Krondor Confidential - Part XV
Betrayal at Dynamix
“Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.”
-- from The Second Coming, William Butler Yeats
During the planning of Thief of Dreams, I was sheltered in the gleeful world of creating, and organizing, and planning, so I had no idea of the things that were going on above my head in the offices of Dynamix’s management. It was above my pay grade to know, or to be involved with such things. As far as I knew, we were about to create a fantastic game that would eclipse BAK in almost every meaningful way, and we had the full backing of Dynamix and Sierra Online to make that happen. But that’s the tricky thing about being head down in the trenches. Sometimes you don’t see the incoming shell that’s about to wipe you out of existence.
Unbeknownst to me, in the weeks following the shipping of Betrayal at Krondor, all the producers at Dynamix had been called together for an off-site meeting to discuss “how to do our jobs better,” as John Cutter puts it. “The main focus was on the importance of coming up with HONEST answers about budgets and schedules so Management could run the business better.” It was drilled into all of them they all needed to be better at making estimates and hitting deadlines, and this was something that John took especially to heart. Krondor had shipped several months late and significantly over the originally projected budget. Although Krondor was doing well, it wasn’t selling the way that Sierra Online wanted it to sell (though ironically it was selling in precisely the way in which John and I had told them when they approved our design pitch. It wouldn’t really take off until several months later when the effect of the reviews and the awards and the word of mouth and its introduction on CD-ROM would turn it into one of the bestselling games ever produced at Dynamix).
In the years since, having had to wear the producer’s hat on other projects, I now know the intense pressure under which John had to have been operating. It’s often said that managing a game project is a bit like herding cats. Creative people tend to be notoriously bad at providing realistic estimates about how long it will take to do anything. You have a gut feeling, of course, but there’s not always a good answer to “how long will it take you to imagine something you haven’t imagined before?” Yes, I can type 90 words a minute, but whether those 90 words will be anything good is another matter altogether. It’s not like assembling a car from pre-existing parts. Another problem with managing creative people is that developers have a strong tendency to give estimates that they think their bosses want to hear versus what’s realistic or practical. Our team was no exception, and I know I was particularly guilty of this with John. This effect can be particularly bad when management comes in with a set of preconceived deadlines and expect the people underneath them to sign off on estimates -- though thankfully that was never a problem for us. John was a pragmatic boss who’d spent enough time making things himself that he knew that estimates -- however flawed they might be -- needed from flow bottom up. Betrayal at Krondor had been a monster project created by a relatively small team, and it’s a testament to John’s willpower that the beast was ever made at all.
While John was struggling with the expectations of management to keep the sequel smaller and more efficient, I was planning a title that would have been larger and more elaborate than the original in almost every conceivable way. Management wanted us to minimize the creation of any new assets for Thief, and simply reuse most of what we’d created for BAK. I believed, however, (and I know John agreed in principle) that it would have been a betrayal to the fans of the first game to simply rearrange the furniture and slap new names on old faces. It could also endanger the reputation of both the franchise and of Dynamix.
As we wrestled with issues of scale and scope, an even more daunting requirement was passed down from above. The management wanted every line of narrative text in the sequel recorded in order to take advantage of the new CD ROM platform. The increasingly common presence of SoundBlaster soundcards and MT32 modules meant that more than ever, games were beginning to sound as cool as they looked, and Sierra Online was determined that we stay on the leading edge with high production values. Though such a requirement would have been a minor nuisance to most other games at the time, it was a monumental ask for us. Betrayal at Krondor had effectively been an interactive novel with hundreds of pages of in-game text, and Thief would have easily matched -- and probably exceeded -- its predecessor's word count. To add in the money for actors and recording time would mean dramatically increasing a budget that we were being pressured to slash, and the only means of achieving both goals might mean killing the majority of the in-game text as well as cutting levels, chapters, and gameplay. As much as I would have loved to have heard professional voice actors delivering my dialogues, it was clear that the demands for audio might result in our delivering a game that bore little to no resemblance to the game that had preceded it.
In order to meet both requirements, John and I hashed over a variety of ideas, though few of them palatable. We could toss out the story that had already been approved, and create a new story tailored to use only existing assets, though we both felt like the fans would never forgive us for it. Another option would be to drop altogether the “interactive novel” conceit that made Krondor so unique -- and thus all the on-screen text -- reducing the amount that would need to be recorded. This, again, felt like a slap to the people who had embraced our unique title. Our last idea, and the most radical, was something that we hesitated to even move forward on because we had no idea whether or not it would even work, but it seemed like the only way to meet the cheaper and faster requirement AND allow for voices to be recorded for the game. We would pull out Solomon’s sword and hack the design into three smaller titles.
Conceptually, the idea of a creating a mini-trilogy out of Thief of Dreams wasn’t terribly difficult. The story was already in three acts with a pretty big bang at the end of each act, and each could be reasonably well compartmentalized to stick to a specific region. The first two installments would once again take place in the Kingdom of the Isles (allowing us to reuse some assets), and the last would take us into Great Kesh. The division would work on paper, but our real concerns lay in how it would be marketed, and more importantly how fans received it. We’d undoubtedly have to drop the price for the smaller games, and we worried about “bargain bin” syndrome -- i.e. buyers overlooking the game because they were suspicious of the quality because of the lower price. (We’d already witnessed this with other companies’ titles.) There was also the concern that it might not feel as “epic” when hacked into three pieces, and again, we had worries about fans feeling cheated. Nonetheless it was a solution, and we submitted the idea for consideration to the powers that were.
While John, and I, and the rest of our Krondor team had been working diligently to make something work, not everyone was happy in Krondor-land. Our assistant designer, Tim McClure, was growing increasingly frustrated with the constantly changing landscape of the design, and took the opinion that John was to blame for how slowly things were progressing on the new game’s development. He frequently vented his frustrations in meetings and privately to me, hoping that somehow I could “fix” the problem. Late one night, Tim came into my office, smiling, saying that he’d decided to take matters into his own hands and had independently gone to see Tony Reyneke, Dynamix’s CEO, to talk about “the John problem.” As he relayed what he’d told Tony, I shook my head, very worried about the potential trouble he was causing with us already in a delicate position with management.
Not long after, John was summoned upstairs to discuss the budget proposed for Thief. As John recalls it,
“I was dealing with several things. First off, the team -- who were justifiably proud of the game -- were really pushing hard to make a "worthy" sequel. Secondly, Tony believed that sequels should cost less than the original. Sort of the factory approach to game development. The first widget costs a million dollars because you have to design it, build the factory, set up shipping and infrastructure, etc. All the widgets after that are cheap! Also, the lessons from that Producer off-site were still ringing in my ears and I knew that Tony wanted a budget in the 500K range, but I told him the sequel was going to cost around 800K. He just nodded and everything seemed okay.”
The next day Tony called him back into his office.
“I thought we were going to talk more about the budget,” John says. “Instead he fired me. I don't remember what he said exactly, though I think at one point he said something about me ‘not being all there.’ That really stuck with me. I've been fired and laid off before, and I can always tell when it's coming. This one was a complete surprise.”
John wouldn’t be the only person shocked by his abrupt release from Dynamix. Even in the worst-case scenario, even if the game had been cancelled, my assumption was that we’d be reassigned a new project and would start over from scratch. For me, it was personal. John had not only been my mentor, but he’d also been a terrific collaborator, a champion for all the things that made Krondor such a good game, and was an exceptionally good friend. It was like a knife through the guts to think that he was going to be gone, and that someone else might potentially be stepping in to replace him. I was also terrified for myself, that I’d lose whatever say I’d had thus far in Thief’s production, but as fate would have it, I needn’t have worried. Almost as soon as John was out of the door, Tony announced the cancellation of Thief of Dreams to the team...but it was not yet the end of the story for Krondor’s would-be sequel.
NEXT TIME: A last gasp for the Thief of Dreams.