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GDC '08: LucasArts prioritizing PS3 dev, unleashing Force

Star Wars studio's "new baseline" will be Sony's console; Force Unleashed publicly demoed for first time by publisher--which almost made KOTOR3 instead.


SAN FRANCISCO--In recent months, the PlayStation 3 versions of many multiplatform games have been released after their Xbox 360 counterparts--or canceled outright. Others, like Grand Theft Auto IV, have seen both versions delayed because, having optimized the game first on the 360, the developers encountered difficulties with the PS3 edition.

This week at the 2008 Game Developers Conference, a major studio laid bare the pitfalls of cross-platform development on the current crop of consoles--and talked about how it plans to deal with it in the future. In an expansive and informative lecture, Haden Blackman, project lead for Star Wars: The Force Unleashed, discussed which platform the company's "built from scratch" development team began work on in 2005.

"Multiplatform development was one of our biggest challenges," he told the jam-packed hall in the basement of the Moscone Center. After George Lucas famously urged the studio to "go build that game" upon seeing the first test reels from TFU, they began work straight away on Xbox 360 dev kits in late summer 2005--because that was all the studio had.

"It took a very long time for us to reach a multiplatform mentality," said Blackman. The reason? "Until early 2006," LucasArts had no PS3 dev kits whatsoever and, for the sheer sake of moving the project forward, focused on Microsoft's console. "It took months to get enough dev kits to everyone," rued the developer.

The problem was, once LucasArts finally had enough PS3 dev kits to supply the staff members that required them, 360 development of The Force Unleashed was months ahead. Worse still, the 360-optimized early version of the game "didn't translate well" when ported onto the PS3, given the differences between the hardware architecture of the two consoles and the complexity of PS3 development. This led to more complications and pushed the simultaneous launch of The Force Unleashed back further.

Now, however, the impressive-looking game is on track, and Blackman says that, after some hard-learned lessons, LucasArts now has a strategy for future multiplatform titles--develop the PS3 version first. "Our next project will use the PS3 as the baseline, and then apply that to the Xbox 360," he said. He made no mention of the other versions of The Force Unleashed, which are being developed externally.

Scott Steinberg, Sony Computer Entertainment America's vice president of product marketing, stated that virtually every third-party publisher is now developing for the PS3 first. "They all are now, since it's just easier that way," he told GameSpot. He then referenced his long tenure at Sega of America, saying, "Having recently dealt with this myself from a third-party background, I know this is the case." As of press time, Microsoft had not responded to Steinberg's comments.

The Force Unleashed
While Blackman's discussion of dual-platform development was insightful, it was only a small part of his presentation titled "Star Wars: The Force Unleashed: How LucasArts is Building a Game, a Development Team and a Technology Pipeline...At the Same Time." As the title suggests, the developer cast his oratory net wide, detailing how in 2004, he and others were tasked with the "rebooting" of LucasArts' internal development studio. To further complicate matters, this had to be done during a console transition--and at the same time the entire organization was, along with Lucasfilm and Industrial Light & Magic, relocating to a brand-new San Francisco campus.

As it turns out, having ILM in the same building proved to be a boon for LucasArts. It allowed LucasArts to adapt to the celebrated special-effect house's programming and development framework, code-named Zeno. In fact, the overall goal is for LucasArts, Lucasfilm, and ILM to begin sharing digital art assets, development processes, and effects and animation technology as games approach film in terms of realism.

To make The Force Unleashed as realistic as possible, LucasArts created a new engine code-named Ronin. But while the majority of its technology is proprietary, LucasArts had no hesitation about licensing third-party technology. It acquired Havok's physics engines; NaturalMotion's Euphoria for realistic, AI-driven character animations; and Pixelux's Digital Molecular Matter (DMM), for spectacularly destructible environments.

TFU's first public demo
To show off the technology, LucasArts staged what it asserted was the first live public real-time demo of The Force Unleashed, which will be released this summer. Though Blackman preemptively apologized for bugs, there was no nitpicking by the captivated audience during the next five-odd minutes of gameplay.

Earlier in the presentation, Blackman had said that after much focus-testing the most appealing scenario to gamers was to play as a Jedi Knight. From the TFU demo, it was easy to see why. It begins with the game's protagonist, a secret Jedi apprentice to Darth Vader, being dispatched to kill a Jedi who has taken over a TIE fighter production facility. Vader's instructions are simple: Bring back the Jedi's light saber, and leave no witness.

With carte blanche to wreak destruction, Vader's apprentice entered the bay and immediately began tossing boxes at hapless stormtroopers. Then he cut out the middleman by picking up the white-armor-clad soldiers with his Force Grip power and then tossing them into walls and off ledges with Force Push. Whenever a stormtrooper was hurled particularly far, the camera would zoom in to watch the trooper's realistic struggle, since the Euphoria technology instills them with a futile sense of self-preservation.

The results were often hilarious, with troopers clutching onto anything within arm's length to fend off the inevitable. At the denouement of the final battle with the errant Jedi, Vader's apprentice picked up and tossed the battered warrior into the void below the hangar. He flew toward and then away from the camera, with his death screams bouncing around the hall's sound system.

To display DMM's brawn, Blackman had Vader's apprentice smash open steel doors, which gave off a cloud of dusty smoke as they buckled realistically. Then, it was on to a veritable TIE fighter skeet shoot, with the dark Jedi taking out a half-dozen of the spacecraft with boxes and other heavy objects.

What might have been...
A while after the thunderous post-demo applause had died down, Blackman showed a cinematic from the game, in which Vader's apprentice presents his lord with the defeated Jedi's weapon. "Cinematic" was the operative word, with the scene feeling like it was taken from one of the better installments in the six-part Star Wars film franchise.

Indeed, The Force Unleashed is meant to be a seventh installment in the series, falling between the last of the prequels, Star Wars: Episode III- Revenge of the Sith (2005), and the first of the original films, Star Wars: Episode IV: A New Hope (1977). To that end, LucasArts is pulling out the stops to make it feel like a blockbuster movie, including recording a two-hour soundtrack with the full San Francisco Symphony at Skywalker Ranch. The developers also recorded dialogue using stage actors acting out scenes together while wearing facial and motion-capture rigs to re-create their performances.

The result looked nearly as realistic as the dialogue scenes in Mass Effect, the recent sci-fi game from BioWare, developer of the celebrated Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic series. Ironically, The Force Unleashed almost was a third KOTOR game. Though Blackman never mentioned the forthcoming BioWare/LucasArts mystery project, he did say that during the conceptual stage, he and his team had considered setting their next project in the KOTOR universe. They had also considered making a smuggling game centered around a Han Solo-like character and even an action game with a Wookie protagonist.

That last idea didn't last long, however. "When we presented that, George [Lucas] just stared at us," said Blackman, before setting up one of the biggest laugh lines of the presentation. "He then said, 'I tell you guys about the importance of dialogue, and you pitch me a game with a hero that can't talk?!"

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