After hearing the announcement that Lucasfilm Games and Bethesda are working together on a new Indiana Jones game, I couldn’t help but think back to Indiana Jones and the Staff of Kings. No, not Artificial Mind and Movement’s ports that most people would have played on other consoles, but the Xbox 360 and PS3 versions of the game that LucasArts were working on internally.
The “next-gen” version of Indiana Jones and the Staff of Kings (for the time, at least) was in development from 2004-2009, with more than 150 people working on the project. Among its unique selling points was the promise of cutting-edge physics that would allow unique combat and puzzle-solving opportunities for the player. But after a series of delays, a development reboot, and the arrival of Naughty Dog’s Uncharted, the project was killed in 2009, with many of the team going to work on The Force Unleashed II.
Since then, some details about the game have come out, including bits of development footage and concept art, but the story of its development and cancellation has largely remained a mystery to fans. That is, until now. Putting together the clues, I was finally able to piece together the game’s complicated history and talk to some of the developers who worked on the project.
Staffs, Monkeys, and German Archaeologists
One year after the release of The Collective’s Indiana Jones and the Emperor’s Tomb for Windows, Xbox, and PS2, LucasArts began developing a new Indiana Jones game internally. The year was 2004, and the company had just undergone a dramatic restructuring, with the new LucasArts president Jim Ward downsizing the project development team from several hundred employees to roughly 25 staff in total.
This small group would be responsible for initiating two new internal projects. The first was a Star Wars game that ended up becoming The Force Unleashed, and the second was a game based on the Indiana Jones IP. LucasArts’ VP of product development Peter Hirschmann led the development on the Indiana Jones project, working collaboratively with a group of designers on coming up with an interesting concept for Indy’s next adventure.
The group proposed a number of ideas, including basing the game on the legend of the Monkey King — a story that was previously floated for the third film in the series. Eventually, though, the team at LucasArts settled on the story of the staff of Moses. The story took place in 1939, one year after the events of Indiana Jones and The Last Crusade. It saw the famous archaeologist racing against German archaeologist and personal rival Magnus Völler to find the artefact. Indy’s journey would take him to Sudan, as well as San Francisco, Panama, Istanbul, and Nepal. According to those who worked on the project, the plot and structure of the game was the same across all of the different versions in development. The LucasArts’ version, however, was slated to have much better physics, a more sophisticated combat system, and more detailed environments to explore.
“We were the prime creators of the story,” says Tony A. Rowe, a senior game designer who worked on Indiana Jones and the Staff of Kings. “We were coming up with the locations, the scenario, the story, and all that, and then we sort of farmed out these other games to release on these other platforms based on our game. There were [four]: Wii, PS2, DS, and PSP.
“Any changes to the story they wanted to do had to go through us at LucasArts…” he adds. “I remember one team wanted Indiana Jones to disguise himself as a magician, If I remember right. We were like ‘Uhhhh… no. Please, no.’”
No Two Reactions The Same
LucasArts first announced Indiana Jones and the Staff of Kings at E3 2005 — the same year that the Republic Commando producer Chris Williams came onboard as project lead and the studio began scaling up again. But it wasn’t until a year later in 2006 that the studio returned with some footage of the game in action. This trailer in the style of a 1930s newsreel highlighted the Euphoria ragdoll physics engine that the studio was building the game around (which would later be utilized on other games such as Grand Theft Auto IV and The Force Unleashed to great effect). It also introduced players to a suitably “next-gen” phrase that served as a staple of the game’s design and a millstone around the project’s neck: “Never the same way twice”.
Clips from the video featured Indy throwing enemies into cars to demonstrate the different reactions that would occur, as well as highlighting the destructive nature of the game’s environments. To accomplish this, the game was set to use not one but two new physics engines for the time, Euphoria and Digital Molecular Matter (or DMM, for short). While Euphoria would handle the ragdoll physics, DMM would help simulate the objects in the environment, letting you bend, break, and shatter your surroundings. A number of ex-LucasArts staff tell me that this would have allowed Indy to pick up different objects to throw around with his whip, similar to Portal’s Gravity Gun — but in practice, it was tough to get working.
“We had to combine the two [engines], but the two didn’t talk to each other,” Rowe explains. “You had a Euphoria object that worked with Havoc, which is a pretty standard physics system, and a DMM object and when they hit each other they would go right through each other.
“Our 2006 E3 demo is a prototype of what we wanted to do in the future,” he adds. “So we show a lot of bodies flailing round in weird ways and things exploding and breaking in interesting ways. That is really us trying to fake it and then another year and a half after that we were able to do that for real on The Force Unleashed and we were getting there on Indy.”
To highlight these new systems, the level designers came up with a three-tiered design structure to each location in the game. The first of these tiers involved exploration, with players being able to navigate an environment, find clues, get into fights, and talk to NPCs. Players would then encounter a PBEO (a physics-based entertainment opportunity), allowing Indy to solve some puzzles using his whip and objects in the environment. The stage would typically end in dramatic fashion with a final chase, as Indy would have to escape some pursuing threat.
“It was a really tricky proposition, but from a story perspective it was fun,” says Bryan Howell, a writer and designer on Indiana Jones and the Staff of Kings. “We got to do a lot of open-ended table setting. You could build an enemy camp, or you could build a bar or a dirigible and you could set things up and you would have some really fun moments emerge from [combat in that setting]. But at the same time, sometimes if things didn’t go your way, the bad guys wouldn’t be getting hit by the stuff you wanted them to get hit by.”
The Force Unleashed
LucasArts had originally projected a 2007 release for Indiana Jones and the Staff of Kings, but as the year approached it became increasingly unlikely that the game was going to be ready in time. Whereas the external development teams were working to a much more accelerated schedule, and were close to getting there on their respective projects, the team at LucasArts’ were still struggling and were under no pressure to rush. In the words of one LucasArts’ developer, “It was our money to burn.”
2007 would be a transformative year for the project, but for the wrong reasons. After missing the deadline, LucasArts shifted a number of staff, including the designers Tony Rowe and Steven Chen, away from Indiana Jones and the Staff of Kings to focus on The Force Unleashed. In their absence, a new group of designers took over on the project, including God of War II level designers Chip Sbrogna and Michael Cheng, who had recently joined from SCE Santa Monica Studio. Rather than picking up where the last team had left off, the project essentially went back to square one.
“We started from scratch except for the story,” one ex-LucasArts employee, who wished to remain anonymous, tells me. “That was the crux of the problem. When we came on, we looked at it like ‘What is going to be our structure?’, ‘What are we going to make?’ We changed the camera from being a third-person camera to being an authored isometric camera, much more in line with the God of War series, which I was excited by… But when you completely change a camera system that completely changes the game and the mechanics it’s going to have.”
As well as the camera, there were also other fundamental changes. The team had also switched from Lua to a new node-based scripting language being developed internally, as well as continued to tweak how the character skeletons and the physics systems were being implemented. This all impacted how quickly the project was coming together.
“We would get six months along towards a design path or working with a new implementation and there was usually some fundamental technology that would change,” Howell explains. “We would get where we were almost there and then it would be like okay, new change of management or reboot and then we would back up and almost start over again.”
To add to these problems, in November 2007, the Santa Monica-based developer Naughty Dog released the first Uncharted game, featuring a treasure hunter who was not a million miles away from Indy. For the staff back at LucasArts, this was a bitter pill to swallow, with Uncharted accomplishing much of what the team wanted to achieve on Indy.
“When that came out, we bought a copy of it,” Brandon Martynowicz, an associate environment artist on Staff of Kings, tells me. “I remember we booted it up in the office with everybody and we were like ‘Oh fuck, this is what we’re trying to do.’”
“I remember pretty clearly when we caught wind of the first Uncharted,” comments Howell. “I feel kind of bad about it now — but we were almost like ‘Aww, isn’t that cute? They want to do an Indiana Jones game. How nice for them’. And then obviously the game went out and sold gangbusters… That put us in our place.”
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One Last Trip to Panama
The next year was no less forgiving to the team, with the blows to the project continuing to pile up. Not only were there a round of layoffs at the beginning of 2008, which included Peter Hirschmann who had spearheaded the project in its early days, but there were constant changes in leadership at the studio. Nevertheless, the team was making steady progress on a new concept for the game. The level designers, for instance, had come together to create a complete prototype of the Panama level with the God of War-style camera system in place. This prototype had Indy solving water-based physics puzzles and ended with a section where the explorer must flee from a wave of crashing water.
“We had dynamic water that actually rose,” Martynowicz says. “It was very expensive tech. I don’t think we would have got that shit to run in realtime in the game. But it was a very good full working prototype.”
“It felt like a cool game,” says the anonymous ex-LucasArts employee. “You had different pieces of combat. You had a partner AI that followed you around. You had these cool, dynamic physics puzzles. You had run for your life scenarios, where you had these beautiful visual effects gushing water rushing after you. All in God of War style for Indiana Jones. We were all [hyped] for that. [Then] once Panama was done, we took each of those level designers and we split them off into different worlds.”
Things were starting to look up, but unfortunately it was too late to save the project. In early 2009, after consulting with the design team, LucasArts leadership decided to finally kill the game, choosing instead to release the third-party versions that had already been completed. The response to this news inside the company was mixed. While some were disappointed that their work would never see the light of day, many acknowledge the problems the team were facing, the pressure they were under, and the fact they were not anywhere close to being done.
“We had been working on [Staff of Kings] for several years and I felt that Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull was a real disappointment and really let down the Indiana Jones legacy,” says Howell. “For me the thing that was the hardest to swallow was that we had this vision for Indy that was really on target… and it’s sad for me that instead of the world getting that, they got Kingdom of the Crystal Skull.”
“It just got to a point where we wanted to do something with Indiana Jones, just not that and not with the pressures we were being given,” the anonymous ex-LucasArts employee tells me. “[At that point], it wasn’t our fault that Indiana Jones had taken five years to get to not even a full level, we were just team three on an already somewhat doomed project.”
After Staff of Kings was cancelled, most of the team was moved over onto Star Wars: The Force Unleashed II, a game which was remarkably developed in only 8 months. Then, following development on The Force Unleashed II, a number of smaller teams got together to prototype different ideas. Among these were a Tie Fighter dogfighting demo using pre-existing assets from other Star Wars games, as well as an Indiana Jones project taking advantage of what they had learned on Staff of Kings. Those I spoke to for the piece compared this Indiana Jones project to Crystal Dynamics’ Lara Croft and the Temple of Osiris game. Both games were apparently promising, but in 2010 further layoffs put a stop to these efforts.
What’s strange about Staff of Kings is that it isn’t your typical video game cancellation. If you want to experience it today, you can still technically play different versions of the story on a variety of platforms. But still, it’s hard not to get swept in imagining what could have been had the Xbox 360 and PS3 versions released, given how much work went into them over the five years they were in development. Among other things, maybe it would have softened the disappointment audiences were feeling after Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. At the very least, Staff of Kings probably wouldn’t have nuked the fridge.