Lawrence Holland, a journey with Lucasfilm Games towards Star Wars

When 19-year-old Lawrence Holland completed his bachelor’s in Anthropology and Prehistoric Archaeology at Cornell University in 1978, he never would have guessed what the future would come to hold for him. With his next two years spent in the field, working on digs in Africa, Europe, and India there’s was no sign that he would come to have a profound career in computer game development spanning nearly 40 years to this day. In 1981, Holland moved to California in hope of pursuing a doctorate at the University of California, Berkeley, but an encounter with his roommate’s Atari 800 computer promptly changed the course of his life. Intrigued by the computer, Holland acquired one of the first Commodore 64 computers in 1982 and started teaching himself Assembly language, took additional programming lessons, and started developing his first games.

In early 1983 Holland was hired by Human Engineered Software, HESware to program and convert arcade games to home computers. In 1984 HESware hired another soon-to-be-famous programmer, Ron Gilbert, who would only stay with the company for the better part of six months before it became a victim of the harsh condition the games business in general endured at the time. HESware filed for bankruptcy in late 1984 but was acquired by Avant-Garde Publishing, which for a time continued operations. Holland was tasked with completing HESware’s most ambitious game, Project: Space Station, a simulation game that was published in 1985 for the Commodore 64.

Both Holland and Gilbert, following HESware’s demise, ended up at George Lucas’ Skywalker ranch working for Lucasfilm’s small Games Division. Holland, unlike Gilbert who was hired by Lucasfilm Games, contracted with the division in 1985, as a freelance programmer, to do the Apple II conversion of the naval simulator PHM Pegasus. The first game from the division selling more than 100.000 copies.
Holland would continue his contracting work and program Noah Falstein’s Strike Fleet, the unofficial sequel to PHM Pegasus, which was completed in the spring of 1988. Both games were published by Electronic Arts.

PHM Pegasus, developed and programmed by Noah Falstein for the Commodore 64 and published by Electronic Arts in 1986. Lawrence Holland was hired to do the Apple II conversion as his first job as an independent contractor for Lucasfilm Games. Its unofficial sequel Strike Fleet was published in 1988 also by Electronic Arts

With the commercial success of the two simulation titles and with the game rights to Star Wars being held by other companies, Lucasfilm Games didn’t hesitate when Holland, still as an independent contractor, approached with an idea for a new simulation game, this time a World War II combat flight simulator.
Holland assembled his own small team (what would later become Totally games) and began work on a naval air combat flight simulator set in the Pacific air war theater. The game centered around four pivotal naval battles of the Pacific war in 1942, The Battle of the Coral Sea, The Battle of Midway, The Battle of the Eastern Solomons, and The Battle of the Santa Cruz Islands.
Unlike Holland’s earlier games, development was not conducted on the Commodore 64 or Apple II, or even on the 16-bit Amiga but instead on the IBM/PC, a move that would prove extremely wise for the future.
In October of 1988 Air Wing, now titled Battlehawks 1942 was completed and published as the second self-published title by Lucasfilm Games with Maniac Mansion being released earlier the same month.
Initially, the title was released for the IBM/PC but in 1989 both Atari ST and Commodore Amiga owners got their chance to enjoy it as well.

Lucasfilm Games published Lawrence Holland’s World War II air combat flight simulator Battlehawks 1942 for the IBM/PC in the autumn of 1988. Atari ST and Commodore Amiga versions were released the following year

Battlehawks 1942 became praised for its graphics, historical accuracy, AI, and innovative replay feature and would not only go on to define action flight simulators for years to come but also spawn two “direct” sequels. Computer Gaming World magazine awarded it “Best action game of the year”, the emphasis on action is quite significant, Holland wasn’t recreating the physically accurate aerodynamics or pitch-perfect flight characteristics an advanced simulation game demanded but instead recreated the intense environment of the Pacific air war. A war that eventually led to Allied air and sea superiority and ultimately the surrender of the Japanese empire in 1945.
Countless hours of research went into Battlehawks, and it shows not only in the game itself but as well in the elaborate 130-page manual which gives a historical overview of the war in the Pacific, details aircraft and ships, fighter tactics instructions, mission descriptions, and more. Richard H. Best, a US Navy dive-bomber pilot who fought at the Battle of Midway, wrote the preface.

Holland and his team left the Pacific air war and turned to the skies over Britain and the ferocious battle between the British Royal Air Force and the German Luftwaffe in the summer of 1940. Their Finest Hour: The Battle of Britain used much of the same technology and gameplay approach as Battlehawks but also pioneered such features as a mission builder and a campaign mode, where the historical outcome was decided by the success or failure of the missions flown by the player.
Their Finest Hour offered eight legendary aircraft, including the Royal Air Force’s Supermarine Spitfire and Hawker Hurricane along with the Luftwaffe’s Messerschmitt Bf 109, and Junkers Ju 87 Stuka dive-bomber, with its terrorizing wailing sirens, the propaganda symbol of Nazi Germany’s air power.
When released in the autumn of 1989 Their Finest Hour gained even more praise than the game it succeded. It became critically acclaimed not only for its gameplay but for its graphics, the use of soundcard audio, and its extensive 192-page manual.

Their Finest Hour: The Battle of Britain, released in 1989 for the IBM/PC, Atari ST, and Commodore Amiga. A game I thoroughly enjoyed when released in Europe in 1990. I remember reading an article in the newspaper, probably in early 1990, and being into anything and everything WWII, this was a must-have game. Luckily my dad purchased it as soon as it was released. While I still have my original copy, this pristine sealed copy is on display in my collection.
The box art is among some of my all-time favorites

Their Finest Missions: Volume One, An expansion pack with 23 new missions, was released later in 1989. Boxed versions were only sold in Europe, in the US it only came in a sleeve and buyers had to purchase it directly from Lucasfilm

In 1990, a year before the release of Lawrence Holland’s last World War II title Secret Weapons of the Luftwaffe, Lucasfilm Games created a 5.25″ floppy marketing sampler called Flight for Victory. The sampler included a self-running demonstration of Their Finest Hour: The Battle of Britain and an interactive sample of the upcoming Secret Weapons of the Luftwaffe

In august of 1991, the IBM/PC had reigned supreme, Lucasfilm Games was becoming LucasArts, and Holland and his team were about to complete their most ambitious project to date, Secret Weapons of the Luftwaffe, the last title in Holland’s trilogy of World War II air combat simulations. The game mainly focused on Luftwaffe’s various prototypes and experimental aircraft along with the US 8th Air Force (the mighty eight) strategic bombing offensive on Germany from the autumn of 1943 to the end of the war in 1945. A number of german experimental aircraft, some of which never saw service, could be flown, defending the farther land from incoming B-17s bombing raids and their P-51 Mustang escorting fighter planes.
The Secret of the Luftwaffe’s main formula was still the same as that of Battlehawk and Their Finest Hour but with improvements to every aspect and a further expansion of gameplay modes. The game came with an elaborate and 225-page massive manual, detailing the Western European air war theater between 1943 and 1945, alongside tactics and technical information on the different available aircraft. The game was now in 256-color VGA and unlike earlier only released for the IBM/PC.

In august of 1991 Lucasfilm Games published Holland’s third and last title in his World War II air combat series, Secret Weapons of the Luftwaffe. Unlike the two earlier titles, was only released for the IBM/PC

In December of 1991 Prima Games published Rusel DeMaria and George Fontaine’s The Official Lucasfilm Games Air Combat Strategies book. The nearly 500-page behemoth described in detail the historical background of all three games, alongside accounts by pilots who flew and fought in World War II, suggested game-winning strategies, technical information, flight instructions, and much more.
The preface was written by Lawrence Holland

Shortly after The Secret Weapons of the Luftwaffe hit store shelves, Holland started developing a series of expansion disks that added additional planes along with new missions. Four expansion packs, called Tours of Duty, were released and included P-38 Lightning and P-80 Shooting Star from 1991, and Do 335 Pfeil and He 162 Volksjäger from 1992.

The four Tour of Duty expansion packs, each added a new plane, accompanied with new missions

The Software Toolworks released a CD-ROM version in 1992, combining the original game with its four expansion packs. Two other Lucasfilm Games titles, Loom and The Secret of Monkey Island were re-released by The Software Toolworks in 1992 as well.

The Software Toolworks CD-ROM release from 1992 included all four expansion packs

Secret Weapons of the Luftwaffe became critically acclaimed for its rich graphics, complex yet very user-accessible gameplay, and numerous different game modes. It was named Best simulation games of 1991, a distinguished accomplishment, in a time when numerous other developers had started producing competing products, among those were Chris Roberts’ science fiction space flight simulator Wing Commander from 1990. Allegedly Robert had reversed engineered Holland’s Battlehawk 1942 to create the engine used in Wing Commander.

In 1994 LucasArts published all three of Holland’s World War II air combat simulations including the five expansions as LucasArts AirCombat Classics

Holland’s World War II air combat simulations gave players an unprecedented opportunity to relive and even rewrite history, offering a huge variety of legendary aircraft and engaging in some of the most notorious air battles the war had to offer. The series was lauded for its historical accuracy, detailed supplementary material, and superb action, and accessible gameplay. Today the three titles are all considered true classics and still some of the best the genre has to offer.

In 1990 Steve Arnold, the head of Lucasfilm’s Games Division finally had the video game rights back allowing the company to do their own in-house Star Wars games. Following Secret Weapons of the Luftwaffe, Holland and his team, now a trusted and proven entity, pitched an idea for an X-wing game… But that’s all for a future article.

One thought on “Lawrence Holland, a journey with Lucasfilm Games towards Star Wars

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.