The Volatile History of 'Star Wars' Games

The Volatile History of 'Star Wars' Games

We've had over 30 years of 'Star Wars' games – and not all have gone smoothly Illustration by John James

As Disney's 'Rogue One' hits theaters, we look back at three decades of sometimes wonderful (and sometimes not) adventures in a galaxy far, far away

As Disney's 'Rogue One' hits theaters, we look back at three decades of sometimes wonderful (and sometimes not) adventures in a galaxy far, far away

In the just-released movie Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, rebels attempt to steal the plans that reveal a fatal flaw in the Death Star – but if you're a gamer you got to single-handedly steal those plans yourself, way back in 1995.

Players of the game Dark Forces guided the character Kyle Katarn on a mission to the planet Danuta, where he snuck into an Imperial facility, acquired the intel, and blasted a zillion stormtroopers into oblivion via Doom-style first person gunplay. Over the course of several follow-ups, Katarn would become a powerful Jedi, traveling around that galaxy far far away and having adventures that rival anything Luke Skywalker experienced.

For over three decades, Star Wars games have allowed players to explore the nooks and crannies of the vast universe that the films never reached. Scores of games have been released on platforms ranging from the Atari 2600 to the Commodore 64 to the Sega Dreamcast to smart phones. And ever since the addictive 1983 Atari arcade game put players in the cockpit of an X-Wing fighter, thrilling them with then-cutting edge vector-based 3D graphics and audio samples from the film, Star Wars games have leveraged the latest technology and the most talented developers to recreate the peak moments of the films.

"The game medium and Star Wars emerged at roughly the same time, and they each let you immerse yourself in an alternate world," says Justin Chin, a designer on Dark Forces and the director of its sequel, 1995's Jedi Knight.

"Star Wars also really lends itself to the common tropes of video games," adds Chin. "It's a huge playground for a game designer to work with." Just think of how many key moments from the films come down to hand-eye coordination – the lightsaber duels, the blaster gun battles, the deep space dogfights, the firing of proton torpedoes into thermal exhaust ports. Beyond that, think of how the action in the films shifts from desert world to swamp world to ice world to lava world to forest world to cloud city to space station – an array of environments that puts even the Super Mario games to shame.

"Star Wars is such a playful universe," says Daniel Erickson, a lead designer and creative director on 2011's Star Wars: The Old Republic MMO. "It makes great video games for the same reason it makes fans of all ages want to jump all over the furniture and have mock battles: it's purely designed for fun."

But Gary Whitta, who went from writing about Star Wars games as a journalist to co-writing the story of Rogue One, insists that the key appeal of these games is not the action. "For me, the heart of Star Wars is in the storytelling, the feeling of being witness to something truly epic," he says. "My favorite Star Wars games feature a strong narrative element."

Games quickly became a core component of the "Expanded Universe" of Star Wars lore introduced in non-film properties. For vast stretches of time between film releases, it was the games that were driving interest in the series. "We had the Star Wars books and the comics and the tabletop games and all that cool stuff, but I think video games were best able to capture so many of the elements of the movies that we all love," says Whitta. "I think it also helps that, for the most part, the games maintained a really high level both of quality and fidelity to what makes Star Wars Star Wars."

That's noteworthy because games based on movies are almost always terrible. The cost of the license, the challenge of converting a two hour narrative into a 10 hour action-fest, the need to deliver a game by the film release date regardless of whether it's finished or not... all of these factors contribute to the general awfulness of film adaptations. From ET: The Extraterrestrial on Atari 2600 to Enter the Matrix on PS2, games based on movies have become a punchline.

So what made Star Wars games, on average, suck much less than other movie games? Maybe because the guy behind the film franchise was actually excited about the potential of the game medium. George Lucas founded a game studio, which would come to be called LucasArts, in 1982. He wasn't just looking to make cash-grab tie-ins to his hit films – he believed that the game-making might complement the interesting things that his company was doing with computer graphics for films. Lucasfilm's game development studio made a name for itself creating a groundbreaking online virtual community for Commodore 64, and developing a cult following with a series of quirky point-and-click adventure games with no connection to any film.

Ironically, as the games industry became bigger, and games became a bigger and bigger part of the overall Star Wars phenomenon, it would prove to be the undoing of LucasArts.

Keys to the Kingdom
A decade after the founding of LucasArts, its first Star Wars games appeared. The series that really took off was one that attempted to adapt the subject matter of the films to the side-scrolling platform action paradigm that was popular on consoles at the time. Players of the 1992 16-bit platformer Super Star Wars could guide detailed recreations of the heroes from the films through waves of enemies and labyrinthine versions of familiar locales. "The success of those Super Nintendo games really surprised everyone at Lucasfilm," says Chin. "That really blew the lid off in terms of thinking about console development, and the potential for a lot more Star Wars titles."

Super Empire Strikes Back and Super Return of the Jedi followed, and they were also hits. "That's when LucasArts really got the keys to the Star Wars kingdom," says Rob Smith, longtime game journalist and author of the book Rogue Leaders: the Story of LucasArts. "That's when the movie people at Lucasfilm began to think, 'Hey, games might actually be a thing. This isn't just a tech experiment, this is its own viable business unit. What can we actually do to start competing in this arena?'"

The answer they hit upon was to look for popular game genres that could potentially dovetail with elements from the films. Their next big success capitalized on the emergence of CD-ROM drives that boosted a computer's multimedia capabilities. Rebel Assault mixed extremely cinematic – though not very interactive – combat scenes with full-motion video in 1993. "It's not a great game by any stretch," says Smith. "But it was the first time since Return of the Jedi in the early 1980s that they'd actually filmed anything related to Star Wars at all. Games were clearly filling a void for fans, and fans were telling Lucasfilm in no uncertain terms that they would pay to see actors perform more Star Wars material."

Around the same time, Larry Holland, who had designed several well-received WWII flight simulators for LucasArts, was tasked with creating an X-Wing simulator that let players engage in dogfights in the vacuum of space. At first, the game was to feature two-dimensional opponents, and his small team worked for six months drawing the various spaceships from multiple angles. The team can't have been happy when Holland decided to scrap that work and remake the ships as simple three dimensional objects.

The 1993 title X-Wing was a success. It was followed the next year by TIE Fighter, and in 1997 by a multiplayer X-Wing vs TIE Fighter. "Larry Holland's games really captured the intensity of Star Wars space combat, which is an even more impressive achievement when you consider the hardware limitations of the day," says Whitta.

The game's 3D graphics look crude now, but it was the stuff of dreams for PC gamers at the time. "You grab your joystick and you have this sense of 'Oh my god, I can't believe I'm piloting an X-Wing and shooting down a TIE Fighter.' That was the fucking best," says Smith. "It didn't just put me right inside the game – it put me in that universe."

As the X-Wing franchise was enticing fans of flight sims, in 1995 Dark Forces capitalized on the first person shooter boom that followed in Doom's wake. The action was buttressed by a detailed storyline, one that introduced new enemies like the dark trooper, a cybernetic foe with a tough exoskeleton. (Many future Star Wars games would also make use of these formidable bad guys.)

Dark Forces was originally intended to star Luke Skywalker. It was actually Chin's idea to center the game on a new character, a rebel who had previously been a soldier for the Empire. Technological constraints forced the team at LucasArts to abandon plans to include lightsaber combat as well as gunplay, and budgetary constraints prevented the addition of multiplayer. Nevertheless, the game sold very well – just shy of 1 million copies, a major achievement in the mid-Nineties.

Dark Forces became a touchstone for many Star Wars fans, and a path into the game industry for many budding developers. "We were not officially supposed to allow modding, but we encouraged it unofficially," says Chin. "We hired plenty of level designers who got their start as part of that fan community."

Chin was promoted to director of the follow-up, Dark Forces II: Jedi Knight in 1997. The game had improved 3D graphics, local and online multiplayer, live-action video cutscenes, lightsabers as well as Force powers, and a branching narrative that let players make meaningful choices. "It did an incredible job of marrying epic storytelling and action in the best Star Wars tradition," says Whitta.

Players weren't just wrapped up in the action of the Dark Forces games – they related to the predicaments of the characters. "I still get letters from people about those games," says Chin. "Some of them were pretty distraught over events in the storyline."

Chin says that he had to run his planned additions to the Star Wars story canon past the higher ups. But he had wide latitude to, say, allow the player to gain the deadly lightning-bolts-from-the-fingertips Force power that only Emperor Palpatine had ever used in the movies. "They only ever had a couple of changes they wanted us to make to the script," he says.

"The internal teams at LucasArts always had to do presentations to George Lucas and Lucasfilm executives and get signoff," says Smith. "In those early days, that was a much easier process than it would be in later years, when the stakes were higher."

Masters of Teräs Käsi was a shitty, nonsensical Tekken knockoff that is justifiably viewed as one of the worst Star Wars games ever

Meanwhile, Lucasfilm was getting better and better at coordinating its game releases with its other product lines. The same year Jedi Knight came out, an ambitious transmedia project called Shadows of the Empire appeared. It was a Nintendo 64 game that filled in events between Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi. The Shadows of the Empire game also tied into a novel, a soundtrack album, comics, trading cards, toys, dolls, and models. It had all the hype of a new Star Wars film and added just as much lore to the overarching canon... but with no film to anchor it. The ship belonging to the hero of Shadows of the Empire was even digitally inserted into a shot in the special edition version of the original Star Wars that was released to theaters the following year – elements of the games were now literally making their way into the movies.

Expanding the Universe
It was becoming increasingly clear that Star Wars games could be a major event. But they could also be a major let-down. Attempts to cram the sci-fi franchise into popular genres began to fail as often as they succeeded. "If you look at the history, the Lucasfilm organization was reactionary in its Star Wars games, not revolutionary" says Smith. "They would see that Master of Orion was doing well, so they'd make a strategy game. They'd say, 'Hey, kids like fighting games, let's make one of those!'" (The latter, Masters of Teräs Käsi, was a shitty, nonsensical Tekken knockoff that is justifiably viewed as one of the worst Star Wars games ever.)

"It got to the point where the bad games risked undermining the overall brand," Smith says. "And this was the only interaction people could have with Star Wars at the time, because there were no movies."

That began to change around the time the prequels started to appear in 1999. Simon Jeffery, a former marketing exec at Virgin Interactive and EA, became president of LucasArts. Without publicly acknowledging that things had begun to go awry, the company made a commitment internally to improve their brand reputation by releasing better product. The company began to think beyond making games with internal teams (and a few small local startups run by ex-employees).

"We talked at length about who were the best developers out there in specific genres," says Jeffery. "Who were the people that would reliably make a killer product and really do justice to a Star Wars game? We started approaching these teams. Some of them, like Pandemic, were already banging my door down wanting to build a Star Wars game."

Pandemic – which had delivered Star Wars: The Clone Wars in 2002 – was tapped again by Lucasarts to create the 2005 multiplayer combat hit Star Wars: Battlefront. Raven Software, creator of the Heretic FPS and a well-received Star Trek shooter, got to make the next entry in the Jedi Knight series. Sony Online Entertainment, which had great success with the epic fantasy game Everquest, got the nod to create a Star Wars MMO. And Bioware (Baldur's Gate, Neverwinter Nights) was given a chance to make the 2003 role-playing game Knights of the Old Republic, which turned out to be the most beloved Star Wars game ever.

Knights of the Old Republic is set thousands of years before the events of the movies. "Everyone just thought of Star Wars as Luke Skywalker and Han Solo, yet the backstory behind the Jedi, behind the Force and the Dark Side, was incredibly exciting and fresh," says Jeffery. "I totally fell in love with the idea of a Baldur's Gate-style RPG set in the time of the Old Republic. We kept reaching out to BioWare, the makers of Baldur's Gate, until Ray Muzyka and Greg Zeschuk agreed to a call."

Jeffery says that the game he saw in his mind's eye would have had the same overhead isometric perspective as Baldur's Gate. "The BioWare guys talked me out of my original dream," he notes with no regret. "Being part of the KOTOR project is one of the highlights of my life and career."

The game was made by Bioware, but it wasn't simply farmed out. Jeffery insists that LucasArts worked closely with all of the outside developers they were partnered with at the time. "Our staff was very heavily involved in the production of all of these games," he says. "The executive team and the licensing department were hands on. Each game would have a production team, and a producer who owned the relationship. Mike Gallo, one of the people who initially got me excited about the Old Republic era, ended up being our producer. He lived and breathed nothing but that game for 18 months or more."

The final product isn't just the most celebrated Star Wars game ever made – it's one of the most celebrated Star Wars products of any kind. At a time when the prequels were disappointing many fans, many pointed to the rich characters, the morally complex storylines, and the shocking plot twists of KOTOR as an exemplar of what the franchise could be at its best.

"It's my all-time favorite," says Whitta. "There's a grand narrative sweep to it that really gets to the heart of what makes the best Star Wars stories work; it's epic, it's character-driven, it touches on the eternal battle between light and darkness, it's tragic and emotional."

"The original Knights of the Old Republic was the reason I make games today," says Erickson, a BioWare employee who was mentored by the creators of KOTOR. "I chose to go down the dark side path for a laugh, and I did things I wasn't proud of. I felt grief and shame for the first time while playing a game. Game storytelling as interactive art solidified in my mind."

LucasArts succeeded in spite of its corporate overlord because it could kind of operate under the radar

A Bumpy Ride
The games made with outside developers seemed to be doing well. But in 2004, LucasArts changed course. The prequel films would be over soon, and games would once again be the flagship products in the Star Wars line. The company decided to go back to making its own ambitious big budget games in house, hoping to leverage the cutting edge visual effects created by Lucasfilm's Industrial Light & Magic.

The potential for synergy between the game and film division was never realized. Game production was becoming as labor intensive and expensive as film work, but it was still an entirely different medium. Movie effects, in which a single frame can take hours to render, were completely different from game graphics, which need to render 30 to 60 frames per second.

Presentations of game concepts to the higher ups at Lucasfilm, dubbed "O.G." or Operation George by LucasArts employees, became more fraught, and more likely to result in suggestions that required sweeping changes. "Up until this point, LucasArts succeeded in spite of its corporate overlord because it could kind of operate under the radar," says Smith. "I think that as games got bigger, Lucasfilm wanted more control over them. But I don't think that LucasArts as an entity ever had an understanding of the investment required to make triple-A games themselves."

The company's big 2008 release, The Force Unleashed, benefited from ambitious tech that made bodies flung through the air by Force powers react naturally. With input from Lucas, an ambitious story arc was devised that took place between the chronology of the prequels and the original film series. It was a bumpy ride, internally – it was so behind schedule at one point that a big budget Indiana Jones game was abandoned to provide the resources and manpower needed to get the game out the door.

Force Unleashed was a sales success despite its troubled production, and a sequel was produced in 2010. But that sequel was the last internally-developed Star Wars game to see release. The next planned project, the ambitious Star Wars 1313, dragged endlessly. It reportedly went from being a Grand Theft Auto-style open world game to being a Gears of War-style shooter to being an Uncharted-style action-adventure. The time period and the protagonist kept changing, as Lucasfilm viewed the game as a potential tie-in for various TV concepts they were developing. "It's just not possible to make a game under those conditions," says Smith. "The project was cancelled, and I don't think it had anything to do with the quality of the game."

The biggest game to roll out in the last few years of Lucasfilm's existence was once again made with an external developer and publisher. The success of KOTOR led to a sequel and eventually an MMO in 2011, Star Wars: The Old Republic, made by BioWare and published by Electronic Arts. The creation of the game world and numerous deep storylines in The Old Republic was rumored to cost $150 to $200 million, which at the time would have made it the most expensive game ever produced.

"The Old Republic was, at launch, the single biggest Expanded Universe undertaking in history," says Erickson. "My team and I had to diligently pore through thousands of different sources, make decisions along with Lucasfilm on which parts to ignore or dispute and try to tie disparate storylines together, eventually producing a thousand page story/setting document before anyone started real writing."

The game was initially a success, and continues to be popular. But within a year of release, it abandoned its subscription-based business model and went free-to-play. "It's hard to make that kind of investment in a medium where everything changes so rapidly, from technology to business models," says Smith. "If you invest $200 million in a making Star Wars movie, you're almost guaranteed to get several times that back. But MMOs have huge initial cost and a big ongoing cost, and there's no guaranteed return."

Meanwhile, new, high profile Star Wars console games simply disappeared for a while. The biggest releases during this period were kid-friendly: the Lego Star Wars titles made by Traveler's Tales, the (now defunct) Disney Infinity toys-to-life line, and the frustrating first-person flailer Kinect Star Wars.

Why the dry spell? A dramatic reordering of the Star Wars universe had begun in late 2012. In quick succession, Disney purchased Lucasfilm and the entire Star Wars property, LucasArts was shut down, and by April 2014 the Expanded Universe in which all Star Wars games took place was declared non-canonical. This move was laying the groundworks for the revived film franchise, and creating a new framework in which Electronic Arts would oversee development of all Star Wars games on console and PC, with a small brain trust within Lucasfilm signing off on story elements of their newly-pruned canon.

The first high-profile release since the shakeup was 2015's Star Wars: Battlefront. A continuation of the series begun by Pandemic 10 years before, it was a hit, selling over 12 million copies. It essentially turned the familiar settings from the films into backdrops for sprawling multiplayer battles, on foot and in vehicles. Meanwhile, Respawn Entertainment (Titanfall) and Visceral (Dead Space) are each working on ambitious Star Wars titles, with involved storylines that are being hashed out with input from the newly formed Lucasfilm Story Group.

Many long time fans of Star Wars games grieve over the fact that their favorite characters and storylines no longer exist. "I know that the canon clean-up has been controversial in some quarters, but I think it's the correct, and clever thing to do for the brand," says Jeffery.

Erickson agrees. "Lucasfilm is still deeply dedicated to their history, but that history was a mess," he says. "Decades worth of work done by authors who were rarely coordinated and often working for different audiences had produced some wonderful gems and a timeline that was as full of conflicting 'facts' and ideas as ancient history itself."

"It hurts, but i get it," says Chin. "Kyle Katarn is not gonna resurface again in the Star Wars universe... except maybe as an easter egg."