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Postmortem: Lucas Arts' Star Wars Starfighter
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Postmortem: Lucas Arts' Star Wars Starfighter

August 1, 2001 Article Start Page 1 of 3 Next
 

Work on Project Europa — the internal codename for the development effort that would eventually metamorphose into Star Wars Starfighter — began in earnest in April 1998. A small crew of programmers, headed up by director Daron Stinnet, began preproduction work on a Star Wars: Episode I PC title that had grand ambitions. As one of Lucas Arts' great unsung talents, Daron had previously led the Dark Forces and Outlaws teams to much critical and commercial success. Now, following in the footsteps of Larry Holland's X-Wing games, Europa was to bolster Lucas Arts' presence in the space-combat genre and support the new film franchise. While embracing much of the X-Wing series's simulation-oriented aesthetic, the team also wanted to deliver the visceral, sweaty-fingered arcade experience that we were starting to see in early builds of Rogue Squadron.

During the early months of 1999, a well-known designer who was in the market for a new lead programmer and lead level designer for his company's overdue project secretly approached two members of our team about the possibility of jumping ship. Although obviously conflicted, the allure of working with a famous industry heavyweight proved too tempting, and within a few short weeks, we had lost our main graphics programmer and level designer. Shaken but undeterred, we were determined to make the best of a bad situation, but three months later, the project suffered another blow when we lost our second graphics programmer.

This was Europa's darkest hour. The technology development was progressing slowly, and our inexperienced programming staff was still climbing the C++ learning curve. As lead programmer, this predicament was largely of my own making. I had joined Lucas Arts from outside the game industry, where I was accustomed to a corporate R&D environment that valued solid engineering and extensible software architecture over quick solutions that were perhaps less elegant or flexible. Now, with little to show but a creaky Glide-based graphics engine and no graphics programmer, we were at a loss as to what to do next.

The Eve level design tool was a critical part of Star Wars Starfighter's success.

As if things weren't bad enough, we were also floundering on the game design side of the fence. Although we had a lot of excellent concept art, few of us had a clear idea about exactly what type of game we were making. We were painfully starting to discover that while it is easy to characterize a title as being a cross between Rogue Squadron and X-Wing, it's another thing completely to describe what that actually means.

At this point two events occurred that I'm convinced saved the project. Our multiplayer programmer, Andrew Kirmse, who had already proven himself as a remarkably capable technologist, teamed up with two of our other programmers to create a graphics-engine "tiger team," a small subteam dedicated to attacking a single task with unwavering focus. In just a few months the three of them delivered a brand-new OpenGL-based engine that was far better than anything we had built previously.

Shortly after the new graphics engine came online we also found the solution to our game design woes. Tim Longo, who had recently helped complete Indiana Jones and the Infernal Machine, joined the team as our lead level designer. The change was immediate and profound; five other level designers joined the project at about the same time, and now we had the foundation for a thriving, collaborative design process. Daron worked with Tim and the other level designers on an almost daily basis, systematically identifying areas of the game design that were incomplete and working together to come up with concrete solutions.

An example of the statistics that Daron tracked during the game's development, and a page from the programming section of the Star Wars Starfighter internal web site.

By the end of 1999, the project had performed a 180-degree turnaround, but there was one more significant twist in the road awaiting us. Sony had turned the game industry on its ear with the formal announcement of the Playstation 2 that year, and every major development house was furiously rewriting business plans to accommodate support for the new platform; Lucas Arts was no exception. The biggest problem for the company was that we wanted to have a title close to the system's launch, and Europa was the only project far enough along to be a serious candidate. The thought of throwing the PS2 into the mix made many people very uncomfortable, but when we were able to port all of our nongraphics code in a single 48-hour period, senior management became convinced.

The rest of the project was an exciting and manic blur of activity. Early in 2000, we hit the "snowball point," that period when all of a sudden the tech falls into place, the art production paths are running on all cylinders, and the team is seeing exciting new gameplay on an almost daily basis. From then on, Star Wars Starfighter was indeed like a runaway snowball, picking up momentum and new features almost as fast as we could think of them.


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