Friday, 16 January 2015

The Secret History of LucasArts

lucasarts heroes

George Lucas’s studio has built some of the best PC games in existence. But what of the ones they never finished? By Rick Lane

Monkey Island, X-Wing, Day of Tentacle, Grim Fandango are each worthy of a chapter in the virtual history books. But for every game that LucasArts has released, there were another two or three that never made it onto the shelves. Some of these unfinished works were near-complete productions that almost made it out of the door. Others only ever existed as a few pages of concept outlines, the errant ideas of creative minds. Together, they form a secret history of the studio that, until now, has never been revealed in its entirety.

“When you’re in the moment, you may not realise that what you’re doing has historical value,” says Aric Wilmunder, co-creator of LucasArts’ much-venerated SCUMM engine. Employed at LucasArts from 1984 to 2001, Wilmunder was present during the studio’s golden years. More importantly, he was aware of it, and from time to time would bring home documents and designs in order to safeguard them. “When I saw something, I’d say, ‘God, some day, somebody’s gonna wish we had a copy of that.’”

Over the course of his time there, Wilmunder built up a small archive that charts virtually every LucasArts development during its first two decades in existence. Some items he collected are related to the studio’s best-known games, including the original design binder for Maniac Mansion, “which I don’t think Ron [Gilbert, the game’s co-creator] has seen in 20 years!” Wilmunder laughs. Many more, at a ratio of approximately three to one, are for games that were either partially built or never produced at all.

The vast majority of these unfinished or undeveloped games were bounced around between 1985 and 1995, and the diversity of the ideas is remarkable. Some are typically bizarre LucasArts adventures. I Was a Teenage Lobot was an idea that Wilmunder hatched with Gilbert while the two shared an office in 1985 – the year before Maniac Mansion was proposed. The game was to be set on a space station, where the inhabitants discovered that, although creating true AI was impossible, a working robot could be built by lobotomising a person and installing their brain in a metal body. “[Imagine] you find yourself brought in front of a judge and convicted of a crime you didn’t commit,” explains Wilmunder. “And you find yourself – your brain at least – inside the body of this robot.”

Four different producers oversaw the Day of the Tentacle project.

In Lobot’s story, the robot in question was a shoe-buffing robot – essentially a shoebox on wheels – and the plot revolved around the player trying to clear their name before their body – held elsewhere on the station – was mulched into dog food. “[The robot] could only say certain things, like, ‘Would you like a shine?’ So your ability to communicate was rather limited, your ability to travel was limited. But you still had this specific time constraint where your goal was to prove your innocence.”

Other concepts are completely removed from LucasArts’ usual fare. In 1989, a design was pitched called Life in the Balance, a wildlife-management game with a topdown view much like SimCity, which was released in the same year. Wilmunder reads from the document: “Assuming the role of a game warden, the player must manage the wildlife in his section of the preserve, protecting them from various threatening elements.” Game mechanics would have involved employing anti-poaching methods and cooperating with local governments to tackle issues such as overpopulation and pollution. Over the years, several management and simulation games were pitched at LucasArts, including a camping simulator entitled Camper and a TV studio-management game named TV Wasteland.

Some of the designs were curiously evocative of enormously successful games made decades later. Another project Wilmunder was involved in, proposed in 1990, was Second Genesis, a space-opera game inspired by TV shows like Mission: Impossible and The A-Team. The player took control of an interstellar task agency “ready to tackle any problem a customer may have”. Wilmunder’s rundown of the game’s structure sounds eerily like Mass Effect: “Infiltration, harsh environments, military ships, alien encounters, puzzles, planets breaking up.”

Meanwhile, an untitled project, simply referred to as ‘XXX’, revolved around the idea of building your own world and then interacting with it. Originally proposed in 1985, the design document pitched the idea by referring to childhood memories of constructing buildings, towns and cities from blocks or Lego, before asking the question, “After building an exceptionally complex world, did you ever wish you could shrink in size and play in it yourself?” In other words, LucasArts bounced around the idea for a Minecraft-style game decades before it became the phenomenon we know today.

A ‘true’ Monkey Island 3 was in the pipeline. But that’s where it stayed.
Not all of these unproduced designs had such world-changing potential. A particularly strange example is the 1989 pitch Adventures in the Party Zone. Initially, the design sounds like The Sims, positing “a new kind of game designed to appeal to people who have never played a computer game, without alienating expert gamers”. The player was to assume the role of a host of a sequence of parties, trying to please all the attendees. So far, so innocent. Then things got a little weirder. Said the document, “You will be able to try things in this party, things in this world, that you always wanted to do but never had the nerve.” Examples included telling a high-society wife that her husband is sleeping with the babysitter (haven’t we all been to a party like that?).

Yet, arguably, the strangest aspect of Party Zone is that the designers had either already enlisted, or planned to enlist, Orson Scott Card (who had worked with LucasArts previously) to flesh out characters and write conversations. “LucasArts is known for the games we built, and we had just as many bad ideas. But three times as many bad ideas got rejected so that we could get to the good ideas,” Wilmunder says. “And it might have been revolutionary.”

Above all, what these proposals show is the immense creative energy at the studio in those first ten years. And this is just a small portion of what was pitched during that time. Between 1982 – when LucasFilm Games was formed – and 1992, over 60 game ideas were put together and considered. “It was a very prolific organisation and a very open organisation, where really anybody could sit down and float a concept,” Wilmunder remarks.

The period between 1992 and 1999 saw LucasArts at the height of its creative power. This was also when it saw its first major failures. Up to this point, games could be put together with relative speed, usually within 12 months. But as the studio’s confidence grew, so did its ambition, and all the while game technology was accelerating rapidly. LucasArts began pushing the limits of what both the SCUMM engine and the adventure-game genre could do, and the result was multiple high-profile projects that either limped out of the door or collapsed before they arrived.

The first of these was Forge, the proposed sequel to the 1990 musical fantasy game Loom. Loom was a novel, ambitious game that didn’t sell enormously well. Forge was to take its ideas and expand upon them, switching the main character from a wizard to a blacksmith, and running with a more industrial theme. “It was more about the making and breaking of things,” says Dave Grossman, co-creator of Day of the Tentacle. “A bunch of art was done for it; it was all fiery and red and fun. It was in the era of 640[x480] maximum size.”

The sequel to Indiana Jones and the Fate of Atlantis promised much but failed to emerge.
Forge was eventually cancelled as a consequence of LucasArts narrowing down its portfolio. “One thing they did at that point was lay off all the producers,” Grossman says, pointing out that the project leaders essentially acted in producer roles anyway. In addition, the studio had multiple ongoing projects at that time, one of which was Day of the Tentacle itself. “We wound up having four different producers over the course of that project,” recalls Grossman. “I believe that was the point at which Forge got shelved.”

The most significant cancelled game of this period, and possibly of LucasArts’ history, was Indiana Jones and the Iron Phoenix, the proposed sequel to ...the Fate of Atlantis. This was a project that both Wilmunder and Grossman were involved in, with Grossman heading the project shortly before his departure in 1994. Set in 1947, the story had Indy chasing after the Philosopher’s Stone, travelling to Ireland, teaming up with a female communist sniper in Ukraine, and facing down Neo-Nazis fleeing to South America.

Wilmunder still has the original design binder, which is as thick as your forearm with concept art, storyboards and puzzle designs. He refers to it as ‘The Bible’. “To me, this is the effort that is design,” he says. “Before you even start coding, you go to this level of detail: every special-case animation, objects that change states, puzzles.” A pleasing example of this attention to detail is how every item the player could pick up in a scene is highlighted on the page in bold type.

Phoenix was technologically innovative, too, blending handpainted backgrounds with motioncaptured animations, a technique that became known in-house as ‘Dave’s special process’. Grossman chuckles at the memory. “We had a VO guy called Mike Levine... we got him a hard drive that was a whole gigabyte, and it was this massive expensive thing; it was the biggest one you could get at the time,” he says. “We filled it up in a week, and they were like, ‘Can we get another one?’ And we were like, ‘No.’”

There were a number of reasons behind Phoenix’s cancellation, but the main one was a realisation on the corporate side of LucasArts that 30% of its adventure-game market was in Germany. The studio feared that this would impact on sales due to laws against depictions of Hitler and Nazism at the time. As a result, the team were asked if they could drop the Nazis from the game. “We were like, ‘Not easily,’” Grossman recalls. “We could’ve started over and done that, but it would’ve disrupted the entire design.” In the end, they figured that if they did have to start over, it might as well be on a new project. Their work wasn’t entirely wasted, as Phoenix’s story was eventually published as a Dark Horse comic series.

Sam & Max Hit the Road was a critical success, but a follow-up was doomed.

The period after Phoenix’s cancellation was when LucasArts’ production of adventure games slowed down, with 1999’s Grim Fandango being the last bona-fide classic from the studio. But, despite evidence to the contrary, the adventure-gaming spirit never left LucasArts. The early 2000s saw two sequels to Full Throttle and a sequel to Sam & Max put into production. Paul Pierce, who worked on the UI for Full Throttle 2: Hell on Wheels, remembers the project: “It was a Sean Clark/Mike Stemmle project, with Chris Miles as the art director. I don’t recall how long this was in production before it was cancelled, but it seemed like at least a year. It was a big team and a lot was made for the project.” Developed during 2002, Hell on Wheels was cancelled because of negative reactions to the game’s dated 3D graphics, while the unfortunate demise of Roy Conrad, the voice actor for chief protagonist Ben, was also rumoured to be a contributing factor.

This troubled period of LucasArts’ history is fairly well documented. Both Hell on Wheels and Freelance Police are famous heartbreakers, often viewed as the final death throes of LucasArts’ adventuregaming pedigree. Less is known about what came after. Around 2008, a new LucasArts president was ushered in (the studio had almost as many presidents as it did games), who wanted to build smaller titles to take advantage of mobile platforms and digital distribution. LucasArts producer Craig Derrick, employed there since 2006, saw this as a chance to bring back adventure games: “That became something we referred to internally as Heritage. Heritage group was responsible for bringing life back into those titles.”

This began with the Monkey Island Special Editions released in 2009/10, and the Tales of Monkey Island series developed by Telltale. Unfortunately, that’s as far as Heritage ever got, though Derrick and his team had plans for far more. Derrick had talks with Ron Gilbert and Tim Schafer to do a ‘true’ Monkey Island 3, according to their original vision. “I found some notes and design docs that hinted at that, so that was on the table,” recalls Derrick, “and then, unfortunately, LucasArts changed direction again.”

In addition, Derrick wanted to do either a remaster or a remake of Maniac Mansion, as part of a longterm plan to create a new Day of the Tentacle game. “In DotT, you could play Maniac Mansion on one of the computers; it was a game within a game,” he says. “I always thought it would be funny to do the flipside of that, to create a new Maniac Mansion and have DotT playable in it.”

Due to managerial turbulence within LucasArts, and its eventual acquisition by Disney, none of this led to anything tangible. Yet, while it may be sad that these games were never created, at least they will be remembered. Indeed, when I first contacted Aric about his personal archives, he joked, “These belong in a museum!” Now, in all likelihood, that’s where they’re headed, to be preserved in the Film and Media Collection at Stanford Museum in the US, along with many designs of completed games. This way, the history of LucasArts – both the told and the untold – will be preserved, and not just to be examined by Top Men.