In his keynote at the Nordic Game 2008 conference, Jonathan Smith of Traveller’s Tales discussed the developer’s history with the Lego Star Wars franchise, including its approach to adapting the sci-fi franchise for a Lego video game.
“How did we come up with the idea? We didn't, Lego did. They came up with it when they signed up Star Wars for their play materials.” said Smith, describing the origins of the Lego Star Wars video games. “It took a surprisingly long time to come up with the game idea, but the relationship between the two companies gave us access to Lucas and allowed us to muck around with the greatest entertainment franchise on the planet.”
Are They Being Served?
Smith said that in approaching the game the team believed "children were badly served by the games they were being given... We know why [making games for children] is a hard thing to do, but as parent we were able to identify the market opportunity.”
He continued: “It was hard to see what seems obvious now about how the game works. The design doc says ‘cool abilities,’ but what does that mean? It's something that publishers say, like ‘more cool.’ Even we fell into meaningless publisher speak. Anyway, there's a lot of wisdom that Lego had about children and about play that really gave us freedom to really explore new ideas.”
The Springy Path
Showing the original demo that was presented to LucasArts and Lego, Smith noted which points won the two companies over: “The creep animation and lightsaber sound effect were the key thing. The demo had to show that the team could convey their ability to get the license across in the Lego medium. Those animations and sound effects did that.”
Cutting out content in Lego Star Wars proved to be just as important as what Traveller’s Tales included, too: “What made the game what it was is the fact that we took so much stuff out. Monsters and even levels were discarded if they didn't fit precisely. The force use changed a lot along the way. The force was manually targetable, and stuff that works on paper, but over a period of time, we realized it was hard work and we tried hard to cut back on the hard work.”
Smith also stressed how much care was put into the level design, encouraging players to explore and experiment, just as they would with Lego bricks: “The thing that we distilled was that any player can keep moving forward, we want to help you go forward. We don't want to make work that doesn't get played. The principle of the springy path was that the further off the path you went, the more it threw back at you. We wanted you to explore, and I think the level design demonstrates that.”
Games For Everyone
Smith also talked at length about the challenges of targeting as wide an audience as possible, and the lessons learned on hitting both young and older gamers.
“When you talk to children about games they can come alive," said Smith. "This is the world that eight year old boys live in. Designers have played all the games that disappoint, and your expectations become damped down."
"An eight year old has so much energy, and is so unselfconscious, they'll tell you the moment they are bored or let down," he continued. "They won't know why, but they tell you right away, and that makes them the best people to tell you whether you are putting the right things into the game.”
Smith showed a clip of two teenagers slouched on the same sofa, who clearly hated the game, and called it 'babyish.' "13 year olds hated the game," he said, "but when they come out of that phase we're able to reach older players too.”
“Focus testing is a waste of time," Smith declared. "We'd rather sit behind people and watch how they play a game. Seeing how kids play and play with each other is the most useful.”
Before closing his keynote, Smith demonstrated one of the developer’s current projects, Lego Indiana Jones: “We've ramped up the animations in Lego Indiana Jones, 244 compared to 40 or so for the Jedi. There’s just more they can do -- hang from ropes, climb, dig, and so on.”
Unlike the Indiana Jones movie series which featured them prominently, the Lego game will have “enemy guards” instead of Nazis. On the decision to make the foes generic, Smith concluded, “We don't want to be the event that educates people about World War 2.”