Developer's postmortem: Safecracker
First posted on 01 January 2011. Last updated on 05 June 2011.
About the author
Born in England in 1958, Nigel Papworth graduated from the London College of Printing in Graphic Design, after some years working in advertising in London which he started at age 17. He then pursued in a career in illustration and art direction in London. After moving to Sweden in 1985, he co-founded the game development company Daydream Software, where he worked as lead game designer for 9 years. The company released Safecracker in 1997 and Traitors Gate in 1999. During that time, he also worked and lectured on the integration of artificial intelligence, dialog, game states, and behavioral simulation systems in computer games.
Currently, Papworth works at the Interactive Institute of Sweden, where he conducts research on the role of non-visual stimuli in driving gameplay and conveying game content and status to the player.
Papworth is the author of iSpooks: the Manor, an experimental audio adventure game for iPhone and iPod Touch.
For more information, visit iSpooks.
In 1992, I started a wildly successful computer game development company. I did it without ever having written a line of code or placing a pixel of graphics in any computer program that even remotely resembled a game. Further, the time from making the decision to start a company to signing a multinational contract with a leading entertainment studio took only about a couple of months and no more than a week of actual work.
A story of too much money and a few crazy Swedes
My story probably sounds like a fairy tale, and I fear that it is probably going to be read as such. Regardless, for anyone who has dreamed of working in the computer game industry or fancied of becoming a millionaire overnight, there are some bitter lessons to be learned.
All of the events I have described here are real, and I have tried to recall the actual words spoken in conversations as closely as possible. Those words said in Swedish, of course, have been translated into English.
I am an illustrator by training, of the old-fashioned kind. I can work in any medium as long as it is real: scratchboard, oil, pen and ink, watercolor, gauche, tempera, and even potato printing.
In 1991, I was approached to do a job for a major telecom company in Sweden. The opportunity arose because, though being English, I had traveled to Sweden in pursuit of its finest export—and no, she was not a Volvo! I had just moved from London to Umeå. Umeå was a medium sized costal town in northern part of the country with a few bars, a big university, lots of cycle ways and, curiously, an opera house.
So, I was asked by the telecom company if I could do a series of digital illustrations. I said that I could and then panicked. What I had not told the company was that I had never used a computer before in my life.
Fortunately, I had a friend who knew someone who knew something about some drawing tools that ran on a computer called a Macintosh. So, after taking a deep breath, I invested $12,000 in an Apple IIci, a 13-inch color CRT monitor, a hugely cumbersome Wacom drawing tablet, a storage drive with big plastic cartridges called a Hammer, and a telephone modem.
Ironically, just when I was all set, the job fell through. Regardless, I set to and learned to use Adobe Photoshop and Illustrator as well as Corel Painter, and I began getting other jobs for, at the time, a still rather infantile medium.
I also started hanging out with a few local guys who ran a graphical computer supply company called Sombrero. They were a couple of brothers from way out in the bush named JP and Erik as well as a crazy winter sports nut named Jögge Isaksson. JP and Erik were brothers but (for reasons I could never fathom) spelt their surnames differently. JP's surname was spelled Phersson, while Erik's surname was spelled Persson. As well, JP had taken on his wife's surname at the time, so he bore the proud moniker of Jan Phersson-Broberg. They were all Mac fanatics. Jögge, in particular, was always showing me what he could do on his amazing computer (a Macintosh that had a CD drive). Still, little did they realize that I only went there because they had the best coffee in town.
Some days later, Jögge showed me a video game on his computer. The game was Myst. I was astounded. Myst was a book and a film and an illustration and theatre, all rolled into a single package that could be played as a game!
"Hell, these guys must be brilliant," I said.
"Well, yeah! I guess," replied the laconic Jögge. "But it's actually only a HyperCard stack."
Duly enlightened not a jot, I plied on Jögge with questions about how the game was made. He explained that the actual programming was a cinch. The difficult part, he added, was coming up with the original idea and creating the graphics.
Deafening bells rang in my head. Was I not a top illustrator, capable of faking a Mona Lisa if needed? Of course, yes—and I had done that as well (in my humble opinion, overt modesty is both dishonest and a waste of time...).
So, after having convinced Jögge, or perhaps it was he who had convinced me, that there might be an opportunity worthy of pursuit, we started playing with ideas.
Initially, we had the idea of developing small computer games as Xmas holiday giveaways for local businesses, such as Reverso or Othello, branded with their company logos.
Jögge had already programmed a few simple games for his kid sister. Among these games was a variant of Mastermind. Anxious to avoid copyright infringement, I quickly redesigned the game to use a safe with 3 dials instead of the typical colored pegs. Inspired by this redesign, we then started pushing the idea further. Soon, we came up with 6 ideas for different safes.
"Hey!" I said. "We could put them in the same room... that would be cool."
"Hey! What the hell! We could fill a whole house with safes," said Jögge, after a pregnant pause.
Suddenly our little giveaway scheme had developed into a full blown game concept. It was time to talk to JP.
JP had a gift. His greatest talent was that he could get anybody on the phone within minutes. For instance, sometime later we had another idea for a game that rewarded safe driving in a car simulation. Minutes later, JP was already on the phone spinning a line to the top executive from Volvo Personvagn (which made Volvo cars). Somehow, he had managed to swiftly talk his way through their entire reception and call screening system.
So, JP mused about the adventure game concept for a few seconds. He then nodded and picked up the phone. Jögge and I retired to the coffee pot and left him to it. About 10 minutes later, JP emerged from the office.
"We're all flying down to Stockholm (650 km to the south of Umeå) on Tuesday," said JP. "We've got an appointment with the head of Warner Music Sweden."
Jögge and I said a few unprintable words and then gave JP a congratulatory slap on the back.
"Bummer," I said. "What are we going to show them?"
JP quickly drew up a comprehensive business plan filled with resources, time distribution, equipment needs, and other details. Meanwhile, Jögge and I came up with a basic story for the game. I made 2 pretty crude visuals with colored felt tips on an A1 sketch pad that showed a start sequence and some examples of different safe puzzles (Figure 1).
I had also been experimenting with Strata Studio, which I remembered mostly for the hysterical instruction video that came with the software package. It was a strange piece of software. For instance, it could allow the creation of primitive objects directly from the menu system. This was fine for objects such as squares circles and triangles, but any object more complex than these had to be imported as black and white illustrations and then extruded sideways to become 3D. I managed to build a working clock model, with rotating cogs and drive springs. It was fully textured and animated, with all the cogs driving each other. I dumped the work file onto a diskette so that I could take it with me on the trip.
By this time, we were joined by Leif Holm, who came from a tiny village somewhere between Umeå and the darkest hinterlands of Lapland. He had been working on designing pipe layouts for nuclear power stations using Autodesk AutoCAD. He also had the gift of being proficient in coding in UNIX, which turned out to be an enormous help later on.
We left Leif in charge of the office, and the rest of us took a flight down to Stockholm. After about 40 minutes in a taxi, we were at the Warners' office rubbing shoulders with the stars. Actually, the only recognizable face we saw was a Swedish singer named Lasse Holm.
After a cup of coffee and a brief tour of the offices and studios, we were ushered in to see Sanji Tanden, the CEO of Warner Music Sweden. It turned out that he was also a Mac fanatic and loved computer games. It seemed that our luck was holding, at least for the moment.
In the 15 minutes or so for which we had been allotted, we made our sales pitch showing my 2 visuals, now mounted on a black cardboard, my animated clock model, and a few rendered interiors to show off the lighting and texturing effects.
Sanji must have been impressed, even though such a presentation would not likely be getting you a passing grade in a community college course in computer graphics nowadays. We left the meeting half an hour later with a firm verbal commitment from him that Warners had every intention of signing us.
When we were good, we were very, very good!
Fueled by this initial success, we started a game development company together and called it Daydream.
While we did not have the faintest idea what we were doing, we were no fools. We had also contacted BMG about our game idea. A Swedish representative from the company actually flew up to Umeå to chat with us. As it turned out, BMG also wanted to sign us.
We decided to settle with Warners. The company's international profile and household name swung it for us. We duly blew off BMG politely and with due regrets. A couple of days later, we received a phone call from Sanji saying that, regrettably, he was told that Warner Sweden would only deal with publishing music and therefore not games.
We were stunned by the news. We had just turned down BMG, and now Warners had turned us down.
Living in a land suffering from plunging temperatures and near total darkness through most of the winter months had, fortunately, made us resilient. So, as compensation, we decided to have a real fancy Xmas party to cheer ourselves up.
A Xmas present
The party was in full swing on a Friday night. As the lone Englishman, I was being royally wined and dined by my Swedish mates. About 2 hours into this shindig, a guy came staggering up to me and mumbled some gibberish about a phone call from London. Being Swedish, he did not understand a word from the caller. I immediately figured out that the call came from one of my brothers or relatives, who obviously had not taken the time zone difference into consideration when making the call. The time zone difference was actually only 1 hour, but calling during a party was no excuse!
"Hello," said the stranger on the other end of the crackly landline. "My name is Laurence Scotford, and I'm phoning from Warner Interactive Entertainment in London."
"Yup," I said, trying to suppress a hiccup.
"Can I come and see you chaps on Monday?" he continued.
"Sure thing," I reply. "Wassit about?"
"Why? Your game, of course!"
This sobered me up in a hurry. I chatted with him a bit more, telling him how he needed to first fly to Stockholm and to then take another hour-long direct flight northwards. We then bid each other goodbye, and I put the phone down, very carefully.
"You alright?" says Jögge, putting a supporting arm around my shoulders. "You look a bit pale. Something you drank?"
"Nah!" I replied. "Just that it looks like Warners are back on."
I then explained the news to the others. We celebrated far into the night. Unsurprisingly, we were all a bit shaky for the rest of the weekend.
On Monday, JP and I drove the few minutes to the local airport and hung around in the arrivals lounge, which was just a bare concrete room that led straight onto the runway, waiting for Laurence to arrive.
"How will we know which one is him?" asked JP.
"We'll work it out," I replied.
The plane landed in a cloud of snow and then taxied into the terminal area. A ladder was driven up, and the passengers climbed down from the plane and then walked across the tarmac to the terminal through a brisk wind and a light snow storm. I suddenly realized that I had not mentioned to Laurence that the local outdoor temperature had been around -12°C all that week.
In the end, we just looked for the most inappropriately dressed individual. We saw a guy wearing cotton trouser, a thin anorak, and a pair of low loafers. We had found Laurence!
We got his luggage and quickly bundled him into our car. We drove him back to our office where we filled him up with hot coffee. He stayed for a day and a half, and we basically gave him a very long version of the pitch we previously made in Stockholm. He nodded, pointed out that it was not his decision, and then flew back to London.
We got a phone call 2 days later with an invitation to fly to London to discuss terms for the project. We agreed.
We were all going to die
JP, Jögge, and I had an unremarkable flight down to Stockholm. We then swapped terminals, checked in, and boarded the flight to London. We were expected to land early in the evening, take a train up to London from the airport, find the hotel, and then saunter along until the meeting the next day. Back then, airlines offered lots of free food and booze. We, all sitting in a row over the wings, settled in for our hot meals and a whole heap of beverages (they were not soda...).
The flight was pretty uneventful until the plane was about half an hour out from landing at Gatwick Airport. The pilot came on the intercom and announced the usual blurb about height, speed, and direction. He then gave a warning that there was a fair amount of turbulence over the airport, due to a storm that had shut in the whole of the southeast of England. He continued by saying that it was possible that the flight might even have to divert to Stuttgart. Some of the passengers groaned, but we just shrugged and got on with our game of cards and more beverages.
After a while, the flight attendants came along telling all the passengers to get into their seats and belt up. They then removed all the loose items, including our glasses (thankfully empty), and double checked all the overhead lockers.
A few minutes later, the turbulence hit! The plane felt like it had kicked it up the fanny with a giant boot. The compartments shuddered and shook, and the windows were suddenly covered by a blur of rain droplets streaming past at high speed.
"Ladies and gentlemen," said the pilot over the crackling intercom. "We have been cleared to land at Gatwick. Please remain in your seats and check your seatbelts are firmly fastened, as it may be a little bit bumpy."
"Jädrans," JP swore in Swedish, recognizing the pilot's accent. "It's a Norwegian flying this thing."
The plane made its approach. For us, it felt like riding a bicycle down a cobbled street with both tires flat. There was a bit of lightning, some rumbling, and a lot of hopping about like a roller coaster.
I was, and I admitted, starting to sweat a bit. My hands were clammy, and my heart was pumping fast inside my ribs. JP was still cracking jokes and whooping every time there was a really big lurch.
It was then that a woman sitting behind us started praying. By praying, I meant that it was more what the Old Testament referred to as a Lament, with the gnashing of teeth and the renting of cloth.
"God... God... GOD! Don't let me die... Please, I'm begging you...," the woman said.
The more the plane hopped about in the air, the more she lamented, sometimes muttering in a bewildered voice under her breath, sometimes bellowing much louder as if she believed that her prayer might be better heard.
"Oh, PLEASE, PLEASE, PLEASE... I don't want to die...," she said, again.
To cover up this rather unnerving dialog, we joked and laughed even more. It was around that time I made a bit of a mistake. I looked out through the window. I could see the left wing as a dark black silhouette against a background of blurred neon from the airport. The flashing lights at the end of the wing were moving up and down alarmingly in relation to the plane. For a few seconds after a gust of wind cleared the window, I saw the runway. I then realized that the plane was flying right towards it, sideways! The parallel guide lights on each side of the runway were almost a continuation of the wing.
As the plane came swiftly down, it passed perilously close over the house roofs, television antennas, trees, and even street lights. For a few seconds, I was convinced that the plane was going to plough right into the runway. At the last moment, the pilot spun the plane around and the parallel light disappeared from my sight. There was a huge roar of engine power, followed by a mass of buffeting and shaking. Then, it was calm again, apart from the hysterical sobbing coming from the woman behind us.
We were back up above the clouds.
"Ladies and gentlemen," said the pilot. "This is your captain again. As you may have noticed, there is some low-level turbulence at runway level. As this is crossing the runway at a right angle, I thought it prudent to go down and have a bit of a look to see how best to approach this landing. We will now go down and try again.
Suffice to say, the pilot tried again, not once but twice! Each pass produced a reaction of heightened hysteria from the woman and more inappropriate jokes from us. Eventually, the pilot dropped the plane from a great height, hit the runway dead on, and then pulled the brake on full. The plane slid to a dramatic stop, and for the only time in my life, I cheered a landing. We then, very sedately, cruised into the waiting gate.
As we were about to depart our seats, the hysterical woman, still sobbing, leant forward and tapped Jögge on the shoulder.
"I don't understand," said the woman. "We all almost die, and you guys were laughing and joking the whole time... How do you do it?"
"Madam," said Jögge, with a sly smile. "We are very, very drunk!"
It turned out that the plane which we were on was the only plane to land at the airport that evening, evidenced by the fact that only a single carousel was active when we walked into the baggage claim hall. The rest of the hall was completely empty. It was also the only time I sailed through a British airport with no queues from custom whatsoever.
We took a taxi to central London. All of us were still shaken up a bit, though I was not so sure that JP was so adversely affected from the drama.
Next morning, we all rolled into the Warners' office in our best clothes and with minds firmly set in business mode. I had always imagined what a high-powered business meeting would be like: a few suited lawyers, some shrewd executives, a huge mahogany table, high-backed leather chairs, and those cute, little bottles of mineral water marching down the center of the table. The meeting did not disappoint.
The room was huge, and the table was more so. The leather chairs were comfortable and inviting. There was a marching line of bottled water down the center of the table. The end wall was dominated by a massive company logo. There was even an intercom to call for coffee. What I had not anticipated was just how silly I felt sitting in the room. On one side were Jögge, JP and I in jeans, t-shirts, and sneakers. On the other side and across from us at a distance of about 6 feet were Laurence, the CEO David Evans in a jacket and slacks, and some guy who was an account manager in a full suit and tie rig up. We all exchanged introductions. They asked how our flight had been. We made light of it but explained that the landing had been a little bumpy. David expressed some surprise at us that we had made it to the meeting. It seemed that the Development Director was supposed to be at the meeting but was stuck at the Stuttgart airport after his flight had been diverted the night before because of the same storm.
There were also a couple of fat documents lying in front of them on the table. They slid one of them across to us. It was a provisional contract, written in totally unfathomable legalese, page after page of it.
We were then given an explanation to help us understand the gist of the contract, and we spent the next few hours ping-ponging the proposal back and forth across the table.
Conveniently, we reached a general agreement on the broader points of the contract just before lunch. We then wandered off to the posh restaurant that Warners had reserved for us, with a mutual feeling of bonhomie and brotherhood. For a moment, the future looked indeed rosy for all of us!
After lunch, we continued the negotiation for a short while and then all shook hands on the deal. We decided to wrestle with the fine print at a later date.
Back in Sweden, and after due celebration, we got down to the nitty gritty of the deal and what it meant for us.
We were put in contact with the lawyers for Warners, and we (or more precisely, I) went through each clause with a fine tooth comb. This was absolutely the most boring part of the whole affair, though the female lawyer who was our contact in London could not have been nicer or more helpful. At last, after some microscopic adjustments, we signed on the dotted line, couriered the package to Warners, and waited for the truck load of cash to arrive.
About this time was when the first snag hit. We had just signed an agreement that stated we would develop the game on the Mac, utilizing Macromedia and Strata Studio Pro, and then port it to the PC. Now that we had the first payment in the bank, we began the real planning. We tried doing the math every which way we could, but the result was always the same: given the ambition of the project, we just would not have enough time to model and render the game with the resources available.
Can we have some more? Please?
This corundum left us with a couple of options. The first option was to drastically increase our manpower resources. However, this would have blown our existing budget clean out of the water, notwithstanding the added problem of trying to lure competent individuals to the middle of the frigging Scandinavian Arctic. The second option was to drastically increase the efficiency of our existing resources. Jögge had just returned from a trade fair in San Francisco and was waxing lyrical about the names Silicon Graphics and Autodesk Animator. I did not have a clue about what he was going on until he explained. I learned that Silicon Graphics was a manufacturer of high powered Unix computers that could run the same software, including Autodesk Animator, that rendered all the new fangled CGI special effects in big budgeted Hollywood films. To us, the advantage was that the software was much more flexible than Strata Studio and allowed for better, faster model work with greater freedom and control over the animation. There was a little hitch though: the price.
Out came the pocket calculators and after some quick mangling with the figures, we concluded that, with the new hardware and software upgrade, we could deliver our game on time.
To this day, I still had no idea on what we actually based these calculations, as none of us except Jögge had used the software or seen the infernal juggernaut in action. We decided that we needed 3 workstations and 1 render server, the latter to pre-render the stack of images we needed for the finished game.
The final tally for this new investment was approximately $50,000. We all thought it would be a great idea if Warners would pay for this upgrade. Guess who was given the job of phoning Warners to ask for this small change in the budget? I still remembered well my astonishment when our request was met with a simple reply,
"Well, em...yes. I don't see any real problem with that...," the voice replied. "Of course you'll need to show us a receipt!"
We had signed the contract in late January, and we were now approaching the beginning of March. We needed to fix the new technology as soon as possible. We were able to locate the only supplier of Silicon Graphics in Sweden, from the address in a pamphlet Jögge had received from the company in California. This supplier was based in Gothenburg, far away from us. We phoned the supplier up and placed an order forthwith. The supplier was somewhat skeptical at first, saying that we would be its third biggest client in Sweden after Volvo and Saab, but we assured the supplier that we could pay. So, after a couple of weeks, a truckload of hardware arrived, packaged in large cardboard boxes. When we unpacked the boxes, we were struck by the weird electric blue plastic casings that housed the computers, which looked like that they had been first cut in half on a horizontal slant and then stuck back together, badly.
We fired the computers up and loaded the software. We then all just looked at it, completely baffled. The computers did not look at all like a Mac. Fortunately, the supplier had organized some youngish techno lad to come up and give us a week of intensive training. He arrived the next day.
Once he had a coffee and caught his breath, he showed us how to change the names on files, save and re-open projects, adjust the color of the desktop, and personalize icons. That took us up to lunch. After lunch, he showed us how to open the program, create and manipulate primitive objects, and zoom in and out of the user view. The primitives were objects such as cubes, square planes, cylinders, spheres, cones, and pyramids. They were exciting but a little pedestrian. That concluded the first day of training. He promised that he would show us how to animate bouncing balls on a plane the next day. Would the thrills never stop?
He was as good as his word. The next morning he shuffled from computer to computer, showing us how to bounce balls better, create more exciting planes, and even change the replay speed. He was just walking away from Jögge's computer when he happened to glance over his shoulder, at which time he stopped dead in his tracks and went back to have a closer look.
"What the hell are you playing at?" he screamed.
Instead of a little bouncing ball, he saw a full, gorgeous Georgian house facade taking shape on Jögge's computer.
How could this have happened? We, and especially I, had not been idle (Figure 2). I had created architectural drawings of all 4 floors of the house to be used in Safecracker. I had raided the local bookshops and bought up all the books I could find on antique furniture and Victoriana. I had marked copies of the floor plan with the position of each item of furniture with their reference number. We had also created what we referred to as the "bible" (with a small "b"). It was a ring binder with each item to be built specified with a check box for modeling, texturing, and animation.
We had designed the bible to streamline our workflow. A 3D modeler would go to the bible, pick an object he wanted to build, tick it off in the box, and write his name beside it. He would use the info in the bible to find the right reference book and page for the photograph. He would then set to work and tick off each box as the work progressed.
The system was designed to facilitate fast delivery of the first milestone. This milestone was the first room in the house, the reception, that would be fully functional with 2 working safes. This was to be shown to Warners in May.
What the lad had not seen was that, every time he turned his back on us, we would pull up a model for this milestone and begin working on it. We apologized and explained to him that we really had no time to lose. He then asked to see what we had done so far. After viewing it, he packed his bags and flew home immediately, saying there was nothing more that he could teach us. We had been working most nights since we got the new hardware, and we had all caught on pretty quick because of our background in other software.
So, how did I go about designing the game itself? I started by playing a lot of other games in the adventure genre and listing what I hated about them, such as the use of single, linear logic forcing the player to do a number of sequential tasks that had to be performed in a strict order. For example, to enter a room, the player had to find the key to unlock the door, but to find the key, the player had to first solve a series of interrelated puzzles in the previous room. If the player could not solve the puzzles, the player would be stuck in the current room.
We decided that Safecracker would be divided into 3 chapters: Floor 1 and the Cellar, Floor 2, and the end task. The idea was that Floor 1 and the Cellar would be open for extensively exploration without having to solve a single game challenge. Floor 2 would also be open once it was accessed via 2 independent routes from Floor 1. Only the end task would be dependent on most of the clues having been already solved.
The method I used for going about the specific safe designs is a trick I had also used to great effect since then. I called it the "shopping list" technique. I started by writing down a list of different subject headings on a piece of paper. At that time, I still did a lot of my creative work with pencil and paper.
The list I made would include subject headings such as Math, Music, Art, Archaeology, Sound, and so on. I also still had the basic room list from the architectural plans. So, all I needed to do was think about a safe that reflected either the room use (Kitchen, Sickroom, etc.) or a subject heading or preferably both. For Music, we created a jukebox safe and a piano safe. It made the creative process much easier having a concept to hang each safe design on. I probably did about 80% of the safe designs in the first 3-4 weeks of the project. The rest were developed by other members of the team as the project progressed. All of this work was running simultaneously to the model making and rendering for the milestone. I was not alone in this schizophrenic multitasking: Jögge was modeling masses of game elements and programming in parallel using Macromedia Director; Lief was building the rooms and writing Unix code to ease the stitching of pictures for QuickTime VR.
QuickTime VR was among the list of game features we had sold to Warners in our pitch. It was at a time just before the original Wolfenstein 3D was released, so there were no real 3D games on the market. Apple had just developed QuickTime VR that would allow for a number of photos to be stitched together and then distorted to give a 360° view with the illusion of perspective. Myst had used still photos, but Safecracker would use 3D rotating panoramas. In fact, we were aiming to be the first developer to use this technique in a full sized game. When we first began developing Safecracker, QuickTime VR had still not been officially released. Apple generously supported our efforts and allowed us to access an early version of QuickTime VR to work with.
On a particular morning when we came to work, Leif called us over to his computer.
"I was messing about with how they have programmed QuickTime VR," he said. "I found out if I misused it in the right way, I could do this."
He showed us a book where you could use the grab tool and turn the pages. It was an amazing trick.
May raced up. We suddenly found ourselves with a week left to the first milestone deadline. Every member of the team worked like dogs, putting in long hours and drinking masses of coffee and cola.
At last, we found ourselves on a plane to London with the demo on a burned CD grasped in our tight little hands. We also had a couple of back-up CDs with us, just in case. This time, the flight went without incident. We landed at Heathrow in good time. Unlike our last trip, we now had Leif and Eric with us.
Warners had just moved into a special new building behind Euston Station. We took the tube to there and then tumbled through the revolving front doors into the half completed reception area. Laurence was there to greet us, and we all shook hands. I remembered that our first question to him was whether or not a Mac had been set up to our specifications for our presentation. He assured us that it had been.
Back then, nearly all the games were developed on the PC. Indeed, certain executives at Warners treated us with undisguised contempt because we had developed our game on the Mac. Once upstairs, we were greeted by David. We were then ushered into the new conference room where a Mac stood proudly waiting on the table. There were a number of other bigwigs from Warners standing around in the room sipping mineral water and tea, waiting to see the unveiling of our wondrous prototype.
Erik booted up the computer and popped in our demo CD. It was a catastrophe! Nothing worked! The CD would not even mount. Erik ran some quick diagnostics and turned to me.
"The machine isn't even close to our specifications," he mumbled in Swedish.
Everybody was now looking at me. JP nodded in the direction of Laurence and David. I shrugged and then took them aside to explain the situation to them. Understandably, they panicked and got a bit red and flustered. I asked Laurence who had set up the computer. It turned out Warners had sent our specs to a company that rented out Apple hardware.
"Get them on the blower... now!" I said.
Laurence grabbed a phone and rang up the company. He handed the receiver to me, and I translated Erik's technical babble into my best irate Cockney. The company promised to get what we needed onto a motorcycle courier and to us post-haste. The Warners name did no harm in convincing the company that a quick response was appropriate.
After an embarrassing half-hour extended coffee break, a large cardboard box arrived at the reception desk. We opened the box and pulled out the computer. It was greeted by more frustrating muttering from us. The company had sent out a different model, and again it was not the model we had requested.
Erik scratched his head for a bit and then turned to a Warners bigwig.
"Can I break it up?" he struggled in his best English.
"What?" the bigwig replied.
"I think he means take it apart," I said.
There was a whole load of shrugging from the bigwigs. None of them looked too comfortable, but nobody actually said no. So, Erik reached into his bag and brought out a small pouch of tools. He then placed both of the computers on the floor and proceeded to take them apart. The Warners executives looked aghast.
Once Erik had reduced the pristine computers to a carpet of component parts, he sat back on his heels and had a little think. He then proceeded to rebuild a hybrid computer out of these parts. It took about 15 minutes. When he was finished, he placed the rebuilt computer on the table and attached it to the keyboard, mouse, and monitor. Totally ignoring the pile of discarded components cluttering the floor around him, he put our CD into the computer. The computer whirred into life. He then stepped aside to allow Jögge to finally demo the game.
As Jögge wandered through the first stage of the game, I did a running commentary. I would not go as far as to say that our presentation was an overwhelming success, but the Warners executives who believed in us were very pleased. The first room, including the rendering using QuickTime VR, worked perfectly. We had our approval to continue our project to the next stage.
My foot firmly in my mouth
Laurence suggested that we should have a celebratory drink, so we headed to a nearby pub called The Prospect of Whitby. It was supposed to be among the oldest pubs in the city of London, and it certainly looked the part with all its nooks and crannies, blackened beams, and worn stone floors. As it could be imagined, we were in a somewhat euphoric state and started swilling down beers at a rate of knots. Inevitably, a real party atmosphere developed. After about half an hour, a guy walked into the pub in full cycle gear. He had a little visor cap on his head and was dressed in tight fitting, multi striped cycle pants and shirt, long socks, and special cycle shoes. He was even carrying a flat bag on a strap over his shoulder.
"I'm looking for Laurence Scotford," he said with a bit of an arrogant, irritating attitude, at least to me.
"Oj! Laurence, there's a cycle courier for you!" I bellowed across the bar.
Laurence looked up and then very quickly skedaddled round to where we were standing.
"Er, hi!" said Laurence rather nervously.
Laurence then addressed him by name. My addled brain had not quite caught on immediately: he was Laurence's immediate boss, the Development Director who had been stuck in Stuttgart Airport during the storm. We had never met him at Warners. How was I to know that cycle chic was in just then?
He turned out to be the executive in charge of our project. He was also a Mac hater. Needless to say, an atmosphere of mutual animosity existed from that day forth. We worked with him for the next year or so, but we never got on with him. We even had a mean nickname for him hidden somewhere in the library in Safecracker.
We left London the next day with mixed feelings. We were elated at passing the first milestone, but we knew just how much more there was left to do.
Blood, sweat, and textures
Lief, Jögge and I set to work with a vengeance. As well, we had hired a new slave, Fredde.
Somehow, JP had convinced the Swedish unemployment agency to pay for him to come and sweat for us on a work experience scheme. He was a very cool, redheaded, former hockey playing maniac from Timro, a town south of Umeå on the Baltic coast.
Once again, our luck paid off. Fredde turned out to be a first rate 3D animator and model maker. The first task I gave him was to build the mini paddle-steamer with signal flags that were to be in the Boardroom on Floor 2. All he got was a single reference photo and a week to complete it. We ended up using that model he built in the game. In fact, it was the first model he ever built in Alias PowerAnimator.
Our project really rolled from that day. We purchased about 100 sound effect CDs so that Eric could proceed to Foley and soundscape all of the animations we were rendering.
Soon, we all disappeared into a haze of work and more work. The paper blueprints had to be finished: 3 full floors, with hundreds of objects and 52 complex safe systems to build, texture, animate and render. All the sound work and programming still needed to be done. Finally, the game had to be beta tested and approved by Warners.
We set forth a basic production line. Leif built the rooms, walls, windows, skirting boards, doors, fireplaces, and so on. I added textures to the walls, doors, and floors. I then dressed up each room like a dollhouse with furniture, carpets, plants, pictures, lamps, and other accessories. I also built a large number of the safes, designed the books, and wrote the clue textures. Jögge worked on the rooms and built the basic lights and render cameras. He then worked on the scripting in Director and triggering of the scenes in QuickTime VR. Fredde built the furniture and some of the safes. Erik worked on the music, sound, and Foley. We even got the Swedish rap duo Rob n' Raz to create music loops for each room.
Our first E3
JP and I left for Los Angeles, where we were supposed to demonstrate Safecracker at E3. We had planned to show off the first floor of the game. We were there as guests of indSCAPE, who were going to distribute our game in the United States. We stayed out at Santa Monica where their offices were and motored into the Los Angeles Convention Center each day. Our game was greeted with a warm response. More importantly, indSCAPE was very pleased with the reception. JP and I made friends with Matt McDonald of Blue Sky Software, with whom we were sharing a stand. We ended up hanging around with him at the after show party that indSCAPE threw at an old cinema in a seedier part of the city. He introduced me to Long Island ice tea at the complementary bar. The last memory I had from that evening was Matt leaning dangerously over the balcony, screaming, and waving a half full glass at the seething crowd below him.
"Parasites, that what you are... Parasites... We make the games... Do you hear what we do?!" he yelled.
After swearing eternal friendship to each other, we promised to use our free day to visit his studio in San José.
We drove south to his studio a couple of days later and had a great visit there. He promised to visit us in Sweden if he got the chance. Sadly, we never met up since then.
The finish line in sight
We returned to Sweden the next day and threw ourselves right back into the mayhem of production. While JP and I had been attending the expo, Leif and Jögge had come up with the key-weighing-machine. To date, I still considered this to be the maddest safe in the whole game, not from a gameplay viewpoint, but from a production perspective. In a pre-rendered game such as Safecracker, each object that could be moved or manipulated was stored as a cutup fragment of a film. That safe had so many combinations that the layering of the graphic elements to make it look believable was just a nightmare. It was built around the concept of 8 keys seen in 2 rows receding away from the player, with one of the keys weighing less than the others. The player could compare the weight of 2 keys at a time, but after every second attempt to weigh the keys, the game would reshuffle them. All this would take place in full view of the viewer. It was pure madness!
Gradually, we were able to tick off room after room in the bible. With a project of this size, as we came near to its end, we were a cocktail of mixed emotions. We were pleased and excited that the game was nearly finished, but we were also growing sick to death of spending all our time repeating the same work in the same environment. As well, we were scared stupid that nobody would like the finished product. Above all, though, we were just so very tired.
We completed a basic build of Safecracker in less than a year. This in itself was a minor miracle.
We then got a call from Laurence in middle of all this madness. Warner Entertainment, with who we had signed our contract, was to undergone a merger to become Warner Interactive. Laurence said that he would be leaving Warners. Rob Letts, the new producer, flew over to Umeå almost immediately to meet us. He was a pleasant enough guy. Yet, it still felt tragic that Laurence would not be around to see the launch of our game. We went through the project status with Rob. He appeared to be pleased with our overall progress and the fact that we were still very much on schedule. We had been working without a break since March. It was now late January. Delivery was only a month or so away.
About this time, I was contacted by the marketing department at Warners. Apparently, Warners had analyzed the sales potential and suddenly realized that the market share could be increased if the game was localized.
"Yeh! Sure..." I said. "What's localized?"
It turned out that Warners wanted to redo the whole game in 7 different languages.
If our game had been rendered in real-time 3D, the change might have been a fairly simple operation. Alas, our game was pre-rendered. We had already spent months creating all the language specific clues that were only in English. Nearly every object in the rooms had some kind of writing on it. There were lighted buttons and indicators with text (Open, Locked, Start, etc.) as well as documents, instructions, and multi-paged books to be found in the game. We did some quick calculations and came to the conclusion that it would add at least 3-4 months to the project. Even though Warners was prepared to pay for this extra work, we knew that it would be a horrific job. If they had specified a multi-language version at the beginning of the project, it would have been fairly straightforward to implement. Now, we had to deconstruct the whole project and redesign the interface and menu systems to allow for the different languages. We then had to re-texture and re-render a large proportion of the safes and relating clues. We were not happy, but we took a deep breath and got on with it.
Finally, we were ready to send the gold candidate to Warners. It was a completed game code that could be used to run a final beta test. Warners had its own testing department and ran the game through a mass of rigorous tests for both technical robustness and gameplay. We also had to deal with the separate offices at Warners for the different languages, which provided even more potential for problems and bugs. Some hiccups were inevitable, but eventually all the pieces fell into place. We were now poised on the brink of finally getting our game on the retail shelf.
Suddenly, all of our plans went very, very pear shaped.
We were hit with the news that Warner Interactive had been sold to GT Interactive. We were assured that our contact would be honored, so that there was no cause for concern on our parts. However, JP and I had previously met the top marketing executive for GT Interactive at E3. In all honesty, I had to say that he was the most arrogant and unpleasant individual whom we had stumbled across in an industry that was full of arrogant and unpleasant individuals.
As soon as we were made aware that we were now signed to GT Interactive, both JP and I had a bad feeling. About 1-2 months later, we were informed that Safecracker, though fully tested clean of bugs and approved, was not considered to be economically and commercially viable.
In short, GT Interactive had no intention of releasing our game. Still, our contract covered 3 years and 3 game ideas, whichever came first. So, we submitted some more ideas to GT Interactive for our next project, but the new management just bounced all of our ideas right back at us. It became very obvious that GT Interactive was not going to accept any proposal we sent them. The irony was that one of these game ideas was for Traitors Gate, which sold well over 300,000 copies when it was released a few years later.
For the moment, we were up an effluent filled waterway without a wooden propulsion unit!
It seemed to be an impossible situation. We owed GT Interactive $450,000 in advances against royalties. This was money that would be drawn from the profits of Safecracker before we could see any of the money ourselves. Further, GT Interactive seemed content to write off its loss on our game, as long as it did not have to deal with us anymore. What we now needed was a cunning plan.
How we solved this conundrum was as unexpected as it was unprecedented. Simply speaking, we launched our company on the Swedish Stock Exchange. To be honest, we had actually begun planning our stock launch in advance of the bad news from GT Interactive, as we wanted to create a financial situation for our company where we would have more freedom. At that time, we had 1 project (Safecracker) completed and 1 fully fledged design (Traitors Gate) in the pipeline. We would offer up half of our company for a nominal 20,000,000 SKR or $2.5 million. The share price was set at 8.5 SKR.
Once more, JP did his normal, crazy, insane, inspired publicity spin. Daydream was now a company with around a dozen employees. JP flew all of us down to Stockholm, where we were greeted at the airport by a trio of black, stretch limousines. We were then driven to central Stockholm, where we had hired a micro-brewery and restaurant on the waterfront, not far from the Swedish King's official residence, called the Castle. We had invited a bunch of high profiled risk capitalists and investors to lunch and a presentation. We did a no-holds barred, fireworks and flags, presentation of our business idea and then took a bunch of questions for about 20 minutes from the audience. The clever part was presenting a convincing argument that we would use the launch money to buy back the rights from GT Interactive, which in turn would provide us with an instant revenue stream from the sales of Safecracker.
The public launch of Daydream happened a few weeks later. It coincided with a trade convention for the gaming industry in San Francisco. JP, Jögge, and I were on a yacht (Figure 3) in the harbor when we got the call that the share price of our company had hit 50 SKR!
We were back! We used the money from our stock launch to broker a deal with GT Interactive. We purchased back from GT Interactive the full rights for Safecracker for approximately $126,000, remembering all the time that we actually owed GT Interactive $450,000.
All we had to do now was to find a distributor for our game, but that would be another story...