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Fall Of The Empire: How Inner Turmoil Brought Down LucasArts

[This feature originally appeared in Game Informer issue #250]

Like a farm boy looking contemplatively upon two suns, in 2004 LucasArts was searching for answers and ways to right a video game business in disarray. Although Star Wars fans were pleased with several of the studio’s latest endeavors with the license – namely BioWare’s Knights of the Old Republic and Raven Software’s Jedi Academy – George Lucas felt that his beloved galaxy was tapped for far too many mediocre games. Even the popular titles weren’t generating the revenue needed to sustain a healthy business model.

Lucas entrusted the future of the company to newly appointed president Jim Ward, who previously held the position of Lucasfilm’s senior vice president of marketing, global distributions, and online for seven years. During his tenure at Lucasfilm, Ward was a key player in Star Wars: The Phantom Menace’s media blitz, which raked in over $400 million in the box office despite its poor critical reception. He also helped guide Star Wars: Attack of the Clones to a successful run on the silver screen.

Ward didn’t waste much time altering LucasArts’ battle plans. In a press release he stated, “To make LucasArts thrive and to position ourselves for the long-term future, we need to make some fundamental changes.” The new focus led to the slimming of LucasArts’ workforce from roughly 450 employees to 190*, and a shift in development for internal and external studios.

Months after taking his new position in gaming, Ward told Game Informer, “Five years from now, I want to have been able to put the ‘Lucas’ back in LucasArts. To have that same ‘pixie dust’ feeling when people see that logo that they maybe did in the ‘90s. For them to think, ‘If I pick up this game, I know it’s going to be kick ass; I know it’s going to be of the highest quality and the most creative thing out there.’”

That sentiment was echoed by gamers and critics alike late in 2004 after they played Pandemic Studios’ Star Wars: Battlefront, a multiplayer-focused shooter that capitalized on the immense scale of this universe’s wars and vehicles. The game was backed by an impressive marketing campaign that coordinated its release on the same day as the reissue 
of Star Wars’ original trilogy on DVD. This move, masterminded by Ward, created a huge Star Wars event at retail.

In 2005, LucasArts’ portfolio of releases consisted of just five titles, yet, according to NPD data, the company’s sales ranking rose to eighth, up from thirteenth in the previous year. Out of the top ten selling games that year, Star Wars: Battlefront II ranked sixth, and Star Wars: Revenge of the Sith held the eighth slot. The other titles – Mercenaries: Playground of Destruction, Lego Star Wars (published by Eidos), and Star Wars: Republic Commando – all sold well.

From a numbers standpoint, LucasArts seemed like it was well on its way to becoming a publishing powerhouse. Ward’s hope was that LucasArts would be a top-five publisher by 2008.

Behind the scenes, however, all was not well. Numerous LucasArts employees, all who wish to remain anonymous, recall the company spiraling out of control during this prosperous time.

“Jim Ward’s leadership style was not for everybody,” one source says. “He was a challenging person to get to understand. He came from the film side. His objective was nothing less than changing the way the entire industry worked by the sheer force of his own will. He was quoted several times basically saying, ‘I don’t understand why video games can be late. When Industrial Light and Magic works on Harry Potter, they don’t have a choice to be late. The movie’s going to open. The effects have to be done. You don’t get it. There’s no choice. So I don’t understand why we get in this situation where games can be late.’ It turned out that he couldn’t change the way the industry worked in the way he desired. But he was the type of guy who wouldn’t take, ‘That’s just how it’s done’ for an answer.”

Another LucasArts employee remembers a particularly divisive decision made by executives for Star Wars: Battlefront II, a game that was already in danger of quality issues due to LucasArts only giving it one year of development time. “It was originally being designed as a multiplayer-only game,” this staffer recalls. “It remained that way for most of its development cycle. New people who came in after the game was in development basically said, ‘No, we’re not going to make money off of a multiplayer-only game, you have to put in a single-player campaign.’ Pandemic screamed bloody murder and said it couldn’t be done, but [LucasArts] said that they had to figure it out. Battlefront II’s producer at LucasArts basically had a breakdown bringing the game in, but the team made their deadlines and the game sold like crazy. It was probably a bad lesson for Ward to learn, because LucasArts was successful at doing something that everyone thought was impossible.”

When a development team would reach a milestone, a “core meeting” would be assembled on LucasArts’ campus, consisting of roughly 40 to 50 people spread across development, marketing, management, public relations, quality assurance, business development, among others. Ward and LucasArts’ top brass conducted these meetings, which played out like show-and-tells where developers would detail the progress made to their projects.

“Those are the infamous ‘Jim Ward losing his s---’ meetings,” a former employee remembers. “If you were sitting at the table, it meant you were in the firing line for any number of crazy business questions. People would arrive at the meeting early and sit around the perimeter of the room. If you got there a couple minutes before the meeting started, and only table seats were left, you were like, ‘F---!’

“It would be the type of thing where a team would show a build and [Ward] would say something like, ‘Alright, [Quality Assurance], based on the playthroughs what are we rating this right now?’ And it would be a 22-year-old QA person who showed up late and was sitting at the table that answered. He would say something like, ‘84,’ and Jim would say, ‘That’s not good enough. What gets this game to a 90?’ QA would nervously say, ‘Oh, adding online co-op,’ which is not at all in the schedule or budget, and Jim would say, ‘Let’s look into that.’ The dev team wouldn’t know how to respond to that. That addition wasn’t in the books. We became this forum for democratization, but nobody really had any idea of what was going on. At the same time, nobody wanted to tell the truth, because they didn’t want Jim to lose it and fire a water bottle across the room.”

Coming Up Next: Troubles with names...

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