What I learned from a job at LucasArts fifteen years ago.
Last week Disney finally put the pillow over LucasArts’s face and held firmly but impassively as the heart monitor flatlined and the gold guy gave one final twitch. This is undeniably bad news for all the people still working at the Presidio, and I sincerely hope they find new work quickly. But for everyone else, it should be along the same lines as any other video game studio closing.
Should be, but to hear the internet tell it, the news is “tragic” and spells the death of their most formative years. The closure of LucasArts caused a huge uptick in the number of online hagiographies, but strangely made no significant difference in the number of LucasArts games sold.
Okay, that’s an easy, cheap shot. Why can’t I just leave everyone to their eulogizing? Why not let people get sentimental about an environment that hasn’t existed for over a decade, if in fact it ever existed? I already said my piece on Facebook, a few times: it sucks that so many people are out of a job — especially since everybody involved in 1313 seemed to be proud of what they were making — but this is hardly unexpected, and it’s been a long time coming. Management has let in-house development falter while the standout games have been third-party licenses. And getting angry at Disney for “killing” LucasArts is like watching someone with a beautiful, pristine sports car let it slowly, slowly coast head-first over a cliff, and then getting mad at the insurance company for totaling it.
Still, it seems like it should be a big deal. That job and that company were life-changing for me in just about every way possible. It meant leaving my family and friends to move 3000 miles away to a state where I knew almost no one apart from my co-workers. For years, everyone I knew was either directly or indirectly through LucasArts. Every job I’ve had since then, except for one, was a result of knowing people at LEC. (And even at that one job, we spent most of the interview talking about the problems of LucasArts). I’ve worked for two studios that were formed mainly from ex-Lucas employees. The most rewarding work of my career to date was the “spiritual successor” to one of LucasArts’s classic games. I can’t say I’ve really missed LEC, since I feel like I’ve never entirely gotten out from under its shadow.
Ultimately, I think that’s why — at the risk of sounding selfish, callous, and flippant to all the people who lost their jobs — I can’t get all that upset about the closure of the studio. As far as I’m concerned, it served its purpose, and that’s nothing to be sad about. It completely changed my perception of crunch time and the creative process; and it had a huge influence on the development of games as a medium, an influence that’s not only still alive, but thriving.
What It Takes to Make Something Great
On Facebook, there’ve been a lot of ex-Lucas employees posting their memories of the company. Several of them have ended by saying that it was the best job they’d ever had, which just made me feel guilty for my good fortune, because I’ve had a whole string of jobs that were much better.
And then there’s this eulogy for LucasArts written by one of the employees directly affected by the closure. I don’t want to sound dismissive of it, and I certainly don’t want to give the impression that I’m mocking it, since it was well-done and heartfelt. More importantly, it was about the people there, and it’s always been the people, not the licenses, that made the company. It’s just that looking at the pictures, I realized that there’s been so much turn-over through the years that I recognized only one of the dozens of people still working there. But reading the text — with the description of extended crunch time, missed once-in-a-lifetime family obligations, having to put family on hold for the sake of work, and having to suffer through the consequences of poor decisions by management — I thought: that’s the LucasArts I remember.
What’s most frustrating about these accounts is the underlying sense that crunch time is inevitable. That it’s all part of the sacrifices required to make something outstanding. That attitude is endemic to almost every game development studio, but it was particularly heavy at LEC. And it’s nonsense. If you’re working crunch time, that means simply that someone has fucked up. It could be the producer who made the schedule. It could be the executive who insisted on a totally unrealistic deadline. It could be the designer or lead whose direction was ambiguous and resulted in a huge re-working. It could be the co-worker who made a mistake and left it for you to clean up. And if it’s none of those people, then it’s you. Either for not making good estimates, or for not managing your time well.
Whatever the case, it’s an error, a mistake, something to be fixed. Just because it always happens doesn’t mean that it’s inevitable. If a studio doesn’t treat it as a mistake to be learned from, then they’re going to just write it into their schedules, and it’s never going to change. And if a company is still making the same mistakes in 2013 that they were making in 1999, then they deserve to go out of business. Even if they did make Day of the Tentacle.
A Family Company
Before this post is interpreted as a curmudgeonly “Good riddance, LucasArts!” we should all be clear on one thing: I was, and remain, a hopeless, stuttering fan of the “good old days” of the company. I’ve said it before, but The Secret of Monkey Island was the game that made me switch majors in college; it showed me that video games could be a viable medium for storytelling, and not just a diversion. I went on to buy every LucasArts game sight unseen. Almost immediately after I finished Full Throttle, I decided that was enough, and I had to send in a resume “cold.” I was ecstatic when I got an interview. They took me to Skywalker Ranch and casually showed me the display case holding C-3P0′s arm and the Holy Grail. They told me I was interviewing for a job on a sequel to Monkey Island and my stomach flipped and I felt as if I’d had the wind knocked out of me. The “test” for the job was getting to play around with SCUMM for a few hours, using characters from Full Throttle against backdrops from Hit the Road. When I left, I said that even if I didn’t get the job, I’d be happy just having toured the studio and meeting the people, and I meant every word of it. And a few weeks later, when I found out I’d gotten the job, I just lost it. I kind of collapsed on the couch in my apartment and just cried for like ten minutes straight. (Something I’d repeat several times over the next few years, but for very different reasons).
As far as I was concerned, I was Charlie Bucket in the Wonkavator.
There wasn’t anything particularly special about that; a ton of people were there because they were fans of Star Wars or Tucker: The Man and His Dream. As the years went on, there were more of us who weren’t just fans of Lucasfilm, but of the games division in particular. Which is fortunate; few people ever get to work at a place they love so much. The problem is when it gets corrupted to the point where being a super-fan isn’t just creepy and excessive, but expected.
And LucasArts definitely took advantage of it. Sometimes it was explicit — at a review I had a manager acknowledge that the company paid less than the industry standard, but they believed that one of the benefits of working at LucasArts was getting to work at LucasArts. A lot of the time, it wasn’t — you don’t need to keep cracking the whip and shouting “you’re lucky we let you work here” when you’ve got people who already believe it. I don’t even think it was entirely malicious; I’m sure a lot of people really believed that that kind of devotion is required to make great games.
Whatever the reason, it got to be pervasive and destructive. It meant getting burnt out from working nights and weekends, constantly having to manage people’s defensiveness and insecurity, and an environment where even asking for scheduled vacation time had this layer of guilt slathered on top of it. You weren’t just letting down the team, you were letting down the family.
The standout for me was when my boss was in the middle of berating me for something or other (a general bad attitude, if I remember correctly) and said, “You are not to question me.” That surprised me for two reasons: first, because I didn’t think people actually ever said that. I’d always put it in the same category as “I’m getting too old for this shit” and “He’s a loose cannon, but he’s the best there is;” Things People Only Say In Movies.
The other reason it surprised me was because until that point, it’d never even occurred to me to question him. Question some of his decisions, sure. Question the direction my career was going and whether I wanted to keep doing that, definitely. But I never once doubted that the game was going to brilliant, that all the hours and all the stress was going to be worth it, and that the lousy time I was having was just the kind of sacrifice you had to make if you wanted to make something great. If ever my life called for a “glass shattering” sound effect, it was then.
So what? Everybody’s had a boss they didn’t agree with, and everybody’s had to work on a mismanaged project at one time or another. But my moment of clarity came from realizing that it’s not so simple as we tend to think of it: callous execs taking advantage of people just trying to make an honest living. We’re all culpable to one degree or another. If I’ve learned anything about con artists from movies and TV, it’s that the trap you set for someone else is never as reliable as the trap they set for themselves. And best of all is the trap that they demand you let them walk into. A lot of times, we wear overtime as a badge of honor — adversity keeps the team together, working long hours shows how passionate and committed we are — instead of acknowledging it as unnecessary, and a sign that something’s gone wrong.
Years later I went on to work at Electronic Arts for Maxis on SimCity 4. It was another sequel to one of my favorite games at one of my favorite studios. I’m still as proud of that game as anything else I’ve worked on. And I wasn’t keeping track, but I wouldn’t be surprised if I spent more hours on just the first eight or nine months there than I did the entire time I was at LucasArts. I later went on to the infamous “EA Spouse” project (I still say “the infamous EA Spouse project” is a better title than what the game actually shipped with), and that experience was every bit as awful as a class action suit would imply.
Still, I would’ve signed on for a dozen more of those before I would’ve gone back to LEC. The difference was that nobody at EA had any illusions that it was anything other than a bunch of competent adults working together in a mutually beneficial business arrangement. It was the first time in my adult life I was able to get out of debt — it’s amazing how much better people work when they’re not constantly worried about money. It required a ton of hours, but a technical director was frequently checking in, looking specifically for signs of burn-out and enforcing time off if we shoed any. It was all so gloriously impersonal.
It helped not being subjected to enforced whimsy, and it was nice not having to hear constantly how much better things used to be at Kerner. Best of all, though, was I didn’t have to hear the voice in my head telling me how lucky I was to be working there. Pride in the game and respect for the team just came naturally.
So I guess I have LucasArts to “thank” for that particular epiphany. Objecting to crunch time isn’t objecting to work; it’s objecting to unnecessary work. And there’s nothing callous or Machiavellian about looking into the cost versus benefit of everything you do. The people who are benefitting monetarily from your work almost certainly aren’t you (unless you’ve got a better arrangement than I’ve ever seen in video game development), and they’re almost never around on nights and weekends. It’s not money, so always ask yourself honestly what it is that you’re getting out of your own work. If you’re putting the effort in because you genuinely think it’ll make the game better, then go for it. But if it’s out of some sense of obligation, or an attempt to demonstrate how passionate you are about your job, then you’ve got to ask yourself if it’s really worth it. (It never is).
Happily Ever After, or, Why Won’t You Just Die Already?
Clearly I’m still holding onto a lot of psychic residue from that company. It’s not entirely my fault, though; for a company so fixated on storytelling, LucasArts has failed to stick to a good narrative. It started out good enough: a billionaire filmmaker gathering the best talent he could find, Charlie’s Angels-style, and putting them to work at a secluded ranch north of San Francisco, where they’d go on to redefine an entire medium. Not long after that, though, it just degrades into a predictable story of the brash young creatives vs. a bunch of commerce-oriented “suits” milking the hell out of a bunch of licenses.
As for my part: instead of stepping into the Wonkavator and then flying over the Marin headlands followed by a graceful fade to black, the story I’d set up for myself in college has just dragged on and on. In terms of dramatic structure, it’s been a disaster. Story lines that go nowhere. All the cathartic scenes where I finally get to tell off the People Who’ve Done Me Wrong have never happened, and at this point, the whole reason for those scenes is long forgotten. Big character reveals that happen way, way too late in the story.
And there’s been absolutely no closure on the whole LucasArts chapter. I’d thought there’d be some satisfaction from leaving the company, but it just kind of petered out. I went to work with a bunch of other LEC refugees. Good job, but not a clean break.
Over the years, tons of people left the company to go on to other studios, or start their own. At one point, it sounded like the entire company had been laid off. But it’d always come back in some form or another, and everyone would insist that this time would be different, and this time it was going to go back to like it was in the old days.
For me, I thought the company as I knew it was dead as soon as they stopped publishing The Adventurer. It was the SCUMM games that made me a fan of the games, but The Adventurer that made me a fan of LucasArts. Of course, it was my first exposure to Sam & Max. And reading the previews and interviews and game reviews made it seem as if the company had a soul that existed entirely separate from Star Wars and Indiana Jones. Over time, though, it became more and more just a merchandise catalog and an extension of the marketing arm, until it was wiped out completely. I can’t even remember when exactly they stopped making them — it might’ve even been when I was still working there. Whatever the case, it was something that you couldn’t exactly mourn, but its absence made everything else feel hollow.
As I said, the most rewarding work I’ve had in my entire career has been at another studio formed by ex-LucasArts employees, working with the characters that had made it seem as if LEC had a soul. Even as we tried — and succeeded — to do something new, there was always the very vocal contingent that just wanted to hold a bunch of games from 20 years ago over our heads. (I can remember being asked to be on some panel at PAX one year, and when asked about fan fiction, I said that pretty much my entire career had been based on sequels and licenses, so I was essentially a professional fan fiction writer. It got a laugh from the audience, but still convinced me that a change was in order).
Most recently, there was what felt like another last-gasp attempt to revitalize the “good old” LucasArts by releasing special editions of the first two Monkey Island games. And I was surprised to discover that I just didn’t enjoy them that much anymore. At some point in there, I’d changed without realizing it. And even if they somehow brought the old company back to life entirely, it’s not what I’d want.
I think that’s why many of the eulogies and reminiscences have seemed misguided to me: pointing at Maniac Mansion and Day of the Tentacle and The Secret of Monkey Island, or even The Curse of Monkey Island, isn’t an homage, it’s a straitjacket. It says that all that creativity was in the past, and the best we could hope for would be to duplicate it, in the same narrow parameters established back in 1990. I’ve gotten to the point where I’d rather fail doing something original than be successful at just duplicating someone else’s work. That’s why I respect Double Fine’s resistance to sequels and remakes.
And it’s another big part of why I can’t be upset about the closure of LucasArts. I don’t think it’s disrespectful to want all of that stuff to remain in the past. Even if the studio had stayed open after the sale of Lucasfilm, if you haven’t seen your Day of the Tentacle sequel by 2013, it’s probably time to let go. And I’m highly skeptical that the sequel would be what players really want. (I’d be happy to be proven wrong).
Star Wars: Dark Forces III: Jedi Knight II: The Legacy of Kyle Katarn
Finally, speaking of stories: every story needs a good villain, so why not Disney? It lets LucasArts — the company privately owned by a billionaire — be the plucky underdogs once again. Instead of comically shooting themselves repeatedly in the foot for ten years, they’re instead recast as the last keepers of the flame of originality, snuffed out by an unfeeling corporate giant.
Even though LucasArts has had the most of its success as a licensor over the past few years. (It’s unfortunate that some of the employees take that as an insult or a reflection on their own efforts, when it’s not; we can’t be aware of their efforts internally if we haven’t been allowed to see it). And Disney’s much better at managing licensing deals with external studios than handing in-house development. Now, the licenses can ideally go to studios who really want to work with Star Wars (and possibly one day Indiana Jones), instead of to in-house developers who are obligated to crank out another iteration of the Death Star trench run or the Hoth battle.
So people have been lamenting the death of LucasArts, and I’m asking what died, exactly? Apart from a good team, which will undoubtedly find work elsewhere, there’s a brand and years of terrible management. The big licenses obviously aren’t going anywhere; they were worth four and a half billion dollars.
One of LucasArts’s best games was Dark Forces, and it was a game that only LEC could make. And not for the obvious reason, because LEC had a lock on the Star Wars license. The company could’ve made a straight DOOM clone, slapped a Star Wars skin on it, and it would’ve sold like crazy. Instead, they treated it like a game being published by the interactive arm of a movie company: lots of emphasis on story, cinematics, and cinematic presentation in the level design.
Obviously, RPGs had an emphasis on story, and a lot of them were evolving out of their niche audience by incorporating elements of FPS games. But Dark Forces gave it a wide audience, and it asserted the idea that story is important. I know that until then, I always separated video games into two distinct categories: the adventure games that had interesting stories and characters, and games like DOOM that were rock-stupid but fun. Dark Forces was the first attempt I’d ever seen to accomplish both. I say that without it and Jedi Knight, there wouldn’t have been Half-Life. And without that, the entire state of video game storytelling would be vastly different, if it even existed at all in anything other than niche audiences.
So now we have Portal and Portal 2, two games that recreate the feeling of playing the old adventure games better than any game in recent memory — including the remakes of the old adventures. And I’ve been playing BioShock Infinite, which is a character-driven story set in a cinematic world with wide vistas and plenty of levels devoted entirely to exposition. And I’m looking at all the eulogies of LucasArts and asking, who died? Whether you love it, hate it, or remain in denial about it, the potential of video games as a storytelling medium has been well established.
And for the people lamenting that the end of LucasArts means it’s extremely unlikely we’ll ever see anyone revisit the smaller, original titles: never forget that a big part of what made those games great was their originality.
As far as I’m concerned: I think LucasArts gave us a reminder that talented people are more important than any license. And a lesson about the different ways that passion and commitment can be twisted, not just by employers but by ourselves. And a legacy of storytelling in games with so much potential that we haven’t even begun to explore all the possibilities. I say that the man who got everything he ever wanted didn’t necessarily live happily ever after; he just had to keep coming up with new stuff to want.