Looking Back on LucasArts and The Force Unleashed With Haden Blackman (Interview)

Last week, I gave up some juicy tidbits of information from Haden Blackman, that fans had been wanting to know for a while.  He opened up about what The Force Unleashed 3 could have been, as well as his original ideas for the sequel (wherein Starkiller WASN’T the main character).  If you thought that’s all the interesting bits I got from our conversation, you’re mistaken. 

Haden Blackman, who’s currently working on a ‘little’ title Mafia III was kind enough to take some time from his busy schedule to talk with me about two of my favorite things, Star Wars and video games.  With a new Star Wars game releasing this month, I thought it was the perfect time to look back on the franchise’s long history with gaming, and wanted to speak with Blackman about The Force Unleashed titles.  While there are plenty of amazing Star Wars games that have been released, these were a pair of the biggest in the latter days of LucasArts.  

We started off talking more broadly about his time at LucasArts and how he got started (You’ll see my questions clearly marked):  

Haden Blackman: I was originally hired on at LucasArts for a six-month contract gig as the writer on Behind the Magic, an interactive Star Wars encyclopedia. Over the course of the next few years, I fell in love with making games — as I writer, I’m still fascinated by telling stories that invite the player to become a co-author in the experience, and I really enjoy working with the multi-discipline teams of artists, engineers, producers, designers, audio designers, and others to create something that none of us could have done on our own. So, I kept writing for other projects, and that soon morphed into a role as the LucasArts liaison with Lucasfilm. I contributed to numerous projects in various creative and production roles over a thirteen year career there.

Besides The Force Unleashed, what was your favorite Star Wars title to work on?

HB: Aside from The Force Unleashed, I probably learned the most from Star Wars Galaxies. That was an incredibly complex and innovative project on many levels, and we built a really vibrant and passionate community. 

After the game launched, it was fascinating to watch the players take all the tools and game systems we provided and use them in ways that we hadn’t anticipated, like setting up arenas for rancor battles and starting underground markets. 

After this, I got a little more specific in talking about The Force Unleashed titles, the first of which launched in 2008 as a MAJOR multi-media event within the company.

The Force Unleashed Toys 

One of the biggest things surrounding the release of these titles is how they were connected, canonically, to the films, prompting a major multi-media turnout of support.  What was it like getting to work on a story that would be the most official Star Wars game since Shadows of the Empire? 

HB: The Force Unleashed 1 didn’t start out as a major transmedia effort. We had to earn that. I just tried to make a game that I would want to play, with a concept that was easy to pitch and was instantly understandable by everyone at LucasArts. I rallied the team around a core fantasy that I thought resonated — Darth Vader’s Secret Apprentice hunting down the last of the Jedi. 

But, that was only half the pitch — we also needed to have something that spoke to gameplay potential. I wanted a hook that would make Star Wars feel familiar but new to gamers, which is how we ended up with the idea of over-the-top Force powers being wielded in huge physics playgrounds. As the story took shape and we began pitching the game outside of LucasArts, the whole “transmedia” effort began picking up momentum. 

Before we knew it, we were in meetings with Hasbro, Wizards the Coast, Dark Horse, and others to figure out how they could draft off of the game in some way. That was an incredibly fun time because suddenly we were part of this larger community of creators who all loved Star Wars and were really passionate about adding cool stuff to the universe. It also validated a lot of our creative decisions, including our insistence that the game be reminiscent of The Empire Strikes Back in tone.

Between Force Unleashed 1 and 2, which proved to be the most difficult to work on?  Why?   

HB: They were difficult in very different ways. The first one was challenging because we were building new technology, a new team, and a new studio while trying to make a new game for new platforms. But, that just provided us with a lot of really interesting problems to solve every day. I loved coming into work at that time. And creatively, the project was really rewarding. I’m still very proud of the story and the core mechanics; blasting stormtroopers into TIE fighters never gets old for me.

Vader captured

Many fans weren’t too thrilled with The Force Unleashed 2, citing its short length as one of the biggest problems.  Everyone knew it was rushed to release, but when talking about the challenges in making the games, Blackman revealed just HOW rushed the sequel actually was:

HB: The second game’s biggest obstacle was the schedule. Although two years passed between TFU1 and TFU2, the actual development time was less than half that for various reasons. From greenlight to launch, it was the shortest development I have ever been involved with. 

Our pre-production was basically me sitting down with some of the artists and designers and asking “What do we have? What environments or characters did we cut from TFU1 that we can resurrect? What have we been building as part of prototyping efforts on other projects?” 

The decision to bring back Starkiller was really driven by the schedule – we didn’t have time to create an entirely new suite of animations for the player character. Once we knew Starkiller would be the hero and I had the list of environments we could reasonably use, I set about writing the story. 

With TFU1, I took at least a year to write the story and cinematics script, and we recorded that over many months, during which I continued to refine the scenes and dialogue. For TFU2, however, I wrote the story and cinematics script in under three weeks, and we recorded everything in about two weeks. Despite all that, the team really rallied to build something they could be proud of on some level. To that end, we overhauled the AI and enemy design, redid targeting, and made a lot of other changes that I think make the gameplay much better in TFU2.

By the time TFU2 was greenlit, the schedule was such that we couldn’t use any of [the other concepts], so we continued Starkiller’s story. In a way, it was a really interesting creative challenge, though, and even though the game was way too short, we still managed to improve the gameplay and tell a halfway decent story, so I don’t regret working on it.

What other ideas had you hoped to include if it weren’t for the time crunch? 

HB: I honestly don’t think we cut anything of importance from the game once we went into production. Our pre-production was all about figuring out exactly how much content we could build in the time we had, and I carefully mapped out the story and game flow to fit within that budget. Once we were underway, we didn’t actually have the time to cut anything major — removing a location, for example, would have forced us to rework other things, like the cinematics, and we simply didn’t have time for that. I’m sure we probably cut a few enemies very early on, but we were moving so fast, I don’t remember anything about them… 

Going from one year to write a story to only 3 weeks, is a very dramatic difference, and explains a lot about why the game’s story ended where it was.  If you saw last week, Blackman already told me about his original ideas for the sequel’s story (Yoda Unleashed), but since the Starkiller models were done, he was the main character again to save time.  While it’s a shame everyone was put in such a rush on the title, it’s impressive what they were able to do with the time they had. 

apprentice shaak ti

What was your favorite moment in developing these titles?

HB: There were so many… We had weekly team meetings where we showed some part of the game to team, and several of those were memorable: The first time we could Force Push a stormtrooper through a window, or use Force Grip and lightsaber throw to impale the enemy… All of the recording sessions and working with the cast; being able to show the game to fans at venues like San Diego Comic Con or Star Wars Celebrations; seeing the first cinematic with full audio on a huge theater screen… I do vividly remember the first time I could play the game from start to finish, and seeing PROXY become Darth Maul – something we almost cut several times — was really gratifying.

For the record, as a diehard Darth Maul fan and collector, I’m incredibly grateful that he wasn’t cut out.  That said, who was your favorite new character to bring into the story(s)?

HB: I really liked PROXY because of his innocence and bizarre devotion to Starkiller. Because he’s a training droid assigned to Starkiller by Vader, his primary programming is to kill Starkiller at every turn – and when he fails, he feels like he has let Starkiller down somehow. He can’t see the errors in that logic because he’s so child-like. He’s also a great story-telling device that made exposition much easier — rather than have a long-winded briefing on characters Starkiller meets, we have PROXY become those characters and give their backstories to the player.

Shortly before The Force Unleashed II released, Haden Blackman left LucasArts to go his own way.  At the time, many took this as a bad sign not only within LucasArts, but for the game itself.  As such, I asked Blackman about his departure from the studio. 

What was the reason you left LucasArts before TFU II released?  There were many rumors about it, but nothing seemed concrete at the time.  

HB: I left to found my own independent development studio (Fearless Studios) with my technical director at LucasArts, Cedrick Collomb. Being at LucasArts for thirteen years actually felt like being at seven different companies because of the frequent leadership changes during that time; after seeing what worked and didn’t work with each regime, I felt an overwhelming need to apply what I had learned to my own studio. I really wanted to make a break from Star Wars – it was great for a long time, but ultimately, no matter what I contributed to the universe, I was always just playing around in someone else’s sandbox.

But, just to be crystal clear, I DID NOT officially resign before TFU2 was done. It was really important to me to stay until the game was finished. I loved that team and didn’t want them to feel like I was abandoning them while they were still working their asses off to do the best they could with the time they were given, so I waited to officially resign until we were done and ready to submit the game to Microsoft and Sony. 

star wars the force unleashed1

Speaking of all the stuff going on at LucasArts, much has been made of the inner turmoil in its waning years.  Is there anything you want to add to it, or clarify for gamers?

HB: I understand why people fixate on that last year or two because it seemed like LucasArts was poised for greatness with 1313 and First Assault, and then it all went away. But, the company was poised for greatness repeatedly throughout its long history. Nearly every leader tried to reinvent the company and was hopeful that LucasArts would do great things under the new direction. And some of the incarnations I experienced were absolutely amazing places to work, and were poised for greatness too. 

For me, the most important part of working at LucasArts was always the people on the teams. Regardless of what was going on around, above, or outside the teams, the teams themselves were just stacked with talent. That’s what I’ll always remember the most — just walking the halls or sitting in a team meeting and feeling like I was surrounded by some of the best artists, designers, producers, and engineers in the industry. 

Every time things got rough, those teams fought through the tough times and stuck it out because they loved Star Wars, believed in the games and each other, and honestly felt like they could make LucasArts great again just by working hard and working smart. Unfortunately, that wasn’t always enough.

While not everyone is as interested in those behind the scenes things, it is something many gamers have wondered over the last few years.  Having some more insight into it all is certainly enlightening, and it’s great to hear about how well the individual teams were able to work together, regardless of the trouble at the top.  From here, we moved on to talking about how his games were affected following the Disney buy-out. 

The Force Unleashed Concept Art

When Disney purchased LFL and eventually pushed all previous media into the “Legends” category, how did you feel about The Force Unleashed getting “the boot”?  

HB: Not much, honestly. I hadn’t even heard about the “Legends” category until this interview… Regardless, I’m proud of TFU’s story and the game itself. Many fans seemed to like it and it’ll always be part of Star Wars for me, so I don’t really care what label anyone puts on it now. 

Were there any discussions made prior to the Legends about keeping Force Unleashed in tact, or using certain characters in the new canon?  Has there been any talk about it since then?

HB: I have no idea. I know some ideas have already been recycled, but given the attitude towards the “old canon,” I’d be absolutely stunned if any of the characters or plot points resurface. 

Many previous generation games have been getting remastered for the current-gen and seeing lots of success.  One of the other Star Wars games you helped out on, Star Wars: Jedi Starfighter (a favorite of mine, I confess), is getting a remastered version to play on the PS4 coming along with the Darth Vader edition of the game in November. Do you know of any plans for Force Unleashed 1 & 2 to come to the PlayStation 4 at some point?  

HB: That is awesome! I didn’t know that… I’m actually really proud of Jedi Starfighter too – it was the first game for which I provided the high level design concept (the basic idea of using Force powers from the cockpit of a starfighter, story, characters, etc.), and then went on to write the story and do most of the voice directing, so I’m really happy to hear it’s being resurrected. 

I have no idea if there are plans for something similar with TFU1 or TFU2.

star wars the force unleashed conceptart Vw8KO

I asked Star Wars fans if they had any questions for you, and pretty much everyone asked the same thing: “Is there any chance of a Force Unleashed 3?”

HB: I don’t know, but again, I’d be shocked if it happened. The folks working on the franchise right now most likely want to tell their own stories, create their own characters — I certainly would.

Well bummer.  If you were hoping to see Force Unleashed 3, the odds against it are pretty high.  Hopefully we WILL still get the chance to play the previous games on our new consoles at some point, but since he’s not been with the company for a while, it’s understandable he would have no real knowledge of it happening.  After this, I wrapped up our conversation with some quick questions. 

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? 

HB: I can’t discuss that.

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

HB: The Force Unleashed. 🙂 

What are you currently working on that fans should be on the lookout for? 

HB: I’m Studio Head and Creative Director at Hangar 13, a 2K game development studio. We’re working on our first title, Mafia III. I continue to write as well — I just finished up Master of Kung-fu for Marvel, and am working on two unannounced creator-owned titles for other publishers.

I thoroughly enjoyed my chat with Blackman, who was an incredibly nice fellow and was more than willing to talk and clarify things as we went along.  While I loved many of the Star Wars games he worked on in his time at LucasArts and am sad he may not work on another, I’m genuinely excited to see what else he has in store for us.