George Lucas ushers in 'Star Wars: The Force Unleashed'

At the video game's official launch event in San Francisco, the legendary filmmaker made a surprise appearance, but spoke for less than three minutes.

Daniel Terdiman Former Senior Writer / News
Daniel Terdiman is a senior writer at CNET News covering Twitter, Net culture, and everything in between.
Daniel Terdiman
6 min read
'Star Wars' creator George Lucas made a surprise appearance Monday night at the launch event in San Francisco for the new video game, 'Star Wars: The Force Unleashed.' Click the image above for a full gallery of game launch photos. Daniel Terdiman/CNET News

Update 12:27 p.m.: This story has been modified to reflect comment from LucasArts about interest in the game, as evidenced by pre-sales and number of sales at retail.

SAN FRANCISCO--George Lucas was the "surprise" special guest at the official launch party Monday night here for Star Wars: The Force Unleashed, the new video game that marks the latest chapter in the epic story line. And despite his only making a two-minute speech, most on hand were excited at the rare opportunity to see him.

Indeed, Lucas doesn't venture into public very often, so for many of the people who had come to line up to buy the new game when it went on-sale at 12:01 a.m. Tuesday, his appearance and quick talk were a treat.

The event took place Monday evening at a Best Buy outlet in this city's Mission district, an odd choice of venues for the launch of what many have been calling one of the biggest video games of the year.

On the other hand, the place was packed, something that one store employee said was a very unusual occurrence. So, all in all, the energy generated may have been worth it for Lucas and his crew.

A man dressed as Obi-Wan Kenobi makes some of the guests at the launch event smile. Daniel Terdiman/CNET News

The new game, known by many simply as The Force Unleashed, is the first Star Wars game to be considered by Lucas an actual chapter in the overall story line that begins with the three prequel films--The Phantom Menace; Attack of the Clones; and Revenge of the Sith--continues with this summer's animated film, The Clone Wars and then, of course, concludes with the original three films, Star Wars; The Empire Strikes Back; and Return of the Jedi.

In the new game, the main character, played by actor Sam Witwer, is an apprentice of Darth Vader, and the story line centers on that apprentice's path to redemption.

The game is also highly anticipated because of two innovative technologies it incorporates.

First is a new form of artificial intelligence called Euphoria, which is designed to ensure things happen differently each time in the game, even if they begin the same way.

And second is what is known as digital molecular matter, a technology meant to bring more realistic consequences to things like a door breaking, or something smashing into a big piece of metal.

So on Monday, Star Wars fans were given the opportunity to be among the very first to get their hands on the game. But it was an unusual midnight-madness kind of launch event in that instead of having everyone line up outside the Best Buy first, everyone was allowed inside the store while it was still open in order to mill around, listen to MCs talking about the game, get autographs from the game's voice-over actors, and just get revved up.

No, those are not new Best Buy security guards. They're people dressed in stormtrooper outfits to celebrate the launch of 'Star Wars: The Force Unleashed.' Daniel Terdiman/CNET News

Each person intending to buy a copy of the game was given a numbered card and told that the card would guarantee them a place in line once the store closed.

As of 9:36 p.m. Monday night, just 24 minutes before closing, only 227 tickets had been taken out of around 1,000 that were available. And while it's not clear whether that means that interest in the game is lower than expected, it struck me as possible evidence that there wasn't massive amounts of interest in the game.

But a LucasArts spokesperson wrote me later to say that the number of available tickets had been arbitrary and that, in fact, pre-orders for the game had been high.

For Lucas, the event was an opportunity to show up, be seen by the faithful, and say a few words. Really, though, the only interesting thing he said was a line explaining that, "This is the first example of what we've been able to accomplish by putting (Industrial Light and Magic) and (Force Unleashed developer) LucasArts in the same building in (San Francisco's) Presidio," Lucas said. "So it was a great collaboration between the two of them."

However, he did not elaborate on that intriguing comment, and he was not available afterward for questions.

He also joked that his son had worked on the development of the game for a little while.

"He was the guy who put the bugs in the games," Lucas joked. "He put in 432. The testers only found 327. So for an extra 50 bucks, just send it to him, and he'll send you a list of the bugs he found."

For many of the fans who turned out for the event, the biggest excitement was getting a chance to meet some of the actors who made the characters in the story come to life.

One of them was Witwer, who spoke before Lucas showed up, and who got the crowd fired up by talking about his life as a Star Wars fan.

"I don't remember when I saw the first film," Witwer told CNET News. "It's just (always been) part of my life since I was recording memories."

Haden Blackman, the director of 'Star Wars: The Force Unleashed,' left, jokes with Sam Witwer, the lead actor in the game at its launch event in San Francisco Monday night. Daniel Terdiman/CNET News

Indeed, Witwer said that his deep knowledge of the Star Wars universe was a major factor in his being hired to play the lead role in the game.

He explained that when he auditioned, he was asked to play out a scene in which his character is assembling a light saber with his mind.

Witwer said he decided to play the scene as if it was a difficult task, and when asked by the game's director, Haden Blackman, why he was doing so, he answered that such a task for a Sith apprentice--which the character is, according to the story--would be much harder than it would be for a Jedi apprentice.

"At that point, Haden said, 'OK, this is the guy,'" Witwer said.

In addition to playing Darth Vader's apprentice, Witwer also asked for and was given the opportunity to play the role of Emperor Palpatine, which he said most people didn't know.

"That was a real fanboy thing," he said.

Since he is a lifelong fan of all things Star Wars, I asked Witwer if a video game was the right medium to choose for the newest chapter in the overall story line.

"So long as the stories are good," he answered, "I think any medium is the way to go."

One fan at the launch event who seemed inclined to agree was Ian Pugh, a 25-year-old from Porterville, Calif., who was dressed as Darth Vader's apprentice from the game.

"I'm a big Star Wars fan, and I like making outfits," Pugh said, adding that he regularly dresses up in Luke Skywalker or Boba Fett outfits at events like WorldCom or ComicCon. "I made a Clone Trooper outfit, but I didn't quite finish it."

Pugh said he tends to be a fan of everything Star Wars and added, "I think (the game) is going to be good. Even the bad Star Wars games, I like."

Another fan, Alan Morales, a 35-year-old from Fairfield, Calif., had also come to the Best Buy to be among the first to purchase The Force Unleashed.

Click for gallery

He got an autograph from Witwer and co-star Adrienne Wikinson, and said, "Oh, yeah, you know it," when asked if he was going to go straight home to play the game.

"It's not a movie, but it has to do with the story in general," Morales said. "It pieces together certain parts you don't know of the story."

He added that he'd been a Star Wars fan since moving to the United States as a kid from Guatemala, and said that from what he'd heard about the game, "it's a big turning point for Star Wars."

Throughout the evening, fans like Morales and Pugh mingled with people hired to play various Star Wars characters. There were R2-D2s, and every now and then you would hear the iconic beep and bloops of an R2-D2.

But maybe my favorite moment of the evening was seeing a man putting on his Chewbacca outfit outside the store.

I started to take his picture, and he asked if I wanted him to put on the beast's head first.

No, I told him. At an event like this, it's better to know that, in fact, there is a human underneath the fur.

A man puts on his Chewbacca costume at the launch event for 'Star Wars: The Force Unleashed,' the new video game that is the latest chapter in the 'Star Wars' story line. Daniel Terdiman/CNET News