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Star Wars denied, creativity permitted: a crucial moment in LucasArts history


Founded in 1982 as a new division of George Lucas' entertainment empire, LucasFilm Games intended to hinge its products on cutting-edge technology. David Fox, also known as LucasArts Employee #2, envisioned a visually rich first-person spaceship game for Atari 8-bit systems – and doesn't that just sound perfect for Star Wars?

"I wanted it to be a Star Wars game originally," Fox said, "and we were told right up front, when we asked, that we were not allowed to do Star Wars titles. "And I was really upset," he said, laughing. "I joined the company because I wanted to be in Star Wars and that was the closest way I could do it, to create a game and do it that way."

Though LucasFilm Games would eventually align with Star Wars as it became the LucasArts we knew, it was this initial denial that set a course for long-lasting collaboration and unique design approaches. Speaking at the Game Developers Conference, in the first postmortem panel dedicated to a company, former figureheads spoke of an atmosphere in which creators were permitted to do anything but Star Wars.

[Image: Guybrush Threepwood in Star Wars: The Force Unleashed 2 / Disney]

That isn't to say Lucasfilm game developers steered clear of films and special effects entirely. In company-wide meetings during the 1980s, in which each team would show off their projects, Lucas' special effects outfit Industrial Light & Magic would precede games with their glossy film work. "Inevitably, ILM would go before us," said Lucasfilm programmer and producer Noah Falstein, now a game designer at Google. "It was kinda humiliating at the time, but we were interactive, and we were able to show people a little glimpse at the future."

The future would involve several modern projects, including a Commodore game called Habitat, in which a whopping 10,000 (!) players would interact with each other in a virtual world, thanks to 300-baud (!!) modems. "We didn't know you couldn't do that, so we just went and did it and it worked," said another panel member, Chip Morningstar.

Left to Right: Noah Falstein, Chip Morningstar and Ron Gilbert

According to Morningstar, programmer on Habitat and co-creator of the SCUMM engine, the Lucasfilm Games team was "the source of a lot of jealousy in other parts of the company." In other domains, he said, "creative people were forced to march to George's vision."

Meanwhile, Steve Arnold, who was General Manager for Lucasfilm Games, recalled a simpler mandate from George Lucas. "When I first met with George, he said stay small, be the best, and don't lose any money."

"The good news about that is it was an incredibly liberating mandate," he said. Arnold likened Lucasfilm Games to "an indie film company" that pitched game ideas to external partners, essentially convincing "someone else to pay for it." With costs couched with companies like Atari, "we invented a lot of different things, because we had permission to do that."

Permission to Star Wars (verb) came later, of course, but by then Lucasfilm's game division had become a place for games like Habitat, Maniac Mansion and Rescue on Fractalus. You know, that Star Wars rip-off.

[Update: This article initially suggested Habitat never made it out of beta. It was never released as a commercial product, according to Steve Arnold, but did make it out to many players. Chip Morningstar has stated that it ran for years with "tens of thousands of happy users."]

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