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
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
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.
Views of Klingon Academy Post Mortem