What lessons can be learned from LucasArts?
Google's chief game designer Noah Falstein reflects on the good and bad of his time at Lucasfilm Games
LucasArts is technically still around, but that's not stopping it from being the subject of the Game Developers Conference's first Classic Studio Postmortem. Organizers today announced that the March event in San Francisco will feature a retrospective panel on the early days of LucasArts, back when it was known as Lucasfilm Games. The session will include a handful of the earliest employees of Lucasfilm Games, including Ron Gilbert, David Fox, Peter Langston, Steve Arnold, Chip Morningstar, and moderating it all, Noah Falstein.
Falstein, who has since gone on to be Google's chief game designer, recently spoke with GamesIndustry International about his stint with Lucasfilm Games, and what lessons publishers and developers can pull from its fate, stripped down to a licensing arm in the wake of Disney's acquisition of Lucasfilm proper. The core lesson of the studio's downfall is one that could be learned from any number of struggling enterprises, with Zynga being one specific example Falstein brought up.
"If you lose sight of creativity and fresh experiences, you may be able to grow your bottom line for a limited amount of time," Falstein said. "But in the long run, if you keep doing the same sort of thing and just try to refine it and do more and more of it, then you're going to run into trouble. You're going to peak and be forced to diversify, be forced to get down to the real fresh, creative view of things."
"George was really clear with us early on. At that point, he gave us three dictums to live by: Stay small, be the best, and don't lose any money."
While he was "not at liberty to talk" about just what his current employer's designs are on the game space, Falstein tried to provide some insight into how his first experience helping a massively successful cultural icon break into the gaming business has informed his latest.
"I guess what I can say is that over the years, I've found there are a lot of fundamental lessons, particularly when it comes to game design and the creative side of things, that are true no matter what the platform or technology or audience that you're going after," Falstein said. "My hope here, and my advice to people in general, is to always remember the fundamentals of creativity, interaction and simply fun. Never lose sight of the fact that games are about interactivity and fun, and if you want them to be successful, you've got to keep that aspect of them fresh and exciting for the players."
Falstein said Lucasfilm Games had a few unique advantages when George Lucas launched it in the early '80s. First, it had a well-defined vision.
"George was really clear with us early on," Falstein explained. "At that point, he gave us three dictums to live by: Stay small, be the best, and don't lose any money. And it was a really good formula for us. It set us up as what would now be considered a start-up within the larger organization of LucasFilm."
Second, it couldn't use the Star Wars or Indiana Jones properties for most of its first decade, as Lucasfilm had already licensed those rights out.
"That was a real blessing in the long run, because it meant we had to develop our own IP and be creative in our own way, to find our own footing that was not simply a reflection of the movie company," Falstein said.
Finally, it had the faith and support of Lucas himself. Falstein said Lucasfilm would have annual meetings for the whole company, and it was not uncommon for employees from the movie side of the business to question the Lucasfilm Games side project, to suggest it was a distraction that ate up resources when the company should have been focused on making movies.
"George always stuck up for us," Falstein said. "He really believed that this was the future, and certainly events have proven themselves out that way. I would say it doesn't matter what the company is. Having a good visionary leader who can push stuff forward despite doubt, that's a wonderful thing we've seen behind the success of a lot of companies in the world today, certainly a lot of high tech companies."
Despite that support, Falstein said it was "never a completely comfortable fit" combining Lucasfilm's movie-making expertise with what was essentially a tech startup. And Lucas, for all his vision, was embarking in a new field requiring lots of improvisation and innovation, which led to friction as people were asked to switch from one way of thinking to another.
"In over 30 years in the business, I have no doubt this is the most creative and exciting time in terms of potential and possibility. And as recently as 10 years ago, I would have bet quite strongly against that."
Having a game development group existing within a larger company for which games aren't a core competency inherently leads to problems, Falstein said. He's had a fair bit of experience with that by this point; beyond his stints with Google and Lucasfilm, he also was one of the first developers hired at Steven Spielberg's Dreamworks Interactive in the mid-'90s. And while the situation won't completely go away, it has improved with time.
"There's always some tension if you have a group of people who are not from games," Falstein said. "But something that's really different now than back in 1982 when LucasFilm Games was starting up, is that video games are a part of everyday life for basically everyone. You certainly still get some people who don't quite get games or understand them, but they're now a fairly rare exception rather than the overwhelming rule, which was the case back in 1982."
Despite the difficulties of working in a game illiterate world, Falstein is clearly fond of that era, saying it was a time of experimentation and "this feeling that we could tackle almost anything." There was no telling what would succeed: home computers, game systems, and arcades were all viable options filled with promise. He contrasts that time of optimism with a low point of pessimism about 10 years ago, where the prevailing notion was that the future of games was exclusively the domain of big budget AAA console games.
"People in 2003 were saying in 2013 that would be pretty much all there is in gaming," Falstein said. "It's been very gratifying to see that's not that case, but the mobile explosion, the social game explosion, and now all these new platforms, sensors, wearables, virtual reality, so many different things available now to players. And the indie games movement and experimental games have pushed the creativity and design of gameplay. So really, in over 30 years in the business, I have no doubt this is the most creative and exciting time in terms of potential and possibility. And as recently as 10 years ago, I would have bet quite strongly against that."
And if we hit 2023 and the market is once again dominated by a single style of game or a single format, Falstein will just keep looking forward.
"It's a very cyclical business, and I can guarantee the euphoria I'm feeling now will not last forever," Falstein said. "I'm also optimistic that even if things get dark, there will be a new dawn beyond it."