Journey’s End

Format: Spectrum Genre: Adventure Released: 1985 Developer: Games Workshop

Nothing lasts forever. Here we are then, at game number 101. The last in our (not really) definitive list of games that made our lives slightly better. What game do you pick to adequately round off this 3 year journey? How can you represent 100 entries, thousands of words and several podcasts?

We’ve been through a lot on 101 Video Games That Made My Life Slightly Better. Doing this blog has been fun, has brought friends together and has given Lew and myself a great sense of achievement. At times it’s also been frustrating, has caused arguments, has been distinctly annoying and seemingly never-ending, and there have been long periods where nothing has really happened. Our final game was all those things for me, plus its name is perfect for the last post (natch). We have reached our Journey’s End.

journeys-end-spectrum

My best friend for most of my childhood was a guy called Tony. Between the ages of 9 and 16 we saw each other pretty much every day. We lived on the same road, walked to school together and were in the same class at school. During the school holidays we would hang out together along with my younger brother. When you’re 10 years old, school holidays seem to last forever and we were often bored and struggled to think of things to do. Things got pretty desperate at times; one holiday I’m pretty sure we went to Woolworths every single day just to look at the videos and toys, never buying anything. Those were the days eh?

Tony had an old Spectrum (a hand me down from his older brother I think) and we used to dig that out and play on it, especially if it was pouring with rain outside. Even back then the Spectrum was pretty old fashioned, but we had no other options. I may be wrong but I think Tony didn’t own any two player games either. We were forced to play collectively, with one person controlling the game while the other two gave advice. This was surprisingly fun and kept us occupied for hours at a time. By far our favourite game to play this way was Journey’s End.

journeys-end-spectrum
To the castle comrades! Just to warn you it’s further away than it looks…

Journey’s End was a fantasy game, featuring the usual fantasy tropes – bands of warriors, spells, dragons, goblins (or was it orcs?) and so on. The game stood out by being split into four distinct parts which all played quite differently. It was also a long game. A very long game. So it was the perfect distraction to fill those long summer holidays.

Everything about the game took time. To begin with, of course, you had to load the game. It’s an obvious point to make but it did take aaaaages to play a Spectrum game. I remember we would sit there waiting 20 to 30 minutes for a game to load. Or should I say try to load? Often games would crash half-way through loading so you would have to start again. I’m sure Journey’s End often did that. It was quite possible to spend 45 minutes just trying to start a game. Looking back it absolutely amazes me that two 10 year olds and a 7 year old had that level of patience.

journeys-end-spectrum
Here you can see all the gems, pots of gold and potions. But you can’t see the stupid invisible traps.

The first part of Journey’s End was set in a maze. You would move around, exploring more of the maze until you found a key and a gate to escape. There were gold, gems and potions to find as well. Unfortunately there were also traps. Stupid, invisible, impossible-to-avoid traps. One of the most frustrating things about the maze was that you would only find the traps once you had set them off. The mazes were randomly generated and there was no logic behind where the traps were so it was sheer luck whether you ran into them. Not only that, occasionally you had strength points taken off because of a trap your character had fallen into during the bit between mazes, when you weren’t even controlling him. IT WAS INFURIATING. But we played it all the same.

journeys-end-spectrum
ARRRRRRGGGGHHHHHHH!

After a certain amount of mazes (again it seemed random the number you would have to tackle) you start the second part of Journey’s End: recruiting your band of warriors, wizards and warlocks (I know warlocks and wizards are kind of the same thing, I just wanted to use another ‘w’ word).

journeys-end-spectrum

Using the treasure you found in the mazes you recruit a group of men to come on the quest with you. Not enough gold? Well make some on the rat races!

journeys-end-spectrum
Just like my old Grandad used to say, always bet on the Green Rat.

Being 10 year old boys we particularly enjoyed renaming the mercenaries so they had stupid and/or rude names. As a 31 year old man I suspect I would still find that funny.

journeys-end-spectrum
After advertising this is all I got. Rubbish!

Once you’ve got your gang together it’s time to go to the enchanted castle where the ‘Elixir of Hagar’ is being guarded by a giant dragon. How exciting! Oh, first you’ve got to get there.

Yes the third part of the game was you making your way to the castle. It’s actually quite similar to walking around the map in Final Fantasy 7, with the same random annoying fights. It’s this stage of the game that I really remember. The image of Tony, my brother and I, sitting on a large cushion transfixed in front of the TV, using the cursor keys to sloooowly move our group up the map while being watched by Tony’s haughty cat Claude is burned onto my mind’s eye. That stage was hard and often we wouldn’t reach the castle. The battles would pick off your men one by one, it was easy to get lost, and of course there was always the danger that the game would crash.

journeys-end-spectrum
So here we go. Easy right. Nope.

Looking back, this stage of the game does successfully recreate the feel of the first Lord of the Rings book, which emphasises just how far the Fellowship of the Ring actually have to travel. The problem is, while a book can use that time to concentrate on character, and while a film can distract you with flashy CGI and battles, a 1985 Spectrum game can only recreate the feeling of travelling nowhere fast. Again, the patience we had was incredible.

journeys-end-spectrum
Thrilling action from the map screen.

If you did manage to survive the random battles, find the bridge to take you over the river and then find the castle itself, you could move on to the fourth and final part of the game – the Dragon’s Castle.

Unfortunately I can’t tell you much about this stage as we rarely reached the castle. Even if we had got through the previous three stages without dying, by the time we got to the castle it was usually dinner time and my brother and I had to go home.

The couple of times we did get there though it seemed impossibly hard. I think we reached the Dragon once, but by then our party’s strength had been massively depleted, and we had used all our spells so there was little we could do.

Despite all of this we loved the game, and I think there was more to this adoration than just being able to call one of your warriors Arsebum. The very fact the pace of the game was so slow allowed Tony, my brother and myself to play it together. We gave our characters personalities, argued over the way to go, shouted at the TV in unified anger when we had tripped over an invisible bit of stone in the maze losing 5 strength points, laughed at each other’s jokes during the dull slog looking for the Bridge across the river and cheered when we found the castle. We may have never actually reached the End but the Journey was fun in itself.

journeys-end-spectrum
Saw this screen a lot.

Speaking of endings, we’re at the end of this post and this blog. Well, we do have two more podcasts to come about games that didn’t quite make the magic 101, but our list of games is now complete. For those who have read/listened to all 101 posts I hope you enjoyed them and Lew and I would like to think that the blog has made your lives (very, very, very slightly) better. Or at the very least not worse.

Every ending is a new beginning though and our new project will be launched sometime in the summer. Hope you can join us on that journey too.

One last thing before I go: fancy playing Journey’s End? Then go here for this excellent repository of old Spectrum games. Isn’t the internet marvellous?

Advanced Dungeons and Dragons

Advanced Dungeons and Dragons - Intellivision - Gameplay Screenshot

Although the original Dungeons and Dragons (D&D) “board game” is designed to be played with paper and dice, it’s a natural fit for the world of video games. Its randomized encounters, tedious mapping, and turn-based combat practically beg to be computerized. Many old video games tried to capture the D&aD formula with varying degrees of success, but this Intellivision gem practically nailed it. A fast-paced, easy-to-play adventure, AD&D effectively conveys both the combat and exploration aspects of the original dice-throwing game.

Advanced Dungeons and Dragons - Intellivision - Gameplay Screenshot

Your journey begins on a sprawling map screen complete with mountain ranges, walls, forests, and your final destination: Cloudy Mountain. It looks like something from Lord of the Rings! As you traverse the wilderness you’ll stumble into a series of monster-infested dungeons. These caverns are randomly generated and contain oddly-shaped rooms – something you don’t see in old games. I love how the dungeons “draw in” as you roam, auto-mapping your progress. While searching for key items, you’ll encounter bats, spiders, rats, snakes, blobs, demons, and dragons.

[youtube]http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SRtwlc_WJNM[/youtube]

It’s a shame these creatures are all really, really tiny. The demons resemble aliens (complete with antennae) and I mistook the dragons were bears! Another problem is how you can’t see an approaching monster until the thing’s practically on top of you. Be sure to listen for sound cues that signal when danger is near. You can shoot a limited supply of arrows, and it’s great how they actually ricochet off the walls! You’ll want to take advantage of this technique in winding hallways – just be sure the arrows don’t bounce back at you! AD&D’s controls are responsive, and you can even run one way while shooting another. Five difficulty levels are included, and even the easiest is no cakewalk. If one element of the original game is missing, it would be the complexity. There are only a few items, no treasure, and no magic. Still, AD&D is a fun, arcade-style quest that will probably surprise a lot of gamers.

The Video Game Critic rates games compared to other titles for the same system. The main criteria is how fun the game is, although control, graphics, and sound are also taken into account. You can view his other articles and review on his main website.

Commercial Wars: War of the Sword and Shield

zelda sword and shield
zelda sword and shield

In the age of World of Warcraft the sword and shield still dominates when it comes to roleplaying. Even when you look at a game like Final Fantasy that takes advantage of both modern technology and magic, the sword and shield are still present in one form or another. From my old pen and paper D&D days to playing games like Neverwinter Nights and Dungeon Siege there is something about those type of games that keeps the fans playing.

As anyone knows there are tons of video games that feature not only the sword and shield, but magic, the bow and arrow and a medieval theme that makes us want to load up Lord of the Rings for a 15-hour marathon session. Let’s take a look at some commercials that try to capture that theme to draw you into the game world and hopefully make a sale.

Crystalis: Nintendo

This is classic adventure production at its finest.  You can breakdown the commercial and see how it was done using the technology they had at the time. First you have the hero which you want to look right as far as the costume and weapons. Second you have a basic forest-like landscape, but you blur the backgrounds to give it some mystery and pipe in some shots of what the hero is after. Then you add the destination in the far distance and a shot of the hero approaching the enemy.

Sure, the monster looks cheesy now, but at the time that was pretty good. The special effects were very nice for the time and overall made for a good commercial.

Zelda: Gameboy Color

This is animated but it is done very well for a short spot starting with the pan around and then into the Gameboy screen with the snow falling into the background leading to a shot of Link rushing in on his horse. Believe me, thirty second spots are hard because you have a little less than that to capture the audience and let them know what you are offering.

In this case you kind of expect people to know of Zelda, but still the challenge is there. You get a scene of what the game deals with. Link is searching for something and there will be challenges along the way. This may be simple compared to what we see today, but it was well put together and executed into a fun to watch commercial.

Golden Axe 2: Japanese

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Short and sweet, what is cooler than a Japanese guy dressed in armor wielding a giant sword? Well, alright, ninja’s and pirates, but still this was pretty cool. Honestly, the costume looks good, the sword looked real and we saw just enough before the in-game video to appreciate it without going overboard.

We get to see some cool shots from the actual game and then boom we have our warrior cleaving us in two with that sword again before the Sega logo.

Dragonfire: Atari 2600


Okay, so he does not have a sword or a shield, but when you have a talking dragon (especially with a voice like his) you have to profile it. Now while I do not understand why a medieval dragon is in some futuristic looking room caressing a game cartridge, I do think it is funny that the prince sneaks in like a thief to snatch it.

Not only does the costume of the dragon look plastic, but even the prince looks like he is wearing the princesses sleep suit. You do have to give them credit for zooming in on the stickman graphic of the game though.

Time for Ale

Alight, so we got a look at a few video game commercials featuring the sword and shield. Now you vote which did it best.

[poll id=”14″]

Free to Play. If You’re Going to Fail, Get Better At Failing.

Everquest 2 F2P lol
Everquest 2 F2P lol

For the past six years, MMORPGs have been failing. Be it because the companies believe releasing beta quality games, far-fetched mechanics, or releasing a game that has the savory indulgence of a stale piece of bread, the genre has seen some gloomy days. World of Warcraft has created a boom for many money hungry companies and jaded developers that think releasing a game in this genre will garner them fame and money. Unfortunately, this hasn’t been the case and nothing has been able to compete at the level that Blizzard is currently at.

Let’s face it. Very few MMORPGs have had amazing launches and it is because of this lack luster grand opening that a lot of people just get turned away. How can these companies salvage their investment? How can they bring in money to a sinking ship? How can they increase their gaming audience?

The answer lies to the Far East. It is in this land of Zerg obsessed gamers and mob-grinding gurus that holds the key to America’s salvation in the MMO Market. Asia has been using a model known to many as Free to Play for a very long time. Players are allowed to download the game from a website and jump right in. Sure, there are some restrictions that hold them back from unlocking the full potential of the game but it is a better option than a 14 day free trial.

“But Umar”, you may find yourself pondering, “I know Asia is known for crazy people but this sounds insane! How do the Crazians make their money?!”

Very simple, Little Billy. Crazian MMO Developers make their money from an in-game market place where players can unlock classes, races, potions, cosmetics, and content for real life money. While not every player’s going to feed cash to companies for a game they play for free, they do garner in more money than $15 a month. Some players are so into power gaming and/or cosmetics that they’ll easily throw down more than $15 a month in purchases via this market place without even thinking it through.

Why adopt this model though? The answer is simply because it seems to actually work.

Turbine’s Dungeons and Dragons Online was far from being considered a true MMORPG by many of today’s standards and it was on the brink of extinction. However, unlike the dodo bird, DnD Online was not ready to leave this world. In one last hurrah, it released a Free to Play model and quickly flourished. The game’s income reportedly jumped by double and it felt a chance to thrive. Life began to ebb back into this would be abortion and deliver it salvation.

To follow suit, many MMORPGs began to jump onto the bandwagon. Lord of the Rings Online, while not a failure by many aspects, saw a chance to increase its player base with this new subscription model. It held back many features to free players but the market place allowed them to expand further into the world.

Around the same time LOTRO adopted the model, Everquest 2 wet its feet in the F2P world with Everquest 2 Extended, which included 8 classes, 4 races, 80 levels, and 5 expansions for free.

Now, companies like Cryptic, probably persuaded by Atari, are hitting the F2P model to save their abortion known as Champions Online and also the acclaimed Star Trek Online. Some may know my dislike for Cryptic in general and I don’t want to bore anyone with my vendetta but these games were Free to Play quality on release and never should have been Pay to Play, but I digress. They are now hitting the high road and going F2P.

Those seem to be some of the bigger MMOs released in the past couple of years that really need this chance to boost their communities. One MMO that I am waiting to take the dive into this model is Warhammer Online. The game has been a downward spiral since release and while I doubt EA even cares about the game still (they have been systematically dismembering Mythic) a F2P model for WAR might be able to save it from its dying breath.

Sadly, though, some MMORPGs that haven’t even had a year to fix their abominations are already looking to hit the F2P market as well. Yes, I’m talking about Final Fantasy XIV. It has been reported that they are currently seeking a chance to hit into this model to save their plummeting shares and overall consumer backlash.

I know a lot of people have mixed feelings about this model and some find it “greedy” that companies are willing to push out virtual stores but I don’t find a problem with this at all. Most of these games offer a chance to unlock the full game for the standard $15 a month and no one is forcing you to purchase anything from the marketplace to begin with. Most of the items these games offer aren’t game changing and aren’t required to excel in the game so there is no reason for some of the criticism. However, regardless of whether it is a good model or not there will always be people who will complain.

The Free to Play opportunity that has raged through the past two years seems to be giving players many chances to see more of what is out there than WoW. While it is good for companies to regain their money and enlarge their player base, it also gives players a chance to expand their horizons onto what is out there without feeling guilty for dropping 40-50 dollars on a game that could be releasing in beta quality.

How do you feel about the Free to Play model many MMORPG’s seem to be taking? Would you like to see future games continuing with this setup and if not, why?

The Interview: Steve Gray

Steve Gray
Steve Gray

Steve Gray

When you have a gaming resume with names like Electronic Arts, Squaresoft and THQ there is little doubt that you know gaming. Obsolete Gamer was given the opportunity to talk with Steve Gray about his gaming career that started with EA Canada his time at Squaresoft and his work on Parasite eve. From there he created his own studio (Heavy Iron) which he sold to THQ in 1999. From there he returned to EA where he worked on many games including The Two Towers, The Return of the King, The Third Age and Tactics. Currently Steve Gray is the executive in charge of production at Tencent who is China’s largest developer and publisher and operator of online games.

We wanted to get a behind the scenes look at his time in the gaming industry and his many accomplishments from his work in Video FX to building the first Motion Capture Lab at EA Canada.

EA Canada logo
EA Canada logo

Obsolete Gamer: When did you know you would want to work in the video game industry?

Steve Gray: I originally wanted to be a Rock Star (just like Tremmel) and I played the clubs a lot in LA and up and down the California coast.  At that time I also worked in the feature film special effects business.  Which I continued to do until the early 90’s when I was VP Technology at Digital Domain (that’s when we made True Lies, Interview with the Vampire, Apollo 13, …).  When the PS1 came out I decided I really wanted to get into video games instead.

Obsolete Gamer: What was your first exposure to games?

Steve Gray: Asteroids in the arcades.

Obsolete Gamer: What was the first video game that hooked you?

Steve Gray: Asteroids in the arcades!!

Obsolete Gamer: Now before beginning work in the gaming industry you had quite the career in Visual Effects and working in television and movies can you tell us about that time?

Steve Gray: I worked at Robert Abel & Associates when I first moved to LA (to be a Rock Star).  Entry Level Rock Star doesn’t pay very well, actually… not at all.  RA&A worked on Tron, Star Trek 1, and a ton of really cool CG TV commercials.  Also with Omnibus and Digital Pictures we were really the first big CG effects house.  It was a great place to work, everyone was really young and crazy… we worked super hard, partied super hard.  It was a good time… late 80’s in LA was a fun time and place.  Guns and Roses was playing the clubs, the Sunset Strip was rockin’.  Then I went on to work at Rhythm & Hues as head of the Software department.  We wrote all our own CG tools then, because there really weren’t any commercially available packages yet.  I mostly wrote partical systems and rendering code, along with managing the team.  After R&H I moved over to Digital Domain, which was a lot of crazy house.  But we worked on really great movies… and working with Stan Winston and Jim Cameron was pretty amazing.

Obsolete Gamer: So you began the video game part of your career at Electronic Arts Canada, how did that job come to be?

Steve Gray: Digital Domain wanted to get into the video games business… so me and Chris McKibbin (then CFO of DD – different Chris than Chris Tremmel) went around to all the big game companies in the US and Japan trying to get someone to do a project with us… no one really wanted to do that because they (rightly) said we had no idea what we were doing.  Don Mattrick offered me and McKibbin both jobs at EAC.  So we thought about that and both took his offer.

Obsolete Gamer: What was it like working at EA Canada?

Steve Gray: It was really interesting. I learned a lot there.  A lot of really talented guys.  But unfortunately I discovered that making sports games wasn’t really my thing.

Obsolete Gamer: What did you think of the changing in video game technology at the time with the PlayStation One and the use of full motion video in games?

Steve Gray: We all though FMVs in games were super cool.  And actually I eventually built a game at my own company Heavy Iron that used FMV backgrounds in a “Resident Evil” type of game… except our backgrounds were pre-rendered videos instead of pre-rendered stills.  But that was on PS2.  It was the first Evil Dead game that THQ released.  But fundamentally I now think that FMVs kind of suck.  Or at least over use of FMVs kind of suck.  I like what we did in “Lord of the Rings The Third Age” with the transitions from FMV to In-Game Cinematic to Game Play.  And I’m definitely more of a fan of in-game cinematics now, especially if the player can customize his or her avatar, and that customized avatar shows up in the In-Game Cinematic.  But in general, I’m not a huge fan of linear content in games anymore.  Of course, working at Square we made tons of FMVs… but Square’s console RPGs are almost more of a big movie with some game play bits squeezed in there.   Which I still like.

Obsolete Gamer: What were the day to day activities of running the software tools group at EA Canada?

Steve Gray: Not really that interesting.  Just managed the tools group, tried to make sure that we really built things that were useful for the projects right now… no “ivory tower research” allowed.

Obsolete Gamer: Can you tell us about building the first Motion Capture Lab at EAC?

Steve Gray: In the beginning the EAC guys didn’t believe in it so we had basically no budget and had to rent out the auto-repair stall to use as our capture studio.  The guys in the auto repair shops around us all through we must be shooting porno movies because we brought in all this high-end camera gear… they kept wanting to know when the girls were going to be there.  Unfortunately it was just a bunch of geeky game developers.  Later we got a bigger a much nicer warehouse to work in…

Squaresoft logo
Squaresoft logo

Obsolete Gamer: How did the transition from EAC to Squaresoft take place?

Steve Gray: I knew some Square guys from various places in the past, plus I’ve always been a fan of their games.  When Sakaguchi-san asked me to join the company I couldn’t say yes fast enough.   Some of the other guys at Square invited me to Tokyo to meet Sakaguchi and we were in a private booth overlooking the massive dance club called “Welfare”, he asked me to join square and put out his hand… I shook it and the other Japanese guys asked me “do you know you just signed the deal”, to which I answered “yes”!!

Obsolete Gamer: Do you have a story or memory you’d like to share about your time at EAC?

Steve Gray: I think the day we installed the flying-faders audio mixing board in the sound lab was the best day.  Back then those things were super crazy expensive, and as a musician I’d always wanted to have one to play with.

Obsolete Gamer: What was it like working at Squaresoft?

Steve Gray: Working at Square was the best of times and in some ways the worst of times.  Working with Sakaguchi-san was extremely challenging because his standards are insanely high.  Which is a good thing, but it can be tough.  Also the cultural and language differences between the Japanese and Western teams we not really understood or managed very well.  I’m sure we were one of the first projects to be developed by a “mixed” team.  Of course now this is happening more and more, and people have gotten much better at managing those situations, but we were really on the bleeding edge, so to speak.

Obsolete Gamer: What were some of the challenges in directing Parasite Eve?

Steve Gray: The biggest issues were really finding consensus and understanding between the Japanese crew, many of whom had been at Square for many years and were used to their style of working… which was actually very “agile” though they didn’t call it that.  The Western team was much more into what’s now referred to as Waterfall project management… which we didn’t call it that either.  We didn’t really think about this sort of thing, and didn’t understand the differences, and basically made a big mess.  But the game did quite well when it came out, so that’s great!

Obsolete Gamer: Now the game was a sequel to the book correct?

Steve Gray: The game wasn’t a sequel really, it was based on a Japanese novel.  There is also a Japanese movie based on the same book… with some cool VFX from Toyo Links (Japanese VFX company).

Obsolete Gamer: There are many fans who loved that game, but some felt it did not get the attention it deserved, do you feel that way as well?

Steve Gray: It sold over 2.5 million units world wide I think, and sold something like 1.6 million units in like a week in Japan or something crazy like that.  Not quite Final Fantasy numbers, but pretty good.  I’m happy with it.

Obsolete Gamer: What did you think of Parasite Eve 2?

Steve Gray: I think the graphics and FMVs are probably better… I haven’t really played it all the way through, so I don’t have a lot to say about the game.  I was a little bitter with the way things ended up at Square, so I cop’ed an attitude and only played it a bit.

Obsolete Gamer: There were rumors of making a Parasite Eve 3 but it did not happen would you want to see a part 3 made?

Steve Gray: Only if I make it!!!  I don’t know.  Don’t really care.  I don’t think the franchise really took off enough to warrent a whole long series of games.

Parasite Eve box
Parasite Eve box

Obsolete Gamer: You also contributed to Final Fantasy 7 while at Square, can you tell us about that?

Steve Gray: Mostly I just helped another team at Square LA work on some maps.   Square LA did a bunch of maps for FF VII.  I don’t remember how many or what percentage of the total maps were done there.

Obsolete Gamer: Do you have a story or memory you’d like to share about your time at Square?

Steve Gray: Ha.  The stories I have to share involve other Square employees, cute Japanese girls at various locations in Tokyo at night.  They are not fit for public consumption… so I’ll let you guys imagine some of the trouble we got into.

Obsolete Gamer: What made you want to open your own game development company?

Steve Gray: After we finished PE1 at Square, a core group of us thought we were super badass game developers and that publishing companies would fall over themselves to give us projects and money.  That was not entirely true.  We worked on a bunch of games that never saw the light of day, and then finally landed the gig with THQ building Evil Dead 1.

Obsolete Gamer: Can you tell us about Heavy Iron Studios?

Steve Gray: It was originally called Chemistry Entertainment.  For a while we partnered with the Canadian VFX Company called Rainmaker.  Heavy Iron didn’t really 100% work out as we hoped.  But a bunch of really great people worked there, many of whom have gone on to successful careers in the game industry… for example my partner Marcel Samek went on to be CTO at EALA for many years.  Shiraz Akmal ran the central outsourcing group at THQ… Matt Coohill continued to work at Heavy Iron for a long time, and is now up in Seattle at Microsoft working cool stuff there.  And many others…

Obsolete Gamer: How did it differ from running your own company than working at EAC and SS?

Steve Gray: We had no money.  I didn’t really like running my own company that much… I thought it would give me the freedom to work on the kinds of projects I really like.  But instead I got to be an administrator and was always managing cash flow and trying to make payroll.  Not cool.

Obsolete Gamer: When did you make the decision to sell to THQ?

Steve Gray: When we were starting on Evil Dead 1, it was going to be one of the biggest projects THQ had ever done… and they really wanted to have us be part of THQ so that they would be building equity in the team.  And honestly, Marcel and I were a bit tired of managing the company instead of making games, so we decided to join THQ.  Of course, we also got paid some money (stock).  When I left THQ, their stock was at an all-time high… this was a good thing.

Obsolete Gamer: Do you have a story or memory you’d like to share about your time with Heavy Iron Studios?

Steve Gray: When we were finalizing Evil Dead, I was basically living at the office.  We had a group of THQ QA guys in the first floor, and they would find bugs, we’d fix them… I’d burn new test disks… they bang away at them.  It was a crazy project.  But then many things I’ve worked on have been crazy and hard… but that’s what makes it fun.

Obsolete Gamer: Then it was a return to EA what was that like?

Steve Gray: I came back to EA to join my original Digital Domain friend, Chris McKibbin, to help run what was called the “Worlds Channel” in EA.com.  We were all the entertainment products, meaning all the MMOs.  I guess younger readers may not know about EA.com – EA.com was EA’s first big jump into online games, and think we were a bit ahead of the times… EA.com didn’t work out, and got closed down, and many of the people merged back into the other EA Studios.  That was pretty rough because many people were also laid off, and as one of the senior guys there it fell to me to do a lot of layoffs.  But it’s lame to feel bad for yourself in that situation because it’s 100x worse for the people getting laid off.

Obsolete Gamer: Can you tell us about the development process with creating the Lord of the Rings games?

Steve Gray: We kicked some serious ass on Lord of the Rings.  First out at Stormfront, then internally at EA Redwood Shores.  Those were great games, beautiful games, built on very tight schedules under difficult circumstances and they were really good.  I credit my time and Square and my experiences working with Sakaguchi for my ability to really focus on quality… and of course, Neil Young was a great EP on the first two, I learned a lot working with him as well.  I have very happy memories of that time… though I did get diss’ed pretty hard in the infamous “EA Wife” blog.  I think our FMV->game play transition stuff which I mentioned earlier was a first for the industry, and we really set the standard for quality in movie games… a standard that has rarely been met since, in my opinion.

Heavy Iron logo
Heavy Iron logo

Obsolete Gamer: How did your experience with EAC, Square and owning Heavy Iron Studios factor into your return to EA and working on those games?

Steve Gray: I really credit Sakaguchi-san for helping me understand how to build great games.  I have to say that at the time, when I was at Square, I didn’t really agree 100% with how he wanted to do things… but in the following years I came to really appreciate how his approach to game development is able to consistently create such high quality product.  Now I’ve rarely (never) had the freedom he has as a developer, but his ideas fit into development even if you have to pay more attention to the schedule.  Heavy Iron gave me a lot of respect for how hard it is to run a business… and at EA I learned a lot about why publishers work the way they do, and why publishers make what seem to the developers like evil and unwarranted decisions.  That changed my understanding of the game business a lot.

Obsolete Gamer: Can you tell us about your work on Neverwinter Nights 2?

Steve Gray: This is a mistake in some profiles on me… I never worked on Neverwinter Nights 2.

Obsolete Gamer: With all your time in the gaming industry which prior of your career did you enjoy the most?

Steve Gray: I really really enjoyed working on the Lord of the Rings games.  The team was so fantastic.  Everyone was great to work with and super talented.  We may have had our struggles and moments of anger with each other, but I wouldn’t trade that time with those people for anything.  I am also really enjoying working at Tencent…

Tencent logo
Tencent logo

Obsolete Gamer: Can you tell us about what you are working on currently?

Steve Gray: I am currently Executive in Charge of Prodution at Tencent in China.  Tencent is China’s largest developer, publisher and operator of on-line games, we have a huge IM client (over 1 billion accounts), we run China’s largest portals, etc…  I work with all of our Studios, of which we have 9… with about 3500 employees across all of them.  But there are some projects I’m particularly focused on.

Unfortunately I can’t really tell you about them, because most are unannounced.  However one I can mention is NBA 2K Online, which is a co-development project with 2K Sports in the US.  It’s a bit weird because I didn’t really like working on Sports games at EAC… but this is really more of a Sports RPG or something like that.  It’s really cool… it’s going to be a monster hit here in China.  Working with Visual Concepts (the 2K Games Studio that builds NBA2K) is really great, working with 2K China is great… our team in Shanghai is great.

It’s really fun.  It’s amazing how Tencent builds online games and how big we are (we have 4 games that have more than 1 million people playing simultaneously every day).  We get to work so closely with our customers… in a way you can never do on a console game.  Also the scale we operate at is just stunning… QQ IM (our IM client) routinely has over 100,000,000 people logged into it every day.  Yes – that’s the right number of zeros… 100,000,000.

Obsolete Gamer: With all that you do you must have little free time, but when you do if you play any games what are they?

Steve Gray: I rarely play any games other than the games I’m working on, or directly competing product… which I can’t say what they are, because that would be a dead giveaway of what we’re building.  I don’t really play games for “fun” in my free time… well, what free time, for one thing.  But I have a lot of fun playing the games I’m building or those few other games I play to understand what the competition is up to.

Turbine announces Free to Play for Lord of the Rings Online

LOTRO Witch King logo

Could we be seeing a new devide in MMO’s between the monthly subscription side and the Free-to-Play À la carte side? Guild Wars is one of the more known free to play MMO’s and then there are a ton of À la carte MMO’s where you pay for additional services. Today Turbine announced that Lord of the Rings Online would become free to play following a similar pricing model to another MMO, Dungeons and Dragons Online. How free to play would work in this case is you are able to download and play the game for free, but expansion packs, addtional questions and VIP services would all cost extra.

Here is the official announcement and details.

BURBANK, CA – June 3, 2010– Warner Bros. Interactive Entertainment announced today that Turbine, Inc. will unveil a major update this fall, making The Lord of the Rings Online™ (LOTRO) free-to-play for everyone. Extending its award-winning story, LOTRO delivers the ultimate adventure featuring a massive world with state-of-the-art graphics and gameplay, and a rich set of features that until now could only be found in premium subscription-based online games. Launching this fall across North America and Europe, with Codemasters operating the game free-to-play in Europe, LOTRO will introduce Turbine’s innovative new pricing model that allows players to download the game and play for free, purchase expansions, quest packs, items, and account services a la carte from the new LOTRO Store, or join the VIP program to get unlimited access to all of the game’s content for one low price. Players interested in getting a sneak peek of the new LOTRO can sign up for a chance to participate in the Beta program which begins June 16, 2010 at http://www.lotro.com. “Warner Bros. Interactive Entertainment is bringing quality games based on The Lord of the Rings to multiple platforms, and the franchise’s expansive adventure story lends itself perfectly for LOTRO free-to-play, giving a wide range of players the opportunity to experience the game,” said Jeff Junge, Senior Vice President Online Games and Digital Games Platforms, Warner Bros. Digital Distribution and Warner Bros. Interactive Entertainment. “We are focused on expanding our game franchises onto new digital platforms to maximize quality experiences for gamers worldwide and LOTRO’s new model is a great leading example of this.” “Turbine’s Dungeons and Dragons Online®: Eberron Unlimited™ was the world’s first truly premium free-to-play online game that ushered in a new era of choice for online gamers seeking quality entertainment,” said Jim Crowley, President and CEO of Turbine. “The popularity of DDO validated the extraordinary demand by gamers for quality entertainment they can experience at their own pace and within their budget. Extending free-to-play to LOTRO will offer another premium game to a broad spectrum of fans.” “Having successfully taken two titles free-to-play in the past we are very pleased to be doing the same with The Lord of the Rings Online in Europe,” said David Solari, Vice President and General Manager of Codemasters Online. “It’s a fantastic, award-winning game with a wonderfully realized world and this step will only broaden its appeal and increase its player base.” LOTRO will offer players unlimited choice! Free means Free! – Players will download LOTRO by visiting www.lotro.com/ and join with millions of other adventurers as they explore the most complete and authentic recreation of Middle-earth ever created and participate in LOTRO’s award-winning epic story up to level 50 for free. Visit the new LOTRO Store! — The LOTRO Store is loaded with thousands of convenience items as well as expansion packs, premium content, additional character slots, potions, character customization and more! The LOTRO Store is seamlessly integrated into the game and lets the player identify new and exciting ways to enhance and customize their experience using points which can be purchased in the store or earned through gameplay. Be a LOTRO VIP! – Players who elect to become a LOTRO VIP will have unlimited access to all premium content, receive priority server access, 5 character slots, a shared bank slot, and a monthly allotment of points to spend in the new LOTRO Store.

You can learn more and sign up for the Beta here.