A Short History of LucasArts

A Short History of LucasArts

EDIT 17/12/09 – corrections based on LucasFilm Games designer David Fox.

At its start, LucasArts didn’t immediately latch onto the powerful Star Wars license as it does today. Eric-Jon Rössel Waugh explores the publisher’s transition from titles such as The Secret of Monkey Island to Knights of the Old Republic.

At about the same time Trip Hawkins was deciding what to name his company, George Lucas – hot off the success of his first superstar collaboration with Steven Spielberg and steeped in post-production to the concluding chapter of his Star Wars trilogy, decided – what with his new high-tech special effects and CG houses – it wouldn’t hurt to branch off into this videogame stuff that Activision was making such noise about, calling it a creative medium and talking about its designers like rock stars or film directors. Following his whim, Lucas pulled together a few talented programmers and artists, talked to Atari about a development partnership, and in May 1982 founded Lucasfilm Games.

By 1984, the team had a couple of games to show – Ballblazer and Rescue on Fractalus!, both basically action-oriented affairs, and both leaked to pirate BBSes shortly after Atari received its unprotected review copies. Despite being widely available for months before release, the games sold pretty well; Lucasfilm hired some more staff and set to work on a second wave – this time without Atari’s help.

Amongst the new staff was a recent graduate named Ron Gilbert, who did some minor work on the Commodore port of Koronis Rift – one of Lucasfilm’s two releases for 1985, alongside The Eidolon – before setting to work on his own project. Inspired by ICOM’s classic Mac game Deja Vu, Gilbert began sketching out an adventure game set in a haunted house. While Gilbert was working out the logistics, eventually writing his own scripting language – "Script Creation Utility for Maniac Mansion", or SCUMM for short – to ease along the design, other Lucasfilm staff readied their own adventure game based on the David Bowie vehicle Labyrinth. Aside from Lucasfilm’s first stab into the graphical adventure genre, this game marked the first bleed-over between the company’s movie and game divisions. Also around this point, a sub-group within the company started to fiddle around with flight sims. The result of this was a trilogy of historical WWII games, that would become more important later.

In 1987, Maniac Mansion arrived and changed the direction of Lucasfilm for years to come. The game would come to be ported to every platform under the sun, including a TV sitcom; for the next five years, in one form or another, Gilbert’s SCUMM system would become the backbone of a whole era of game development. The next year, Gilbert and his team released their follow-up, Zak McKracken and the Alien Mindbenders – featuring supporting illustrations by a certain Steve Purcell.

Another year on, Lucas wanted a tie-in with his conclusion to the Indiana Jones trilogy, out in theaters that summer. Continuing to attract new talent, Lucasfilm hired a couple of guys named Tim Schafer and Sean Clark. Then in 1990, everything started to come together. George Lucas consolidated his spin-off companies – ILM, Skywalker Sound, Lucasfilm Games – into a holding company called LucasArts Entertainment. Brian Moriarty stepped in to develop fan favorite LOOM, then vanished again. And Ron Gilbert collaborated for the first time with Tim Schafer and writer-programmer Dave Grossman, almost accidentally resulting in a pirate-themed comedy-adventure called The Secret of Monkey Island. By this point, LucasArts had gained broad recognition as the master of its field, rivaled only by Sierra in the graphical adventure genre – which by this time was, to an extent, almost synonymous with PC gaming.

The next couple of years passed as you’d expect: a Monkey Island sequel by the same superstar team (usually considered even better than the first game); in lieu of an actual movie sequel, the successful Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade game received a successful game-only sequel. Between the two sequels, ILM and Skywalker Sound were consolidated into Lucas Digital, leaving the game division alone with the LucasArts brand. And then Ron Gilbert jumped ship, to form his own company.

Undaunted, the rest of the LucasArts staff stepped up to fill Gilbert’s boots. Grossman and Schafer continued their partnership, devising out a sequel to Gilbert’s Maniac Mansion. After years of incidental contributions and little in-jokes, Steve Purcell stepped forward and designed a game around his long-time characters, Sam & Max. Both games were smash hits, as usual. And then that same year, 1993, suddenly LucasArts decided it was a good time to base a game on Star Wars.

Probably inspired by the success of Origin’s Wing Commander, the first few games all followed in the tradition of LucasArts’ popular flight simulators, putting the player in the cockpit of an X-Wing or a Tie Fighter. In these early days of the CD-ROM, the second such game – Rebel Assault – became, despite its relative simpliity, something of a showcase game, much like Myst and The 7th Guest. The game’s success came in large part due to its incorporation of real (albeit grainy) footage and speech from the film trilogy, a huge novelty at the time. Suddenly, the writing was on the wall; LucasArts knew where the money lay, and that was in milking nostalgia. It was at this point that Dave Grossman left, to pursue a freelance career. Coincidentally, it was also around here that the flight sim team (led by Lawrence Holland) took off to form Totally Games.

Carrying on alone, in ’95 Schafer delivered his final 2D adventure game, the comparably low-profile Full Throttle. Meanwhile, Brian Moriarty popped back into focus long enough to finish off The Dig, an absurdly long-delayed project involving Steven Spielberg and Orson Scott Card. Again, despite the high profile of the contributors, the game kind of sailed under the radar. One game that didn’t was Star Wars: Dark Forces – one of those new-fangled first-person shooters, wrapped up inside The License that Sells. The message seemed clear enough: adventure games are out – especially if all the top designers were leaving – and Star Wars games in all the trendy genres were in.

In the wake of Tomb Raider and Quake, and the sudden explosion of 3D cards, the PC game landscape changed almost overnight. Where only a few years before the PC was riddled with deliberately-paced, software, geared toward a more cerebral demographic, now the PC was at the forefront of graphics and sound technology, and the fast-paced gameplay that came alongside; young graduates of the Nintendo generation were attracted to the Miyamoto-inspired designs of id Software and its copycats, and persisted in ignoring all the stuffy, cerebral games that had put them off PC games in the past.

Catering to this crowd, LucasArts released a sequel to Dark Forces that took full advantage of the new graphics cards; it was another smash hit. At the same time, a second Monkey Island sequel was released, to rave reviews. Nevertheless, it would be the final game developed with Ron Gilbert’s SCUMM engine, and the end of LucasArts’ 2D adventure line.

Taking one last stab, in 1998 Tim Schafer tried his hand at a 3D adventure game in the classic LucasArts style. Though universally praised, and often cited as one of the best computer games ever made, the game – Grim Fandango – was sort of a flop. In 1999, The Phantom Menace was released to theaters, sending Star Wars furor into the crazy place. After some frustrated attempts to get a PS2 game going, Tim Schafer – the last of the Guybrush trinity – left in 2000 to form his own studio. That same year, coincidentally, some of the remaining adventure staff tried out a new 3D Monkey Island game using the Fandango engine. It didn’t go down so well. And that was that: the final LucasArts adventure, and the final nail in the coffin.

In 2002, someone at LucasArts noticed that the company was producing almost nothing save Star Wars products – and that it was pumping them out so quickly, the quality was beginning to suffer. The company pledged that from that point on, at least fifty percent of its releases would have nothing to do with Star Wars. Some of the old adventure staff got to work on sequels to Full Throttle and Sam & Max; despite some progress, eventually both games were shelved and many of the staff departed to form Telltale games. Later, David Grossman and Steve Purcell would join their former associates at Telltale to hash out a new market for PC adventure games. Before it ever got started, the fifty-percent promise fell by the wayside.

LucasArts continues on in its way, continuing to rely almost entirely on Star Wars though at least exploring the property in novel ways, through games like Knights of the Old Republic, Star Wars Galaxies, and Star Wars: Battlefront. And that’s all nice, I suppose, for people who are already obsessed with the property. For that matter, I’m sure the company has never been more secure or profitable. If you don’t give a damn about Star Wars, though, you’re… kind of out of luck.

On the upside, much of the original LucasArts talent remains active – and actually, some of the work happening at Double Fine and Telltale is amongst the most promising and progressive stuff happening in the American game industry. Maybe this course of events was inevitable. In retrospect it seems kind of bizarre that LucasArts waited a full decade to even produce a Star Wars game, and that over that decade they only bothered to tie in three games to current films. It’s weird that the company was basically allowed to run on its own, develop its own culture and in-jokes and audience and identity, completely apart from the films produced by its sister company. Logistically speaking, it would seem an insane waste of resources and potential. And yet there it was – it persisted, for fifteen years, in its own little bubble. Then reason caught up, business took over, and the individuals were left to find their own way.