From Bricks To Polygons – Part II

Early in March 2005 we received an invitation to meet with Giant Interactive Entertainment, the software house who is responsible for development of LEGO Star Wars The Video Game. It was an invitation accepted with pleasure and great excitement.

Deep in the English countryside, just outside the town of Slough (fans of The Office will be surprised to learn that the town isn’t all office blocks, busy road junctions and pub quizzes), is an unknown hive of graphics and rendering that is Giant. Oak trees surrounded the office, and a gravel drive cut through a well-presented lawn – not what you would expect for a state-of-the-art software house.

Inside was not what I was prepared for either; rather than racks and racks of Giant's offices - not what I expecteddata-crunching servers and enough flatscreen monitors to reduce the bridge of the Nebucanezzer to the equivalent of a Nintendo Gameboy, it was a playroom I walked in on. A quick visual scan of the room told me more about the people who worked for Giant than anything I could have asked for because LEGO was everywhere – from the mantle over the fireplace, along the tops of computer screens, decorating the mug rack in the kitchen and even a box shipped direct from Billund, Denmark – the contents of which made me bite my fist in glee – but no amount of charm was going to get them to give up their latest LEGO sets.

Giant are doing something in their game that is going to excite the children who it is aimed at, and make adult fans sit up and take notice. It helps that Giant has pedigree – all the staff have paid their dues either in the gaming or toy industry. That gives them an insight into the fans who are going to drool over this game, and the gamers who are going to spend hours in front of their TVs and monitors completing the levels and exploring every nook and cranny to unlock the myriad of special features and bonuses that are hidden in the game.

Take the managing director, Tom, who was head of Electronic Arts in Europe and worked to bring Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone to life. In demonstrating that there was a huge audience for intelligent games directed at Lefe-size R2-D2 gifted to Giant from LEGOyoung players he caught the eye of LEGO, where he stayed until 2003 when he left in order to form Giant. Jonathan Smith, the development director at Giant, also has a lengthy background in video gaming, with years spent at Codemasters and in computer and console journalism with Future Publishing. Jonathan joined Tom at Giant in 2004 as the development director and is tasked with maintaining the vision of the game. Kristen Robinson, marketing manager, spent four and a half years working for LEGO on both sides of the Atlantic, and joined Giant in 2004 to promote the game in order to help achieve the success it deserves. The final member of the team is Loz Doyle, who started in the games industry in 1994, also at Electronic Arts, as a games tester and then moved into game design before joining LEGO Interactive in 2000 as an associate producer. Now he is the producer at Giant and in charge of keeping the numerous creative processes on track and on time.

Before Giant came up with the concept of putting their mini-figs into a Star Wars video game environment they had already been tinkering with ideas to create a game that was exciting, accessible and had a depth of playability that was character driven instead of relying on generic game features. In 2003 they hit upon creating a Star Wars universe populated by mini-figs and took the idea to Lucasfilm who immediately saw what they were aiming for. Both parties knew that the Star Wars environment would prevent the game going off-track but still leave a massive amount of material to build a cutting-edge title around.

The next step of the process was to bring a programming team onto the project. Giant found Traveller’s Tales, a small and independent British programming company who already had success with Crash Bandicoot, The Weakest Link, Haven and Sonic the Hedgehog. As an added bonus Traveller’s Tales also had gained knowledge in working with film studios when they developed the Disney/Pixar Bug’s Life, Toy Story and Finding Nemo titles (and have gone on to capitalise on this experience with the upcoming Narnia games).

Clonetrooper embryos in cloning vatesThe crew in charge of the paint, palette and code going into LEGO Star Wars The Video Game are James Cunliffe (lead artist), Jeremy Pardon (lead animator) and John Hodskinson (lead programmer). Coincidentally a number of the programmers and artists at Traveller’s Tales are equally comfortable with Star Wars and LEGO, giving them a creative edge that other contenders couldn’t match. Giant were very lucky in finding a group of programmers who understood LEGO and Star Wars in such depth – it takes a certain kind of genius to come up with the idea of having a single stud piece as a clonetrooper embryo.

The tools and engines being used were written and developed by Traveller’s Tales which meant that the programmers were at ease with the demands placed upon them, and with the forward planning Giant maintained deadlines have not been an issue, which has allowed both Giant and Traveller’s Tales to explore new ideas and pursue alternate avenues of gameplay.

Two-player gunships fight side-by-sideUnlike some license holders experience, Giant didn’t find that working with Lucasfilm was like having teeth pulled. The words “supportive”, “fantastic” and “a huge pleasure to work with” immediately sprang from Jonathan’s mouth. Lucasfilm provided a number of solutions to some niggling problems that Giant couldn’t overcome – including the colour of the player two gunship in one of the later Attack of the Clones levels when they directed Giant to the beige used on the Clone Wars gunship. Lucasfilm even allowed Giant to commission new sound effects and music from Skywalker Sound, including a funky disco track that can only be found in a secret room in one of the levels.

Giant also had a great deal of help from LEGO in Billund, Denmark who co-operated to an untold extent. There was a two-way flow of inspiration resulting from Giant consulting with LEGO to come up with new models of Star Wars vehicles and characters, while the designers at LEGO enjoyed seeing their creations in a new medium. LEGO also assisted in an amount of problem solving when Giant came up against brick walls (no pun intended). Giant was able to visit the LEGO facilities in Denmark in order to review the new Revenge of the Sith sets, and had their own original ships built by LEGO in order to see them in real life. And in order to keep abreast with the development of Revenge of the Sith, key staff members visited ILM in San Rafel to view footage of the film.

Sensing my excitement my host and tour guide, Jonathan sat me down in front of a TV. At a flick of a remote control I was assaulted by an explosion of the Star Wars fanfare and then the Playstation 2 loaded up the game. Jon and Loz took me to Dexter’s Diner, which is the hub of all the activity in the game – sort of like a waiting room in an airport terminal. from Dexter’s you can select which episode you want to play and then from there adavce through the levels. I was given a quick tour of the first few levels of Episode 1 and 2, but I Epsiode 3 space battlesteered clear of Episode 3 spoilers, much to the amusement of the staff at Giant. Eventually I succumbed to my own inquisitiveness and asked to see the first level of the Revenge of the Sith portion of the game, because the action has already been glimpsed at in the recently released trailer. As a reward for admitting that my curiousity got the better of me Giant and Lucasfilm have granted us with an exclusive first – a screenshot of the opening level of the first Episode 3 level. Spoiler Warning: click on the thumbnail at your own risk. However in order to write a full review of the game I am willing to put personal preferences to one side in the best interest of our readers! But sadly this isn’t the place for a review – more on that soon.

My first sighting of the gameMy visit culminated with Jonathan and Loz having a furious bout of head-to-head two player action in freeplay mode, which lets you play any of the characters you have unlocked. While they demonstrated the various special skills and moves that each of the characters they have developed have I got to enjoy watching a young Anakin Skywalker give Jar-Jar Binks the thrashing he deserved, but no where near as entertaining as seeing Yoda and Count Dooku duke it out in a Jet Li-like contest of lightsaber dueling. That little green guy has got some moves!

Over the next week we will be bringing you more LEGO Star Wars The Video Game news, with a full review of the game, as well as a competition to win copies of the game (PC, Xbox, PS2 and GBA) so make sure to come back and check us out soon.

[ PART 1 ] [ PART 2 ] [ PART 3 ]

Entertainment Earth

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