Ingmar: And once more a question about your development memories: this time about John Saul’s Blackstone Chronicles. Yet another genre and a much more jarring experience. Why horror?
Bob: By the mid-1980s, Legend received an investment from Random House, and the main group we interacted with there were the people at Del Rey books. We made a conscious effort to start working with their authors, and that is what led to our developing a game with Terry Brooks (Shannara), and with John Saul (John Saul’s Blackstone Chronicles).
Blackstone was a fascinating project because I was writing the game at the same time that John was writing the book series. Stephen King had just come out with The Green Mile, which was one of the first modern attempts at a serial novel, with an installment coming out each month. The plan was the same for Blackstone.
One of the first problems to solve was one of “turf.” We each needed to be free to create within this world, yet we couldn’t afford to step on each other’s toes. We decided that John’s book would come first (chronologically speaking), and my game would take place later in time, and largely deal with the ghosts of the characters that appeared in the book (not surprisingly, given John’s modus operandi, most of his characters ended up dead. [grin])
Once that was settled, I had to face the problems of writing a game that could actually scare people. I didn’t want the game to have the form of being frightening, where the players would go, “Oh, a ghost. I know that’s something my character would probably be afraid of.” Instead, I wanted to reach through the computer screen and grab the player by the throat and really frighten them.
I went about this in a few different ways. The first was to do extensive research on the truly frightening “cures” that were still being used in the 1950s to treat mental illness. These include lobotomies performed by going through the eye socket to cut out brain tissues; injecting people with malaria (the resulting fever was supposed to kill the disease-causing agents in the brain); ice baths that would allegedly help the patient understand where his body ended and his environment began; jet streams of water directed at naked patients (same theory as ice baths); inducing insulin comas, thought to “re-wire” the brain; inducing epileptic seizures, under the mistaken theory that seizures and schizophrenia could not exist together; and of course Electro-Convulsive Therapy.
The next step was to remove our psychological distance from these past horrors by presenting them in the voices of the patients as they were undergoing the treatments. I used diaries and contemporaneous accounts to make this as accurate as I could, and our voice actors brought these dead characters very much to life so the player heard their ghostly voices as he moved around the now-abandoned asylum.
Finally, I made sure that the player knew that the line between being inside and outside was very thin. Then (and in some cases still now), a person could be involuntarily committed to an asylum, and once inside, he or she would lose all their rights. It was actually a common practice for families to commit pregnant teenage girls to the asylum.
When you put all this together, Blackstone became truly terrifying. People realized as they played it that this could still happen to them. The game still pops up on lists as one of the scariest games of all time.
Ingmar: You have worked on pretty much every story genre: historical adventure, mystery, sci-fi, comedy, horror… was it a conscious decision to explore all these genres, or was it coincidence? If you had to revisit one genre for an adventure, which would it be?
Bob: It was definitely not a conscious decision or plan. There are lots of things that are interesting to me, and mostly I just did whatever seemed like it could come next.
When (not if) I come back to do another adventure game, it’s most likely to be a comedy.
Ingmar: Please talk about the last days of Legend now. What developments led to that stage from your point of view and how did you feel about all of this back in the day?
Bob: Adventure games as a commercial genre started to die in the 1990s, mostly strangled by rising costs of graphical production (but also by a “poisoning of the well” created by bad puzzles in some games). As that happened, we started to look around for other genres. As I have mentioned, most of the people in the company were still very young, and many were avid (and accomplished) players of First Person Shooters. One of those guys, Glen Dahlgren (co-designer of Gateway II and sole designer of Death Gate) got in touch with Tim Sweeney, who lived not too far away and who was in the early stages of working on what would eventually become the Unreal Engine. Glen impressed Tim with his vision, we acquired the license to do a game in Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time world, and Glen went on to assemble a very talented team to build the game.
At about the same time, Random House decided to exit the game space, leaving us looking for another investment partner. We ended up being acquired by GT Interactive, which was then acquired by Infogrames, which later changed its name to Atari.
So Mike Verdu and I had become executives of this international company, and I think I can speak for him when I say that neither of us was wild about it. Mike decided to leave and since then he has moved from strength to strength, leading the Command & Conquer and Battle for Middle Earth teams for Electronic Arts (where he eventually was GM of the LA studio), then moving to Zynga to be Senior Vice-President and eventually co-President of games, then starting his own company called TapZen, and most recently joining Kabam as their President of Studios and CCO.
I stayed on at Legend and ran the studio through the release of Unreal2 and lastly Unreal2 XMP. In our final year, we kept pitching games to Atari, but couldn’t find anything that matched their shifting corporate strategies and they finally shut us down in January of 2004. Most of our people immediately found jobs across the industry (many of them taking a step up in the process!) but I decided to take a different path and become an independent designer, writer and producer, which is what I still do today.
Ingmar: In late 2010 you joined Zynga and stayed until 2014. In what ways did that experience differ from your previous jobs?
Bob: It was actually very similar to my role as a consultant. As the Chief Creative Officer for External Studios, I worked with teams in different cities to help them develop their games. I traveled a lot because the company had studios in Boston, New York, Hunt Valley, Austin, Dallas, San Diego, Los Angeles, and Seattle. So I was still based out of my house, and I was still working with different teams to fulfil their vision.
It was a time of great promise for social games, and we had a great group of designers including Mark Turmell (NBA Jam), Chris Trottier (The Sims), Brian Reynolds (Civilization), Bruce Shelley (Age of Empires), the Bettner brothers (Words With Friends), Paul Neurath (Ultima Underworld), Bill Jackson (Halo Wars), Christy Marx (Conquests of Camelot), Frank Lantz (Pac-Manhattan), Brian Tinsman (Magic: Shards of Alara), and Cara Ely (Dream Day Games), not to mention Mike Verdu himself.
We got some great games out of that group, some of which were very successful, and some of which were not. But it was very exciting to work with them, especially at a time when we were all trying to figure out what this new thing called social gaming was all about.
I did get the opportunity to “go deep” on the development of three games at Zynga. The first was FrontierVille, which was very successful and a lot of fun. The second was Empires and Allies for which I commuted weekly to Los Angeles for six months. It, too, was very successful, becoming the #2 game on Facebook. The third was Mafia Wars 2, which was a flaming disaster and was shut down within three months of being launched!
I also designed two completely original games for Zynga, neither of which ever saw the light of day. Such is the life of a game designer.Continued on the next page...