Krondor Confidential - Part V
My Band of Brothers On BAK
“The ingredients for a hero are, at best, a strange and elusive concoction. A man might live the span of his life a great and powerful magician but never be called to duty, while a humble peasant might save the life of a King. To some degree the characters of Betrayal At Krondor have fallen together because of luck, to another degree, because they have lived miraculous lives. They have lived to tell the tale.”
-- John Cutter & Neal Hallford, “Betrayal at Krondor” Design Document
You’ve already heard a great deal about John Cutter and I, but so far I’ve not said much about the rest of the team. I don’t want anyone to walk away from this blog series and think that John and I sat down in a room, put our hands on a stack of Raymond E. Feist’s Riftwar novels, and *BAM* the game just magically happened from our sheer strengths of will and imagination. We weren’t working alone. From start to finish there were probably at least fourteen or fifteen people who were touching the core development of BAK on a daily basis, and many more when you get around to factoring in all the support personnel necessary to pull everything together. It was a well-oiled machine with many, many moving parts, and there wasn’t a single unimportant person in the bunch. Change any one of them and it could well have been a very different experience, and very possibly not the hit game that so many fans came to love.
What’s worried me in this writing, however, is that some people might construe my lack of details so far on the rest of our team members as a reflection of a narrow estimation of their contributions, or of their talents. Let me assure you that isn’t the case. Not by a long shot. I loved those guys and gals so very much, and I still do. For many of you BAK is a fun game to play, but for me it’s the artifact of four of the best years of my life, great years largely because of the time I spent with those people. When I think of my Dynamix days, I’m not just a guy in my office trying to create a computer game, I’m Harry on St. Crispin’s day at the field of Agincourt, getting ready to ride out into a desperate battle with banners streaming, and the only thing that is going to win the day are these guys standing at my back.
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From this day to the ending of the world,
But we in it shall be remembered-
We few, we happy few, we band of brothers;
For he to-day that sheds his blood with me
Shall be my brother; be he ne'er so vile,
This day shall gentle his condition;
And gentlemen in England now a-bed
Shall think themselves accurs'd they were not here,
And hold their manhoods cheap whiles any speaks
That fought with us upon Saint Crispin's day.
Henry V by William Shakespeare
You’d think that as much as I care for these guys I’d have scads of war stories about my colleagues, and that I could regale you with our merry exploits for hour upon unending hour with stories that would dazzle, and delight, and amuse. You’d think that...but you’d be wrong. The fact of the matter is that I don’t have a lot in the way of stories that I remember about individual people at Dynamix. Part of it is the simple fact that it’s been thirty years since some of these events took place, and I wasn’t taking notes. I didn’t think about there being a quiz at the end. But it’s more complicated even than just that. Circumstances were all such that it was difficult for me to have the kinds of shared memories that would give rise to those kinds of stories in the first place.
Before I go any further, I should explain that I don’t have an off the rack personality. Things that are easy for other people are often not very easy for me. I don’t have any trouble getting along with people -- and generally people don’t seem to have any trouble getting along with me -- but I do struggle at times to make more than casual connections with other people. Folks see me on podcasts or up on stage at a convention and mistakenly come to the conclusion that I must be a raging extrovert, but the reality is that I’m actually fairly shy. I will almost never strike up a conversation with strangers unless doing so is required for business, and even then, it can be excruciatingly difficult for me to do so. I’m terrible at small talk. If I’m invited to a party that has more than five or six people, I’m likely to retreat to the least populous corner and try to find a dog or a cat to play with. I’m THAT guy, and it has played to both my social and professional disadvantage all of my life. Dynamix was no exception. While for many people like myself there are the standard social lubricants of alcohol or drugs, I’m too much of a personal control freak to enjoy either of them.
The upshot of all this being: I didn’t really spend huge amounts of time “hanging out” with my most of my teammates, though I did make a couple of life-long friends there. I was a single guy on a team comprised mostly of married men who had wives and children, and they tended to go home at reasonable hours to be with their families (at least until we hit the crunch phase of development). Even in the hours in which we were at work together, unless we had a big issue to tackle that required all of us banging on it, we tended to stick to our own offices or cubicles so that we could focus on getting our jobs done.
With all of this now fully and excruciatingly qualified, let me give you at least of a snapshot view of some of the teammates that I worked with on a fairly regular basis, along with a tale at the very end about one team member who made John and I’s lives extraordinarily difficult.
NELS BRUCKNER (LEAD PROGRAMMER)
Nels was pretty much the living embodiment of why everyone thought people from the Pacific Northwest were innately cool. He was an insanely good programmer, and terminally mellow. Given the crazy requests that John and I routinely put on his plate, it’s surprising he didn’t chop us up in our sleep, but he always handled things with the unflappable calm of a Methadone patient. When he wasn’t programming, he was a metal guitarist, and he often wrote band reviews. He was a damned proficient juggler, and it wasn’t at all uncommon for him to be juggling balls or clubs while he was thinking through a problem (this was something that many Dynamix programmers learned how to do in order to kill time while waiting for code to compile). He also had a knack for making origami art...and often employed it to rather successful effect with dollar bills.
STEVE CORDON (PROGRAMMER)
If you weren’t paying attention, it would have been easy to miss Steve. In meetings, it was very rare for him to speak up unless asked a direct question, and even then, he would always answer in the most concise manner possible in a voice that was often so quiet that he’d have to repeat himself, sometimes more than once. In conversations with him it was always clear that there was a vast intelligence at work behind his unassuming Clark Kent glasses, and he always seemed to be at work on some programming problem regardless of the circumstances.
On our team he was the designated pinch hitter, in charge of whatever gameplay coding got knocked in his direction, be it the dialog system, item & inventory systems, player stats, world state tracking, quests, high-res book interface, or the town GUI. Whatever he was asked to do, he could do it...though we didn’t always have to ask. It wasn’t uncommon for John or I to request that he create a specific function or feature, only to find out he’d “just finished it” an hour or a day before. He seemed able to anticipate every request John and I came up with, and it earned him a reputation as the team’s “Radar” O’Reilly. It became a running joke long before the game was done that Steve had actually finished creating the whole game, he just needed to “uncomment it in the code” so that it would be playable for everyone else.
Once on a snowy day, Steve’s wife Michelle showed up to take him to lunch, and John and I happened to be looking out of the window of John’s office as we saw Steve and Michelle exiting the building. They were holding hands, laughing as they skidded in the snow on the way to their car. John looked at me. “Those two are probably the cutest, most adorable couple I’ve ever seen,” he said. “Of course, that means they’re probably serial killers.”
TIMOTHY STRELCHUN (PROGRAMMER)
As the occupant of the office immediately next to mine, I probably spent more time talking with Timothy Strelchun than with any of the other programmers. Often we’d discuss music, and I seem to recall discussions about Enigma, Erasure, Depeche Mode and other bands popular at the time, prompted usually by one of us overhearing something to which the other was listening. I also seem to recall he shared my interest in electronic music and keyboards.
Other than John, Timothy was the person on our team most vested in Krondor’s story. I remember him asking a lot of very good questions about what I was doing, and I often found that in answering his questions I’d identify things I needed to take a closer look at, or I’d find opportunities to expand on elements that John and I were playing with which I hadn’t sufficiently explained.
MIKE MCHUGH (LEAD ARTIST)
I’ll be bluntly honest here and say that my memories of Mike are at best mixed. I’d omit saying anything here at all about Mike if it weren’t for the fact that his contribution absolutely needs to be acknowledged. He was in charge of the art for the game, and in that capacity he did an excellent, outstanding job. He gave us a look and feel which was completely unique at the time, and I cannot say enough good things about Mike’s talent. They were respectable. Unfortunately, those talents came with a highly contentious personality.
I’m guessing Mike must have been in his late forties or early fifties. He was a big guy, built like a cross between a hell’s angel and a grizzly bear. If you need an even more explicit image of what he looked like, you need look no further than the cover of the game. Although a different model was used as the basis of Roger Smith’s amazing painting, Gorath couldn’t have looked more like Mike McHugh than it we’d just used a photo of Mike instead. To this day, their images are nearly inseparable in my mind.
Mike came to Dynamix with an impressive portfolio of previous work. He’d been a theme park designer, and as such had been responsible for some of the best-known attractions of the time. His work was painterly, and in some respects, far too advanced for what computers were capable of in 1991. The restrictions clearly frustrated him, and he had obvious disdain about what could be achieved with the game technology available at the time.
The fight over Gorath’s beard was probably the first indication that working with Mike was going to be problematic. The earliest concept work we sent down to Ray Feist included sketches of the main characters. We got a note back saying Gorath couldn’t have a beard because moredhel (the race to which Gorath belonged) don’t have facial hair. I can’t remember whether it was a genetic or a traditional thing, but the bottom line was it was not in line with Feist’s canon. We asked Mike to change it, but he flatly refused. He claimed artistic license, saying his vision trumped Ray’s dictates. The beard stuck, and now, indelibly, defines the game as the most prominent face on the box cover.
Not long after the battle of the bearded moredhel, John, Mike, and I had to tackle the storyboards for the cutscenes at the start and end of each of the game’s nine chapters. The initial story outline had largely glossed over the fine details of each scene, leaving us with more flexibility to develop them as we went along.
The day of our first storyboard session, John and I prepped in advance by coming up with some visual ideas to run by Mike so that we'd have a good place to start the discussion. Convening in the tiny conference room near my cubicle, Mike plopped down with a sketch pad and pencil across from me, suspiciously eyeing my copy of the synopsis that I’d marked up with our some of our early concept notes.
As we begin to work through the first scene where Gorath kills the would-be assassin, Mike is getting more and more irritated as he roughs out the images that we’re talking about, though neither John nor I know what’s up. Finally, midway through the session Mike goes thermonuclear, shoving back from the table and standing over John and I both, punctuating the air with his pencil as he rants about us giving him no room to participate in the narrative of the cutscenes, colluding intentionally to shut him out of the process. “I’M NOT YOUR FUCKING WRIST!” he screams in our faces, and then storms out of the conference room.
For a long moment John and I just stare at each other, wondering what the hell’s just gone down, or what we might have done to bring on Mike’s sudden outburst of rage. Both of us are physically shaken. Our only intent in the prep had been to start the meeting as productively as possible, with less time wasted sitting around the conference room hemming and hawing over what we should do. It was only days afterwards that I’d recognize the irony that John and I had both just felt endangered over a scene about an attempted assassination.
For the following storyboard session, John talked to Mike in advance and gave him our assurances that we’d come into next session with nothing but the original script, and that we could work out the details together. This evidently seemed to mollify Mike, and we all hoped for a better outcome the next time around.
The day of the next session arrived. At the appointed time the three of us once again filed into the conference room, this time with Mike bringing not only his blank sketch pad, but also a set of highly polished boards showing the scenes we’d managed to plan in the first session before Mike’s walk out.
To this day I still get chills thinking about seeing those first production boards. It was the first time I’d ever seen anything I’d written storyboarded out, and certainly nothing of that level of polish and quality. For the briefest moment I imagined perhaps we’d just got off on the wrong foot the first time around, and that maybe things would go better in our second session with a different set of rules in place. Quickly I was disabused of this magical idea.
Once again, as we began to work through scenes, Mike grew irritated with John and I, stopping in mid-sketch at one point to ask us why the hell we didn’t know what we wanted to do in the scene. I very nearly chewed off the end of my tongue to keep from saying something that I felt fairly certain would have resulted in my being optically skewered with his pencil. Patiently John and I struggled through the rest of it, managing to keep Mike from storming out once again, doing just enough to keep Mike’s ever brewing temper from boiling over.
And so it went. Not just for the remainder of the storyboard sessions, but for the entirety of Betrayal at Krondor’s two and a half years of production. Despite the relative harmony of the rest of the team members, Mike would not kumbaya with us. He was the volcano at the center of our lives, the imminent threat that stayed with us until the bitter end.
...And The Rest...Here On Gilligan’s Isle
There are other people who played critical roles during the production of BAK, but whose introductions are better intermeshed with the tale still to be told. Suffice it to say, on the balance of things, I have far more and happier feelings towards the great people that I worked alongside than anything negative, and I’m looking forward to introducing even more of the players to you in our upcoming installments.
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The Many Worlds of Neal Hallford is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support my work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.