‘Star Wars: The Force Unleashed’ Could’ve Had A Wookiee Protagonist, Exploding Rancor Heads (GDC 2008)

San Francisco — Even though it was nine in the morning, hundreds of sleepy-eyed GDC-goers stood in line yesterday for a glimpse of the latest “Star Wars” game by LucasArts.

The session was titled “’Star Wars: The Force Unleashed’: How LucasArts is Building a Game, a Development Team and a Technology Pipeline… At the Same Time” and was led by project lead Haden Blackman.

Like the name suggests, Blackman went over the challenges of making a brand new “Star Wars” game. Asked to be the lead for the new “Star Wars” project in 2004, he said, “It was more challenging than I could ever have imagined.”

Not only did the team have to create an original, George Lucas-approved concept and the next-gen technology to back it up, they also faced recruitment issues as well as having to move their offices in 2005. But four years later, “The Force Unleashed” is now slated for a summer 2008 release, and Blackman shared some stories from his experience. “There were many times that we questioned the sanity of what we were doing and putting all this stuff together, and I’m really proud of the team,” he said.

Here are some of the highlights:

  • The team spent six months in 2004 hashing out concepts that included a smuggler game, a Darth Maul-centric game, a “Knights of the Old Republic“-era game, a game far into the future of “Star Wars” and one that had a Wookiee warrior with superhero-like powers.
  • One early combat pre-visualization clip shown had a Jedi battling a Rancor. The Jedi jumped from the monster’s hand to its tusk and then inside its mouth. After several seconds, the Rancor’s head exploded as the Jedi blew out of it. This caused the audience to applaud, but they were quickly disappointed (yet amused) when Blackman said, “That whole thing with the Rancor blowing up from the inside, we couldn’t actually do for ESRB reasons. We are going for a T-rating.”
  • One of their biggest challenges was multi-platform development for the Xbox 360 and PS3. “It really turned out to be a long, slow battle to get everything working on the PS3,” he said. The biggest issue was that they had a symmetric multi-threading approach on the Xbox 360 that didn’t scale well for the PS3, as well as challenges with memory allocation on the PS3.
  • For the first time outside of LucasArts, live gameplay was shown. It was an early level in the game, which had the lightsaber-wielding protagonist in a TIE fighter construction facility, showing off Force push and grip against hapless Stormtroopers.
  • A cinematic was shown, depicting the apprentice giving Darth Vader the lightsaber of Master Kota. “Only together can we defeat him,” Vader said of the Emperor, revealing his scheme to the apprentice. Obediently he replied, “I will not fail you, my master.”

For the full details, read on…

– When pitching ideas to Lucas, the “Star Wars” creator went on for an hour discussing the importance of drama and two characters talking and emoting. Then the team pitched an idea starring a Wookiee warrior with superhero-like powers. “I just spent an hour telling you how important it is to have two characters talking, and you present me with a character that doesn’t talk?” Lucas had said to Blackman. “It was the most humbling experience working on a project,” he admitted.

– Blackman showed a video that was presented to George Lucas to approve the concept of the game (no photography was allowed). It had the protagonist, Darth Vader’s secret apprentice, tossing around a Stormtrooper like a ragdoll. He begged the apprentice to stop and screamed as he was smashed to the ground and various objects. In the end he was thrown at a TIE Fighter, which exploded upon impact.

– The team was nervous presenting this version of the Force and the idea of a secret apprentice, but Lucas gave his approval. “I was even more terrified because we hadn’t tackled any of those challenges we had,” Blackman said, referring to issues involving staff (they had only 10 people on the project at the time), moving and having to build a new engine and tools pipeline. They also had begun working with Industrial, Light & Magic (Lucas’ special effects studio) in late 2004, but weren’t under the same roof until late 2005.

– More clips were shown of several early combat pre-visualizations, short animated sequences done on 3D graphics program Maya (not with final game assets), created by animators and designers side by-side a few years ago. The first showed a Jedi Force throwing a Stormtrooper at an AT-ST, and then the Stormtrooper hangs for dear life from it. Next, the Jedi jumps upward underneath the AT-ST and slices it in half up the middle.

– One of their biggest challenges was multi-platform development for the Xbox 360 and PS3. “We could probably spend the entire hour talking about it,” Blackman said. As of summer 2005, the team still didn’t have PS3 dev kits; the team started on the Xbox 360 because that’s all they had. In early 2006, the team got the PS3, but it took months to get enough for the entire engineering team. By Fall 2007, both platforms were on every desk, but “it took us way too long to reach that multi-platform mentality,” Blackman said. “Now that we know the innerworkings of both platforms our next project, we really need to make sure we use the PlayStation 3 as the baseline for both the GPU strategies and our memory lab.”

– In 2006, LucasArts hired 181 people across the studio, and in 2007, the company hired 221 more. “And we’re still hiring,” he said. Without a proper recruiting department, recruiting became a #1 priority for the studio and tasks were even put on hold for people to travel and recruit. They also had referral bonus plans that included consoles. Engineers were “the most urgent hires.”

– In the live gameplay was shown, Stormtroopers are tossed around using the Force push and they grab onto objects and other characters try to protect themselves. When it came time to head to the next room, the player uses Force grip to move around pieces on the door until the it opens (“We use grip for a lot of puzzles in the game as well. Here, we’re teaching how to use to grip to open doors.”) However, other doors, the player had to Force push open, bending the metal and blasting them aside (an example of the Digital Molecular Matter technology being used). Blackman mentioned that the player could also close the doors once entering to block enemies from coming into the room.

– The game also features a really robust combo system; for example, after unlocking skills as they play through the game, a player can follow a lightsaber attack with a big Force push and eventually gain the ability to charge the lightsaber with lightning.

– As for cinematics, there was a very tight script; over 20 revisions were done. “It was almost as challenging as building the game proper,” Blackman said. The company cast its main roles with actors that had stage, TV or film experience and who could emote with just a look. They had multiple performers in the studio doing the read-throughs, which helped with full facial mo-cap, so that the actors could act more naturally with other actors and “forget about the dots on their face.”