractalus!, though moderately successful action games, were treated as throwaways, a chance for the young team to get its bearings. According to David Fox, one of the founding designers, the studio wasn’t allowed to touch the Star Wars licence early on; it was considered too risky when Lucasfilm was guaranteed generous licensing fees from more seasoned studios. “Not being able to go down the easy path…forced us to dig deep, be creative, to push ourselves,” Fox told Edge magazine in April.

Eventually, the developer did find a unique voice. Its adventure titles were successful, reaching new heights in 1990 with The Secret of Monkey Island, a hit comedy game in which players assumed the role of wannabe-pirate Guybrush Threepwood.

Now a force to be reckoned with, LucasArts was allowed to begin developing Star Wars games, releasing its first two, X-Wing and Rebel Assault, to strong sales in 1993. By 2002, its seven new releases were all related to the franchise. But over time, something started to go awry. The studio was no longer on top. By 2004, LucasArts was grossing only $100 million a year, according to market researcher NPD, significantly less than its more successful competitors.

Newly appointed president Jim Ward decided to shake things up, laying off and hiring new staff. Under his leadership, the studio developed its 2008 blockbuster, Star Wars: The Force Unleashed, which became the bestselling Star Wars game of all time, selling over seven million copies in two years. But Ward suddenly left the company for personal reasons before the sequel hit shelves in 2010. When it did, sales fell below expectations, as did reviews. Writing for Eurogamer, John Teti said Star Wars: The Force Unleashed 2 felt “like it was created out of obligation rather than inspiration.” Founding designer David Fox hints, in fact, that it was that reliance on the Star Wars franchise which eventually brought the whole company down. The pressure for big returns stifled creativity, he said. “You have to play by someone else’s rules.”

With Disney acquiring the game studio as part of its US$4.1-billion purchase of Lucasfilm in September, the walls were closing in like a Death Star trash compactor. And on April 3, nearly five years since its last hit, Disney shut down the 30-year-old developer (though Disney will continue to license out the Star Wars brand).

This time, the millions of voices that suddenly cried out in terror, on Twitter and Facebook, came after the annihilation. Jesse Harlin, a former composer at LucasArts, penned a much-shared eulogy on Facebook. He said his colleagues were connected by “a single global dream: entertaining those willing to step into our worlds.”

Worlds that existed, as it goes, a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away. Now the studio joins them.