A Letter to Owen, Part 5
A woman contacted me on Facebook to tell me that she of a gift she was preparing for her grandson’s Bar Mitzvah. The boy is a very avid gamer, and she wanted to present him with a book of letters written by people who worked in the game industry. She asked me to make a contribution, and here is more of what I wrote.
As you have probably gathered by now, the game industry is very volatile. Games, like movies, are a hit-driven business. Most games – eighty percent, in fact, don’t even make a profit. The few ones that do become hits are what make up for all the others that lose money. And if you are working on a game that isn’t a hit, you may soon find yourself out of work.
My job search didn’t last long. Another programmer I knew told me that a local game development studio called New World Computing was looking for a producer to make the next game in its Heroes of Might & Magic franchise. It turns out that I met the company’s president, Jon Van Caneghem, several years ago at the annual Game Developers Conference in San Francisco. We had both been invited to participate in a game design panel, and afterwards we agreed that we should work together one day. Well, that day had finally come.
What he wanted me to do was make a sequel to Heroes of Might & Magic II. That sounded like fun, but there was a problem. Heroes II was considered to be one of the greatest games of all time. So, there was no place to go but down. However, when I played the game, I realized that while the game was a lot of fun, the graphics were about five years behind the time. So, I decided that for the sequel, I would concentrate on improving the graphics.
Jon agreed with me. In fact, he told me he was unhappy with the company’s art direction and wanted me to “secretly” interview each of the artists to find one to replace their art directed. On the pretense of introducing myself to everyone, I talked with each of the artists. One of the artists I met kept on talking about how unhappy she was with the status quo, and I thought, “hmm, I think I have found my art director” because I wanted someone who wasn’t satisfied with how things were currently done. So, I promoted her to art director, and I also discovered that she was the company’s best artist too.
We worked very hard on getting everyone to improve the quality of the artwork, and Heroes III became an even bigger hit than Heroes II was. However, not everyone was happy. Some of the artists thought I had taken too much control over the artwork and complained to my manager, who ordered me to not be so demanding on my next project. That proved to be a mistake, because when I took a more laid-back attitude in developing the next sequel, Heroes IV, that game proved to be a disappointment to everyone. I learned that it was a mistake not to follow my own instincts and do what was in the best interest of the game.
Now the game did get pretty good reviews and sold well, but it wasn’t the success that Heroes III was. But there was another problem. New World Computing was owned by another company, The 3DO Company, and most of its games were not hits. In fact, The 3DO Company was losing tons of money. And so after we finished Heroes IV, we were all laid off, even though the Heroes series was the company’s best-selling franchise.