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Moving Forward

Lost in Translation

Well, it was all pretty convoluted,” Dave says, a little sadly. “To start with, we had a project manager we’d hired who led a sort of coup! We turned up one day and he told us, ‘The team has decided not to do a fantasy role-playing game. It’s going to be about giant battling robots now.’

As well as problems with the team as a whole, Dave and Jamie had organisational problems of their own from working on a number of different projects – Deathtrap Dungeon and Warrior Kings, as well as the Abraxas MMO. Ambition was unrestrained and their plans didn’t always line up nicely with the reality of what was feasible – the longer development went on, the more compromises were made.

My usual approach is, ‘Let’s bypass the moon and go straight for Mars,’” Dave admits. “So, after tinkering about with extremely ambitious concepts for months, Jamie quite rightly argued that we should move more towards a kind of 3D Diablo for starters, maybe even as a solo RPG to get the brand established.

The role of team members was hazy too, which can’t have helped. Asking Dave exactly what he and Jamie were responsible for on the project suggests a lot of authority overlap between Lead Designer Dave, Project Lead Jamie and the rogue managers beneath them.

I should have fired that bastard lead designer when I had the chance,” Jamie says, jokingly, I think.

Fabled Lands: The MMO that Never Was Moving Forward
Leaving Eidos, Dave and Jamie salvaged one game, which they released as the award-winning Warrior Kings

The change of pace and style that came with a shift from gamebooks to computer games wasn’t easy either. Eidos was now in a shaky financial situation and standards were starting to slip – a slide which reached its nadir with Angel of Darkness in 2003 and which, financially at least, has only really looked like stopping with the recent buyout.

[The development process was] utterly broken,” Dave says. “Many games in the late 90s were being developed without a design. There was no real software process, and rarely much of a plan beyond, ‘The game will be ready when it’s ready.’ It wasn’t solely the teams’ fault, the milestones they were being given were often dictated by people who wanted to see eye candy rather than real under-the-hood progress.

Jamie is less happy when he looks back, saying that attempts to overhaul were met with failure and that it would have been best to start from scratch. Either way, their bosses had only been lukewarm to the MMO idea initially and now that resources were dwindling for Eidos the situation reached crisis point.

Eidos just ran out of money and their internal development model just wasn’t working,” Jamie says flatly. “They got one game out – Deathtrap Dungeon – and then we left to start Black Cactus, taking Warrior King and some troops with us, but then went bust in the end. The French publisher went down owing us a lot of gold pieces.

Fabled Lands: The MMO that Never Was Moving Forward Fabled Lands: The MMO that Never Was Moving Forward
An iPhone and iPad version of the Fabled Lands books is set for release this Summer

There's a touch of bitterness here, with Dave describing the early 2000s as a "crapshoot" for indie studios unless you had a big franchise, but overall Dave and Jamie seem hopeful. They certainly haven't slowed in their attempts to grow the series, with an iPhone port of the books due for release this Summer, not to mention the extensive list of other gamebooks the pair plan to port to the iPad – more than 30 titles. There's talk of new projects in the e-book realm too - interactive fiction for new markets and more beyond that too.

We’ll be reviving Fabled Lands and Abraxas, hopefully,” says Jamie. “We’ve just raised a six-figure sum and we’re actively looking for the right partner. Frankly, most publishers have been slow to recognize the potential of e-books; that they can be much more than an old-fashioned book on a glowing screen. We understand both.

It’s impossible not to slip into retrospective vision though and, as I ask what the duo learned from Fabled Lands, Jamie makes sure he has the last word.

I wish we’d got into computer games a lot earlier and that we’d done the Fabled Lands books at the apogee of the gamebook craze. We’d be some kind of Final Fantasy franchise by now if we had.