ghost of the past
posted August 17, 2005 06:21 AM
Interview with David Mullich
In a recent interview (by peterb), David Mullich recalls his days at 3DO and talks about Heroes 4 again. No new info here, but it might be interesting for those who missed it first time:
Let's be blunt. Heroes IV failed. What went wrong? If you could fix just one thing with the product (technically -- you're not allowed to say "better marketing!") what would it be?
I think that characterizing Heroes IV as a failure is overly harsh. While it wasn't the enormous critical and financial success that was Heroes III (which, I was pleased to recently learn, was named by PC Gamer magazine as the 25th Best Game of All Time), Heroes IV received good reviews and had its share of fans. The challenge with sequels is trying to make a game that has enough of the same things that made its predecessors fun, yet is different enough that it doesn't feel like the same old thing. Sometimes you strike the right balance, and sometimes you don't (George Lucas, anyone?).
However, things did go wrong on the project, and the two biggest problems were the Forge Town and Legends of Might & Magic. Allow me to explain.
New World Computing's two main franchises were the Might & Magic fantasy role-playing game series and its offshoot, the Heroes of Might & Magic fantasy strategy game series, for which I was the development team's leader for five years. Both franchises took place in the same universe, and their respective designers often worked together to make sure that there were no inconsistencies in the two franchises' storylines and to occasionally intertwine the storylines together.
When we got the green light to do a second expansion game to Heroes III, my lead designer, Greg Fulton, decided to build the game around the "forge" -- a machine capable of building weapons that could dominate the world and featured in the recently released Might & Magic 7: For Blood and Honor. His idea was to create a new type of town for the Heroes series, the Forge Town, where there would be a mixture of fantasy and science fiction elements. So, in this town, orcs would be armed with ray guns and minotaurs equipped with jet packs.
Now, while this mix of fantasy and science fiction had always been a staple of the Might & Magic RPG franchise, it was new to the Heroes series and there was an angry backlash from Heroes fans. As soon as we released the preliminary concept art, the fans became so upset, they immediately organized a boycott of the game and New World management ordered us to come up with a new concept for the expansion. One fan was so angry at us for even considering introducing science fiction elements into the Heroes series that he sent a death threat to Greg. Naturally, this rattled my designer, but when our management made light of the threat, Greg was so incensed that he quit his job.
This left me with no designer for our next big project, Heroes IV, and when I couldn't find a replacement for Greg in time for the project's start, I took the unusual step of giving Heroes III AI programmer, Gus Smedstad, the dual role of lead programmer and lead designer, since he understood the strategic elements of the game better than anyone except for Heroes' creator, Jon Van Cangehem.
As we began planning the design for Heroes IV, Jon (or JVC, as we called him) thought it was time to "completely reinvent" the Heroes series, and he encouraged us to rethink every element of the game. He also thought it was time to scale back the game by reducing the number of town and creature types available to the player.
With those marching orders, Gus completely revised the magic, skill, and town/creature system (my main contribution was the idea of moving the “heroes” off of the sidelines and onto the battlefield during combat). Gus also thought the game engine needed to be redone from scratch (some of the code was quite buggy and dated back to the game King's Bounty, the predecessor to the original Heroes game), although JVC didn't think the time was right yet to go with a real-time 3D engine.
Once JVC signed off on the design, I calculated that the project would require about 6 programmers and 18 months of work. Unfortunately, our parent company, 3DO, was having severe financial problems and ordered New World to begin work on a third franchise, Legends of Might & Magic, but without giving us any additional staff to work on it. Many of New World's best programmers — some of whom I was counting on to work on Heroes IV — were assigned to this new franchise, which also consumed all of JVC's attention for almost two years until it shipped. (Legends was the real failure. It was a total commercial and critical flop as well as being finished a year behind schedule, as I recall.)
So, instead of six programmers to program the game, I had only two — one of whom was also busy with the design work, while the other was also tasked with creating six new Heroes "mini-expansions" needed to supply 3DO with additional revenue. I tried for over a year to beg, borrow or steal additional programmers, but between 3DO-mandated salary and hiring freezes, I wasn't able to bring additional programming help onto the team. 3DO finally responded to our dilemma about six months before we were scheduled to ship the game, and I was given what I needed to hire on a bunch of new programmers in a hurry. However, the problem of the mythical man month (you can't have ten people do in one month what a single person can do in ten months) reared its ugly head, and as a result, Heroes IV shipped with underdeveloped AI and no multiplayer gameplay.
As for the one change I would make if I had it to do all over again, well, that has to do with another problem I experienced during the project. At the completion of Heroes III, my manager criticized me for being too "hands-on" during the game's development and ordered me to give the leads under me more latitude on future projects. While I disagreed with his criticism and thought that my leadership style on Heroes III had resulted in a pretty darned good game, my manager remained firm on the matter.
It so happened my lead game designer and lead level designer on Heroes IV didn't see eye-to-eye on a number of issues. Gus saw Heroes as primarily a strategy game but felt that the level designers were creating game levels that were more appropriate for an adventure game. While I sided with Gus — I thought that the game levels being designed had too much story text, too many artifacts for boosting hero attributes quickly to very high levels, and intricate storylines that conflicted with the premise that the heroes could now be injured on the battlefield — my orders were to let my leads make their own decisions within their own areas of expertise.
While my manager gave me a better performance review for my leadership on Heroes IV than on Heroes III, I felt that Heroes IV was a poorer game in large part due to the conflict between the game design and level design. So, if I had it to do over again, I would have followed the adage "to thine own self be true" and managed things a bit more closely as I did on Heroes III.