Game Buzz is a weekly opinion column designed to take an irreverent look at one of the biggest news stories to break in the past week. Every Friday we’ll be bringing you another slice of reaction to topical gaming news, and inviting you to agree, disagree, shout assent, vent rage, scream and complain to you heart’s delight. This week, we look at this week's LucasArts massacre and ask what the hell is going on over there.
NB. Instead of adorning this article with pictures of executives, I've nabbed pics from some of my favourite LucasArts games. See if you can guess them all.
When Darrell Rodriguez resigned as President of LucasArts without much warning in June and Paul Meegan - previously CEO of Epic Games China - was brought in sharpish, there were strange rumours of the axe being swung left, right and centre, TFU2's creative director Haden Blackman appeared to up and walk mid-project and those whispers on the wind were suggesting that Star Wars: The Old Republic was to be the last game not to be internally developed at LucasArts. No more LEGO Star Wars, no more BioWare produced Star Wars RPGs , with 'morale and productivity at all-time lows' as sources reported that the developers found out the news that TFU2 wouldn't be released on PSP first thanks to gaming sites rather than the company itself.
Oh dear. But that was just rumour and hearsay right?
'One former LucasArts developer, let go from the Star Wars: The Force Unleashed II team, called today's round of layoffs a "massacre," with an estimated 60 people let go from development and 25 from external production and QA getting the employment vibro-ax. The Force Unleashed II was said to have "gone gold" last Friday in time for its mid-September release date.'
LucasArts actually released a statement, brandishing a strong desire for commitment to internal development as a reason for...erm...culling a bunch of internal developers:
'LucasArts is reorganizing its teams to better address the needs of the internal studio [...] Unfortunately, this means adjusting staffing. LucasArts continues to be committed to creating a first-class internal studio and to fostering relationships with trusted external partners in order to deliver quality games that amaze and inspire fans.'
I remember the golden age of LucasArts, a time when they hired smart, intelligent creative designers with real personality. Designers such as Ron Gilbert and Tim Schafer, riding into the new millennium on the crest of a shimmering wave of first-grade adventure games that thrilled gamers the world over and ensured there was more to the Lucas name than franchised moneymaking. Sadly, the release of The Phantom Meanace saw an avalanche of Star Wars titles that followed, most of which were pretty unassuming and it was only with the BioWare collaboration that was Knights of the Old Republic in 2003 that things started to turn around.
Jim Ward's elevation to President in 2004 saw a massive shake-up of the company, a re-iteration of the commitment to IPs other than those bearing the Star Wars name, and a determination to up the level of internal development, with company profits from 2003 stacking up to less than those of the top selling single titles that year. But since Ward left in 2008, there've been no less than four people to take up the Presidential mantle.
Before we start going absolutely bonkers over all of this, we have to remember that this is not the first time that this has happened, a whole bunch of firings happened the last time a Force Unleashed title came out, but it doesn't make it any less depressing. 85 people is a deep cut indeed, lending weight to the 'massacre' tag that's been circling this past week, but they've all been doing it: Rockstar, Realtime Worlds, Ubisoft and Firaxis have all laid off a fair few members of staff over the last handful of months. It's a dark time for the industry indeed.
But there are two sides to every story. On the one hand, this is a terrible thing for those employers who have lost their jobs and we wish them all the very best. There is a tendency to simply throw the baby out with the bath water in some cases when times get tough. Certainly the cancellation of The Force Unleashed III, considering the seven million copies that the first game sold, and noting that its sequel has gone gold over six weeks before release, seems like a foolish move. Why on earth would you can the most successful, profitable and arguably interesting series, you've had in over five years and fire all of those staff...again?! LucasArts stressed a need for internal development back in 2008 when they fired a load of staff from the first game. Two years on and we get a repeat situation that unfolds in almost exactly the same way. No wonder Blackman walked.
On the flipside, it's clear that LucasArts needs a kick up the ass. A massive one. Nintendo have been trading almost exclusively on the strength of their logo equating to a game of quality: if you see the big N, you know it's going to be good. Whether or not that's true is beside the point really, because public perception counts for a lot more than critical opinion much of the time. But the evidence is there for all to see: Nintendo is a brand name that consumers trust. There are some brilliant third-party games on the Wii but, largely due to a lack of publicity helping to facilitate consumer trust, they don't sell too well. Stick Mario on the box and you'd be counting pennies until 2099.
The Nineties were like that for LucasArts: if you saw the gold and purple insignia, you were in for an absolute treat. It hasn't been that way for over ten years, and with good reason. There's something to be said about having complete control over your intellectual property. Rockstar might run a tight and sometimes overbearing ship, but it's a consistent ship that produces excellent games time after time, their products speak for themselves. But there's been little risk, the Star Wars allure has proven too much over the years, with the company constantly cancelling new projects halfway through development, mismanagement and rapid change leading to confusion, crossed-purposes and ultimately a decline in productivity and quality that has been difficult to stem.
Perhaps something drastic is needed, perhaps Meegan's methods, harsh though they seem, are what is necessary to instigate a change in LucasArts that will restore them to a level approaching former glory. By bringing development chiefly in-house, snapping up creative designers like Clint Hocking from Ubisoft and Joe McDonagh from Irrational really is a statement of intent. They haven't ruled out external links either, instead looking to cultivate relationships with those they can trust. Frankly, I think that's a good thing. Star Wars has been pimped out to so many development houses by now that LucasArts should really have some idea of who they can trust to treat that most lucrative of IPs right, and who'll treat it like Patrick Bateman treats hookers.
Ultimately, time will tell if this is the start of a new genesis for the company, or just another cycle in the trend. I have my fingers crossed for the former. But what do you guys think? Hit us up in the comments with your thoughts.