Star Wars and videogames have had a long, fairly complicated relationship.
What began with the Kenner toy line of 1978 ultimately grew into an unprecedented licensing juggernaut. The Parker Brothers’ scrolling shooter The Empire Strikes Back brought the movie franchise to the Atari 2600 in 1982, followed shortly after by the Star Wars (1983) arcade cabinet and the multi-platform Return of the Jedi: Death Star Battle (1983).
To date, there are more than 70 electronic games taking place in some iteration of George Lucas’s galaxy far, far away. Not all are created equally; for every Knights of the Old Republic (2003), we’re also given something along the lines of the abysmal Flight of the Falcon (2003).
There’s nothing quite like a good Star Wars game, rare as they might seem. Getting to live out the Campbellian monomyth from the comfort of your living room, saving the galaxy from the evil Galactic Empire and the Dark Lords of the Sith, is heady stuff. But there’s always a certain amount of distance between the player and the world of Star Wars—we’ll never know what it actually feels like to summon a lightsaber hilt with the Force, or raise an X-wing from a swamp.
Technologies like virtual reality continue to mature, though, and fans are eager to see how close they can get to simulating the process of training to become a Jedi Knight. Andreas Hager, the German creator behind the HTC Vive-exclusive game Lightblade VR, is one such fan.
“I was about 10 years old when I watched Episode IV on VHS with my parents,” Hager tells me. “I was fascinated by the look and quality of the movie, which was ahead of anything I’d seen before.” He recalls becoming invested the moment Obi-Wan Kenobi presented Luke Skywalker with the weapon that had belonged to Luke’s father.
Hager also admired Ralph McQuarrie’s conceptual design work on the film. “The used-universe look of the original trilogy still amazes me, even today,” he says. “It was a clever move, turning a weakness into a strength. Visualizing a perfectly rendered, futuristic universe would have failed miserably at that time. But a universe in which the best days are already gone was actually possible. Not to mention the resulting atmosphere! I’m very happy they captured this mood so well in the new movie.”
We’ll never know what it feels like to summon a lightsaber hilt with the force
A programmer since the age of 12, Hager got his start making simple games in Turbo Pascal and Basic before graduating to more advanced projects in C++ and Java. He’s even written a few of his own 3D engines over the years, making every component from scratch, “to understand how things work under the hood.” For Lightblade, he found himself drawn to Epic Games’ Unreal Engine for the first time. “I was pleasantly surprised by how fast things can be created with it,” he says. “I really appreciate what the engine provides, knowing how much time I spent to create similar features on my own [in the past].”
The current beta build of Lightblade consists of only one stage, however: a training simulation in which the player deflects laser bolts fired by a spherical robot, not unlike the “remote” Luke uses while training aboard the Millennium Falcon in A New Hope (1977). That scene “was definitely an inspiration,” though Hager emphasizes that Lightblade isn’t a Star Wars game but rather one particular experience he wanted to see brought to life on the HTC Vive. To do so, he used 3D assets purchased from the Unreal Marketplace.
A longtime fan of Blizzard’s software—World of Warcraft (2004) being the sole, colossal exception—Hager considers Diablo II (2000) his biggest influence as a designer, noting the polished feel of the combat. “For [Lightblade], it was important to create a direct sense of interaction with the game. I wanted to have instant feedback and a natural feeling when wielding the blades.”
Though he hopes to see an official Star Wars title hit VR in 2016, he’s also well aware of the challenges developers are going to face in the years to come. “The biggest problem, in my opinion, is the issue of player movement in VR,” says Hager. “This is immersive as long as you stay within the tracked area. As soon as you want to go somewhere [farther], it becomes problematic.” He’s not a fan of teleportation as a solution. “For me, it destroys the immersion and reminds me that I’m not actually in the virtual world.” But he knows developers are clever, and is convinced someone will devise a proper solution soon enough.
In the meantime, players have more Lightblade content to look forward to. Hager is currently working on a second level for the game, which promises more complex enemy interaction. Using some of feedback he’s received from players on Steam, he says he hopes to continue updating the project within the limits of its established scope, even if the most popular feature requests—namely, a story mode and multiplayer—just aren’t possible.
“But a lot of little things can be done,” Hager says. The ultimate goal would be letting players battle an opposing swordfighter. “There are days I don’t do any development at all when I’m home. The Witcher 3: Blood and Wine expansion is currently my main distraction. But the moment I do sit down for development, I get lost in the code.”