The first days of LucasArts, its rise to prominence – and why it failed

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David Fox started to learn about game design and programming in the late seventies, and went on to write a book about computer animation. As he penned the book, Computer Animation Primer, he met some members of Lucasfilm’s newly created computer division, and later discovered that they were planning to set up a new games group at Lucasfilm.

Fox became Lucasfilm Games Group employee number three, after Peter Langston, who set up the division, and Rob Poor, who was moved over from the company’s computer division. The trio went on to build the LucasArts business throughout the eighties, before Fox departed in 1990. He was the designer and project leader on Rescue on Fractalus!, Labyrinth, Zak McKracken and the Alien Mindbenders, SCUMM scripter on Maniac Mansion, and co-designer/project lead on Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. Here, he tells us the story of LucasArts’ rise to prominence and explains why he believes “making Star Wars games is the path to the dark side”.

Starting out at LucasArts

“The first day was scary. I was constantly pinching myself to prove I wasn’t dreaming. I got to share an office with Loren Carpenter until the Games Group offices were ready several months later, which was very fortuitous since that lead to conversations about whether it was possible to generate realtime fractal landscapes on an Atari 800. Loren first laughed and said no, then said “wait a minute…” He borrowed an Atari to take home, learned 6502 assembly language and a day or two later came back with a working demo – Rescue on Fractalus! was the final result.

It took me a while to figure out the ropes. But the exciting stuff was feeling like we were given the task of doing in games what Lucasfilm had done in film. We were given plenty of time… we were in research mode, and were told that the first two games we’d attempt were ‘throw away’ games – no pressure. If they weren’t any good, we’d toss ‘em and start over.

Peter [Langston, who set up the division] was specifically looking for people who weren’t already embedded in the game industry. He wanted fresh blood, people who hadn’t been trained to think a certain way about games. And most of the people we ended up hiring were just that. Some did have experience, but many were just enormously creative, funny and original. And Peter also started the tradition of having all of us interview everyone who wanted a job once they got through the initial hurdles. That created the feeling that we all had a part in creating the company, the culture, and had a say in who we were going to work and play with.

We knew we were on the right path when at a Consumer Electronic Show in 1984, when we first showed our new games, someone came up to Noah Falstein and me and said, ‘Wow, those are really great games! Does Lucasfilm do anything else?’ We gave him a strange look and said, ‘Yes, uh, they make Star Wars films.’ They guy dropped his jaw in recognition. That was the first time someone clearly was impressed with our games rather than our heritage.”

From research to game production

“There was a major transition fairly early on. When our first two games turned out to be pretty good (Rescue on Fractalus! and Ballblazer), it was clear we were now moving from research mode to production mode.

But in spite of now being a production company, we still had plenty of time to refine a game idea before we had to go into production mode on it. That freedom let us take risks, push the boundaries, and experiment. Our group was unique in that we didn’t have to be financially successful right away… we were part of a company with pretty deep pockets and could take our time.

We also seemed to have a knack of hiring really great people. They may have been brought on for a lower level position, but if they had a great idea for a game, and seemed to have the ability to pull it off, we were often willing to give them a chance to take it further. Of course, I remember the times that policy paid off, like Ron Gilbert and Gary Winnick designing Maniac Mansion. Or Dave Grossman and Tim Schafer starting as ‘SCUMMlets’ and moving up to project leaders/game designers.”

The LucasArts philosophy

“I think everyone within LucasArts really wanted all of our games to be great and were happy to support each other. If I had a design issue, I could just walk down the hall to one of the other designers… Noah, Ron… describe the issue, and have an impromptu five minute brainstorming session. But the most fun were the full-blown brainstorming sessions that could last hours. Hilariously funny, tremendously serendipitous. I remember lots of times when two or three of us would have an identical idea at the same time. I really miss those sessions.

As designers, we were attempting to play with the game player through our games. Some of the adventure game designers from other companies seemed more interested in thwarting or frustrating the player and seemed almost sadistic in their attempt to create useless random deaths and dead ends.

We wanted to clear away as many of those barriers as possible and create situations and puzzles that would result in an ‘Ah-hah!’ moment for the player. And we wanted to reward players for being inventive and trying things that clearly weren’t going to work by making sure there was a funny response waiting for them when they did. I had that experience many times while designing… laughing out loud when I had a wacky idea for a puzzle, and imagining how the player would respond when he or she solved it. We wanted them to finish our games and to have a great time along the way.

Of course, we weren’t all that great at it when we first started. We had dead ends in our early graphic adventures too, a few deaths, and way too many mazes (in Zak McKracken, in particular). You see there was this other tension we were also trying to work with… how to create a 30-40 hour game that would fit on two sides of a Commodore 64 floppy disk – about 340K, about the size of a medium sized jpeg today. But we learned, and the games got better and better.”

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