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KA was meant to be a glorified expansion pack to SFA. The I-play upper management wanted it to be SFA with new scripts, a couple of new ships, a couple of new weapons and NO MOVIES (especially after the "Orange Gaffer's Tape Fiasco"). However, in playing the beta revs of SFA, we (the KA team) realized that SFA wasn't about to live up to the claims made in the advertising so Raphael, a.k.a. “The Spaniard”, paid lip service to management's concept and set to work creating an entirely different game—a dirty and underhanded move that earned him the title of Raph-ulan. Over the next couple of months we developed a design to address the weaknesses in SFA that we identified, and under orders I shot for the moon (which in hindsight was a terrible mistake and were I more experienced I would have reigned myself in).

Some months after we began, the US press began destroying the just released SFA—though the Euro press seemed to like it much more. IP's upper management began to get anxious about KA because they thought it was essentially going to be the same game so they demanded to know what we were doing to address the press concerns. It was then that we compiled all the press problems and our own problems (masquerading as press issues) into one document, pulled the portions of the design document that were relevant to these issues and told IP's management exactly what we intended to do. They agreed. We told them that it would require a lot more people, a brand new engine, and a lot more time. They said NO and this is the beginning of one of the major problems with the development of KA. We argued long and hard to get them to compromise some. They wouldn't budge. Given the benefit of hindsight, this was about the point that IP’s management team began to realize the company was haemorrhaging money and that cost cutting measures were needed. Points at least for recognizing they had a problem, though in this particular case it did far more harm than good.

Despite our frustration at not being able to basically start from scratch, we got to work trying to make the SFA engine do what we wanted. The SFA code was nightmarish, and the base level interface modules (known as GaNAW) were an absolute disaster. SFA was written by a first timer--first game and first 3D--and the code showed it. It was a pile of kludges and hack fixes designed not to fix the root cause of the problems but to bring their symptoms into the tolerances of SFA specifically or to mask the bug altogether. This programmer also was a bit of a prima donna, so a lot of stuff was hard coded to his spec and not the SFA design spec, which is against basic programming standards, as any programmer will tell you. Additionally this guy did not save the source code of the GaNAW modules used in SFA after the project shipped, again against standard practice of programmers in ANY industry, much less the gaming industry. This caused all the 640x480 problems on down the line, as we only had pre-compiled modules rather than editable code.

We proceeded, full steam ahead, through 8 months of development until the KA team’s first Christmas season together. It was at this time that John Panetierre and I approached Raphael with a growing concern. At that point, much of John's work was focused on improving the graphics engine with little or no time devoted to implementing the functionality of the various rules systems Brent and I were designing, and we began to realize this was a growing problem. We felt that we needed to put the bones into the game before working on fleshing it out and giving it a pretty skin. Now that the issue was out in the open, Raphael was faced with a dilemma. One symptom of Interplay's chronic mismanagement is the inability of Brain Fargo and those he placed in positions of power to recognize any progress other than the visual. Basically, unless you could show them something that visually looked finished, they didn't recognize that progress had been made. If you had a fully functional starship with working weapons, fully functioning AI, and all the other core gameplay systems implemented, but the 3D engine was using flat shaded cubes for the ships and 2D line draws for the beam weapons and flat polys for the torpedoes and showed that to them, they would’ve jumped down your throat for lack of progress even though the underlying engine jumped from pre-alpha to almost beta. Given this, Raphael made a fateful decision, a decision that in hindsight cause far more damage to the careers of the dev team, the reputation of KA as a game, and to Interplay in general than anybody would have recognized. He decided to keep the focus on the graphics, forgoing gameplay system implementation.

This decision is why the ships have always looked great in KA, why the engine does 16-bit color, why it does High Res, and why the ginsu system even exists. But more tellingly it is why a lot of stuff isn't balanced right, why not all of the game features were implemented, why some features were trimmed down and others were poorly implemented, and why multiplayer is so rudimentary. For quite some time we had a graphics engine and NO GAME. Brent and I were working in theoreticals for most of the development cycle. We couldn't test our designs or ideas because they simply weren't there for us to test until near the end, and this dramatically reduced the amount of time we had for tweaking and balancing. This lack of basic gameplay system implementation caused other problems as well.

Without finalized system function, the multiplayer code could not be effectively written. As things were implemented and ideas were tested, rethought, and changed the multiplayer code had to be rewritten to account for the alterations. Nothing could be finished. Eventually the budget began to run out and development of the multiplayer code had to slow down and eventually stop.

The KMB was also victim to the lack of gameplay functionality implementation. Without a gameplay engine, you can't complete the scripting language functions necessary. Without all the scripting functions you can't very well write a mission builder to create full-featured scripts. We did intend to come back to it once we finalized the scripting language, but by the time that was done it was too late to save the KMB.

Similarly, this lack of system finalization also caused tension between different departments in the dev team. Danien, though an extremely talented programmer and scripter, quickly grew frustrated constant design changes and he began to grumble, which caused other scripters to start grumbling. In my and Brent’s defense, the design changes were necessary since it was the first time we actually got to test our designs and often what looks good on paper is boring and lame in practice. All the redesigning was ticking off the programmers as well. It was taking time away from their ability to finish and/or polish other features they were working on. Occasionally, to address a redesign, the programmers would change the way a system interacted with the art resources and/or the scripting language. This then pissed off the artists or the scripters even more. They'd get mad at the programmers, who would then blame Brent and me. However, nobody ever really discussed their issues, leaving them to fester until the resentment reached a critical mass that generally resulted in a huge blow up and a call for an urgent team meeting at which nothing was really ever resolved. This was an example of the systemic communication problems throughout the development cycle.

The KA Team was never really a “team” as a whole. Everything was very compartmentalized and cliquish. Throughout most of the development cycle, the scripters and programmers hung together separately from the artists and the designers. For long periods of time we wouldn’t have a team meeting or any sort of status updates from the other departments. At the beginning, the Spaniard was everywhere and in everybody’s business, which kept the process flowing somewhat but over time he became less involved and more difficult to find. Hell, I even took up smoking solely to give me an excuse to pin him down and talk to him. If you ever have a boss who’s a smoker you’ll find that no matter how busy they are and how much they’re running about if you suggest a smoke break they almost always find the time. Despite the fact that Raph became quite scarce he still insisted on being present when any decisions were to be made which in the end left the team in a lurch without the ability to communicate freely. As time progressed I ended up taking on the responsibility of dealing with the ship related art tasks as it meshed with my task of implementing the Ginsu system and from here I began to cultivate a dialog with the artists, though in hind-sight I really should have made more of an attempt to get involved with the scripters earlier, for it was there that much of the pent up frustration pooled.

Near the end of the development of KA we came under the auspices of 14 Degrees East headed up by Brian Christian. Brian had the well-deserved reputation for being able to straighten out other people’s messes and get projects out the door. He is to this day the producer I respect and admire the most. Brian is an involved leader and can be quite decisive and maintains an open door policy that is awesome. That being said, Brian’s open door policy was a double-edged sword, as you will come to understand in a moment.

I need to preface the following comments to lend some context to the situation. Another problem that we encountered within the team was that team members were brought on by Raphael based the criteria of talent and individual ambition. Belief in the overall vision of the project was not a requirement. Ambition that is out of step with the direction of a project only leads to resentment and resentment in the presence of talent turns to anger over the perception of talent wasted. This proved troublesome.

As I noted above, the frustration really pooled with the scripters. Many of the scripters did not understand or believe in the overall vision of the game and having been brought aboard relatively late in the process they did not understand the problems we had with the implementation of the gameplay systems. Those precious few times they actually did voice a concern about the game to Brent or me they either questioned the need for design changes (which almost invariably proved necessary) or they made suggestions that tried to take the game in a direction opposed to the vision. Despite my many announcements to the team at large that we were available to discuss anything they wished about the game, I feel that because Brent and I often shot down their ideas the few times they actually brought them forward the scripters began to feel like we were unapproachable and incapable of addressing their problems. Raphael didn’t help this situation both because he was increasingly difficult to see and that he also understood the vision and would therefore deny many of their suggestions. This left the scripters feeling trapped, trampled upon and without much creative input, which was left only to fester until the KA team came to 14 Degrees East.

Here is where Brian’s open door policy proved tragic. The scripters saw Brian as a means of being heard and venting their frustrations. Unfortunately Brian never really understood the problem of gameplay system implementation or the vision of KA, which is the combined fault of Raphael, Brent and myself. Brian began to take up the mantra of “no more design changes” and would often champion scripter suggestions that were contrary to the direction of the design. In Brian the scripters found a way to do an end-run around the Spaniard and neatly undermined his authority on the project, further damaging the team. In fact, this became such a problem that Brent and I would almost never know that the scripters had a problem with something until Brian called a meeting and made summary judgment.

The sad thing is, for all the problems Raphael's decision to focus on graphics often caused; politically it was the right decision to make. SFA languished for too long in development. It was 5 years in the making (2 years longer than KA), cost a ton of money to make—including points on the take for Shatner, and in the end didn't sell nearly as well as necessary. This put IP's management against KA from the get-go. By giving IP's upper management something pretty to look at, he could keep them happy so they'd interfere less and not cancel the project. This worked well enough for 2 years. It was in the last year of the project, when we weren't making much grand sweeping graphical progress that IP management got antsy. I will elaborate on what harm they caused on individual basis.

The Executive Producer of Development at the time we started KA was Alan Pavlish, who as a manager was a decent programmer. Alan hated flightsim games and as such was responsible for doing great harm to SFA because he insisted on dumbing it down into something more arcadish. When SFA was raked over the coals in the press, Alan distanced himself from KA as a result. The caused him to do something even worse than bad management, he ignored the game. He for the most part ignored our requests, never once checked up on the game, and didn't recognize the early warning signs that KA's development was lagging. KA wasn’t the only game that Alan happened to be neglecting and under increasing pressure from development he was replaced by Trish Wright.

Trish was the VP of Marketing before being made VP of Development—a title she demanded because Executive Producer wasn't a grand enough apparently. She had less than zero experience with software development, hated dealing with financial figures, and learned everything about the biz by skimming the Game Review press, poring over Game Industry marketing rags, and looking in the glossary sections of programming books.

Where financials were concerned, there was a time when IP’s management balked at shelling out the money being demanded by Christopher Plummer to appear in our game. Brent, who had degrees in Finance and Entrepreneurship contacted the marketing department, got projected unit sales with and without the presence of Christopher Plummer in the game and then worked up a 6 page report with Interplay’s own Return On Investment spreadsheet template—which he had to fix calculation errors on, by the way—displaying various scenarios from the most liberal to the most conservative. In a meeting with Trish, Brent presented to her the ROI based on numbers from her precious Marketing Department that she just left and she never even lifted the cover page, flat out denying us the budget without discussion. Brent was stunned, but he was relatively new to Interplay, so his surprise was not unexpected. I, on the other hand, simply shook my head and went back to work on whatever task I was working on. Thankfully for the fans, Juliet and Harry at Paramount basically threatened to withhold approval of the game if we didn’t have Christopher Plummer, such was their faith in the story.

As for Trish’s lack of game development knowledge, these anecdotes may shed some light on the topic. Trish kept asking us when we would be done with our API. It took the team weeks to figure out what she was talking about. Eventually we came to realize that API to Trish was much like the word “smurf” was to the Smurfs in that it had nearly limitless meanings. For Trish API was interchangeable with EXEs, applications, tools, mission scripts, etc. In a story not directly related to KA but telling nonetheless, she once asked the QA Lead on a different project when he expected his game to hit beta. Considering that she herself announced a couple of days before over the loudspeakers that the game had hit beta, he was understandably confused. She clarified her question by saying "you know, BETA beta." Trish caused the same kind of harm caused by anyone who is action oriented, completely self assured and shockingly ill informed.

As the one presiding over the whole sinking ship of fools, Brian Fargo holds considerable responsibility for allowing KA to get out of hand, not to mention the overall mismanagement of the company. He was increasingly angered because the company was hemorrhaging money, with SFA as a gaping wound, but in his favor he still had the presence of mind to realize that the Star Trek license could still make money. Unfortunately, he forgot the lesson that you must spend money to make money and therefore hamstrung the project with ill-advised cost cutting measures including arbitrarily limiting team size and insisting upon reusing technology that was years out of date at the time of release.

Fargo tended to have pet projects that he was quite involved with which caused him to ignore other projects. This caused him on more than one occasion to miss the early warning signs of projects in trouble. In fact, his detachment from some products is what allowed Raphael to hold Fargo at bay with pretty graphics, since Fargo could be counted on not to look into most projects beyond a cursory visual inspection. Fargo also had a penchant for placing under qualified friends and drinking-buddies in positions of power at the company which added yet another layer of incompetence and abstraction between himself and product development, as exemplified by his appointment of Trish Wright to head of development. One of the cardinal rules of business is to hire people smarter than you, which I suspect Fargo didn’t do because he had a very robust ego. In the end, he blamed everyone but himself for the delays of the project, glossing over the fact that it was his decision to give the next big Trek project to a producer who hadn't yet produced an internally developed title, that it was his decision to keep the development team understaffed for a considerable amount of time and that it was he who allowed that producer to fill what few positions he had with inexperienced people—85% of the team had no previous development experience.

In conclusion, KA was the proverbial cluster-fsck. I, personally, am amazed that it turned out as good as it did. It really speaks highly of the talent of the members of the team especially in light of all the problems associated with it. And considering the fan base it generated and how long they’ve kept it alive it provides some small vindication and the satisfaction of knowing that in the end it was worth it.

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Since 31/5/2001

 
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