For March’s Game Developers Conference 2014, we’re announcing an exciting new type of postmortem panel: the Classic Studio Postmortem.
Noah Falstein, a storied game designer known for his work at LucasArts and DreamWorks Interactive, as well as his time as chair of the International Game Developers Association and columnist for Game Developer magazine, will be moderating a discussion of the creative and financial influences that shaped Lucasfilm Games among a panel of developers who worked there during its earliest days.
Panelists include Lucasfilm Games alums Ron Gilbert, Chip Morningstar, David Fox, Steve Arnold and Peter Langston.
Falstein and his fellow developers will talk about what it was like to work at Lucasfilm Games while the studio was finding its feet and releasing a diverse portfolio of games, including Habitat, Ballblazer, and Maniac Mansion. The postmortem seeks to explore what made Lucasfilm Games so iconic and successful, as well as to determine whether a similar studio could succeed today.
This postmortem is an hour-long session, and while the scheduling details aren’t final yet -- we’ll have more information about when and where the talk is being held when we’re a little closer to GDC -- we figured many of you would like an early heads-up about what to expect from this new panel.
To that end, we sat down with Falstein to chat about his experience at Lucasfilm Games and how that experience shaped his understanding of the industry.
What do you think your fellow developers can learn from the life and death of Lucasfilm Games? What did you learn?
Noah Falstein: For the first five years or so of our existence we were forbidden from doing Star Wars and Indiana Jones games, partly because when we first came onboard George had already given video game rights to 21st Century Fox and a few other companies.
It wasn't until we had already gotten on our feet with our own creative work that we were able to tackle Indiana Jones and Star Wars. I think that freedom and the insistence that we with our own creative work right out of the gate made it work.
I think the studio stagnated due to an over-dependence on those core properties, particularly Star Wars games and variants thereof. Those decisions were accounting-driven, not creative-driven. I know a lot of people there who were doing their best to keep creativity at its peak and do wonderful things, but there was a lot of pressure to just make minor improvements on things that would sell.
I think it’s a lesson for the games industry: once you start doing just incremental improvements on a core concept, you might still be going uphill in terms of profit, but its a potential death knell because eventually people will get tired of your work if it's not creatively fresh and stimulating.
How did that experience color your career? From Lucasfilm Games to DreamWorks Interactive and 3DO, you’ve been present for the birth of a few gaming powerhouses. What have you learned about surmounting the challenges facing a new company trying to establish a foothold in the games industry?
Coming to work at Google has been very similar to my experiences at both LucasArts and DreamWorks, in that I’m joining an established company not known for games that has decided to do some game development.
The most important thing I’d pass on is that the company culture which gets established early on, often in the first few months when a group first comes together, is remarkably robust.
We did a panel very similar to this one at LucasArts maybe six or seven years ago, and even though there were hundreds of people working there who’d joined up since we’d left, there were amazing continuities and similarities that had stuck around through fifteen years of revisions.
It’s amazing how enduring those early company cultures can be; it made me realize that you want to get things right quickly, because even if the company is going to be around for a long time you may not be able to steer the battleship very far from the direction it’s headed.
What set the course for Lucasfilm Games?
NF: George Lucas gave us three specific directives: stay small, be the best, and don’t lose any money.
We knew how lucky we were to be at such a cool company; Lucasfilm in the early ‘80s was at the top of their game, and I came in just after Return of the Jedi came out. The video game industry was still very small but growing rapidly in the public eye, and getting to work at such a creative place was really wonderful.
At first, George didn’t think we’d make any money in significant amounts -- he was hoping we could at least break even so we wouldn’t be a drain on his coffers. Not being pushed to be as profitable as possible as soon as possible was a key element to our success, and I think that -- coupled with getting to work at such a cool, creative company -- really gave us room to define who we were.
So this isn't the first time you've done this studio retrospective. How did this GDC talk come together, and why do you think the tale of Lucasfilm Games is worth telling?
NF: It came out of a combination of things. When Lucasarts was shut down, right around GDC 2013, it really felt like the end of an era. Consequently the idea came up very quickly, from Doug Crockford, I think, who now works at PayPal, that we should do a panel at PayPal where a bunch of us would just talk about what it was like in those early days.
So we did that and had a great time, and someone in the group said “Hey, this would be a great thing to do at GDC!” In the early LucasFilms Games days there was a flavor, a certain style, to the work we did, even though we were producing a range of games. It set a tone and created a coherent body of work, so it seems a little more appropriate to do a LucasArts postmortem than it would be to do a postmortem of a more general-purpose company.