Whatever happened to Middle-Earth Online? (Part 2 – The Bellevue Months)

If you haven’t read part one yet, start here. It will get you up to speed.

When Middle-Earth was in Oakhurst its producer and the general manager of the studio were both big supporters of the project. They were on board with how much work it would take and what the game would be like when it came out. Unfortunately neither of them relocated to Bellevue so after the move we didn’t have either of these champions to make sure the game was well received in its new home. This was the first, and arguably the biggest, of our problems once we made it to Washington.

The general manager part was played by the manager in charge of Sierra Studios. Both Middle-Earth and Babylon 5 were put under him. Let’s call him Sam, even though it is not his real name. He immediately started looking for a producer for our project, and a couple months later hired a guy that we can call Boromir. Now Boromir had two big problems: he didn’t like our game, and he was a lousy manager. Boromir spent all his time on the project traveling to conduct focus sessions at conventions so that he could use the resulting data as a tool to convince Sam that the Middle-Earth Online that was underway was not worth making.

My visibility into these events was somewhat limited. I was a worker-bee programmer on the team, and not invited to any Big Important Meetings. What I can tell you is that I never saw any scheduling effort from Boromir (and we desperately needed a schedule.) When I tried to get us access to the bug tracking tool from QA, he wasn’t interested enough to rattle any cages. The time he was in the building, he never came out of his office. I doubt he knew the names of any of the people below the lead level on his team. As far as I could tell all he did was disagree with everything that was coming out of the design team.

Not that everything that came out of design was golden. Some of the ideas actually survived into the game that Turbine eventually shipped, but some were what I like to call “crazy.” The biggest of those was perma-death. The high level design here was that any player would be able to work up the nerve to commit murder by way of lesser crimes. Eventually they would be able to permanently kill another player’s character. Certain high level monsters would also have the ability to perma-kill a player character. To be fair, this was 1999. Everquest hadn’t launched when we relocated, and things like perma-death were considered debatable. In retrospect, though, that one just seems crazy.

The other two big points of design contention were player psychology and player capture. Psychology was the solution to newbie ganking. Whenever you were threatened with a fight that was far enough above your level, your character would automatically run away. Player capture was the notion that certain creatures would capture your character in such a way that they would need to be rescued by other players. Neither of these was nearly as crazy as the perma-death, but taking control of a player’s own character away from them is always a risky thing.

After management infighting, the other big problem we had was actually that we had too little management. Our lead programmer, who we’ll call Frodo, was also our lead designer. Each of those is more than a full time job on a game the size of Middle-Earth. Trying to put both duties into a single person is just silly. He didn’t have the time to devote to either so both halves of his job suffered because of it. This one guy had 7 programmers and 2 designers reporting to him. About 4 people of any sort is generally considered to be enough to keep a manager from getting any non-management work done. And at the same time he was interviewing producers and then, after Boromir started, fighting constantly with him over fundamental game design.

About six months after our relocation to Bellevue it was clear that things were not going well. Sam called a meeting where he told us that there would be another meeting one week later to announce our fate. Apparently the Babylon 5 team had a similar meeting. We spent our week playing Re-volt and Rogue Spear. Nobody was interested in working on a game that was about to go away. One week of later he announced that both projects were cancelled and that we were all being laid off. To the public they said the development was being “restarted”, but the truth was that Boromir was the only person left on the Middle-Earth team, and no one was left on the Babylon 5 team.

It sucked to have the project cancelled, but there was a big silver lining. While we were deciding whether or not to relocate to Bellevue one of the artists on Babylon 5 asked, “So what happens if we relocate and then you just lay us all off anyway?” He was assured that wouldn’t happen, and to back up that guarantee they offered the existing severance package plus an additional three months of severance if we were laid off within a year of the relocation. In the 9 months I worked for Sierra I made about two years worth of salary between all the bonuses and the huge severance package. Sam did not look happy when he had to tell us they would be honoring the deal and giving us all that extra severance, but after all the crap Sierra put us through, I think we deserved it.

(You might think this is the end of the story.  Well not quite.  You can find the end here.)


5 Responses to “Whatever happened to Middle-Earth Online? (Part 2 – The Bellevue Months)”

  1. Psychochild wrote on :

    I knew most of this story since we started talking at conferences around the time you were laid off, IIRC. It’s interesting to see all the bits and pieces.

    I will politely disagree with one assertion you made above that permadeath was a crazy design. Actually, I think it quite fit with the setting. Would LotR be quite so powerful if Boromir would have easily respawned after dying to the orcs? What about the people that died fighting Smaug in The Hobbit? I think permadeath would have added an element that would have made the game seem more true to the books.

    Of course, as usual, you couldn’t just made an EQ (or now, WoW) clone and expect that throwing in permadeath would not fuck things up massively. It does take a smart design to do it right, and the only way you could do it is to plan for that at the beginning.

    Anyway, loved these posts. :) Keep up the good work.

  2. Rich Bryant wrote on :

    Yep, these were real memory shakers. I’ve worked for two studios that folded in the early 90s when the games industry in the UK seemed absolutely doomed.

    By the way, i also disagree about permadeath being crazy design – it can work, but the player has to deliberately choose it for their character at creation. This is why Diablo2′s hardcore mode was so popular – people knew exactly what they were getting and chose it over the alternative ;)

  3. Joe wrote on :

    My objection to perma-death is mostly from the business side of things. Every time a character is permanently killed is an opportunity for that player to never come back. Having hard-core mode be available for players is a fine thing. It’s making that the ONLY mode that seems like a really bad idea to me.

  4. Darius K. said on :

    Really awesome series of posts so far, Joe. Once the series is finished I’ll be sure to point them out to the sizable number of industry aspirants who read my blog.

  5. Brent Michael Krupp said on :

    My wife and a few friends worked at Sierra in this era. Fortunately, they all quit for better opportunities before it finally spiraled down the drain.

    The version of this I heard from one of my friends was that when senior management found out about the incredibly stupid idea of permadeath, they fired everybody. Even at the time, pre-EQ, that seemed like a pretty reasonable explanation — it was a really dumb idea.

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