LucasArts is back. If you attended E3 and got to take a look at the studio’s Star Wars 1313, then the big takeaway — other than the fact that cover-based shooting action looks awesome in the Star Wars universe — is that the developer is a Force to be reckoned with once again.
Pun most definitely intended.
It’s been largely quiet on the LucasArts front since Star Wars: The Force Unleashed 2 was released in 2010. Save for some internal shufflings and lots of speculative reports based on job postings, there’s been very little to say about what’s to come for the developer. 1313 creative director Dominic Robilliard walked me through a lot of what you’ve heard about the upcoming game so far during a recent interview — the aim to deliver an open-ended experience through “expressive combat,” the effort to deliver a more grounded and mature tale than a Jedi-focused story can offer, the Coruscant underworld setting, all of it — but it was our talk of the 1313 creative process and the current internal makeup at LucasArts that intrigued me most.
A Lucasfilm Empire Collaboration
One of the big talking points related to 1313 during this pre-production period is the collaborative environment surrounding the game. Designers and programmers at LucasArts are getting the opportunity to work closely with pros pulled in from the other parts of the Lucas empire, from Lucasfilm to ILM to Skywalker Sound. The hope for the end result is an “interactive cinematic experience” that manages to fire on all cylinders, from gameplay to story to performance and beyond. Sure, that’s a pretty typical goal for any story-focused game… but how many of those games are worked on by Hollywood talents with spectacle-driven blockbusters like The Avengers on their resumé?
“They’re just as fascinated with doing cool stuff as we are,” Robilliard said of the collaboration so far. “They also have this fascination with real-time. Everything they do has a long render time, so they might take five or six hours to produce a single frame of content at ILM, but we have to do it 30 times per second. So they get this very tactile experience and feedback loop when they’re changing the lighting, the characters, and so on.”
“There’s a really meaningful and deep fascination for those guys with what we’re doing as well. It’s great seeing this mutual respect grow through the different groups as everyone gets to watch each other do their thing. So it’s turned out to be this really empowering, creative experience, I think.”
The cross-disciplinary collaboration is what’s really paying off as 1313 comes together, Robilliard told me. Work isn’t being parsed out to different groups based entirely on their strengths. It’s more of a learning experience than that. While this doesn’t translate to something like a level designer being handed the task of directing a cutscene, it’s also not as simple as compartmentalized development where the different teams are left to their own devices.
“It’s much more mixed up,” Robilliard said. “When you’re talking about something as seamless and integrated between game and story [as what 1313 is aiming for], it’s much better to mix it up and have people working in a more collaborative way. We were really, really specific that anyone working on the project had to be with us in our team space and use our tools as well.”
The Team’s Humble Emperor
Robilliard’s role as creative director may well be the toughest, since he’s the one responsible for receiving input from the various senior creative stakeholders on the project and making sure all efforts weave together into a cohesive whole. The most important thing as Robilliard sees it, especially working alongside such a multi-faceted group, is to remain humble and avoid overreaching when there’s no need to do so.
“I think my job as the creative director… is not to be that game guy who suddenly jumps in and starts writing and directing stuff when I don’t have any experience with that,” he explained. “The best thing about being at Lucasfilm right now, if I need someone to come in and performance direct our actors in a cutscene, even though I can probably sit here and think I can do it, I’m not going to ruin the product by doing it myself. I’ll go and get our ILM effects team to find an experienced director to come and help out, and we’ll collaborate with him to find out what the best way is to get that cutscene figured out.”
“We just try to keep everyone’s expertise focused in the right place, and I have to kind of edit it and put it all together. You have to keep that humble attitude and make sure you’re doing the best thing for the project rather than using it as a vehicle for you to go out and play moviemaker. Ultimately we’re here to make games. All of the people on the team, even though we’re making a cinematic game, everyone is passionate about making an interactive cinematic experience. That’s the goal that we’re chasing. It’s definitely beginning and ending as a game. That’s the most important thing.”
Robilliard joined LucasArts a little more than four years ago, coming from Sony where he worked on the Getaway franchise and the “on hold” action game, Eight Days. Since he came on board, he’s worked on the Special Edition re-release of The Secret of Monkey Island and the puzzle-platformer Lucidity. He originally signed up with LucasArts to work on a game that was apparently canceled after the studio’s administration changed in 2010, so 1313 marks his first crack at Star Wars that we know of.
Creatives As Executives: LucasArts’ New Guard
Robilliard admits that in his time at LucasArts, he’s seen some seismic internal shifts, adding that the new guard brings a special flavor of experience to the table that you don’t often see on the executive level. “The reason it’s taken a few years to get something out that we can show is we’ve completely changed the way we’re making games here,” he explained. “Our current president, Paul Meegan, is the first executive I’ve worked for who used to be a developer. So he’s a game designer and he’s risen up through the ranks as an entrepreneurial game developer.”
“It’s very different working for people like that. They have a very specific way of wanting to make games. My immediate boss, the studio creative director Fred Markus, he has an in-the-trenches creative background at Ubisoft. He spent a lot of time working on their pre-production and concepting process, and worked on the inception of games like Splinter Cell and Assassin’s Creed and Prince of Persia.”
“So what we’ve really been doing is focusing a huge amount of time and discpline on getting all of those fundamental basics of navigation, camera work, control, combat basics, and being really strict with ourselves that we can’t move forward until the basic game is really, really fun and compelling. It’s this idea that we can’t allow ourselves to use Star Wars as a crutch. It’s got to be a game that stands on its own two feet. A lot of that has just come from these guys coming and thinking this is the way we should be doing it.”
Carving Into The Expanded Universe
While all of this should be extremely encouraging for Star Wars fans, it’s also very big picture stuff. LucasArts continues to keep a very tight lid on what the actual plans are for 1313, beyond the top-level points that have already been shared, of course. Robilliard understands and appreciates that desire to know more, being a fan himself. As the game’s bounty hunter-focused tale comes together, he’s looking to some of his favorite names for inspiration. Boba Fett, of course and the towering, self-aware assassin droid IG-88 from the Original Trilogy, as well as Clone Wars favorites like Embo and Cad Bane.
Being a fan also gives Robilliard a special understanding of how important it is to respect the universe. The move away from Jedi actually makes a lot of sense, since the story falls between the two film trilogies, roughly 5-10 years before A New Hope. “At best you might see, in the background, this hokey religion that’s being pushed underground, but it won’t play any part in the gameplay and there won’t be any Jedi up front,” he offered.
The Expanded Universe as a whole is a constant discussion, however. “We take those kinds of things on a case by case basis. The directive there, as with all of the Star Wars content, is to make sure that it makes sense and it’s authentic. If it makes sense to connect those dots, then you have to do that,” Robilliard added.
“It’s a matter of responsibility when doing anything with Star Wars. The fan expectation is that it will all connect together and make sense. So we take that incredibly seriously. Right now, we’re focusing on doing our own thing within this criminal underworld and seeing where it takes us.”