Post Mortem

Cyberpunked: the Fall of Black9


Throughout the entire bizarre rollercoaster that was the ea_spouse period, I never asked anyone to stop buying EA games. A lot of people stopped voluntarily, and I didn’t dissuade them from doing so, but I never actually encouraged a boycott. By contrast, when Majesco shut down Taldren Inc. in 2003, illegally attempted to recruit talent away from the studio and stole source code using planted “assistant” developers, I asked everyone I knew to never touch anything with a Majesco logo on it again.

This is a story about big against small, about corporate espionage and a man-child producer with a thing for Stevie Case. This is a story I have been waiting years to tell.

Our Fair Lady of Cybernetics
It was the year of Homeland Security, the year of SARS and “Mission Accomplished” and the completion of the Human Genome Project. In the gaming world, it was the year of Viewtiful Joe, the EyeToy, Beyond Good and Evil, and the controversial Manhunt.

Black9 was a big game by the standards of its day. Currently it’s not unusual to hear of a major title with a $20 million budget, but in 2003, a $5 million project was a really big deal. Black9, had it been completed and paid for, would have commanded an approximately $2 million budget over a year and a half of development.

The game was an action-based nanotechnology thriller set in a dystopian future in which nine megacorporations – the Illuminati – control just about everything. Originally conceived by Erik Bethke, Black9’s lead designer and Taldren’s CEO, it was part of a sleek tradition of cyberpunk fantasies, with a tumultuous storyline, a vivid world and heroic ideology: that one individual could take on a world dominated by heartless corporations and change it for the better. This theme is ultimately at the heart of interactivity, and as it turned out was also at the heart of Taldren. Black9 aspired to heights established by titles like Deus Ex. Behind its artistic beauty was an intricate and unique speculative vision; it was, in short, a world.

Taldren grew out of a team working for Interplay on the Starfleet Command games in the late ’90s, and with Black9 made a bid for both true independence and the brass ring of game development: a AAA title composed of original (and studio-owned) IP. All of the company’s founders and core members were long-time industry veterans; phenomenal computer scientists in some cases, brilliant people – but not a single trained manager or businessperson among them. They got by on intelligence and raw tenacity – the two forces that drove this adolescent era of the game industry, which, though few knew it at the time, was coming to a close.

Into the Inferno
The original IP AAA game is a brass ring for a reason: It’s intensely difficult for first-timers to successfully pitch and land. Such games can’t rely on the guaranteed sales an established license provides, so they must be sold to prospective publishers on trust in the developer alone. In order to leap into development quickly – necessary for a small studio that can’t afford downtime – Taldren connected with Majesco, which, though relatively new to the AAA market, was at the time working on Advent Rising.

Recommended Videos

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.

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.

The Ninth Circle
The producer’s disruptive influence notwithstanding, production continued, and the team finally hit its stride. Seven of 12 planned levels were complete; multiplayer functioned and radically expanded; art quality rapidly improved; voiceover was in place and functioning, as were 80 percent of the weapons. The game hit that mystical realization point, where it goes from an idea to an actual interactive experience. It’s this moment in which a game, for the first time, becomes alive.

Despite many late nights and early mornings in the office, things were looking up. So that, of course, was when everything went straight to hell. Communication between Taldren and Majesco broke down even further, and Taldren began, perhaps belatedly, planning an exit strategy: They rapidly organized and quietly pitched a second property to a handful of other publishers.

Around this time Majesco sent “programmer assistance”: two programmers whose primary purpose turned out to be uploading our source code to New Jersey in the middle of the night – the only time the office was empty. During the day they would ask probing questions about the build process and the game’s design.

The exit strategy almost worked. Taldren was in the advanced stages of closing a contract with Vivendi when Vivendi’s purchasing department suddenly reorganized and froze their acquisitions. In late September Majesco called Taldren’s founders out to New Jersey under the guise of a peace offering. There they were informed that Majesco would no longer be paying Taldren (including the severance fee expressed in the contract), and further would be taking the project in-house. They intended to lay off the development team, but offer the founders jobs in New Jersey.

Remember: Black9 was original IP. Majesco did not retain rights to it. What they were casually proposing was the brute-force corporate theft of a game from its creators.

It was, of course, a scare tactic. Majesco knew the team was demoralized to the extreme by this point; knew most developers will do almost anything in order to finish their game and get paid. They fully anticipated that Taldren would sacrifice its workforce wholesale to see the game through to completion, even in light of Majesco’s flagrantly unethical and illegal behavior.

What Majesco didn’t count on was Taldren’s founders’ decision to remain honest with the development team. Where other studio heads would have maintained development by any means necessary, including masking the crisis from the developers, Taldren’s founders, by this point, were exhausted, angry and past desperation. They stared down the truth and closed the studio.

Majesco was stunned. Maybe even more stunned than we were.

I look back on my personal journal entries from that time, and the infamous company meeting when the bosses announced what would eventually become Black9‘s “indefinite hiatus.” The grief process is there, starting with denial. “I’m not terrifically concerned about this. … The game is too far along, and too good already, for any sane publisher to just drop it right now.”

The reality was Black9 was 85 percent complete and would never see the light of day. All we had suffered and strived for – the trials, the frustrations, the sleepless nights, the triumphs – was for naught. This child, named but not yet born, fought for so desperately in the preceding months, had been taken from us.

Dishes Served Cold
After what happened with Black9 and the eventual utter failure of their other games in the AAA market, Majesco was sued by its shareholders, who kicked out a majority of its executive board. The producer that terrorized Taldren didn’t last past the game’s cancellation. I’m told Majesco is a very different company now. But what happened with Black9 is the explanation for a great many canceled games, and changed forever the way the 40 of us working on that game thought about the industry.

The game, now, is a ghost, a haunting relic of a dream that never was. I kept a build of its final state for a long time, though it would be months before I could stand to load it. The experience is eerie, moving through a game that is so close to complete; and yet, in the eyes of the world, it never existed. It reveals a patina of age as time passes, increasingly becoming an artifact. It is a brief trip through a parallel universe.

Black9 was something special. Project cancellation under any circumstances is hard, but Black9 would have been one for the record books – yet its message has never been spoken, its world never inhabited. It was one of those games that, maybe not for millions, but for many, would have changed lives. It was ludological literature.

If you’re lucky in this business, you touch a game like that a couple of times in your career. These are the games we all seek, the games that stick out between licensed franchises.

A handful of words can’t express exactly what made it so special, and a lot of it is individual; my Black9 is another person’s licensed media tie-in sequel. With the field expanding into games that can teach, games that can heal, games for entirely new audiences, I find myself involved with all of these things, pushing the boundary of what a game can fundamentally do. But a big part of me is still waiting for another Black9.

The core lesson Black9 taught me, which can be applied to so many of our interactions, from romance to politics to commerce, is that you have to be able to walk away. You have to be able to walk away.

And be careful what you love.

Erin Hoffman is a professional game designer, freelance writer, and hobbyist troublemaker. She moderates and fights crime on the streets by night.

About the author