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Cyberpunked: the Fall of Black9

Erin Hoffman | 20 May 2008 13:15
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The two companies worked on a contract that underwent several revisions, but nothing was ever signed. Yes, it was a warning sign; yes, in hindsight it was horrifying - but it was also 1) not uncommon at the time, and 2) ultimately unimportant in the final analysis. When the publisher has bottomless pockets (and Majesco, for specific reasons, did) and the developer has nothing (because they hadn't been paid), suing for breach of contract (which Taldren did) is an infuriating exercise in futility. In this country justice must be purchased; if you have no money, you have no lawyers and no case. And no one with litigation-caliber funding ultimately cares about a game that never was.

As was (and remains) common in third-party development schedules, each milestone specifies a certain number of expressed features, though they are loosely open for negotiation. This is where game "production," in "producer" terms, becomes a huge factor in the safe or harrowing trajectory of a game's development. In Taldren's case, Majesco demanded a string of features in addition to the agreed-upon schedule, Taldren worked furiously to meet those demands and Majesco withheld milestone payments anyway - a phenomenon hardly unique to Taldren and Majesco's dealings. Such underhanded tactics are common in the industry even today, but they alone were not enough to kill the project.

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We never knew exactly how Majesco's assigned producer came by his job, but his managerial style was astounding. He would blaze into the Orange County studio, tour the office and pal around with the developers and then go into closed door meetings and scream at people, not in a euphemistic way, but in a way that could be heard throughout the 4,000-square-foot office. In one of my few direct encounters with him, he asked me if I, as a woman, aspired to follow Stevie Case's career example. By his tone I'm quite sure he meant this sincerely, but Case, while certainly a prominent woman in game history, was perhaps best known at the time for posing for Playboy with a joystick between her legs. No, I did not so aspire.

As the project wore on, despite favorable press and consistent progress, the producer grew increasingly frenetic. The team's efforts were nothing short of heroic: They took the long hours in stride, saw challenges and met them, crafted a game world that grew more beautiful by the day. But for every hour we worked, Majesco demanded six more. They sent the producer out on weekends to make sure the team was in the office on Sundays. Taldren, small company though it was, recognized that working these hours for months on end wasn't healthy, efficient or sustainable. In response to Majesco's demands, the founders put the team on a rotating schedule, such that at any given time two-thirds of the team was in the office, giving the studio the illusion of round-the-clock performance and providing the developers one day off in seven. By now, relations were already building toward the adversarial.

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