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volume 1, issue 24

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Guest Editorial:
To Scuttle the Boat




By Randy Pitchford



Near the end of Duke 3D’s development, Scott Miller, President of Apogee Software, called one of his young developers a "rebel" and a "boat rocker" for "planting the seeds of discontent." That developer, exiled from 3D Realms, managed to gather a group of talented artists, animators, and level designers to create a new start-up that would become a competitor for 3D Realms, and yet another first person shooter group was born in the Dallas 3D community.

Billy Zelsnack, with his charismatic flair, extensive industry contacts, amazing graphics engine, and perpetual programming wizardry, created Rebel Boat Rocker with the small team of ex-Duke 3D and Shadow Warrior developers in hopes of becoming an unstoppable force in the 3D gaming world. Things, clearly, did not turn out as hoped.

I must assume that most of the readers of this piece already know that Rebel Boat Rocker’s Prax War was cancelled by our publisher, Electronic Arts, late last month. The creation of Rebel Boat Rocker and the development of Prax War has earned myself and the entire team an incredible amount of valuable experience which must be of benefit to the developer community – hence the request for me to write this article. If you are a fellow game developer, it should do you well to read on and learn what you can. If you are a fan, these words should provide lots of insight into the struggles of the small developer and the passion of those who do it.

When I joined RBR I was the only level designer. I had strong experience as an amateur and as a professional at 3D Realms where I helped build Duke 3D Atomic Edition and Shadow Warrior. I fell into the role of Lead Game Designer at RBR by stepping up to write Prax War’s design documents and playing the role of the "keeper of the vision." I also helped build RBR into a full development team by soliciting and hiring additional developers for level design, art, and programming with my teammates. Finally, I served as RBR’s PR guy making contacts with the press and working with the EA marketing team.

Throughout my time with RBR there have been only a few consistent questions from outsiders about what we were all about.

These are:

  1. "How did you get started and where did that name come from?"
  2. "What more can you tell us about the game you are making?"
  3. "When will it be finished and how *big* will this game really be?"

Not surprisingly, the answers to these questions reveal quite a bit about what Rebel Boat Rocker did right, what we did wrong and how it will all turn out in the end. When reading, remember that all of this is from my perspective as the lead game designer of Prax War. Some of the other RBR developers probably learned different lessons from the experience.


"How did you get started and where did that name come from?"

Rebel Boat Rocker was the child of two developers I worked with while at 3D Realms. Most of the developers at 3D Realms had a great deal of respect for the Zelsnacks but everyone knew there were some inherent problems between them and the owners of the company. While most of the future RBR team was working on Duke 3D, the Zelsnacks had their own small team developing technology and content for a secret project based on the Bomb Shell character (that will now appear in Duke Nukem Forever). During some of the conflict that was escalating between the Bomb Shell team and the 3D Realms owners, Billy was labeled a "rebel" and a "boat rocker," and was eventually asked to leave. His points were primarily in favor of developers’ rights but were at best amusing and at worst disrupting to the other game development going on at the time. Either because of the truth of his arguments or because of the power of his persuasiveness, more than 30% of the 3D Realms developers would quit that company to form Hipnotic Entertainment (now Ritual) or join Billy and RBR over the coming six months. In any case, he espoused a philosophy of equality, fairness and creative freedom (among other things) that attracted the attention of many 3D Realms developers, including myself.

The concepts on which Rebel Boat Rocker was founded were appealing. Billy showed us that, in a streamlined team, all developers are required for the end product. Therefore, all developers have the same worth and should receive the same reward for success and have the same creative power. This philosophy was both a big part of RBR’s success but also probably contributed to the demise of Prax War. You see, each one of us (as equal owners in the company) was not only willing, but enthusiastic to take personal risk and investment in RBR to keep things running. At times, we stayed together through difficulties that a typical employee would’ve walked over. We did that because of our personal stake in the company. However, our structure denied a centralized power figure who had absolute final say about the issues relating to a company’s growth and a game’s development. Many of us soon began to recognize the importance of what we called the "George character." The George character (after our old ex-boss, George Broussard) had the power to "lay down the law." Post 3D Realms, we were glad to be free of the creative restrains a George character can have on a developer, but later discovered the George character is a necessary part of development. Unfortunately, since we all shared power equally, it was a difficult task for any of us to either assign the George character or actually take on the responsibility with all of the authority it required.

So, in essence, Rebel Boat Rocker was started on principles of questioning authority – i.e. rocking the boat. It was a principle that lead RBR to adapt a hierarchy of no central authority. That plan both helped us start the company, sign a publisher, and survive as a cohesive group, but hurt us later when difficult decisions should’ve been made earlier than they were. This particular group founded Rebel Boat Rocker because we were all more passionate about issues like creative freedom than stable income. I believe many of us now more completely understand the importance of a hierarchy. A few months before our cancellation, I was speaking with Dave Taylor (who recently had a similar experience when his "crack dot com" folded). He indicated (in different words) that he was eager to fall into a role where his duties were implicit and the hierarchy he would become involved with was definite. He even subtly expressed his doubt with RBR’s concept of a ‘utopian society’ where all share equal power. After my experience, I strongly identify with his doubt and his desire to be involved in a structure where the doubt is eliminated. Structure, hierarchy, and accountability (such that RBR did not have for half of its existence) is a mandatory part of a project’s success. I believe that if accountability was enforced and the hierarchy established one year prior to when it actually was, Prax War would be on the shelf this month.

 (continued on next page)


Credits: Guest Editorial logo illustrated and is © 1999 Dan Zalkus. This Guest Editorial is © 1999 Randy Pitchford. All other content is © 1999 loonyboi productions. Unauthorized reproduction is strictly prohibited and not nice.