"Not making Star Wars games was a godsend": The early days of LucasArts, Part One

James Batchelor

By James Batchelor

December 10th 2013 at 3:58PM

Former LucasArts employee Noah Falstein discusses the iconic studio's atmosphere, its first successes and the support it received from George Lucas

Next year's Game Developers Conference will host a special post-mortem panel looking at the history of a studio, rather than the creation of a single game.

The inaugural studio that has been chosen is the iconic, but sadly now defunct, LucasArts. Originally known as LucasFilm Games, this Hollywood-funded developer defined the point-and-click adventure genre with hits such as The Secret of Monkey Island, Maniac Mansion and Indiana Jones and the Fate of Atlantis.

Develop spoke to former LucasArts employee and Google's chief games designer Noah Falstein about how the much loved studio laid the foundations for its legacy.

 

How did you get started at Lucasarts?

Back in the pre-history of games, things were a little more informal. I was working at Williams Electronics doing arcade games in Chicago, and a friend of mine asked if I could serve as a reference for her because she was interviewing for a job at a new games division that LucasFilm was working on. I said ‘sure’ and was immediately impressed at where she was going and pretty envious. I gave her a good recommendation, but they decided not to hire her.

Because of that I ended up meeting David Fox who was one of a tiny handful of people already working there, and about six months after that – during the arcade crash we had in ’82 – I was laid off from Williams and I called David to see if they were looking for anyone. It turned out to be good timing because they were just hiring some new people. I went out there, my application worked out and that was it. I just happened to get lucky, I was in the right place at the right time.

What was the first title you worked on?

When I showed up, I spent a little time testing the first two games that had not been released: Rescue on Fractulas and Ballblazer. I didn’t really have a significant impact on either of those, although I’m happy to say they put my picture in the manual for Rescue on Fractulas. There were several shots in the manual that had us dressed up as downed space freighter pilots, looking very disreputable and beat up. They got a group of us developers to stand in as actors, so that was a fun thing to do during my first couple of months there.

The first game that I actually worked on substantially was Koronis Rift, for which I was the project leader. That used the same 3D fractal engine that we’d used for Rescue on Fractulas and took it to the next step.

It was very exciting to be associated with the company that had just finished making Return of the Jedi.

What was the atmosphere like during the early days of LucasArts?

It was quite unique in a number of ways. Being a small games company within a big movie company is something that became a lot more common later on, and I experienced again when I went to DreamWorks Interactive, but at the time it was very exciting to be associated with the company that had just finished Return of the Jedi. They were in the midst of Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom when I started there. It was one of the most exciting places in the world to work at just because of the movie connection.

It was not terribly glamourous. We were in a small building next to Industrial Light and Magic and we were part of a computer division that had three different roles. We were the games group. There was a video editing group working on a product called EditDroid, which unfortunately was ahead of its time – it didn’t quite come out and was eventually picked up by Avid [Technologies]. And then the third part was the computer graphics group, which later span off to become Pixar. We were working with those guys in their early days when they were working on a few short films, so you can imagine that it was a really exciting place – just not an exciting setting. The first room I was in was windowless and in the centre of the building, and yet I was really excited to be there because there was a lot of great stuff going on around me.

Did the atmosphere change over the years?

It certainly changed radically around 1986 when we moved our group to Skywalker Ranch, which was absolutely spectacular. I doubt I’ll ever work in as elaborate setting as that again. We were the first ones to move into the building we occupied. They were all built according to storyboard by George Lucas about a sea captain that came out to California in the 1800s to build up a business and a family. So it was this odd thing of having brand new high-tech buildings that were built to look like they were from the Victorian era, or the 1920s.

It was an amazing place. Morale was high, as we were really excited to be doing new creative work. Particularly in the late ‘80s, early ‘90s, we gradually built up a reputation that meant when we went to games conferences, we could really hold our heads up high.

I did consulting for the company about ten years ago, and that spirit stayed pretty consistent. There was still that feeling that the company was about to do some great stuff.

Although, there certainly was a lot of demoralisation towards the end. There was almost a revolving door of CEOs coming through every two or three years, and they would often suggest a radical change of course. I think that was a tough thing to work with over time. Quite a few people were frustrated that they would come so close to doing wonderful things, only to have the course change and have stuff be cancelled or rescheduled. I was disappointed to see that because those of us who were there in the early days were rooting for LucasArts, hoping it could recover its footing and get back to being a real creative leader again.

Rescue on Fractalus advanced the fractal technology LucasFilm Games had
used on its previous release, Ballblazer. Its manual even feature
Falstein and fellow developers as downed space pilots

What was it like to have a figure like George Lucas supporting you? Did it give you any advantages over other studios?

George was a real visionary in terms of what computers could do for film and game production. He believed in us back when a lot of his cohorts were saying it was a waste of time. In fact, when we started there, his advice to use was to stay small, be the best and don’t lose any money.

But at first, back in ’82, there really wasn’t any thought that games could be a profit source that could rival the movies. It seemed impossible so the work we were doing was just a tiny fraction of what the company was doing overall. We had a bit of an inferiority complex that way, but George’s support was really key to making us feel that what we were doing was important. Having somebody with that kind of credibility saying this was a good thing to do was quite helpful. From today’s point of view, having seen how big games have become, it’s easy to think there was always this sense that they would be big, but certainly when it started out, people thought it was a fad. We were really grateful that George believed in it.

That said, he didn’t spend a lot of time with games. He’s not a computer or game guy, so he really only came by to visit at quite rare intervals. He gave us free reign to do whatever we liked – it was quite nice to be encouraged to do creative new intellectual properties early on.

We were actually unable to do games based on Star Wars and Indiana Jones for the first several years of our existence because of pre-existing licensing agreements with other companies. And that was really a godsend because it forced us to be independent, creative and to find our own way, which I think helped quite a bit to establish the company.

Geroge Lucas believed in us when a lot of his cohorts were saying games were a waste of time. But he advised us to stay small, be the best and don’t lose any money.

LucasFilm Games already had a number of different games under its belt before moving onto the graphic adventures it was best known for. What inspired the decision to explore this genre?

Right from the beginning, LucasFilm as a company was attracting game developers who were interesting in movies and storytelling. That was always a strong sub-interest of ours. Those first two games – Rescue on Fractulas and Ballblazer – had their own science fiction narratives and settings. We spent a lot of time talking about the universes they occupied even though very little of that actually got into the games.

So there was always a natural push towards storytelling. What pushed us over the edge was when LucasFilm did a film called Labyrinth with David Bowie and Jennifer Connelly. Because that wasn’t one they had already sold the game rights to, they offered for us to make a game based on that if we wished, and we took them up on that. That was really the proving ground behind what became our adventure games and the SCUMM system. We experimented with using graphics to tell stories, and while we had the Henson film to draw from, it inspired us to come up with our own ideas. In fact, Douglas Adams was involved in the creation of that one. It was wonderful being in a company where we had access to that kind of talent.

So that really got us thinking, and Ron Gilbert and Gary Winnick put together a proposal for Maniac Mansion and part of the point of that was to create a system that would allow us to do more storytelling. We were inspired by the early text adventures, and they were just beginning to become graphic adventures. We thought we could do well in that area and decided to take a shot at it.

 

1986 Jim Henson movie Labyrinth set LucasFilm Games on the path to creating the story-driven graphic adventures that would come to define the studio

LucasArts games seem to have a shared personality: Maniac Mansion, Monkey Island and the Indiana Jones adventures all have a similar sense of humour. What defined that personality?

It was an extremely collaborative and open environment. Something I’ve only recently come to appreciate is how unusual that was. For many of those early games, we had multiple project leaders that shared the creative control. So on Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, for example, I was one of three project leaders that collaborated. And in most companies, you just give one person that kind of control and they essentially dictate things, but we tended to depend on each other and build up a very communal design sense, mostly through constant discussion and sharing of ideas.

The building we were in at Skywalker Ranch was also, by happy accident, arranged around several common spaces, so to get from any office to any other or even just to go to the bathroom, you ended up going past various people who might be working on games, and you ended up having so many conversations with people passing by. Those quickly became full blown discussions that would go on for a few hours, with people dropping in and out as they went back to their offices. As a consequence, it let us develop that consistent tone – not so much as a conscious thing, but simply because we were sharing ideas with each other and collaborating.

It’s meant that group of us that’s worked together, the reason we’re doing this GDC talk, is because we’ve stayed friends. Many of us have worked together at other times in different capacities. Ron Gilbert and I have worked with each other on five or six different projects since LucasArts, and there are similar connections between the rest of us.

Watch out for Part Two of this interview tomorrow, as Noah Falstein discusses the LucasArts influences he sees in the games of today, his pride in the original version of The Dig, and why Ron Gilbert should be allowed to make more Monkey Island games.