Crossing the Dark Divide

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Archive for the ‘Games’ Category

After an eight year run, SOE and LucasArts recently announced plans to shut down Star Wars Galaxies. SWG represented LucasArts’ first foray into the MMORPG space, and I was fortunate enough to be involved with the project as LucasArts’ lead producer for several years.  Other, more intelligent people have already discussed the whys and wherefores of the shutdown (see: an interview with SOE’s John Smedley) and what they would have done differently (see: the aforementioned interview, and Raph Koster’s post on SWG), but even years after last touching the game, I feel a little melancholy about the news.

I left the project in late 2004, right after the launch of the add-on Jump to Lightspeed in order to begin concept development on a number of new Star Wars projects (one of which eventually became The Force Unleashed). At that time, the only way to focus on my new projects was to completely divorce myself from SWG, so we hired someone to take my place and I moved my office to another part of the building, then went through my own private mourning period while the rest of the team moved on with evolving the game. But I guess this is like hearing that a girl you thought you were over just got married; it gets you thinking, about all the good and all the bad, all the things you learned and did right, and all the things you could have done differently.

My last act before leaving the project was to write up a detailed post-mortem — basically a list of things we should and could have done better, but also the things that went well and we did “right” for future reference. I have no idea what happened to that document, but I know that much of the high-level feedback agreed with John and Raph’s thoughts (we should have launched with space flight already part of the service, combat needed more time to bake and more polish, etc.). Personally, the one thing I’d really love to change is how we treated Jedi and Sith, which were rare in the game, something you really had to work very hard to unlock. There were a lot of reasons we had to go that way (and ironically, this is is now a pretty common design in (allegedly) free-to-play games), but we should have found a way to make those characters more widely available at launch.

However, looking back now (perhaps through rose-colored glasses, I’ll admit), I feel that the game changed the MMO landscape, everyone who played it, and everyone who worked on it for the better. I have always believed that the in-game community-building tools are still unmatched in the MMO space; and Raph is right when he stresses the importance of the game’s sandbox design. But in the end, SWG wasn’t just a collection of mechanics and design theories. The love and passion that the team put into the game resulted in something capable of eliciting a wide range of emotions (call it “art” if you want; I do). I will never forget the awe I felt the first time I spotted a massive Krayt dragon lumbering along the Tatooine desert; the excitement of entering the swamps of Naboo; the sense of camaraderie when swapping stories in a cantina; my sheer amazement at the creativity on display when players started hosting their own events and building stores and cities…  The game always felt alive to me, a real organism that started to evolve on its own as soon as we had the first prototypes up and running.

But when I am old and senile, and I can no longer remember the names of servers and cities, when I’ve forgotten about the first time we could wield a lightsaber in-game and the day we generated our first terrain, when I can’t tell a Mon Calamari from a Bothan, I will always fondly remember the sense of belonging that came from being part of the SWG community; from the moment we opened up the forums to the first fan fests, I was always truly honored and humbled to be a member of that very special group. I know that is what I will always miss the most.

Just two quick updates. Earlier this week, StarWars.Com posted a preview for Issue #1 of Darth Vader and the Lost Command, which comes out later this month. You can click on the images below to see the larger versions. Rick Leonardi is doing a fantastic job with the art.

And here’s the cover for Issue #3, which I realized I never posted…

Also this month, the writing in the The Force Unleashed 2 was nominated for a Writers Guild of America award. We won a few years ago for the first Force Unleashed, and I’m humbled to be nominated again.

Ever since I resigned from LucasArts back in August, there’s been a bit of speculation about why I left that venerable company after nearly 13 years, and what I’d be doing next. Well, the answer to both of those questions came today when Cedrick Collomb and I officially announced the formation of Fearless Studios, an independent game developer located in Northern California.

You can read the full press release here, and interviews with USA Today, Gamasutra, and Techland are also up. 

So, I left a good job, working with great people on arguably the most powerful and recognizable IP in the world to do something more than a little bit crazy, but it’s already been one of the most rewarding experiences of my life. Creatively, I feel reborn, and have discovered that Cedrick’s knowledge of tech rivals my knowledge of useless X-Men trivia. Together, we’re creating a studio that will combine the best of gameplay and story to create games that are constantly surprising players and leave a lasting impression. Fearless Studios will be an environment where we aren’t afraid to take smart creative risks and tackle new challenges, but we’ll mitigate these through smart tech decisions, prototyping and iteration, hard work, and being honest with ourselves and our partners. We’re already working on six different concepts, ranging from a splashy action title to hardcore horror.  

To those of you who contacted me looking for info on my next gig, wishing me well, and/or offering me jobs, I want to say thanks, and to apologize if I was slow to respond or vague when I finally did reply. Since resigning from LucasArts, my mental bandwidth has been consumed with getting Fearless Studios off the ground, so I wasn’t as diligent about following up with e-mail and Facebook messages. And when I did find time to respond, I didn’t want to jinx anything by revealing too much too fast. I hope you all understand.

Anyway, please check out our official site at www.fearlessstudios.com. We’re still working on getting content in, but I hope to post regular updates about our progress. You can sign-up for e-mail updates there as well and follow us on Twitter.

Be Fearless!

The graphic novel tie-in to the upcoming Star Wars: The Force Unleashed II hit shelves today! I wrote the script, with art by Omar Francia. Rather than a straight-forward adaptation like the graphic novel for the first Force Unleashed, this one tells a story that runs parrallel to and intersects with the events of the game. Specifically, it follows Boba Fett as he hunts for the escaped Starkiller. We chose this route because we wanted to expand on TFUII and give fans more story set within the time period between the two trilogies, and to really have the graphic novel serve as a companion piece to the game itself. From a story-telling perspective, I also really wanted to provide a different character arc for the graphic novel — Starkiller goes on his own journey in the game, but I think that Fett’s character arc is (hopefully) just as compelling. I think we also reveal a little more about Vader too, and for Star Wars fans there are some new characters and locations. 

Just be warned that although the focus is on Fett — who has a small but integral role in the game — there are some game spoilers… 

You can order it from Things from Another World.

There are a ton of reasons to love Borderlands, but one of the things I appreciate the most about the game is its commitment to a visual language. Where do I go next? What doors can I open? What can be destroyed? What can hurt me in the environment? What kind of attack does that enemy have? How do I defeat this creature? Conveying the answers to all of these questions (and hundreds more) relies heavily on establishing consistent visual cues. If some doors can be opened and others can’t, the locked doors should look different. If a force field is going to hurt me when I run into it, that force field better warn me ahead of time by looking (and even sounding) dangerous. Not earth shattering insight, but something that’s very easy to forget in the quest to innovate or make beautiful art.

Borderlands’ visual language includes many well-etablished conventions, including color-coding both loot (based on traditional RPG codes for rarity) and some enemies (based on the type of damage they deal: red for fire, blue for electricity, green for corrosive, etc.). But my favorite visual cue is the bright green light applied to every “treasure chest” in the game. While “Green Means Gold” has undoubtedly been used in other games, the consistency with which it’s used in Borderlands is impressive. Money, weapons, ammo, and other goodies can be found in a wide range of containers: lockers, red crates, small lock boxes, and even old washing machines and trash heaps. Built into every one of these (even the trash heaps) is some kind of bright green light. There’s a sense of glee (and maybe greed) when, after clearing an area of enemies, you look around and see a dozen green lights glowing from shadowy corners, through open doorways, behind fences, or on top of roofs. Each green light offers the promise of reward, ranging from a few bucks to a rare weapon you can’t wait to test out on the next group of enemies.

Seems like just a little thing, but often it’s the little things that prove most important. 

LucasArts debuted a trailer for The Force Unleashed II – a game I’m currently working on, alongside a ridiculously talented team – this past Saturday on the Spike TV VGA 09 broadcast. The announcement was followed by a press release and the launch of the official web site, where you can find the trailer and a powerful piece of key art. I can only confirm what’s in the press release and the trailer: Starkiller, the tortured protagonist from the original game, is back… And I’m thrilled to see him in action again.

Starkiller Returns! 

A few months ago, I did an interview with X360 Magazine about the experience writing Star Wars: The Force Unleashed, and storytelling in games in general. The material is being used for two separate articles on scriptwriting and storytelling, but the full transcript of the interview has been posted in two parts on the X360 site. Follow the links for Part One and Part Two. Thanks to Sam Roberts for providing some great questions! 

The "goodbye kiss" between Juno and the Apprentice was one of the most difficult to write and produce.

The "goodbye kiss" between Juno and the Apprentice was one of the most difficult to write and produce.

I recently had the privilege of writing a short “Ask the Expert” <looks over shoulder> piece for Storylink. While you’re there, be sure to read the more insightful Q&A with Simon Kinberg, screenwriter for X-Men: Last Stand, Jumper, Mr. & Mrs. Smith, and the upcoming Sherlock Holmes flick. His writing process is especially interesting, but my favorite quote covers the heart of story:

I really believe all good stories start from the same place: interesting characters in an emotionally charged situation. For me, the difference between drama and genre is this: in dramas, you have relatable characters in a relatable situation, whereas in genre films you have relatable characters in an unrelatable situation (fighting ghosts or robots or giant sharks, etc…). But you have to relate to the characters.

And then read the interview with non-stop Jimmy Palmiotti!

“It’s as simple as having a planet of fire … and you want to keep the characters from burning.”