"We didn't know what was possible until we tried it": The early days of LucasArts, Part Two

James Batchelor

By James Batchelor

December 11th 2013 at 11:10AM

Our interview with Noah Falstein continues as he discusses the impact of LucasArts alumni, initial concepts for The Dig and Ron Gilbert's Monkey Island plans

Yesterday, the organisers of GDC announced that this year's post-mortem panel will take a retrospective look at the legacy of LucasArts.

The panel will be chaired by former LucasArts project lead and Google's chief games designer Noah Falstein, who spoke to Develop about his early memories of the iconic adventure games studio. In the second part of this interview, the veteran developer reflects on his favourite projects, the talents that LucasArts nurtured and his unfinished business with one of his favourite projects.

You can read part one of our interview here.


What are you most proud of from your time at LucasArts?

That’s a tough one because there are a lot of things I’m quite proud of from that experience. In terms of games, I think the one I have enjoyed looking back at the most – where it feels like my contribution was one of the most significant – was probably Indiana Jones and the Fate of Atlantis. That felt like a very well received game that was ahead of its time in several respects, particularly in terms of branching storyline and flexibility.

But I think I had more impact by hiring people into LucasArts than I did from my own work. Ron Gilbert, Lawrence Holland who did the X-Wing and Tie Fighter games, Brian Moriarty who did Loom – all of them are people that I either found or that came in to work on a project of mine. And once Ron came in, we hired Dave Grossman and Tim Schafer, who are now the creative director at Telltale Games and the head of Double Fine respectively.

So perhaps our biggest impact on the gaming community was being a nursery or proving ground for people who would go on to become much more significant contributors within the games industry.

Indiana Jones and the Fate of Atlantis was ahead of its time in several respects, particularly in terms of branching storyline and flexibility.

Is there anything you wish you had worked on, either while you were there or after you left?

Well, I was the first project leader on The Dig, which did eventually come out but it was six years between the original pitch and release. And that went through about four project leaders. I was the first one, and the original concept was originally a collaboration between Steven Spielberg and George Lucas, and I got to work with both Steven and George in a number of brainstorming sessions on the original concept.

My vision for the game blended adventure games and role-playing games in a way that has become more common now, where you have stories that have many role-playing concepts such as levelling up your character, adding capabilities over time and so on. Back then, it was a very unusual thing and the management at LucasArts wasn’t all that confident that the world was ready for that or that it would work out, so they shifted me over to Day of the Tentacle and put the project for a bit.

I think what came out was a good game, but I do regret that I’ll never have a chance to launch the version of The Dig that I had in mind. We had some very creative world-building in place, and the creatures and aliens had been designed by a woman named Terryl Whitlatch, who went on to do a lot of the dinosaurs for Jurassic Park. She was brilliant at coming up with alien creatures: she actually had a degree in biology, so we would design creatures from the bones out. They looked great, she was a wonderful artist, but you could see how all the joints worked, and they were realistic and plausible. Now there are just a tiny handful of pictures from the concept art left, and it’s sad for me that we never got to push forward with that particular version of the project.


While Steven Spielberg's original concept for The Dig was too difficult to implement when it was first pitched, Falstein believes the next-gen technology of today could convey the team's idea perfectly as an online multiplayer game

Do you see any LucasArts influences in the games that are released today?

Oh, certainly. I’ve worked with Tim over at Double Fine and I’ve seen many elements of that company’s culture that clearly come from his time at LucasArts. I’m very proud of the fact that Ron has also gone on in that direction.

And I’d say I’ve seen it just in general. At conferences I’ve spoken at, a lot of people in the games industry point to LucasArts – and particularly the adventure games – as seminal moments that got them excited about becoming game developers. I would say there’s probably at least a couple of hundred people in the industry in Europe – perhaps even more so than in the US because our games were a lot more popular in Europe – that cut their teeth on those early adventure games and found inspiration in them.

My sense is that there are dozens and dozens of companies out there run by people that grew up on those games, and that’s very gratifying to feel that you’re parents of that part of the games industry.

We showed that you can continue to be creative in an interactive environment like that, even with those strong temptations to just do more Star Wars games.

Is it safe to say LucasArts has a stronger legacy than some of the other studios around at the time?

I don’t know that it’s necessarily stronger. Many other companies had strong influences – there was an anniversary event for Doom earlier this week. Certainly Doom and id Software had a different influence. But I would say where we did have an impact was in being original and maintaining an original viewpoint in a company that had such strong licences. I’m proud of the fact that we were known for adventure games that weren’t based on Star Wars and Indiana Jones. We showed that you can continue to be creative in an interactive environment like that, even with those strong temptations to just do more Star Wars games.

There seem to be fewer adventure games in the works nowadays, with the titles of Telltale Games and Double Fine being the obvious exceptions. How do you think modern adventure games compare to those of LucasArts?

I think that a lot of our heritage of adventure games is actually more reflected in some of the action games, titles that have a strong storyline alongside other gameplay. I’m talking about things like Mass Effect, Assassin’s Creed and other popular games that have very involved storylines. BioWare has done some great games that revolve around storyline and I know there are a few people there that were inspired by LucasArts.

I’m actually really encouraged by the variety and creativity I see in the industry right now. And particularly a lot of the small indie developers are experimenting with classic point and click adventure games as well as many other ways to take storytelling in new directions. There’s a wonderful little game called Today I Die, it’s a very simple game that I find very fresh and is pushing storytelling in interesting directions. I think the current environment is very good for interactive storytelling, even if the old puzzle-based point-and-clicks aren’t as popular as they used to be.

Monkey Island creator Ron Gilbert had plans for more games beyond LeChuck's Revenge and Falstein would love nothing more than for Disney to give him the chance to work on them 

Disney is now licensing LucasArts properties rather than developing them further. What would you like to see happen to LucasArts IP in future? Are there any you would like to see brought back like the Monkey Island: Special Editions?

It’s quite unlikely that this would happen, but Ron has had ideas for other Monkey Island games that would pick up after Monkey Island 2, the last one he worked on, that would take the series in the direction he had in mine. Personally my fondest wish would be to see him get the chance to do that. Disney is famously rather difficult when it comes to letting other people use its licenses, so despite the fact that he created it to begin with, overcoming that would be tough.

But that would probably be my favourite thing. Ron has a wonderfully creative mind out of everybody I worked with in my career. I enjoy brainstorming with him the most because of the way he can think, and I know that if he had the chance to do another Monkey Island game it would be quite spectacular.

Is there any IP that you’d want to take ownership of?

I wouldn’t mind a chance to go back to that early version of The Dig. The original idea that Steven Spielberg gave us was something that couldn’t be done at the time, but could certainly be done now. The idea was that he was inspired by movies like Forbidden Planet and The Treasure of the Sierra Madre. It involved two groups of researchers on an alien planet that end up competing with each other. At first they co-operate but they gradually get more and more competitive and start to suspect that their under the influence from the ruins there.

That concept would be wonderful to do now with a multiplayer game where you actually co-operate with a bunch of other people but have reason to doubt their loyalty to you. I think that would be a lot of fun, but I’ve been at Google at eight months now, I’m really happy here and I don’t see any likelihood that – even if the licence were available – it would be something that I would do while I’m here. Maybe in another five years or so, that’s something I can think about as a next-gen title.

The current environment is very good for interactive storytelling, even if point-and-clicks aren’t as popular as they used to be.

Will we ever see a studio like LucasArts again?

I’d have to say both yes and no. Some of what we did was unique to the time because the games industry was so young. We didn’t know what was possible until we tried new things. Today, I think that ground has been more explored and there isn’t as much room to come up with entire new genres or treatments.

On the other hand, I do think there’s more potential in the industry now than there was back then or at any other time. Every type of game, from casual games up to complex triple-A next-gen console titles seem to be doing quite well, and the indie and experimental games are adding a lot of fresh blood and fresh ideas into the mix. New technologies and hardware from microconsoles to wearable computers and things like Occulus Rift – there are so many interesting technologies that are just coming to the fore now that I think there’s room for new studios to have an analogous position to what LucasArts did in the early ‘80s. There are several starting up today that have the potential, and we’ll see that when we look back on them in twenty years’ time.