Exclusive Interview Gameloft Montreal – LEGO® Star Wars: Castaways

LEGO® Star Wars: Castaways hit Apple Arcade on November 19, 2021. We reported on the game back in October. Since then, True North Bricks caught up with the Castaways design team via email. Now, we’ve got an exclusive interview with Gameloft Montreal. Our questions were answered by General Manager and Senior Producer, Lee Kaburis, and Creative Director, Jacques Durand. They shared details about the game’s design, as well as collaborating with the LEGO® Group, Disney, and Lucasfilm. Ever wondered what goes into designing a digital LEGO® world? Read on to find out.

Are you a LEGO® fan?

My favorite LEGO® set from my childhood was the King’s Castle (6080). I loved its modular design. I remember combining various other sets from the Lion Knights series – like the Blacksmith (6040) and Armor Shop (6041) – to expand and customize the castle, eventually growing into a small medieval town!

Like most people, I stopped playing with my childhood toys by the time I got in my mid-teen years. In the late ’80s, the rise of digital games captured the attention of me and my friends.

I reconnected with LEGO® after becoming a father. My son was really into Ninjago, and my daughter was into LEGO® Friends. I started buying LEGO® Star Wars sets for myself and really got into Legography. The work of the photographer Avanaut (Vesa Lehtimäki) really captured my imagination.

What is your fondest memory involving LEGO® bricks?

At the beginning of the project, the LEGO® Group invited us to visit their vault in Billund. I was overjoyed to be able to hold an original unopened box of my favorite LEGO® set from my childhood. A colleague took a picture of me. I recognized the 10-year-old version of me in that smile!

Exclusive Interview Gameloft Montreal
Opening screen from LEGO® Star Wars Castaways.

How did the idea for LEGO® Star Wars: Castaways come about?

We’ve had a good long standing working relationship with Apple, Disney, and the LEGO® Group, and they introduced us to the Lucasfilm Games team. All of them were looking for a developer to make a LEGO® Star Wars game with unique social features and new types of gameplay. This was a perfect fit for us at Gameloft Montreal, as we have plenty of fans of both LEGO® and Star Wars, as well as plenty of experience in working with Apple, Disney, and the LEGO® Group.

With high ambitions, we wanted to bring exciting game modes to players, such as PvE [player versus environment] levels inspired by the original trilogy of Star Wars films, Hippodrome PvP [player versus player] levels, and rail shooters. We were also blessed to build a new cast of characters in conjunction with Lucasfilm’s story team.

Finally, we were most excited about being able to really build a whole world made out of bricks. Everything in our environment is made with digital bricks, built using LEGO® Digital Designer, which really lends the game a very LEGO® look.

Exclusive Interview with Gameloft Montreal, LEGO® Star Wars: Castaways.
LEGO® Star Wars: Castaways takes place on a new alien world.

How long did it take for the game to go from idea to finished product?

Based in Montreal, the development of the game took two years with a dev team of 50 people. Of course, our team had additional help from various support teams such as audio, engine, localization, and quality assurance.

Building and creativity are at the core of the LEGO® brand. How do those ideals factor into LEGO® Star Wars: Castaways gameplay?

The brick is the core of the LEGO® experience, it’s what guides everyone who plays and builds with this system, and that applies to our game as well. When we started development, we challenged ourselves to make the visually iconic LEGO® brick front and center to the game. When people think of LEGO® they have a very clear image in their head, and we want to exemplify that. Additionally, we felt confident that we had the skills and tools to build our world entirely out of LEGO® bricks. We think we succeeded!

But making the best game is not just about creating visually pleasing environments. Inspired by our first visit to the LEGO® Group’s HQ in Billund, we started to think of how we could create a gameplay experience that would provide lasting fun, play after play.

The power of the LEGO® brick is its modular play system. There are millions of ways to combine basic 2 x 4 bricks. We felt we needed to create some degree of modularity in the game. Our visit to Billund inspired and shaped our game design philosophy of providing players with renewed opportunities for exploration, exciting challenges, and elements of surprise. Our design intention was that no two game sessions of the same level should feel the same.

The game starts as you fly through a maelstrom and crash on a new planet.

How involved are the LEGO® Group and Disney in the production of a game like this? Is there a lot of creative freedom?

The LEGO® Group, Apple and Lucasfilm Games were all heavily involved in the production of this game. Each of them had their own special involvement, so the process to make sure everyone was in alignment was important, but we think we nailed it. While we had plenty of freedom, it was guided through the relationships we built.

Let’s start with LEGO®. The LEGO® Group has an amazing mission and message to promote learning through play, teaching children to collaborate, problem solve, be resilient, and create. We love those values too and want to include them in our game.

Lucasfilm Games had similar guidelines. They have the very richest stories to draw upon, and that’s a serious game to bring to fruition! We really wanted to lean into those elements that we love about Star Wars – and which connect with many people, the battles between good and evil, the incredible technology and lightsabers, the funny or thrilling characters, the amazing Force powers. It’s all super cool.

Finally, Apple is really doing some cool things with subscription games on Apple Arcade. Gameloft has released a few games for this service before, and we think it’s a great platform for visually stunning and polished games.

Exclusive Interview with Gameloft Montreal on LEGO Star Wars: Castaways
The LEGO® Star Wars: Castaways planet is completely built from digital bricks.

The press release mentions that the game includes classic Star Wars scenes. Where in the Star Wars timeline does this story fit?

Our game is set in a mysterious and inaccessible part of the galaxy, set at some time in the future of the Star Wars galaxy. This flexibility allows us to pull in elements from all Star Wars stories and eras.

For now, the original trilogy is our baseline, but researchers on the island (and us, the game developer) are working hard to unlock additional content from the Star Wars universe!

Were the classic Star Wars locations based on LEGO® sets that already exist, or were they developed anew?

Once we settled on the game’s general concept (the Ottegan backstory and the idea of revisiting key events from the Star Wars universe via holographic simulations) we began to comb through all nine films from the Skywalker saga. We were searching for “playable moments” that could best fit the concept of recorded events being replayed through holographic simulations.

We searched for iconic locations that would give the best opportunities for level design. Special attention/consideration was given to:

  • The replayability factor of the selected events/locations
  • Existence of physical LEGO® toy sets
  • Variety of biomes/color, e.g. sand (brown/beige), snow (white), steel (gray, black), and forest (green).

The selected events and locations were then submitted to Lucasfilm and the LEGO® Group for review and discussion.

We ended up selecting the Original Trilogy because of its long-lasting resonance with the audience, both old and young. Even today, kids are first introduced to Star Wars by their parents through the original trilogy, and it’s likely they have watched the films multiple times. Also, the original trilogy has been supported by 40 years of marketing and content touchpoints. It’s also the era for which there’s the most LEGO® Star Wars physical toys.

The biggest challenge by far was to create the Social Hub. This environment is completely new to the world of Star Wars. We first had to design it in collaboration with Lucasfilm Games. Lots of concept art and discussions! Once we passed this phase, we then proceeded to make it in digital LEGO® bricks.

Exclusive Interview Gameloft Montreal.

The press release mentions some new characters made for the game. Can you tell us a little about them?

TU-TOR
The settlement on Castaways Island is built on the ruins of an ancient Ottegan civilization that once sought to record and study all the knowable knowledge of the galaxy. A group of pilgrims came to this isolated planet to harness the mystical properties of a Maryte crystal. The observatory they built on top of this crystal enabled them to observe and record historical events coming from every corner of the galaxy.

The Ottegan mysteriously disappeared. They left behind technologies that are still functioning today; archives of recorded events from the Star Wars galaxy, and Simulation Pods to recreate the recorded events as holographic projections.

They also left behind a protocol droid; TU-TOR, acting as the caretaker of the archives. But over the years, the poor lone droid struggled to maintain the integrity of the data drives in the archives. Data corruption began to spread.

In the present day, TU-TOR and a new generation of observatory scholars are working hard to preserve what remains of the archives, and eventually salvage and repair encrypted data drives.

Laurasta Vertoa
Laurasta Vertoa (Social Hub NPC), is a brilliant gearhead who longs to fly amongst the stars. She provides the narrative context to Vehicle-based simulations. Laurasta uses the data from the archive to craft simulations where she can train her piloting skills and challenge the other Castaways on the island.

Bossig The Hutt

The Hippodrome is thought to have been used by the Ottegan to project holographic simulations in front of large crowds. But nowadays, it’s been repurposed by Bossig the Hutt. Much like Laurasta, Bossig “borrows” data from the archives to craft his own simulations. But rather than playing the simulations himself, Bossig enjoys the entertainment of seeing participants fight in the virtual arenas he creates.

Fans might want to recreate scenes from the game with actual LEGO® bricks. Will scenes from the game feature in any LEGO® sets or is it possible to generate instructions of the digital LEGO® “sets”?

Nothing is impossible! As mentioned previously the LEGO® Group’s goal is to create games that simulate the iconic play system: creativity, accessibility, discovery and replayability.

Everything you see in the game can be built with LEGO® bricks! Well… almost everything. There are a few exceptions:

  • TU-TOR has a special head. It’s shaped a little like the head of an Ottegan (genetic offshoot of the Ithorian species. Hammer-shaped head, elongated face, wide-set eyes). We designed a special head, and it went through the same approval process with the LEGO® Group as if this were a physical brick.
  • The dome of the SimPods is made of a new brick as well.

The LEGO® Group sometimes spends months designing a new Minifigure in a process involving preliminary sketches, group discussions, more sketches, mold designs, etc. What goes into designing a digital Minifigure character?

It is a process that is relatively similar to the real thing. Our team consists of several very creative artists who create preliminary sketches that are used in group discussions with our partners. The process is just as iterative, but the difference is that we can start bringing the Minifigure to life a little earlier with 3D modeling.

While we avoid the process of creating molds, we have the added task of bringing the Minifigure to digital life. We have to help it move, feel emotions, and dance through rigging and animation. It takes a village to create Minifigures that make the island come alive and appeal to our players. The Minifigures we create become the characters you talk to, who help you get where you want to go and do what you want to do in the game, and who carry the all-new story of LEGO® Star Wars: Castaways.

The press release mentions being able to customize your playable character with hundreds of LEGO® Star Wars pieces. How was that selection of parts created?

It was an iterative process that involved a lot of time and discussion with our stakeholder partners. We wanted to make sure we showcased references to iconic Star Wars items and clothing. Although the holographic simulations have content that only spans the original trilogy, the parts found in the character customization menu may be from other eras as well.

Does the game include any non-Star Wars Minifigure parts from other LEGO® themes? For example, since the game takes place in a tropical environment, can you dress your character in beach attire from the City theme, or something of the like?

No, there isn’t any crossover with other LEGO® theme(s).

Exclusive interview with Gameloft Montreal about LEGO Star Wars: Castaways

Were any physical LEGO® bricks used in the development of this game for inspiration or otherwise?

In our case everything is 100% digital brick. That said, we really wanted the scale of everything to be correct to the tone we’re aiming for, and we also wanted everything to match the scale and tone of Star Wars. The toy sets are really great at the tone, but many of them didn’t quite match the scale we were looking for.

We certainly did use actual LEGO® sets, which you can see with the UCS Millennium Falcon (7541 pieces) and the Mos Eisley Cantina (3187 pieces). Unfortunately, many of the other sets weren’t quite to scale for the set-pieces we built for the game, so we had to build them up with the comfort knowing almost everything COULD be built with real bricks. There are a few exceptions, mentioned before.

What is your favorite part of the game?

As developers, we get to create what we love in games, so it’s almost impossible to answer this question because we put our heart and soul into every detail of the game. I am personally so proud of what the team has accomplished and am enjoying replaying the game from start to finish. I also look forward to continuing to rediscover the game through the players’ experience.

What was the most challenging aspect of bringing LEGO® Star Wars: Castaways to life?

Creating the whole world out of LEGO® bricks was a huge challenge, both artistically and in terms of programming.

We went above and beyond to deliver the artistic vision of having the game’s environments completely made from LEGO® bricks.

This was only made possible because of the tight integration between the development team, our in-house engine team, and also by having privileged access to some of Apple’s tech engineers.

For most of the game environments, we used a custom version of LDD (LEGO® Digital Designer). Things like buildings, props, floor, and wall texture were built “digital brick by digital brick”. For larger areas, we used procedural tools and custom workflows to LEGO-ify 3D geometry.

But building the environment was only half the battle! We then needed to find ways to optimize the geometry of these assets. If you’re familiar with game development, the number of polygons/triangles on screen is limited if you want your game to run smoothly on low-end devices. A LEGO® brick might look simple at first glance, but there’s very complex geometry. There’s the underside of a brick, with its interlocking system. Then there’s the LEGO® studs… tiny cylinders atop of every brick and the embedded LEGO® logo on each stud!

We had to create special tools, shaders, and all sort of technical wizardry in order to pull this off and make the game run on low-end devices.

Did you hide any Easter eggs in the game for fans of LEGO® and/or Star Wars to discover?

There are many little hidden animated scenes to discover in the game, both in the Social Hub and in the simulation levels. We definitely used these moments to bring some of the light humor that is characteristic of LEGO® Star Wars. For example, when you are sitting on a bench in the Social Hub, you get to see life from a different angle, and fun sights will be seen, such as a yoga class in progress on one of the rooftops.

LEGO® Star Wars: Castaways is available exclusively on Apple Arcade.

Shortly after this interview, I went and played LEGO® Star Wars: Castaways on Apple Arcade. Interestingly, you can play it for free if you are new to Apple Arcade. The service offers a one month free trial. It is the type of game that I quite enjoy. It is not hard to pick up and gives tutorials without being overbearing about it. It reminds me of the LEGO® games I used to play on PS3, which is impressive considering I played this on a phone. What do you think of LEGO® Star Wars: Castaways? Feel free to comment below or reach out on social media.

Until next time,

-Tom

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