Managing producer Caleb Arseneaux on bringing Praetorian Guards into our living rooms and much more.
Spoiler warning: This article discusses some scenes and plot details from Star Wars: The Last Jedi.
Star Wars: Jedi Challenges launched in November 2017, delivering something most Star Wars fans have wanted for a very long time: to actually have a lightsaber duel. A smartphone-powered augmented reality experience, Jedi Challenges put a Jedi weapon in our hands and brought enemies like Darth Vader and Kylo Ren to life right in our homes. It worked surprisingly well -- as did its other features, including a three-dimensional strategic combat game and holochess -- and garnered much critical acclaim. Now, Jedi Challenges has expanded with a free Star Wars: The Last Jedi update, released last week. For the first time, you can duel multiple combatants -- elite Praetorian Guards -- at once, as well as a First Order executioner stormtrooper and riot-control stormtrooper. Plus, strategic combat adds the Battle of Crait, including a massive AT-M6 walker. StarWars.com played the update and spoke with Jedi Challenges managing producer Caleb Arseneaux about how Lenovo and Disney brought all this new content into the game, and came away with five behind-the-scenes details.
1. The idea of dueling two Praetorian Guards at once came out of seeing early footage from the film. "It kind of started with a conversation about what we were going to do different," Arseneaux says. "In Jedi Challenges, all the duels are one versus one. All tier-one bad guys. Darth Vader, Darth Maul, Kylo Ren. It's a pretty elite group of duelists that you're fighting, and so what we wanted to do was change things up. We knew that there was not one single duelist in The Last Jedi that was going to be in that tier." What to do? How do you top any of those iconic villains? Thanks to a sneak peek at some of The Last Jedi, Arseneaux figured it out. "Lucasfilm was great," he continues. "They brought us in early, showed us footage of the Praetorian Guard fight, and basically, we came up with the idea of, 'What if, instead of fighting just one of these guys, you fought two at the same time?' So I called Schell Games, the developer, out in Pittsburg, and said, 'Listen guys, we have a crazy idea. Can you actually put two people in the same duel?' They were like, 'You know what? We think we can do it.'" The result is an intense experience -- the Praetorians move quickly and strike often, bouncing back and forth between attacks. Battling them requires focus, but winning is extremely satisfying. And really fun.
2. The entire Praetorian Guard battle experience was essentially created from memory. While the team got to see early footage of Rey and Kylo Ren fighting the Praetorian Guards, they couldn't keep it. "We did get to see footage that we used as animation reference," says Arseneaux, "but we didn't get to bring the footage with us. We got to see it once up there in the Presidio [at Lucasfilm headquarters in San Francisco]. We got to see it in a very controlled setting. Just from memory, the developers from Schell went back to Pittsburgh and actually animated to it really perfectly. The Lucasfilm games team helped shepherd that effort with some notes and feedback, but in general, from memory, our team animated it." Knowing this and having played it, it's truly incredible how Jedi Challenges recreates the feel of Praetorian Guard attacks, from stances to handling of weapons. Once Arseneaux saw The Last Jedi, he was proud. "It felt great. After seeing that moment in the film, you're like, 'Oh my gosh.' Some of the moves that we never saw before in the footage they showed us early, we animated anyway. It really feels authentic. It feels like those characters."
3. The two Praetorian Guards are not the same character builds. Which is good for the game…and bad for you. Arseneaux and the developers of Jedi Challenges wanted to make sure you weren’t just having the same fight over and over. So they worked with Lucasfilm in incorporating Praetorians with different skill sets and builds, going through photo reference and set photography to select their Guards. “We wanted a character that was quicker, more light on their feet, and also had dual weapons -- one in each hand. And then we needed an attacker that was slower and heavier. We wanted two very different enemies that you were fighting, not just duplicates of the same thing.” The fight is intense, even on the easiest difficulty setting. But you come out of it feeling like Kylo and/or Rey in The Last Jedi. (Depends whether you're more light or dark side, I suppose...)
4. Some gameplay elements were designed to capture that Jedi feel. When Luke Skywalker first deflected incoming fire with his lightsaber in Return of the Jedi, it was a thrilling moment. You can do that? It would later become a standard Jedi move in the prequels, Star Wars: The Clone Wars, and Star Wars Rebels. Well, it's also part of Assault Mode in Jedi Challenges. The new update sees multiple stormtroopers blasting at you, and you need to send all that fire back at the bucketheads. You can try to deflect with a steady saber like Luke in Jedi, or swing your Jedi weapon baseball-bat style, and it feels amazing. "We feel like it really fulfills that 'I'm a Jedi against a legion of enemies' fantasy fulfillment that's really evident in the films," says Arseneaux.
5. Strategic combat's AT-M6 walker is seriously huge, and that was a design challenge. In the strategic combat game, you command Resistance forces on Crait against a First Order attack. Using the lightsaber controller, you'll place troops, weapons, and attackers at different points on a 3D map and monitor the battle, adjusting your strategy as need be. When the AT-M6 shows up, it's shocking and a literal game-changer. The thing is enormous and awe-inspiring -- a definite highlight of the update, but one that didn't come easy for the developers. "I remember going down to the developer of strategic combat, Blind Squirrel Games," says Arseneaux. "I said, 'Listen, I can't tell you guys a lot. But here's where the AT-AT comes up to me,' and I pointed to my thigh. 'And here's where the AT-M6 needs to be on me,' and I pointed to my head. And they were like, 'Ohhh. Okay.'" The size of the AT-M6 influenced the layout of the map, so that the walker could fit within the range of visuals but still appear slowly and ominously. They definitely pulled it off. Arseneaux offers one pro-tip: "You have to really time the turret use really well to keep it stunned long enough to take it down." Good luck. You're gonna need it.
Ultimately, fans of The Last Jedi are in for an authentic, challenging, and delightful experience that they can't get anywhere else. "If you loved some of those elements of The Last Jedi that are very iconic," Arseneaux says, "anywhere from the elite Praetorian Guards to the massive battle on Crait, you're going to be excited and feel really great about this update. So pick it up!" Insider tip: you might even find some porgs.
The free Jedi Challenges update featuring Star Wars: The Last Jedi content is available now.
Dan Brooks is Lucasfilm’s senior content strategist of online, the editor of StarWars.com, and a writer. He loves Star Wars, ELO, and the New York Rangers, Jets, and Yankees. Follow him on Twitter @dan_brooks where he rants about all these things.