War Pays for LucasArts

Its real-time strategy game Empire at War stormed to the top of the PC charts, thanks in part to developer Petroglyph

The Star Wars universe is such that it is well suited for all sorts of video game genres. Over the years, it's been made into RPGs (Knights of the Old Republic) first-person shooters (Dark Forces/Jedi Knight/Battlefront) and spaceship sims (X-Wing/TIE Fighter) just to name a few. However one genre that the series has always had some difficulty penetrating is strategy.

Rebellion was the first Star Wars strategy title, and it maintains something of a cult following even to this day, despite mediocre sales and reviews at the time of its release. Following that was Force Commander, a flawed 3D RTS title that performed in many ways like Rebellion at retail, sans the cult following. A bit more recently, LucasArts released Galactic Battlegrounds, which did well enough to prompt an expansion, but the game wore its resemblance to Age of Empires II a bit too heavily to stand out on its own.

Undaunted by all this, LucasArts commissioned Petroglyph to make Empire at War, an RTS Star Wars title, from scratch. While a new company, the studio is composed of veterans from Westwood Studios that helped shape the RTS genre as we know it with the Command & Conquer series. And this time, they may have finally gotten strategy right for the Star Wars universe. We sat down with LucasArts' Kevin Kebodeaux, Director of Global Sales, and Kevin Kurtz, Director of Global Marketing, to discuss the game's success, how the Star Wars atmosphere is key and future plans with Petroglyph.

Impressive... Most impressive

Star Wars: Empire at War was the number one selling PC title the week it released, according to the NPD. It remained in the top spot for another week before getting bumped down to number two by the latest Sims expansion, Open for Business. Still, the game did well enough to become the best selling PC title for the month of February. Empire at War is also performing leagues better than the three titles mentioned above.

"We knew we had a great game but the response has been terrific," said Kebodeaux. "We ran a number of scenarios and had a high-end forecast benchmark that we thought was almost out of reach. Plus we didn't launch in Q4 so that made us a bit leery as well. But we surpassed our high-end number as the game came out really hot on Day 1 in the U.S., exceeding our forecast by 50% and held that line for the first two weeks. It also did very well in Europe. We just finished week 4 and it shows no real signs of slowing down. The retail strategy and execution was a real key here; we had a lot of incremental space in the stores and a very strong circular ad program that continues through March."

The ad campaign for Empire at War has been extensive, especially for a PC RTS title. The TV spots have shown dynamic scenes of Rebel and Imperial forces engaging each other while John Williams' classic score plays in the background. The ads aren't flashy, but showing the impressive in-game action is both a compelling reason to buy and a representative example of the gameplay... thumbs up.

"As with the success of Star Wars Battlefront II, Empire at War benefited from an integrated campaign that defied the traditional video game marketing efforts," said Kurtz. "We had a world class pr campaign that began more than a year ago and reached critical mass at a launch with both the gaming press and mainstream media, who typically do not cover these types of releases. We had outstanding programs with our retail partners who have been champions of the game since we first showed it at E3 last year. And we got behind the release with a multi-million dollar ad campaign including TV advertising because we were convinced that seeing the game in all its glory would blow peoples' minds. That's another reason why we were excited to release the demo in January because we wanted fans to get their hands on the game to see what total control in the Star Wars galaxy is all about."

Don't underestimate the Force

Mechanically, Star Wars games typically aren't any better or worse than games in the comparable genres they release in. Yet the reason why they often sell better than those games is because of the Star Wars atmosphere. The quality of the original movies is such that anything that captures that magical spirit, at least in part, somehow elevates a game above what it would normally be in the eyes of the series' numerous and rabid fans.

"In a game where you can control a war for the entire Star Wars galaxy, we placed a lot of emphasis on making Empire at War a memorable and accessible Star Wars experience on all fronts," said Kurtz. "We focused on what fans love about the series -- the story, the characters and the action while removing tedious processes like resource gathering that didn't feel very 'Star Wars-y.' We wanted to capture the cinematic look and feel of Star Wars with visuals, particularly in the battle cam view, that made you feel like you were making your own movie. We created an all-new story and featured iconic characters and moments from the movies while allowing players to make their own destinies including how they would use the ultimate weapon, the Death Star (a first for a game)."

It is unavoidable... it is your destiny

With a game performing just as well as other PC strategy titles like Age of Empires III and Civilization IV, Petroglyph has obviously made a compelling product in Empire at War. When asked about working with Petroglyph again, Kurtz said, "We're all Petroglyph fans at LucasArts, so it was a pleasure working with them on EaW. They were fantastic partners and we worked well together to deliver on the promise of the game. I think it's very likely you'll see LucasArts and Petroglyph working together again."

For now, the two companies are basking in the success of Empire at War. But success with LucasArts typically means the release of expansion packs and sequels. When asked about a game set during the Clone Wars or the extensive expanded universe of Star Wars, Kurtz coyly said, "You'll just have to wait and see how the Empire at War saga continues..."