Whatever happened to Middle-Earth Online? (Conclusion – Grasping at straws)

(You may want to read parts one or two first if you haven’t already.)

In spring of 2001 I went down to San Jose, California for the Game Developer’s Conference. In the car rental terminal at San Jose airport I was in line next to a couple guys who were obviously coming into town for the conference. We made small talk while we waited our turn and then once we got our cars we went our separate ways. Meeting game developers is hard not to do in San Jose during GDC, so this was a pretty ordinary encounter.

We were staying at Motel 6 that year in an attempt to save the company money, so after I made it to the motel I had to spend a hour or so yelling at the clerk to get them to actually set aside the rooms we had reserved. The rest of the company was flying in the next day, so I wanted to make sure there would be someplace for them to sleep. Once the rooms were set, I went off in search of dinner.

2001 was a bad year for California electrically. Enron, wildfires, and record temperatures where conspiring to cause rolling brownouts for about a year, and this GDC was in the middle of that. None of the businesses in the state had their external lights on to conserve power. After driving around for 45 minutes, I still couldn’t find any place open to eat, or at least any place that had their lights on, so I ended up at the Denny’s out in front of the Motel 6. Staying at Motel 6 and eating at Denny’s. Boy that was the life.

Well it turns out that these two guys from the airport also ended up in the same Denny’s. They were just about finished, but didn’t have any place else to be so I took a seat at their table and ordered dinner.

We got to talking about about games we had worked on, and when I mentioned Middle-Earth Online, one of these guys got an excited look on his face. His name was David Michael, and he was a founder at Samu Games. Samu had a game out called Artifact, which is a 2D online strategy game. It seems that about a year earlier, in the spring of 2000, Sierra had approached Samu Games about doing a version of Artifact with the Middle-Earth license. They paid for Samu to add a few new features to their game and reskin it with hobbits and elves so they could show it off as Middle-Earth Online.

It seems that the licensing agreement between the Tolkien people and Sierra specified certain milestones at which Sierra had to show forward progress on Middle-Earth Online. One of these milestones was in 2000 and they needed to show something to Tolkien’s estate or they would lose the license. They laid off the entire Middle-Earth team in the fall of 1999, so they obviously had nothing internal to show, but by throwing a few hundred thousand dollars at Samu Games, they could get their hands on an online game set in Middle-Earth.

Samu used the money to build this reskinned Artifact and then after delivering the Middle-Earth game to Sierra, pulled all the hobbits and elves out and changes it back into Artifact 2.0. I don’t know if Sierra ever showed the result to the Tolkien estate. They certainly never released the game. They eventually lost the license, and after a few years it made its way over to Turbine. Samu didn’t know why this strange project had fallen in their laps until that dinner at Denny’s… they just knew that Sierra wanted a vaguely Middle-Earthy game, but didn’t seem to care at all about the gameplay or anything else about the game.

What a bizarre little industry we have.

~Joe


8 Responses to “Whatever happened to Middle-Earth Online? (Conclusion – Grasping at straws)”

  1. Andrew Crystall wrote on :

    Hi Joe,

    Just wanted to say thanks for you sharing this history with us.

  2. Perun wrote on :

    Very good and interesting read, thanks for sharing!

  3. Kendricke commented on :

    I’d also like to share my thanks for coming forward with this. I’d love to hear more, actually.

  4. Joe replied on :

    Heh. Well if you hear more it’ll be from somebody else. This is about all I know.

  5. Dieman said on :

    Wow, Joe, that’s quite the tale of woe and wasted time. It’s actually quite depressing. I knew the industry I throw most of my money at was broken, but… wow. Just… wow. What a depressing state of affairs. What did you do with yourself after that (if you don’t mind me prying, it’s just such an interesting story)?

  6. Joe thought on :

    When all the layoffs happened I started applying to other jobs. I had a couple interviews down in California and one up here at Flying Lab Software. I took the Flying Lab job and that’s where I’ve been working for 8 years now.

    This was really the story of Sierra imploding. Most of the companies in the industry are growing or at least stable, and are not nearly this messed up. This is just what happens when a company goes down in flames.

  7. Allan replied on :

    I’ve been through this kind of crash-and-burn in game companies twice. They actually treated you pretty okay (severance, relocation). In our case, they still owed us 6 months backpay in one case, and left me with an 8 month unused lease for a condo in Kuala Lumpur the other time. Less of a “2 years pay for 6 months work”, and more of a “6 months pay for 2 years work :) ”.

  8. Tolkien fan wrote on :

    Hi, Joe. I agree with previous guys and wanna thank you for sharing your story.