Welcome. Hope each of you is doing well.
As always, ‘thank you’ to everyone who wrote, especially those with positive sentiments. If you have any questions or comments, regarding Fanstratics (FST) or Heroes of Might and Magic 3 (HoMM3), feel free to send them along, and I’ll try to answer them in future newsletters (firstname.lastname@example.org). Please keep in mind, it may take at least 1 month before I reply (it’s taking longer-and-longer as production continues).
Until next time.
Fanstratics Game Director & Designer
Fanstratics Troop: Cyclops Siege Breaker.
Truly the anchor of Chimeran army power, the mighty Cyclops Siege Breaker has the ability to throw large boulders the length of any Battlefield. This makes them a powerful ranged Troop, and better than any Catapult when it comes to destroying Enemy Siege Walls.
Over time, the Cyclops as a mythological creature, has gone from a one-eyed giant to a one-eyed monster. In popular culture this is due mostly to Ray Harryhausen and his work on the movie The 7th Voyage of Sinbad. As I have mentioned in previous interviews, it is often better to embrace a stereotype, than attempt to redefine it. With lesser, relatively unknown Troops, such as the Gatorkin Castor, you have a lot of room to play around with the conceptualization, and this is arguably easier than working within popular known constraints. With a Cyclops, people have a general idea as to their appearance. Working against these notions can often be counterproductive. So, when it came to the Cyclops Siege Breaker, I pointed Justin toward the Ray Harryhausen Cyclops and reiterated the Fanstratics mantra, “Something different, but familiar.”
Some FST Troops are ‘more Justin’ than others, and this one, with the possible exception of the Medusa Vanguard, is definitely ‘more Justin’. Another gem. For those of you who want to see Justin actually create the drawing, you can always watch a VOD of his Twitch stream.
Fanstratics Feature: Quality of Life, HD+, and HotA Efficiencies.
Games have come a long way since 1999, and while they are not necessarily easer... they are friendlier. To this end, Fanstratics will be modern in its approach to player/program interactions. This mean incorporating Quality of Life, HD+, and HotA Efficiencies. For example...
- Using the mouse wheel.
- Replacing ‘right click’ with verbose tooltips.
- True ‘drag-and-drop’ functionality in place of ‘click to select, then click to move’.
- Eliminating confirmation windows with disappearing pop-ups (where it makes sense).
- Displaying Troop Division sizes both verbally and numerically.
- Seeing a Hero’s Excursion (movement) represented numerically.
- Easy Troop Division splitting/merging.
- Hero ‘costumes’.
- Ability to replay Battlefield Combat as desired (solo games).
- Simultaneous Turns for Multiplayer games (in one form or another).
- Spell Research or something similar.
Bottom line... I’m not ignoring HoMM3 in its current state. If I find a mod feature to be compelling, I’d be foolish to ignore it.
Fanstratics News: Art Mock-up... and COVID (again).
At the start of November, I began preliminary work with a couple of artists to produce an ‘artistic mock-up’ of the Fanstratics Adventure Map. For those who don’t know, an art ‘mock-up’ is an art test. Overall, the goal is to assemble a small collection of art assets, in the game engine, to prove or disprove basic assumptions about how the game will look. For Fanstratics, this is especially important, as we are attempting to utilize a forced perspective to replicate the HoMM3 look across three different environments: Adventure Map, Townscape, and Battlefield.
About a week after we started, the artists realized they had been too optimistic in their work assessment, and were unable to take on the extra duties. A few days after they left the project, as I was about to reach out to other artists... I began to feel ill. Yep... COVID... again. While the symptoms haven’t been as severe as last year, they are eerily familiar. As of this writing, I am entering week three, and my productivity has suffered.
Because of this setback, the ‘art mock-up’ I had planned for January 1st... has been delayed. At this point, my goal is to share the work sometime in the first quarter of next year (fingers crossed). Assuming we can nail it down, we will then move onto the Townscape and Battlefield. Once all three environments are complete, with some degree of program functionality, we can begin thinking about ‘next steps’.
Fanstratics Fan Question: New creature designs look great and promising: carnivorous and alien medusa, wild and width mammoth bone crusher, hellish worm. But what about gator-caster? This unit looks weird. It’s not like anthropomorphic alligator can’t be caster, but this guy looks like brute, who ate wizard and took his stuff. Stereotypical wizard hat and tiny, well-crafted staff looks especially confusing. Is there any chance you will change this creature? Is there any chance you will redesign any other creatures? I know the common answer is ‘yes’, but I also know that developers really don't like such things.
There is always a possibility a Troop will undergo redesign or modification. This approach is not limited to art. If anything is not working as expected, it is typically modified or removed (assuming we have the time and budget to do the additional work).
As for the Gatorkin Castor, I was specifically going ‘against type’. Every once in a while, it is good to do something unexpected, as making ‘everything’ stereotypical can be uninspired and boring. In fact, there are other unrevealed Troops which go also ‘against type’. So, I strongly doubt the Gatorkin Castor will be changed, as it is part of a ‘pair’.
HoMM3 Recollection: Half-Life: Day One.
It was early November 1998, when Mark Caldwell popped into my office. Without a word, and a smirk on his face, he whipped out a CD held in a square white envelope. I took it from his hand. Looking through the transparent plastic peekaboo window, I saw the orange CD label... Half-Life: Day One.
Mark, “I know you like shooters and thought of you. I think it’s a demo.”
Prior to New World Computing (NWC), I had worked at Activision and DreamWorks Interactive (DWI). At these two stops, gaming after work hours was a big deal, as it was the only way to play networked games via LAN: Doom, Duke Nukem, Descent, Command & Conquer, Warcraft 2, Quake Deathmatch, Quake Capture The Flag, and Quake Team Fortress. These unofficial, after hours LAN parties, typically involved a significant number of office employees. In my first few weeks of employment at NWC, I quickly learned... NWC was different.
While there were occasional games of Starcraft and Ultima Online, I was one of the few employees who consistently played FPS games. More often than not, I ended up on my own, going outside of the company, to play high-ping games on public servers via QuakeWorld.
Prior to its release on November 19th, 1998, Valve bundled a demo of Half-Life with a variety of sound and video cards. This demo was called Half-Life: Day One.
Me, “Where’d you get this?”
Mark, “It came with the system I’m setting up in the meeting room. It’s got a 3Dfx card.”
Most people have forgotten... but Quake, Unreal, and Half-Life did not require a 3D card. First person shooters were originally played in software, and a 3D card was considered a luxurious addon. At the time, both my home and work systems did not have a 3D card.
Me, “Can I play this on the meeting room computer?”
Mark, “After I get it cleaned up.”
Mark, “Try tomorrow.”
Mark darted out of my office, leaving me there... sitting... holding the CD in my hand.
I had no intention of waiting a full day to play the demo.
Technically, at this stage of HoMM3’s development, the team was ‘crunching’. We had been staying late for several weeks, and Monday through Friday, I would come to work around 9:00 AM in the morning, and leave somewhere between 6:00 PM and 8:00 PM. This night, however, after I ate dinner in the break room, I went back to my office, with the intention of playing Half-Life: Day One.
While there was a considerable amount of hype surrounding Half-Life, especially after E3, I honestly didn’t know much about it. I’d seen screenshots depicting soldiers, security personnel, and aliens, but hadn’t bothered to read any in-depth articles. What more did I need to know? It was an FPS, and I was thirsty to play any new shooter.
After installing the demo to my hard drive, I started the game, and looked over the available options. ‘Hazard Course’ seemed like the logical thing to do, so I started there.
It was... well... unusual.
Characters spoke and interacted with me. I practiced various skills and was taught to use different tools. In the end... ‘shooting’ was only a small part of the experience.
Somewhat perplexed, I started a New Game. Left-hand... WASD. Right-hand... three-button mouse. I was ready for action.
“Good morning and welcome to the Black Mesa Transit System.”
For the next 5 minutes, I was trapped in a moving monorail car, while different story elements were communicated through various sounds and visuals. This was unlike any FPS I had ever played. For roughly the next hour... I pressed forward... and was thoroughly absorbed. When I was finished, I wanted to play more... but it was over.
I collected my things and departed from my office. By this time, most of the office lights were off, and NWC was relatively empty. As I passed his office, I waved goodnight to Jon Van Caneghem, who sat at this desk, either playing a game or browsing the web.
In my 30-to-60-minute drive to my apartment (depending on traffic), I thought about Half-Life: Day One. It was quite literally... a game changer. It’s wasn’t a first-person shooter, but a first-person action adventure. It had more in common with the Legend of Zelda than Doom, Quake, or Unreal.
Friday was the next workday. While we were still ‘crunching’, there was no expectation of coming in on Saturday. Where people stayed late the day before, today you could expect people to not eat late at work, but instead... go home for their dinner. When 5:00 PM rolled around, about an hour before dinner, I grabbed the Half-Life: Day One CD.
Just beyond the NWC Reception Area, near the front of the office, was the large and relatively central Meeting Room. Two of its four walls were composed of floor-to-ceiling windows, and anyone who walked the halls could easily see what was happening inside. In the middle of the room rested a long table with 8 to 10 accompanying chairs, with more positioned up against the perimeter glass walls. Opposite the glass walls, were two opaque walls, and up against the one of these walls... was a desk.
On the side of this desk, on the floor, was the new Meeting Room computer Mark had set up the previous day. It was a full tower PC, with a basic keyboard and mouse, five surround sound speakers, and a ‘humongous’ 21-inch monitor (versus my 17 inch monitor). Its purpose was to showcase NWC games to potential visitors, and while it didn’t look like much on the outside, it was the most powerful computer in the office.
Walking into the Meeting Room, I closed the door behind me, grabbed a chair, and sat down in front of the Meeting Room desk. I installed Half-Life: Day One, and when it was finished, I skipped the Hazard Course, and jumped right into a New Game. For the second time in two days, I progressed through the demo. With surround sound and silky-smooth frame rates, at a high resolution 640x480, my enjoyment was refreshed. Once again, I was... absorbed.
About 45 minutes into the demo, I arrived at the Office Complex. During a hostile encounter, an NPC stepped into my line of fire, got shot, and killed. A second NPC immediately barked at me, telling me to ‘leave him alone’. As I was in the middle of a fire fight, I instinctively wheeled about and shot the second NPC, in the face, with my shotgun.
To my surprise, a cascade of laughter erupted behind me. Startled, I turned and looked over my shoulder.
Behind me, between 15 to 20 NWC employees had quietly snuck into in the Meeting Room: Mark Caldwell, John Bolton, Gus Smedstad, Jennifer Bullard, Marcus Pregent, and a collection of other testers and artists.
Either standing along the glass walls, or sitting in the chairs around the Meeting Table, each had taken up an ‘audience’ position to watch me play through this new and fascinating game. My entertainment had become their entertainment, and I was completely unaware of their presence. As I was now aware I was being observed, Mark couldn’t help but reenact the absurd incident with a laugh.
Mark, “Hey! Leave him alone! Blam!”
Caught off guard, and embarrassed by my lack of situational awareness, I had lost track of time.
I addressed Mark, “What time is it?”
Mark pointed to the clock on the wall, just above me, which I had clearly missed.
Mark, “Almost six.”
I ‘escaped’ to the Main Menu, and stood up from my chair.
Turning the people in the room, I said, “Sorry, but I gotta go. Does anyone want to continue my game?”
People slowly turned to leave, quietly shaking their heads ‘no’. Work was over, people wanted to get home, and no one wanted to be the center of attention.
After quickly gathering my things from my office, I got in my car, and made a trip from Agoura Hills to Van Nuys. It was Friday night... and I wasn’t finished gaming.
During my time living and working in Los Angeles, one of the people I met, and became friends with, was Dustin Browder. Both Dustin and I had worked at Activision. Where my project, a reinvention of Planetfall, had been cancelled, Dustin had managed to design MechWarrior 2: Mercenaries and Heavy Gear.
In the year prior to Heavy Gear landing on retail shelves, Activision had experienced a great deal of success publishing games from ‘outside’ developers (Hexen 2, Quake 2, etc.). Eventually, someone decided they could replicate this more cost-effective success by pushing all the ‘internal’ development teams ‘out of house’. Only one politically connected team survived the subsequent ‘internal purge’.
During his unemployment, almost every Friday night, I would make the trip from NWC, in Agoura Hills, to Van Nuys, to Dustin’s apartment. After eating dinner with Dustin and his wife, she would retreat to her office to work on her PhD, while Dustin and I would occupy his office. There, we would game until the sun came up.
On this particular occasion, when I rang the doorbell, I was arriving late, with KFC in one hand, and Half-Life: Day One in the other.
Dustin’s wife opened the front door, welcomed me inside, and pointed upstairs, “He’s already started. Go on up.”
Entering Dustin’s office, I took a seat in a chair behind him and his desk.
Dustin turned to me, “Hey, man. What we playing tonight?”
Me, “I’m thinking Starcraft. But while I eat, I thought you could play this.”
I gave to Dustin, the Half-Life: Day One CD.
Dustin pulled the CD from the square sleeve, “Is this the full game?”
Me, “No. It’s a demo. Came bundled with a new computer from work.”
He looked it over and shrugged.
As I pulled potato wedges and a chicken sandwich from my KFC paper bag, Dustin installed Half-Life: Day One onto his system. After starting and completing the Hazard Course, Dustin spent the next hour playing through the demo. I watched him play. How quickly would he solve the different puzzles? How would he react to various in-game moments? Would he find the demo as enthralling as myself?
When he had finished, Dustin quietly exhaled, ejected the CD, turned around, and handed it back to me.
Impressed with the experience, Dustin squinted in my direction, “Wow.”
I nodded in agreement, “Yeah.”
For the next 30 minutes, Dustin and I discussed the game, but truthfully... there wasn’t much to say. This demo of Half-Life was something special, and we both knew it.
Looking back, the 1990’s were arguably a golden age for PC gaming. On the hardware front, there were VGA Cards, Sound Blaster cards, and 3D Cards. On the software front, there was 3D gaming, LAN gaming, internet access, and ultimately... internet gaming. Almost every month, it felt like a classic PC game was being released, and the choices were wildly varied: FPS vs RPG vs TBS vs RTS vs ADV vs SIM.
New developers in the PC ecosystem were experimenting with new technologies and new gameplay, and while it wasn’t expressly stated... you could feel the excitement. On one hand... it was exhilarating. On the other hand... it was terrifying.
While Half-Life: Day One only scratched the surface of the medium’s true potential, it put a spotlight on the growing irrelevance of older developers like Bullfrog, Interplay, LucasArts, Maxis, Microprose, Origin, Sierra, Sir-Tech, Westwood, and... New World Computing.
Ultimately, I found myself wondering, “Was there still a market for a 2D, turn-based, strategy game? Was there still a market for Heroes of Might and Magic 3?”
HoMM Hungary Interview
Questions 5-8, of 17
This interview was conducted by Andrew Gasz of HoMM Hungary (Webpage & Facebook), and was originally published in late January 2021. It’s comprised of 17 questions in 21 parts (~50% HoMM and ~50% FST). I’ll be posting around 5 to 7 questions per Newsletter, until we reach the end, after which we will roll into another interview. Below are questions 5 to 8, of 17.
5. After Heroes 3 there were many failing Heroes game. But what features would you use from them in a similar Heroes-like game and what you would erase?
I’m going to politely decline to answer this question. Addressing this subject is effectively discussing Fanstratics (FST), and there are specifics I would like to avoid until much later.
6a. Overall, 3DO went into bankruptcy because it was poorly managed. Specifically, 3DO went into bankruptcy because it created a lot of low quality games no one wanted to buy.3DO thought all you had to do was create product, put it on the retail shelf, advertise it, and enough of it would sell. Giving the customer a good reason to buy the product, never seemed to be part of the formula.
Not once did I ever hear any 3DO executive talk about making ‘fun’ games. Not once did I encounter any 3DO executive who asked, “What have you been playing?” All the people in 3DO upper management were not gamers. They were all widget salesmen who thought ‘franchise’ was the same thing as ‘fun’.
Don’t misunderstand me, you don’t need to be a gamer to create and run a successful video game company, but you do need to understand when you are not a gamer... and staff accordingly.
6b. It is my understanding, what happened with 3DO did not directly affect HoMM4, but keep this in mind, my knowledge of HoMM4’s development is second hand at best. Aside from the team losing three of the HoMM3 leads (myself, John Bolton, and Phelan Sykes), I have heard through the grapevine, the team did not get much needed resources, and there was persistent in fighting regarding a number of subjects.
How 3DO indirectly damaged HoMM, was in how it directly damaged New World Computing (NWC).Soon after acquiring NWC, 3DO began pushing a ‘franchise’ model of game development. This should not be a surprise to many, as most of 3DO was composed of former Electronic Arts (EA) personnel. EA, under Tripp Hawkins, created the ‘Madden model’. For those who don’t know, to this day, EA makes most of its money from yearly sports games. This all started when EA began making yearly Madden football games for consoles.
For sports games, the Madden model makes sense. For non-sports games, the Madden model can quickly lead to franchise fatigue, and an emphasis on quantity over quality.
7. There were some concept arts about NWC’s Heroes 5 in 2003. Can you tell us something about it? (There were also a Nival Heroes 6 but it was stopped in 2008)
Unfortunately, I know nothing about New World Computing’s attempt at making HoMM5.
8. What is your opinion and experience about Heroes 3 HOTA mod?
It’s wonderful. HotA and the HD Mod effectively introduced HoMM3 to several new generations of gamers.