The Empire Strikes Out – LucasArts And The Death Of Adventure Games

LucasArts is a company with two very distinct identities. For classic gamers it is the studio that defined the point-and-click adventure, evolving the medium to its greatest heights, but for modern gamers it’s merely the facilitator of Star Wars and Indiana Jones games, and occasionally puts out an original action project or allows someone to remake its properties in Lego.

The Empire Strikes Out - LucasArts And The Death Of Adventure GamesThe most interesting period in the company’s history, therefore, is arguably the point at which these two identities intersect, the time in which the old LucasArts ceased to be and the new, less exciting incarnation rose to prominence. That period was 2003/2004, when the studio’s final two adventure projects, Sam & Max Freelance Police and Full Throttle: Hell On Wheels, were both cancelled.

The writing had been on the wall for LucasArts’ adventure division for some time. The mid-Nineties brought games like Sam & Max Hit The Road and Day Of The Tentacle, two of the greatest and most popular adventures of all time, but the same period also showed that the previously neglected Star Wars licence was bound to eclipse such success eventually. As PC hardware became more powerful, LucasArts was able to properly realise the epic scale of the Star Wars universe for the first time and the 1993 release of space combat sim, Star Wars: X-Wing attracted an eager audience that was significantly larger than that of Guybrush Threepwood and friends.

By 1999 the Star Wars marketing machine was working at full power thanks to the re-release of the original film trilogy two years prior and the arrival of The Phantom Menace that summer. Anything with the Star Wars name slapped on it consequently raked in the cash and LucasArts published a total of 13 Star Wars games between 1998 and 2000 while only developing two point-and-click adventures during the same three years.

“There was certainly a growing sense that adventure games were going to be a harder pitch than before,” says ex-LucasArts designer Sean Clark. “But LucasArts did seem committed to the notion of trying to make a go of them,” adds his colleague Mike Stemmle. Both were long-serving members of LucasArts’ adventure design teams who stayed until the bitter end and worked together on the company’s final adventure title, Escape From Monkey Island.

To its credit, LucasArts was clearly happy – at least at this stage – to try to keep the genre alive. With Grim Fandango, the 2D SCUMM engine was finally put to rest in favour of the new 3D GrimE engine, which was expected to wow modern PC gamers, while Escape From Monkey Island was ported to PS2 in order to capitalise on the booming console market. Neither strategy did enough to keep either game from failing at retail, but Clark nevertheless insists that Lucas was moving in the right direction.

“I think we made the jump [to 3D] about the right time,” he says. “We weren’t part of the first round of games to require 3D hardware acceleration, which would have severely limited our audience. Creatively, some of us wanted to go 3D sooner as having a 3D world opens up a whole new tool kit for storytelling. Not being able to move the camera was a huge restriction in the 2D format. One of the biggest challenges, however, was making the 3D game look as good as the 2D predecessors. 3D graphics, especially in those days, all tended to look bright and shiny due to limitations of the hardware. A lot of adventure-game purists were initially unhappy with the direction we took, but ultimately I think they appreciated the ‘new look’ of adventure games and the new things we could do that compensated.”