Behind The Scenes – Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back
21 May 2010 marks the 30th anniversary of the cinematic release of Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back. To celebrate, here’s a look back at the official game of the movie and the first ever Star Wars videogame to be released.
One of the earliest lessons learned in videogame publishing, and one that still rings true today, is that the license is king. Atari learned the lesson first, securing hit arcade conversions for its 2600 games console to lure in a huge, game-hungry crowd, but it was the advent of movie licenses – like Raiders Of The Lost Ark and E.T.: The Extra Terrestrial – that represented the biggest opportunity to attract a wide audience. And as movie licenses went in the early Eighties, there were few that came bigger and more popular than Star Wars.
Although Lucasfilm had opened its own game development division in 1982, George Lucas’s house of coders was actually unable to create its own Star Wars games at that time, since the brand had been licensed out to other publishers prior to Lucasfilm Games’ formation. Atari had secured the arcade license and was due to release its groundbreaking wireframe shooter in 1983, but it was Parker Brothers who gained the home console rights and actually ended up releasing the world’s first Star Wars game, curiously based upon the second film.
In charge of bringing that game to life was Rex Bradford, an “avid science fiction reader” who had “seen the original Star Wars movie something like ten times.” Despite his love for the source material, however, Bradford hadn’t joined Parker Brothers with the intention of making a Star Wars game, and wasn’t even that interested in videogames at all. “I was a board game fanatic growing up, both as a player and as a budding inventor,” he reveals. At the University of Massachusetts, I taught myself programming, but didn’t write any games per se. Then when soon out of school I saw an ad to make electronic games at Parker Brothers, makers of Monopoly, Risk and Cluedo.” Bradford jumped at the chance to work on some of those classic board game properties but found himself working on videogames instead. “I got hired to work on electronic games, but happened to be in the right place at the right time when they made the move to make Atari games. I got the nod to be the programmer for their first game, The Empire Strikes Back, and that launched me into video and computer games as a career.”
Parker had acquired the rights to The Empire Strikes Back thanks to the negotiations of marketing manager Bill Bracy, before Bradford arrived at the company; inevitably, some ideas for the game had already been “batted around by the folks in marketing”. “It was an easy decision to focus on the Hoth battle so the basic scene/activity was set early on,” Bradford adds. “Within that, the goal was to make the game fast-paced and fun to play foremost, and also evoke imagery from the movie. Some ideas dropped by the wayside for lack of ability to pull them off including walker-roping and visually seeing the power generator and it being blown up. It was my first Atari game and perhaps it might have been possible to pull one or both of these off, but the Atari was very crude and I’m not sure even with more experience they would have been possible.”
Bradford was one of only two people on the Empire Strikes Back development team, with each member taking on multiple responsibilities, as was the trend at such an early stage in the industry’s history. “Sam Kjellman got picked to be the game’s designer, and me its programmer, something of a far cry from 100-plus game development staffs these days. There was no spec per se – Sam came up with most of the basic play mechanics, though I participated in those and also eagerly took on the role of doing the stuff that’s hard to spec – the camera algorithm and parallax effect, general speed and tuning issues, et cetera. So it was something of a joint effort in that sense. Sam also did the graphics, and I did all the sound. The sound was pretty much trial-and-error, playing around with the sound registers and trying to get a sense for what combinations made what kinds of sounds. I programmed the graphics, so there was a little back and forth there in terms of what we could achieve, but Sam did the artwork.”