Exclusive New Look At The Canceled Darth Maul Game
After suffering a fatal lightsaber wound against Obi-Wan Kenobi, Darth Maul plummeted to his death. No sane-minded theatergoer thought for a second that he may still be alive. With Maul's torso separated from his legs, George Lucas made it abundantly clear that Obi-Wan exacted revenge on this Sith Lord.
Seeing the coolest character in The Phantom Menace die angered fans. Their roar of disapproval was apparently heard loud and clear by Lucasfilm. Darth Maul didn't return in any of the sequel films, but he was resurrected in The Clone Wars cartoon. Much like Boba Fett surviving the Sarlaac Pit in Return of the Jedi, Darth Maul's return was clearly driven more by fan-demand than fiction that makes any lick of sense.
Nothing Darth Maul touches apparently stays dead. Years after LucasArts pulled the plug on a video game that would have placed the darkly tattooed Sith Lord in the spotlight (you can read about it here), game creator Red Fly Studio is still working on the project in secret, which was recently outed in a Reddit AMA by the studio's founder, Dan Borth. Much of Red Fly's continued work ties in with other projects that cannibalize gameplay mechanics and systems from Darth Maul, but from time to time, people on staff add a little something to the Sith Lord's adventure. The team even ported the project to Unreal 4 to see what the game would look like on modern consoles. The pictures in this article are all taken from the new-gen port.
In October, I talked to Borth about the studio's continued work on Maul, but ended up sitting on the interview when I learned that he would soon be talking to Lucasfilm. Rather than scrapping the interview, which illuminates the team's passion for a project they can't let go of, I've included it here. Following this chat, I caught up with Borth again in December, where he spoke about his conversation with Lucasfilm and the fate of the project.
September 2015 Interview:
The Darth Maul project was canceled years ago by LucasArts, yet here you are working on it again. Why go back to a project that likely won’t get green lit again by Lucasfilm or EA?
When we were working on the project, we developed a number of systems – a combat system that was very robust, A.I. systems, and a variety of other systems. When our game got canceled, we didn’t want all that work to go to waste, so we just kept developing those systems. It wasn't specifically for Darth Maul, but it grew into other stuff like Dawn of Fire, a game we are working on now. Whenever we bring the system forward, Maul just comes along whether he likes it or not.
In the back of our minds, we always had a little candle on for Maul. Who knows what's going to happen with it? We knew we probably would never get to make the game again, but this little candle always was back there, and every once in a while, in our off, off, off time, we would go back to [the game] because it's fun and we have a passion for it. We continue the project for that little, small ray of hope. We didn't have anything planned really, we just thought maybe, just maybe, it could live again and we picked at it here and there.
But we knew it was dead. For some reason, everyone at the studio just kind of operated that way. And every time I'd say “Hey, maybe I'll take this to EA, or maybe we'll talk to Disney, if the opportunity presents itself." We mentioned it to a few people over at [EA], but it never went anywhere, so it wasn't like we were trying to do anything specific. It’s just the way we work; whenever we bring new systems in, we always update as much as we can with the old stuff because we never know when we're going to reuse it.
You are making this on the side of your core business of making games for other publishers. How much time are you devoting to it?
Yes, but we make lots of stuff that never goes anywhere while working on production for games. It’s a necessity for a small studio,or you get caught with nothing at the end of production – which of course has happened to us. I have Wii demos of Batman: Arkham Asylum and Devil May Cry that people said couldn’t be done on that console. They would blow people away. They just sat there on the shelf for years, even when the Wii was popular. So it’s not uncommon for us to do at all – the short answer is we pick at it here and there as a passion project, but we don’t let it get in the way either.
How much of the Darth Maul project was completed when you were working on it with LucasArts?
Well, that's a loaded question. It's hard to say. We did so much work, but not all of it was used, and it was spun around in so many circles. We also went down rabbit holes we shouldn’t have which was our fault as well. We had developed systems that eventually didn’t make it into the game because they didn’t fit, not necessarily because those said systems were bad. We had a combat system that had the player hitting back laser bolts and controlling them like you would a tennis ball. We literally were creating all sorts of stuff because we didn't know what it would be. And some of this stuff was our idea, but most of it was just LucasArts telling us "You need to prove this to us,” and we would go through the process of doing that. It was fun and frustrating at the same time.
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The internet has taken to you guys as the, "little studio that could." Star Wars fans want to see this game get made. Has that tidal wave of support changed your efforts at this point? Are you considering doing more?
I think we'd be stupid not to give it a shot, but in the real world, that doesn't really work out often. I think it would be great. The social media groundswell was completely unintended. We didn't expect any of it. Now people are obviously interested in this game, and we'd like to show them what we have been picking at since it was canceled – moving things into Unreal 4, experimenting, stuff like that. When you're building stuff, and when you're building prototypes, the easiest thing to do is to use what you have on the shelf. We've already got Darth Maul skins and things like that, so sometimes we use that for prototypes, instead of building a character from scratch. What ends up happening, unintentionally, is that all the Maul stuff just gets sharper, and sharper, and sharper because you're building all these prototypes, and you're forced to clean up your crap from last time. We've come quite a long way, but we really don't know what to do at this point. It's clear people are interested, which we love, and we want to keep that going, but I don't know what we should be doing, what the next steps are since this is a unique situation.
There were roughly 85 people working on this game, millions of dollars funneled into it. You clearly didn't want to lose that. How much of that those past efforts of your staffers are factoring into what you're doing now? Is that work something you're trying to bring forward?
From our perspective, we have so much on the shelf, and it makes business sense to at least link up at some point and show people what we can do and what we have. Although it's not a completed game by any stretch of the imagination, millions of dollars have gone into it. How we assemble those things, how do we polish those things, those are all conversations to have, hopefully. That’s if it ever goes anywhere. Let's just say we never banked on this happening. Otherwise, we could have been much smarter about it. I mean, oh my god, who holds a Reddit on a Saturday night? Only an idiot like me holds a Reddit AMA on Saturday night.
Why did you do the Reddit AMA?
I'm sitting there on Friday watching Rick & Morty, and my friend texts me, and says, “Hey, man, are you seeing what I'm seeing on Reddit?” I'm like “Dude, I'm 43 years old, what's Reddit?” And he goes, “Get on there! They're talking about your Darth Maul game.”
I jump on there, and apparently some people got together and just started talking about the game. It built up momentum, and I think it made it on Reddit’s front page. It was pretty big. I started reading it, and people had all these assumptions and questions. I thought I would just hop on and clear some things up, and then most of them responded with: “Who the hell are you?” They then asked for me to do an AMA. I went through the arduous task of understanding Reddit in an hour while I took my kids to a bouncy house, and decided “Okay, I guess I'll launch this thing around four or five on Saturday.” A lot of people wanted to know stuff, so I answered them.
How many of you are working on the project right now?
Nobody really. I have guys polishing some stuff whenever we have some down time. These are some of the things that no one has seen that we've been working on for the past year and a half or maybe even longer. The only time we ever really talked to anyone at EA was back before the next-gen consoles were going to hit and their concern was, “Oh, this looks cool, but it's not next-gen." We, since that point, have been polishing things up to be next gen, and really haven't talked to anyone about it since.
Did EA reach out to you after the AMA went viral?
How far do you go with the game if you don’t hear from EA, Disney, or Lucasfilm?
I don't know. Should we keep going? I mean, wouldn't that be dumb if we did that?
You keep going back to it. Maybe the better question is: Can you stop making it?
The best analogy I can make is that we dated this girl, we really loved her, we broke up, we're heartbroken, and we have this little candle on for her forever, and we know it's probably not going to work out, but we'd like to ask her out one last time. And we'd like her to say, “No. Dan, stop. This is never going to happen.” At least for our sanity's sake, we can move on. What happened with the whole [cancellation], nobody told us anything. They didn't tell us anything. So if you are like me and I hope you aren’t – that would drive you nuts.
To use your analogy, the girl – who is LucasArts – sent you a termination letter. They broke up with you.
True, but no one told us what was going and why. We were in the dark, and then it happened. Then people involved left Lucas Arts and then Lucas sold his company. Only years afterwards did we hear that that was the reason. I guess we wanted to know what we did wrong, and if we could fix it. The lack of information just made it worse.
It sounds like the termination happened right when George Lucas sold his company to Disney. Basically two big tidal waves crashing on top of you. Had you guys been making this game three years earlier, it sounds like it would have seen the light of day. Now that Disney has control over it, and George Lucas no longer has his hand in the Star Wars pot, what vision would you go for with this Darth Maul game? George spun your vision to oddly include Darth Talon, right?
Look at what Disney is doing with Marvel, and look at what they're doing with the [Star Wars] stories in the comics. They would know what the best story is for Darth Maul. Whether they agree with me or not, I don't know, but in my opinion the most powerful story is his origin story. I really like the stuff they did in Clone Wars. You have these characters in the films who really aren’t explained or written too well, and then the Clone Wars writers made them interesting. Even Count Dooku. I mean, good god. This guy is the worst, and then you start watching Clone Wars and you go, "Okay. There's a lot going on with him. That's cool.” Obviously it's not up to me or Red Fly, but if this project ever gets turned on again, I think their instincts for story and character would make the best product.
As far as Talon goes, yeah, she was added at the end which made things difficult. She’s a popular character and she exudes sex appeal. For a more mature title I can see why she would be considered. Her timeline and Maul’s didn’t line up at all, but that was one of the issues we were working out and we were very encouraged when there was talk about getting the story from some of the Clone Wars writers. But that didn’t really materialize.
Are you going to release assets to the public? Perhaps get Star Wars fans involved?
No one's told me not to. I don't see the harm in it, but at the same time, we're not out to cause any problems. The reality is we were making this game before EA owned the rights, and before Disney owned the IP. It's not like we just decided, "Oh, we're going to make a Star Wars game. Let's pressure people."
You guys already have one Star Wars game under your belt.
Yes, we made Force Unleashed II for the Wii. We did that game in nine months –- from contract to gold master. We murdered it. Nobody really knows how that production went. Only LucasArts knew, and we ended up outperforming the 360 and PS3 versions Metacritic-wise. Of course, the Wii started its decline right about that time – so more bad timing. After proving what we could do, there was talk about a Force Unleashed III but it never came around. Apparently it was very expensive to make the console versions so they opted not to. When the Maul idea started, they pinged us for it since we had proven what we could do with a tight schedule.
In this day and age, fan-created content is everywhere. You see fan-made Star Wars movies popping up all the time for free. They're not making money off of these things. Is that something you are thinking about?
You could do that and you could say, “Well, this is what we're doing. We're going to make a vertical slice, and hopefully the powers that be will like it, and it will get done.” And you can do that without asking for their opinion or permission. I'm sure that would really piss everyone off, and I completely get that, but this is a business. I’ve seen it work that way before. We could wrap up a small version of the game, and put it out as a fan game but that would be pretty tough.
Why not repurpose what you've made into something similar to Darth Maul, but set in a new universe?
Yeah, you can go to Marth Daul. It could be the adventures of Marth Daul. [laughs] We've repurposed this over and over again. The combat mechanic is our main mechanic here. We've done RPGs, we've done fighting. There's just a limit to what you can repurpose and people say, “This is clearly Star Wars. This is clearly Darth Maul.” From a tech perspective, one of the reasons it is so far along is because we have been repurposing it, and it just gets sharper and sharper. We have shipped games with this combat system, so we know it works. We know we can punch it through.
But those games are nothing like Star Wars. I’m talking more along the lines of Inafune moving from Mega Man to Mighty No. 9. People don't know you're repurposing this stuff for other games.
I'm not that guy. Nobody knows Red Fly. They'd know Inafune without Mega Man. He could jump on Kickstarter and just say, "Hey, I've got this idea." And it could be the dumbest idea ever, and he’d get money. I don’t see us being able to do that.
They know why you are now. They're paying attention.
Yeah, but I couldn't go to Kickstarter and say, “Hey, let's all raise money for Marth Daul.” The interest is in Darth Maul and Star Wars. That's where the interest is. I'm with you. I think we could do something like that. I'm not very interested in that.
You just want to do Darth Maul.
Yeah. Otherwise I'll go do another game. I don't want to fake it. I don't want to make a fake Darth Maul game. That is completely not interesting to anyone or me on the team. If I went back and said, “Hey, we've got a million dollars to make this Darth Maul game, but it's not Darth Maul,” they'd be like, "Ahhhh, oh my god. What?" We wouldn't be doing this on our own time if we weren't passionate about it.
I think I speak for everyone when I say best of luck to you guys. Everybody wants more Star Wars experiences, especially one like this. A game centered on a villain like Darth Maul is intriguing. You guys had a vision for it, and bringing a new Star Wars experience to gamers is never a bad thing. I hope you get to make it or get the closure you need.
We hope so too. People just need to understand that this whole thing happened organically. Yes, we're picking at it. I think everybody would really get a kick out of seeing where we're at. Some of the stuff looks amazing. Of course, we'd love to do it. But you know, EA has their plan for moving forward. Does it include Darth Maul or not? I don't know. Does it include use or not? I have no idea. From a business perspective, thinking, "Well, this is a high-quality digital title that is not going to cost that much money. It's kind of a wildcard. Can you fit it in? Anywhere in your slate?" I would think that that's a pretty flexible thing to do. Things are going to slip. Why not use something like that? Why wouldn't they do the something with Maul? I don't know. It's difficult to actually have these things work out. We're willing to show people where we're at. Hopefully, we get into a conversation with the people who can make decisions and see what they think. At the very least.
December 2015 Interview:
When we last talked, you said you were hoping to talk to EA or Lucasfilm? Has this happened?
I never personally talked to them, but they sounded pretty non-interested. I think the whole thing could be summed up with "No comment." We didn't even have a conversation, really, and I think the thing that is most depressing is that we didn't even really talk about it. I don't know if that's because they're just taking the "no comment" approach, or what. I don't know if they're angry. It really feels like [EA] has an exclusive party going on, and they're just not interested in talking about anyone else joining the party. There's no special case scenario to where they would say, "Well, they worked on this with George Lucas for however long, and a lot of money has been put into this, let's take a look." There's none of that, which is all I kind of wanted. It's more like, "Nobody outside of EA is going to do stuff, end of story.”
EA is that closed up with their plans?
Yes, I think EA and Lucasfilm aren’t interested in Darth Maul. They're moving forward, not backwards. More power to them.
Did you talk to Lucasfilm?
I had a conversation with Lucasfilm. It was basically the same response. “Not interested,” and it seems the added attention from Reddit was annoying them.
Did they ask you to stop making the Darth Maul game?
No. It’s just clear it’s not going anywhere.
Sounds like the door's pretty much shut on this one.
Yes, it would seem so. There is no interest in even talking about it, or looking at what the community thinks. I think the Star Wars community is so rabid that listening to all those voices all the time has created the opposite effect a community would want. Not to be listened to at all.
Are you going to keep working on the game in your off time?
We always work on the game because the mechanics that were a part of Darth Maul have been refined over and over again. So in a way, no, but in another way, yes. It would just be stupid to keep barking up this tree.
What's next for you guys?
We have some interesting stuff going on, and some of our own IP we would like to keep working on. Dawn of Fire is a game that has some Darth Maul origins and we would like to push that forward internally.
Dawn of Fire, is that where the Darth Maul DNA went?
Yes, most of the combat system began there. It’s been refined over and over and now we have a great system for Dawn of Fire and for some other titles.
The Darth Maul project at Red Fly Studio sounds like it may be on ice for good now, ending a long and passionate journey for a development team that had the rug pulled out from under them. The soul of Maul apparently lives on in the studio's yet-to-be-shown game, Dawn of Fire. Star Wars fans will undoubtedly be watching this game with raised curiosity.