Ion’s Other Game

After Dominion: Storm Over Gift 3 shuffled off the shelves and Daikatana collapsed under a pile of hype and dead frogs, Ion Storm Dallas managed to ship one last game before folding in on itself. Tom Hall’s Anachronox seemed like a gritty cyberpunk adventure, but it soon turned into a hilarious send up of – and tribute to – the console RPG. Anachronox had everything RPG players clamor for: a compelling plot, a strange and new setting to explore, a fantastic soundtrack, a good, if older engine, and deep, interesting characters. Unfortunately, the game shipped early and buggy, and, with little marketing from Eidos and the demise of Ion Storm Dallas, it sank into cult-favorite-class obscurity, good for geeks and bad for business. The game community and former Ion Storm Dallas employees were left to piece the game’s universe together via unofficial patches and even an acclaimed machinima movie.

Tom Hall himself followed John Romero to Monkeystone Games and Midway, before leaving to pursue independent projects and, eventually, winding up with hush-hush MMOG developer KingsIsle Entertainment. I caught up with him at KingsIsle, where he proved quite willing to talk about the birth of Anachronox and what went wrong along the way.

On the larger level, “games start in all sorts of ways. Some start with characters, some with worlds, some with ideas for new methods of control,” he says. “When I come up with a game, usually the seed of the game is understood, and that spurs on new ideas, and once there’s enough density of ideas and most undefined facets fall into place, suddenly the world of concept makes ‘sense,’ and then I write the whole thing down at once.” From there, it’s simply a matter of breaking the idea down to the level of what tasks need to be done and what assets are required.

As for Anachronox, it “can be seen as part Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, part [Commander] Keen, part Final Fantasy, part parody, and part epic, hard sci-fi.” He admits that it was “hubris to take 15 people and say you’re going to make a console-style RPG, but, well, that’s what we did.” Anachronox actually began its life in a very humble place, he says. “The name Anachronox came to me, as many ideas do, in the bathroom. Then, I had to figure out what that word meant. It seemed like the city they lived in, but I broke the word down to anachronism and noxious. One combination of these two things would be ‘poison from the past’ or ‘poison from another time.’ So, that became the basis for the history of [the] place, but also the basis for the characters. They were each healing a poison from their past.” Robot sidekick PAL-18 was another bathroom idea, he says. “Luckily, I have a notepad in there. I can’t fathom all the shower ideas I lost before putting a recorder in there.”

Anachronox was caught in the slow-motion explosion of a drama bomb. Ion Storm Dallas was busy eating itself, a process chronicled everywhere from NPR to Gamespot to our own magazine, and Tom Hall was caught in the middle. “I had different roles at different times: Chief Creative Officer, President, etc. But, basically, I served as the Project Lead on Anachronox, and, where I could, as conscience of the company.” He blames Ion’s collapse on the company’s lack of focus, or rather, their focus on things other than game development. “Once there was a re-focus on making games – boom, they got done.”

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Hall cites three factors in Ion Storm’s demise. “A: too many newbies. We had very few hires that were senior.” He said they had a strong desire to give new people a shot, “but we went too far in that regard. We wound up with an amazing team, but a lot of them had to cut their teeth on [our games]. B: politics. I can’t go into this for, sadly, legal reasons, but let’s just say there was a whole lot of turmoil and not enough focus on making games. C: over-marketing. We were making bold statements before we were even [in] alpha. We needed to shut up until we had something to show. If it hadn’t been for those three things, Daikatana would have come out much earlier and been fine.”

Most of the reviews at the time of Anachronox‘s release praised the game for its storyline and characters, but reviewers and players docked points for the number of bugs found within the game. Hall says “it wasn’t insanely buggy compared to some titles, but it was rushed out the door. Eidos wanted to ship it. If we’d shipped Joey [Liaw]’s final build, it would have been very stable.” Bugs alone may not explain Anachronox‘s commercial failure, however. “I think most people didn’t know the game was out. … I sing the praises of Eidos for sticking with us through all the craziness – they were amazing. But they spent millions on the game, and in the tens of thousands on advertising. I think it could have found a pretty strong audience. But with all the craziness that had gone on, I feel fortunate that people got to experience it at all.” He describes the potential audience as “people that love RPGs, people that love adventures, people that love story and humor. People still write to me saying they found a copy, that they played and loved the game, and that they wished they’d heard about it coming out at the time.”

Of the game’s incomplete storyline, he says, “We made just about two-thirds of the original storyline. We had this huge long story that was 70 hours and just couldn’t finish that many assets in a reasonable amount of time. Where it was stopped, it made sense, as many characters had their story arc complete. I don’t regret it, because Anachronox is plenty long and ends well.” Ion Storm envisioned a sequel, but financially couldn’t justify a return to Anachronox‘s world. Hall is reluctant to discuss where the story might’ve gone, “because I’d love to have the property back and finish the story. A lot of the work was done, but all I will say is it involved two other universes.” While he did say repeatedly that he’d love to do the second installment, he doesn’t own the intellectual property rights. “I’ve asked for it, what they wanted for it, but they seem to want to keep it for some reason.”

Moving back to the development of the game itself, I asked him why he wanted to put a console-style RPG on the PC. “Why explore a new continent?” he answered. “It was novel, never before done, and could introduce PC players to that type of experience.” The man who has worked on some of gaming’s most recognizable titles – Duke Nukem 3D, Doom, Wolfenstein 3D, Commander Keen – ranks Anachronox as one of his favorite worlds. “I really love Anachronox. It’s tied with [Commander] Keen for my favorite universe. The cast of Anachronox feel like ol’ buddies, and the team that finished it is all family.”

Indeed, some of the game’s developers worked on the game even after Ion Storm Dallas dissolved. Programmer Joey Liaw put together some unofficial patches that fixed a lot of the game’s flaws, Jake Hughes put together the movie, and so on. Clearly this game meant a lot to the people that worked on it. I asked him why. “It’s hard to explain,” he answered. “It’s like soldiers bonding. We went through such turmoil but stayed for the love of the universe, the game and each other. Former team members often mention that if I ever got the intellectual property back and was going to make Anachronox 2, just tell them when and where. We have, as we say, ‘The Love.'”

KingsIsle, where Hall is now the Creative Director, is about as far from Ion Storm’s deafening hype as it’s possible to get. Hall will only say, “We are a new MMOG-focused company, trying to do new, creative things that haven’t been done before. Our founder is putting good money behind the idea that people will want something beyond another World of Warcraft clone.” He offers a little bit more detail when I ask for the appeal of this particular project. “I can’t tell you what it is,” he says, “but it’s not fantasy. It’s quite a different take on the market and what you do in an MMOG.

“There are many things appealing for me about MMOGs as a designer. The ability to sculpt a huge ‘world,’ the variety of experience, the social nature of the game, the ability to expand the content as you go, to maintain and grow this living, breathing entity of an experience.” And the innovator in him tacks on, “And, of course, I haven’t made one yet – the new is always exciting. I wasn’t going to do one, but I came up with such a good base idea for one, I kind of had to. And talking with Elie Akilian, the brilliant founder of KingsIsle, I felt his passion about doing something new and not ‘me-too.’ So rare and precious in this day and age!” When asked about his personal creative philosophy, Hall keeps it snappy. “What’s my philosophy? Make games easy and consistent to use … and explore new continents.”

[em]Shannon Drake is a Contributing Editor for The Escapist and changed his name when he became a citizen. It used to be Merkw

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