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Star Wars Outlaws began life in a café at E3

Creative director Julian Gerighty tells us how they made a modern video game look like 1970s movie

It's E3 2018 and Julian Gerighty is preparing to take the stage at The Orpheum Theater to showcase The Division 2.

While the creative director was preparing for the Ubisoft press conference, his boss at the time – Ubisoft Massive's managing director David Polfeldt – was out the front in a café "chit-chatting" with Disney about the possibility of the two working together.

"They had a shortlist of developers that they wanted to work with, and Massive happened to be on that list," Gerighty shares with us. "David was very enthusiastic about that relationship, too.

"I wasn't sure we were going to work on Star Wars. It could have been other Disney properties. But inside each one of us, we all dream of being able to one day make a Star Wars game. So that was the origin point."

This isn't the first time I've heard of a significant licensing deal coming about due to an E3 meeting. In fact, the very next year at E3 2019, Disney met with Rare, which led to the inclusion of Pirates of the Caribbean in Sea of Thieves.

"It's that concentration of everyone in the same place, rather than one person being at this end of town, and this person over at this end of town," Gerighty says. "I mourn E3 because we don't have these moments anymore."

Star Wars Outlaws creative director Julian Gerighty

Star Wars Outlaws is one of two major licensed productions that were developed side-by-side at Ubisoft Massive, the other being last December's Avatar: Frontiers of Pandora. The Swedish studio has expanded significantly as a result, and has partnered with more co-developers.

"It has grown bigger and bigger," Gerighty says. "[Mario + Rabbids developer] Ubisoft Milan is a brand new collaboration with us. We've never worked with them before, and they have done a phenomenal job. Their animation work is stellar.

"The team at Massive has grown. We have hired a bunch of people because of Avatar as well. But we have generally found people who share the same DNA. The person in charge of the control of the speeder and the ship comes from Criterion, who worked on Battlefront. It's a small industry, and people are really passionate about working on Star Wars."

"I mourn E3 because we don't have these moments anymore"

Despite the expansion, Gerighty says the core team on Star Wars Outlaws is the same group that worked on The Division 2 and has been together for over a decade. Nevertheless, this was new territory. Although The Division was technically a licensed IP (it is part of the Tom Clancy universe), working on Star Wars would inevitably involve a lot more oversight.

"It's actually been surprisingly easy and super pleasant," Gerighty says. "Working very closely with Lucasfilm Games from day one, we established a creative framework together. It was an open world, action adventure game, single-player, featuring the scoundrel archetype. At the time, we called it The Scoundrel Archetype, which is Star Wars speak for space pirate or outlaw. And going from that, it was learning Star Wars design, Star Wars visuals, Star Wars twists on things, Star Wars storytelling, and that just made everybody on the team level up.

"We love worlds, we love building worlds, and there is a simplicity to Star Wars that really helped us up our game in general."

Star Wars lore has become more complex in recent years, with numerous live action and animated TV shows to sit alongside the movies. And the key to managing this growing complexity was to focus on what made sense for the story they're telling.

"Almost on day one it was decided we were original trilogy," Gerighty says. "We were set between Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi. And from then on, I don't worry about anything else. It is telling a new story with familiar touch points. It's a scoundrel story, so maybe you're not going to meet people who don't really belong in a scoundrel story. Leia might not make sense, but Qi'ra, Jabba the Hut, Lando… absolutely. You don't want the galaxy to feel too small by just doing the greatest hits of all the Star Wars characters."

Star Wars Outlaws has been designed to look like a film from the 1970s

The decision to focus on the original trilogy informed Massive's entire approach to Outlaws. The team would have at least one or two calls a week with Lucasfilm Games, and leaned on the license holder when it came to recreating that 1970s Star Wars look.

"We developed a lens for use inside of [game engine] snowdrop, a camera lens, which replicates the cinema lenses of the 1970s," Gerighty says. "So if you look, there is slight distortion. There is a Panavision lens vignetting chromatic aberration. There are lens flairs that are present. All of these things are there to remind you of the lenses of the original trilogy through new technology. We even collaborated with Lucasfilm to get the camera values for Rogue One, so we were as close as possible to the original trilogy, but through the lens of modern technology.

He continues: "We love this. That is why we present everything in the ultra widescreen format, to give it that cinematic presentation."

"There is this added pressure of 'you can't mess this one up'"

The team's realisation director – which is someone who in charge things like cinematics, transitions, acting on set, dialogue choices etc – also comes from Industrial Light and Magic, the special effects department responsible for Star Wars.

"He has worked on multiple Star Wars projects," Gerighty says. "He has basically studied how things were done in the original trilogy. The scene setups, the classic screen wipes that you may have noticed when you die… little things like that that we do remind you that this is the greatest galaxy ever created."

The demos we played in LA certainly felt cinematic, but they were all linear set pieces designed to showcase the various elements of the game. Star Wars Outlaws is an open world game and players will be able to explore and play it at their own pace. Does that not make it tough to fully deliver that movie-like experience?

"It never crossed my mind," Gerighty insists. "Video games, for me, are not about the linear content. It is more about the agency of the player to do what they are doing. So when we are talking about cinematic, it's the execution that is cinematic, and not necessarily that this is a linear story.

"The opportunity that games have is it gives you the director's seat. You are the one that decides those things. That, for me, is why video games are such a beautiful art form."

Star Wars Outlaws has already gone gold and arrives in August

Ubisoft is known for its big open world experiences such as Assassin's Creed and Far Cry. And one criticism the company has faced down the years is that these experiences can feel familiar to one another. Gerighty says that Massive is aware of that, and that Outlaws is a Star Wars game, not a Ubisoft game with Star Wars layered over the top.

"We are hyper conscious of the Ubisoft house style," Gerighty says. "Massive has always been different. The Division and The Division 2 were different. Originally Massive was an independent studio, then an Activision studio, so it has always thought very differently. The DNA of Massive is quite unique from Ubisoft. But there are so many great lessons to be learned by the Ubisoft way of making games.

"And Star Wars itself suggested some different ways of doing things. I will give you one example. Instead of having a skill tree and a upgrade tree like a traditional game, here you seek out experts, to create this padawan/master relationship in the world, which will lead you on adventure in order to upgrade your character. Everything is ingrained in people and the world."

Star Wars Outlaws has gone gold, and there are high hopes for this game. It's one of the world's top game developers making a game based on one of the world's most popular media franchises. It also arrives after a very slow period for AAA game releases. So there will be plenty of eyes on this when it comes out at the end of August.

"There is pressure to deliver a really good game every time we ship," concludes Gerighty. "But seeing as this is a childhood dream come true for a lot of us, there is this added pressure of 'you can't mess this one up'. But we are proud of what we have presented."

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Christopher Dring avatar
Christopher Dring: Chris is a 17-year media veteran specialising in the business of video games. And, erm, Doctor Who
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