Looking Back on Star Wars: Republic Commando and LucasArts With Brett Douville

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Last week, I dropped a snippet of information for Star Wars fans and gamers about the sequel to Republic Commando we never got.  It was something that had been bothering me for quite some time, especially with Sev’s fate left in the air, and gave me some much needed closure.  

While I know that’s something many fans had been waiting for, my chat with Brett was incredibly enlightening all around.  While the main focus of our talk centered on Republic Commando, we started off talking about his early time at LucasArts: 

You worked with LucasArts/LFL on a few projects, how did you get started with them?

Brett Douville: Late in 1997 I had realized that academia wasn’t going to be for me and decided to abandon my PhD program. A friend gave me advice that I should get in touch with someone who already had a job I’d like to have some day and try to chat with him or her. So I sent Tim Schafer a résumé and a cover letter and then followed up with a call a week or so later; I had played Tim’s games and was particularly looking forward to Grim Fandango.

I had plans to be in the Bay Area about a month later and we scheduled lunch; in the meantime he actually scheduled me interviews with a few people, one of whom was Daron Stinnett, who would be my first boss there. It was the start of what would become seven years at LucasArts.

Starfighter

Aside from Republic Commando, what was your favorite Star Wars title to work on?

BD: Star Wars: Starfighter holds a special place in my heart because it was my first, and because I learned so much on that project in so many ways. I grew enormously as a programmer under the tutelage of our lead programmer Chris Corry and working alongside Andrew Kirmse.

Even more than that, as the programmer who was supporting all the gameplay, I got to work closely with all the designers on that game. I’d meet one-on-one for an hour with a different designer each day, which was somewhat unheard of at the time. I can remember one designer, Doug Modie, just not even comprehending that a programmer was willing to sit with him to understand the problems he was having using the tools or making his missions. 

We all became very close and trusting of one another. As we were heading into crunch, I went one day and had lead designer Tim Longo tell them that I had some news that would affect them all and to gather in a meeting room — when they showed up, I surprised them by having a bunch of pies, which we shared together because I knew we were going to be under a lot of pressure and probably wouldn’t be able to relax for a while. A year later they repaid the favor and sent me a pie when I was on paternity leave for the birth of my second son. What a wonderful team.

Beyond that, I even got to contribute substantially in other areas — the original story for the game was thought up by myself and a production manager named Wayne Cline. I helped record bits for trailers and gave tons of feedback on missions. And of course, working with Daron Stinnett, I picked up a lot of leadership knowledge just by osmosis. It was really a lightning-in-a-bottle sort of project for me.

Much has been made of the inner turmoil at LucasArts in it’s waning years, is there anything you want to add to it, or clarify for gamers?  Was there anything you directly dealt with before leaving for Bethesda?

BD: Well, the company went on a long time after I left, but those final months were really stressful and damaging. I was among a few people who were not going to be laid off, but ended up leaving anyway to follow an opportunity for my then-wife. 

I was asked to stay on and lead what would become The Force Unleashed, and as a result had to help the company pick around a dozen programmers from the fifty or so that made up the engineering department. It’s really hard to do that when you look at a bunch of people you’ve worked alongside for years. That was an exceptionally difficult year for me, professionally and personally. It was emotionally punishing and again, I wouldn’t wish it on anyone.

Brett Douville interview

After talking about his time at LucasArts, we dove in headfirst to discussion about Republic Commando’s development process.  

How did the idea for Republic Commando come about?  Was it something you helped pitch, or did the idea come from elsewhere?

BD: I actually helped a bit with ideas for the game right after Jedi Starfighter wrapped up — creative director Tim Longo and project leader Daron Stinnett were passing around a design doc and I contributed a few “combat vignettes” to that. Just little descriptions of interactions between AIs that I thought were technically feasible and would support the idea of these top-notch commando soldiers.

But the real genesis of the idea came from playing some of the early Rainbow Six games in multiplayer co-op on the company’s network. The feeling of tension in those games was pretty extreme, largely because of its lethality, but also because you really had to rely on your teammates to work closely with you. The idea definitely came from that to try and provide a single-player experience that was similar, though made for a Star Wars audience.

Republic Commando was set up to take gamers behind enemy lines during the Clone Wars and lead up to events of Revenge of the Sith.  What was it like working on a Star Wars game that would essentially give fans their first look at some of the “new” film’s locations and characters?  Was there a lot stress and high expectations?

BD: It wasn’t particularly stressful for me, though I know our enemy AI programmer Nathan Martz worked very, very hard on getting the feel of General Grievous’s guards just right. And Patrick Sirk, our senior environment artist, had to work hard to represent the forests of Kashyyyk within the Unreal 2 Engine. 

More than anything I think there was a bit of a feeling of excitement — getting to show off what we could do there and teasing General Grievous himself. But for most people on the project, the stress of working on a game is enough.

Republic Commando

What was the most exciting part about working on Republic Commando, and what was the most difficult aspect you encountered during development?

BD: The most exciting aspect of any good game development project is when you start to see that it’s going to be good; that you know what you’re building and everyone on the project can be firing on all cylinders. I had worked with almost everyone on the creative team before, so working with them again, I was able to rely on that trust we had developed. We were all really able to pull together under what would become very difficult circumstances.

Which brings me to the tough parts: The company was changing in major ways just as we were finishing up. Over the summer before we finished, it was announced there were going to be substantial layoffs. Generous severance packages were to be offered to those who stayed to finish what they were working on. What that meant for Republic Commando was that at the end of each month, or milestone, another group of people would say their goodbyes and go off to whatever was next for them in their career, while those of us who were needed longer had to set aside what is a form of grief and carry on, often while working fairly punishing hours. It’s not something I’d wish on anyone.

One of the other Star Wars games you helped develop, Star Wars: Jedi Starfighter, got a remastered version for the PlayStation 4 late last year as part of a new Star Wars system bundle.  Do you know of any plans to potentially bring Republic Commando to the new generation?

BD: I don’t — I’d love to see it, but I’m well out of the loop on their plans. I haven’t played the Jedi Starfighter version that I’ve seen available on the PlayStation store, but I have to assume that it’s basically running in emulation.

It would be possible to update Republic Commando a bit, with higher res textures and more complex shaders and more polygons and what-have-you, but actually, I think the game looks really remarkable even by today’s standards.

 It’s really a testament to strong visual design from original lead artist Chris Williams, who would become the project lead, and graphics programmer Tim Ramsay and a host of others including strong concepts from Greg Knight and a really wonderful HUD UI from Paul Pierce. Playing it again recently I was really struck by how well it has aged both in look and in how it plays. I’d love to see more people get a chance to play it.

RC

Speaking of which, fans really responded to your Let’s Play video for the game, and you mentioned at one point doing more with Starfighter.  Is that still something you’re planning?

BD: I wouldn’t say “planning” so much as “like to.” I had some health issues last year which interrupted my Let’s Play of Republic Commando, so ideally I would finish that first. But yes, it would be really fun to revisit that game — I have so many fond memories.

Given some of the more recent rumors that have been running wild regarding an Imperial Commando game, I figured it would be worth asking Brett, despite his being “out of the loop” to see his take on it. 

Have you heard the recent rumors about an Imperial Commando game being revealed through EA as part of their deal with Star Wars.  Do you know of any plans to bring the franchise back?

BD: I haven’t even heard a glimmer. There aren’t a lot of games like Republic Commando, so I’d love to see another one, but I haven’t even heard the rumors.

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Well, there you go.  While that doesn’t necessarily mean anything one way or the other, the rumor itself has seemed somewhat flimsy from the start.  I guess we’ll just have to wait and see.  After this, we briefly discussed what the future has in store:  

Have you been contacted to work on any of the upcoming Star Wars games or media projects currently in the works?  Would you be open to doing so?

BD: No, I’ve never been approached though I wouldn’t rule it out. One of the things that makes it difficult is that until both my children are out of high school, I’m pretty tied to Maryland. I guess I do occasionally get requests from fans with dreams of making a sequel to Republic Commando, but those aren’t usually financially viable.

If you were able to work on ANY Star Wars video game in the future, what would you choose?

BD: Other than a Republic Commando sequel? There was actually one concept pitch I saw while at LucasArts that I thought really had amazing potential, a horror/survival game set inside Star Wars. I won’t go into details but it was a fantastic idea and one I’d be proud to have on my résumé; I actually think it would fit really well with the direction the movies are going.

This response actually broke my heart.  Seeing a Star Wars take on the survival/horror genre would have been amazing.  Having never heard of this one before, I had to try and get more information, but sadly, there isn’t much:

BD: It never went beyond the pitch phase. Only ever an idea in a one-page description, as far as I ever saw, so I prefer not to say more. I also don’t recall if it was an internal pitch or from elsewhere. It was in that last year of RC that I saw it, so I was pretty busy. 

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Alas…In the years since LucasArts shut down, it seems we’ve heard story after story about canceled Star Wars games/ideas which would have made fans incredibly happy.  I guess that’s just one more to add to the list.  So what’s next for Brett Douville?  I asked him about anything he had coming up:

BD: Over the last couple of years I’ve been trying to take fairly long breaks; I like to say I’m taking my retirement in installments. I taught a design class last year and helped a friend port his game, Sixty Second Shooter Prime, to Xbox One the year before. 

In between all of that and some consulting, I’ve been working on a simulation game called “The Fourth Estate,” about managing newspapers throughout roughly the last four decades. I have no idea how long that’s going to take me to finish.

Brett has done some incredible work in the game’s industry and provided one of the easiest/laid back interviews I’ve done.  I really appreciated him chatting it up with me, and I hope you have as well.  To keep up with all his goings-on, be sure to check out his official website where he talks up games and movies.  

-Jordan