LucasArts: remembering Skywalker Ranch, Monkey Island and Michael Jackson at the office party

LucasArts – and even more so, Lucasfilm Games – helped define and mold me as a game designer, and my eight years there were incredibly precious to me.

I have so many strong memories and powerful feelings about my years there, I have to let some flow out.  I first heard about the group in 1983, long before their first games were released, when I talked to David Fox in the process of a friend’s interview, and he has remained a close friend and work collaborator to this day. In fact the friends I made there were the strongest legacy – by the late 80’s and early 90’s we had what was surely one of the best few teams in the entire game industry.

I started just now to list them all but there were over 120 by the time I left, suffice it to say that although I’m mentioning some I worked with most closely here, there were many others equally talented and deserving of notice. Just the ones I’ve continued to work with over the years – David Fox, but also Chip Morningstar, Ron Gilbert, Larry Holland, Hal Barwood, Dave Grossman, Tim Schafer, Brian Moriarty, and the hundred-plus others from my time there – we share so much in common culture and inspiration from those years. Not to mention Steve Arnold, one of the best bosses I’ve ever had. I helped hire many of the people subsequent to me – recall our laughing over Tim’s resume (as intended, Tim!) or marveling over Hal leaving a successful film career to make games. Last year I was a founder in a (failed) startup, but getting to work with Chip Morningstar, Randy Farmer, and Gary Winnick again made it more than worthwhile.

Among all the great projects, it was the brainstorming sessions that were my favorite experiences. I think I may be one of the very few people besides Ron who was clued into the original Secret of Monkey Island. Coming to the Sonoma Mission Inn for a few days to brainstorm a million-player Star Wars game, many years before the first MMORPG. Brainstorming on The Dig with a couple non-game developers named George and Steven.  Laughing harder at Monkey Island and DOTT sessions than I have at any comedy club.

The physical locations were just as memorable. When I started we shared space with ILM, and were part of the Computer Division with the guys that split off to become Pixar – I remember John Lasseter teaching us where to sit in the big Corte Madera theater we used for company screenings so that our viewing arc of the screen corresponded most closely to the angle the camera saw. Coming in to see “Andre and Wally B.” emerging one slow scan line at a time for a Siggraph presentation. Playing with discarded movie props behind ILM. We moved to Skywalker Ranch shortly after it opened up, around 1986, and moved back out when we had grown too successful (and large) to fit.

What an incomparably beautiful location, so many great memories of swimming in the lake, walking the hills. Seeing screenings in the Stag Theater or the one in the basement of the Main House, whose walls smelled faintly of the wine casks they were made from for the first few years. Researching Fate of Atlantis in the library with Hal, with rain pattering on the stained-glass roof. Incredible lunches. Movie stars and music icons that we all carefully pretended were just anonymous strangers. Michael Jackson, in his Thriller glory, at our 4th of July party, wearing a hospital facemask. Steve Purcell teaching himself, then us, to snap the heads off of flowers with his authentic Indy bullwhip. Chasing down a lizard with a video-feed from a remote-controlled car we drove from a remodeled arcade cabinet (lots of projects that never made it out of our offices…).  Helping man the telescope in the observatory built into the hills over our location.  Dodging deer and bobcat on the way in and out.

And the people outside the video games industry I met or worked with – the Pixar guys, including Ed Catmull who interviewed me in 1983, George Lucas of course, and Steven Spielberg who would call in for hints on our adventure games (he got the direct dials of all the project leaders). Recommending Eric Goldberg and Greg Costikyan to do the Star Wars RPG, starting another long term friendship. Seeing some of the first VR tech from Jaron Lanier, whispers of nanotechnology from Eric Drexler, and other marvels through Chip’s friends he brought in for “Mad Scientist Lectures”. Even WW2 Aces we interviewed for our flight simulator games.

I did some consulting for LucasArts a few years ago, right before and after their move to the Presidio. A whole new generation of developers, just as eager and determined to excel. But there was a wistfulness felt by us old-timers, nothing subsequent to that golden age of the early days quite measured up to the mystique, despite greater financial success and sales numbers. I was looking forward to 1313, it sounded like a great step to reclaim some of the reputation for ground-breaking innovation that had largely faded, but alas…

I realize I’ve barely talked about the games we made, and only scratched the surface of the other stuff – I could go on for a long time, and perhaps I will someday in a book, I have boxes of memorabilia to trigger memories, including a bunch of never-worn T-shirts that perhaps will pay for my retirement. But I wanted to thank my many friends and colleagues from those years and all the subsequent employees for one great ride. And for those of you who have been rudely dumped back into the job market – know that the industry is healthier now than it has ever been, and there is in fact a great life after LucasArts.

Republished with kind permission from Noah Falstein’s blog, The Inspiracy.