Sunday, May 19, 2013

Shadow of the Eternals: Why It Deserves a Chance (UPDATED)

Since I have a bad habit of burying the lead in my blog posts, I'm just going to come right out and say what my intended goal is here. There is a Kickstarter for "Shadow of the Eternals", a spiritual successor to "Eternal Darkness: Sanity's Requiem". A lot of people are unwilling to give it their support for reasons I'll delve into here. While I think they have some merit in their skepticism (again, I'll get into that), I ultimately think that if you've ever considered yourself a fan of "Eternal Darkness", H.P. Lovecraft, or video games in general, you owe it to yourself to chip in $5. It's only $5, it gives you access to the first episode of the game, and if it comes out and you hate it, then go ahead and write this project off. Even if I don't convince you to give Precursor Games the benefit of the doubt by the end of this blog post, I can't imagine that $5 is really all that much to ask, even for a company that you might not have any faith in. Think of all of the crap you spend $5 on everyday. Can you tell me the possibility of another "Eternal Darkness" game, even if you believe the possibility is slight, is worth less than that?

Anyway, let's get this show on the road.

Whenever anybody ever talks about the best games developed for the Nintendo GameCube, almost everyone always jumps to "Eternal Darkness: Sanity's Requiem" as their #1 choice. For a system that was largely written off as "just for kids" or a vehicle for sub-par third-party titles, "Eternal Darkness" stood as a shining example of the opposite. A thrilling horror title with a complex, mature plot developed by Silicon Knights. It was heavily-steeped in the mythos of H.P. Lovecraft, it had a unique and interesting magic system, a complex meta-narrative, and a brilliant system of demonstrating the loss of sanity within the game by messing with the player.

For years, gamers have begged for a sequel to the game, and while Silicon Knights often seemed interested in developing one, it never came to fruition.

However, earlier this month, a new company primarily composed of previous Silicon Knights employees called Precursor Games announced its intentions to crowd-fund a game called "Shadow of the Eternals", a spiritual successor to "Eternal Darkness".

Now, given the still-popular nature of crowd-funding in the gaming industry, and given the massive cult following of "Eternal Darkness", one would imagine that even with the game's lofty goal of roughly $1.5 million, it would achieve funding within no time at all. After all, Double Fine achieved twice that amount with their Kickstarter and they didn't even know anything about the game they were fundraising, simply that they wanted to make an adventure game.

So imagine my surprise when I saw that this game had raised only a few tens of thousands of dollars, and even at this point, about two weeks later, it hasn't even raised one quarter of its intended goal. As someone who often follows Kickstarter projects, I know that most projects receive the highest volume of donations at the beginning and at the end of the fundraising period.

At first I thought the reason was because the project was being funded through PayPal rather than Kickstarter, but for nearly a week the project has had a Kickstarter page and it has only managed to raise about $75 thousand. Something is clearly wrong.

Why People Are Skeptical

I couldn't help but wonder why. Why was a game that everyone wanted getting so little support? Was it because the intended goal was too high or because the company itself was a new start-up comprised of employees from the now-defunct Silicon Knights? Well, that seemed insufficient since the recent Kickstarter for "Shroud of the Avatar", the successor to the "Ultima" series, also had a high target goal and was being developed by a new, unproven company. Was it because Silicon Knights put out two very crappy games, "Too Human" and "X-Men: Destiny", forever smearing their reputation? Well, again, before shutting down, Origin put out the embarrassing "Ultima IX: Ascension" before floundering for another 5 years solely surviving on the revenue from "Ultima Online", one of the first majorly popular MMORPGs ever (and actually the first one I ever played). Richard "Lord British" Garriott attempted to release another MMO called "Tabula Rasa" that was critically middling and shut down two years later due to lack of interest. None of this apparently deterred the loyalty of "Ultima" fans who doubled the project's intended goal.

So what made this game so special? In an age where gamers will willingly crowd-fund games and gaming hardware with dubious prospects, what about "Shadow of the Eternals" went over the line?

Well, first of all, "Too Human" and "X-Men: Destiny" were very recent failures, at least comparatively. Also, while "Too Human" can probably be compared to "Ultima IX" and "Duke Nukem Forever" as a game with high ambition that got continually shifted between teams, platforms, and engines so many times that the only possible result was miserable failure, "X-Men: Destiny" shared a different, more complicated fate.

Recently detailed in an exposé published by Kotaku, it is said by a number of anonymous sources that Silicon Knights was suffering under shady mismanagement at the hands of Denis Dyack, the creative force behind "Eternal Darkness" and "Blood Omen" as well as the founder and CEO of Silicon Knights. As shown in the video above, Dyack is also an executive at the new Precursor Games.

While I'd encourage everyone read the article in full, I'll summarize briefly for people who don't have time to read it. Essentially, the impression given is that Denis Dyack was having Silicon Knights develop "X-Men: Destiny" solely for the financial support from Activision, secretly siphoning off resources to develop a sequel to "Eternal Darkness" and putting very little effort into actually developing XMD. It would appear that Dyack was hoping that Activision would cave and give them more time and money when faced with a sub-par product and a looming deadline. However, Activision was more interested in shipping the game, regardless of whatever state it was in, and by attaching the Silicon Knights brand to the game in plain view, they essentially made it clear that if SK was going to deliberately half-ass the game, they'd be the ones to suffer for it.

In a desperate attempt to salvage the game and their reputation, the company worked their developers to the bone, put the work for ED2 on hold, and drove a significant amount of their staff out of the company. They discredited a number of those employees, giving them only a "Special Thanks" credit on the game itself. In the end, the game was universally derided and was the last game SK would develop.

Within that exposé, we get a brief glimpse of how far SK got on ED2 before Activision forced them to abandon it:

Yet despite this reportedly split effort, the ED2 demo also failed to come together in a satisfying way, sources said. "The farthest they got with it when I left SK was, literally, one two-level church interior," says one former employee. "It was really bad, as I recall. It took the side-team a long time to even get that far. Bad tech, combined with a team composed of people who had not shipped a title since Metal Gear really hurt that demo. Other than that, I can't explain why things went so poorly for them [except that] a lot of key people responsible for the original Eternal Darkness are long gone."

So when Precursor Games released an 8-minute gameplay demo of "Shadow of the Eternals", a lot of eyebrows were raised regarding the content.

As you can see, the "gameplay" consists largely of a character walking very slowly through a two-level church interior, interacting with a very limited variety of objects and characters, before reaching a horrifying hell dimension and collapsing. While everything looks very shiny, it comes off as a video that merely shows off the game's assets without showing any combat.

On top of that, there was the legal battle regarding Silicon Knights and Epic Games over the Unreal Engine. Towards the end of the very troubled development of "Too Human", it was decided that the game would be redesigned to work in the bleeding-edge Unreal Engine 3. However, difficulties with the early build and lackluster support for the official release build caused a number of development issues that further impeded the development of the game, causing Dyack to deprive Epic of their royalties and sue them for their failed support. Epic counter-sued and eventually bled Silicon Knights dry.

So to the majority of the gaming community, here is what is largely believed to be going on:

Denis Dyack went crazy. Drunk with power, he turned "Too Human" into a boondoggle that left his company in danger. Desperate for money, he threw together a smoke-and-mirrors demo to court Activision into letting them develop "X-Men: Destiny" solely to keep the company afloat long enough to develop "Eternal Darkness 2", which he hoped would save the company. After the series of failures regarding XMD and the suit with Epic Games, Dyack faced a large number of financial issues and no one in the industry would bail his company out, so he started a new shell company, hopped onto the crowd-funding bandwagon, and is now attempting to extort money from the gaming community by showing them a glossied-up version of the crappy demo his team developed years earlier and promising a sequel they'd been wanting for years, when in reality, Dyack is just trying to rob his fans of money to get him out of his financial situation.

Given the evidence that has been made public, and how Dyack is generally not big on making public statements about the nitty-gritty of his company's inner-workings, it's not surprising why people are skeptical.

However, even knowing all of this, I still decided to back "Shadow of the Eternals". Why? Well that's what I'm here to write about.

Dyack Is Not the CEO

Despite being the founder, President, and CEO of Silicon Knights, Denis Dyack is not the CEO of Precursor Games. He fulfills the role of "Chief Creative Officer". The role of CEO actually falls on a guy called Paul Caporicci, who used to act as a major developer and programmer for Silicon Knights.

As I'm sure many of you are eager to point out, he's still a former Silicon Knights employee and therefore his presence supports the belief that this is just the same company with a new paint job. Well, there's one rather noticeable hitch in that theory.

Remember earlier how I said that during SK's disastrous push on "X-Men: Destiny", a lot of employees were laid off or left voluntarily and were summarily discredited from the game, mentioned only in the "Special Thanks" section? Well, one such individual was Paul Caporicci.

That's right. One of the guys who was fed up with the horrible mismanagement of Silicon Knights is the guy with supreme control over this company and this game in question.

In his own words in a recent statement:

"I can't comment on Silicon Knights. I can only comment on me. I was laid off...I was really disappointed and I just wanted to turn that into a positive, so I reached out to other people to see if they're interested in doing a brand-new company, and it kind of snowballed from there."

So there you go. This isn't some yes-man sock-puppet that will bend to Dyack's every whim. He clearly is the one who approached Dyack and Dyack is pretty clearly the one answering to him.

More importantly, almost all of the negative things I can say from what I've learned about Dyack is that he was very bad at managing his business. He wanted to focus on his pet projects and his own creative work and disregarded the business aspect of it as the unpleasant side that he had to do to make it possible. He half-assed it as much as possible because it's not what he wanted to do.

But it should be said that Dyack has always been talented. Even in what I've glimpsed from "Too Human", the concepts of the world and the gameplay were very good in theory, but executed with staggering incompetence.

So really, making him Chief Creative Officer is the perfect role for him. He can focus on thinking in broad strokes and leave the programming and business side to people who are actually interested in those aspects.

This Is Something Precursor (and Dyack) Clearly Care About

Another part from the "X-Men: Destiny" story that really stuck out to me was how Dyack was essentially scamming Activision to get "Eternal Darkness 2" made.

While this is obviously a bad way to run a business, I can sort of understand what Dyack was thinking. Having burned his bridges with Nintendo and after failing to make "Too Human" a success, really the only way they could have managed to make ED2 a reality was to make a demo to show to publishers. Since this was before crowd-funding was a thing, Dyack likely took any high-paying job that his studio could get, and so he landed XMD. He used the funding to produce an unfinished ED2 demo before being forced to abandon it to do the thing he was being paid to do.

Aside from painting a very unflattering picture of Dyack, it does make one thing very clear: He REALLY REALLY wants to make another "Eternal Darkness" game. He wants to make it so badly that he basically extorted money out of Activision to make it happen. So badly that even after his public humiliation at seeing his life work crushed by his own hubris, he was still willing to come crawling back to a man he severed ties with in order to make this project happen.

He knows there is an audience waiting for this game, so he sees this as the only way he can make it happen, particularly now that his own company is pretty much comatose. All of the people worth a damn had left and without the ability to make any revenue from "Too Human" and "X-Men: Destiny" after losing the lawsuit, he basically had no choice left but to go through Precursor Games and crowd-funding.

That may not seem like a good thing, but it means that the guy is humbled and desperate. If the rumors of his unrealistic approach to development are true, he doesn't have the power or the means to really pull that shit this time around. They have no publisher to extort. No ultimate authority. If I were him, I'd count myself lucky that I was being given this chance at all.

While I can't say with certainty that the game will ship in a satisfactory state if fully-funded (that possibility always exists in crowd-funded products), I have little doubt in my mind that the people at Precursor Games, Dyack included, are not interested in taking our money and running. They desperately want to make this game and have wanted to make it for years, and they know that if they fail, they basically will have nowhere left to turn.

This Is The Only Way We'll Ever Get Another Eternal Darkness Game

This is probably the biggest reason I'm still willing to put my money down on this game, even considering Dyack's checkered history. The fact remains that this team produced a number of very good games, including the original "Eternal Darkness". These people understand the game better than anyone and are probably the only ones truly equipped to make it. We cannot change the past. Dyack will always have done a crappy job in managing Silicon Knights. But if we want another "Eternal Darkness" game, that's something we're going to have to forgive, even if we never let him forget it.

More importantly, this is a company that is essentially rebuilding from the ground up. It's been suggested that people might be more willing to support this game if the team proved itself with a different title first. Well, that's pretty much the strategy that Crystal Dynamics took with "Too Human" and "X-Men: Destiny". They tried to establish new relationships with publishers in order to get enough capital and interest to develop projects they were passionate about and they failed. "Too Human" was what they hoped would be a new major franchise that would get them back in the black and prove themselves to Microsoft, but for a number of reasons, it was a non-starter. In the case of "X-Men: Destiny", the main reason they failed was because at the time (and to this day), the only game they were interested in making was "Eternal Darkness 2". If we tell them to make a different game first to earn our trust, it will inevitably turn out bad because it's not the game they want to make. And even if it was good, it probably wouldn't be successful enough to support a game as ambitious as "Shadow of the Eternals". There's no sense in them beating around the bush. This is the game they want to make, and this is the game we want to play, so this is the game they are pitching us.

While it's certainly possible that Nintendo would be interested in giving the license to some other team, and they could conceivably do it well, I frankly don't want to play that game. At best, a fan developing a successor to a franchise they had no hand in developing is like a chef trying to replicate a dish they've only tasted. They may be able to make something similar enough to satisfy fans, but it will not have the insight necessary to take it in new and interesting directions. Only Dyack and company can do that.

More importantly, while "Eternal Darkness" was critically successful and has a dedicated following, it was not exactly a big seller. The GameCube didn't have a major adult audience and wasn't a big seller to begin with. It is one reason why Silicon Knights eventually dissolved its relationship with Nintendo and was picked up by Microsoft, much in the same way Rareware did (and then subsequently turned out terrible games).

If Nintendo did find a developer interested in making another "Eternal Darkness" game, they would probably attempt to give it a broader appeal to attract a wider audience than the original game. Even if the developer did have interesting ideas, Nintendo would probably be very creatively limiting.

Silicon Knights is dead, and that's probably a good thing. What we have is Precursor Games and they are actively interested in continuing this franchise. All they need is additional support from the people who want it.

I get that people are skeptical, and that's perfectly reasonable. But honestly, this is probably the only way we'll ever get another "Eternal Darkness" game. If it fails to get funding, then we'll likely never even get the chance to see if it might have been. If it gets its funding and still fails to get off the ground, then Precursor will be obligated to reimburse the backers and we'll know for certain that this team is no longer capable of making decent games.

But if it gets funding and Precursor fulfills its promises, then we'll have exactly what fans of "Eternal Darkness" have always wanted. To me, that possibility is more than worth the risk.

Am I entirely convinced? No, not really. Like many of you, that demo doesn't inspire a lot of faith in me and is pretty clearly just smoke and mirrors. But they are very, very pretty smoke and mirrors, and if this demo is based on 5-year-old work, they managed to polish that turd to a mirror shine with the CryEngine. To me, that shows at least some level of competence and understanding of the engine they're working with. If they could take 5-year-old assets and make them into that with next to no substantial funding, I'd say they've got something worth investing in. It's certainly more than what Double Fine gave us when we supported their Kickstarter. They didn't have concept art, a title, or even a premise. Yet we gave them more money than they knew what to do with. The Ouya's potential was questionable and the company had little to support its high ambitions, yet they received overwhelming support and have generally produced exactly what they said they'd give us. Kickstarter gave us "FTL", which turned out to be an excellent title.

Of course there's risk involved here. Possibly more than usual. But this is "Eternal Darkness". I'm willing to potentially lose $25 just for one last shot at seeing it. Hell, can't you guys even throw down $5? Then you get to play the first episode of the game and if it fails your expectations, you've earned the right to say, "I told you so" and it only cost you about the price of a McDonald's breakfast.

I can't say for certain that Dyack deserves another chance and I can't say for certain that Precursor Games deserves a chance. But it should go without saying that this property deserves this chance. In an industry where survival horror is all but forgotten, I think that if nothing else, it's important for us to show that even if the developers cannot inspire a terribly large amount of confidence, the desire to play another "Eternal Darkness" is enough to earn the slightest bit of our attention.

UPDATE: It seems that Precursor has finally come out to address (some of) the controversy:

While I'm not sure I necessarily believe him (at least not regarding everything), the mere act of him coming out and making a statement pretty much proves that he's not the guy in charge and that he's capable of taking orders. While I doubt this video will convince many people that the Kotaku article is fictional, I hope it will at least convince people that Precursor is not simply a shell company invented and controlled by Dyack.

That said, the fact that these anonymous sources apparently described the ED2 demo to a tee suggests to me that the anonymous sources were probably actual ex-employees. I wouldn't be surprised if they provided the Kotaku writer with information they heard rather than things they themselves experienced, but I imagine not all of the negative things they brought up were completely fictional.