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The Art Of LucasArts - Michael Rubin On Droidmaker
by Simon Carless []

December 21, 2005
 

The history of George Lucas' attempts to twin video game creation with film making and CG effects construction are many, storied, and often fascinating. But there hasn't really been an attempt to sum up history of the many strands in book form up to now, something rectified by former Lucasfilm Computer Division employee Michael Rubin, who has written a new book called Droidmaker, and described as: "The inside story of George Lucas, his intensely private company, and their work to revolutionize filmmaking."

Thus, Droidmaker deals with not only the histories of ILM and LucasFilm itself, but also of LucasArts, the company's pioneering game division, and creator of titles including The Secret Of Monkey Island and Maniac Mansion. Gamasutra sat down with Rubin to discuss both his own history (as the writer of fascinating early 'gaming lifestyle' book Defending The Galaxy), and his own impression of LucasArts' evolution, capped by a PDF extract from Droidmaker discussing the genesis of LucasArts.

GS: Tell me a little about the sequence of events that led you to write [1982 video game lifestyle book] Defending The Galaxy. How was it received at the time? Were video game books considered a little "out there" back then?

Michael Rubin: I was a senior in high school when video game fever first hit, around 1980. When I got to college in 1981, it was everywhere -- Space Invaders, Asteroids... you know... I had known this woman -- a friend of my older brother -- who had written a bestseller called The Preppy Handbook (1979) and I thought that a comparable kind of handbook could be written about the evolving realm of video game culture. I tried to write my book with friends while we were all freshman at college (and I tried to convince the university to give me course credit for the work -- which they declined!) but all my friends were dubious I would ever really write a book like this.

I ended up contacting my old friends from high school (and included my 8th grade English teacher), and we worked on it the summer of 1981, before my sophomore year. This would explain why it's a little sophomoric. But people loved the book. It was released in 1982 and while there were one or two "how to win" books on video games at the time, this was a comprehensive exploration of video game culture, the games (which were almost exclusively arcade games), and the passion.

It was well-received, excerpted in numerous gamer magazines and newspapers, but by 1982 it was quickly buried among the hundreds of new video game "winning at Pac-Man" books produced at the time. While not a bestseller, it sold thousands of copies and made me a very minor celebrity for a moment in college. Finding one today is pretty rare (although there has been some discussion of re-releasing it for classic games nostalgia buffs!)


Classic LucasArts title Ballblazer

GS: Did you keep up with games in the intervening years between Defending The Galaxy and the game-related content that's in Droidmaker?

MR: I played arcade games, of course, through college. I was particularly good at Galaga and QIX, but not fanatical. When I graduated college I went to Lucasfilm. My team, The Droid Works, was upstairs in Z Building from the Games Group. They were more my age group and of similar interests than my fellow Droid folks (making computerized editing and sound tools for movies), and I became buddies with a few of them, in particular, Ron Gilbert.

Ron and I hung out for those years, as he was developing Maniac Mansion and SCUMM -- and so I was pretty close to the efforts in the games group even after they moved up to Skywalker Ranch in 1987. The game content in Droidmaker covers the creation of their division and details the years up to 1987.


The guys at the games group of Lucasfilm huddled around Millipede.

GS: Why do you think George Lucas saw the importance of games so early, and why was he able to capitalize on it so relatively well?

MR: I think he actually didn't see the importance early. He had to be convinced that a games effort wasn't going to be a distraction. Quickly though, he was able to integrate his personal interest with education and using technology to aid in education, with the research going on in the games group. Making video games was only one aspect of that groups' work.

When Lucas began divesting himself of all the technology work at the company (circa 1985), he did realize that games were more like movies and that these were different from the other work they were doing. Consequently, they kept nurturing those projects even as they were selling off the EditDroid and Pixar work.

GS: What were the key elements that allowed the kind of atmosphere that led to the creation of original IP games such as The Secret Of Monkey Island in the '80s?

MR: I don't think I can answer that. I explore the entire atmosphere at Lucasfilm in the book, and it's rich and complicated. Monkey Island was developed after the period I explore deeply in the book, but I know that its genesis of course was from Ron Gilbert and SCUMM. Ron always was a particularly gifted game designer -- with deft expertise both on the code side -- efficient, clever, pragmatic -- and the creative side.

He has an ironic, quirky, and often dark sense of humor (which is why we got along so well), and Lucasfilm let him run amok because of how well Maniac came out. That's pretty much all I can say on this. I'm sure Ron would have a thing or two to add!

GS: Do you think having to make Star Wars titles is mostly a positive or mostly a negative for LucasArts?

MR: Personally, I think the best games to come from Lucasfilm were their original creations, like Maniac, Monkey Island, Zak, and so on... and it took them some time before HQ trusted the games guys enough even to let them create games based on the valuable assets of movie characters (the first test was Labyrinth, then an Indiana Jones game); but soon enough it made sense to have the Star Wars titles get generated internally. It sort of reminds me of an old adage about restaurants -- restaurants with a great view generally have lousy food. But people go for the view.

People will buy a Star Wars game, or Indy game, at some level simply because they like the characters, theme, and environment, so that gameplay can suffer without killing the success. I don't think the Star Wars titles are a millstone to the company -- I think they are a cornerstone. It's possible Lucasfilm, in an effort to minimize risk, has cut down on the riskier idiosyncratic games, and instead has fallen back on the franchise titles -- but this is not my field of expertise. I'm an archeologist of the old days, not really an analyst of the current business there.

GS: Many in the business have unfortunately pegged LucasArts as going through somewhat of a decline over the past few years? Any insight on what happened and why?

MR: Well, Lucasfilm is one guy's company. It does what he wants and needs. There is a lot of talent there, but those people have a job and that is to deliver on the stuff George wants done. Some might see this as restrictive, but I don't think it's unrealistic. When people burn out there, or don't feel appreciated, or want to expand and hit a wall, they leave. And then they do remarkable and wonderful work. I don't think Lucasfilm works too hard to retain talent, but again, I don't really know.

The company, like most companies, has changed and evolved over the past twenty odd years, and the answer to this question changes depending on when you are looking. Lucasfilm holds a very important position in the history of technology and games. But are they still important? Probably not in the way they once were, but i suppose we'll have to look back on today from the vantage point of the future to know for sure.

Anyway, Droidmaker really digs into the personalities and culture of Lucasfilm, and I think it will answer this question better than I can in a sentence or two.

GS: The Lucasfolk are now talking a great deal about digital convergence - what do you think their future strategy toward games will be? Who are the key players? Does George even care about games? (In his ESA acceptance speech earlier this year for a lifetime achievement gaming award, he stressed his educational work ahead of his pure gaming work.)

MR: I've heard this too.They have long talked about the overlapping tools and talent in creating modern movies and video games (story lines, 3D characters, backgrounds, objects, modeling and rendering...) The Letterman Digital Center at the Presidio is this idea in physical form. I can't tell you who the key players are, but I do believe I
can answer the next question: Does Lucas care about games? Yes and no. Yes, he cares as a business owner and entrepreneur; but no, not personally. He's never been a game player or game fan. He's a filmmaker.

Unlike Spielberg, say, Lucas really doesn't make games so he can enjoy them. If there was no financial aspect to it, I believe he'd only develop game technology to change the way education takes place. He doesn't disguise this (and thus the ESA speech). Now, many pro game developers have pointed out to me that in spite of the similarities, there are deep and fundamental differences between game design and movie design (structurally and visually) such that you'd rarely find expertise in both fields, or much overlap in materials.

Still, from a workforce standpoint, I think there are some efficiencies in their convergence, and maybe something interesting, that no one -- not at Lucasfilm or elsewhere -- has yet imagined when these worlds collide.


Lucas' Xmas card for 2005, showing the company's
move to the Presidio from Marin County.

_____________________________________________________

In addition to speaking to Gamasutra, Rubin has kindly allowed us to host a PDF excerpt comprising Chapter 18 of Droidmaker, 'A Hole In The Desert', chronicling the fascinating rise and supremacy of Atari, and the deal with Lucasfilm that created the Games Group.

"'A Hole In The Desert'" chapter extract by Michael Rubin from Droidmaker, 520 pages, 200 illustrations, Triad Publishing Company, 2005.

[Further information on Droidmaker, including an extract from its first chapter and links to purchase the full book, is available on the official Droidmaker website.]

_____________________________________________________


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