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1. Three Rings Internet Productions

Nov 1995-Dec 1998

Personnel: Daniel James and his happy lawyer friends.
           Some prototyping by Glynn Clements


Daniel James writes:

Three Rings began when in late 1995 when I wrote a seven page pitch to
Tolkien Enterprises of Berkeley CA, bidding for the exclusive rights to
develop Internet games based on Professor JRR Tolkien's books the
Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit.

The pitch was very straightforward; I, or rather Three Rings, would fund
and develop a massively multi-player game set in Tolkien's Middle-earth.
The client would be real-time 3D, 3rd-person 'cinematic' perspective
(a la Mario 64). The scaleable server on heaps of UNIX machines.

Many thousands of simultaneous players per world. Dynamic player-society
oriented gameplay in an exquisite rendering of Tolkien's world. Strong
customer support.

It was an unstoppably wonderful proposition, remarkably similar to
Middle-earth.

Bear in mind that Ultima Online had yet, to my knowledge, to be publically
announced; that came around Ten and Mpath's hilarious announcements at
E3 in summer 1996.

After some to-and-fro, a bit of explanation and discussion, the project
was given a 'green light' by Tolkien Enterprises in November 1996.


I was elated.

Believing that I was about to become incredibly busy, I shut down
all my other various nefarious entrepreneurial interests,
though I continued to be involved with Avalon and Sense Internet.
This was a mistake, but not my worst.


Consider the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity: to bring to life Tolkien's
world as a consensual hallucination, a massive theatre of thousands,
an act of worship to one's favourite and most influential novel.
Talented geeks of art and science alike would rain CV's upon me.

Consider also the purity and elegance of the business plan: a sure
bet for a profitable Internet venture. Funding would swiftly come,
even in the frozen climate of London, where the only kind of VC
normally found is the Victoria Cross, bestowed by the Queen to
hapless fools that manage to start and 'grow organically' any
innovative business. Well-fed city gents would scramble and beat
each other away with their umbrellas and bowler hats, desperate to
feed the doubtless extensive financial needs of Middle-earth.
Only if we fancied a retail release, as a marketing ploy, would we
stoop to meddling with traditional publishers.

I was seriously looking into basing development and credit-card
servers in Bermuda or an equivalent warm, sunny and tax-free domain.
Naturally everyone would have fat equity and after a few years of
frenetic hacking, maybe we'd be able to retire on a nice, steady
income. I didn't plan to go public, there didn't seem any need as
the license would - assuming certain financial goals - renew
indefinitely.


Then began the descent into the seven circles of contractual hell.
My expensive lawyers and their expensive lawyers tortuously generated
further papers and documentation. It was incumbant upon me to have a
watertight contract as my investors were understandably meticulous in
their due diligence. Naturally my business plan, seed money and core
team were lined up, but the entire venture was my increasingly costly
baby.

Then in summer 1997 Miramax optioned the film rights to The Lord of
the Rings, and with them associated merchandising rights; suddenly I was
potentially in competition with Disney.

My investors flipped, and I made a gross tactical error - I changed the
terms of my offer. My license was no longer exclusive, I reasoned.


Alas! for just at this time came Sierra to the table, stalking all game
rights - Internet and otherwise. The experience behind The Realm,
the attractions of greater financial incentives from a major company and
the multi-product deal (CD-ROM adventures and Internet games from one
company!) were head-turning.

My troubled contractual worries lasted through an amiable November
meeting in Berkeley until winter solstice, when Tolkien Enterprises let me
know I had lost the race.

Three Rings Internet Productions was in the can.


Though the experience was drawn-out and at times miserable, I hadn't lost
my enthusiasm for the project. The very day Sierra announced Middle-earth
at the CGDC '98, I was there 'knocking on the door'. Fortunately they'd
all been drinking heavily, and they hired me.

Update

Daniel is no longer working in his dream job. Sierra canned Middle-earth!


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