2013 seems to be a turbulent and unsure time for many game developers and publishers. This morning brought the sad news of yet another veteran studio falling prey to closure: LucasArts, the company behind several iconic adventure games such as the Monkey Island series, and best known for being the developer and publisher behind the majority of Star Wars licensed titles since X-Wing released in 1993.
With the publishing arm of LucasArts made redundant from Disney’s acquisition of LucasFilm last year, it made sense, business-wise, for Disney to restructure and consolidate the Star Wars license and handle the publishing side of things within their own organisations.
Left with the modern-day LucasArts developer team, it’s hard not to see why Disney decided to close the studio: their last two offerings, Kinect Star Wars and Star Wars: The Force Unleashed are a far cry from the consistent quality Star Wars fans received from the company in the years prior. While the former has become the best-selling Star Wars game of all time, when the reputation of Star Wars games essentially becomes akin to shovel-ware, the strength of the brand must be preserved first.
LucasArts is no more.
However, part of me can’t help but feel that Disney took the easy way out in closing down the developer division of LucasArts. While the studio’s glory years seem long past them, a somewhat hopeful future lay ahead with the intriguing Star Wars 1313 and First Assault. If any key team members remained from the days of Star Wars: Republic Commando and their unrelated original title Gladius, then there was still plenty of immense in-house talent to consider fostering.
Disney have the money and advertising power to have easily supported the developer-side of LucasArts in their planned upcoming projects, an area the studio has faced problems with in the past. Perhaps if the development team received some consistent direction or support, they would have got back on the right road.
"...when the reputation of Star Wars games essentially becomes akin to shovel-ware, the strength of the brand must be preserved first."
Over the years, LucasArts notably went through several changes in top-level management, constant restructuring phases and heavy staff layoffs. All contributed to the conflict the studio seemed to face in their indecision to either exclusively develop Star Wars games, or split time and money into original games simultaneously.
As a result of what probably was a combination of poor management and fluctuating bosses, several of their most promising games were hurt, and fans faced disappointment after disappointment. Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic 2 was severely rushed, the planned third title was scrapped, and one of my all-time favourite strategy RPGs ever and perhaps one of LucasArts’ best (forgotten) games, Gladius, suffered from zero support, zero marketing and zero chance when the studio decided for the umpteenth time that Star Wars games should be their only output.
Those are but some examples, of course, and every LucasArts fan has their own choices. I always wonder what could have been for my favourites, especially now with the development team’s closure. But then I think back on the studio's general mismanagement of the Star Wars license and the few original games they developed, and it's hard not to think Disney's choice was a smart one, nostalgia put aside.
Footage of pre-alpha Battlefront 3, and what could have been had mismanagement not plagued the studio.
Perhaps the best case for the Star Wars games license to be handled by another studio was LucasArts' handling of third-party contracting. I was one of many fans who wanted to see Battlefront 3, and Free Radical (of Timesplitters fame) was indeed contracted to produce it, having worked on it from 2006-2008.
However, LucasArts effectively destroyed their relationship with the third-party studio after several abrupt changes in top-level management, and Free Radical co-founder Steve Ellis described, in an extensive interview with Eurogamer, how working with LucasArts evolved from being “the best relationship we'd ever had with a publisher” to a shouting match for 6 months worth of withheld pay, a broken contract and effectively the end of Battlefront 3 and Free Radical as a company, not to mention dashing plenty of Star Wars fans hopes.
LucasArts may not have been on the ball with Star Wars related titles in the last few years or in a business sense, but their legacy will remain and I for one will remember the many great games they've made, bad business decisions put aside. It’s sad that Disney closed down such a prominent studio, but in the end, it’s just business, and it was a smart choice for the Star Wars brand overall.
The Star Wars license is still viable in gaming and Disney are smart in taking control of their property -- perhaps a solution can be found in handing over development of Star Wars: 1313 or other unannounced titles to more than just one development team, and Star Wars fans can see the return of original Star Wars games as great as the original Knights of the Old Republic rather than ones that make them wince, like Star Wars Kinect.
What do you think about Disney's closure of LucasArts? Was it time for the famed Star Wars developer and publisher to go? Sound off in the comments below, or join the discussion in the MMGN forums.
Nathan Misa is the senior games writer, reviewer and contributor for MMGN.com and GamesFix. You'll never find anyone more stubbornly adamant that KOTOR was the best Star Wars game. You can catch his ramblings here on MMGN, Google+ and Twitter.