By Derek Smart
By now, you already know who I am, what Battlecruiser 3000AD is and of course heard about or experienced the 1996 botched release of one of the most eagerly anticipated and hyped titles of all time. The abuse, the insults, the finger pointing, the blame etc. have all been shoved back and forth since 1996 and to this day, the controversy continues.
What happened to BC3K in September 1996?
Everyone, from the publishers to the Usenet detractors who don't even own the game, has a version of what they believed really happened. The gaming press and general populous at large, have stirred up story after story, theory after theory, with no idea of what really happened. Every story, every thread, every flame war reeked of speculation, conjecture and even blatant lies. The Usenet has generated in excess of 65,000 posts since the game's release. Everyone has an opinion and unless you're Derek Smart, you won't have a clue as to what it takes to watch a decade of hard work go up in flames. Someone woke up one morning and made a decision that was to change my life forever.
This, is my story.
HOW IT ALL STARTED...
The story of this game's evolution to what it is today and the stuff I had to go through to complete it would fill volumes. I'll try to keep it short. I was in London back in 1988-89 when I had the idea for this game. At the time I had no idea what I was in for or where it would take me. The details are pretty sketchy now, but not completely beyond the realm of recall.
The genesis (or perhaps this story is better analogized to the trials of Job) of Battlecruiser dates back to a phone call to Velocity in the US for tech support. I bought a copy of Jetfighter with my brand new top of the line Amstrad computer and I couldn't get it to work. Boy that baby was slick (do I hear you chuckling and does this story sound familiar?). Anyway, I had to make an international call to get the tech support I needed. I spoke to Matt Harmon who was pretty helpful and in no time, I was flying over San Francisco ready to shoot down anything that moved. In the days that followed, I became virtually obsessed with the game (This is beginning to sound very familiar, isn't it?) and since I could find no other meaningful use for my machine, I continued to buy games.
In the months that followed, Matt and I built a relationship during which I expressed the desire to get into the gaming business (yep, this story is getting very close to home). At the time it was a novel and niche market in which only the elite of the elite prospered, but many fresh from their new Walter Mitty environments dreamed of entering. Was I qualified to undertake such a daunting task? Hell, my programming skills were more geared toward vertical market type applications and other software that one could actually admit in public to be the focus of one's livelihood. Even with my background and education, I didn't even know what would be the first module to write for a game. Notwithstanding these obstacles, my newfound passion for gaming triggered by games such as Jetfighter was not going to be quenched by dreams alone or the work of others. I knew then that I wanted to write a game, not just any game, but THE GAME.
After much prodding of Matt in between his tech support calls, I was convinced that this is what I wanted to do for the rest of my life. All I needed was to get in (Opening Hollywood-type scene: "Mr. Mayer, my name is Derek Smart and I'm ready for my screen test now"). Naturally, this conflicted with those mundane facets of life. Like working as systems engineer and programmer, going to college at night, dealing with a demanding boss and coping with a new marriage (now it is becoming crystal clear, this isn't only my story is it? It could be the story of anyone, who, like me, was bitten by the bug of this fantastic form of entertainment).
In between designing the game, bothering Matt and pretty much everyone in the UK who knew anything about the subject, I became much more proficient in programming areas that the ultimate game would require, including graphics, AI processing and data structures. Most of all, I needed a good design for a gaming concept that was largely little more than a general notion residing between my ears. I wanted a game that combined most, if not all, of the elements of existing games. THE GAME would be a game that was completely immersing and gave the player total control or as much control as the player wanted. THE GAME would transcend game genre boundaries such as role-playing, simulation, strategic wargaming and other sub-genres of gaming--all gamers would be welcome at Derek Smart's table of gaming delight.
What a nightmare that grandiose vision turned out to be. It wasn't the 60's so I couldn't blame it on drugs and bell-bottoms. The long and short of the matter is, I was basically out to lunch to think I could pull this off and plain crazy to even attempt to do so. Now you're beginning to get the picture.
The design of THE GAME itself when through several revisions, from a basic planetary flight sim, to role playing, back to flight sim, back to role playing . . . <continue design iteration loop until those men in those nice white uniforms show up at the door to take you to the special game designer's department, which is complete with padding and custom-fitted straightjacket>.
Remember, I did admit earlier that I didn't have a clue as to what I was doing? By the time I realized that I was headed nowhere, but doing so with such flair and reckless abandon, I had a library of over twenty games. Ranging from the Infocom classics to titles by Rainbird, Microprose, Cosmi and Interstel. I was drawn more toward the adrenaline pumping action that Microprose titles provided, so my flight sim design aspects constantly went through all sorts of revisions to achieve as close to perfect simulation characteristics as humanly possible. Coming from a scientific and space research background, I decided to blend in a touch of space flight modeling just to complicate my life further.
It was by pure coincidence that I went to a store in downtown London (I think it was the Virgin Megastore on Oxford street) and ran into 'Wild Bill' Stealey, then CEO of Microprose who was showing off either F19 or F15 Strike Eagle, I can't remember (this seems to be happening a lot). Boy, was I excited. I watched and listened as he demonstrated his new toy to the gawking on-lookers. In between doing that, he was narrating a story (for the umpteenth time) about how he and some hot shot (Andy Hollis?) had the idea of doing a game. As the story goes, he had told Andy that if he [Andy] could write it, he [Bill] could sell it. When I had the chance, I introduced myself. He offered to show me his new piece of magic on a floppy.
Not being shy, lacking self-confidence or otherwise reluctant to promote THE GAME well in advance of its release date, at the end of the presentation, I told him that I was currently working on an idea for a game which would most likely surpass anything ever developed (yeah right!). He took a long hard look at me and said, "Son, when you do, be sure contact me" and he gave me his card. It was many years before I would see Bill again in the United States.
By the time I decided to return to the States, Battlecruiser: 3000AD had evolved from scrambled thoughts and spaghetti code to the basic framework for a game, but it still wasn't THE GAME, either in concept or in preliminary design. THE GAME would take a bit more time, but little did I know that it would take another five years to complete. I continued to learn 3D programming while honing my ai skills and basically making the transition from business application programming to gaming. No easy task to say the least! Since no publisher in their right mind was willing to give an unknown developer a chance to create THE GAME on their nickel, I had to continue financing the development by myself.
Remember good old Matt? Well, I continued to plague him and he continued to provide the best advice he could, since programming assistance was out of the question. Man, I was buying books and games like it was the end of the era of gaming. Wallowing in "research material," I got so confused and sidetracked that I started to seriously consider bringing in some hired help. The question was what kind of help did I need? Up to that point I wrote every line of code for the game, created every screen image, design specs and every other conceivable task imaginable--what kind of help did I really need and where would I start looking for those to lend a helping hand in finishing the quest for the holy grail of gaming? I created a demo and posted it on the popular on-line services with a message for anyone interested to contact me. The response was enormous, but this did not produce the gathering of crusaders that I needed, so I continued part time development on my own.
In 1991, I contacted one publisher who had just terminated an agreement with another source of game products and who was excited about publishing my game. Consistent with disappointments to be expected at the outset of any new venture, it never panned out. I think someone died and the deal got nixed. In early 1992, negotiations with another publisher never went beyond the non-disclosure agreement stage. Shortly thereafter, I remembered my conversation with Bill Stealey and tried to contact him at Microprose. After several attempts I received a encouraging ding letter from an associate producer that stated a potential conflict between my project and a pending Microprose project. Undeterred, the search for a publisher willing to release the project continued with contacts with yet another major player, but that deal, again, never went beyond the non-disclosure agreement stage. The Strategy Plus did a front cover article in 1992 and all hell broke loose. Interest in THE GAME escalated and for once, publishers were actually talking to me - but weren't saying much. Go figure.
I continued development and financing on my own with the idea that if I could enhance the game and fine-tune the concept, it would be more attractive to a publisher. Surely, someone in the biz would recognize THE GAME in its infancy. Back to the drawing board. Believe me, being a rocket scientist is more fun and is far less stressful. Later that year, in October actually, 3000AD signed its first ever publishing contract. Boy, was I excited and I was going to my first trade show with my game that December. CES here I come!
My new publisher terminated my contract at the trade show after I was there for only, say maybe, five hours citing that the press did not think that Battlecruiser had the glitz that other programs of that genre had. This was a thinly veiled reference to Chris Roberts' latest version of Wing Commander, of course. Ok, what's another disappointment; at least I got to meet some very interesting people, all of whom have stuck with me throughout this development. These include Ed Dille, Mike Weksler and other press contributors who throughout the years have added their own two cents to give me an idea of where the industry was headed and what I needed to do in order to compete.
|Credits: Guest Editorial logo illustrated and is © 1999 Dan Zalkus. This Guest Editorial is © 1999 Derek Smart. All other content is © 1999 loonyboi productions. Unauthorized reproduction is strictly prohibited and not nice.|