Thursday, June 11, 2009

Islands in the Sky: The Evolution, Part II

Genevieve and I are huge fans of Codename Eagle. If you're unfamiliar with it, it's the game that Refraction made before they were acquired by DICE who then developed Battlefield 1942 and later became acquired by Electronic Arts themselves. While I really enjoyed BF1942, Codename Eagle holds a special place in my heart that will never be replaced. While the single-player aspect of the game was only so so, the game really shined in multiplayer. Combining great physics, vehicle stunting, hilarious bugs, and happy accidents in gameplay, Codename Eagle is one of my favorite games of all time. You know you truly understand the game when every time you die, you laugh your ass off. However, the game isn't about dying, it's about trying to pull off the most daring, death-defying flag grab and get away with it. Dying as a result is just the hilarious consolation prize.

Let me rewind a bit, though. Before I even met Genevieve, my friend Frenton and I dreamt of another game idea that was basically Codename Eagle meets Exodus. Initally, I thought of a way to try and combine the ideas for the game with the Exodus storyline. In fact, the very first iteration of the Islands in the Sky world was supposed to appear at the end of Exodus. Since that game will probably never be made, I'll give away the ending. You do reach the Oasis but it's not a patch of verdant land in an otherwise dead, stark was the edge of reality as the Silt Raiders understood it. The desert they lived in was vast but it did not make up the entirety of their world. In this new part of the planet, they encountered completely different civilizations who used flying machines to get around. The next game in the Exodus Trilogy addressed how the Silt Raiders coped with living in their new world. Rather than disappear into obscurity, they turn the new world upside down with their unconventional thinking and fighting styles...adapting the flying machines to their own ways.

Naturally, the second game would be very different in terms of gameplay...but gameplay is king and while it would have been a tremendous gamble to build the first game around one set of rules and then change them almost completely for the second game, I figured that fans of the first would understand the transition and embrace it as proper for the story while new fans wouldn't know what the first game was about anyway. A third game was "planned" of course...all just in our heads. For the third game in the trilogy, I actually toyed with the idea of going backwards to the game that inspired Exodus...a massively multiplayer space sim.

The space sim, named Keno's Space Shooter (it was a temporary title) was something I came up with around 1997. I'm going to guess it was 1997 because in early 1998, I actually pitched the game to a Microsoft producer named Scott...something (don't recall his last name) at the Computer Game Developer's Conference (back when "Computer" was still in the name) in Long Beach, CA. Coincidentally, it's the same year I met my good friend Vince Riley, one of the people Genevieve and I give thanks to on the back page of the comic. Anyway, I was a volunteer at the conference (so was Vince) and we were allowed to pick which panels we wanted to work so I picked a RPG round table discussion that Warren Spector and Tom Hall (of Ion Storm at the time) hosted. Wearing my silly, yellow CGDC volunteer shirt (or was it red that year?), I raised my hand at one point to add to the discussion. I recall being very nervous, because while we were allowed to participate, the volunteer shirt I wore...which let everyone in the room know I was a non-developer noob, made me feel very small. Anyway, I added that I thought that the industry had not yet addressed the need for a CRPG that addressed the gap in what all previous CRPG's had...the lack of a live GM (Game Master or Dungeon Master) who would have the tools to run a tabletop like session in real time over the internet. The statement actually shut the room up and everyone just stared at me for a moment while they digested this info. Two people talked to me after that panel. A developer who simply said something to the effect of "Nice job, had some good ideas in there," which made me feel good. The other guy was Scott from Microsoft.

Scott also liked my ideas and wanted to hear more about my ideas on RPG's. Well, I actually had written up a small design doc on the idea of having a live GM in a game but that was my ace up my sleeve and I wasn't about to give it away (even though I blurted it out during the round table). On a side note, unbeknownst to me, Nihilistic was already working on Vampire the Masquerade: Redemption, which featured the ability to have a live GM. It would be published by Activision, a company that I would later work at as a first party developer (with Shaba) for seven years. Anyway, he said he was looking to hire a designer to be tasked with creating a new RPG for Microsoft because Microsoft was going to be starting up a new games division and a) they wanted RPG's, b) they only had one designer: Alexey Pajitnov. I was naive enough to believe that they might actually hire a zero experience guy like me but I still wasn't going to give away my big secret...instead, I pitched him another idea that I had been working on: Keno's Space Shooter.

The pitch went something like this: You create a Quake (this is 1998) map and model it to look like the interior of a large space ship. Then you open the console and type "noclip" and then fly outside the map. That void all around you? That's space. Now create a another ship, throw dudes into each one to crew all the various positions in the ship and now it's capital ship versus capital ship. You can be a marine sent to board the enemy ship, you could be a fighter jock and fly out with your squadron to attack the enemy ship (and other single seat fighters), you could be an engineer running around the inside of the ship reparing broken components (as well as in an EVA suit fixing the ship from the outside), and you could be part of the ship's crew...classic Star Trek style. The captain and crew of the ship controlled the ship's movements, the firing of their main guns, how to direct the shields, etc.

At one point during the pitch, I said something to the effect of "The great thing about it is that new players can jump right into the action by just manning a turret." This was referring the the many gun turrets that each capital ship had. In this mode, you didn't have any responsibility other than to point and shoot at incoming enemy fighters. This is an important point during the pitch and we'll come back that to it later. I left the conference with hopes that Scott would actually call me up for a job and while we corresponded via email for a few weeks, I never got the job. To the best of my knowledge, the job went to Chris Taylor (of Total Annilhiation fame) and he went on to create Dungeon Siege for Microsoft.

Now, what I'm about to say is outrageous and I don't have any definitive proof but I'm convinced that Microsoft borrowed my idea...the pitch I gave to Scott, one of their create a game called Allegiance. I know that no one will believe me but in my mind this is absolutely true. In 2000, when I was working at Electronic Arts as in Technical Support, I was reading an issue of PC Gamer when I came upon an interview for the game. In the interview, I shit you not, the guy says "The great thing about it is that new players can jump right into the action by just manning a turret." Frenton remembers this moment too. He didn't know me very well at the time. He was talking to some co-workers, one Bradley Fulton and one Peter something, about starting up their own game company (we were all in Tech Support at the time) when I stormed up with the magazine and said "Fuckers! They totally fucking stole my game, those cocksucking motherfuckers!". Frenton looked up and said, "Hey, you want to make a game with us?"...and was the start of our friendship.

Preview: In Part III of this epic series, I stop digressing and get on with things.

- Joseph


  1. Part II of the story made me shake my fist in the air in agreement with your sentiment. Can't wait for part III!

  2. Ouch! Must've left a mark. I read the wiki entry on that game, and the base of the game seemed pretty much what you described in your pitch. Thats lame of them :\