Dining With Developers, Vol. 2: Haden Blackman, Part 1
(Contributors: Evan Narcisse and Victor Lucas)
The place: XYZ Restaurant at the W Hotel
The address: 181 3rd Street
The time: 7 p.m.
The cuisine: Slightly Asian-infused Americana
Special guest: Adam Kahn, PR specialist for LucasArts
The service: Decent enough.
Other journo sightings: George Jones, GamePro
The conversation: Priceless.
[Evan Narcisse, Victor Lucas and I sat down with Haden Blackman and Adam Kahn of LucasArts. Adam was there, basically, to make sure that Haden didn't lose his head and tell us the company's secrets -- at least, not all of them.
The meal began, as usual, with Narcisse ordering appetizers for the table, including an ahi tartare featuring pickled cucumber, avocado puree and something called "crostini." Schmanzy. The CG staff sure is one classy bunch of mo-fos. Victor Lucas twice requested the baby beet salad. OK, we get it, Vic; you love beets. Me, I ordered a beer infused with a pungent beer smell, as did Haden. As Haden downed his first beer, aka Magic Truth Serum, we braced ourselves for the truth behind one of my favorite games of last year: Star Wars: The Force Unleashed.]
Scott Jones: First things first. I was a big fan of the The Force Unleashed, and was really disappointed by the negative press the game received. I remember Evan and Victor and myself all looking at one another and saying, "Hey, why are all these reviews so bad? Because I'm kind of really enjoying this game..."
Haden Blackman: [Looks at Kahn] Can I talk about reviews?
Adam Kahn: When it comes to reviews, I say let it out. Say what you want to say.
Kahn: Yes. Don't name names or anything. You have feelings about how the review process was, and what the reviews were. Let's let it out.
Jones: I was at Insomniac when the bad Resistance 2 reviews were breaking. (One of which was mine.) [Laughter] But you could see each review as it would go through the office; it would literally take the air out of the office. You don't realize from a reviewer's and journalist's perspective how heavy these moments really are. To see it happen in real time, as people were IMing links through the office, it made it tangible to me. What was it like for you [and the TFU team]?
Blackman: It was weird. We had some early reviews that were like, "OK, this is great." Can I name names on the positive side?
Blackman: Like the Play Magazine review. Unfortunately, Play didn't have a score attached, so it didn't get pulled into the Metacritic rankings, which kind of blows. So that was good. But I think Adam actually had a harder job than I did. Because I turned into a nightmare for a two-week period. I'd get these reviews, and I'd be like, "Aw, these guys are irresponsible. How could they say this?" And I'm firing off stuff [to Adam]. But part of it, as you said, is that I'm watching this team that has worked so hard on this game for two, almost three years. And they're reading this stuff. And you're right; all the air gets sucked out of the room. People were miserable for the whole day. It's hard to keep them focused. And we were working on DLC already at this point, on Jedi Temple, so I'd say, You guys need to keep focused. Come on, it's just one review.
Kahn: And we had seen strong early sales, too. That dichotomy was really weird, where some editors felt strongly about it, both negative and positive, but consumers in general were really having a ball with [the game].
Blackman: The reviews were really all over the map. We've sat down since and said, what are all the criticisms, and "So what are the real issues here?" The targeting, for example, was something that got brought up repeatedly in reviews. When we focus-tested, among mainstream gamers, targeting was never a big issue. It was always the hardcore guys who wanted more precision; they were the ones who were complaining. Of course the biggest complaint, and it's one that I agreed with, was that the game was kind of buggy. There were bugs in there that I wish we'd caught before we'd shipped. We patched them later, of course.
Victor Lucas: Did you find that most people finished the game?
Blackman: We did. We didn't want to make a game that was 40 hours long. We wanted you to be able to play it in 10 or so hours, and then hopefully replay it. So a lot of people we talked to finished it, yes. I think the story was a big part of that, too.
Evan Narcisse: Story-wise, this wasn't just a great videogame story; it was a great Star Wars story.
Jones: I appreciated the love story. I'm very attracted to Juno Eclipse. I have dreams about putting a baby in her.
Kahn: Do you want her number? We have her name and number...
Jones: She's a great character. And Proxy's a great character.
Blackman: Speaking of Proxy, I don't want to name names -- you guys can probably search and find it -- but there was one quote that I absolutely did not agree with. I swear to god the guy that wrote the review did not actually play the game. We felt that way about a lot of the reviews, like they were just regurgitating stuff from other reviews. I don't know if that is prevalent or not, but it feels that way, and it drives us nuts that that happens. But literally there was this one reviewer who called Proxy "an annoying, jive-talking robot sidekick." And I'm like, OK, if you want to say he's annoying, that's fine. But "jive-talking"? Where did this guy get this?
Lucas: How well did The Force Unleashed sell?
Kahn: I haven't actually seen a recent sales figure. But Battlefront II and LEGO Star Wars II have sold 8 million copies or so. And The Force Unleashed has sold faster than both of them out of the gate. And it's still selling.
Narcisse: Something that few people know is that you were stitching three different technologies together underneath the hood of the game: Pixel Lux, Digital Micromatter and Euphoria. And, you know, the bugs did annoy me, but I kind of forgave them, because of what you were trying to do.
Lucas: And you guys don't own any of these companies flat-out, right?
Blackman: No, but we have really good relationships with them. We were exclusive with Pixel Lux and Digital Micromatter, and semi-exclusive with Euphoria. And I would say Havok is the other one. They were a really good partner. Maybe because it wasn't brand-new stuff, but I think people underestimate how much Havok influenced the game. We had to build the whole game around Havok, and figure out how to work these two systems into Havok. And that was, in many ways, the hardest part. We talk about this in some of our Web docs, getting DMM and Euphoria and Havok all to talk to one another. It was a huge challenge. It was the most fun and the most terrifying thing, from a bug standpoint, of any game I've worked on. A designer goes in and makes some seemingly innocent tweak where he alters the speed of Force Push minimally, and suddenly every single Stormtrooper you Force Push goes flying out of the world.
[We order. Haden orders the filet, medium-rare, with fingerling potatoes. Mmm.]
Blackman: I think, in a way -- and this is going to make me sound like a moron, I think -- but in a way we were almost too young -- wait, that's not the right word.
Narcisse: Too eager?
Blackman and Sam Witwer
Blackman: Yes, we were eager, and we were going onto a new platform cycle and we didn't know what couldn't be done. And I think, in a way, that was a good thing, because we did reach for the moon. We didn't get all the way there maybe, but we got far enough.
Kahn: If you had a time machine, and you could go back and tell yourself what you know now...
Blackman: If I could go back knowing what I know now, it would obviously make a lot of things easier. This was our first internally developed title in a really long time. We were going onto a new platform, and we really wanted to make a big splash.
Lucas: You've licked a lot of the challenges. You've learned a lot. Hypothetically, that puts you in a great position for the next installment. How much better prepared are you now?
Blackman: [to Kahn] Can I talk about things I would like to do if we were to do a sequel? Hypothetically?
Blackman: I think it makes us tremendously prepared to do other games using this technology. The hardest thing with The Force Unleashed is, though I'm happy with the end result, I don't think that we leveraged the three technologies to their fullest extent. The integration between the three of them came online so late, and wasn't bug-free until so late, that the designers had a lot of the levels already built out, and we'd designed a lot of the characters. If we were to do it all over again, with some of the technologies already integrated, I think we would have made some different decisions about level layouts. We would have had more playground elements, and turned the levels into funhouses. And I would have included more fun Achievements. One of my favorite things to do in the game is see how many Stormtroopers I can string together with Force Lightning. There's no reason to do that in the game, and nobody really even knows that you can do it, but Force Lightning channels through characters.
If, again hypothetically, we were to do another game, there would be more material transformation. We experimented with melting doors and things like that, but we could just never get it working right. But now I'm confident that we could, because we know so much more about the technology.
Jones: Making a Star Wars-related game, you're really in the crucible. It's really a losing proposition. You're getting shit from the fan side; you're getting pressure from trying to live up to this incredible precedent.
Narcisse: The panini press.
Jones: Yes, the panini press. And to come up with something that's not only "good," but something that exceeds everyone's expectations, that's an achievement.
Narcisse: Fracture, the other big LucasArts release from last year, which was developed by Day 1 Studios, was kind of middling. You have already have such rich IPs internally; does it really make sense to, you know, make stuff up?
Blackman: I think there's always to be a mix of internal and external development. If somebody comes to us with a really great IP, and we think we can help make it better, if we think there's a good game in there, I don't think we'd turn them down just because it's a new IP. And we love all the old LucasArts stuff, like Full Throttle and Monkey Island. You're right, we've got some really great titles.
Lucas: By the way, those games would be great on the DS and the iPhone, by the way. I'm just saying.
Blackman: [Looks at Kahn] I'm going to stop talking now. [Laughs]
Lucas: I want to talk about the time period right around when all the negative buzz was coming out about company layoffs. There was speculation about the Force Unleashed team being gutted.
Blackman: It was hard. We had a turbulent year. LucasArts made a lot of changes. It was a really tough time; I'm not going to lie.
[The waiter arrives, delivering cheddar and rosemary cheese puffs. Compliments of the chef.]
Lucas: Did you lose a lot of people?
Blackman: We didn't lose a lot of people. It wasn't like everyone who worked on The Force Unleashed got laid off. Some people who worked on The Force Unleashed are no longer with the company. But it wasn't the whole team. Certainly we were able to get the DLC done, and the other things that needed to be done in the studio. The day that those changes happened was easily the most difficult day of my professional career, because people who I worked with, who bled for The Force Unleashed, who did a great job -- we had to make some really tough business decisions, unfortunately.
Kahn: Someone came out in the press and said that they'd worked at LucasArts for 15 years or however long, and that basically, from what they knew, The Force Unleashed was going to have trouble getting finished.
Blackman: Whenever you hear that stuff, it's unfortunate. We've been really lucky the past couple years at LucasArts. There haven't been a lot of leaks.
Lucas: And badmouthing LucasArts must be some kind of career suicide.
Kahn: And the interesting thing is, that wasn't the first time that some artist, or someone on a team that had a project canceled, suddenly feels like they're allowed to reveal everything in the world. You're right, what in the world are these people thinking?
Lucas: Where does George fit into all of this? How much influence did he have on The Force Unleashed?
Blackman: We don't go to George with a blank canvas. We bring him something and say, "So this is what we're thinking about doing from a story standpoint. What do you think?" And he massages it.
Jones: That's right. George makes decisions like, "Let's call this guy Jett Brody." [Note: George infamously is credited for changing the main character's name in Fracture to "Jett Brody."]
Blackman: I'm glad I'm only on my first beer.
Narcisse: BioWare is obviously doing the Knights of the Old Republic MMO. How involved are you in that?
Blackman: On a high level. We've seen builds, and talked to the producers, and looked over some design documents. And I know a lot of the BioWare guys because I worked on the original Knights of the Old Republic a bit.
Lucas: You're kind of a creative director at this point.
Blackman: I don't know if I'd go so far as to say that.
Lucas: It sounds like you're involved in a lot of projects.
Blackman: You know, I've been at LucasArts for 12 years, and my role has changed quite a bit in that time. I did some Voice Directing for awhile. I did some writing. There was one point where I wrote some press releases. [Laughter] Long before you started [to Kahn]. I'm sure they're terrible. I've written marketing material. But that's all in my past. The Force Unleashed was really my only focus the past couple years.
Lucas: Is that your baby more than any of the other games you've been a part of?
Blackman: Probably, yes. Because we built the team from scratch. I don't want to take credit for coming up with the vision of the game, because it was certainly a collaborative effort. But I was the one that championed it. I was the one who had to stand in front of the team during the darkest days and say, "We can do this. This is going to be the game; we can do this; it's going to be great." So I feel like it's my baby in a lot of ways.
Narcisse: Star Wars has some of the most passionate fans in the world. They're never going to stop asking questions, like when is there going to be another bounty hunter game, when is there going to be another X-Wing game. How do you answer those questions?
Blackman: We know we have a rich legacy of original IPs, and a rich legacy of Star Wars franchises too, like Battlefront, Knights of the Old Republic, X-Wing, Jedi Knight and now The Force Unleashed. So we're always looking for an opportunity for these things. Where does it make sense to bring them up again? At the same time, we want to make sure the games are all as good as we can make them. We don't want to have five or six Star Wars titles a year, because that's just too many.
Jones: Are there things you're simply tired of talking about, or being asked about?
Blackman: We actually got asked a lot about some of our older IPs, like Monkey Island, Grim Fandango and Full Throttle, and stuff. We were really focused internally on building the next big Star Wars game, so getting asked over and over again when we're going to resurrect those IPs was frustrating. I always wanted to say, "No, we're actually here to talk about Star Wars."
Some people asked us if we thought, maybe, that the Force was too unleashed in the game, and that maybe it was straying too far from the films. And sometimes, no kidding, people would show up and go, "Oh. So this is a Star Wars game?"
Kahn: In general, interesting questions are rare from journalists. [Looks at Haden] Am I wrong?
Blackman: No, you're not wrong. But to be fair, there were also a lot of questions that I had hadn't been asked before. And that's always refreshing. I do think that a lot of the people who were sent out to do interviews with us were hardcore Star Wars fans, and they really dug in with the questions.
Narcisse: I remember, two or three years ago Adam, when you did that first big Force Unleashed press conference in New York.
Kahn: November ? 2007?
Narcisse: The thing that struck me then was that you gave us the whole story.
Kahn: The whole thing?
Narcisse: The whole thing. And that stunned me as a journalist, because one, you never get the whole thing right out of the gate; and two, with a fan base as obsessive-compulsive as Star Wars fans are, I figured you'd want to hold onto the details. What was the decision behind that? To give the whole story, Vader's betrayal and everything, straight-up?
One beer down.
Blackman: We decided that story and gameplay were going to be equally important to us. It's funny, because before I started working on The Force Unleashed I used to have this comment when we were in meetings, and we'd spend an hour and half on the story and characters and only 30 minutes on the gameplay. I used to get really frustrated. And I'd say, "Look, you never read a review where people say, hey the gameplay sucks, but the story is so great you have to play all the way through." You've never read that. But you read the reverse all the time, right?
And I feel like, in some of the reviews that were hard gameplay, we actually got that. Some people actually wrote, "You know, there are a lot of rough patches in gameplay, but the story is pretty good, so you should finish the game just for that." So the motivation behind [revealing the entire plot] was that we felt we had the goods. We felt we had a story that was compelling. We felt we truly had a story that bridged the gap between the two trilogies. I mean, in hindsight, it probably would have been cool if we'd waited a little longer until we had some cinematics. But I think we thought that we had it, and we wanted to share it.
[Aside: Blackman: "How'd I wind up with two butters?"]
Lucas: Talk a little more about the story and how it relates back to George.
Blackman: I think that the benefit we had with The Force Unleashed was that we were setting it in a time period that had been previously off-limits. George was awesome in that he said, "You guys are the first to play in this area; go ahead." We had a series of meetings with him. We actually did a few pitches. I think we had six or seven pitches, one of which was set in that time period. Once we kind of all agreed that it was the best time period, he said, "OK, this has always been off-limits, and here's what's kind of going on in that time period, from a very high level." So he didn't tell us, "Darth Vader has a secret apprentice," or, "The Emperor is this or that."
It was more like: The Empire is rising to power; there's a lot of resistance, so the Rebellion isn't formed yet; there are still some Jedi out there, but most of them have been wiped out, but it's OK to have some Jedi running around, etcetera. He kind of just gave us the political landscape.
The one thing that stuck in my mind, the thing that I never forgot -- what he told us was that the Emperor fundamentally views Vader as broken. He recruited Anakin because he was awesome; he was going to be this really powerful agent of his, or right-hand man to him. When Anakin gets messed up on Mustafar, that basically makes him broken. Useless. Not useless, but ... "broken" was the word that [Lucas] kept coming back to. So we kind of wanted to play with that. So the Evil Ending kind of has Vader broken.
We wanted to have a guy with Force powers running around this time period. But a lot of the guys who'd worked on the Jedi games weren't sure we could pull it off the way we wanted to. So we tried to make it into a Jedi secret agent game, where you had these really cool weapons, and weapon-customization was a factor, and the storyline revolved around you being this Imperial who gets betrayed and all this stuff.
You have Force powers that nobody knows about, so it was all about combining weapons with Force powers. You'd have some crazy ice weapon that would freeze enemies, and then you'd pick up a rock (with the Force) and smash him or whatever. But Force powers were more of an afterthought [in this pitch]. The more we focus-tested, the more we talked to fans, the No. 1 fantasy of all Star Wars fans is obviously to be a Jedi; to have the lightsaber and the Force powers. So we said, screw it; let's embrace that and go totally nuts, and not only make you a Force-wielder like you see in the movies, but we're going to go beyond that and let you do things you've never seen before.
We met with George again and we showed him a preview video, this really early pre-rendered thing. It's actually like a female Jedi in the beginning and a male Jedi at the end, and they're doing a Force Push, and picking up characters and throwing them into Tie Fighters. We showed him that, and he said, "That's great for a game. Go make that game." For me, that was cool, because it shows that he recognizes different mediums need different types of stories. George recognized the fact that this is a game. It's over-the-top. It's visceral.
Read Part 2.