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A Reflection on Rodriguez 07 May, 2010 / 12 comments

Little is known about Darrel Rodriguez, the man who resigned today as LucasArts president. Rumours that he is Mexican and fights crime on the weekends are probably not true. However, we do know what he did as president, and some questions can be asked from the facts: was he a good president, how does he compare to other LucasArts's presidents, and what will happen next? Will he form a coalition with the Lib Dems?

The following article was written with those questions in mind.


INTERESTING TIMES: A BRIEF REFLECTION ON D. RODRIGUEZ

February 2008: Jim Ward left LucasArts to pursue "family time" and a political career. Two months later, Darrell Rodriguez was sworn into the LucasArts presidency. The news had a muted response from most LucasArts fans: surely it was a case of same shit, different suit?

This assumption was based on a long period of ill feeling towards LucasArts during the reign of Jin Ward, whose once controversially compared Day of the Tentacle and Monkey Island to Bewitched and The Dukes of Hazard, before suggesting that it would be regressive to return to those titles until "2015." The moment was captured in a G4 video interview, in which Ward, looking like a haunted Lego man, burped a Press Release in the face of a grinning journalist, and talked merrily of an Indiana Jones game in 2007.

Ward's time led to a reshaping of the company, and a focusing on fewer games: namely, the overly hyped Force Unleashed, and the aforementioned, much delayed, Indiana Jones and the Staff of Kings.

Both those games were only released when Rodriguez was president in 2009, and like Rodriguez's inception as president, were received without great excitement. The games were not bad, but they were bland, and the fire-ringed eyes of Mixnmojo fans were more focused on LucasArts' offspring Telltale Games, Autumn Moon, and Double Fine.
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"D-Rod": a handsome man inside a blue vortex.



June 1st 2009 was a big surprise: LucasArts announced a Secret of Monkey Island Special Edition, and the start of a partnership with Telltale Games that would bring us a fifth instalment to the franchise. People span around and looked at Rodriguez with surprise, many noticing him for the first time. It had been previously unthinkable that LucasArts would return to their classic adventure titles, and yet, here it was, a recognition of the rich heritage of games that had been ignored by Ward. Rather than bleat about business buzz-words like "next gen" and "multimedia events," Rodriguez talked in a language more familiar to gamers. "I find it inspirational," he said, referring to the first Monkey Island game. "Our history of innovation and storytelling is something I want to bring to the forefront of LucasArts" (he said, in his first interview as president).

What was the reason for this change in approach? Perhaps it was due to the difference in backgrounds between Ward and Rodriguez: Ward came to LucasArts through being head of the marketing division at Lucasfilm; Rodriguez was brought over from Electronic Arts, and was described by the LucasArts Press Release as "an avid gamer." "I've played the Lego games myself and always have," he enthused in an an interview with Gamasutra.

The new LucasArts president was a gamer as well as merely a businessman. Ward's time as president was not necessarily, objectively, a bad time for the company – in fact, one journalist claimed that "Ward's shoes will be a hard one to fill as he spearheaded the dramatic comeback of LucasArts from a game company that was seen as a joke among the industry to a thriving and healthy organization producing solid titles." However, whilst Ward's tactics may have saved money, it cannot be said that his actions garnered enthusiasm and support from many fans.

According to Rob Smith's Rogue Leaders: The Story of LucasArts, Ward's LucasArts shrank from 450 to 190 employees (p.176), whilst according to a recent Games Industry.biz interview with Rodriguez, LucasArts is "growing, looking for top talent, and working on some new and original IP," and that during fiendish times for the world economy. Rodriguez furthermore revealed in that interview that LucasArts has "a fan letter wall" from the Monkey Island special editions. It is a happy contrast to the legions of hate art that were created in 2004, when LucasArts cancelled Sam & Max: Freelance Police.

As with Ward, there is a gap between what Rodriguez called the "rabid fans" of the company (that's us), and the less attached, more general gaming journalists. Kotaku called Rod's tenure "a mixed bag, the company continuing to find success with Star Wars and Indiana Jones titles (LEGO, Force Unleashed) while failing to gain traction with internally-developed intellectual property (Fracture)."
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Dr Muzyka, Bioware (left) and Mr Rodriguez (right), EA GamesCom 2009



The point is true: Fracture failed to make a big impact, though it was released only a few months after Rodriguez became president; nevertheless, it was not followed by anything as ambitious, and LucasArts is clearly not the powerhouse developer it once was. Other LucasArts fans will, however, remember Rodriguez's time more appreciatively than Kotaku, because business success is only one measure of a president, another being attitude and perspective. Another quotation, again from the Games Industry.biz interview, encapsulates Rodriguez's view of LucasArts, explains the rebirth of the Monkey Island series, and the creation of imaginative titles like Lucidity: "One of the fundamentals of LucasArts is story and character… I think that story and character will ultimately win out. That's why we're completely focused on it, it's why LucasArts has always been focused on it."

The question now is who will replace Rodriguez, and whether that new man or woman will share the same vision of the company. If they don't, we could see a LucasArts once again turning away from its imaginative story based roots into a land of "particle physics" and "multimedia."

As Kotaku hinted, the LucasArts of the Rodriguez years was not a utopia. Lucidity and The Secret of Monkey Island Special Edition had flaws, though most would agree that they were at least heading in the right direction.

Jim Ward kept the walkers moving, but Darrel Rodriguez took the map, frowned, turned it upside down and said, "you've been going the wrong way. We ought to be heading further east." Now Rodriguez, along with other members of the executive team, have left the group: where will the walkers go next?

Perhaps a look at the past will give us the best indication of what we might see in the future.

LucasArts' Presidents Through the Ages

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1990-1992: The impressively named "R. Douglas Norby" was the President and Chief Operating Officer of Lucasfilm, Ltd and became the first president of LucasArts when the Games Division of Lucasfilm rebranded as the LucasArts Entertainment Company. A Harvard business school graduate, Mr Norby came to Lucasfilm from the terrifyingly dull background of "a pharmaceutical company" and "a semi-conductor company." Now 74, he is (apparently) involved with "a provider of intellectual property for advanced semiconductor packaging." His C.V. is great for curing insomnia. More interestingly, he left "amid reports that employees were discontent with management" (at least, according to the San Jose Mercury News).


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1993-1995: Randy Komisar joined the team in its "most successful year so far". He later wrote about the experience in his business book, The Monk and the Riddle: The Education of a Silicon Valley Entrepreneur. Like Norby and Ward, Komisar came from a business background, but he also recognised the importance of storytelling in LucasArts. He recalls preparing for the interview to become president:

"I sat down with a blank piece of paper and started working out my ideas. I concocted a diagram about the evolution of interactive storytelling – concentric circles showing how interactive storytelling was or could be different from other forms of storytelling and other media. It was a crude chart, but it seemed to make sense. It excited me" (p.138).

Komisar then motorcycled to Skywalker Ranch and met "the myth," George Lucas. "When I finally met George, I couldn't stop talking. I whipped out my charts. I ran on about interactive storytelling and my vision for the medium. George, who had of course already given the topic a lot of thought, engaged me in a lively give-and-take about the future of games and interactive content. Whether it was my vision and enthusiasm or simply LucasArts' desperation, I don't know, but I was eventually offered the helm" (p. 139).


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1995-2000: Jack Sorensen. Now a mysterious force known only as "Chau" comments enthusiastically on the employment of LucasArts's presidents, but back in the day it was Mr Lucas himself: "'It's a tremendous time for LucasArts, and I'm confident in Jack's ability to lead the company to even greater success,' said George Lucas." Sorensen then left the company a week after Tim Schafer (Grim Fandango, Full Throttle) and Aric Wilmunder (SCUMM programmer) also left, leading Gamespot to surmise that Sorensen was leading to help Schafer create Double Fine. In reality, Sorensen moved to THQ to lend his talents to such classics as 50 Cent: Blood on the Sand and Red Faction: Guerilla. "I credit him with building LucasArts into one of the world's leading developers," sobbed George Lucas's statement, carefully prepared for him by an overworked and underpaid secretary.


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2000-2003: Englishman Simon Jeffery joined at the same time as Mary Bihr became vice-president. Bihr has been with the company since 1988, making her the LucasArts' equivalent of Paul Robinson from Neighbours, and also putting her in a potential position for the next president (though that is purely conjecture).

Jeffery was the first president to meet Mixnmojo staff members at e3, and was the star of an animutation which he called (in an alarmingly strained voice) "very… very… funny." He made a claim that LucasArts would produce half original titles and half Star Wars games, but the original titles failed to materialise in the quantity that Jeffery aimed for, with Full Throttle 2: Hell on Wheels being cancelled due to quality issues (marketing speak for "it was shit").

Jeffery was idolised by some after he left, the idea being that Sam & Max: Freelance Police would not have been cancelled if he had remained president. This is possible. On the other hand, it is quite like saying that Stalin would not have risen to power had Lenin not had a series of strokes. Yes: that is true. But Lenin also created the circumstances from which Stalin could arise. Which leads us on to...


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2004-2008: Jim Ward. The man has already been discussed enough in this article.


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2008-2010: Darrell Rodriguez. His Facebook page contains the following quotation from San Tzu: "victorious warriors win first and then go to war, while defeated warriors go to war first and then seek to win," and his Twitter feed contains such riddles as "saturday ride interupted by disintegrated zipp :(" Clearly, he is a complex enigma of a man.

A clearer picture is revealed in an interview with his alma mater, the University of California in Berkley. He wears "a polo shirt instead of a suit" and appears "trim and relaxed," despite holding a difficult and demanding job. The short interview hints at a conflict between creativity, "his natural inclination," and the need for good business and management skills – a pairing that is integral to the position of LucasArts president.

His career partly reflects this; his first degree was in the creative world of landscape architecture, and his second was an MBA in business, earned later on, when he was 28. It is a nice thought that Rodriguez might have resigned from his business position in order to pursue his love of gardening.

It is unclear where LucasArts will go from here. To quote Douglas Adams: "We live in interesting times. Actually, dull times – but dull for interesting reasons."

12 Comments

  • Avatar
    Gabez on 15 May, 2010, 09:50…
    I do believe you're right, Char! I caculalated Jeffery's time as 3 years when it's closer to 4 (2000 counts as a year!). Also, including the months really does make a difference in seeing the trends.

    Maybe LucasArts should just concentrate on small games like Lucidity and the occasional Special Edition? Quite often it seems that either you have to make something commercially succesful and crap or good and with a small fanbase. Combining success with quality is possible, but much harder.
  • Avatar
    Char Ell on 11 May, 2010, 14:28…

    Gabez

    Thanks for the comments.

    Char Ell

    I noticed that the tenure of the past three presidents has trended down.

    That's not numerically true, is it? The last three have gone 3, 4, 2, so it's not quite the case that they've gone shorter and shorter.


    By my calculations I have the past three presidents as
    Simon Jeffery (2000 Jan-2003 Oct) - 46 months
    Jim Ward (2004 May-2008 Feb) - 42 months
    Darrell Rodriguez (2008 Apr-2010 May) - 25 months
    While I know I have the timelines correct my math isn't the greatest so I'm sure someone here will let me know if I calculated the months incorrectly.

    My comment about LucasArts continuing on as is was motivated by my seeming recollection of both Jim Ward and Darrell Rodriguez making comments to the effect that LucasArts wasn't doing well financially when they took over. No way to know exactly what that means but I wonder if LucasArts wouldn't be better off to just stick to publishing their own games and drop the whole third party publishing business. And by that I mean not publishing games where LucasArts doesn't own or control the IP. Game development costs have soared over the past 10 years and I don't think LucasArts has much to show for their third party publishing efforts over the past 5 years. Thrillville and Mercenaries is about it.
  • Avatar
    elTee on 09 May, 2010, 01:15…
    Ahaha, 'full time latino Batman' is a fantastic phrase.

    And the image of Ward got me the first time I saw it too. I tried the mirror trick but it didn't work :(

    I will definitely check the mirror for apparitions again in 2015, though.
  • Avatar
    Gabez on 08 May, 2010, 21:42…
    That interview is a great find, Twilo. Thanks very much for posting it here -- it was so interesting that I updated the article to include information found in it.

    And yes, Jim Ward looming behind D-Rod is rather scary. If you say "insanely awesome games" into a mirror 9 times then Ward will appear behind you.
  • Avatar
    Twilo on 08 May, 2010, 20:29…
    Hee, the ghostly figure of Jim Ward in the feature graphic is scaring the crap out of me.

    Some interesting further reading:
    UC Berkeley Alumnus feature on D-Rod (the picture really makes him look like some sort of Bruce Wayne character, so that quip about him being a weekend crimefighter might be close to the mark, and fits with his enthusiasm for triathlons and Ironman contests. I predict a move back to Disney/Marvel to produce the superhero movie of his life)
    D-Rod's LinkedIn profile (not updated to reflect his current status as a fulltime Latino Batman):
  • Avatar
    Gabez on 08 May, 2010, 18:44…
    Thanks for the comments.

    Char Ell

    I noticed that the tenure of the past three presidents has trended down.

    That's not numerically true, is it? The last three have gone 3, 4, 2, so it's not quite the case that they've gone shorter and shorter. Overall the LucasArt's presidents have gone 2, 2, 5, 3, 4, 2... though it should be said that R. Douglas Norby joined as president of Lucasfilm in 1985, which included the game-making side of it, but since LucasArts did not exist as a name until 1990 it made more sense to start his countdown from there. But in another sense he had 7 years as president.

    Char Ell

    I really wonder how much business sense it makes for LucasArts to continue on as is. What developer really wants to sign a deal to have LucasArts publish their game?

    Interesting questions. I think it makes sense for LucasArts to exist so loing as they pursue the potential in interactive storytelling (which isn't confined to the adventure genre), since this was why George Lucas established them in the first instance. We know that from Komisar's memoirs. Of course they have to have good business as well to keep ticking on, but the main point of them is to explore storytelling.

    @Twilo: thanks for the info. It's interesting that Chau's first name isn't given in that original Rod. press release, though! She really does sound like an alien planet.

    @sabre: I know what you mean -- when you said 2 years I was sure I'd made a mistake, but it really has been that long! I think the surprise is partly because nobody noticed Rod. very much at the start of his presidency.

    @elTee: I'm not sure how much power the Prez has either. Is it just to be the face of the company, or something more? Komisar's memoirs talks of the importance of a vision for the company, and big ideas... but perhaps it has changed now. Certainly I'd guess that there are shady boards of governers who have power as well as the president.
  • Avatar
    elTee on 08 May, 2010, 17:42…
    Bah! It was Randy Breen who in fact sucked. Sorry, Komisar.
  • Avatar
    elTee on 08 May, 2010, 15:11…

    Twilo

    Could you featurise this post? It's informative and a good read, I think a lot of people won't notice it mixed in the news like this (although not a lot of people will notice much of anything at all with the server the way it is lately)


    Sadly our feature section is still being readied for launch, but this article will be available there when it's ready. It's a shame it got lost on the main page like this though, I agree, as it's obviously very topical now.
  • Avatar
    Char Ell on 08 May, 2010, 15:05…
    Excellent article Gabez! I noticed that the tenure of the past three presidents has trended down. Seems like LucasArts has a difficult time of holding on to their leadership. I really wonder how much business sense it makes for LucasArts to continue on as is. What developer really wants to sign a deal to have LucasArts publish their game? Without a doubt it's been a real roller coaster ride at LucasArts for the past several years.
  • Avatar
    Twilo on 08 May, 2010, 14:34…
    The mysterious transpace entity known as "Chau" is Micheline Chau of Lucasfilm, although I am enthusiastic about the idea of an unseen extradimensional insectile alien secretly controlling LEC, like it was an episode of Doctor Who and the Force Unleashed games are actually a scam to summon up a portal to the Chau Homeworld and the 8-limbed lobster-like ultra-commandos of the 12th Chau Hegemony Invasion Force come slithering through.

    Could you featurise this post? It's informative and a good read, I think a lot of people won't notice it mixed in the news like this (although not a lot of people will notice much of anything at all with the server the way it is lately)
  • Avatar
    Sabre on 07 May, 2010, 22:17…
    Had Rodriguez really been there two years? Doesn't seem that long...
  • Avatar
    elTee on 07 May, 2010, 22:02…
    Randy sucks!

    Whoops. Nice piece! I'd forgotten about at least two of those guys. Ward is an easily hated man around here after those ill-advised remarks, but 450 employees was lunacy. He made the difficult choices that Rodriguez, and his successor, have/will ultimately benefit from. But really, I'm not even sure how much power the Prez even has over there any more, or what their long-term strategies are.

    This is why it's exciting :)

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