Space Ramblings

The Slow Death of LucasArts

There was a time when LucasArts meant innovative games, for reasons that had little to do with Star Wars or really George Lucas.

Loom, Zak McKracken, Monkey Island, Maniac Mansion, Secret Weapons of the Luftwaffe, The Dig, Sam and Max. Now LucasArts is known for Star Wars merchandising games. And that’s it. And the company is in trouble because there’s only so much demand for the same Star Wars games. You can only sell people so many Star Wars shooters and RPG’s.

As a company that’s defined itself solely around its connection to the films of George Lucas, LucasArts has felt the impact of the bar being raised for games inspired by films. In 2010, the company laid off a third of its staff in one fell swoop following disappointing sales and a middling critical response to The Force Unleashed II.

That’s actually not true.

LucasArts wasn’t originally defined by the films of George Lucas, despite the name. There were a few Indiana Jones games, but not that many. Then the Star Wars games began in nineties. The first ones were good. The rest began getting worse and worse.

The Force Unleashed was ridiculously overhyped and presented as a major revolution. It wasn’t. Now LucasArts is back looking for another overhyped AAA Star Wars solution in the form of 1313. It may get it, it may not. But there’s no sign of the original creative company that made games like Loom or Monkey Island happen.

The recent repack of Monkey Island is just a reminder of what the company can’t do anymore. Like Grim Fandango. Telltale Games is the closest to doing some of what LucasArts used to do, though it’s really more of an awkward echo.

Star Wars 1313 is positioning itself unequivocally as a mature, adult experience. The scant information that’s been teased about the game follows suit: you play a bounty hunter in a gritty criminal underworld. It’s going to be a cover-based shooter, which probably means there will be lots of dank hallways and angry hordes of aliens to fight through. I don’t want to let my imagination run wild here, but it sounds like a “Star Wars” game is finally learning from the two sci-fi franchises that have eclipsed it in gamer’s popular imagination: Mass Effect and Gears of War. Both of these titles obviously owe a great deal to Star Wars and the fiction it helped create for pop culture to embrace, but has Star Wars itself been eclipsed?

This is the same old bad strategy. The one that gave us Republic Commando, because squad based combat plus Unreal plus Star Wars was supposed to equal money. Not to mention Battlefront.

Copying popular games and slapping a Star Wars label on them doesn’t work reliably. The Star Wars universe is already repetitive and cramped. Bioware and Obsidian gave it a little breathing room with Knights of the Old Republic, but that’s done too, and it’s telling that outside companies had to make this happen.

Having a game company exist just to churn out Star Wars titles by copying popular games and slapping a Star Wars label on them is a poor strategy. It’s not the best way to monetize Star Wars. The best way to do that is to just license games or develop a company that is genuinely creative and capable of making creative games, whether they’re Star Wars or anything else.

LucasArts could learn something from the failures of Paramount to milk the Star Trek cow the same way. But at least Paramount didn’t set up a company that only turned out Elite Force, Bridge Commander, Legacy and Star Trek Online. And Paramount didn’t turn a leading game company into an outlet for doing poor copies of popular games under a Star Wars logo.

LucasArts once resembled Sierra. Sierra died and hung around as a living dead brand. LucasArts has gone the same way. The only question left is when do we get “Star Wars: Grand Theft Spaceship”.

The LucasArts Archives: Volume III

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