Behind the Design: Lego Star Wars: Castaways
August 22, 2022
The world of Lego Star Wars: Castaways contains many wonders — amazing animation, delightful storylines, and pitch-perfect physical comedy. Perhaps the most impressive among them, however, is this: If you had a big enough pile of bricks (and a big enough basement), you could build the whole game yourself.
Everything in the game — the massive array of ships, the mixed-and-matched characters, the expansive alien backgrounds, the planets floating in the distance, the docking bays, the outskirts of Jabba’s palace, and even new character Bossig the Hutt — is designed to be structurally sound and “Lego legit.”
“Every single brick you see, every Lego plate, connects the way it’s supposed to connect in the real world,” says Jacques Durand, the game’s creative director. Accuracy wasn’t enough for the Montreal-based game design studio Gameloft — this game had to be reproducible.
The challenge of physically recreating the entire game is maybe only a little more imposing than the one posed to the Gameloft team when they launched the development process: Design a console-worthy Apple Arcade game set in the Star Wars galaxy, evoke the boundless free-play spirit of Lego, merge sci-fi action with exploratory gameplay, and make the whole thing feel like playing with little pieces of plastic on your playroom floor.
“We wanted to make a game that let you mix and match as much as you want,” says Durand, who’s also a lifelong Star Wars fan and self-professed AFOL (adult fan of Lego). “If you want to customize your character with a Tusken Raider head on top of X-wing pilot suits with Boba Fett’s pants, you should be able to do that.”
‘An incredible freedom’
In keeping with the improvisational spirit of Lego play, the action-adventure game is powered by a lack of boundaries. It’s all about exploring and battling through (sometimes unreliable) simulations set in the Star Wars galaxy; one minute you’re fighting off waves of stormtroopers with friends to protect Hoth’s Echo Base, the next you’re wielding the Force to not-so-gently nudge opponents off ledges in PvP arenas. The game’s place in the Star Wars timeline is unestablished, and its fun island-planet setting is new to the Star Wars galaxy. “It’s more [Gilligan’s Island] than Lost,” laughs Durand.
The island is designed as a kind of repository of Star Wars history, an elegant construct that allows the game to sporadically cross paths with the existing movies and shows — if it wants to. When the game does intersect with familiar scenes, they’re either a simulation brought on by a droid guide named TU-T0R, or entertainment for the pleasure of Bossig the Hutt, a Roman emperor-type kingpin who demands diversion.
“It gave us an incredible freedom to put content into the game without having to follow the timeline,” says Durand, “and it let us add more content, like a rancor pit or a Tatooine hangar.”
To create this galactic playground, Gameloft — in partnership with Lego and Lucasfilm Games — built the game around a few core principles. The first: The game should prioritize self-expression. After all, what better way to start off an all-new story than by creating an all-new character? “From the start, the message is, ‘You’re not playing as Luke or Leia,” says Durand. “You’re in a different location and in a different timeline. The experience of creating a character was at the core.”
You're not playing as Luke or Leia. You're in a different location and in a different timeline.
Jacques Durand, creative director
This included fully customizable in-game minifigs, which Durand likens to the build-your-own tables at IRL Lego stores, where you can rifle through drawers full of heads, torsos, and legs to assemble the proper avatar. “We often said to the team, ‘I want to feel like I can physically reach into the game and feel the plastic under my finger,’” says Durand.
The second and most important idea was that everything in the game — from the scorching sands of Tatooine to the craterlike surface of the Death Star — needed to feel just as real as its physical counterpart. From their Lego-littered offices, Gameloft ensured every environment looked hand-built. And they only needed two huge pieces of cutting-edge software to do it.
‘How can we technically do that?’
There had never been a game designed quite like Lego Star Wars: Castaways — but there had been a few movies. The Gameloft team drew heavily from the rapid-fire richly textured imagery of The Lego Movie and its equally effervescent sequel. “Everything is Lego in those movies, down to the backgrounds,” says Lee Kaburis, game manager for Lego Star Wars: Castaways. “We investigated the matter a little further, decided it was feasible, and said, ‘OK, we’re going all in.’ We wanted that full immersion of being in a Lego world.”
The catch: “Bricks are complex objects!” says Kaburis. “It takes a lot of processing power. So we had to figure out a way to be as efficient as possible so we could run not only on a device as big as an Apple TV, but also something as small as the older generation iPhone.”
To build the game elements, the team relied heavily on an adapted version of Lego Digital Designer. It’s very conveniently the exact same software Lego uses to create its own physical bricks — from single Lego Dots to this year’s ginormous Titanic — and the team employed it to imagine Lego versions of X-wings, brand-new Hutts, and one particularly tricky Corellian freighter.
The game’s version of the Millennium Falcon is based on the physical Ultimate Collector’s Series set — one of the largest Lego sets in history, with just over 7,500 pieces. “We really wanted players to be able to go beneath the Falcon and see not only the pieces but the Lego studs — and even the Lego logo on top of the individual studs,” says Durand.
But the more complex the shape, the more polygons you have to draw — and the Falcon’s polygons numbered in the millions. “When we first put the Falcon in, it immediately crashed the game,” laughs Durand. But the team persevered, and Gameloft’s performance engineers came on board for a tune up, creating a process to optimize the complex model without losing its visual detail.
When we first put the Falcon in, it immediately crashed the game.
Jacques Durand, creative director
Engineers used lighting to help identify the model pieces that were crucial to the game’s visual look and feel. As soon as something received initial build approval, the team ran it back through the machine to cast lights on it. Any surface that rebalanced that light was kept; every piece of the model that didn’t was removed from its geometry. Durand estimates that decision saved 90 percent of the work — and polygons.
While this process was perfect for man-made environments and objects, the team ran into challenges rendering scenes like the docking bay or the rough cliffs surrounding Jabba’s palace. “It just would have been [impossible] with thousands — or millions — of bricks,” says Kaburis.
Instead, anything too unwieldy for Lego Digital Designer went to a second piece of software — the ‘Lego-Lyzer’ — that read the scene, ship, building, or background and speedily produced a game-ready Lego replica. Durand and the team found it the perfect solution for the game’s backgrounds and more distant objects: “At that distance, you’re maybe not seeing Lego studs, but you’ll definitely see the edges of each brick.”
Once levels were built, the Gameloft team embraced constant playtesting in their weekly meetings. “The first 15 minutes were updates about progress, what everybody’s doing,” Kaburis laughs. “The last 45 minutes were playtime.”
Kaburis says playtime — which involved nearly everyone on the team — was the most important part of development. But the game’s most valuable playtesters were also its smallest: Kid playtesters helped the team refine the game’s perspective from an initial top-down perspective to a behind-the-ship point of view, and helped them develop and refine the onboarding process.
“The first time you play, you see a pop-up screen that says ‘Hold your tablet or phone with two hands,’” says Kaburis. “That’s because in a lot of the play tests, we saw kids putting the phone down and playing with one finger.”
The result is a game that balances the adventurous spirit of Star Wars with the tactile joy of a Lego set. “Nowadays, games have the ability to immerse you with story and audio and visuals that are akin to watching a movie,” says Kaburis. “I’ve always loved games that can do that.”
With Lego Star Wars: Castaways, he and his team made one — and brought balance to the Force.
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Behind the Design is a weekly series that explores design practices and philosophies from each of the 12 winners of the 2022 Apple Design Awards. In each story, we go behind the screens with the developers and designers of these award-winning apps and games to discover how they brought their remarkable creations to life.