Fear, anger, hate, and suffering got canceled
Game Informer reports in their May 2014 edition of their magazine that Austin-based developer Red Fly Studio was appointed by LucasArts to produce a dark coming-of-age experience featuring Darth Maul, the well-known Sith Lord who was introduced to us in Star Wars: Episode 1 – The Phantom Menace and featured in various Star Wars video games, forced against his will into the Sith hierarchy.
The studio envisioned a dark coming-of-age tale, showing a young Maul forced against his will into the Sith chain of command.
“We wanted people to see him as a kid kidnapped by emperor Palpatine and tortured – physically, mentally, and emotionally – becoming this powerful Sith Lord,” says a developer who worked on the project but wishes to remain anonymous. “You got angry, you got frustrated, and you made the same mistakes he did. No one has ever seen Sith training up close. No one has ever seen how to construct a Sith from kid to adult. We’ve only seen the five-second turn: Anakin Skywalker cries a little bit, and then he’s evil.”
For those who haven’t seen all six Star Wars films (shame on you), Palpatine, or Darth Sidious, assumed the role of both Chancellor and Emperor, in order to rise to power through manipulation and treachery. We never saw his evil schemes in action so this is what Game Informer reports Red Fly was looking to correct all while showing the role Maul played in them. You, the player, were to experience the digressing relationship between the two to the point of Maul raising his double-sided saber – a weapon players helped construct – against Palpatine.
“You want to fight him, and of course that’s what he wants,” recalls the developer. “Our story basically bookended at the end of The Phantom Menace with Maul’s death. We felt [this story] would be a really solid, large game, maybe two games.”
While Red Fly’s vision never made it back to LucasArts, they did get a chance to continue working with the Sith Lord in two succeeding visions – one based on the Star Wars: The Clone Wars, and another based on ideas from George Lucas, who Game Informer says “proposed a crazy idea that took everyone by surprise, and would have shattered the temporal fabric of the Star Wars universe had it seen the light of day.”
So began the rough road Red Fly’s team was taken on, where there efforts only amounted to getting the chance to influence one of the largest franchises on the planet.
Following up on the story of how Red Fly studios acquired the job to work on Ninetendo and LucasArts new IP, we find out that prototyping of working title called “Maul” began on October 9, 2010 under the internal code-name “Damage.” Red Fly was under the impression that they’d be telling the origin story of Darth Maul and were even had LucasArts promise them that they’d help with the general direction of the fiction. Unfortunately, Lucasfilm already had plans to tell his story in the Clone Wars animated series.
“We were told Maul survived his encounter with Obi-Wan Kenobi in The Phantom Menace,” says a former Red Fly team member who wishes to remain nameless. “We fashioned robotic legs on Maul after being told he had them. Then we were told he had a brother named Savage Opress. He was supposedly green. Again, we were not told of the Clone Wars storyline at this time.”
It was at this time that the team learned that the negotiations between LucasArts and Nintendo to make the Darth Maul project exclusive to a Nintendo platform had collapsed – “due largely to Nintendo not meeting financial demands to make it a first-party project,” Game Informer reports. As a result, development was extended to PlayStation 3, Xbox 360, PC, and Wii U.
“It was tough because we didn’t have any information,” remembers a developer. “They didn’t want to share it. They didn’t want to leak any Clone Wars stuff. We were like, ‘Good God, are we doing this or not?’”
Just about the only lead LucasArts gave Red Fly to go on for a few months was the tagline (and potential name) “Battle of the Sith Lords.”
“We were kind of fumbling around in the dark in terms of lore, so we just started making a game instead, which was kind of fun,” recalls another anonymous ex-Red Fly employee. “The initial plan was to explore making a stealth game that was action-centric. So instead of a stop-and-wait game like Thief, it was more forward stealth, like kill that person before they can actually alert someone, then disappear into the rafters. We also started developing the concept of Maul as a glass cannon. Taking our cues from Arkham Asylum, you are insanely powerful and deadly, but one or two hits will take you out.”
Months work on a prototype for the Darth Maul game was going well. Gameplay systems and art direction were all coming ashore and even Maul’s animations, specifically vaults over obstacles, were reportedly as fluid as his movie counterpart. A core team of Red Fly employees later brought their prototype to LucasArts creative director Clint Hocking and designer Kent Hudson to discuss the next steps.
“We discussed ways to make the core gameplay loop compelling,” recalled an anonymous source. “We said Darth Maul’s connection to the Force was through generating fear. The idea was to f— with the A.I., and generate fear to build up your ability to use the Force, execute stealth kills, and manipulate the environment. It was exciting, cool stuff. Later on, we learned this was probably a little bit of a misstep.”
Red Fly representatives later traveled to LucasFilm’s Big Rock Ranch to meet with key members of the Clone Wars animated team, where they gained some clarity for Darth Maul’s future, though not necessarily their game.
“We were told that after The Phantom Menace, Maul ended up in a trash compactor, went crazy, and assembled a spider body for himself out of junk,” recalls the former Red Fly staffer. “So we were going, ‘Oh God, we have to put a robotic spider body on f— ing Darth Maul! What the hell!’”
Red Fly wasn’t particularly thrilled with the direction the Clone Wars’ Darth Maul story was taking and began to distance itself from it, hoping they could return to their original idea. Around the same time, LucasArts had informed Red Fly of George Lucas’s interest in bringing Darth Talon, a female Lethan Twi’lek who became a Sith Lady and served under Darth Kryat in Dark Horse Comics’ Legacy era stories, into the game. All this confusion because to frustrate the team as one Red Fly developer recalls:
“LucasArts said, ‘There is a lot of crosstalk going on, misinformation. Let’s actually sit down and have you guys talk to George.’”
In the end, talks with the creator, who as interesting in hearing their pitch, were less than successful, with a source advising the team to never say “No” to Lucas, say “Yeah, that will be easy,” mention Starkiller as anything else but “that guy,” and, most importantly, “Don’t tell George how the Force works.”
“Before they could finish their spiel, Lucas cut them off, stood up, walked over to the statues, rotated them to be facing the same direction, pushed them together, and said ‘They’re friends!’” adds the source. “He wanted these characters to be friends, and to play off of each other. He talked about the show Bum Notice as a reference point. He likened Darth Maul to Sonny from The Godfather, and he likened Darth Talon to Lauren Bacall. He actually did an impersonation of her. It was supposedly the weirdest impersonation of a ’40s actress going, ‘Don’t you know how to whistle? Put your lips together and blow.’”
What Red Fly understood was that Maul and Talon were separated by over 170 years of Star Wars fiction – like if Han Solo was buddies with Anakin Skywalker. Lucas’ solution to this was to have Talon be a descendant of Darth Maul or a clone of him.
“He wanted the kind of experience where the player could tell the game what type of story they wanted,” an ex-Red Fly employee recalled. “It wasn’t so much choose-your-own-adven-ture; it was more of a player being able to act as director, letting the game still respond and react to the player’s wishes and surprising the player with new experiences that maybe they didn’t expect. Clearly this was not the forward stealth game for Darth Maul anymore.”
The Red Fly team left the three hour meeting, dumbfounded by the new direction, and spent a few more days at LucasArts’ campus working closely with its team to determine how to get this new idea to work.
The new story would have Darth Maul and Darth Talon pitted against Darth Krayt and his Sith army.
A developer close to the story discussions remembers, “If we were going that route, the heir of Maul had to be a secret. He could be trained by the ghost of Maul himself in the ways of the Sith, and wait until it was time to ‘strike back’ at the Sith for polluting the rule of Two: One Master, One Apprentice. We wanted to go with that. It was up to Maul’s heir to return the Sith to the balance of two – and of course have Talon be focused into it. We felt this was the best [story] we could make out of the ingredients we were given. We never got to hear if Lucas liked this story or the direction we were going.”
LucasArts’ Frederic Markus believed that the game needed a sophisticated laser deflection mechanic.
“We had this Arkham mechanic with lightsabers, and he wanted us to come up with a mechanic that would allow the player to deflect incoming laser fire, which is not that difficult,” remembers a former Red Fly developer. “But at the same time, we had to direct it back, and control it while not breaking combat or using time dilation. That was quite a feat. We almost cracked it, and we came up with something that was kind of a hybrid and almost workable, but we really didn’t feel like deflection was a Maul trait. Maul is just about attack. Attack, attack, attack, attack. We had heads flying everywhere.”
Despite the great effort in developing proof of concept, LucasArts wouldn’t sign off on any of the big-ticket items that would allow development to truly get underway.
The concept art pieces obtained by Game Informer revealed a few things, such as the team’s hopes to tie in the Black Sun criminal syndicate.
Prototyping continued with the ideas from the concept art in mind, and and idea of how the studio could complete the game was in sight.
“We had the idea that Talon would be a reflection of the player character in many ways, and would respond to what the player was doing as Maul,” says a former source from the team. “We had a bunch of prototypes for different storytelling techniques whereby you could start nudging the scene toward a Talon approach or a Darth Maul approach. We had characters that could take any number of weird situational inputs and could query the world for things, and then make a response that seemed to make sense. But I think there were still people that were in love with the idea of Darth Maul using fear as his root to the Force. It started shooting out in too many different directions at once, unfortunately, and we had a lot of people – we should have trimmed that down to probably 10 or 15.”
The team was later flown to San Francisco for help with the prototypes.
“We went to LucasArts’ campus every day and prototyped with Frederic,” a developer says. “We learned a lot, did some good work, went back to Austin, but weren’t really able to execute on it.”
Finally, LucasArts thought the team was ready to make the game and even brought up the idea of acquiring the studio as a subsidiary.
In a sad turn of events, LucasArts abruptly ended communication with Red Fly.
“We didn’t hear from them for two weeks,” an ex-Red Fly employee remembers. “Two and a half weeks. No word. Nothing. And when I say no word, I mean nothing. We tried to contact them over and over and over again. We know how slow they move, and we’ve seen them do this before. We were at least hopeful. But still no word came. We did manage to get some of the guys, the internal producers that were on our project, on Skype, and they looked like they were kicked in the nuts. We knew what was going on. They just couldn’t tell us. But we didn’t know the extent of what was going on. We thought, ‘Okay, they’re not going to buy us. Fine.’ We didn’t know the game would get canceled.”
On June 24, 2011, Red Fly’s executives received an email with the subject heading “Maul Termination Letter.”
Not only was the game dead, but the studio was entering financial struggles without LucasArts’ support.
“Despite the project being canceled, LucasArts treated us very well afterwards,” says Red Fly’s Dan Borth. “While it was a struggle, they gave us the ability to continue operating.”
But the studio survived, and work on new, unannounced game projects continues today. However, that all didn’t come without having to let go 70 percent of the workforce.
As Game Informer reports, numerous ex-Red Fly staffers believe the cancellation didn’t have anything to do with their prototypes, but rather all to do with George Lucas’ decision to sell his company to Disney.
“It’s the only thing that makes any sense,” says a former Red Fly employee. “Everything needed to be put on ice.”
“A lot of good people on both sides really put their hearts into it,” Borth says. “We certainly wish things would have gone differently.”
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