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Krondor Confidential - Intermission II
A Year Lost In the Wilderness
A year after we’d shipped Betrayal at Krondor to world-wide acclaim, I was holed up in a ten-by-ten ticket booth and being slowly eaten by mosquitos. Thanks to the saturation point humidity and temperatures that ranged north of a hundred, I felt disgusting, like a week-old dumpster burrito wrapped in saran wrap, but somehow even less appealing. For two months, this had been my weekend job as I served as the sole ticket taker and groundskeeper at Putters, the tiniest and most pathetically tragic miniature golf course ever conceived, located immediately adjacent to a half-dead strip mall just west of Tulsa.
Before dinnertime, my only customers for the day arrived in a decrepit station wagon, dragging a cloud of dust behind them. They bumped over the cracked parking lot and into a spot just outside the chain link fence. From inside the car, a family eyed me suspiciously through gritty windows. A rear door popped open, ejecting a Native American girl who came bounding through the gate and up to my window.
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“Are you still open?” she asked. Up close I could see she was older than I’d first thought — probably about fourteen — but she had a certain fidgeting, nervous energy that gave her a younger air. She had big, curious brown eyes, straight hair that hung to the middle of her back, and a t-shirt that with the words NATIVE PRIDE written in crumbling white iron on letters.
“For another hour.”
She turned, motioning for everyone else to get out of the car while she dug in her pocket for money. “You’re new,” she observed, and dumped out five admission fees good for several rounds on the counter.
“Ish. I’ve been here a month.”
“New to me.”
As the rest of her family took their time ambling over, she hopped up and down on her toes, pointing to one of the golf balls racked up behind my head. Following her motion, I picked up the one she seemed to be indicating.
“Green?” I asked.
“It’s teal!” Her tone was one of horror, as if I’d mistaken a common house cat for a horse.
“Looks green to me.”
“It’s Teeeeeeeeeeeal,” she insisted, rolling her eyes at me. I chucked it into a bucket, then handed it over with several others for her approval.
Once all her family members had chosen their equipment, they strode off together to tackle the first hole, laughing and chatting in the fading light of golden hour. Not long after, my new young friend came back to the window with her putter and unused bucket of balls and returned them to me.
“Don’t you want to play the rest of your rounds?” I asked.
She shrugged and leaned on the counter. “Not tonight. We do this all the time. You’ll see us a lot.” She peered into the ticket booth behind me, then around at the mostly deserted restaurant and video store next door. “Where’s the other guy who’s usually here?”
“Don’t know. Could have been eaten by a bear as far as I know. The owner just told me what to do, when to be here, and handed me the keys. I don’t anything about anyone else.”
She fixed me with a pinched expression, like she was trying to figure me out, some puzzle that she needed to solve. After a moment of studying me, her mouth curved into a vague frown.
“You don’t seem like you’re supposed to be here.”
When I resigned from Dynamix, I hadn’t planned on returning to Oklahoma to work part time at an embarrassingly sad miniature golf course. I hadn’t considered how it would feel to trade my weekend hikes in the mountains, counterculture fairs, and creative work environment for a world of honky tonks, farmland, and red state politics. In truth, I hadn’t really spent any time at all thinking about my exit before I committed what arguably amounted to career suicide.
In retrospect, there are several things that I wish I’d known or done before I slipped my resignation under Tony Reyneke’s door. This is not to imply in any way or form that the decision to leave was wrong - thirty years on, I’m more convinced than ever that staying would have meant months of work on a project that would never have received the resources or support to be successful, and it’s doubtful it would even have survived long enough to see the light of day. But had I been older and wiser, I might have convinced Tony to lay me off so that I could have received unemployment benefits while I looked for new game development gigs in Portland, Seattle, or Vancouver. At the time, however, I honestly had no clue how unemployment worked. I would doubtlessly have confused it with welfare which my stridently Protestant upbringing would never have allowed me to accept under any conditons. And so, thanks to a combination of youth, inexperience, and sheer stupidity, I leapt off a cliff with the Bradburian faith that I’d somehow build a parachute for myself on the way down.
The decision to move back to my home state of Oklahoma, while hasty, was motivated by two things. Firstly, it was rooted in something I’d said to my parents before I’d moved off to work in California four years earlier. I had promised that I would be home frequently for visits, but during those four years, I’d only returned on three occasions, and aside from one trip to Eugene, they hadn’t had the resources to come to me. I’d felt like the world’s worst son, and that feeling was magnified a thousandfold when my father had been diagnosed with cancer (even worse was learning much later that his cancer had been much more serious and more advanced than they’d let me know). Going back would allow me to patch up my relationship not only with them, but with all of my friends and family who’d stayed put in Oklahoma.
OREGON VISIT - My mom and I pose for a Polaroid snap taken by my father by the side of an Oregon roadway during Thanksgiving week in 1992. It was the only time they were able to travel together to see me while I lived on the west coast. Sadly, I don’t think I have any photos of my dad from that trip.
A secondary consideration was purely economic. With no clear job prospects on the horizon, I needed a place to regroup, and my parents were more than happy to have me take over their basement while I figured out what I wanted to do next. While I had no formal plans, I hadn’t arrived entirely without ideas.
The significant chunk of free time that I found myself with once I’d moved home, I used initially to try and expand on concepts that I’d brainstormed in the months leading up to my departure from Dynamix. My intent had been to flesh them out in order to show prospective employers that I had things to bring to the table. Among them were the notes for two separate project concepts, either of which would have been smaller and cheaper than a BAK sequel, and would have dovetailed well with the kinds of games that Dynamix, and by extension Sierra Online, were best known for. Both were rooted in my love for medieval history, and more specifically, with my decades-long fascination with the Knights Templar.
The first proposal — which bore the stunningly creative working title of The Knights Templar — was intended to be a hybrid strategy game that combined SimCity-like city building and a King’s Bounty-styled fusion between a turn-based strategy title and an RPG. It was also to have had commanders whose skill sets brought special abilities to the battlefield and units that could level up. Later I’d recycle several of these ideas during the development of Lords of Everquest (and we’d have been the first ones to market with the idea ahead of Warcraft III if only my managers at Rapid Eye Entertainment and Sony Online Entertainment hadn’t forced me to yank all of it out for being too elaborate — then forced me to put those elements back in halfway through development once they saw that Blizzard was trying to do exactly what I had started off doing…but that’s a whole other story). Despite the title, the player would be allowed to play either as one of the Frankish Holy Orders (Templars, Hospitallers, Teutonic Knights, etc.) or as one of the factions of the caliphates who occupied the Levant at the time. I wanted to lean heavily into the historical realities of that world and be able to have the accompanying game manuals filled with the same level of scholarship that I’d witnessed from the Great Warplanes series of games from Dynamix.
The second “Templar” proposal, The Grand Preceptor Mysteries, was intended to be a next-generation adventure / puzzle game series with gameplay that fell somewhere between Sierra Online’s Gabriel Knight and the Myst and 7th Guest titles. The story was centered on a globe-trotting character named Renaud de Juarre (whose surname was inspired by the reigning wizard of electronic music, Jean-Michel Jarre) who is tasked with trying to preserve the treasures and legacy of the Templars.
For a couple of months, I considered the utterly mad idea that I would do more than simply bang out proposals for these games, and toyed with the idea that perhaps I could take inspiration from my boss at New World Computing, Jon Van Caneghem, who had created the first Might & Magic as a solo effort. The design time that I’d already devoted to The Knights Templar was the one that was a little further along of the two, but after some intensive consideration I accepted the fact that without a hardcore programmer to help me prototype it, there was no hope of my doing it on my own (and the chances of finding experienced game programmers in Oklahoma in the early 90s were exactly nil). When I considered The Grand Preceptor Mysteries, however, and learned that like Myst it could be constructed with relative ease (and little to no real programming knowledge) with apps like Macromedia Director and Hypercard, I began the long process of teaching myself the ins and outs of these new multimedia platforms. Along the way, I took my first toddling steps into the arcane world of 3D modeling.
PRECEPTOR TESTS - Above, test renders of a gothic window, the exterior of a Templar chapterhouse, and “The Devil’s Well.” The process of modeling and rendering in 1994 was extremely tedious given the limited capabilities of the Apple Performa 475 that I had at the time. The window image at top left took a half hour to render.
The time and effort to create even the simplest art assets for Preceptor proved to be daunting. I found myself bogged down with learning multiple new software programs, along with the scripting languages that were necessary to make them truly functional. As the hours and weeks began to fly by, I grew increasingly morose. I wasn’t making enough forward progress on the game, and I needed to find some form of employment soon so that I could continue to make payments on my car and on my credit cards. Despite sending out rafts and rafts of resumes, I wasn’t getting any responses, and the headhunters to which I was submitting myself insisted either they couldn’t find anything that fit my skill set or I was overqualified for anything they did have. Meanwhile, the rave reviews for Krondor were continuing to fill up game magazines and bulletin boards, but its success wasn’t translating into job offers or even interviews for me. Of course, it wasn’t my name that was being associated in public with the game story, but Feist’s who had his displayed prominently on the top of the game box. I’d done so well at convincing the world he’d written it that I’d rendered myself completely invisible.
Not wanting to resort to digging ditches, I tried to think of something marketable I could offer in a general job environment where I could still use my creative skills. I’d had training in advertising and marketing while in college, but aside from a brief stint at a direct mail house between college and my first gig at New World Computing, I had almost no experience. I had my degree in radio, television, and film production, but there was nothing available in Tulsa at the time. The only thing I could think of at all was a longshot at best, but with no other cards in my hand to deal, I decided I’d never forgive myself if I didn’t at least try.
My idea had come from flipping through an issue of Travel + Leisure Magazine. It occurred to me that the CD-ROM equipped computers that were now flooding American homes could radically change the face of travel marketing. If someone - namely me - were to create software with clickable maps, Quicktime movies, audio tour notes, and other flashy media alongside more traditional travel information, it might be possible to completely disrupt the traditional travel publishing industry. Getting it duplicated and distributed would be the chief hurdle, but as luck would have it, I knew the owner of a travel agency who might see it as a value add to his existing business. The trick would be in convincing him that I could do it, and that his risk would be worth taking.
My meeting with Bill Harris was in his office behind Sand Springs Travel. He sat in a plushly upholstered chair behind a massive oak desk that was big enough to hold a dance on. During my brief pitch, he sat quietly, puffing on a fat cigar as he listened. Once I’d finished stammering my way through what I’d come to say, he puffed out a grey cloud of smoke and smiled in an aggressively friendly way that was both folksy and terrifying. I felt like a moth pinned to a board.
“Neal, I don’t need anything like that right now, but if you’re looking for something, I can put you to work by Saturday.”
I had no doubts that he could. Bill was a big wheel locally, and owned a string of businesses on Charles Page Boulevard, the main artery that connected the small town of Sand Springs with its big city neighbor of Tulsa. He’d begun with a music store where all the local kids bought their band instruments, myself included. Over time he’d expanded his portfolio to include a Goldies Restaurant franchise, a Pickles Video Rental store, a car wash, the Cinema 8 movie theater (where I had my second-ever job), and the Sand Springs Travel Agency where my brother and I arranged our first overseas trip to Europe when I was sixteen. Bill also happened to be the father of Matt Harris, one of my closest friends since junior high.
Although I didn’t know Bill extremely well, I could tell from his reaction that the idea had been a complete non-starter for him, and not having a demo of any kind before walking in had probably been a fatal mistake.
“If you aren’t afraid of a real job, I need someone over at Putters.”
I tried as hard as I could not to be insulted by the job, but it was a bitter pill to swallow, feeling as though I’d failed catastrophically. By now I should have been at another game company, working on a new title. The industry was starting to boom down in Austin now, and my old bestie Ron Bolinger who had started in the industry six months after I had was now a vice president down there, along with another New World Computing vet. Occasionally when he’d come home for a visit, he’d roll up to the miniature golf course in his slick new Mustang while I handed out putters to snot nosed kids. He was doing well, while all I’d managed to parlay my previous success into was to be the guy who got yelled at because some idiot lost his ball, or the water hose hadn’t been properly coiled the previous night.
Sometime in the summer I’d get a brief reprieve, a phone call from John Cutter up in Seattle, calling about some possible work at Starwave, the company that had been smart enough to snap him up after his abrupt firing from Dynamix. I got a nice plane trip up north, and a chance to spend a wonderful day with my friend and mentor, but ultimately the project never materialized. I went back to feeling useless and humiliated. Every day seemed to add new salt to the wound.
As the months passed, I tried to fill the long hours between customers by reading or listening to old timey blues numbers on our local NPR affiliate. Sometimes, in a fit of ambition, I’d drag my Apple Performa into the shack and attempt to write, but it was nearly impossible to concentrate when I felt as though the skin was melting off of my face.
And then suddenly, toward the end of the year, there was the e-mail.
I’d not seen the address in what felt like geologic ages, but here it was out of the blue. I’d spent the previous two and a half years corresponding with its owner on a fairly regular basis, sending questions, dealing with feedback.
It was from Ray Feist, and he was asking for me to call him.
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