It’s telling that Respawn is afforded the same stage on which, just some twenty-four hours previously, J.J. Abrams and Kathleen Kennedy revealed the title of the final film of the Skywalker Saga. By the same time tomorrow, the Jon Favreau series, The Mandalorian, will too have been revealed in the same arena. It’s a proclamation that video games are very much part of the fold, alongside film and TV, when it comes to Disney’s Star Wars. As a massive fan of both the franchise and the medium of video games, it’s tremendously exciting, but no less exciting than the game itself.
Of course, it’s hard not to be excited for Star Wars Jedi: Fallen Order, and to set your expectations accordingly. In the limited time I had to speak to Game Director, Stig Asmussen, and Director of Franchise Content & Strategy for the Lucasfilm Story Group, Steve Blank, I neglected to ask them if they felt the pressure, but I wouldn’t doubt it’s on their mind. Respawn is on a roll at the moment. The success of Apex Legends has propelled the studio into the limelight and warranted a resurgence in appreciation of their previous Titanfall titles, criminally overlooked by the broader gaming community at release. All eyes are on Respawn and they know it, Asmussen admitting in a blog post back in 2016 that this was “the chance of a lifetime.”
So far, the messaging seems on point. Confirmation at the ‘Galaxy Premiere’ on the Celebration Stage that the game would be solely single-player and narrative-driven, and free from any microtransactions, warranted a flurry of lightsaber waving and cheering, a loot-laden Star Wars fans version of applause. There was even a scream, which – if I’m honest – might’ve been a little much.
But it goes to show the strength of people’s infatuation, a love that is magnificently infectious. It’s hard not to be excited. Stood in one of the corridors that make up the sprawling, labyrinthian complex that is Star Wars Celebration 2019, waiting as politely and patiently as I can for the interview, the winner of cosplay competition gleefully celebrates with a security guard. It’s unclear if they know each other, or even if the security guard was already an enthusiast, but quite frankly it doesn’t matter. Like it or not, everyone within a ten block radius of the McCormick Place convention centre in Chicago has been converted into the most diehard Star Wars fans can be.
For those of us already deeply obsessed, the passion simply intensifies. We’ve got the final film on the way, a big budget TV show on the horizon, a theme park we could have only dreamed of opening ahead of schedule, and the narrative-focused video game we’ve wanted for so long. What more could we ask for? Details.
So I sit down with Stig Asmussen and Steve Blank hoping to get some.
Ewan: I’m a massive Star Wars fan, obviously, a massive Respawn fan, and action/adventure, third-person games are totally my jam. So you’ve got me sold. When did this journey begin for you guys? I know it’s been quite a long process. When is the beginning, in terms of development?
Stig: I think it started with EA approaching us at Respawn, and asking. I had a team, we were working on a game, and they said, “What do you guys think about Star Wars?”
Steve: What a question.
Stig: And unanimous, my team hands down, everybody was interested in working on a Star Wars, even though we were really interested in the other game that we were working on, we saw this as an opportunity. It’s like, “Hey, when are you ever going to get a chance to work on a Star Wars game?”
It was several months before we even met with Lucasfilm. I’m assuming that you guys knew that we were signed on, but it was probably four months or something, at least, where that we knew that we were going to be working on it, and we started coming up with what our own ideas. What we could bring to the table at least from a gameplay standpoint.
Ewan: Was it always a singleplayer story-driven game?
Stig: Yes, yes. There was never any question of that.
Stig: And, we came to the Lucasfilm offices and met with Steve and several other members of the core game team at Lucasfilm, and we basically had a conversation. I said, this is the type of game that we’d like to make, which is more describing the mechanics that we’re interested in, and less about — Like, there was a little bit about the story. We wanted to tell a hero’s journey, and we wanted to have — I think even back then, we were already talking about having a droid in the game.
Steve: Yeah, yeah, I think so.
Stig: It was a conversation, at that point.
Ewan: And combat’s obviously very central to it as well. I think “combat is key,” you said during the panel earlier today. You mentioned as well that it’s thoughtful combat? What exactly is thoughtful combat? Is it kind of methodical, in that sense?
Stig: It means you really have to understand not only the enemy that you’re going up against, but the group of enemies, and they each have their own strengths, and they each have their own weaknesses. You have to figure out what tools that you have in your skill set to best take them down.
A lot of it’s influenced by, you know — If you look at a game like Zelda Wind Waker, as you get different abilities, each enemy is crafted in a certain way, or even Metroid, or something like that, the enemies are crafted in a certain way that once you upgrade, you can think about how you’re going to approach them differently, and maybe they aren’t as big a challenge as they were at one point.
Then it becomes, well how do we make that work in Star Wars, because we can’t go out and make all these mechanic-oriented AI to fight against. They have to be authentic and real, in Star Wars.
Ewan: Do we see boss battles at all? Is that something that emerges?
Stig: Yes, certainly. There’ll be bosses in the game.
Ewan: You mentioned as well today that it’s quite accessible, and that the mechanics are easy to pick up, and it may be a bit more challenging to master. Is that an effort to dissuade the idea that it was going to be Souls-like? That there was going to be this extreme difficulty to it?
Stig: Look, I love the Souls games. You’re not going to be able to make a melee action game without having a little bit of influence from the other games. DMC is really cool. God of War’s awesome, but… What was your question again? I want to make sure I’m not —
Ewan: Sounds like it’s obviously not… You’re steering clear of —
Stig: We don’t want to have something that’s super punishing. There’s a lot of people that are going to want to play this game, and as much as I like those games, we’re going to have to do a little bit more, kind of, I don’t want to say hand-holding, but we have to — Players have to be able to just pick it up, and it’s like, “Oh yeah. This feels right. I felt like this at other experiences before.”
But, I still think there’s a layer of depth within the combat, and how you use the Force powers to take down enemies more efficiently. As you grow, those that are keen, will recognize that there’s different things that, maybe tells that enemies give, that allow you to open them up, and take them down a little bit faster.
Ewan: I’m glad you mentioned the Force, actually, because I was going to ask about that as well. Are Force powers always available to you in combat, at any given time?
Stig: I don’t want to answer that question right now. We’re going to be talking about the game in greater detail, and answering those exact types of questions.
Ewan: Is that the same for parkour, how that factors in as well?
Stig: Again… You’re mentioning parkour because of the wall-running?
Ewan: In the trailer, yeah.
Stig: Yeah. The more ability stuff, I think we want to save for a later date.
Ewan: Sure. Yeah. You’ve got to keep some surprises.
Ewan: I got the impression that there’s several progression systems embedded within the game, with regard to the lightsaber, the Force, and the droid as well. Would you say that there’s some RPG elements at play?
Stig: I wouldn’t say RPG, but I would say that the world is presented to you in a certain way. Enemies are presented to you in a certain way that you can unlock and dominate it, based on your abilities.
Ewan: With regard to the narrative. The story in itself, throughout the course of the game, is that self-contained?
Ewan: And how is it structured as well? Is it going to be mission after mission, or is there going to be scope to go into side missions? Explore the other characters you meet and their story?
Stig: That’s for another conversation.
Ewan: Do you know if there’s a timeframe with which the story spans, [probing] maybe a playtime as well?
Stig: We know we’re not ready to talk about those details quite yet, [chuckles] on either front. I mean, in terms of timeframe, it’s not going to be a short game
Stig: It’s safe to say it’s not going to be a short game.
Stig: I’ve read some stuff. Comments like, “Oh, it’s going to be a five-hour game,” after Vince [Zampella] announced that we’re going to be single-player only, and no microtransactions, and that kind of stuff. It’s going to be a quality experience.
Ewan: I get the impression as well that you’ve had a quite a free, creative license with it, in terms of adding new locations and new characters, and stuff like that. What more can you tell us about the characters that have been added, and new locations as well, which were —
Stig: I wouldn’t say it’s a free license at all.
[laughs all round]
Stig: I think what we often do, is we present, “Hey, from a gameplay standpoint, this is a problem that we have.” We’ve got this thing that’s fun, or we have this thing that’s not fun, and I think it’s always Star Wars first, right?
Steve: Yeah, I think that’s always our mentality, and we encourage — You know, there’s a lane of things that are known, and there’s a lane of things that are unknown and new, when you’re crafting a new story or creating a new game, or anything like that. And, both of those lanes come with unique challenges, but also great opportunity.
One, you have connectivity. One, you have new things that you can make your mark, and add to the galaxy with, but crafting, like going to places, or seeing people that are known, has a whole slew of challenges with it, in terms of matching exactly what already exists. And, creating something whole-cloth, has other challenges and unique things too, there. But, there’s both opportunities in both of those lanes, and things in both of those lanes will be present in Fallen Order, but we’re not ready to go deeper into the specifics yet.
Stig: Yeah, but I think sometimes on a higher level, sometimes we’ll say, “Hey, we need this thing,” and Steve and the group will be like, “Oh, we have something that totally fits that need.”
Steve: Yeah, yeah.
Stig: “Let’s just go with this.” And then there’ll be other times, they’ll be like “Well, we think this thing will work,” and then we’ll try the thing, and it actually doesn’t. And then at that point, it’s like, can we make something that fits within the Star Wars range? Is it worth it? How long is it going to take to really develop that thing?
Steve: Right, right, right.
Ewan: Sounds like there’s a conscious effort made to draw upon the existing universe as much as possible?
Stig: Yeah, I think there was a great desire when we first started this game, for my team, it’s like, “Hey, we can add all this new Star Wars stuff.” And, we started to realize a couple things. There’s the reality of production, and that every time you make something new, there’s a huge amount of work, effort, that has to go into building that thing up to something that can actually be part of Star Wars.
And the other part of it too, is that it’s just — It comes to a point where it’s like, well it doesn’t even feel like Star Wars anymore, because you’re not using any Star Wars elements.
Stig: So we got to make sure of that, and very early on, because we’re like, “Look guys, that would be great, but you’re not even making a Star Wars game anymore.”
So, it’s been a great learning experience. I was asked earlier today, “What’s your Star Wars knowledge coming in?” I was like, “The movies.” I really liked them, I really like the movies, and now my brain is just Star Wars all the time.
Steve: Welcome to our world.
Stig: All the Star Wars knowledge, but it’s still, it’s just a fraction of what the people in Lucasfilm have. So, it’s been a great collaboration.
Steve: It really has been.
Stig: We’ve been able to — We’ve had a lot of challenges, but we’ve been able to meet pretty much every one of them.
Steve: Yeah, the challenges is like anything you create, anything you are making in any situation, there’s always going to be challenges, but we’ve overcome I would say all of them, and grown from each one of them, and they’ve just added, ultimately, to incredible stuff in the game. It just takes time to get there.
Ewan: I suppose that means as well that there will be a lot of stuff in the game that’s familiar to Star Wars fans?
Steve: There will definitely be known stiff in there, for sure.
Stig: There’s got to be enough.
Steve: Yeah, yeah.
Ewan: A question for you, Stig. I know you’re quite close with Amy Hennig. Was she influential to the game at all?
Stig: I was talking to her while her project was going on. We were having conversations. I was having direct conversations directly with her, and through Lucasfilm, to make sure that we weren’t stepping on each other’s toes. So, I don’t know how much we were influencing each other. Steve, he’d probably know better. It’s like, “Hey guys, you can’t do these things, because something else is doing that.”
Stig: I don’t know where there was any direct crossover there.
Steve: Right, right. I don’t think so much with this specific project.
Stig: There was a name of a character I know for sure that we wanted —
Steve: Oh man…
Stig: And we both arrived on.
Steve: …I totally forgot about that. Yeah, yeah. So there are things like that.
Stig: Which is kind of weird. It’s like how do was both come up with the same name?
Steve: I know, yeah, yeah. I totally forgot about that.
Ewan: I’ve got just one more question for you guys, and that is when can we expect to see more…
Ewan: …specifically gameplay? E3?
EWAN FLEW TO CHICAGO AS A GUEST OF EA TO ATTEND STAR WARS CELEBRATION 2019 AND THE PREMIERE OF THE GAME.