Star Wars Disney

The Walt Disney Company made a major acquisition this week, purchasing Lucasfilm from George Lucas in a $4.05 billion deal. Along with Industrial Light & Magic and Skywalker Sound, this puts the Star Wars brand in the control of Disney, which has already announced its intention to release a new Star Wars film trilogy, the first entry of which is scheduled to arrive in 2015. LucasArts, Lucasfilm’s videogame subsidiary best known these days for its Star Wars games, also now finds itself under the Disney banner, a move which could turn out to have a profound effect on the videogames we see coming out of it in the future.

As far as Star Wars itself goes, I find it difficult not to be at least somewhat optimistic. Most people would agree the series’ high points have come when creator George Lucas has been less hands-on — just look at The Empire Strikes Back as compared with the prequel trilogy. This new deal reduces Lucas’ role in the new films to that of a “creative consultant,” which reminds me of the honorary chairman role that the ‘Father of PlayStation,’ Ken Kutaragi, once filled. Without knowing what the new movies will be about or who will direct them, it’s impossible to say with any degree of certainty how they will turn out. It’s been noted that Disney’s acquisition of Marvel resulted in this year’s excellent Joss Whedon film The Avengers, which bodes well for the future of the Star Wars films. And, as the Penny Arcade Report points out, “We have nothing to lose by Disney making more Star Wars films, and it’s not like they can get any worse.” The prequels really put the film series in a position where things can only get better from here.

Where things have generally been positive quality-wise for the Star Wars franchise, especially over the past decade-plus, is the videogame business. BioWare’s Knights of the Old Republic is arguably the single best Star Wars game to-date, but there have also been many other quality titles released since 2000: the Rogue Squadron series, The Force Unleashed, the Lego games, Jedi Knight II, Battlefront II — even The Old Republic was okay, if too derivative for its own good. Going back further, you can also cite the likes of TIE Fighter, X-Wing vs. TIE Fighter, and Super Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back as examples of strong Star Wars titles. Although there have been duds in the mix, too, LucasArts has been able to deliver high-quality Star Wars videogames in the past.

Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic

While that may remain true in the future, the manner in which we play those games could dramatically change — and in a way which is unlikely to sit well with many fans. During a conference call regarding the Lucasfilm acquisition, Disney CEO Bob Iger was asked about plans for videogames going forward. According to TechCrunch, he said the company is “likely to focus more on social and mobile than we are on console.” Gulp.

This perhaps should not come as a surprise; it fits right in with the trend we’ve seen from Disney Interactive Studios in recent years. Videogames are an important part of Disney’s future, but not necessarily in the form we typically think of them. DIS has made a concerted effort to shift from traditional, console-based games to the increasingly popular social/mobile space. It has acquired developers like Wideload Games (makers of the recent iOS title Marvel Avengers Initiative) and Tapulous (Tap Tap Revenge) while laying off staff at, and then outright shutting down, studios such as Black Rock (Pure, Split/Second) and Propaganda Games (Turok, Tron: Evolution).

Look at DIS’ website and the types of casual and mobile games it features — Where’s My Water, Where’s My Perry, Kinect Rush: A Disney Pixar Adventure, Kinect Disneyland Adventures — tells the whole story. There are some exceptions to this, with DIS publishing the upcoming Epic Mickey 2 and Epic Mickey: Power of Illusion, but it stands to reason that what we can count on most is seeing more of a social- and mobile-games presence from Star Wars going forward.

Iger didn’t completely rule out the possibility of non-social/mobile Star Wars games being made. In fact, he said console games would be looked at “opportunistically,” but that external studios would be used to develop such titles. In addition to those it makes itself, this is something LucasArts has done previously, turning to developers like BioWare, Pandemic, and Traveller’s Tales to develop Star Wars games. Rumors in the past have suggested LucasArts would put an end to internal development (fueled by multiple rounds of layoffs), while others said it would begin handling all development internally.

Internal development has continued in spite of all this, and LucasArts is currently at work on one of the most promising (at least visually) Star Wars games in years, Star Wars 1313. If Iger is intent on having all development of Star Wars console games handled externally, that puts 1313 and LucasArts development staff in an undesirable position. Asked about the status of the game and any others it may have in the works — last year it was hiring for an FPS, an aerial combat game, and an action-adventure game, the latter of which may be 1313 — the company told IGN, “For the time being all projects are business as usual. We are excited about all the possibilities that Disney brings.”

The qualification that statement starts out with is not the most reassuring thing in the world. Disney may very well deem it more cost-effective to rely entirely on external developers for console games, in which case it will hopefully recognize the potential 1313 has shown and allow development to continue. Epic Mickey 2 is, after all, being developed at the Disney-owned Junction Point Studios, and that may indicate Disney is not completely against the idea of internal development of non-social/mobile games. What may end up happening is development on 1313 continues but LucasArts begins to primarily rely on external developers for any future console-game development (Star Wars and otherwise), including what may be the inevitable Star Wars VII tie-in.

An interesting point that could easily be missed in all this excitement over Star Wars is the fact that LucasArts handles other properties, too. In addition to the Indiana Jones franchise, it also has a treasure trove of adventure games, including Monkey Island and Grim Fandango. It has shown some support of its adventure games in recent years between the re-release of certain titles on Steam and the revival of Monkey Island with the Special Edition releases of the first two games and the Tales of Monkey Island series.

That said, while it’s easy for gamers to not realize this acquisition means new ownership of these classic properties, it’s even more likely Disney itself will pay them little, if any, attention. It’s clear Disney sees Star Wars as the big prize in this purchase, and with its videogame ambitions focused primarily on the social/mobile space (and external development of any console games), adventure games with limited mass-market appeal are unlikely to have much of a future.

The only thing that seems clear at this point is that more Star Wars games are coming. Whether any of them end up being the sort that gamers with no interest in social or mobile games care about remains to be seen. With a renewed emphasis on delivering new movies and leveraging the Star Wars brand across the board, I would expect to see more games, not fewer, and that includes core-oriented console/PC games — it just may be that it’s up to developers like BioWare to make them happen.

By Chris Pereira