By George!

By George!
Will Freeman

By Will Freeman

January 4th 2010 at 8:30AM

Develop visited George Lucas' vast ranch to learn more about the responsibility of working with Star Wars IP

George Lucas is something of a spectre. Walking the corridors of the various LucasFilm buildings scattered around San Francisco and the surrounding hills, his presence can be felt everywhere.

Speak to any of his staff, and they mention ‘George’ almost immediately. There’s a sense he is an omnipresent overseer, conducting the Star Wars universe from behind closed doors. While the secretive director rarely appears publically, he sees everything.

And at the time of Develop’s visit to the Letterman Digital Arts Centre and Big Rock Ranch, Lucas has plenty to preside over. The final touches are being put on the new Clone Wars game, the related TV series, a new Battlefront handheld release, and an additional Lego Indiana Jones title.

The several hundred staff that make up LucasFilm subsidiary LucasArts are the developers charged with designing games that compliment the elaborate, long-standing and hugely popular Star Wars universe, and as a result they are the people that know more than most about handling existing IP.

Now more than ever, they are working with their colleagues at LucasFilm, reining in the synergy between game, film and television series. From sharing technology to using the same voice actors, George’s army of employees are getting to know one another better than ever.

At the very same time the LucasArts studios are being handed the opportunity to guide Star Wars main narrative canon in their own games, introducing new characters and plot threads of their own invention. It’s a huge responsibility, and makes for a challenging time at Skywalker Ranch.

“I’m constantly tasked by my masters to create that Star Wars magic. It is a very big challenge,” admits Dave Filoni, creative director of the The Clone Wars TV series. As a man who works directly with Lucas, he knows more than most about staying faithful to what defines Star Wars, and increasingly he’s finding his work crossing over with the games teams’.

GEORGE’S MARVELOUS MEDICINE
“We constantly have to ask ourselves ‘what makes something Star Wars?’” he adds. “How do you get that feeling in the acting and the action? My mentor is George Lucas, and there couldn’t be a better person to teach me. I’ve always felt good knowing George is on board and backing everything we’re going to do. That means we can achieve that almost impossible task of capturing that something about Star Wars that makes it so special.”

There’s no doubt that Filoni is a lucky man, but how do the LucasArts developers that don’t have regular access to George make sure they deliver product that encompasses the character of the Star Wars universe? The answer, it seems, is collaboration.

“It was actually really great working with the Lucas Animation guys,” reveals LucasArts associate producer Vince Kudirka when talking about developing the recent video game accompaniment to the second The Clone Wars TV series. “I was really impressed by how early they got involved with the process of us making this game. The first time we visited all we had was some character art and a few animations.”

“At this time the TV guys had spent over a year animating, and they gave us a huge amount of advice and feedback. That’s something invaluable when working on IP like this. They helped us with the look and movement and poses even when our ideas were so early. And as they work so closely with George, they’ve really helped us put George’s vision in the game.”

Beyond that, the team behind The Clone Wars TV show have shared facial animation rigs and virtual sets with Kudirka and his co-workers. While the game developers have tweaked and customised the assets they have been given, removing unnecessary elements such as individually articulated fingers, using resources straight from the source material has been an invaluable boon in the campaign to realise the atmosphere of Star Wars.

SHOOT FOR TATOOINE

Time spent with those working on other LucasArts games reveals that success in capturing a sense of what defines Stars Wars is also pursued through design dogma. The ongoing conflict between the Empire and the Rebels is handled by LucasFilm’s influential licensing department, and as a developer the way you approach your game can have a significant effect on the way it is handled by the powers that be.

“Rather than being timid in anyway, very early on we really shot for the moon and then let those in charge tell us what we can’t do,” says producer Cameron Suey, who is part of the group expanding The Force Unleashed with new DLC and a special Sith Edition release.

“We went for everything we could think of and said ‘pull us back’, which I think was a huge advantage for the development of The Force Unleashed, because thematically it was all about things gamers have never seen before. We actually started with pre-visualisation animations, and took that straight to licensing and to George and asked if we could go with what we had. It was actually surprising they said yes, because we really had gone big with Force Powers and such. However, we’d followed the concept of the big Force Powers shown in the original 2D Clone Wars TV series. What we were doing wasn’t completely unprecedented, and it was probably respect to other new elements of the canon that had helped us so much.”

It’s a process that the licensing department seems open to, and the spirit of daring to push what the Star Wars universe can play host to is by no means exclusive to the Force Unleashed team.

“We work so closely with the licensing department, and they are definitely the holders of the vision,” confirms Kudirka when discussing his time spent with The Clone Wars: Republic Heroes. “They rein us in if we get a little too crazy, but they’re great to work with. They are pretty open to us doing different things, and creative things, even letting us introduce new villains or something like that.”

“We’re very lucky here,” adds Battlefront: Elite Squadron product manager Pat Alvarado. “When working with Lucas’ licensing team, it is the team that has been with George since the very beginning. They read and approve everything. The guys and girls here writing stories are die-hard fans too, and take great personal pride in being able to handle the IP. That’s very important, and they’ve done an amazing job as a result.”

There’s one other important consideration when tackling Lucas’ opus: the massive, fiercely passionate fan base. Whatever game you are making, the wrath of the consumer can be hard to avoid, but nowhere does the shadow of the fanboy loom larger than in the world of Star Wars. It would be easy to assume the LucasArts teams have grown complacent about creating under the microscope of licence devotees, but in fact, customer input remains of paramount concern.

“Taking into account fan feedback can certainly help in capturing the spirit of the universe,” insists Alvarado. In his experience, pleasing those most familiar with the IP is inherently related to faithfully realising the quality of Lucas’ original.

MAKE YOURSELF AT-AT HOME
Another element that helps those working on the new generation of Star Wars games is the way the development teams at the San Francisco are structured. For some, it’s a matter of being able to stay in their teams beyond the life span of just one title.
“The more you work with a team, the better it is. I started out as a PA on the original Force Unleashed. That was years ago, as it was in production for a while,” explains Suey. “When you get to know the people you work with, you all work so much more efficiently, you have so much less drama, and you all share a greater understanding of the fictional universe you’re working with.

“Aside from knowing one another there’s knowing the code we are working with, knowing the engine, knowing what DMM can do, knowing what Euphoria can do. Knowing the gameplay and what does and doesn’t work was just a huge advantage. It’s about having a knowledge base you all share.”

That philosophy of sharing also goes beyond individual teams at LucasArts, to working within a stone’s throw of those tackling other Star Wars projects.

“We’re especially lucky here at LucasArts to be able to see what other gaming projects are underway,” states Kudirka. “We took a lot of pages out of Lego Star Wars’ book for example. A collaborative effort really helps. Here at Lucas people are just next door, so looking to other Star Wars games can be a great resource for inspiration.”

However, there’s also a sentiment within LucasFilm’s walls that there are gains to reaped from keeping a degree of separation between creators – something Filoni is certainly an advocate of.

“I think it really helps,” acknowledges the writer on the subject of cross-disciplinary convergence. “It can’t be a bad thing that you have the same people making one working on the other. But the way I try and manage it is that I don’t like to step on the toes of the people making the game. They know how to make great games at LucasArts.”

“Ultimately, if you have a really good story you’ll have a really good episode and as result you’ll have a truly great game. I always say to the games people ‘Look, with that idea this is how I would do it. If that makes sense for you or not in your game, I don’t know, but a Jedi would definately do that in our show,’ for example.”

What is immediately apparent to anybody that visits the home of George Lucas’ creative empire is that there’s a mutual love and respect for the licence. It’s easy to dismiss a developer when they tell you that they’ve always adored the IP that is currently consuming their every waking hour. When that licence is Star Wars, and you’re faced with legions of staff who live and breathe wookies and snow speeders, it’s a little harder to dispute. The staff’s energy is something like impassioned brand loyalty, and it translates into a fervent dedication to serving the brand with care and consideration.
“Everything we do at Lucas is definitely in service of a licence, and it’s important to love that licence for multiple reasons,” admits sound supervisor and voice director Dave Collins, who has worked across the LucasArts portfolio of games. “One, because it can be gratifying for you to contribute to, which motivates good work; and two, because you need to know it really well – there are fans on the forums that have so much knowledge.”

“We really do shepherd the brand and watch all the different indicators that tell us whether we’re hitting with our audience or not,” agrees Howard Roffman, president of Lucas Licensing.

“With George I always remember that it is his universe,” adds Filoni. “He created it. He lets me create alongside him and I try to be the best student I can, and most importantly, I listen to everything he has to say. That’s not to say that he and I can’t go back and forth with things, and honestly, I get to quote his old movies on him all the time. But seriously, it’s a great relationship when you get to work with George.”

Being true to IP will always be a challenge from a development perspective, and with Star Wars that reality is amplified in manifold ways. At LucasArts, which is lucky enough to exist alongside some of the world’s most renowned filmmakers and special effects pioneers, there’s a constant focus on what the IP already offers. Designing gameplay off of the strengths of Star Wars hasn’t guaranteed high quality results every time, but the company’s games sell in huge quantities and the fan base seems increasinly delighted.

The last word goes to Filoni, who sums up the whole process of working on Star Wars IP perfectly: “Ultimately Star Wars belongs to George, and we just get to play in his Galaxy.”

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Force Feedback

Perhaps more than any other movie, Star Wars and its sequels have created some of the most iconic sounds in cinematic history. We’ve all heard the yarn about Ewan McGregor having to stifle his desire to mimic the swoosh of a lightsaber when performing the combat scenes for Episode 1, and Darth Vader’s infamous respiration remains as one of the most mimicked pieces of audio ever conceived.

Subsequently, any Star Wars video game has to feature exactly those sounds, and a myriad of others that stay faithful to the established style. With ears being so much harder to trick than eyes, which readily fall for illusions like animation and ‘3D’ visuals on a flat screen, the LucasArts sound teams have their work cut out.

“We keep going back to the source material as a template for what makes great Star Wars sound,” reveals David Collins, a sound supervisor and voice director that has worked at Lucas for some 10 years who has also contributed to Monkey Island and Indiana Jones titles. “There’s a very large and long history of great sound effects, great music and great dialogue in the Star Wars movies that we can use as a design template for what we need to create. Having the iconic sound of a lightsaber, and the equivalent creature vehicle sounds and music in there really makes a licence. In fact, if you stray too far from it, it stops feeing like Star Wars. There are certain audio anchors that people need emotionally.”

The importance of those anchors means hours of work for Collins and his colleagues, as replicating the original assets isn’t as simple as simply ripping and porting the zap of a Blaster or the throbbing hum of a Tie Fighter.

“It’s a matter of designing variations on a theme,” suggests Collins. “For example, we can in a video game let the player spend a couple of hours on a planet that maybe appeared in the movie for 30 seconds, yet the 30 seconds of audio that was designed for the film becomes our template for fully realising a larger world.”

Whether Collins, who like LucasFilm veteran Howard Roffman describes himself as a shepherd of the IP, is giving context to a voice actor’s performance in the studio, or a co-worker is building an alternative explosion audio file, there is a constant pressure to match the quality and feel of the original assets. Even when the 30-year-old sound effects are used direct, they are heavily mixed-in to allow them to slot in neatly to the newly realised world.

“The best compliment you can get about a game based on a licence, and in particular a Star Wars licence, is when somebody reviews it or a gamer picks it up and says ‘It sounds great. I love the way they pulled the sounds straight from the movies or TV show’,” muses Collins. “While there’s truth in that, absolutely, we’ve actually created hundreds, or sometimes thousands of audio assets that work in concert with the original audio. When we succeed in tricking the ear like that, it feels great.”