Archive for the ‘History’ Category

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.

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.)

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.)

BadgerCom

Back in the olden days before everyone knew about the internet, five of us from the Computer Science department at Colorado State University decided to start a software company. We were all big fans of UHF, so we named the company BadgerCom Software. We had a lot of ideas about what our product should be, which was probably not a good sign. They included: an online text-only version of the Steve Jackson game Illumininati, RPG utility software, fantasy football tracking software, and FAS.

We actually built the Illuminati game. You could play Illuminati Deluxe over the internet with up to 3 of your friends. It supported all the cards but one (since Illuminati was filled with cards that added new rules) and I spent many hours making it work. We were talking to Steve Jackson about putting it up on Illuminati Online, but unfortunately the year was 1994 and a text-based game that you had to telnet into wasn’t really what he was looking for just as Mosaic was catching on. Playing game after game of Illuminati as it was under development (often against myself) spoiled the game for me. Before the project we were playing it about once a week; I haven’t played it since the project finished 12 years ago.

The pen-and-paper RPG utility software, RPG Tools, turned out to be the flagship product for BadgerCom. Our plan was to write a flexible database for storing monsters and items and then write re-skins of it for various systems. We were talking to lots of companies to get rights, including West End Games, Steve Jackson Games, White Wolf, and Mayfair Games. We shipped the RPG Tools product in 1994, and actually secured rights to make an RPG Tools module for Paranoia (by West End Games.) It was at that point that we realized that there was absolutely no way we could build a module for a game of that size and sell enough copies of it to make any money. In fact, we couldn’t have made any money off modules for White Wolf’s stuff which was the #2 system at the time and selling like crazy. One of the BadgerCom guys still makes a few little utilities in his spare time. I think that’s about the right scale for this sort of product.

Of all the crazy product ideas we had, the fantasy football software was probably the best one. If we had put together a web-based fantasy football package in the mid-nineties we could probably have sold it for a bundle to one of the many operators of fantasy football that are getting lots of traffic today. Oh, Barry, if only we had heeded your words. But the rest of us weren’t terribly interested in football, fantasy or otherwise, and never really took this one seriously.

FAS stands for Fantasy Adventure System because we were huge fans of acronyms and incredibly awkward names. Three of the five of us were builders in Crossroads, a heavily modified TinyMuck 2.2. (Not to be confused with Crossroads Muck, which was something completely different.) Text-based MUDs were so much fun that we thought, “Hey, wouldn’t it be great if we could build this graphically? Maybe something top-down like Ultima IV, only with a bunch of other people in the game at the same time!” We had some technical conversations about how difficult it would be, but never spent any time on this one. As incredibly inexperienced as we were, I’m not sure we would have made it very far, but it would have been a blast to come out with something like this in 1996 or so. :)

I graduated in December of 1994, the last one to finish with CSU. I accepted an offer from Hewlett-Packard a few months later, and moved to California. BadgerCom stuck around for a couple more years, and even acted as the US publisher for Prince of Destruction, an RPG from Australia. We were a really crappy publisher, but we did gain a lot of credit card debt printing boxes. Two of the other guys founded Front Range Internet in 1995 (a good year to found an ISP) and they hired a third a year or two later. The fifth is consulting and writing books now.

The funny thing is that our crappy engineering decisions didn’t doom BadgerCom; it was our crappy business sense that did. We thought that because we all played lots of RPGs, used Macintosh computers, and thought it would be cool to combine the two that there would automatically be a market for our product. We were all internet-savvy (which meant telnet, finger, ftp, and archie in those days) and so we made an Illuminati game for ourselves. And after RPG Tools tanked we thought we had enough experience to publish somebody else’s game. Boy were we young and stupid. :)