The early days of Lucasfilm Games, as told by those who lived it
“What do you know, people outside our company actually played our games,” joked Noah Falstein, Google’s chief gamesman, in response to the turnout for his “Lucasfilm Games Postmortem” panel session at GDC 2014 this morning.
It’s the first time GDC has ever hosted a postmortem discussion of a studio, rather than a game, and while Falstein worked to guide the talk through a chronological retelling of Lucasfilm Games’ formation and early work, discussion amongst the panelists — former Lucasfilm Games members Ron Gilbert, Chip Morningstar, David Fox, Peter Langston, and Steve Arnold — quickly slid into the realm of reminiscing and fond remembrances.
Peter Langston, who wrote his first computer game in 1965, was essentially the founding member of Lucasfilm Games, and the first panelist to share his memories of working at the studio.
“My main goal was to use modern technology in the games business,” said Langston, when describing how he was first hired in 1982 to start a new enterprise on behalf of Lucas, outside of the film business.
“Console games at that time were pretty crude…they had to run on machines like the Atari 2600.”
Times were so tough, said Langston, that console developers would often think of available memory in bits rather than bytes, because it was wasteful to devote a byte of memory to something if 7 bits would do.
Langston claims Lucasfilm Games took in a million dollars in its first year, even though they didn’t make any games — they made tools. But they also started experimenting with game development — one prototype generated anti-aliased graphics in real-time, while another was able to generate music from places beyond the player’s point of view. .
David Fox, a founding member of Lucasfilm Games who worked on games like Labyrinth and Zak McKracken, shared stories of trying to pitch what would become Rescue on Fractalus.
“I wanted to do a Star Wars game, but I was told that we were not allowed to do Star Wars titles,” said Fox, who had joined the company specifically to work within the Star Wars universe.
Fox says when he first showed his space fighter pilot game prototype to George Lucas, the filmmaker pointed out that Fox had failed to include a fire button -- the developer had assumed players would simply defeat enemies by outmaneuvering them and leading them into crashing into the mountains.
Steve Arnold is now an experienced venture capitalist, but back in the early '80s he left Atari to lead Lucasfilm's "Games Group," which would go on to become Lucasfilm Games.
“We were creating a culture that was designed around innovation,” said Arnold, trying to explain why Lucasfilm Games was able to produce a remarkably diverse array of games -- BallBlazer, Rescue on Fractalus, Habitat and the like -- in a relatively short span of time.
“One of the important constraints we had was that we weren’t working with Star Wars,” said Arnold. “We didn't have to play in that universe -- we got to do our own creation, and we were literally the only group — outside of George — within the Lucasfilm company that got to make up new stories and call them Lucasfilm.”
“George had simple rules for us: ‘Stay small, be the best, and don’t lose any money.’”
To hear Arnold tell it, those rules were liberating because they inspired the team to experiment with new ideas. The culture of Lucasfilm Games that Arnold remembers was much akin to an indie film studio — the team wanted to build things that people wanted to buy, but they also wanted to make something artful.
Chip Morningstar served as a designer and programmer at Lucasfilm Games, most notably as project lead for the early graphical online game Habitat.
“One of our principles was that we never did anything with the company’s own money — we had to get someone else to pay for it,” said Morningstar, who went on to explain how early Lucasfilm Games staffers would keep an “idea file” full of game pitches that would be plundered whenever representatives of other companies would visit in order to “bask in the glow of Star Wars.
When a representative from Quantum Link came through one day, Morningstar remembers pitching him on the idea of making something like Habitat. The guy went for it, and Morningstar suddenly found himself responsible for leading development on what would prove to be a groundbreaking online game.
“It was kind of radically egalitarian,” said Morningstar. “Almost all developers’ titles were ‘designer/programmer’ at Lucasfilm Games, and everyone was entitled to contribute.”
Ron Gilbert, a veteran developer known for his work on critically-acclaimed games like Maniac Mansion and The Cave, shared his own memories of the relatively flat operating hierarchy at early Lucasfilm Games. “My biggest memory from developing the SCUMM system for Maniac Mansion was almost getting fired,” said Gilbert. He was hired in 1984 to port Koronis Rift to Commodore 64, and went on to successfully pitch an idea for what would become Maniac Mansion. He and fellow developer Gary Winnick worked on the game for 9 months, but development was going badly and Gilbert shared memories of being called in to Arnold's to get a stern talking-to.
"He felt the project needed an adult," joked Gilbert. The pressures of project leadership aside, Gilbert seems to have fond memories of his time at Lucasfilm Games and the freedom it afforded.
“There wasn’t this fear of failure at some levels, and it really allowed you to go off and do interesting things," said Gilbert. “A lot of the things that we did, we were just too stupid to know that it couldn’t be done, and so we would just go off and do these interesting things.”
Editor's Note: This story has been updated to correct factual errors made during transcription.