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3. Middle-earth

Publisher:

Sierra On-line, a division of Havas Interactive,
                a division of Vivendi Universal
                previously a division of Cendant Software

Developer:
Yosemite Entertainment, a Sierra Company, Oakhurst CA from early 1998 to Feb 1999.
Sierra Studios, Bellevue WA, from March 1999 to September 1999.

Personnel:

Steve Nichols - Lead Designer, System Architect, Lead Programmer
Janus Anderson - Designer, RPG System, User Interface, Programmer
Daniel James - Designer, World Design, Writer, Tolkien boffin
Jon Bock - Art Director, Designer
Nancy Grimsley - Writer

Kai Martin - Programmer, Landscape System
Joe Ludwig - Programmer, Client-Server, Game Systems
Mike Haynes - Server Programmer
Travis Schluessler - Server Programmer
Mike Copley - Client 3D Programmer
Jackie Woodall - AI Programmer
Jason Bare - Tools Programmer

Greg Poulos - Lead Character Artist
Becky Kosuge - Character Artist
Jurgen Brenkhert - Character Artist
Mike McMillen - Character Artist

Mike Cicchi - Lead Background Artist, Concept Artist
Kirt Lemons - Background Artist, Concept Artist, Moria
Erik Soulvie - Background Artist
Nathan Cheever - World Builder, Background Artist

Chance Thomas - Composer, Musician
Tim Larkin - Sound Designer

At Yosemite:

Linda Lubken - Lead Background Artist, Art Director to June 1998
Jay Esparza - Art Director, June 1998 - Jan 1999
John Lindemuth - Lead Concept Artist
Richard Katz - Character Artist, Animator
Bryan Ellis - Background Artist, Concept Artist
Deanna Yhalkee - Background Artist
Renee Dunlop - Background Artist
Don Waller - Background Artist
Brandee Prugh - Artist, Movie co-ordinator

John Crane - Acting Project Manager, 1998
Mark Zechiel - Project Manager, briefly early 1999
Tom Craven - Product Marketing Manager
Craig Alexander - Executive Producer, General Manager

At Sierra Studios:

Shannon Haynes - Associate Producer
David Gehringer - Product Marketing Manager
Mark O'Green - Producer, June - September 1999
Mark Hood - General Manager


Daniel James writes:

In the midst of 1997 Craig Alexander, General Manager of the Oakhurst
division of Sierra, then known as Sierra Publishing, was driving home
listening to Lorenna McKennett. He was contemplating how he might grow
The Realm into a premier online game, when the idea came to him: license
the works of Professor J.R.R.Tolkien.

Craig assigned Jon Bock, then 'Franchise Manager', to look into the matter.
Jon's researches turned up Tolkien Enterprises, and they set about bidding
for the rights to create games based on the works of Professor Tolkien.
The negotiations took several months, and they were up against another
party for the Internet game rights, but just before Christmas 1997
their proposal was accepted by Tolkien Enterprises and the terms agreed.

Steve Nichols and Janus Anderson were then working on The Realm, having just
effected the upgrade from version 2.x to version 3.x. The plan with
The Realm had been to continue upgrading and improving the game, but
the refusal of Sierra's sales operation to sell the product at retail
had somewhat dulled the commercial lustre. Craig's new assignment had
just that sparkle. It also tied in perfectly with his new strategy of
building games with strong licenses: Babylon 5 and Navy Seals were to
be companions to the Tolkien franchise.

Thus at the turn of the year, Steve and Janus were assigned to begin the
odyssey of creating Middle-earth.

I met Janus and Steve at the GDC in May 1998, interviewed at Yosemite
and in July moved out to Oakhurst. At that time a number of decisions
had been made about the project: it was to use an isometric client,
re-use much of The Realm's server code, but with quite different
gameplay. I was charged with responsibility for the quests, backstory,
Tolkien consistency and so forth. There were a good old bunch of
people on the project: only five engineers, but around eight or nine
artists -- many of them fresh from the finally shipping Quest for
Glory five.

Pretty soon the isometric decision started to look troublesome -- big
monsters would take up heaps of memory and CD space. We shifted to
real-time 3D, which necessitated throwing out a certain amount of art
and code. It also led us into the wonderful world of writing our own
3D engine. Otherwise work proceeded in a fairly orderly manner. We put
up a website and began dialogue with the fans.

If I recall correctly we had a 'milestone' event in November or so
with a number of bigwigs from Sierror HQ, who approved our growing
budget.

Meanwhile Sierra had been sold, as a part of Cendant Software, to
Vivendi-Universal, who stuffed it into their burgeoning Havas
publishing empire along with Blizzard, Knowledge Adventure and
Berkeley Systems.

Come February Yosemite Entertainment got a visit from some Vice
President of something or other. Our first tip-off was the Pinkerton
security guards in the parking lot, the second was the '10am all-hands
meeting' email. The third was email going down shortly afterwards. Zip
disks suddenly became very highly sought after. Yosemite was to be
shut down, but 'key team members' of the Middle-earth and Babylon 5
projects were offered relocation to Bellevue, WA to continue the
projects at Sierror HQ. Navy Seals, a tactical first-person shooter,
was to be cancelled. All in all around 40-50 of the 150 or so staff at
Yosemite were offered the relocation. Lots of people left the building
in tears.

The wisdom of the closure of Yosemite is, of course, highly
questionable. The division was pretty well run, and had lower costs
than an urban group might, but it was no doubt difficult to attract
talent to the Mountains. However, we had the big shining light of
Middle-earth, so I didn't think that was a big issue. It really came
down to trimming dollars for the bottom line, as the new corporate
owners were anxious to do.

So, some of us shuffled up to Seattle. By April we were installed in
the grey halls of Sierror HQ in a bedrizzled Bellevue office
park. Alas, for none of our managers had made the move; our General
Manager and instigator of the Tolkien deal, Craig Alexander, had been
laid off, and Mark Zechiel had turned down the relocation. We were a
very expensive baby with no management mom. This was to prove a
problem.

For a few months we trucked along and Mark Hood looked for a
Producer. Eventually he found a guy he liked called Mark O'Green, and
we liked him pretty well, too. We had been moved out of the main
Sierra building, over the parking lot into another building with the
B5 guys. It was weird. When Dave Grenewetski, the Sierror President,
did the Yosemite closure he talked about 'Water-cooler synergies'
emerging from 'concentrating development in one place'. We often
talked about wheeling a water-cooler into the middle of the parking
lot, or perhaps his office. The latter wouldn't have done much good as
he was never, ever there -- he 'commuted' from his home in Calistoga.
Nice.

The team was merrily trucking along trying to make this enormous
game. Technically we were making pretty reasonable progress - we
logged in, walked around, talked and played with the rabbits. The art
team had some issues, mostly to do with manpower and the terrifying
scale of the task at hand. Sierra was soon under a hiring freeze,
which made it difficult to ramp up production.

Steve, Janus and I had lots of fun arguments about different parts of
the design. Around the time of our move from Yosemite, I had convinced
Steve that producing vast swathes of carefully hand-crafted content
such as quests, talk-trees, etc. was going to be a tremendous resource
drain and a waste of time. I believed in the sandbox school of MMP
design - give the players the tools and a rich environment in which to
exercise them. This part of the design did a complete 180, much to my
delight. We had a number of other risky and innovative features:

- Permanent death: a player could be murdered and their character
  actually deleted. It wouldn't happen very often; nearly all monsters
  would refrain from perma-killing, and players would have to make a
  conscious decision that would then brand them as a murderer, to be
  hunted down by others.
- Character psychology: you couldn't just tell your character to kill
  another player, you had to train them to become a cold-blooded
  murderer. This could have been neat in lots of ways, sort of
  Simslike.
- Player-based and algorithmic gameplay. As alluded to above,
  including things like town-building (and destroying), algorithmically
  populated spawn points and 'adventure' generation, etc.
- Player Monsters: to draw achievers away from pk'ing, players would
  be able to play Monster characters. You'd start with a weak Orc, and
  if you did well (scoring points by beating up on players or whatnot)
  you'd graduate to an Uruk, etc. The stronger Monsters would be
  progressively more location-bound, so eventually a winning player
  might get to play a Balrog, but they'd only be able to hang out in
  Moria. Players would have to go looking for the big bad trouble.
- 10,000 player world. I never paid much attention to this, but
  looking back I think it was probably a bad idea, I doubt that it would
  have worked. Technically fine, but the content / map size etc...
- Top-down 3D engine. Oh dear me. This was a point of much
  controversy; should one be able to see the horizon? Would it be
  Middle-earth without sweeping panoramas? I am afraid to say that I
  was a believer in sweeping panoramas. As a team we can be totally
  vindicated by the recent success of NeverWinter Nights and Dungeon
  Seige -- our engine was exactly like theirs.

We had a pretty clear idea of what we were doing, and we were making
some progress. In June we did a presentation to the 'Havas
Interactive' CEO Hubert Joly and his fellow VPs etc. Dave
Grenewetzki's sole comment was, on looking at the financial projects
I'd put together, 'If we can make those numbers, I'll be a happy man.'

By July or so Mark O'Green (our new Producer) made his effort at
getting involved in the project. I think we had one or two team
meetings that he attended, one of them definitely involved Mark
pontificating on why EverQuest cost less than Middle-earth was going
to cost, and why we should make the game more like EQ. This was to be
a recurring theme, at least for a short while.

At this point Mark asked us to do something I'd been keen on for a
while: to put together a large single design doc. I won't go into the
poor excuses for why this hadn't been done already. So, we did this,
and he trotted off 'upstairs' with this doc. We never heard a peep
back, but Mark did start doing 'Focus Groups' with various wacky folk
like Gencon visitors. The design team weren't actually told about
these tests, but we heard about them through the grapevine.

Gradually it became clear that Mark O'Green and his boss, Mr Hood,
thought that our design had problems and needed a different angle. An
EverQuest sort of angle; first-person, hack'n'slash based, lots more
magic ('But Tolkien said that magic was not common.' we said,
'Everyone wants to be Gandalf.' was the reply), tougher Hobbits (umm,
okay), Elves for everyone (see above with magic) and a first-person
view.

Steve wasn't keen on these changes. None of us were. They were stupid,
both from the point of view of Tolkien consistency, and actually
getting the project done. I could have rolled with the engine change
quite happily, but the magic/Elves/hacknslash stuff was clearly
contrary to my job description as Tolkien expert.

For a month or two not a peep came out of Mark O'Green or Mr
Hood. Finally we had another team meeting and Mr Hood deigned to
tiptoe across the parking lot (for the first and last time) to tell us
that, 'You guys might be in the can, I don't know, I've not decided
yet.' When Janus asked him if there was anything the team could do to
persuade him, his reply was, 'No. I've worked everything out, I just
need to follow through with my logical processes and determine the
answer.' Right. The old 'Deterministic Turing Game Development State
Machine'.

A week later and the word came down: we were in the can, everyone on
Middle-earth and Babylon 5 got laid off (apart from Mark O'Green, who
stuck around to 'restart the project'.) Bitterness and anger were
somewhat assuaged by the six months of severance Havas was obliged to
cough up as a part of our relocation package (thanks to astute
bargaining by Stuart. Thanks!)

Steve, Janus, Joe and I thought about starting a development shop, but
decided against it for various reasons and scattered to the four
winds. I went down to Oakhurst again for Codemasters USA, but that's
another debacular tale.

To conclude, what went wrong?

- The project moved to Seattle with no management protection and
  oversight. If we'd had just one strong manager who believed in the
  game, we might not have met the axe. O'Green never believed, and why
  should he?
- We were planning to do a number of risky things. Big games
  publishers don't get along well with risky things.
- Sierror was a disfunctional organisation with a number of issues
  from top to bottom. Management was atrocious, or at least
  atrociously absent. They were probably spending a lot of time
  educating and fighting with their new French masters over dollars
  and cents, but that didn't make any difference to us: we didn't have
  any leadership, and it showed.
- Sierror had a history of mismanaging online projects. The Realm was
  constantly being cancelled, and never recieved the support the company.
- Middle-earth could have been better managed from the start. Manpower
  issues at Yosemite (our producer was drafted to ship Quest for
  Glory) prevented the project from getting good early oversight. Bad
  habits were learnt. We should have had a full design doc, better art
  specifications, etc. etc. Every project has these issues, but for a
  game of the size and scope, we couldn't expect to get by without
  solving them.
- Somewhere in management (who knows at what level) they couldn't
  believe that a Tolkien MMP could justify a $5m+ development
  budget. I don't know what kind of crack they were smoking. If they
  had believed, they would have fixed the project. It could have been
  fixed.
- I think someone in management thought that a JRRT MMP was a great
  idea, but that it should be done like EQ, and by a cheap team of
  hungry external developers. I can see why one might get this idea,
  as my experience of internal development was that it was expensive
  and pretty ineffectual.

Am I bitter and angry? No. It's true that I think that Sierra wasted
some of my time, but they paid for me it, and for a bunch more time
that I wasted all by myself afterwards, so I can't argue about that. I
do think that spectacularly bad decisions were made, and an absence of
leadership was demonstrated by some people who should have led. In the
end, though, the actual decision-making process was so convoluted that
I wouldn't hold any individuals to blame.

It is, however, rather sad that over four years after stealing my license
Sierra still can't manage to ship a Tolkien-based MMP game. I've
heard of what, three other attempts to start the project, all
cancelled? Latest rumour is that some competant people are ramping up
for a crack.

Good luck to'em.


---

Both these groups did a fanastic job of tracking Middle-earth:


A mysterous author put together a tawdry tale of the affair:


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