Whatever happened to Middle-Earth Online?

All this talk about Sigil reminds me of the bad old days when I worked at Sierra on Middle-Earth Online. Much of the crap that the people at Sigil are slogging through right now is the same crap that we had to deal with back in 1999.

I started at Sierra in December of 1998. Though I had been out of college for 5 years, this was my first game industry job. I had been applying to game companies regularly for a couple years at that point without much success. In fact, the Sierra interview was my first with a game company. The position was to work as a programmer on a new online game called “Middle-Earth Online”.

The Middle-Earth team was running at Yosemite Entertainment in Oakhurst, California. Oakhurst is a little mountain town half an hour from the south gate of Yosemite. It is actually where Sierra started way back when, and though corporate headquarters moved to Washington State in the mid-1990s, many of the developers stayed behind to work on games. This was the studio that produced nearly every game that Sierra is famous for, including King’s Quest, Quest for Glory, Space Quest, Police Quest, and Leisure Suite Larry. All the early 80s stuff you read about in Smart Bomb and Hackers happened up in Oakhurst too. Some time after HQ moved away, the original Sierra On-Line studio renamed itself Yosemite Entertainment.

I was a huge MUDder back in college, and was looking to networking as my ticket into the industry, so this was nearly a perfect fit. There was no way that I could pass this offer up, even though it meant less money and moving to the middle of nowhere. Both of these things were actually a bigger deal for my girlfriend-at-the-time than for me, and it didn’t help that I didn’t tell her I was looking at jobs outside of the bay area. But after a few huge fights we decided to move to Oakhurst so I could take the job. (In retrospect, I probably should have avoided the next two years of painful breakup and moved to Oakhurst alone, but that’s another story entirely.)

From the start I could tell this was the job for me. In the first few months I worked on getting the MSQL database up and running, experimenting with terrain processing from high level maps, and reading all the Lord of the Rings books. Every day lunch was filled with chatter about games, and every evening was a LAN party on the machines in the office. Elsewhere in the same building were teams working on a Babylon 5 space combat game, and a squad tactics shooter called Navy S.E.A.L.S.

It seemed like everything was going well until… One Monday morning at the end of February I arrived at the office, as usual, a bit before 10am. The first clue I had that something was wrong was that nobody was working. Everyone was standing around talking. It seems that all the Maya and Max dongles were missing, so none of the artists could work. Someone had come in over the weekend and taken them all. The internet connection was also down, along with the email server. No one from IT could be found, which wasn’t entirely unheard of since IT support at Yosemite Entertainment was typically pretty bad, but not being able to find any of them when all the important servers where down was strange.

I had only been in the game industry for about three months at this point. I wasn’t familiar with the constant churn of companies that I now take for granted. Many of the other people on the team were freaking out though. The artists were copying whatever files they could get their hands on to one of the few machines with a CD burner and burning CDs. They wanted to make sure they had portfolio material ready. The programmers followed suit with the source code, though it’s not clear exactly what they were going to do with it. It’s not like anybody asks a programmer for a portfolio.

There was an all hands meeting scheduled for 10am that morning. It had been announced on Friday and was advertised to be about “February birthdays and Havas update”. Now speculation was running wild about what “Havas update” could mean. Was Sierra’s new parent company going to shut it down? Were we all out of a job?

Ten O’clock rolled around and we all filed into the big conference room. They laid out typical morning meeting junk food (doughnuts, muffins, etc.) at the back of the room, and I think there may have even been a cake. Nobody was hungry, and we all ignored the food. Pretty soon a guy nobody knew stood up and started talking.

His name was Bill something or other, I think. He was down from corporate, but not directly in the chain of command. He pretty much cut to the chase and said that they were closing the studio and that some of the people in the meeting would now go upstairs for a separate meeting. At that point he started reading a list of names, and it was obvious about five names in that this was the list of keepers. He read the names of almost the entire Babylon 5 team and about 2/3 of the Middle-Earth team. We got to walk past all the people who were about to be laid off and go pack into the second largest conference room to be offered relocation to Bellevue, Washington.

Everyone was pretty upset. Some of these people had been with the company twenty years, and most of them had been there ten. The Middle-Earth people who didn’t make the cut were mostly artists from Sierra’s 2D adventure game days, plus one programmer who seemed to have been laid off accidentally. It was clear that this was seen as an opportunity to shed some employees who weren’t as useful in a new 3D era.

The people who were laid off were given two months of “notice” period plus an amount of severance that scaled with both their salary and the length of their employment. The people who were offered relocation were given a choice between either that severance package or a $10,000 signing bonus, a 10% bump in pay, and 100% paid relocation. I don’t know what anyone else was offered, but my three whole months of employment plus my $60k salary would have resulted in something like 5 weeks of severance.

At the time, they didn’t tell us why Yosemite Entertainment was closing, but everyone had a theory. Quest for Glory V had shipped earlier that year and bombed. It cost way more money than any other Sierra game ever had, and the Yosemite studio head put a big political bet on its success. Also, Sierra (or at least its parent Cendant Software) had recently been purchased by Vivendi/Havas and renamed Havas Interactive. Perhaps this was an opportunity to cut costs and “save money” through some funny accounting tricks that were only available at the time of the merger.

Whatever the reason, we weren’t alone. Dynamix was closed the same day. Berkeley Systems (makers of the very popular You Don’t Know Jack series of party games) was another Havas company and was closed not long after that. Bill something or other was laid off two weeks later when Sierra corporate decided they didn’t need that much middle management now that there was nobody left to manage. Sierra was in the process of imploding and we were just part of that process.

So that’s the story of the first three months of my time on Middle-Earth. I’ll leave the exciting tales of horrible mismanagement for my next post. (You can find part two here.)

~Joe


7 Responses to “Whatever happened to Middle-Earth Online?”

  1. robusticus said on :

    I’ve been hanging recently with a bunch of people who used to work at Sierra in Bellevue, who were there when they shut that office down. They’re now scattered at various places like Zipper, BigFish, MS. There’s always MS. A truth that transcends games, even, when it starts to hit the fan in the general tech economy.

    A shame about Sierra, though, that’s what happens when business takes over. The people making the decisions are 3 or 5 levels above, and have never met any of the people in the whole group they just canned. Much less participated in the culture, in that case, revolving around Halflife. Just red ink, to them.

    Hopefully Flying Lab takes a different route, eh?

  2. Joe said on :

    I think the fall of Sierra actually has more to do with Ken and Roberta Williams leaving than anything else. The company was basically dead at that point… it just took a few years to realize it. Of course that’s all just conjecture. My time at Sierra was after the death throes had started.

    Things at FLS are much better. We have a pretty flat structure, and all the decision makers have open doors to talk to anyone. Now we just need to get the game out the door so we can have some revenue. ;)

  3. Gibberish replied on :

    I clicked a link accidentally while on another site, i was hitting some lag and had not noticed. When i came back i was here and was not sure, at 1st, how i had arrived. I read a few tid bits then read the whole sierra/middle-earth deal here.
    I must say, it seems to be from the prospective of someone out of the loop and who is pretty sure he will never run into or work for some of these people again..i hope you are right :)

  4. Joe thought on :

    If you’re talking about the people from Part 2, I’ll certainly never work for Boromir again. Frodo is still in the industry and we’re still in touch. I even told him the perma-death thing was crazy. I have no idea what happened to Sam, but I don’t really bear him any ill will. He inherited a broken project at a time when his budget was being squeezed. I have no idea where he is these days. I didn’t use their actual names for a reason…

    So the only guy I’m worried about pissing off is the guy that I’m not worried about pissing off. :)

  5. Matt commented on :

    I’m jealous about 5 weeks of “severance” when a big company shuts down. :) The three “too small” game companies that have cratered under me in my career ended up owing me a total of 5 weeks of pay and another 5 weeks of accrued vacation, with no severance even mentioned.

    I should seriously start looking at working for real companies. (Hey, is it considered polite to ask about their severance policy in your resume cover letter? ;) ;) )

  6. Lord of the Rings fan wrote on :

    Curious story. I’ve never heard about the real situation in Sierra, and you post was very interesting to me. My boyfriend told me that his sister has worked in Sierra for a few years, so I’m going to ask her about details.

1 Trackback

  1. Trackback from Psychochild's Blog on :

    Frequent relocation

    Over at Joe Ludwig’s blog, he posted a bit about the original Middle Earth Online project by Sierra. (http://programmerjoe.com/2007/05/28/whatever-happened-to-middle-earth-online/) He worked on a version that eventually got canceled. His story is a …

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