For some reason it’s not just news but front page headline news that Disney just shuttered LucasArts, a video game developer and publisher that used to make terrific video games. You might consider that in itself news of sorts, if — no spite intended, because a bunch of people just lost their jobs, and that’s never a happy thing — you agree with me that LucasArts hasn’t made a really great (or even all that good) game in ages.
Disney, you’ve probably heard, snatched LucasFilm (and Star Wars) from George Lucas for about $4 billion last October — that purchase included LucasArts. That’s a lot of cash. Disney no doubt pored over the balance sheets, and, for whatever reason(s), at some point decided it was time for LucasArts’ 150 employees to go away.
Here’s what Disney wrote in its press statement:
After evaluating our position in the games market, we’ve decided to shift LucasArts from an internal development to a licensing model, minimizing the company’s risk while achieving a broader portfolio of quality Star Wars games. As a result of this change, we’ve had layoffs across the organization. We are incredibly appreciative and proud of the talented teams who have been developing our new titles.
My strongest memories of playing a LucasArts game (not my first) are of X-Wing during the summer of 1993. I was in Boston at the Berklee School of Music, studying jazz piano. Between lessons and jam sessions and my first harrowing attempts at transcribing a bunch of Oscar Peterson solos, I’d sit in front of a brand new DEC (as in Digital Equipment Corporation — yep, they briefly made personal computers, too) 486DX 66 MHz with a CH Products Flightstick Pro. I’d fiddled with other flight sims, including Microsoft’s (then up to v4.0), but nothing like X-Wing‘s epic space battles — the first game, in my view, to capture the grandeur of George Lucas’ still un-messed-with Star Wars universe. Zipping around in lithe A-Wings, battling crafty Imperial computer opponents with tactical flair — it was heady stuff for 1993, one of these experiences where the technology and design dovetailed perfectly. I’d been a LucasArts fan for years, especially of its adventure stuff, like Loom, The Secret of Monkey Island and Indiana Jones and the Fate of Atlantis, but X-Wing sealed the deal — the rest of the 1990s were halcyon days: the Super Star Wars Super Nintendo games, Sam & Max Hit the Road, Zombies Ate My Neighbors, Tie Fighter, Full Throttle, Dark Forces and its sequel, The Dig, Afterlife, Outlaws and X-Wing vs. Tie Fighter.
The last great actually-designed-by-LucasArts game I played was Grim Fandango in 1998. What came after, for whatever reason(s), felt increasingly diminished. I played most of it, from the sorry Star Wars prequel tie-ins to the mediocre outsourced MMOs, but nothing grabbed me like those earlier games (to be fair, I never played Gladius for the original Xbox — those who did tell me I missed out, big time).
Sure, you can point to the original Knights of the Old Republic as an example of a later winner, but that was BioWare, not LucasArts, just as Jedi Knight II was Raven Software, the LEGO Star Wars games are Traveller’s Tales and the revamped Monkey Island stuff is Telltale Games (all four of those companies still exist, by the way). To be fair, much of the criticism heaped on LucasArts’ later work belongs with the third-party developers the company tapped to craft forgettable stuff like Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace, Indiana Jones and the Staff of Kings and, most recently, Kinect Star Wars.
If we’re honest enough to admit LucasArts lost whatever creative spark it carried long ago, then what are we losing in its demise? A game design icon, sure, but that’s nostalgia talking. Future games? I know, some of you were stoked about pipeline stuff like Star Wars 1313 and Star Wars: First Assault — both now cancelled – but I’m a seeing-is-believing guy. It’s hard to mourn wishful thinking.
We still have all those older PC games, by the way. They don’t have to go away just because LucasArts did. If Disney wants to make a bunch of people really, really happy, they’ll figure out how to license LucasArts’ back catalog for distribution through a curator of legacy games like GOG.com.
Rolling forward, well, think of this as the next step in Disney’s big Star Wars reboot (for better or worse, and yes, I realize Disney’s track record in gaming, the Kingdom Hearts games aside, is pretty forgettable). If Disney’s savvy, it’ll find a studio (or two) that can do for Star Wars what Rocksteady Studios did for DC with the magnificent Arkham series Batman games. I’m not saying it’s likely, but we can hope, right?