Thursday, April 4, 2013

Game over for LucasArts

 “Here we go again,” to borrow a quote from C-3PO. A few weeks ago it was Lucas Animation. Now it is the turn of LucasArts to be wound down by Disney. The staff have been laid off so that the video game arm of Lucasfilm will do nothing more than license the games out to other companies. This is unfortunate news for fans who have picked up Star Wars video games over the past thirty years. LucasArts has been in a mess over the past few years, but 1313 looked ready to re-ignite the division… 

There is nothing wrong with LucasArts not making all of the games from scratch themselves – some of the best titles have been developed from outside, such as the LEGO Star Wars series or Battlefront. But in 2004 a plan was announced, that was undertaken between 2004 and 2007, to restructure the company in such a way that almost all development would be done in-house. Ironically, today that model has been deemed untenable. It is a shame that things were not left as they were, with LucasArts working with external studios – by trying to bring the production back in-house, they have ended up as a glorified arm of Lucas Licensing.

What seems crazy with LucasArts is how bad they were at capitalising on success. Knights of the Old Republic was critically and commercially successful, yet LucasArts forced the sequel to be rushed out unfinished. This led to a backlash from gamers, and meant that what could have been a promising franchise was killed off. The Force Unleashed had a disappointingly short sequel released which still sold respectably, but a third game was cancelled. The loss of The Force Unleashed III also meant the loss of Haden Blackman, a creative mind who also has experience writing Star Wars comics. To lose such a strong, Star Wars orientated creative mind was unwise.

Battlefront and Battlefront II also did extremely well for LucasArts, but at the time of its development the focus was so much on cost-cutting that Battlefront III was cancelled. That was an extremely short-sighted decision as it would undoubtedly have been a successful release based on the love from gamers, Star Wars geeks and casual fans alike for the previous two. LucasArts may have needed to make savings, but without new games to bring in revenue the company is pointless!

The point is that Knights of the Old Republic, Battlefront or even The Force Unleashed could have been mini-franchises in the same way that Dark Forces spawned further Jedi Knight games. But the mismanagement and lack of enthusiasm at LucasArts meant that these great opportunities were not capitalised on. For more information on just how little direction or vision LucasArts has had in recent years, check out one of these articles from actual game industry sites.

The scary thing now is that the Wrap mentions that “Disney has catered its gaming strategy around mobile offerings.” This is reminiscent of when all of that Angry Birds hyperbole was flying around last year, and Paul Southern from Lucasfilm gave this scary comment, “As casual games grow as a category and mobile devices grow as an interface, it’s going to become more important for us in the future.” LucasArts was an innovative, exciting company who took making games seriously in the same way that Lucasfilm are serious about making movies. Games such as Rebel Assault, Monkey Island, Dark Forces, Jedi Knight and Knights of the Old Republic looked cinematic. They were big, exciting releases with awesome cover art and a talented team behind them.

There might be more money to be made in Disney and Lucasfilm pursuing quick-fix, app style games such as Angry Birds instead of ‘real’ video games. But over the past thirty years there might have been more money in George Lucas selling electronics. Or frozen food. Or scratchcards. George Lucas went into business to make the things that he wanted to make and could be proud of. Of course he made money, but it wasn’t purely about the money. App style games for smartphones are not the same as big budget, well crafted games for consoles. They are not a substitution. But Disney seem to be carving up Lucasfilm until all that is left is the core film studio, whilst they take over everything else and churn out whatever is the most profitable product they can – regardless of the quality.

First Lucas Animation gone, now LucasArts gone. What next?

Best of luck in the future to any LucasArts staff laid off due to this decision.

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