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A Battlecruiser Named Desire 01 January 1998

Written by Dean Gordon

A Battlecruiser Named Desire

 By: Dean Gordon



Battlecruiser 3000AD (BC3K)
by Derek Smart, published by Take 2 Interactive
, October 1996

Why is it that a game published over a year ago still holds the fascination of a sizeable percentage of the gaming community (at least those who read and post messages to that giant bathroom stall in cyberspace called the usenet)? Why is it that as sure as the sun rises in the morning somebody, somewhere will post a BC3K -related message? I can recall no other game, good or bad, which has generated this much traffic (doing an usenet search using Dejanews generated over 40,000 BC3K related posts). Any subject with that much discussion deserves an article and maybe even a book (I hear rumors of an NBC Movie of the Week Treatment during sweeps week, but I am not positive). For me, any possible enjoyment of BC3K (even if the game was bug-free and lived up to the lofty expectations of all involved), pales in comparison to the ongoing fascination of reading about a game that has more life than the Energizer Bunny. It is this fascination which is the muse for this piece.

Notes: Originally, the article was to include a full review of the game in its current inception. However, given that Smart has stated that the game is still a work in progress, I will hold off on any review until after the game is completed. This article is based solely on the postings made on the usenet and accessible via an usenet reader such as DejaNews.

From Vaporware to Reality in (Take) 2 Easy Steps

For years BC3K was hyped and promised and for years the game remained vaporware, continually in development and going through publishers like they were Flinstone-chewable morphine. The game became bogged down by its own ambition, as Derek Smart, like a kid in a candy store, saw more and more games and wanted then incorporated into his own (Echelon, Star Flight, Privateer, Wing Commander, Jetfighter, F19, etc). In Take 2 however, Smart met a publisher who wanted a product rather than promise. Smart has clearly laid the blame for the release fiasco at Take 2's feet, citing that it's "pretty obvious that Take 2 and Gametek knowingly and willfully released an incomplete game and left me to clean up the mess and go bankrupt doing it". Is this true, and if so, why would Take 2 do this?

On May 15th, 1996, Take 2 and Smart announced a September release date for the perennial vaporware. Smart alleges that Take 2 pressured him to agree to a release date, citing that "I have already lost a lot and the landslide began when I signed off my release rights to Take 2 causing them to release my game without my approval". In return for Smart relinquishing his release rights, Take 2 assigned development teams to assist in the finishing touches to the product. At the time Smart welcomed the addition of Take 2's testing and graphic expertise, citing that "I truly believe that BATTLECRUISER 3000 A.D. will now have the critical elements it has been missing throughout these years."

Why would Smart relinquish his release rights? Surely at this point he must have been aware that the product was in no way near completion and would not be ready for a release date only five months away. According to Smart, he was given a choice - either deliver BC3K for shipment by the agreed date or suffer cancellation of the product. Take 2, well aware of the vaporware status of the game and the failure of previous publishers to get Smart to finish it, saw the handwriting on the wall and decided to pull the ripcord one way or another. Given Smart's history, could Take 2 be faulted in wanting to see a product delivered? Knowing Smart's penchant for hype and hyperbole, one can imagine that Take 2 was assured by Smart that a product could be ready by October if Take 2 provided the proper support (development teams assigned to the game under Smart's supervision). However, Take 2's development teams and Smart were ill fitted to work together. Smart threw his weight and substantial ego around and made it clear to all those involved that, in regards to the game, his words came from The Mount. As relations broke down, Smart and the Take 2 development team, according to Smart, were essentially working on two separate versions of the game. "We were working on two different versions because I did NOT want to use their Chase dogfigting [sic] engine". As the summer months wore on, it became obvious to the development team that the product would not be ready by the shipping date. Smart wanted another year to finish the product. Take 2 said no.

Why was the game released? "It's simple. Take 2 wanted to ship for Christmas '96 which meant an Oct. master. If it were up to me, I'd be doing this for another decade if that's what it took. I had no choice. They wanted to ship, I told them the dangers of doing that, a disagreemenr [sic] erupted. I left. They shipped. It turned to be a disaster. The rest is history. In short - the game wasn't ready to ship. That much is obvious". Smart downplays the fact that he had an agreement to deliver the product or face cancellation. Take 2 obviously decided to cut their losses and release a game in any form. While this is reprehensible, Smart's hype and hyperbole most likely egged them on.

As an aside, the May 15th press release also made mention of Take 2 planning to "devote hundreds of man hours just to the quality assurance testing of the game", but as every BC3K owner knows, this was just a cruel prank played on the gaming community. According to Smart there was no beta testing done prior to two weeks before the shipping date because the game was still in development. "They had nothing to test because it was still in bits and pieces due to all the hacking and slicing that was going on". It turns out that the gamers who bought the game in good faith were going to be the beta testers.

Derek and the Developers

BC3K was released on October 11th, 1996. To say that the game was released buggy is to say that the sun gives light. It debuted to thunderous, and often visceral, denouncement. Martin Cirulis at Computer Gaming World summed it up best with a warning to prospective buyers who planned on playing the game without doing the patch shuffle: "do not buy this game under any circumstances". Why does Smart assert that he had no knowledge of the game's release until after the fact? "I did NOT know the game had shipped because I though they were bluffing and that it was another ploy to dissect my contract like they did when I left Miami and went up there". The facts are that Smart was aware that the game had a release date. He was also told that the game was being mastered, hence the final blow-up which caused relations to disintegrate completely. He also knew well in advance of the release date that the product was unplayable and barely passed as a coaster. Since, according to Smart, two separate versions were being worked on, Smart's assertion that he was not aware what version was in the box until after it was released and he picked up a copy is false as well.

Smart also asserts that Take 2 mastered the wrong version, BETA v199z.2, and not the version that he gave them. Why would a publisher do this? One would think that they would want to put out the best available product. Was BETA v199z.2 the only version available when it came time to master? Did Smart send his version to Take 2 after the master date? No empirical evidence exists either way, though Smart offers that Take 2 did not use it because they thought that he might have "sabotaged it somehow to prevent the launch", and went with what they had working. This statement says wonders about the working relationship and atmosphere that was present in the final few weeks.

Smart released a patch a few days after the game shipped. If this was the version that Take 2 should have shipped, was the game then playable? No. While Smart asserts the first patch brought a level of stability to the game (taking out the faulty Take 2 Chase dogfighting engine), a fair number of gamers would disagree. In his first posting to the usenet following the release, Smart told gamers that he would be releasing two patches instead of one "due to popular request from the faithful few". Smart later mentioned that the first set of patches were "not top notch because I had just started to figure out how the hell I was going to proceed. Those patches were designed to make the game 'work' after installing it. They did". Once again, it appears that the game was in development, the only difference was that there were gamers purchasing the product in good faith, unaware that they were buying a flawed and faulty game.

Smart knew that the game was going to be a disaster by October 4th, the week before the release. People were posting to comp.sys.ibm.pc.games asking who was going to buy the game. Surely Smart must have been aware of these postings and yet said nothing. Was he under a gag order not to speak out until after the release of the game? Perhaps. Did Smart in the days after the release indicate to gamers who bought the game in good faith that BC3K had a serious problem, offer an apology or an explanation as to why the game was released so buggy? No. On October 22nd, Smart urged people who were considering taking the game back to give it another try. Smart asserts that he did warn people on America Online (AoL) that the game was unplayable, but no verifiable proof is available. If one is to take Smart at face value, why did he warn gamers on AoL and not on the usenet? Surely Smart was not that naïve to believe that the only gamers buying and playing BC3K had an AoL account.

On October 25th he issued a BC3K FAQ. Still no acknowledgement that the game was seriously bug-ridden (over 200 bugs were fixed by the C4 patch). No warning to gamers not to buy the game as it was. On October 31st he responded to a gamer asking why the game was crashing with the response "the v1.01c patch due out tomorrow fixes this problem. Sorry about that". When was Smart's first indication to gamers that something was seriously wrong? December 10th. Almost two months after the game was released Smart admitted that the version released was the wrong one. Why did it take him two months to admit this to the gaming public? How many gamers were burnt by a lack of omission from Take Two or from Smart that the game was not ready to ship, had not been beta tested, and was for the most part unplayable?

Take Two acted as if nothing was wrong. Their technical support page only told gamers that the manual explains everything that the game can do (which is laughable). On October 16th Take Two issued a statement on AoL regarding the faulty manual. There was no admission that they had knowingly released a faulty game and no apology to gamers who paid full price for what was essentially an alpha product. Buyer beware indeed.

Dr. Smart and Mr. (Derek) Hyde

At this point a clear distinction must be made between Smart the Developer and Derek the Usenet Poster. Smart is to be commended for sticking with the product and working to deliver the game that gamers expected. That parts of the gaming community are anxiously waiting the final version (The Developer's Version/v2.0/BC3K Deluxe) over a year after its initial release is a testament to Smart's passion and commitment to the product. Some gamers would point out that it is also a testament to just how buggy and wanting the initial game was, but they are more cynical and jaded than I am.

There are two schools of thought as to why Smart the Developer has spent a year working on making BC3K the game he promised. The first is that Smart truly cares about gamers who spent their hard-earned money in good faith and were rewarded with a coaster. This (surprise, surprise), is Smart's view: "the response alone told me that I was doing the right thing. I wasn't getting paid to do this. I was doing it in the interest of my gamers and because it's the right thing to do. I could've walked away anytime I felt like it and released another product. Whether anyone would've bought it, again, is speculation. We believe that it would have sold because people would still have *not* seen what BC3K was all about. Also, had I not released any patches, folks would've returned it, gotten their money back and no one would've bitched about being stiffed. Yes, I could have and should have walked away and put TT in final distress, but I didn't because regardless of what they did to me and my game, I had a contract that required me to deliver to them, a completed game. Regardless of them releasing it prematurely, I did not feel that I had personally fulfilled the terms of my contract to the general gaming public who were expecting a *complete* game after years and years of hype. Regardless of whose fault it was, it was my responsibility to ensure that I maintained complete control of my product as I have done all these years."

The more jaded among the gaming community believe he is doing it to save his ass, and without a finished product he would never work in the industry again. But this view is predicated on the belief that gamers have long memories, a fact that is much disputed. Would gamers not buy a game because of its developer or publisher's notoriety even if it were The Ultimate Gaming Experience? I think that some avoid the game on point of principle, but most would buy the game regardless of its checkered past. They might wait until the reviews came in, but if they were positive they would buy it. Smart could have walked away when the game was released, blamed it all on Take 2, regrouped and released Battlecruiser 4000ad (after negotiating the rights to the license, etc.). He would have still had his detractors, but they weren't going anywhere anyway. Regardless of his motivations to do so, Smart the Developer released patch after patch, and with each step seemed closer to that elusive finish line.


Usenet - where the flames begin...

The Customer is Always Right….kinda

The first time I took notice of Derek the Usenet Poster (who has made a staggering 2000+ posts since BC3K's launch) was when the word "fuck" made an appearance in one of Derek's posts. To my knowledge, that red-letter day was February 21st, 1997 (although it could have been weeks or months before on AoL, but I was one of those unlucky gamers who had no AoL account). Up to this point I had never heard of a game developer verbally abuse his detractors in such a public forum. Given the bathroom stall nature of the usenet, what the hell was Derek thinking? Surely he must have heard of the phrase "fuelling the fire". Derek the Usenet Poster, through his inability to stay away from the flame wars, managed almost single-handedly to spawn a new pastime, Battlecruiser: The Online Game.

The Rules of The Online Game are simple: post a derogatory remark about BC3K or Derek and wait for the bait to be taken. After Derek goes ballistic, follow that up with an even more derogatory comment to see just how far Derek would, in his own words, "dig his own grave". It is quite noteworthy in this age of political-correctness for a game developer to publicly offend potential customers in such an unique manner. "As long as [I] am around to support the game, help my users and make the game better, who gives a shit if I come on-line and cuss some idiot who started throwing pebbles until I tossed a brick?" Such courage (others might call it stupidity), is rare indeed. What fueled The Online Game was Derek's penchant for hype and hyperbole. With each new patch or each new delay, gamers were reassured that the end was in site and that their patience would be rewarded, and that The Game was just around the corner. "Going forward, 3000AD is committed to releasing a patch EVERY two weeks until the game 'settles down'". When each new patch emerged Derek's detractors would toss their line in and hope Derek would bite. And, except for brief periods, Derek more than obliged them.

Derek's early opinion seemed to be that buying a game does not give you the right to flame the developer. An odd line of reasoning, but one that perhaps can be explained with Derek's own words: "my life is my business, my cross to bear and I don't have to answer to you or anyone. I answer to a higher authority. My ego". That same ego that created problems with the Take 2 development team was back at play on the usenet (my personal favorite Derekism is "you're in dire need of a well-placed bitch slap"). Why didn't Derek take the high road and ignore postings that were obviously bait for his super-ego? Why didn't he treat them like a prank phone call and just let them go away? In Derek's own words, "I don't care what anyone says and I make NO excuses for my outbursts in the newsgroup but when people call you names, call you a fraud, a liar etc it doesn't take much to push you over the edge. Then you stop giving a shit. What more have I got to lose, a few more sales? Puhlease [sic], you know how much sales I lost when it shipped?" Taking the high road might expose him to the "silence equals consent" argument, but without fuel, the flame would eventually die.

The more obvious answer is that there is no such thing as bad publicity. The more BC3K was mentioned the more gamers would take notice of it (this article is Exhibit A). The more bizarre, the more outrageous, the more grandiose the posting the better, as it would fan the flames even higher. While some would be put off by the vulgar nature of the postings, new gamers would be attracted to BC3K out of curiosity. Even more would be attracted because of a built-in human reaction to favor the underdog. The more Derek was attacked the more people would just wait until the storm was over and the game was released and try it for themselves. In this theory Derek was in fact building up a nice little audience for the game without having to spend money on advertising or public relations. Sound far-fetched? Why then would Derek start or contribute to min-threads concerning his car, his girlfriend, the beach or his PHD? None of this has anything to do with BC3K, but keeps a thread alive and allows the game to remain in the spotlight for another day. The PHD thread is particularly hilarious. People have seemingly devoted their lives to proving that Derek's claim to having a PHD is utter nonsense and just another example of Derek's bravado. Whether or nor Derek has a PHD, a BSC or a MOUSE is irrelevant to BC3K, but it sure keeps The Online Game alive.

The more cynical among us would respond that Derek could not let a flame go by him because his ego wouldn't allow it. "I have never been one to stand idly by while someone lambasts [sic] another. Even in school and throughout my life, I've always been the one to stand up, face the music and deal with it. You can't just quit after years of training and experience . I'm trying very hard and the one liners plus the canned posts are very therapeutic. None of this makes sense to any of you, believe me, it doesn't make any sense to me. The fact of the matter is, as long they're attacking me, falsely accusing me and 'attempting' to tarnish my name, I'll be here to respond in some form, for the benefit of those who don't have a clue what's going on". In Derek's defence I have to ask myself would I have acted differently if I were in his shoes. If my life's worth, and indeed my life itself, were being vilified, can I look in the mirror and say that I wouldn't have jumped into the flame feet first? I honestly can't answer.

If You Build it We Will Come

Both Smart and Take 2 deserve full blame for BC3K's release fiasco. They both knew that they were releasing an incomplete and unplayable product and yet no empirical evidence exits that either warned gamers until after the fact. That is reprehensible. Gamers who purchased the game in good faith only to find that they wasted their money have a right to be outraged. In Smart's defence however, he did the right thing by supporting the game and working diligently to produce the product that gamers expected. He could have walked away but he didn't. For this he should be praised, though this is tempered by Derek's childish and illogical contributions to The Online Game.

As to BC3K in its current state, I believe that it is a monument to Smart's perseverance. Once you get past a learning curve that makes the North Slope of Everest look like a bunny hill, you discover that the game is pretty damn playable. It still has a lot of work to go, but it is complex, has depth and there is a lot to see and do. Its not a beer and pretzels game and the casual gamer will most likely be scared off, but the core gamer would do well to give the game a try once its completed. As an aside, I don't think that existing owners should be charged for the final version (as of right now existing owners will be charged $15 for v2.0). It is my opinion that gamers should not be charged once for a work in progress (or better known as an alpha/beta version) and then again for the finished product.

Would the gaming world forget Smart's annibulus horribulus if he just delivered a finished game that worked? I believe so. I just wish Smart the Developer would lock Derek the Usenet Poster in a closet and toss the key and just finish the damn thing. I've got Vesperons to kill.

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