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."

Noah Falstein

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."

Noah Falstein

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."

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Latest comments (9)

Ruud Van De Moosdijk VP of Development, Engine Software8 years ago
Uhm, Zak McCracken, Maniac Mansion, Monkey Island, Day of the Tentacle, Sam & Max...that is the LucasArts legacy if you ask me. I am glad Noah is saying here that if you don't diversify, you will run out of breath at some point. This is what I keep telling indies these days...don't be a one-game wonder, do something else right away. Strife to be a Westwood, not a Rovio.
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Steve Wetz Reviewer/Assistant Editor, Gamer's Glance8 years ago
It is ironic that all the best LucasArts titles are not Star Wars related. Don't get me wrong - I loved Dark Forces and some of the sequels, but you'd have a hard time arguing against the list above, and that doesn't even include Full Throttle or Grim Fandango!
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And now its all Haus of Maus :)
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Show all comments (9)
Funny how Disney and Warner's game development operations mirror many of the failures!
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Nicholas Pantazis Senior Editor, VGChartz Ltd8 years ago
Grim Fandango is basically my favorite game of all time. Just sayin'.
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Greg Wilcox Creator, Destroy All Fanboys! 8 years ago
I had an RTX: Red Rock flashback while reading that post. Not their finest hour, for sure...

That said, I still think Dark Forces and DFII should have been remade completely at some point, as well as those X-Wing and Tie Fighter games...
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Paul Jace Merchandiser 8 years ago
My four favorite Lucasarts games(and probably the four best games they ever made) were Star Wars: Knights of The Old Republic 1 and 2, Star Wars: Jedi Knight Jedi Academy and Star Wars: The Force Unleashed. Ironically three of those were on the original Xbox, despite how much of a shooter focus that console had at times.

As for lessons learned: A) companies that make great games can one day go out of business(how they get there could be a multitude of different reasons) and B) there needs to be an Xbox Star Wars game compilation with atleast the first three games mentioned. Lucasarts already did this for PC, where several different compilations have been created over the years. Now Disney needs to keep the ball rolling and give the consoles some compilation love. If they did I'm sure they'd opt for the newer systems but I'd rather they made a version for the 360 as well. That way I'd have more achievements to complete.
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Greg Wilcox Creator, Destroy All Fanboys! 8 years ago
@Paul: What, No Republic Commando? Yeah, it was a shooter, but it was one of the better ones set in the SW universe (despite being part of those Episode I - III shenanigans). Also, I think of the games you mentioned, only one was actually made by Lucasarts. BioWare, Obsidian and Vicarious Visions were the developers on the first three. Lucasarts did The Force Unleashed for the 360 (and a few other platforms)...

Personally, I'd rather see any big new SW game get a multiplatform release, as one of the more annoying things about those other games is wondering how many MORE millions of copies they'd have sold on Sony and Nintendo platforms combined. That and both PC KOTOR games were pretty badly ported over (I never got any of the three copies of the game I had here to run or run properly on a few computers without some major tinkering around), although KOTOR II had stuff modders unearthed that was pretty cool...
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Paul Jace Merchandiser 8 years ago
@Greg--Republic Commando should absolutely be a part of the compilation, even with it's sometimes idiotic A.I. squad members("I told you to attack forward, not pace in the corner"). I'm aware that Lucasarts didn't develop all of those titles but they were the publisher and thats good enough for me.

Lastly, I said I wanted an Xbox Star Wars collection because the Xbox platforms have always gotten lots of Star Wars love via exclusive games. That doesn't mean it only has to be on Xbox platforms. If anything I think Disney would only put it on the XBO and PS4(and maybe the Wii U) but I'd rather have it on the 360/PS3, mainly to add to my already impressive achievement list.
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