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Five lessons from the history of making Star Wars games

May the Fourth be with you.

Bryant Francis, Senior Editor

May 4, 2023

8 Min Read
A promotional image for May the Fourth featuring screenshots from Star Wars Squadrons, Lego Star Wars, and more.

Thanks to the power of puns, May 4th is now a "holiday" dedicated to the world of Star Wars. First birthed in the notebooks of George Lucas, it's now a major multimedia franchise that's inspired game developers working inside and outside of the franchise.

Over the last decade, various teams who've worked on the series have been kind enough to share some of the game development lessons they gained when visiting the galaxy far far away. Some studios like Respawn Entertainment and BioWare have gotten to build their own corners of the universe, while others like DICE and EA Motive have done an incredible job capturing the energy of the series high-stakes battles.

To celebrate this year's May the Fourth, we're gathering five of those learnings from the world of game development for your perusal. Hopefully it's a list that grows longer and longer as more studios are given the chance to bring the Star Wars universe to life.

Jedi Knight II: Jedi Outcast was built by "generalists"

Aspyr Media's port of Star Wars Jedi Knight II: Jedi Outcast gave us a great chance to reach out to Raven Software, which still employs many developers who worked on one of the most beloved Star Wars games from the Gamecube era.

If you're ever looking back at that game and wondering "how did they do that?" It's worth paying attention to just how much has changed in the craft of game development. Lead designer Chris Foster told us at the time that everyone on the Jedi Outcast team "wore a lot of hats."

"I built levels, I was in charge of the design team but I also had to light levels, I was scripting, and we were doing all the continuity of everything and we were helping Eric make sure that when the dialogue went it, that it all made sense give what we had to change around," he recalled.

A screenshot from Jedi Knight II: Jedi Outcast. Kyle Katarn force chokes one Stormtrooper while another flees.

"A lot of times now we’re a little more segmented. Like we build the levels and do whatever, but somebody else is doing Hollywood-level lighting and somebody is else is a scripter that has you know 20 years of experience doing it so we kind of spread a lot of those tasks out. It means a lot more communication has to happen."

On the one hand, there's no denying that blockbuster-level games take hundreds of developers in 2023. But it still speaks to what can be accomplished with a team of under 100 staffers if you have the tools and talent.

To sell Force powers, you need adaptive rag dolls

In Star Wars Jedi: Fallen Order, players take on the role of Cal Kestis, a padawan re-learning how to use the Force after years in hiding. Fallen Order's animators wanted players to feel the full weight of what the Force can do in combat, and so they needed to craft animations for enemies that would react strongly to being flung around like ragdolls.

In a 2020 GDC Summer session (held remotely because, you know, the COVID-19 pandemic), senior software engineer Bartlomiej Waszak broke down how the company adapted the game's ragdoll system to let enemy bodies flop around in spaces big or small.

The initial system made for enemy ragdolls worked excellently in large open areas, but suffered in tight corridors. Limbs of stormtroopers and other foes would clip through the walls, which undermined the magic of the Star Wars experience.

"The solution was to keep the hip body as a physically simulated body and create a new constraint for that body," said Waszak. "That constraint is between the hip body and the given animation target. This new constraint drags the physics body of the hip bone to follow the animation target, and removes all degrees of freedom."

A screenshot from Star Wars Jedi: Fallen Order. Cal Kestis runs on a wall as Stormtroopers shoot at him.

"The question was, with this new solution, what happens when we have an obstacle? So what happens when the hip body hits a wall and the animation target still pushed forward? What do we do about that physical body that's colliding with the wall?

"What we do is monitor the distance between the actual position of the hip body and the desired animation target. If the constant drive for that hip body is unable to hit the target within some threshold, we just switch to a free-fall rag doll mode."

It's neat to learn how developers think of the smallest details in these games—right down to the realities of rigging a body to flail about in exactly the right way.

Disney's Star Wars: Galaxy's Edge theme park attraction makes the most of RPG design mechanics

In another GDC Summer session from 2020, Walt Disney Imagineering assistant producer Anisha Deshmane shared insights on how the Imagineering team incorporated lessons from the world of game design into Galaxy's Edge: a standalone theme park experience located at Walt Disney World and Disneyland.

When it was first designed, Galaxy's Edge was conceived as a standalone Star Wars location. It's set on a new planet called Batuu and features attractions set in between the events of the sequel trilogy films. (Some of that park philosophy has changed in the time since, now that The Mandalorian and Fennec Shand are walking around the area.)

A family gathers around a phone in Galaxy's Edge.

"Instead of seeing them as visitors to the land and telling them what to do, we see them as explorers on a new planet, and want to provide them the opportunity to become part of whatever stories pique their interest," Deshmane said at the time. She referenced the decision to build out elements of environmental storytelling and creating reputation systems like the kind seen in massively multiplayer online role-playing games.

The goal at the time was that Galaxy's Edge could be a location for fans with different levels of passion to project their own love of Star Wars onto a new locale, rather than being confined to one from the films. It's still unusually ambitious experiment in theme park design—and the lessons from Walt Disney Imagineering will be relevant to other developers.

To revive the Star Wars flight sim, EA Motive built an incredible focus-testing tool.

There's a lot to love in creative director Ian Frazier's GDC 2022 postmortem of Star Wars: Squadrons. You should definitely take time to drool over how the team recreated the user interfaces of the various Star Wars spaceships in a way that mirrored the original 1970s-era aesthetic. But developers who want ways to scale up focus testing for ambitious new products might want to steal the mini card game EA Motive made to learn what Star Wars players wanted in a new flight sim title.

The system was created as a "forced choice exercise." It relied on color-coded cards with individual "costs." to help researchers task players to prioritize what features they wanted to see in a Star Wars dogfighting game. It was a more exploratory process than just dumping players in a conference room and polling them about Star Wars games—it was an interactive way to let them evaluate game design priorities.

A presentation slide from GDC 2022. It shows different color-coded cards, each with a different game feature on them.

Frazier said this force-choice exercise was so helpful, it went on to be used in EA Motive's remake of Dead Space.

Star Wars Jedi: Survivor explores player expression

It was surprising to learn that Respawn's sequel to Jedi: Fallen Order would feature even more ways for players to customize the look of hero Cal Kestis. Fallen Order allowed them to customize their poncho choice, lightsaber, and spaceship, but Survivor takes it to new levels with fighting stances, hair styles, and beyond.

"It's about player expression. That's not just the cosmetics you can find, but it's also how you choose to play the game, what stances you'd like to use, what content you want to explore," said narrative technical designer Joanna Rob, when discussing this topic. "I feel like with Fallen Order, we had only one real way to play the game. For this one, there are so many options, and that's my favorite thing about this game. Everybody on the team has different ways they play the game, it's really awesome to see."

Cal Kestis faces down a Rancor.

That's a surprising direction to take given that the Jedi games aren't built on a foundation of full character creation. There's still a linear story at the heart of the game, but Respawn wanted to offer players a level of customization you might find in Jedi Knight III: Jedi Academy or BioWare's Knights of the Old Republic.

There are more Star Wars stories in the GDC Vault.

These are just a few of the lessons developers have shared from the world of Star Wars game development. If you'd like to find more, you should definitely swing by the GDC Vault and YouTube channel. You can find postmortems of games like Star Wars Galaxies, learn about photogrammetry techniques in Star Wars Battlefront, or watch a speedrunner break the boundaries of Star Wars: Republic Commando.

Whether you're working on a game set in George Lucas' samurai space western saga, or on your own sci-fi adventure, we hope these lessons help liven up your May the Fourth experience.

And of course, may the Force be with you—always.

GDC and Game Developer are sibling organizations under Informa Tech.

About the Author(s)

Bryant Francis

Senior Editor, GameDeveloper.com

Bryant Francis is a writer, journalist, and narrative designer based in Boston, MA. He currently writes for Game Developer, a leading B2B publication for the video game industry. His credits include Proxy Studios' upcoming 4X strategy game Zephon and Amplitude Studio's 2017 game Endless Space 2.

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