Ion Storm catches Thief

Though Looking Glass Studios was forced into bankruptcy making Thief II, there's hope for a Part 3 in the 3-D stealth series.

By Wagner James Au
Published August 10, 2000 7:24PM (EDT)

"Tell me more ...," growls Garrett, in the closing scene from the computer game Thief II. At which point, the second part in the acclaimed series abruptly exits to the main menu -- leaving its many devotees to wonder what will next become of Garrett, the lovable cynic, master cat burglar and reluctant savior of a troubled world.

But their curiosity became dismay in May, when Looking Glass Studios, the series' developer, abruptly declared bankruptcy. In an unhappily ironic twist, even as Eidos Interactive, Looking Glass' publisher, wrote check after check to bankroll Ion Storm's long-delayed production of John Romero's Daikatana, (which has since bombed), Eidos forced Looking Glass to rush production on Thief II -- and then, when the debt collectors came calling for the last time, abandoned them. Thief III's future suddenly appeared in serious doubt.

But on Wednesday, Eidos Interactive announced it had purchased the Thief franchise and would continue to develop it. And in a further twist of the ironic knife, the studio chosen to produce the game is Ion Storm. (Although the development team apparently in charge of the project is not led by Romero himself, but by the respected game developer Warren Spector.)

The announcement was not entirely unexpected. Over the weekend, rumors about the purchase began circulating on the Web.

On Aug. 5, a message posted at Through the Looking Glass, a Looking Glass fan site, claimed that Ion Storm was asking for risumis for the Thief III team. Another user, posting under the handle "MAHK," quickly responded:

"EIDOS now owns both the Thief franchise and the code to the new [level-building] engine ... The Thief franchise will continue to be developed at the Ion Storm Austin office, where it is in Warren Spector's capable hands."

"MAHK" is the nickname for Mark LeBlanc, longtime programmer for Looking Glass and chief creator of Thief's innovative Dark Engine.

As a former senior staffer of LG later expanded to me: "When Looking Glass went under, the whole intellectual property [library] went up for auction, and basically Eidos got all of it."

At that point, according to this nameless staffer, Eidos presented Spector with a delicious ultimatum: "'Hey, either you can do Thief III or we give it to [rival developers] Core or Crystal Dynamics.'"

LeBlanc confirmed that he wrote the post, but referred all further comments to Spector, who declined to comment on Tuesday night. But in the Eidos press release, Spector is quoted as saying "We respect the Thief tradition and we'll do everything in our power not only to live up to everyone's justifiably high expectations but to surpass them."

Fans of the series can finally relax. Before he joined Ion Storm, Spector worked for Looking Glass, designing Ultima Underworld, its sequel, and the cult classic System Shock. He even contributed early production work and conceptual advice to the original Thief.

At Ion Storm, his creative output has been just as potent. His latest game, Deus Ex, was enthusiastically received by gaming and mainstream reviewers alike, and has remained on the bestseller list for nearly a month -- even as Romero's Daikatana dropped ignominiously from the charts. What's more, Deus Ex incorporates stealth and a keen awareness of violence's consequences, in ways comparable to (and inspired in part by) Thief.

Most promising of all, Spector is the industry's leading intellect, its hipster academic, an artist of genuine ambition and conceptual range capable of drawing upon impressively diverse influences, from anthropologist Victor Turner to filmmaker Jean Renoir.

So if the Thief series is the gaming industry's crown masterwork, then Spector is probably the best person to guide Garrett's emergence out from the shadows that still surround him.

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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