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Interview: Star Wars In Singapore - LucasArts' Asian Studio

Interview: Star Wars In Singapore - LucasArts' Asian Studio

May 17, 2010 | By Christian Nutt

May 17, 2010 | By Christian Nutt
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Back in 2004, Star Wars creator George Lucas announced plans to open a division of his company in the Asian country of Singapore, part of an aggressive campaign by the country to attract digital talent which has also brought Ubisoft and Koei to its doors.

The office, which opened in 2005, is perhaps best known for its Lucasfilm Animation outpost, which has worked in depth on the Star Wars: The Clone Wars animated series. But a video game division was officially announced in 2007, alongside an office for Lucas-owned FX outfit Industrial Light and Magic.

With the Singapore studio's profile relatively underexposed in the video game business, Gamasutra spoke to the studio's executive producer Gio Corsi, a Vancouver native who moved to Singapore in 2007 to run LucasArts Singapore.

Along the way, he discussed the studio's wholly developed titles like Star Wars: The Clone Wars - Jedi Alliance and the DS version of Star Wars: The Clone Wars Republic Heroes, the purpose of the studio for LucasArts as a company, what he thinks of the staff, and experiences working out of Asia.

So you're in the Singapore studio. What's your role there?

Gio Corsi: I'm the executive producer for the studio, so running the games team over there.

How did you personally get involved in going to the Singapore studio?

GC: Really, I just applied, honestly. I was a fan of Star Wars -- you know, as a little kid, you always want to work on Star Wars -- and I went and applied. They offered the position in Singapore, and I talked to the wife and said, "You want to go live in Singapore for awhile?" and within five seconds she said, "Sure. Let's do it."

Where were you before?

GC: Primarily in Vancouver. I was born and raised there, and I've worked at different companies up there, like Nexon, Propaganda, Mainframe (which is now Rainmaker), and, like many people, got my start at EA.

You see a lot of companies opening Asian studios; a lot of them are doing it in China. Why Singapore?

GC: Singapore's a great place to have the studio. I mean, one of the things that attracted me to Singapore was, A, it was a real good central location for all of Asia, and it's a good draw for talent in that region because it is a kind of center point for people to kind of glom to.

We just have such a rich diversity of talent there -- not only from Asia alone, but from all over the world. We kind of joke and call it the United Nations because it really is; there's 40 or 50 different nationalities out there, not just focused on the Asian region, but from all over the world. It's a good place for talent, believe it or not.

I believe it. There's a lot of education there, too.

GC: Lots of schooling over there, lots of support from the government, and all of the companies that are out there are really focused on making top-quality product.

Also, primarily, my understanding is that most people in Singapore speak English.

GC: Absolutely. It is the major language. The perception is that it isn't; there is kind of an unfair perception. People always think that it might be a little bit of a sweatshop mentality out there, but it absolutely isn't at all. Everyone speaks English; everyone is very well educated. They have a ton of experience and really excited about working with companies like ourselves or whoever else is out there and just making kick-ass product.

So what's a recent project that you worked on that you can talk about?

GC: Well, we worked on Jedi Alliance for the DS. We also worked on Republic Heroes for the DS, and we worked on Monkey [Island] for the iPhone.

Were they top-to-bottom projects?

GC: The two DS titles were top-to-bottom, and the iPhone was in conjunction with the studio over in the U.S.. We focused mainly on the iPhone version, while the other versions were done in-house [in San Francisco].

Is that the goal for the studio, or are you going to grow?

GC: We're always growing, yeah. We really want to focus on having a good collaboration with the studio over here and also working on our own projects at the same time.

Are you primarily planning to continue work in the handheld/mobile space or also move onto consoles?

GC: We want to try a little bit of everything.

Have there been any real challenges -- either due to time difference or cultural things -- working back and forth between America and the Singapore studio?

GC: Surprisingly not. I was expecting a lot more difficulty, honestly, when I got over there, but they've got it down to a pretty good science. Between 8 am and 11 am is our window between the two companies, so we try to schedule most cross-divisional meetings within that time. So you always know in the morning you're going to be doing a lot of back-and-forth with San Francisco.

That was already in place when I got there. The game studio's been around since 2007, so they've had a couple of years to figure out the best way of communicating. Obviously, in this industry, people will work a few extra hours, so there's always people around to answer emails in emergencies or whatnot. Communication definitely hasn't been a problem.

Doesn't Lucasfilm also have some stuff in Singapore? It's not just games; it's also effects and stuff.

GC: Yes, we have ILM out there as well as Lucasfilm Animation, where they're doing the Clone Wars television show. ILM has worked on films like Transformers and Iron Man 1; stuff like that.

Are you all in the same offices?

GC: Yep; we're all under one roof. We collaborate quite a bit.

I was wondering about that because there's obvious crossover potential if you end up working on a product that's related to something they're working on.

GC: Oh, yeah. That and sharing staff, as well. Sometimes somebody needs some extra animators or something like that; we can share those people. I have a really good relationship with the two EPs on ILM and Animation, and we just get together once a month for an off-site and just talk about, "Okay, what's slowing you down? What's going good, and what's going bad? How can we help out?" So it's a really good collaborative environment there.

You said Singapore was an international place, so obviously some people are already there. Do you mostly recruit locally, or do you recruit from North American or Europe and actually bring people in, or do you find people who are already in that area?

GC: We always go regional first because we want the region to grow in the industry, but we do recruit from all over the world. Obviously, Australia and Europe are a lot closer than North America, but it's about getting the right people for the job rather than just filling head count; we always just look for the best talent we can, whether it be regional or global.

As game culture matures and the business of games matures, you see different people trying different things. Singapore's just one route that's being explored. You seem to be satisfied with the progress that you're making.

GC: I am. I've been doing this for about 15 years now, but now, in Singapore, it's almost like a fresh start, for lack of a better term. It's just so passionate and vibrant over there. They're just willing to try anything. Obviously, I have a mandate to follow with the company on what we're trying to accomplish, but, at the same time, we can try different ways of doing it.

We don't have to follow the way it's been done for the last 20 years in other industries or other companies. We just kind of be like, "Well, why don't we try to staff it up this way?" or "Why don't we try to do our design this way?" It's kind of new, exciting, and different. It's really, really cool. Luckily, we have great support from our San Francisco office; they know that we're a smaller team out there, and they're like, "If it works and we meet our goals, let's go for it."

I get the broader sense Lucasarts has been in the process of refocusing its efforts on development and finding the right way to proceed with development and been through some changes, so this seems like it's just part of that bigger picture for the company.

GC: Always open to trying new things. That's exactly what we're trying to do out there. I'm not saying that one system is better than the other or at all, but there's always ways of getting more refined and getting better at your craft.

Something that you said reminded me: I spoke to the guys from CCP in Shanghai. They're doing their Xbox 360 game Dust, and the American on the team is just so excited to be working with the Chinese creators. Some of the companies that go into Asia are very top-down; they really push on the staff and just use them as human capital, but that's just not going to work in the long run, I don't think.

GC: I agree, and we totally don't work that way in Singapore. It's a very collaborative team and a very flat structure, for sure. I myself sit on the floor with the team, and it's just a very open dialogue between everybody; it doesn't matter if you're a junior artist or a senior designer or head of finance or whatever. Everyone can talk to everyone at a moment's notice, and it really makes for a much more creative environment, I find.

Do you find that people have a different perspective than you were getting when you were working in North America?

GC: Well, over on the Asian side, games have been around over there as long as they have over here, but there's been very little cross-pollination. A lot of questions I always get are like, "How is the staff over there? How good are they?" They're great!

They've been working on games for years; they're just games that we, as a general public in North America, haven't heard of. They have their whole entire different industry over there.

So I might get a designer and I don't recognize a single title that he's worked on, but he's had 12 years experience designing games on titles that have sold millions of copies in Asia. But over in North America, you haven't even heard of him; you'd only find it if you were in the airport and bought it over there or something like that.

So I find that the perception over here is that there isn't that much great talent over there whereas, in actuality, there is a ton of talent over there; and they're always willing to try something new. They're not jaded or burnt out or bitter -- they're just like, "What can we do differently? What can we do now? How do we do this differently? Why don't we try this new?"

So it's really refreshing and energizing when you come over there and meet all these guys and girls who just want to push the envelope, push the envelope. I know that happens in North America too, but coming over there and seeing it from a fresh pair of eyes is quite amazing.

They love their games. They are huge hardcore game fans -- and casual game fans. They just love games, and it's awesome to come in there and just be like, "We're staying behind and we're all gonna play this game. Do you want to join us?" Awesome. I haven't had that since I was working in QA!


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