Did the game industry's obsession with gore kill off Looking Glass, its most creative studio?
Jun 20, 2000 | What happens when one of the most respected computer game creators in the industry releases its latest title to universal acclaim and impressive sales?
Sometimes, in this volatile business, the company closes up shop and lays off all its employees.
That's what happened to Looking Glass Studios, the independent developer renowned for groundbreaking classics such as Ultima Underworld, System Shock and Thief: The Dark Project. On a May day some former employees now call Dark Wednesday, only months after Thief II: The Metal Age debuted on store shelves, vaulting immediately up near the top of bestselling PC game lists, the Massachusetts company abruptly announced its closing, thereby scattering its 60-plus employees into the interactive-entertainment job market.
That Thief II has been successful at all is quite an accomplishment. Thief is not like other games -- in particular, other top-selling games. The ongoing story of Garrett, a cynical cat burglar who plunders ill-gotten wealth from cruel nobles and fanatical theocrats, the Thief games are a seamless weave of first-person action and deep narrative. They are moody in tone, with a complex interface that's difficult to master, and a back-story that's an eclectic fusion of literary and artistic influences, from Umberto Eco's "The Name of the Rose" to Fritz Leiber's Fafhrd and Grey Mouser fantasy classics, to the German expressionist films of Fritz Lang. While never sacrificing their heart-throttling suspense, the Thief games are genuine works of art, fully leveraging the medium to engage the player's intellect.
But aesthetic quality that engages the mind does not necessarily coddle the creditor. As Paul Neurath, the company's managing director, puts it, "Looking Glass Studios grew extended on debt, which put it in a vulnerable position. Then we got caught by several surprises in a row, which when combined with an inability to secure a funding partner, sealed our fate."
To make the knife cut even more keenly, just one day before its closing, Eidos Interactive, Looking Glass' parent publisher, finally released Daikatana -- created by Ion Storm, another studio within the Eidos fold. Many game industry observers had wondered if Daikatana's moment would ever come, considering the legendary delays, mutinies and overruns that had stretched its production time to three controversial years.
Eidos spent, by some estimates, nearly $30 million to ensure Daikatana's completion. (Thief II, by contrast, cost an estimated $2.5 million to develop.) But Daikatana's mastermind, John Romero, has now earned some of the most savage reviews a major game designer has received in recent years. For outraged gamers, the confluence of fortune was too infuriating to forgive. Surely a fraction of that capital could have been diverted to save Looking Glass? Via flames and even cartoons, the accusation roared through online gaming boards: John Romero and Eidos killed Looking Glass.
Hyperbole to be sure -- but beneath it was the truth that provoked such fury: This company was special, and its passing seemed to mark PC gaming's final decline. From here on out, the industry would only assemble endless variations on exhausted genres (pathetically timid when they were not totally appalling), design for game platforms permanently beholden to the whims of morbidly obsessed adolescents and fully acquiesce to corporate publishers willing to finance every expense save for the desire to innovate and even perhaps to inspire. Looking Glass' demise signals the gaming industry's descent, then, into its own metal age of decadence and unthinking greed.