When I discovered Troika Games, I had never heard of the company’s three founders, Leonard Boyarsky, Jason Anderson and Tim Cain. I didn’t know they were legends in the gaming field, responsible for Interplay’s Fallout. I just knew they blew up my computer.
Troika’s last game, Vampire: The Masquerade – Bloodlines, was modeled after the World of Darkness universe created by tabletop developer White Wolf, and a game within that universe, Vampire: The Masquerade, was my first real introduction to what gaming could be.
My cousin, visiting from college one summer, inundated my 10-year-old head with words like Malkavian, Caitiff, Prince and Diablerie. Every night during his stay, we’d sit hunched over a table in a room lit only by a candle, and he’d weave a story where I could influence the world, grow powerful, even stop a minor god from destroying the world. Until that point in my life, I’d played nothing but sports games; participating in a story was entirely new to me.
Bloodlines was love at first install. The game perfectly captured Vampire‘s spirit, demanding your avatar to make the best of multiple bad decisions; make allies and betray them; and ultimately choose between trying to save every vampire in the city, or to control them. I couldn’t stop playing. Just four hours into the game, I was addicted.
I’d already prepared my fake cough to call in sick to work the next day when it happened: As I was navigating Los Angeles, trying to gather some intelligence on a vampire with too high a profile, I heard something inside my computer click. The click turned into a grind, and then my computer shut down and wouldn’t turn back on. At all.
By the time I’d replaced all the parts that went blooey, it was December, and the first thing I did was re-install Bloodlines – along with a newly-released patch.
It was January before I’d finished my first go through the game, and after coming up for air, I headed over to Troika’s official site to see what else they had planned. Despite the computer nuking, they had earned themselves a very loyal customer. I was shocked to learn that they had laid off all but their three founders, although in hindsight I suppose I shouldn’t have been; the last patch they released for Bloodlines was the final official bit of code Troika would ever produce.
“Great Ideas. Never Enough Testing.”
Boyarsky, Cain and Anderson’s creative vision first came together at Interplay. Together, the three worked on Fallout, the critically-acclaimed, post-apocalyptic RPG that has lived on in the hearts and minds of PC gamers as a sterling example of gaming done right. Cain was credited as Producer, Boyarsky as Art Director and Anderson as a Lead Artist.
Work began on a sequel, but the three “were unable to come to an agreement with Interplay as to how our next team should be structured,” says Jason Anderson. The three also ran into a lot more corporate attention after Fallout‘s success, Leonard Boyarsky tells me in a separate interview. Between that and Interplay’s growing pains – the company’s expansion was turning the culture bad – Anderson, Boyarsky and Cain struck out on their own.
Boyarsky says, “Interplay had been a great place to work, and we felt that it was losing a lot of what we felt was great about it, and that they were making a lot of bad decisions that would destroy the company. We were about five or six years early on that, but we saw the writing on the wall. If Baldur’s Gate hadn’t hit big, Interplay might well have imploded much earlier, but we left about a year before BG was even released.”
And so, Troika was formed. They each shared the CEO title, which worked for a while because “we each had our specialty,” Anderson says, “Tim being a talented programmer, Leonard a talented artist and I have a knack for technical things allowing me to develop ways for the programming and art to merge together.”
The company they describe sounds like a slice of dot com era heaven. “Our basic goal in leaving [Interplay] was to create a company that felt like ‘old Interplay,'” Boyarsky says. Anderson described the workplace to me: “We had a casual environment, open hours, kept the fridge and kitchen fully stocked with sodas and snacks, had weekly lunch catered in (or BBQ’s on the patio), took everyone to movie premiers, matched their retirement plans a full 3 percent with no vesting period, had very competitive pay scales and put most of the employees into offices rather than cubicles, had a lounge with couches and console games, a big screen TV, game nights, etc.”
Somewhere in there, they managed to get work done on their first game, Arcanum, an isometric-view, non-linear steampunk RPG. Think Fallout with monocles and zeppelins. The game, which released in 2001 to good reviews (though many complained of niggling bugs), came straight from Boyarsky, Anderson and Cain’s skunkworks, says Boyarsky: “For the initial design of Arcanum, it was just Tim, Jason and myself for five months until we landed a contract.” The contract they secured was with Sierra, which let them expand the company to 12 people.
Expecting a team of 12 to crank out a fully-featured game with a homemade engine is fanciful, to put it lightly. Keeping things small was “a decision that would cost us a great many nights and weekends,” Boyarsky says, and it would mean the company was nearly in a constant state of crunch mode (a development state in which workers put in well over the standard 40 hours per week to meet deadlines). “The process of taking an idea from the design doc all the way to a ‘polished’ feature involves a lot of iteration to be done correctly, as even the greatest ideas on paper may fall flat when implemented. Since we were in crunch mode so much of the time for any number of reasons, some due to things we should have done differently, and some completely out of our control, we would end up trying to iterate features before they were fully implemented,” he tells me. “We always felt like we were under the gun.”
And they were. During Troika’s seven-year existence, they never worked with the same publisher twice, and the company was constantly criticized for releasing inspired but bug-ridden work. Running with such a small team was partially to blame, but Troika also ran into a lot of problems with their numerous publishers. “One of our titles was even pulled out of our hands so that it could sit in a box for four months while [the publisher] finished translations. All we could do was work on the patch during that time. Adding insult to injury, a final production copy was leaked out and passed around on the Usenet for those four months,” Anderson says.
But that’s how things are for the low man on the totem pole, especially when big publishers are concerned. Boyarsky was hoping Troika could avoid constantly being the “new guy” from the onset. “Troika’s original goal had been to just be exclusive to one publisher, kind of their external RPG dev team,” he says, “so we wouldn’t have to always be scrambling for contracts. At first, Sierra seemed to be that publisher – even when they weren’t sure about an Arcanum sequel, they had us working on something else. But then Sierra had its own problems, and that was the end of that.”
When Sierra went under, Troika found quarter at Infogrames/Atari, working on The Temple of Elemental Evil (ToEE), a computer remake of a famous Dungeons & Dragons story module, in 2001. The game released in 2003, and like Arcanum, was buggy, but reviewers praised Troika’s adherence to the original module’s story and the game’s faithfulness to the 3.5 Edition D&D rules. Cain was the lone founder on the project; Anderson and Boyarsky had recently won the license to Vampire and were already at work on my beloved Bloodlines, to be published by Activision.
Developing Bloodlines was troublesome for the company. They found themselves having to wade through nearly government-level red tape to accomplish anything. Compared to the relative freedom they had with Arcanum, “design, by necessity, had to become a lot more structured in a game like Vampire, where we had to run everything not only by White Wolf but by the publisher as well.” On top of that, they were using a prototype of the Source engine, one that didn’t yet have Valve’s high-class AI built in, and Troika’s AI code didn’t play very nice with Source.
Activision, fearing their license was in jeopardy, advanced Troika more money in 2003, to allow the ToEE team to move over to work on Bloodlines, hoping Troika would be able to complete the game by 2004 by sheer force of mass.
Troika managed to push the game out in time for its November 16 release date, but at a severe cost in man hours. According to Anderson, “It might be better to think of [Bloodlines‘ development] in terms of non-crunch time. Arcanum had about a year of non-crunch time and Vampire about one or two months. I am not kidding,” he says. The game took nearly four years to develop. That means the team was working normal hours for roughly four percent of the development cycle. Comments in the source code provide a glimpse into the late nights the team had to work: “#TJP: SEPT 15th I’m drunk. Hasn’t this game shipped yet?”
And, in form with their previous two releases, Bloodlines made lasting impressions on all who reviewed it. It was again praised for the subject matter but slammed for all the bugs. Like the one that killed my computer. This recurring theme is, in Anderson’s mind, what led to Troika’s downfall, though he contends most of the blood is on the publishers’ hands. “Right or wrong, we just needed more time to test and polish the games, and none of our three publishers were willing to give it to us. Each and every game was pulled out of our hands before we were through with it. In all fairness, I have to say that we were late and over budget, but that still does not justify giving the public an unfinished product.”
Boyarsky offers a bit more insight into what was happening inside Troika’s doors: “As I said before … a large part of Troika’s existence was ‘crunch mode’ with important decisions being made on the fly without the time needed to fully assess the impacts of those decisions.”
Before Bloodlines even landed in stores, Troika was feeling the final effects of having to develop by the seat of their pants over seven years. Boyarsky (now the sole CEO) and team were unable to secure new deals with Activision or other publishers, presumably due to what had then become a track record of great design with poor implementation. They pitched a variety of ideas to a few different publishers, Anderson’s favorite being “Dreadlands, an [MMOG] set in mythical mid 19th century Eastern Europe.” The team was also working on the spiritual successor to Fallout, but couldn’t find anyone willing to bite on the end of their line.
After two waves of layoffs, Troika was down to just its founders before New Year’s 2005. In February of ’05, they officially closed the company’s doors for good.
Looking back, Anderson says, “Publishers aren’t interested in games from developers that consistently turn out B titles. Unfortunately, although our games had depth and vision, we were never able to release a game that had been thoroughly tested and rid of bugs. The large quantity of errors in our product automatically rendered them B titles.” Additionally, both echo the sentiment that they found their management roles unfulfilling. “We should have found someone to run the business aspect of Troika,” Boyarsky says, “so that Tim, Jason and I could have focused all our energy on the games.”
They both say they went after funding the wrong way. “After the lessons we learned on Arcanum, I think a better way to go would have been to get independent financing for the bulk of the dev cycle for a game, and then bring it to publishers when it was more than half finished to help bring it to market.” Boyarsky tells me, but since all of their games released in the midst of the dot-com bust, game production wasn’t really a seller’s market.
And now, the three have scattered in the wind. Boyarsky works in the industry, but wouldn’t say where on record. Cain is also in the field, and told me (through Boyarsky): “I am staying in the industry but keeping a much lower profile than I did at Troika. Instead of talking about making games or trying to convince people to play (or publish) my games, I am doing what makes me very happy – making games.” And Anderson is in Phoenix with his significant other, selling real estate, though he’s “getting the itch to return” to games.
While they might not still be working together, their collective influence has carved a deep mark into gaming. Bloodlines is a perennial resident on my hard drive, and a third Fallout is in the works at Bethesda (when I asked Boyarsky what he thought about Interplay selling the rights, he said, “It felt as if our ex wife had sold our children that she had legal custody of,” but he admits to being very “possessive” of the property), which was the talk of E3 2006. Additionally, Interplay has returned from the depths and recently announced a Fallout MMOG.
That alone seems like it could be a rallying cry for the three to return triumphant to their very first baby. When I asked Boyarsky and Anderson if they’d consider getting the band back together, they both said they would “love to,” though probably not, next time, as company owners.
The Escapist, a shadowy flight into the dangerous world of a man who does not exist. Joe Blancato, a young Associate Editor on a crusade to champion the cause of the innocent, the powerless, the helpless in a world of criminals who operate above the law. Joe Blancato, a lone crusader in a dangerous world. The world … of The Escapist.