INTERVIEW: Lego Star Wars – The Clone Wars producer Nicolas Ricks

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nicolas-ricks.jpgA long time ago (yesterday) in a galaxy far, far away, (Knutsford, just outside of Manchester) Tech Digest went to visit the fine folks at Traveller’s Tales, the development team behind the Lego Star Wars, Batman, Indiana Jones and Harry Potter games. Gearing up for next week’s launch of Lego Star Wars: The Clone Wars, we caught up with the game’s producer Nicolas Ricks for a quick chat.

This is the third Lego Star Wars game across two console generations. When the series was first launched it was a breath of fresh air. How do you encourage gamers to come back for Lego Star Wars: Clone Wars when they’ve possibly put in hundreds of hours to the previous titles?

Nicolas: It’s a very good question. Our approach is always actually very similar insofar as we try to understand what makes the Clone Wars TV show different to the other Star Wars films. That process of distillation made us realise that it’s very much about these immense, epic ground battles. And so that is certainly an area we’ve focussed on heavily, giving the player the experience of being a Jedi general in command of hundreds and hundreds of troops and tanks, walkers, bikes and all kinds of other stuff. That, we feel, gives people a fresh and new way of playing with Lego in the Star Wars universe. At the same time we’re very conscious that people like the Lego: Star Wars games, so we definitely didn’t want to detract from that core experience and what we have in the traditional story mode. But of course we’ve added new characters, new moves, new abilities to build on that much-loved gameplay.

The Clone Wars is for many people a lesser-known element of the Star Wars canon. Do you think that will be a barrier for fans only familiar with the movies?

Yes, it’s an interesting point; the games in the past have had the advantage of having duality of appeal insofar as that the older generations are familiar with the theatrical releases, while the younger generation are just happy to play that game. I think this game certainly appeals to the younger generations anyway, but for the older generation it’s still full of incredible stories and amazing characters, many of which they’ll be familiar with. Lots of the fun will come from discovering these great worlds and characters for the first time. But it was also very much our intention to have the game not just focus on the Clone Wars TV show, but across the whole history of the conflict, so you still get levels from the Attack of the Clones movie. We cover the entire storyline, so there will be things that people will be immediately familiar with if they haven’t seen the Star Wars TV show.

How receptive is George Lucas and Lucasarts to the idea of you tinkering with their creations? Do you have creative freedom?

Yeah! Absolutely. We’re immensely privileged to work with Lucasarts who have created such a vibrant and immersive universe, and they have been fantastic insofar as they’ve allowed us to lampoon their most treasured franchise. We’ve actually worked together so long now that there’s a good shorthand between both camps; we know what we can do and what we cant do. There are obviously certain things that they wouldn’t like to see done to their property, but those sort of things we obviously wouldn’t want to do because we’re making games “from Lego” and primarily aimed at kids. It’s actually easier than you might imagine.

Has there ever been an idea that has been vetoed by Lucas and Lucasarts that you’ve wanted to include in the game, not necessarily because it is crass, but because it wasn’t in line with Lucas’s grand vision for Star Wars? Like Han Solo with a lightsabre perhaps, or Chewbacca with a super-speedy running shoes power up?

No not really; we both share a very clear and common goal insofar as we’re retelling the Star Wars stories through the prism of Lego, and as such we know what we want to achieve and how best to go about it. As a result we’ve never had to ask for anything that Lucasarts would object to as there’s a commonality of understanding. There are some things we have to be sensitive to, like secret characters in the game that are from the new season 3 of the Clone Wars TV show, and as they haven’t yet been revealed in the series we have to be careful about how we show those, as they’re available in the game before they’ll be broadcast on TV. So there’s a degree of commercial sensitivity, but never conflict.

Quite often you’ve got characters that have appeared in the films or show, but have never had the honour of being immortalised as a Lego minifig? How do you go about squeezing the character designs down to Lego size?

A lot of the time we’re upgrading them rather than downsizing them! Look at the Power Droid or Gonk Droid; you see him for a fraction of a second in Star Wars, but he’s immensely powerful here in Lego: Clone Wars. He’s very slow but he’s practically invulnerable! As for downsizing more principal characters, our art team work hand-in-glove with Lego, and we feel very privileged to be able to see all the Lego designs, paintings and play kits long before they hit the shelves. So we have an understanding and a direction as to where Lego want to take their playsets to. For instance you may have noticed over a period of time that the facial features of the videogame characters has increased, and that’s in-step with their toy line, which is useful for us as it allows for a lot more facial animations and added direction to the cutscenes. So to answer the question more directly there are style guides we adhere to, we create versions of each character based upon that style guide, and then submit it to Lucasarts and Lego for approval.

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Ever had a design sent back unapproved?

Yeah we have. There are generally quite a few back-and-forths, but they tend to be over the most minor kinds of things. “The eyes need to be slightly further apart” or “the ears need to be lower down” or something like that. Because again authenticity is very, very important to us, so any feed back we get from Lego or Lucasfilm is taken very, very seriously.

In that sense then the relationship you share with Lucasarts is unique: there are plenty of Star Wars games out there, but only Traveller’s Tales gets to play with the galaxy with such freedom.

Yeah, completely.

So then; this is the first Star Wars game on the 3DS, and the first Lego: Star Wars game made in 3D. How has developing for Nintendo’s new console been?

It’s been fantastic working with Nintendo to produce a launch title for their console, and they’ve been great to work with, providing us with lots of help and tips on how to get the most out of the 3DS. But it’s very much been a learning experience for both parties; while they’re aware of the technical specifications of the console, its only when it comes to actually writing a game for it that you come to understand how these components work. With Clone Wars Nintendo have seen a game idea flourish on their platform.

Has working in 3D brought any unique challenges to the development table?

It has! When it comes to working in 3D the most significant challenge has been getting the 3D camera feeling right. As you can imagine, we want the game to be played by young children in 3D for prolonged periods of time, and we’ve spent a lot of time making sure the effect is sufficiently powerful enough to be immersive, but at the same time be easy on the eye. A lot of it comes down to ocular depth; that’s depth into the camera, away from the player, making things appear to pop out. Lots of 3DS games have quite large ocular depth which can be quite uncomfortable. We reduced the amount of ocular depth and that made things really, really good, but we still found that after a while young eyes got quite tired. This fatigue is mainly caused when a character moves from the foreground to the background, meaning the player’s eyes are repeatedly having to adjust focus and then refocus. So what our solution was to move away from a static ocular depth and instead set the ocular depth based on the character’s position, which makes the 3D very soft and easy on the eyes and enjoyable for long periods of play. It’s also about using the 3D to help players, not simply an afterthought tacked onto a 2D game. So we use it call out objectives, hints and things the player has found, jumping out of the screen. But overall the 3DS is an immensely powerful console, as you can see with the environmental lighting and bump mapping. It’s a sumptuous device.

Would you think about working in 3D for future home console versions?

We haven’t given it any consideration at the moment. What we feel is very important though is that the game be accessible to the widest audience possible. We wouldn’t want to start implementing systems that would mean a gamer would have to require glasses or something similar.

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The Lego videogame adaptations have become well known for their ability to get even videogame-phobics sitting around the console and having a go, young and old alike. How have you achieved this, and what tips would you give budding games designers aiming for a similar goal?

The popularity of the licenses speak for themselves, but having an understanding of how children play games, “full stop”, is the most important thing. By this I mean children haven’t learned how videogames work; there are a lot things that games do badly by convention, and as we’ve grown with them we’ve come to accept them. For example, that interfaces are always clunky or that progression always scrolls from left to right in a level. A lot of these constructs that we now take as standard might not necessarily be right, and children are the first to pick up on this, as they have no frame of reference. Understanding that is very important.

We’ve been making children’s games here for a long time, so we know that putting a level in kids hands means we’ll see them play with it in a totally unexpected way, and so we’ve learnt to adapt to that and embrace it. We keep signposting and objectives simple, we keep the screen bright and colourful, and most of all engaging. But they always do something completely different than we thought they would! So to make a truly great family title you need to understand what a child sees appealing in it, and once that’s understood try to take that and adapt it in a way that adults can enjoy too. I think at the end of the day though, if a child is having fun with the game and the experience is collaborative, it’s almost not as important that the parent finds it challenging and engaging too; it’s the act of playing together that makes it appealing.

Other than Lego: Star Wars – The Clone Wars, what’s your favourite Lego game that you’ve worked on and why?

Errr…I can’t say Lego Star Wars 3? Hmmm…it’s a very tough question. I really enjoyed Harry Potter. It’s between that and the Complete Star Wars Saga, as with that you’re getting two games for the price of one. But Harry Potter is fantastic because it does what we try to do here very well I think; it’s a Lego game, but what is the distillation of being a wizard in Lego form? And that’s the endless variety of Lego that you can play around with and create. You feel that sense of wonder, going from place to place. You don’t know what’s to happen when you interact with that Lego, whereas in Star Wars or Indiana Jones or Batman you know that you can smash it up and it’ll break. In Harry Potter you never knew what the outcome would be; it could be a chess set that starts playing by itself for instance. It was that sense of wonder that gave Harry Potter its own identity.

Are you going back to the Harry Potter franchise in Lego for the last few film instalments?

(Nick is silent but gives a look that suggests he wants to tell us something very exciting indeed. Calling the first Harry Potter game “Years 1-4” might give a clue as to what he’s holding back. Deathly Hallows anyone?)

If licensing restrictions didn’t come into play, what brand, series, book, film, comic or whatever else you can think of would you like turned into a Lego game?

At the moment it’s just hard to see anything past Star Wars! Once Lego Star Wars 3 is out there, which is very soon, I think we’ll all sit down and have a break. And I think then we’ll sit together and think it over.

No dream projects of your own then?

I’ve always wanted to do a pirates games, so Lego: Pirates of the Caribbean will be great.

And of course Lego has a great heritage in making pirate cove playsets and jolly roger ships.

Exactly. So we’ve always wanted to do a pirates game and that’s very exciting. But anything else beyond the horizon I think we need to take a deep long breath before diving in again!.

That about wraps us up then Nick. Thanks very much for your time!

No, you’re welcome, and I hope you enjoy playing Clone Wars as much as we’ve enjoyed making it.

Lego Star Wars: The Clone Wars will be available on PS3, Xbox 360, PC and Nintendo 3DS consoles from March 25th. We’ll have a full review here on Tech Digest soon, so be sure to check back soon for our full thoughts.

Gerald Lynch

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