Disney Kills LucasArts, My Childhood

When LucasArts was first starting out in the 1980s, the future of video games included holograms, virtual reality headsets and worldwide networking

Holographic home computer game of the future from the 1981 book Tomorrow’s Home by Neil Ardley
Holographic home computer game of the future from the 1981 book Tomorrow’s Home by Neil Ardley Tomorrow’s Home by Neil Ardley

Yesterday the most important company of my childhood killed the second most important company of my childhood.

This past October, Disney purchased LucasFilm which included their venerable video game division LucasArts. But recently Disney decided that LucasArts no longer made financial sense for them to keep alive and just yesterday laid off all of the staff at LucasArts. Disney apparently reasoned that when it comes to video and computer games it makes more sense to simply license their stable of franchises (including Star Wars) to other game developers rather than produce games with them in-house.

Though gaming no longer takes up much of my time, it’s still a sad day for people like me who remember spending hours glued to the family computer playing the classic LucasArts games of yesteryear.

From Day of the Tentacle (1993) to Star Wars: Dark Forces (1995) to Full Throttle (1995) to Sam & Max Hit the Road (1995 for Mac) I spent an incredible amount of time parked in front of the family computer playing LucasArts games. Sure, I played games from other developers (sidenote: Age of Empires II is getting a Steam re-release in HD next week!), but a new LucasArts game coming out was always something special in the mid-1990s.

When LucasArts was first starting out as a company in the 1980s, the future of video games included holograms, virtual reality headsets and worldwide networking. Children’s books, magazines and movies all had a different take on what the world of games and computing would look like in the decades to come.

The 1981 children’s book Tomorrow’s Home: World of Tomorrow by Neil Ardley told the story of a child from the future who plays games with his friends remotely through the home computer. It’s raining outside, but despite the fact that weather control is a practical reality, this kid from tomorrow doesn’t live in an area where they practice it. With the rain spoiling the kid’s outdoor fun (remember going outdoors?) he’s pretty jazzed about at least being able to play video games:

Your day in the future continues. It’s not a school day, so you can do whatever you like. However, it’s raining, so you can’t play outside. Although scientists can now control the weather, this is done only in certain places to produce artificial climates that aid farming. Your home is not one of these places.

Even though everyone is busy and you’re stuck at home on your own, you’re still going to have an exciting and interesting day. After breakfast, you rush on to the living room. It has chairs and other furniture in new designs as well as some antiques like a twentieth-century digital clock and a push-button telephone. However, the room is dominated by a large viewscreen linked to the home computer.

The ability to play video games with friends and strangers from all over the world became a mainstream reality within my lifetime (and that of LucasArts) but the games envisioned by Ardley are decidedly more three-dimensional than most electronic games today.

As the caption to the illustration above explains, ”A home computer game of the future has solid images of spaceships that move in midair. These are holographic images produced by laser beams. The game is played with other people who also sit at their home computers and see the same images. Each player controls a ship and tries to destroy the other ships.”

Ardley emphasizes the social nature of future gaming in the book:

You ask the computer to contact several friends, and they begin to appear on the screen. Soon you’re linked into a worldwide group of people, all of whom can talk to and see each other. After chatting for a while, you decide to play some games together. As you can’t agree on what to play, the computer makes up your minds for you. It gives you puzzles to do and devises quizzes, as well as all kinds of electronic games. The computer keeps the scores as you play against one another, and then it gives you games in which you all play the computer. You carry on until someone loses interest and tries to cheat for fun. The computer finds out and everyone laughs. Then it’s time to break up the party and have lunch.

After lunch you decide to spend some time on your own at a hobby or craft you particularly enjoy. Making things of all kinds is easy with the computer. You design them on the screen of the terminal in your playroom, and then the computer operates a machine that constructs the objects in materials such as plastics. This system is very good for making your own clothes. You can dress up in all kinds of fantastic garments that you design yourself. To avoid waste, the objects and clothes can be fed back into the machine and the materials recycled or used again.

We may not have holograms, but as Ardley predicted, gaming at home in the 21st century has become an exercise in networking through multiplayer platforms. (And, Ardley throws in an uncanny prediction about 3D printers.) Gamers can play against people they know as well as complete strangers using tools like the internet and the incredibly popular service Xbox Live.

But what about the most popular form of electronic gaming in the early 1980s? Arcades (remember those?) were a major force in the world of gaming in the early 1980s. But what about their future?

A 1982 issue of Electronic Games magazine looked at the future of gaming into the 21st century and saw what some today might regard as the limitations of arcade games as beneficial. Specifically, the magazine imagined that the arcade console’s dedication to one function (which is to say, playing a single game) would allow the arcade game to maintain supremacy over the more versatile (but less focused) home computer.

From Electronic Games:

Since arcade games have the distinction of being designed for the purpose of executing one, specific program, they should be able to maintain an edge over home computers. The pay-for-play devices also utilize special monitors, that incorporate groundbreaking scanning technology, while home games remain chained to the family TV set.

The arcade games of the next century may not only be activated by voice command, but conceivably even by thought- at least in a sense. Something akin to galvanic skin-monitoring devices attached to the gamer’s arm, perhaps in the form of a bracelet, could measure emotional response and even act as a triggering device.

In terms of futuristic audio, tomorrow’s coin-ops – that is, if there still are such prehistoric items as coins still in use – will have miniature synthesizers to produce more highly defined sounds. There might even be devices to release pertinent smells at appropriate moments – the smell of gunfire for example. Such a machine could even blast the gamer with sound via headphones. Think about that for a second. Can you imagine the ambiance of a silent arcade? Now that would take some getting used to.

Aside from some very cool spots like Ground Kontrol in Portland, Oregon the video arcade is essentially dead in the United States. And as Gen-Xers and Millenials get older, the nostalgia factor becomes less enticing for generations that had little first-hand experience with arcade games. But just as predicting the future is a tough racket, predicting the future of nostalgia can be even tougher.

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