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Interview: LucasArts Vet Blackman Unveils Fearless Studios

Interview: LucasArts Vet Blackman Unveils Fearless Studios Exclusive

October 14, 2010 | By Leigh Alexander

October 14, 2010 | By Leigh Alexander
More: Console/PC, Exclusive

Key LucasArts figures who've since left the studio are revealing their new project, Fearless Studios. The new Marin, CA studio has been co-founded by award winning Force Unleashed writer and producer Haden Blackman and Cedrick Collomb, LucasArts' former engineering director.

Speaking to Gamasutra about his new Bay Area-based venture, Blackman says the studio's naming is a reflection of its intention to focus on both the creative risks he feels are necessary to push new ideas in the gaming space, as well as the kind of "tough" honesty, both internally and with publishing and technology partners, it takes to execute them successfully.

"The underlying philosophy of the studio is we want all those things to sit on a bed of smart tech decisions," Blackman tells us. He brings the creative vision and Collomb makes an ideal collaborative mind on the technology infrastructure: "We both are of the same mindset about what we want in a studio."

After years of working on the Star Wars brand, Blackman says he was ready to "try to build my own sandbox... I had a great time working with LucasArts for 15 years, I had a fantastic time working in the Star Wars universe," he reflects. "I had a great time playing in someone else's sandbox, and now it's time to go build my own."

The motivation comes from a drive to explore other content genres as well as other fame genres, he says.

"The whole point of any independent developer, and the reason most people do it, is they want more control over the types of games they make, who they make them with, and how they make it," he says. In over a decade of working together, Blackman says he and Collomb learned they had the same kinds of ideas of how games should be made and how structure should be set on a studio level.

"We wanted to try to build a culture where all those things could really come to the fore and reflect our ideals," he says. "The reason we left wasn't dissatisfaction with LucasArts or the changes that happened there recently," Blackman adds. Just two months after he left the studio, it announced a realignment and reorganization that included a number of layoffs.

Risky Can Still Be Business

"One of the things that I feel very fortunate for is having been at LucasArts under the Jim Ward era, when he was president," Blackman recalls. "Ward had a very strong vision for the types of games we should be building; he wanted us to build games for the players, and not necessarily for ourselves. That was a very important lesson... he pushed us to be innovative, creative, and to take risks within the context of these big, blockbuster-type games.

Creativity and business savvy aren't mutually exclusive, Blackman asserts, and assuming they are is where most creatively-motivated endeavors tend to founder. "I think that's the problem a lot of people fall into," he says. "You can combine existing mechanics and technology, and still take a risk on art style and things, and still build a big mainstream game."

It's that happy medium he hopes to find with Fearless Studios, says Blackman. "I really want to build big, story-driven action games," he says. "And I'm a big horror buff; I would love to do a horror game. That's kind of where our headspace is at right there."

Studio talent gets more creative the more autonomy they're given, he believes, and that's the sort of structure he and Collomb hope to implement. "I believe very strongly that I've done my best work when I've had a sense of autonomy, when I felt like I was making decisions on my own and had an opportunity to master my craft... in an organization where I had a sense of purpose, where I was working on something that I felt was bigger than just me."

Production Can Still Provide Autonomy

Having production oversight is, he says, naturally necessary to keep everything moving forward and working smoothly -- and it's key to building contingency plans when things get off-track, as can so easily happen in game development. Nonetheless, on a studio level, "we want to offer an environment where you're not micromanaged," he suggests.

The studio is still considering a number of concepts for its first project; most fall into the realm of "big console title," but some don't. The one that's chosen to kick things off will determine initial team size and structure, Blackman says, but largely Fearless hopes to keep a small core team of around 50 people in-house that includes its engineering, and then supplement that with extensive outsourcing.

"My father has only given me a handful of advice in my lifetime," he reflects. "One, when I took the LucasArts job was, 'make sure you don't ever give up writing your own stuff or designing your own games'... and I think it's because he knew, at the end of the day, I don't ultimately control the destiny of where Star Wars goes, and I want something that I have more control over -- and beyond that, to be able to try my hand at something new."

And although the decision to leave colleagues he very strongly valued working with -- and a universe beloved to millions -- was one he stresses he didn't make lightly, it was time for that new venture.

And an approach that prioritizes autonomy for the staff is key to the reconciliation between big commercial aims and "significant" creative risk simultaneously, he says. "We want to build games that have a lasting impact, that five years after you play them you remember them fondly," Blackman adds.

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