When it comes to media properties, it doesn’t get much bigger than “Star Wars.”
That sentiment certainly isn’t lost on Vince Zampella, CEO of Respawn Entertainment, the studio behind “Star Wars Jedi: Fallen Order.” The title, which follows Jedi Padawan Cal Kestis (voiced by Cameron Monaghan) after the events of “Episode III — Revenge of the Sith,” has been building hype since its reveal at E3 2018, and finally debuts next month.
Zampella talked to Variety at a “Fallen Order” press event this week (read takeaways from three hours of gameplay here) about making the journey to becoming a Jedi, the pressures of jumping into “Star Wars” and how much involvement Lucasfilm had (“tons”).
Respawn was working on this game before you knew it would be in the “Star Wars” universe. What did it look like then?
What we did was, we had the idea of doing a “Star Wars” game – this was before we were part of EA. EA at that point had the license for “Star Wars,” we were working with them on “Titanfall” stuff. We talked to them about doing it – it didn’t work out. It didn’t seem like it was going to happen. So we went and did a prototype for a different game. So it’s not that it became a “Star Wars” game, we were just going to do something different and then the chance came up again where EA came back to us and said, “Actually, we kind of do want you to do a ‘Star Wars’ game.” So we were like, [claps hands] in! So we dropped the prototype that we were working on and started working on the “Star Wars” game.
“Titanfall” is really big, but this is “Star Wars.”
There’s not much bigger than “Star Wars.”
Definitely not. How much are you looking at fan feedback, and what they’re asking for when you’re making the game?
We always look at feedback, but when something is that big, the feedback is [holds hands far apart] this wide. “I love this, I hate this” – so you have to kind of have a guiding principle around what you want to do. I think we set out to have a very clear vision of like, “We want to make this the journey to becoming a Jedi,” that kind of path. So we worked really closely with the Lucas story group, and kind of just set out to make a game that told an authentic “Star Wars” story. That was the important thing.
How much involvement did Lucasfilm have in the game’s story?
Tons. The story team controls, like, the “Star Wars” universe. We’re a small piece of it. They see kind of everything. So there’s a lot of back and forth, like everything we do kind of goes through this feedback cycle of where that fits. And we have to think about, “How does this decision that we’re making fit in this game?” They have to think about, “How does this decision affect everything?” Because we’re making something that is authentic “Star Wars,” it has ripple effects, potentially, bigger than what we have to worry about. There’s a lot of back and forth and a lot of good teamwork.
Why take place in that time period after “Episode III”?
Well, I think when we set out to make this kind of journey of a Jedi, we looked at, where does that fit most? And post-Order 66, it’s kind of a dark time, of, you know, if you’re a Jedi, you’re in danger, you’re being hunted. That journey just becomes that much more gripping. So it fit with what we wanted to do with the game.
This is the first single-player “Star Wars” game in a long time. Why was it time for that?
For us, it’s about telling a story. “Star Wars” is that story of, you know, good and evil, of triumph, overcoming great odds. So for us, single-player makes much more sense in what we wanted to do, which is tell that story, that big narrative. It fit our need and I think it fits really well in the “Star Wars” universe.
Let’s talk about Cal. Was he inspired by any existing characters in the “Star Wars” universe?
I mean, I think being a Jedi, you kind of have to say yes. You look at the history of what all the Jedi are and have been, and you fit within that world. There’s no one specific icon, but being a Jedi is such an important kind of piece in this amazing universe – that reverence of what that is carries through in everything that we do with him.
Did you always want Cameron Monaghan to voice him?
No, we did a casting call. We did auditions and I remember we looked at some, and it was kind of like, “Ehhh, none of these are really nailing it.” We kind of went back, and Cameron was actually, I think not from our team, but someone put him in, like, an alternate file or folder or something like that. So we went and listened to [his audition], and I remember [director] Stig [Asmussen] coming in just being so excited like, “This is the guy.” Like, just from that audition, that vision of who Cal was, Cameron just, like, embodied. So as soon as we heard it, it was like, a natural fit. “That’s the guy.”
And then there’s his droid, BD-1. What kind of relationship did you want him to have with Cal?
Stig always says “a boy and his dog.” I think it kind of comes through, but it’s more, you know, it’s a buddy droid. BD is the buddy droid. It is your friend, just like R2 kind of fits that message of, he’s there. He helps you. He’s kind of central to everything that you do. He’s just kind of a piece of you, an extension.
There’s a pretty deep combat system. Did you set out to make it a little more challenging?
Being “Star Wars,” we want to be accessible as widely as possible, because we want as many “Star Wars” fans as possible to be able to enjoy the game. The difficulty system is where we put a lot of focus into like, if you’re kind of new to games, you probably want to do story mode, where there’s a lot more flexibility in how you can play it. And if you’re skilled, you can go to, you know, higher modes. You can go to Jedi Master and have a real challenge.
How many options did you want to give the player in approaching combat?
You have certain powers that you get throughout the game. So there is kind of a focus on what that is. There’s a skill tree, you can unlock certain powers in there and that kind of changes the combat, not in huge ways – it doesn’t, like, completely change it. Like, I’ll focus differently than Stig will because I like to do certain moves. I like to stay back a little bit, and he likes to be more aggressive. So there’s definitely some flexibility there.
The team has talked a bit about other games that inspired “Fallen Order” – Stig, for example, has said it’s a Metroidvania. What do you think your greatest influences were when making the game?
I mean, it really is just about that “Star Wars” story. The “Metroid” stuff comes into play where you’re like, “okay, I can go back to another planet now and I have different powers, so when I go back, new areas are open to me.” So it’s that – it’s exploration. That’s really what it’s about. It’s about telling the story in this world, letting the player explore his surroundings, his powers, how he kind of grows into becoming a Jedi.
What role do you hope this serves in the greater “Star Wars” canon?
I hope people see it as kind of understanding that road to becoming a Jedi; it’s not an easy thing. This is something that, it’s important and Cal is looking to save the future of the Jedi Order. So it doesn’t get much more important in “Star Wars” than that, right?
Of course, you’re limited by what’s already in the “Star Wars” canon, but do you think this is a one-off, or could you see more stories coming out of Cal?
This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity. “Star Wars Jedi: Fallen Order” will be available for Microsoft Windows, PlayStation 4 and Xbox One on Nov. 15.