Game over

Did the game industry's obsession with gore kill off Looking Glass, its most creative studio?

Published June 20, 2000 7:00PM (EDT)

What happens when one of the most respected computer game creators in the industry releases its latest title to universal acclaim and impressive sales?

Sometimes, in this volatile business, the company closes up shop and lays off all its employees.

That's what happened to Looking Glass Studios, the independent developer renowned for groundbreaking classics such as Ultima Underworld, System Shock and Thief: The Dark Project. On a May day some former employees now call Dark Wednesday, only months after Thief II: The Metal Age debuted on store shelves, vaulting immediately up near the top of bestselling PC game lists, the Massachusetts company abruptly announced its closing, thereby scattering its 60-plus employees into the interactive-entertainment job market.

That Thief II has been successful at all is quite an accomplishment. Thief is not like other games -- in particular, other top-selling games. The ongoing story of Garrett, a cynical cat burglar who plunders ill-gotten wealth from cruel nobles and fanatical theocrats, the Thief games are a seamless weave of first-person action and deep narrative. They are moody in tone, with a complex interface that's difficult to master, and a back-story that's an eclectic fusion of literary and artistic influences, from Umberto Eco's "The Name of the Rose" to Fritz Leiber's Fafhrd and Grey Mouser fantasy classics, to the German expressionist films of Fritz Lang. While never sacrificing their heart-throttling suspense, the Thief games are genuine works of art, fully leveraging the medium to engage the player's intellect.

But aesthetic quality that engages the mind does not necessarily coddle the creditor. As Paul Neurath, the company's managing director, puts it, "Looking Glass Studios grew extended on debt, which put it in a vulnerable position. Then we got caught by several surprises in a row, which when combined with an inability to secure a funding partner, sealed our fate."

To make the knife cut even more keenly, just one day before its closing, Eidos Interactive, Looking Glass' parent publisher, finally released Daikatana -- created by Ion Storm, another studio within the Eidos fold. Many game industry observers had wondered if Daikatana's moment would ever come, considering the legendary delays, mutinies and overruns that had stretched its production time to three controversial years.

Eidos spent, by some estimates, nearly $30 million to ensure Daikatana's completion. (Thief II, by contrast, cost an estimated $2.5 million to develop.) But Daikatana's mastermind, John Romero, has now earned some of the most savage reviews a major game designer has received in recent years. For outraged gamers, the confluence of fortune was too infuriating to forgive. Surely a fraction of that capital could have been diverted to save Looking Glass? Via flames and even cartoons, the accusation roared through online gaming boards: John Romero and Eidos killed Looking Glass.

Hyperbole to be sure -- but beneath it was the truth that provoked such fury: This company was special, and its passing seemed to mark PC gaming's final decline. From here on out, the industry would only assemble endless variations on exhausted genres (pathetically timid when they were not totally appalling), design for game platforms permanently beholden to the whims of morbidly obsessed adolescents and fully acquiesce to corporate publishers willing to finance every expense save for the desire to innovate and even perhaps to inspire. Looking Glass' demise signals the gaming industry's descent, then, into its own metal age of decadence and unthinking greed.

In Thief I and II, the player moves through a nameless city that somehow evokes the entire history of Western civilization, from the Dark Ages to now, in a way that's entirely plausible and visually staggering. Cat-walking atop castles that look like luxury apartments and cathedrals that seem like corporate offices, it's almost like clambering through a model of our cultural psyche, as intricately tooled as a handcrafted timepiece.

Looking Glass studio has earned a solid reputation for its sports and flight simulator titles, but it is most renowned for its first-person games, which regularly make all-time best game lists. In 1991, one full year before Romero and John Carmack released Wolfenstein 3D, the game often credited -- incorrectly -- for creating the genre, Looking Glass was already showcasing an equivalent first-person demo at game conventions.

"But rather than just putting guns and bad guys in it and calling it a game," says LG programmer Marc LeBlanc, the developers "had this grand plan to do a giant dungeon-crawling game. [It was] an exemplar of MIT-style ambition." The neighboring university exerted tremendous cultural influence on the Cambridge-based studio -- like a significant number of Looking Glass employees, LeBlanc is an alum. And from the first, their games exhibited, in his words, MIT's "crazy, mad scientist spirit." As Thief level designer Rich Carlson puts it, Looking Glass was "made up of artists and intellectuals who created role-playing and action games for people who like to think and use their imaginations."

So while millions were shooting their way through Wolfenstein 3D's arbitrarily arranged, monotonous scenery, a subset of gamers explored the far more richly conceived caverns of Looking Glass' Ultima Underworld: The Stygian Abyss. What's more, Underworld had a detailed story and a complex role-playing game interface. System Shock, its science-fiction classic, carried this cross-genre design even further, by integrating it with cyberpunk action.

And while the first-person genre is often blamed (with some justice) for blatantly exploiting violence, LG developers applied their creative inventiveness to this issue, as well. In Thief, for example, it's more challenging to avoid violence altogether: "We took pains to make sure all the missions could be won without killing any humans," says Terri Brosius, Thief cut-scene screenwriter and level designer -- and the voice actor who plays Viktoria, the series' silky nemesis. In Looking Glass games, death is always an option, but it has consequences. At one point, fiercely amoral Garrett stumbles upon a village of massacred innocents that's genuinely wrenching -- for him, and for the player.

But while all of these titles made a substantial profit, none of them reaped anything like the bounty earned by Carmack and Romero's follow-ups, Doom and Quake. So there was little cushion to absorb the impact, when, as Neurath says, "[We] got caught in the transition to the next generation of console platforms." Looking Glass invested considerable talent and money into creating games for the Nintendo 64 -- only to have the console become, upon the arrival of the Sony Playstation, a moribund platform. The trouble was, developers need to serve the console market: "There's a general consensus in the industry that consoles are going to dominate gaming," says Thief project director Steve Pearsall.

Meanwhile, aggregate demand for PC titles designed for hardcore gamers, Looking Glass' core audience, is waning. As Geoff Keighley, Gameslice editor in chief and author of Gamespot's Behind the Games, puts it: "With Regis and Barbie topping the sales charts with $19.95 mass-market games, it's hard for a game like Thief II to break through the clutter and turn a profit."

Thief II probably will make some money. But System Shock II, LG's well-reviewed, equally sophisticated Christmas 1999 release, will barely break even. Previous PC game failures, like Looking Glass' Terra Nova, and planned projects like Deep Cover, a title scrapped by its co-developer, Irrational Games, and financial backer, Microsoft, added to the company's long-term debt.

At that point, the company's survival seemed pinned to releasing Thief II by March 2000. In contrast to current gamer sentiment, Eidos initially appeared intent on helping Looking Glass survive. During its final months of development, says LeBlanc, "Eidos was writing a check every week to cover our burn rate."

But despite monumental efforts, the studio fell a few weeks behind schedule, and as March 31 approached -- coincidentally, the close of the publisher's fiscal year -- Eidos' generosity came to an end. The company had its own troubles: At $21 per share in December 1999, its stock plummeted to nearly $5 by March 2000. With no other major title ready to ship that quarter, Eidos' pressure focused on Thief II.

As Neurath describes it, "Eidos told us that it was not an option for us to slip ... Despite our pleading for more time, Eidos stood firm on the date, with suggestions of dire consequences if [we] missed by even a day."

Efforts in the Cambridge office were redoubled, accompanied by classic archetypes of the new economy: office floors that become beds, employees who never bathe. In the end, they made their deadline -- though not, in some team members' opinion, without compromises.

"Granted, it's not just an artistic medium, it really is a business," says LeBlanc. "But certainly I think that Thief II was not as good as it should have been." Neurath says the development team "felt as if they should not have been put into the critical position of having to deliver Thief II exactly on schedule because other Eidos titles had slipped months, and in some cases years."

One of Looking Glass' senior developers, speaking anonymously, fumes more pointedly: "We ended up ... spending the company's sanity and morale by throwing together this thing so [Eidos] could have a product in that quarter, when Ion Storm hadn't shipped a product in all that time. While Daikatana was busy not shipping, and while they were writing blank checks to John Romero to do Daikatana ... they told us basically to ship [Thief II] by their fiscal quarter or die."

Still, other members in Looking Glass development dispute any supposed malice in Eidos' ultimatum. "I don't know what Eidos could have or would have done if circumstances were different," Thief II's lead designer Tim Stellmach says. "[Eidos] went out of their way to help us out by expediting the payment of that milestone," Steve Pearsall adds.

The payment came, but even with Thief II selling well, the company wouldn't see its royalties for months. And payroll was still due, debts still unpaid. Some last-minute attempts to secure the company's sale seemed promising, but ultimately fruitless. Including -- after so much effort on its behalf -- a buyout offer to Eidos. "From what I can determine," says Neurath, "the Eidos team in the U.S. championed this opportunity, but they were not able to get senior management in London to approve an acquisition."

Despite several requests, Eidos spokesmen declined any comments on the matter, but Ion Storm's Romero disagreed with the thesis that the fates of the two companies were intertwined, noting that Eidos was the publisher for only one of Looking Glass' games. "Our studio is linked with Eidos on an exclusive, multiproduct deal and they are also a major shareholder," says Romero. "It is impossible to draw direct parallels between the studios."

In any event, Romero adds, Ion Storm's fortunes are now fully golden: "With Daikatana riding high in the charts and Deus Ex about to hit the streets," says Romero, "Ion will have successfully transitioned into a profitable venture and has long ago ceased to be a financial burden on its publisher."

"Looking Glass folded because it wasn't making money," Geoff Keighley flatly asserts. "Conspiracy theories aside, while Looking Glass' games were critically revered, they were, unfortunately, only moderately successful at retail." Had the company sold millions of copies of a PC game, other financial angels would have surely winged in. (Conversely, Romero's previous games have sold well, which partially explains Eidos' willingness to endure Daikatana's ceaseless delays with stoic long-suffering.)

To its fervent devotees, the greatest tragedy of all is the uncertain fate of the Thief franchise. Always intended as a trilogy, it's as if Krzysztof Kieslowski's production company declared insolvency two parts into his "Three Colors" films, or Lucasfilm went bankrupt after "Empire Strikes Back."

Fortunately, following the original Thief's release, Looking Glass publicly released DromEd, a tool for creating Thief levels, thereby starting a community for fan-created levels -- a kind of collective envisioning of Garrett's further adventures. Many are near-professional quality, so with his official story indefinitely postponed, perhaps the unofficial "prequel" to Thief II may temporarily suffice.

After Thief II dropped from the bestseller list, the top first-person action game for April became Raven/Activision's Soldier of Fortune, a supremely bloody (though tepidly reviewed) first-person shooter, marketed -- with a degree of moral obliviousness that might make even Leni Riefenstahl wince -- as having been modeled on the exploits of a genuine mercenary.

Earlier this year, Carmack's Quake III became an instant bestseller. Hardcore gamers usually describe Carmack as the talented half of the former Romero/Carmack team, but it's always been unclear, besides technical proficiency and a knack for commissioning artwork-pretty explosions, what exactly Carmack's talent is. While Daikatana at least lunges at narrative and empathy, Quake III is relentlessly bereft of story, or conceptual ambition: It's the "Armageddon" of first-person shooters.

On the last Thursday of May, Looking Glass staffers cleaned out their desks. Confident to the end that a major publisher would save their company, the final word had stunned most of them.

Some exchanged farewell posts on the Looking Glass fan site, a community that boasts, by webmaster Saam Tariverdi's estimate, about 100,000 unique visitors a month. After writing "Thank you all so much for showing how computer games can be art," a Philadelphia supporter located a Boston liquor delivery service on the Web, and soon enough, cases of Sam Adams and Pilsner Urquell beer arrived at the Cambridge offices. Pre-noon drinking commenced.

"At that point," says Laura Baldwin, a part-time level designer and dialog writer for the Thief series, "the mood was a combination of still stunned and black hilarity -- plus lots of phones ringing as headhunters dived in."

The conceptual desks are about to be cleared out, too. This week, the company's intellectual assets go to auction. But if Thief were sold, would the original team be available to complete it? "I feel like that work is only two-thirds done at this point," Pearsall says.

Other core members are less enthusiastic: On the week they folded, muses Terri Brosius, "I would have said that I would work with anyone, anywhere, to finish Thief III." No longer. Now, "I would need some key LG people involved -- many of whom are on the verge of accepting other offers too."

Unsure it'll ever be told now, Brosius described for me her vision of the trilogy's end, which would decisively resolve its thematic clash of technology and nature and the moral conflicts within Garrett. "I think Garrett was ready to accept that there are consequences to his actions ... [he'd become] a different person, and his path would be a different one -- probably one where he is finally ready to give, rather than always take."

While some prospective bidders are interested in hiring most of Thief II's talent for Part 3, observes LeBlanc, "It could also easily not happen ... or end up being someone else's idea of what Thief III should be." James Sterrett, TTLG's media watchdog, worries about this last possibility. "I'd be most unhappy if it winds up in the hands of people who don't understand its magic." If that occurs, gamer fury (however misplaced) will probably refocus aimed at Romero and Eidos and their decisions (however inadvertent), which indirectly contributed to the shuttering of Looking Glass Studios.

"But no matter where the blame falls," Keighley concludes, "this is the story about artists who ended up not being able to sustain their creativity because of the realities of business. There's nothing worse than that."

And what ultimately becomes of Garrett, embattled individualist trying to make his way in a decadent era obsessed by gold and the lure of new technology? For now, his fate has been remanded to shadows.

By Wagner James Au

Wagner James Au is a frequent contributor to Salon, and also writes "Notes from a New World," an online journal for Second Life, an upcoming MMOG.

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