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Jake Hughes was working as a model designer on Starship Troopers when he received a call from Peter Marquardt. Marquardt was an actor—he played the bad guy in Robert Rodriguez’s first film, El Mariachi—but he also had a passion for games. The pair originally met on the set of Wing Commander IV, where Marquardt was shooting for the game’s cutscenes.
“He calls me up and he says, ‘Hey, John Romero is making a company and they’re looking for associate producers, come on out,’” Hughes says. “Peter was working on Daikatana, and Tom Hall was needing an associate producer. So I came out and I met Tom, and we connected instantly … because they all knew about Starship Troopers.”
A week later, Hughes was offered the job as associate producer of Anachronox, the third game by Ion Storm Dallas. He was one of around 80 individuals invited to join the company at that time. Most were men, nearly all were under 30 years old and their backgrounds ranged from model designers to members of bands such as Information Society. Few of them had worked much in the games industry before. “Tom was actually the only person who had the experience [on Anachronox],” Hughes remembers. “This is, of course, Ion Storm, right? Where ego is a thing.”
In March 1997, Hughes made the drive from Los Angeles to Dallas to join Ion Storm. Its lavish office in the penthouse of Dallas’s Chase Tower wasn’t ready yet, so the team used a smaller office in the interim. Hughes’s office cubicle was connected to Romero’s. “I actually got to hear him play deathmatch every night,” he remembers.
For Hughes and everyone else involved, Ion Storm Dallas was videogaming nirvana, a company with huge talent, huge investment and huge ambitions, dreamed up by arguably the most famous man in the industry at the time. The honeymoon wouldn’t last, though. Within a year the studio would be plagued by turbulent office politics, a slew of public image crises and a host of development problems from which its reputation would never fully recover.
Ion Storm Dallas was founded on 15 November 1996. Its four founding partners were John Romero, Tom Hall, Todd Porter, and Jerry O’Flaherty. Hall and Romero had previously founded id Software along with John Carmack and Adrian Carmack (no relation), while Porter and O’Flaherty had cofounded a company together which they sold to the publisher 7th Level.
“In January 1996 I decided to leave id Software after shipping Quake,” says John Romero. “I contacted Tom Hall while he was at 3D Realms/Apogee and asked him if he’d be interested in starting another game company later in the year after Quake shipped.” At the time, Tom Hall was working on Prey, a first-person shooter that was struggling to find direction, and which ultimately wouldn’t ship for another ten years. “Romero called me one day and asked, ‘What if there was a company where you could design the game you want?’” Hall says. “I replied, ‘That would be a dream.’”
The four men came together to begin planning their outline for the company. “We all agreed that we should name the company something that represented the new vision: multiple game genres developed simultaneously,” Romero says. The initial proposal was ‘Dream Design’, but there were several other companies using that name. “I made up a bunch of names and logos, and Romero really liked ‘Ion’,” says Tom Hall. “But that was also similar to others, so we looked at various words to combine with it.” Romero states that the ‘Storm’ part of the name came from his lead coder Kee Kimbrell.
Ion Storm’s slogan, meanwhile, was ‘Design is Law’. It stemmed from the frustration Hall and Romero experienced at id, where they were forced to wait for John Carmack’s latest 3D engine iteration before they could make a game. The pair believed that game design should come first and the technology should facilitate it. In 1996, this was a radical idea. Romeo and Hall planned to achieve it by licensing the technology from other companies, bypassing the need to build it themselves. “Ion Storm was to be a creative release,” Hall says.
The founders would each be in charge of their own team. Hall, Porter and Romero would design a game each, while O’Flaherty would oversee the art team assisting the other three. Meanwhile, they needed someone to run the day-to-day business, so they turned to another disillusioned id Software employee.
Mike Wilson was id’s head of marketing, and had previously been VP of development for DWANGO, an early online gaming service that provided the matchmaking for Doom’s multiplayer. After several years waiting on Quake, Wilson was bored. “They were gonna keep on doing what they were doing, which wasn’t very exciting for me at age 26,” he says. “What John was up to seemed greener pastures at the time.”
Wilson was hired as CEO of Ion Storm, primarily to ‘big-up’ the company in marketing. But he had bigger plans for Ion Storm as a business. id had rocked the industry with its 3D shooters. It had made huge money and spawned a legion of similarly lucrative imitators from Duke Nukem to Rise of the Triad. Publishers were desperate to get a slice of the pie, particularly from anyone associated with Doom.
“The publishers were lining up to throw money at a game design on a cocktail napkin,” Wilson says. “If you were part of that Dallas mafia you could get a $2 million or $3 million deal.” Before Doom, developers would usually get single-digit royalty percentages from their publisher. After Quake, Wilson struck a deal for 40% royalties with Activision for Quake’s first level pack. “It was just a Wild West,” he says.
Between August and December 1996, Romero and Hall started talking to publishers with Porter and O’Flaherty joining the negotiations in October. “Eidos became a strong contender because they were on the rise and had the cash to fund several games at once,” Romero says. Ion Storm negotiated with Eidos for $3 million for each of its three games, plus 45% royalties.
Wilson’s plan for Ion Storm was bigger still. Back at id, Wilson had wanted the company to publish its own games and reap all the money from its products. But John Carmack was interested mainly in pioneering technology and didn’t want to turn id into a games publisher. Consequently, Wilson brought this plan over to Ion Storm. “The plan was for Ion to be part of what would later become GodGames—Gathering of Developers—and so we were gonna knock out these three games from Eidos, one from each partner, and I was to be working on the self-publishing plan in the background.”
Wilson states he was on holiday when the deal was officially signed. When he got back, it had changed dramatically. Ion Storm was now into Eidos for not three games, but six. “[Eidos] really wanted to lock these guys up, because they were investing in what would help start the company,” he says.
The other founders told Wilson not to worry. They could halve the workload by creating a second studio to make three of the six games (what would ultimately become Ion Storm Austin). Besides, the whole point of Ion Storm was ‘Design is Law’. The issues that had plagued id during Quake’s three-year development wouldn’t be a factor as Ion Storm would use tried-andtested tech. The games would be built in no time.
Everything about Ion Storm’s early days was larger than life. A few months in, the studio moved into Dallas’s Chase Tower. To get to their office, the designers had to change elevators on the floor which hosted the Petroleum Club. “Which is exactly what it sounds like, a bunch of oil money barons sitting on leather and mahogany smoking cigars [and drinking] scotch,” says Wilson. “And here comes all these young long-haired dudes in shorts and combat boots, going up to the penthouse which those guys absolutely fucking hated. It was really meant for assholes in the oil industry, but suddenly there are these new guys with Ferraris who could afford that place.”
The penthouse office (completed in 1998) was 22,000 square feet of real-estate that had never been occupied. Its interior was designed specifically for Ion Storm. Facilities included a theatre, an arcade, a dormitory and a shower room. “Nobody used the shower. But sometimes at night we would bring in LaserDiscs and watch movies,” says Jake Hughes. “We would get food delivered sometimes and we would hang out. We’d play deathmatch.”
The internal culture of Ion Storm has been the subject of much fascination. Ion Storm Dallas is frequently cited as being the industry’s first ‘rockstar’ developer. It was a word that conjures an image of wealth-fuelled extravagance and excess, the unholy trinity of sex, drugs and rock and roll. Everyone I spoke to who worked at Ion Storm Dallas refutes this image. Hughes describes it as “malarkey”, while Richard Gaubert, the writer on Anachronox, explains the atmosphere was “less like a rockstar environment and more like a dorm”. After work, the designers would play Quake, and later Quake II, deathmatch until late at night, an activity that was punctuated by swearing, smack talking and the occasional breaking of keyboards and computers. Gaubert cites an example of some of the studio antics: “I remember one day, sitting on the floor of the hallway outside my office, trying to get some writing done,” he begins. “Sometimes a change of scenery helps with writer’s block. And nearby, to my left, some engineers were wrestling on the floor, and to my right, my boss was drawing a picture on the whiteboard of himself sodomising a religious figure. I remember drinking in that moment and thinking, ‘man, I work in a weird, weird, wonderful place.’”
This fraternity-like atmosphere wasn’t exclusive to Ion Storm. In fact, it had been carried over from the glory days at id, when the founders lived together in a lake house in Shreveport, Louisiana—ordering in pizza and playing D&D while making Commander Keen, and later smashing keyboards and throwing CDs at the wall of their Mesquite office while making Wolfenstein and Doom.
Ion Storm was partly Romero’s attempt to bring back those fun and carefree days, only with the creature comforts Ion Storm’s wealth afforded them. “We wanted the environment to be fun, because we believed that if you’re not having fun making a game, it will show in the final product,” Romero explains. “Our developers were gifted, driven modders who had a passion for making fun stuff.” The approach was successful to a certain extent. “I loved every minute at Ion Storm,” says Hughes.
Whatever the reality of Ion Storm’s culture, the press was more than happy to view Ion Storm through the rockstar lens. “John was the perfect personality for them because he had the crazy long black hair and he would say whatever,” Wilson says. “He was driving the yellow hummer and the Ferrari, and had the big McMansion in north Dallas. He was just exactly what they wanted.”
Moreover, Romero’s seemingly abrupt departure from id to start his own, more ambitious company was the ideal story for the media. “A desire for the out with the old, in with the new, because id’s boring now. John Romero’s not even there,” Wilson says. “They created this rivalry between the two companies that would not have existed otherwise, and that led to friction with the technology.”
Wilson was happy to give the press what they wanted, presenting Ion Storm as this bold, ambitious, in-your-face new developer. But nobody factored in the gap between the studio’s boisterous internal culture with the outside image of the company as gaming’s new North Star. “While marketing’s goal was to convey how excited the company was for its products and its future, it had the opposite effect—it came across as egotistical,” Romero says. “Needless to say, the Daikatana ad was a thick layer of icing on that cake.”
Romero refers to the infamous “John Romero is about to make you his bitch” advertisement, which appeared in magazines in the spring of 1997. Wilson explains the ad was created by an agency belonging to the Richards Group in Dallas, specifically the work of the artist who also designed Daikatana’s cover art. Wilson thought it was hilarious, epitomising the in-your-face attitude at the core of the company. “I remember very clearly presenting that ad to John in his cubicle,” he says. “He also thought it was hilarious, and was like, ‘Fuck yes.’ And then he sorta started to think twice about an hour later. He was like, ‘I dunno man,’ and I think my words to him were, ‘John, don’t be a pussy.’ And that was it. He signed off on it.”
Neither the press nor the public got the joke, and from that moment the relationship between Ion Storm and the outside world began to sour. “We let that happen, let ourselves get talked into it, and it was too early and the wrong way to go,” Tom Hall says. “We should have shut up and made awesome games.” From this moment the press would begin to build a new, far less pleasant narrative about Ion Storm, and events within the company would only serve to reaffirm the suspicions of those on the outside looking in.
Arguably the biggest mistake Ion Storm made was failing to establish a clear hierarchy within the studio from the start. Romero was Ion’s figurehead, but he never intended to run the business personally. id got rich by making great games and getting other people to sell them, and Romero planned to do the same at Ion Storm. Hall, similarly, was there to make Anachronox. Todd Porter and Jerry O’Flaherty were more business oriented, in theory, but they also had their own teams to run. Wilson, meanwhile, was technically CEO, but had no real executive power. “Myself and the other business guy [COO Bob Wright] owned a combined 5% of the company,” says Wilson. “Those guys owned the rest.”
When Ion Storm moved into the Chase Tower penthouse, the four partners moved from their temporary cubicles into their own offices. These became known as the ‘Four Corners of Power’, reflecting the theoretical structure of the studio. In reality, what emerged from this structure was a battle for supremacy between Mike Wilson and Todd Porter.
Like Hall and Romero, Porter had worked his way up the ranks of game development, teaching himself to code on the Apple II before joining Origin. “Todd is very charming. He’s good looking. He’s very funny. And he’s got a way about him,” Hughes recalls. But Porter hadn’t enjoyed Hall and Romero’s level of success. “I would say that he probably didn’t deserve to be on the reputation level of John and Tom, as far as what they’d done,” says Will Loconto, Ion Storm’s audio director, who worked on both Daikatana and Todd Porter’s game, Dominion: Storm Over Gift 3. “But he jumped right into it and I think he felt like he was right up there with them.”
Indeed, it’s claimed that Porter’s newfound power had gone to his head. Wilson recalls that in a conversation with the other founders, Porter “asked them to all wear blazers to work so that new people would understand who were the bosses, and they would be respected”. In another instance, Porter asked one of Romero’s level designers, Sverre Kvernmo, to get him a coffee. “In his blazer, just like he was literally the guy from Office Space, like, ‘That’d be great, if you could just get me a coffee?’ It was like, ‘Do you know who that is?’
“He was cruel to people, and I feel bad saying all this because, look, we were all immature, egotistical assholes at that time, there was no question about it. And Todd was older, significantly older, and my guess is like most of us, he’s a completely different person than he was in 1997. But at that time he was fucking horrible,” Wilson continues. “I told him one time very publicly that he can’t talk to people like they’re construction workers. You’re not a foreman and these people are artists and programmers.” Wilson isn’t the only one who saw something off with Porter’s attitude. “He was never a jerk to me, but I saw him do it to other people” says Loconto.
There are several given explanations for Porter’s alleged behaviour. At 36, Porter was one of the older staff members at Ion Storm—several years older than Romero and a decade older than Wilson, who was supposed to be CEO. This may have implied a natural superiority. In addition, to try to fast-track one of the company’s six game projects, Porter had brought over a half-finished strategy game from 7th Level named Dominion: Storm Over Gift 3. He convinced the other founders he could have it out the door within three months. But in fact the project took a year to develop. When it did finally release, it bombed in reviews and sold a measly number of copies. “Everything was a distraction from the fact that he wasn’t actually making a game, and he had no idea how to make a game,” claims Wilson. Loconto cites an example from the project that Porter was developing before bringing Dominion over, a game called Doppelganger. “He hired these 3D artists that came in and made these 3D statues of all the monsters in the game, before there was a game.”
Between them, Porter and O’Flaherty began encroaching upon other areas of the business. Porter began turning up to Daikatana team meetings, which baffled the designers, and the pair hatched a plan to create a comic book publishing wing of the business, which Eidos promptly shut down. These various schemes, alongside the troubled developments of first Doppelganger and then Dominion, began sucking money from the company. “[The founders] didn’t realise they were gonna be competing for resources too,” Loconto says. “When they’re telling Eidos they need to hire three more producers for Todd’s team, I’m not sure how well that went over with Tom and John.”
Wilson was no milksop either. He was an uncompromising business negotiator, could be just as fiery as Porter, and incurred a scandal himself when he borrowed company money in order to pay for a new car after wrecking his own. The key difference, according to Wilson himself, was that he was liked by the other Ion Storm employees because he took their side whenever Porter went off on a power play. “I was 26 and full of piss and would just take it out of Todd at any chance I got, because I was just like, ‘somebody’s gotta fuckin’ call this dude out on being an asshole or this whole company is going to be an asshole,’” he says.
I contacted Porter about the statements made against him at Ion Storm, and his own recollection of events couldn’t be more different. “I liked Mike Wilson back in those days and like him still today. In fact, a couple of years ago we attended a good friend of ours’ memorial and had beers together.” Porter also disputes that there was a “mythic power struggle” between himself and Wilson. “That just didn’t exist. We disagreed, for sure, but you have to remember that Mike was the CEO, Bob Wright was the COO and they ran the business.”
On the subject of the blazers and the coffee, Porter says, “I truly don’t remember doing those things,” and that he “would never intentionally be cruel to anyone.” He cites the long working hours and staying overnight at the office trying to get Dominion finished, and says, “It’s highly likely I lost my temper from exhaustion. But that doesn’t make me cruel—it makes me human.”
As for why Porter brought Dominion over from 7th Level, he explains that, “I believed in the project and wanted to finish the game I’d started,” but also adds that at the time 7th Level was going bankrupt and he “didn’t want to see all those people I hired—who had become my friends—lose their jobs”.
In the end, Wilson entreated Romero to fire Porter, stating, “We have to get rid of him.” Together they went to the office of Bob Wright, Ion Storm’s COO, to discuss how they would do this. But in the elevator Romero decided he wanted to give Porter another chance, and so the firing never happened. Not long after that, Wilson was called into a similar meeting, where he was told he was being let go. They cited the friction that Wilson was causing with Porter, alongside his unwillingness to let go of the GodGames plan. “You’re not ever gonna play nice with Eidos, you’re pissing them off, and we can’t do this [Gathering of Developers] plan while we still owe all these games. We need to just focus on making games,” Wilson says, recalling the gist of the conversation.
Wilson believes that Porter persuaded Hall and Romero to fire him. “He was having them over at his house on weekends and they had talks like, ‘Wouldn’t everything be great if Mike just wasn’t around and there wasn’t all this fighting?’” But Porter claims he had no knowledge of Wilson’s impending firing until Hall and Romero called him and O’Flaherty to meet with them at a Mexican restaurant to discuss the matter. “It was John and Tom who wanted Mike out, not me or Jerry. They had serious problems with him, not us. After much investigation, Jerry and I agreed with them and all of us were present at the final meeting with Mike.”
However it went down, Wilson was out. But this would prove only to be a stay of execution for both Porter and O’Flaherty, who would depart the company under a different cloud around 18 months later. Romero is reluctant to comment on the specific nature of Wilson and Porter’s relationship, stating, “I view them as I would any employee, and I don’t feel comfortable disclosing interactions they may have had.” Meanwhile, Tom Hall explains that the reason Romero and himself didn’t intervene earlier was because they were occupied with their own projects. “We were focused on making games,” Hall says. “We became aware of people causing chaos and people taking advantage of the situation. We just wanted to make games.”
Romero’s vision for Ion Storm was of a game developer that did not have to compromise, and that extended to Daikatana. The game would feature 24 levels that took the player on an epic journey through time and space. Players would travel from Ancient Greece to 25th-century cyberpunk Japan. In a first for the genre, story would play a central role, including advanced AI sidekicks who would accompany the player on their adventure. It’s a premise that still sounds tantalising today.
As Romero puts it, the story of Daikatana has “taken on a life of its own”. Its problematic development has acquired legendary status. Because of this, it’s worth setting aside the familiar narrative for a moment to ask what went right on the project. “The team was composed of modders who loved FPS games and believed in a vision of making something that was incredible,” Romero says. “We introduced complex sidekick AI, tons of content and really fun deathmatch, and, perhaps most importantly, we shipped a game under incredibly trying conditions.”
These conditions began with the engine. Despite the ambitious scope, Romero estimated that by licensing the Quake engine, his team could have the project turned around in six months. But in early 1997, Romero and Hall saw Quake II in action. They were blown away by its engine, which included among its features coloured lighting and support for hardware acceleration. Their games were already behind schedule, but they figured it was worth the time investment to incorporate the Quake II source code in order to keep their games visually up to date.
John Carmack was a superb coder, but id’s third-party support was rudimentary at best. “Carmack really didn’t want to be bothered with phone calls from anybody. I think it was in the original contract, you got two hours of talk with him,” Wilson remarks. There had been other successful third-party id Tech games, namely Raven Software’s Hexen and Heretic, but support for them came mainly from Romero, who assisted the development of both titles while still at id.
Consequently, the Daikatana team was left to fathom how to incorporate the code by itself. At this time, 3D graphics rendering technology was improving at an exponential rate, and the complexity was compounding with it. As a result, the code base for the Quake II engine was radically different. Ion Storm received the Quake II source code in November 1997, but it would take until March 1999 to fully implement it into Daikatana.
Ion Storm wasn’t the only company to struggle keeping up with the times. Duke 3D, Unreal, and Jedi Knight had all taken over 30 months to develop, while 3D Realms’ Prey and Duke Nukem Forever were both delayed far longer than Daikatana on account of multiple engine changes. Interestingly, one company that decided not to play technological catch-up was Valve Software. “They had the same thing, where they had the Quake source code and they chose not to incorporate the Quake II source code,” says Jake Hughes. “They bought themselves like four months of development time.” The game in question was Half-Life, which launched in November 1998. In many ways it stole Daikatana’s thunder with its narrative-led shooting and advanced AI.
The whole reason for founding Ion Storm was to get away from id’s technology-driven design, and yet, in a tragic irony, Romero once again found his design frustrated by John Carmack’s technology. But this wasn’t the only issue. Daikatana’s development was also hindered by team upheavals and morale issues, and there are lingering questions over Romero’s approach to leadership.
The story goes that for large chunks of time, Romero was out of the office on press trips and being the public face of the company. “There were a lot of times where somebody wanted to ask him something and he wasn’t there,” Loconto says. “But then a lot of times he was there and people would complain because they were trying to work and he’s deathmatching or whatever.”
Loconto doesn’t hold this against Romero. Instead he believes it came as a consequence of his wanting Ion Storm’s atmosphere to be like that of id. “I don’t think that’s what he signed up for really. I think he signed up for, ‘we’re gonna make a cool game. I’m gonna get a kickass team and all these guys are gonna do what they’re supposed to do.’” But that casual approach couldn’t function in a studio as large as Ion Storm. “You can’t translate that camaraderie that was at id when they had a small team into even a 20-to-30-person team,” Loconto adds. “You can’t count on every single person to carry their weight unless they’re being managed.”
Romero disagrees entirely with the sentiment that he wasn’t present with the team, stating that he “was at the office most of the time” and that the deathmatching was part of the work. “Playing was necessary to know where we were in terms of hitting the mark. It was the same process for Wolfenstein 3D, Doom, Doom II, Quake and so on. If you don’t want to play your own games, who else will?” Meanwhile, any recreational deathmatching “only happened after 6pm some days”.
The combination of repeated delays and managerial disorganisation, along with long working hours and increasing hostility from both press and public, led to a high staff turnover, particularly on the Daikatana project. “Daikatana went through significant team changes and had, as an example, five lead programmers by the time it launched,” Romero says. Loconto was involved in perhaps the most notable of these staff departures. In November 1998, eight Ion Storm employees walked out of the studio to join a developer associated with Mike Wilson’s new publishing venture, Gathering of Developers, which he’d formed with 3D Realms and Terminal Reality after being fired from Ion Storm.
“He needed a team to do the KISS Psycho Circus game, and basically it’s a hard thing to say no when somebody says, ‘We will give you $2 million to start your company if you come do this.’ And we got $2 million to build that game,” Loconto says. It was Loconto who told Romero they were leaving. “[It was] one of the hardest things I’ve ever done in my life,” he adds. “I would say that he felt personally betrayed.”
Daikatana’s problems came to a head during E3 1999. Hughes worked on Daikatana for several months to help prepare a demo for the show. “Everybody worked very hard on it, and then like a week before, Romero wanted all of these changes made and it was kinda like, ‘Dude, these haven’t been in here for like a month. Why did we wait until now to address this stuff?’”
The demo ended up running at five frames-persecond, and was another PR disaster for Ion Storm. But the story is more complex than Hughes recalls. According to Romero, he had already departed for E3 before this event took place. “While I was gone, a cofounder told the team to make a bunch of changes to Daikatana and told them I wanted those changes made, which was a huge lie. The team made the changes and we got an update which basically broke the E3 demo of the game.”
Romero doesn’t specify who the cofounder was, but the same story is told in David Kushner’s 2003 book, Masters of Doom, and in that case the founder in question is named as Todd Porter. We went back to Hughes with the Romero’s account, and he responds that, “It’s possible those notes came from Todd. The sentiment from the team was that the notes were from John.”
“I was so mad when I found out what happened,” Romero says. Indeed, in Kushner’s account, it’s this event which led to the departure of Porter and O’Flaherty from Ion Storm in July 1999. Romero doesn’t comment on their leaving in any detail, but on the subject of Ion Storm’s atmosphere, he mentions that, “After Todd and Jerry left Ion Storm in the middle of 1999, the entire atmosphere changed and the company felt just great. Everyone was in high spirits and working hard to finish our games.”
Romero says that the final year of Daikatana’s development was “nose to the proverbial grindstone”, and that “everything changed and went well up to launch”. Sadly, it wasn’t enough to save Daikatana from reviews that ranged from lukewarm to scathing when it launched on May 24, 2000. “It could never live up to the hype generated in the early days,” Romero laments.
Tom Hall’s Anachronox was even more ambitious project than Daikatana: a vast, sprawling sci-fi comedy modelled in the JPRG style, and inspired by everything from Ender’s Game to the animations of Chuck Jones—all developed by a team of just 15 people. The idea for Anachronox came to Hall in the bathroom. “Then I had to figure out what it meant.” It seemed to be a combination of ‘anachronism’ (something out of its correct time period) and ‘nox’ from noxious (poisonous, harmful). So that twisted into meaning ‘poison from the past’.
The main inspiration for Anachronox, however, was Chrono Trigger. “Chrono Trigger is my jam,” says Hall. “Many RPGs have the base of exploring a game world/ story and growing over time and decisions affecting the world. But this one one-upped that with a set of interesting characters with wildly different stories having their own take on events and unique ways to play.”
Like Daikatana, Anachronox used the Quake and later Quake II engines. But the game had the additional problem of being an RPG that used a shooter engine. This meant a lot of the development time was spent trying to figure out how to do things that hadn’t been done with the engine before. In one example, for the first in-game area—a giant, slum-like space station, known as the Bricks—the team wanted to create something it had dubbed “N-Directional Gravity”.
“[Hall] wanted it so that the gravity could come from anywhere so that people were walking on walls,” says Hughes. “But we just couldn’t figure it out.” In the end, the team faked the effect by essentially playing animations of characters walking up walls during cutscenes. “Honestly, we spent more time trying to figure out how to do N-Directional Gravity and then abandoning it than it took to incorporate the Quake II source code.”
The main problem, however, was the size of the game. Hall and Hughes spent the first year of development writing a massive, 400-page design document. It became so big that Hall had to hire a writer to write the story that he wanted to tell, at which point Gaubert came aboard. “I took the outline that Tom and Jake wrote, and fleshed out the plot, and tried to integrate gameplay elements. I would look at the levels and figure out what moment-tomoment non-combat gameplay could happen in them,” Gaubert recalls.
Even with Gaubert writing every line of dialogue for a 60-hour RPG, the game was still, far, far too big for the 15-man team to make. Eventually, the decision was made to cut the story in half. The cut content would be held back for the planned sequel. “Jake and Richie came into my office one day saying the epic plot I’d laid down would take too long to make, so I looked at it and there was only one clear place to cut it,” Hall remembers. “Roughly in half. Sorry folks!”
Anachronox suffered from technical issues and delays just like Daikatana and Dominion, but it wasn’t as troubled by upheavals within the team. The team was smaller and more intimate than the others, suffered less from departures during the project, and Hall, Hughes and Gaubert all got on well together. “It was like, just a great creative meld between the three of us,” Hughes says.
Anachronox launched on June 27, 2001. Critically it was received very well, but commercially it sold poorly, a factor that Hall puts down to poor marketing. “I give Eidos amazing credit for supporting us through shipping. They were awesome. But we spent millions on development, and $50,000 on advertising. Five ads in magazines and that was it.” According to Gaubert, however, the reason Eidos spent so little on advertising Anachronox was because the game missed its original marketing window due to delays. “They had timed their marketing towards our original release date, but we missed it! I think we had blown through all the marketing money before we had actually finished the project, so we shipped with little fanfare.”
Two weeks after the launch of Anachronox, Eidos informed Ion Storm Dallas that it was closing the studio. Although it wasn’t getting paid, the Anachronox team stayed on to finish a patch it was working on. I asked Hughes what he took away from his time at Ion Storm. “Hubris,” he says. “That’s the story of Ion Storm, it’s amazing how it happens time and time again. All eyes on a certain company, and you can make some bad decisions and you can also make something great.”
The story of Ion Storm Dallas is often viewed as a cautionary tale, one that has been told before and will probably be told again. Two decades on, it’s a story that’s still clouded and contentious in parts, with very different perspectives from some of the industry’s strongest personalities. But not everything that came out of the studio was bad. Hughes and Gaubert became fast friends, and the Anachronox team still meet up once a year at GDC. Loconto, too, looks back on that time with fondness. “I’m glad to have been a part of it,” he says. Even Wilson—who says he spent his time at Ion Storm “so stressed out… I literally remember not being able to turn my head to talk to someone without turning my entire body”—felt like he learned a lot from the experience. “I think it took me down a notch as well, as far as thinking I was invincible at the time,” he says.
As for Romero, he describes his time at Ion storm as a “tremendous learning experience”. He says, “It was far from perfect, but ultimately, making games isn’t always about having crazy success. Sometimes, games and companies don’t turn out to be what you hope they will be, and you do the best you can.”
And even if we adopt the dimmest view of Ion Storm Dallas, if we focus on all the mistakes and believe every internet rumour, there is one thing that John Romero got right. “He wanted to help me make a game and was willing to do whatever it took for me to make whatever game I wanted to make,” says Warren Spector. “He made some big promises to me, and lived up to every one of them.”
The game in question was Deus Ex, created by Ion Storm’s second studio, Ion Storm Austin.
Jordan Thomas was working as a script doctor at Psygnosis when he heard that Ion Storm Austin was hiring. The studio had just released Deus Ex, and was expanding from one development team to two. “They were hiring a cabal of the very best game designers in the world,” Thomas says. He wanted to be one of them.
There was one problem: Thomas had little game design experience. So he created an Unreal Engine level, designed to resemble a mission from Thief, and sent it to Ion Storm. The studio was impressed and granted him an interview, but didn’t give him a job. “I think they wisely realised that my confidence did not match my physical experience,” Thomas says. He was told to get some.
Thomas got a job working for Aspyr on the PC videogame tie-in for Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, remaining there for seven months. When that project shipped in late 2001, he applied to Ion Storm Austin again and was granted another interview. The process commenced with a series of phone interviews that included studio head Warren Spector and the design lead of Thief: Deadly Shadows, Randy Smith.
“I had placed massive flash cards on the wall with all of these terms which I had looked up and dissected with interviews from all of them, trying to understand the specific Looking Glass language that they were all so steeped in,” Thomas says. “So this very spartan apartment that I was in at the time was covered in reference as large as I could make it so that while walking around on the phone I could say like, ‘Oh yeah, that’s right, I have something smart to say about that random-ass word.’”
The phone interviews were followed by a written test, in which Thomas had to provide a design document for a level. Thomas pitched a level set in a spooky asylum, and Ion Storm liked it. The company flew Thomas out for another interview, where he was assessed again by Spector and Randy Smith. Following this were several design tests, from sketching out a level blueprint on a whiteboard, to designing a system for a game that wasn’t to Thomas’s tastes, such as “a system for a game that is based on doing taxes for a person who has never done them before”.
This was what it took to become employed at Ion Storm Austin. “I never felt so tested in my life,” Thomas says. He got the job, and was assigned to work on Thief: Deadly Shadows—the third and final game from what was widely considered the best development studio in the world at the time. Internally, however, Ion Storm Austin had always been a house of cards, where wild ambition and high-minded ideas battled against the harsh realities of game development. By the time Thomas joined the studio, the cards were already tumbling.
Had it not been for the intervention of John Romero, Deus Ex would have become a Command & Conquer game. In 1997, Warren Spector left Looking Glass “when I realised the continued existence of the Austin Studio was going to jeopardise the existence of Looking Glass overall”. Despite creating Thief and System Shock, Looking Glass was struggling and could no longer sustain a second studio so far removed from its original office in Cambridge, Massachusetts. “I didn’t want to be responsible for that,” says Spector. “I told Paul Neurath, the founder of Looking Glass, that I’d be fine. I’ll find another deal.”
Spector took with him a design document he’d been toying with since his days at Origin Systems. The working title was ‘Troubleshooter’. “I wanted to make a game where players got to solve problems the way they wanted to. Fighting, sneaking, talking, doing whatever they wanted,” Spector says. “And so I dusted that off, and kind of adapted it to a Command & Conquer setting and was going to do the Command & Conquer RPG. I was close to signing a contract when I got a call from John Romero.”
Romero asked Spector to join Ion Storm as its fifth partner (the other four being Romero, Tom Hall, Todd Porter, and Jerry O’Flaherty). “I really wanted him to join Ion Storm so he could make the game of his dreams. It didn’t matter to me what kind of game it was because it was going to be great—it’s Warren,” says Romero.
Spector replied, “It’s too late, I can’t, I’m working on this Command & Conquer thing.” Romero told him not to sign anything. He said he would make the 200-mile drive from Dallas to Austin and change Spector’s mind. This is exactly what he did. “I told him he could hire a team, make whatever he likes, have as much money as it took, and take as long as he needed,” Romero says.
It was an offer Spector couldn’t refuse. But he had a condition. He would join Ion Storm as the fifth partner, but he refused to work in Dallas. In fact, he refused to work anywhere but Austin. “In Texas there’s four major cities. There’s Dallas, Houston, San Antonio and Austin, and the only one I would ever consider living in is Austin,” Spector says. “When [Romero] came down that day to try to convince me, part of the deal was, I’m not moving, I’m not going to work in Dallas, and he was okay with that.”
With Romero’s support, Spector began building the Ion Storm Austin studio. The initial team comprised six members, all of whom Spector transferred from Looking Glass Austin. This included Chris Norden, who was lead programmer and eventually assistant director of Deus Ex. In the early days, even before taking on those two roles, he wore multiple hats at the studio.
“I guess, in today’s terms, I would’ve been the CTO,” says Norden. “I was also part-HR. We had to do hiring, I had to do reviews. I had to set up the IT infrastructure. I had to hire contractors, I had to do security. I mean, you name it and I did it.” Meanwhile, Spector was beginning to work on the paper document for Deus Ex.
Spector’s concept of a game where you can choose from fighting, stealth, hacking and talking to create solutions to problems is a well-told story. But what was the clarifying moment when the Troubleshooter design document turned into Deus Ex? “On all of my projects, I think about what questions do I want the game to ask?” Spector says. “And the first one that came to mind for me on what became Deus Ex was, ‘What would happen if you took James Bond, a guy who believes in right and wrong, and throw him into a world that’s all shades of grey, where nothing is good, nothing is evil, it’s all shades of grey.’ That was a critical moment.”
The concepting phase of Deus Ex lasted many months, all the while the studio was growing and taking shape. One of Spector’s key hires was the 30-year-old Harvey Smith, who Spector had previously worked with at Origin during the development of System Shock. “[Warren Spector] was like, ‘Well, we’re gonna try to do another one of those games, it’s gonna be set in the modern world, what do you think?’” says Smith. “And so I pitched mission documents back, and game system ideas, some of which never got used in the game, but still they were on target enough that Warren was really excited.” Spector made Smith one of two lead designers on Deus Ex.
Ion Storm Austin’s approach to game development was heavily influenced by Spector’s experience at Origin Systems, and the design philosophies of Looking Glass luminaries, like Doug Church, who would appear from time to time at Ion Storm Austin and ‘camp out’ in Spector’s office. “They were all hugely influenced by Doug Church’s paper ‘Formal Abstract Design Tools’,” says Jordan Thomas, “which was a high-minded idea about teaching designers to speak the same way so that they could plug into any team, and stop using slang which is useful only to a particular bubble of culture.” Harvey Smith, who worked with Church at Origin, describes talking to him as being “like drinking from a firehose”.
In a similar fashion, Ion Storm Austin produced not only design documents for its games, but manifestos for how Spector and co. believed games should be designed as a whole. “We had our giant gameplay bible. Bazillions of pages that we tried to kind of follow, but they were living documents and they changed,” says Norden. “It was like, design is important, engineering is important, art is important, audio design is extremely important. But the player ultimately needs to be doing what they want to do. They need to be having fun. They need to be in control.”
When the concept phase was over, Spector stepped back into a supervisory role. “I am not an implementation guy,” he says. “Once we get past the concept phase and we know what game we want to make, I leave implementation to other people.” Implementing Deus Ex would prove to be far more complicated than anybody anticipated, constantly teetering on the brink of disaster.
Ion Storm’s slogan—‘Design is Law’—stipulated that game design should come above technical innovation. It was conjured by Romero during the founding of the company, but Ion Storm Austin took it to heart, perhaps a little too much. At the outset Spector created two separate design teams for Deus Ex, and he had those teams compete with each other. Harvey Smith was lead designer of what Spector thought of as the Looking Glass design team, while another designer named Bob White led what Spector termed the Ultima roleplaying team.
“So I had this immersive simulation group and this traditional roleplaying group,” Spector says, “and I was standing in the middle thinking, ‘I can not just mediate, I can actually exploit the tension between those two to come up with something completely new.’ Something that wasn’t pure Looking Glass-style immersive simulation, but wasn’t pure roleplaying game in the Origin sense.” Yet rather than resulting in a merging of ideas, the structure caused confusion about what the game was supposed to be about. “They were each in charge of different parts of the world and they had their own ideas about how they wanted the gameplay to work,” Norden explains. “So sometimes they’d come to us with conflicting requests.”
Everything the designers dreamed up had to be implemented by Norden and his programming team, and Spector, Smith and White all had a lot of ideas. “Warren had this massive [idea]… he’s like, ‘I want the player to be able to do anything they want, and solve any puzzle in any way,’” says Norden. “And we’re like, ‘Uh, yeah, that’s not really possible. We can do a lot, we can give the player a lot of choice. But infinite choice? No.’” Nevertheless, Norden and his team endeavoured to ensure that Deus Ex was as emergent as they could make it. “We tried to create the emergent behaviour by creating a ton of interactable objects in the world, and all the objects had to have interactable properties, and all the properties were linked to the real world,” he says. “Everything had weight, everything had friction, all the surfaces had different properties associated with them. So we wanted you to be able to, at least, pick things up, move them around, destroy them, maybe stack them, maybe climb them.”
The advantage of this was it meant players could do things that were unique to their game; a phenomenon that would happen even during testing. “Someone would come in and say, ‘Hey I was doing this cool thing on my playthrough and this thing happened, what the hell, how did you make that happen?’ And I was like, ‘Well I didn’t, it was just a random lucky thing.’”
Every game Ion Storm made was beleaguered by engine problems, and Deus Ex was no different. The nature of those problems, however, wasn’t exactly the same. In a break with Ion Storm tradition, Austin moved away from id’s Quake technology and licensed Tim Sweeney’s Unreal Engine. There were several reasons for this, including a better toolset, less restrictive geometry rendering and more personal support. “id’s engine licensing at the time was really simple. They basically gave you a CD with the source on it and that was it,” Norden says. “They didn’t really do support or anything. So I went up and met with Tim, and talked to him, and talked to the guys there, and they were just really cool.”
The problem, however, was that Norden and his team were taking an engine and trying to make it do things it wasn’t designed to. “ Deus Ex was a very dialogue-heavy game,” Norden states. “And Unreal was a shooter, right? So those things don’t mix. Theirs was no dialogue. There was no talking in shooters. So we had to create basically an entire conversation system and the tools that go with it.” Even seemingly simple things, like being able to carry more than one pistol, had to be manually coded because the engine wasn’t designed for it. “I might be carrying five pistols in my inventory because I put all my points into pistols,” says Harvey Smith. “I’ll have one for silenced play, and I have one for rapid fire, and I have one for fighting robots—just as an example, that’s three different pistols. Unreal didn’t have the concept of that, it only had the concept of, ‘Do you have the pistol, yes or no?’”
Another problem was the game’s core systems were coded in UnrealScript, which was slow to compile. Every time Norden made a change to the script it had to be recompiled, which in a game as complicated as Deus Ex is a constant process. “I wrote very rude comments in the code like, ‘Why the eff is this so slow? Dammit Tim,’ says Norden. “And we stupidly didn’t strip the script code out before we shipped. So people just decompiled it and our comments were on display for everybody. So I feel really bad about that to this day.” Luckily for Norden, Tim Sweeney saw the funny side of it.
Deus Ex was in development for almost four years, and for three-and-a-half of those years it seemed like it would never come together. Spector’s vision for the game’s story was enormous, to the point where he had to be tackled on it. “Harvey and one of the designers who I’ve worked with for many years, guy named Steve Powers, came to me and said, ‘We can’t tell this story, there’s no way we’re gonna do the Russo-Mexican alliance sending an Army across the Texas border and invading. We’re not gonna do that, we’re not gonna have thousands of prisoners in a FEMA camp in the Southwest getting freed by our hero.’”
Meanwhile, the external feedback Austin received was not good. Looking Glass developers, like Doug Church, Marc LeBlanc and Rob Fermier, all came to Austin to playtest the game. “They came in and they would tell us, ‘Man, this sucks. This skill system is terrible, what are you thinking?’” Spector says. The game’s publisher, Eidos, were still supportive of Austin, but also confused by what the game was supposed to be. “Lots of people at Eidos, over the years that we were in development, said, ‘Why don’t you just make a shooter?”’
Eidos had good reason to be concerned. After three years and millions of dollars of investment, so far Ion Storm had put out one game, Dominion: Storm Over Gift 3, which both sold and reviewed terribly. Meanwhile, its other three projects were severely behind. In addition, due to a combination of those delays and misguided marketing from Ion Storm Dallas, by 2000 the public opinion of Ion Storm had turned from enthusiastic to openly hostile. Even though they were sheltered in Austin, the Deus Ex team felt the heat of this ire.
“It was interesting and tough to be part of the ‘John Romero is going to make you his bitch’ company’,” says Spector. “And the Dallas office, they were spending money in ways that I would not have spent money, and the projects were all running late or they were projects we shouldn’t have started at all.” Indeed, there were worries that Deus Ex would flop purely on account of the widespread eagerness to see the hubris of Ion Storm blow up in its face. “We were like, ‘Oh crap, we’ve got brand image issues now,’” says Norden. “‘Are we gonna be doomed to failure because of this logo on our box?’”
At the same time, not everyone at the Dallas studio was happy with how things were panning out at Austin. Jerry O’Flaherty, who was the art director for Ion Storm as a whole, had sent several artists down to Austin to work on Deus Ex. “These artists would report back to Jerry about various goings-on within the studio,” says Romero. O’Flaherty was close friends with another of Ion Storm’s founders, Todd Porter, and according to Romero, Porter didn’t like what he heard about how things were progressing at Ion Storm Austin. “This led Todd to call for the cancellation of the game, or him wanting to go down to straighten things out.”
Romero, however, acted as a buffer between Austin and the more sceptical voices within Dallas. “I told Todd to leave them be, and we would not be cancelling the game, ever,” Romero says. “I had to put my foot down several times during the Deus Ex timeline. I had the utmost confidence in Warren and Harvey.”
Meanwhile, although some individuals within Eidos had their doubts, the publisher never stepped in to take control of the situation. In fact, when Deus Ex hit Alpha in August 1999, Eidos gave Austin six extra months to finish the game. It made all the difference. Harvey Smith’s redesigned skill system significantly improved the game, while the rest of that time was spent “tuning and tweaking and finding the fun”, as Spector puts it.
In the end, Deus Ex released on 17 June 2000, just three weeks after Eidos published Daikatana. For Ion Storm Austin, it was a strange time. Internet journalism was still in its infancy, so the developers had to wait a month or so for the reviews to come in. Spector was nervous. “There was a day when we were nearing the end where I put my head down on my desk and I just said out loud, ‘If people compare our combat to Half-Life, we’re dead. If they compare our stealth to Thief, we’re dead. If they compare our roleplaying elements to Neverwinter Nights (which was the big RPG at that time), we’re dead. But if they get to decide how much fighting or sneaking or RPG-ing they get to do, we’re gonna rule the world.’”
Deus Ex was a resounding success both critically and commercially—the only game developed by Ion Storm that managed both. “We had one incredibly bad review. A guy named Tom Chick just, I dunno if he hated me, but he sure hated Deus Ex, wow!” Spector says. “But other than that, the reviews were overwhelmingly positive.” The success also secured the future of Ion Storm Austin, which by this point was owned directly by Eidos. “It was never a question that we wouldn’t do a sequel. Eidos wanted it,” Spector says.
Meanwhile, shortly after the release of Thief II: The Metal Age, and on the same day that Daikatana released in North America, Looking Glass Studios closed its doors. “I got a call from someone at Eidos saying, ‘We have the rights to do a new Thief game, we’re going to do a new Thief game, and we’re going to let another developer do the next Thief game,’” Spector says. “I said, ‘Oh no you’re not. We’re doing that here at Ion Storm.’”
Spector hired many of Looking Glass’s staff, and the company began working on both Deus Ex: Invisible War and Thief: Deadly Shadows simultaneously. Because the company had effectively doubled in size, Spector decided to take on a more managerial role, and let other people oversee each game’s development. Harvey Smith was selected to direct the second Deus Ex, while Randy Smith (no-relation to Harvey) was hired to oversee Thief. Chris Norden left Ion Storm Austin almost immediately after Deus Ex was completed.
Spector decided that he would not interfere with the direction of either game, and let both designers make the decisions they wanted to make. It’s a decision that he now regrets. “I probably should have given those guys more direction, and not let them make some mistakes that I saw them making.”
For the sequel to Deus Ex, Smith wanted to retain the multifaceted approach that players could adopt in play, but ensure that the experience was uniform across the entire game. “Looking at the missions for Deus Ex, some of them were kinda just all over the place. Not all of them were like science fiction dystopia … and some of them were pretty far afield. Some of them were more RPG, some were less RPG,” Smith says.
As part of this plan, Smith designed the game with a much stronger, more vivid aesthetic, moving the game much farther in the future and imbuing it with a far more overt cyberpunk theme. This was one change that Spector saw as problematic, but decided not to bring up. “I wouldn’t have moved Invisible War so far in the future. I think part of Deus Ex is it’s a world that’s recognisable as our own,” he says. “I wouldn’t have put the player character in a purple jumpsuit. I mean, it’s a trivial point, but it just looked goofy.”
Another issue was that Smith wanted to expand upon the narrative choices from the original Deus Ex, letting players switch between factions at will and having no forced failure states. “What it meant was none of your choices actually had any real consequences. If you can always change your mind, your choices are really weakened,” Spector says.
The main problems for Invisible War (and, for that matter, Deadly Shadows) did not stem from design, but technology. Deus Ex was designed from the ground up as a PC game. Both Invisible War and Thief III were designed specifically for the Xbox, with the PC version approached as a port of the Xbox version. None of the Ion Storm team had much experience designing for console, and so they were disappointed to find the Xbox had a fraction of the power of a PC at the time. “The maps had to get so small a lot of our gameplay didn’t work,” Spector says. “It was kind of a surprise to us and there wasn’t much we could do about it.”
Although today Invisible War is viewed as a disappointment, at the time of its release it reviewed fairly well and to date has sold more copies than the original Deus Ex. Although the project was a difficult one, Smith believes there are still good things about the game. “The Antarctic mission that was kind of a call-out to The Thing, one of my favourite movies,” he says, as an example. “Starting off in an apartment, finding out it’s a lab is a very Philip K. Dick move that we wanted to make. The Black Market Augmentations and how they work, along with the other biomods, so you can put together a bunch of drones and stuff. There were lots of little things along the way that we liked.”
Perhaps because of the immediate comparison with Deus Ex, Invisible War is often viewed as the game that got away from Ion Storm Austin. But in terms of what the developers had planned, the game that came out most compromised from under Spector’s watch was Thief: Deadly Shadows.
As a lifelong Thief fan, hearing about elements of the game which never made it out of Ion Storm Austin is agonising. Originally, Deadly Shadows was meant to be twice as long. Every level designer was given two levels to design for the game, but early in development they were all asked to scrap one of those levels. Jordan Thomas’s two missions were the Cradle, which made it into the game, and the Grave, which didn’t. “The Grave was specifically a massive sort of death-processing facility owned by the Hammerite faction,” says Thomas. “And it was going to double down on the idea of religious notions of death and the cycle of the soul leaving the body, and sort of delve into some of the Victorian reuses of corpses.”
In addition, the freely explorable city Deadly Shadows introduced was intended to be many times larger than it appeared in the final game. Thomas states that Emil Pagliarulo, the designer who created Thief II’s famous ‘Life of the Party’ mission had “a legendary build-out of what the geometry of the docks might have been. And it was almost 100% scrapped by the time we finished”.
The reason behind this ruthless cutting down was partly to do with the console focus. But equally significant was that the studio went against its own mantra, and began designing its own technology. For both Invisible War and Deadly Shadows, Ion Storm Austin created a custom renderer that could project real-time shadows from every character and object.
“It was a combination of videogame technological sort-of one-upmanship early on, combined with an imagined notion that real-time shadows would lead to dynamism in gameplay scenarios that Thief II couldn’t deliver,” Thomas says. “The fantasy of what we would do when the shadow of a pillar would truly move, and you could stay inside that shadow as the guard with the torch crossed through a room with thick enough columns, it sounded really good on paper.”
But the combination of this advanced renderer (which beat Doom 3 for real-time shadows by about a year) and the limited power of the Xbox meant that huge swathes of the game had to be cut down to get it in. “It ended up being one of the decisions that most of the team felt was a massive mistake,” Thomas says. “The city sections, good gravy, we reduced those to almost nothing.”
Ion Storm Dallas may have been notorious for its arrogance, but there was more than sufficient hubris to go around at Ion Storm Austin too. It just emerged in a different form. From its Looking Glass genetics, Austin inherited the culture of the auteur, that blend of artiste and academic that dedicated itself heart, mind and soul to the idea they were chasing, and where the ends justified the means. “I’ve called it a culture of intellectual Darwinism,” says Thomas. “It was like a court case, an ongoing, months long court case in which everyone was the player’s advocate, and they were going to bring 100% of their rigour to bear on the argument, because the great god player deserved it.”
This design philosophy led to an atmosphere that could at times be exclusionary. “It led to quieter people, who are, if any degree of removal away from a heterosexual white male, to be less likely to say anything,” Thomas says. It was also an atmosphere of perfectionism. So when reviews of Invisible War and Deadly Shadows hovered in the low-80s, the effect on team morale was devastating. “We were groomed to believe that you were 90-plus on Metacritic or you are nothing,” he adds.
Shortly after the release of Deadly Shadows, Warren Spector left the company. He attributes this partly to the work equivalent of the seven-year itch—“I just get itchy, you know, to do something different”—and dissatisfaction at the kinds of games Eidos was publishing. “I remember going to E3 one year, right around the time I left, right before I left,” he says. “There were things like, ‘This time you get to kill with a meat hook, and here’s the game of kids killing cops, and here’s a racing game where the idea isn’t to win the race, it’s to create the biggest explosions.’ And, I just looked around, and I was showing Invisible War and Deadly Shadows, and I just said, ‘One of these things is not like the others.’”
Despite Spector’s departure, and the disappointment at the critical reception of Deadly Shadows and Invisible War, there was no sense that the studio’s life was nearing its end. The studio regrouped and formed designs teams for both Deus Ex 3 and Thief 4. In an echo of the company’s early years, there were two competing pitches for Deus Ex 3, one of which was Thomas’s own. “We built a crazy ambitious text only version of a narrative web, which you’ve seen in a lot of other games since, the notion of the procedural story,” he says. “It was ludicrous, but very inspiring at the time, and felt like the great dragon that everyone wanted to slay.”
Slowly, though, Ion Storm Austin began to bleed employees, leaking staff to other companies such as Midway Austin. Then, in 2005, Eidos announced a major layoff. “I was in the room where people, we had to decide how many, but which ones got the seats to stay,” says Thomas. “And it was just, it made you wonder why anyone ever assembles for any field of human endeavour.”
The remaining employees kept going, but by this point most of them were just “punching a clock”, as Thomas describes it. Then, about a year into pre-production on Deus Ex 3, the final layoff came, and Ion Storm shut its doors for good. Thomas, however, was kept on by Eidos for a few extra months, so he could finish the design document for his version of Deus Ex. “I’ve never known why they wanted that and I’ve no idea what they did with it, but I did so.” It was an ironic end for the studio. For years Ion Storm Austin had built a cult around the idea, and it took on such power that in the end Eidos perceived that was where all the value lay.
Perhaps the strangest thing about Ion Storm as a whole is how its studios were simultaneously so completely different and so very similar. Both companies were driven by sky-high ambitions, Dallas in your face and larger than life, Austin intellectual and innovative. Both companies held design as a talisman, and found themselves mired in technological problems. Dallas was demonised while Austin was evangelised, and yet both suffered from personality clashes, management foul-ups, and an inflated sense of self-worth.
Harvey Smith sums up these strange and shifting contrasts. “There were very volatile extroverts in Dallas, and Warren’s group tended to be very volatile introverts and nerds.” He recalls an example from one of Ion Storm’s release parties, where the company rented a boat on a lake. “We invited the people from Dallas down with us,” he says. “A lot of the Dallas guys just got drunk on the boat. And a lot of our people were on the inside of the boat because the sun was frying our pale skin. And we were—literally people broke out board games, and we were playing board games on this party boat.”
Welcome to the freshly relaunched RPS podcast, the Electronic Wireless Show! You might think this is episode 31, but actually it s episode 1 again. We re rebooting it, even though we just did that last year. We ve started by making it more accessible. Instead of three of us chatting about videogames between snippets of jaunty music, there s just a sad man saying Sonic the Hedgehog over and over. We re confident you ll like it. (more…)
What Works And Why is a new monthly column where Gunpoint and Heat Signature designer Tom Francis digs into the design of a game and analyses what makes it good.>
I love Deus Ex, System Shock 2, and Dishonored 2, and the name for these games is dumb: they’re ‘immersive sims’. If you asked me what I liked about them, my answer would be a phrase almost as dumb: ’emergent gameplay!’
I always used to think of these as virtually the same thing, but of course they’re not. Immersive sims usually have a whole list of traits, things like: (more…)
Deus Ex is currently biding its time as Eidos Montreal work on other projects—likely the Avengers project with Crystal Dynamics. It's reassuring to know that it the series could come back in some form, but will it be a continuation of Jensen's story, or a look at the post-humanist future from a different perspective? Either way, based on past form, there will it will have amazing ceilings, and people talking about the Illuminati in gravelly voices. If we're especially unlucky, it might even have a Greasel in it.
Here are some things we do want to see from the next Deus Ex game.
Travel is an underrated aspect of the Deus Ex fantasy. The conspiracies you expose are so vast you have to fly all over the world to unpick them. In the original Deus Ex you go from Liberty Island to Hong Kong, to Paris. In Human Revolution, in spite of the hubs cut from the game, you still end up visiting Detroit, Shanghai and Singapore. Even though Prague is the most detailed hub Eidos Montreal has produced, Mankind Divided still felt limited for being confined there for most of the game.
It’s a tough ask given the amount of work it takes to produce open areas with the density of interaction that we expect from Deus Ex. Hubs are central to the Deus Ex experience because they blend social and stealth spaces, and they give you the chance to absorb the world at your own pace. I want to really wallow in the dystopia. I don’t even need a mission prompt to infiltrate an apartment block, read emails and nick gang stashes. Like many, I robbed Prague’s amazing bank before the plot went there. Multiple hubs that feel different and exciting should be an essential part of a new Deus Ex.
This might make me a bad Deus Ex fan, but I am sick of vents. When I think about being a cool augmented future spy the idea of crawling around on my hands and knees in a boring grey tube doesn’t feature. There are always going to be some vents, I accept that. They are an essential path for stealthy players looking to slip behind guards. It’s a problem when ‘find a vent’ is a viable solution to every problem. I like vents that give me the chance to get an advantageous position on guards, but often they let you skip entire chunks of a level.
The vent problem is part of a wider issue with Deus Ex sandboxes. The approaches you can take are tightly defined for you. You’re the hacker specialist, or you’re the vent player, or your’re the one who shoots/arm-chisels your way through problems. These approaches are baked into each environment. If you come across a checkpoint, there will be a vent off to the right, a computer console to be hacked somewhere to the left behind a couple of guards. It’s hard to break out of these prescribed routes and be creative. Compare Deus Ex to Dishonored 2, for example, where interactions between guard AI and your special powers can be more inventive and there is skill in finding new ways to exploit the sandbox.
What were the stakes in Mankind Divided? I still have no idea, really. The game went hard on the ‘mechanical apartheid’ angle but the plot obsessed over a virus called Orchid and power struggles between various groups trying to get an act passed, or not passed, or something. This is hardly a new problem for Deus Ex, and game plots can take a real hit when content is cut and rearranged during the development process. Nonetheless I’d like more clarity from a new Deus Ex, and more personality. Mankind Divided sorely missed big characters like Sarif and even Pritchard in central roles.
I'm torn on this one. I like Jensen, I really do, and normally I don’t care about gruff beardy dudes and their various dead/captured loved ones. Jensen has a good beard, though. And good jackets. And he uses his retractable carbon fibre radiuses to brutalise his enemies, which is novel. And yes, his “I didn’t ask for this” dilemma became a meme, but it was an interesting hook for the first game.
Mankind Divided did Jensen no favours. He was buffeted along by the plot with little personal involvement and after both this game and The Missing Link, it’s increasingly hard to rejustify rebooting his powers yet again. Plus, while I’m still not tired of his armblades, it feels like we’ve seen every possible permutation of that idea in Mankind Divided. You can heat them up, shoot them, and blow them up with the right upgrades. It's time for some new augmentations.
A new character would probably have to be a another commando/spy sort so you have an excuse to go on sneaking missions, and must have a cool coat—that part is mandatory.
Deus Ex and genre stablemate Dishonored both have reputations for delivering good, chunky, post-launch singleplayer stories in the form of DLC packs. The Missing Link was an excellent addition to Human Revolution, and Andy enjoyed breaking out of prison in A Criminal Past.
When the marketing first started talking about the "Deus Ex Universe", this is the sort of thing I was hoping for: self-contained stories that slot in around the main plot. In fact I would play the heck out of a Hitman style episodic Deus Ex that moved between hubs and facilities, developing a story bit by bit.
The new Deus Ex games imagine a world built on the humble triangle. Buildings, clothing, weapons, even lamps are made up of polygonal arrangements of tiny triangles everywhere, and this should continue. If we end up struggling to design a new protagonist for the Deus Ex series a mobile, heavily augmented triangle will suffice.
The CEO of Square Enix, Yosuke Matsuda, has spoken out about the future of Deus Ex. At the start of this year, Eurogamer reported that we shouldn’t expect a new Deus Ex game anytime soon – and they’re right, though we should get one eventually. It simply isn’t Deus Ex’s turn yet, with the studio first focusing on other projects such as the next Tomb Raider and an Avengers game.
Matsuda explained all this in an interview with GamesIndustry.biz, where he also talked about Final Fantasy’s anime spin off, the studio’s approach to the Eastern and Western markets, as well as augmented and virtual reality.
Earlier this year, Jody considered the uncertain future of games like Deus Ex and Dishonored in the wake of poor sales. Within, Eidos Montreal said it was "not quite ready" to answer questions on why the former had underperformed, nor would it commit to the possibility of new Deus Ex games down the line.
In conversation with gamesindustry.biz, Square Enix CEO Yosuke Matsuda has all but confirmed Deus Ex will live on—despite other projects taking priority at present. Square Enix has published the series since 2011's Human Revolution.
"We have never said anything about discontinuing that title but for some reason that's the rumour out on the market," Matsuda tells GI.biz. "What I can say is Eidos Montreal has always developed Deus Ex, and the issue is we do not have limitless resources. We have several big titles that we work with and that's partly a factor in what our line-up looks like."
Matsuda adds: "Of course, it would be ideal if we could work on all of them all of the time, but the fact of the matter is some titles have to wait their turn. The reason there isn't a Deus Ex right now is just a product of our development line-up because there are other titles we are working on."
Matsuda recently spoke in praise of Hitman developer IO Interactive, saying that while Square Enix could no longer invest in the series, he was sure "it wouldn't be Hitman unless made by IO". Somewhat similarly, Matsuda describes Deus Ex as a "very important franchise" before stating he and his colleagues are "already internally discussing and exploring what we want do with the next instalment of it."
Gamesindustry.biz's interview with Matsuda is worth reading in full—find it in this direction.
There are more wonderful games being released on PC each month than ever before. In such a time of plenty, it’s important that you spend your time as wisely as possible. Thankfully, we’re here to help. What follows are our picks for the best PC games ever made. (more…)
Every week, we ask our panel of PC Gamer writers a question about PC gaming. This week: which classic PC game is on your pile of shame? Oh, boy. We also welcome your answers in the comments.
I know this is an important game. I know it inspired some of my favourite developers. I know some consider it superior to BioShock. But still it remains unplayed in my Steam library. It doesn't help that the twist is so frequently, wildly spoiled, like the videogame equivalent of The Sixth Sense. I'd love to have experienced it without knowing a thing about it, and I think that's the main reason I haven't given it a go yet: knowing I'll be getting an inferior experience. Ultimately I think I'd rather just read about this in 'best of' lists than actually dive into it myself.
I'm not sure why or how, but I never got into KOTOR. It's weird, because I liked many of BioWare's other games, and PC Gamer gave it a 91 back in the day. Whatever the cause (episodes 1-3 of the movies?), I skipped it at launch and didn't do the sequel either. Looking to rectify things, I acquired the Steam version of the game in 2009, probably as part of some game bundle. Eight years later, Steam tells me I still haven't even played the game. The graphics now look a bit dated, but that's not necessarily a stumbling block. But as proof of how old KOTOR is, you can even play the entire game on an Android device. Fun fact: I also 'own' KOTOR via Amazon Underground, which I installed on an Nvidia Shield Tablet at one point...and still never played. What is wrong with me!? Maybe one of these days I'll get around to visiting the original, but SteamLeft tells me it would take a mere 150 days of constant gaming to tackle all of my game library. Yeah, I'll get right on that...
I adore Bioshock, Deus Ex and the idea of the immersive sim, but for some reason I've never committed myself to truly playing through System Shock 2, possibly the best there ever was. I've only dabbled, getting a taste for the game and fiddling with it to run well on a modern PC. I don't even know why. Perhaps simply because it's intimidating. There are so many games I can play half-heartedly, devoting only some of my full attention. Those are often the games I turn to when I come home tired after a long day.But that wouldn't fly with System Shock 2. It demands and deserves commitment. I need to fully explore its systems and space station hallways, commit to mastering some RPG mechanics that are likely a bit clunky 18 years later, and read every scrap of worldbuilding I come across. I know I'll love it... someday. When the mood strikes, and I have the time to give SHODAN the attention she needs.
I'm not an MMO guy, and I don't think I ever will be. My many hours of GTA Online are probably as close as I'll ever get, and there's only so much time to spare. Warcraft fell between the gaps of my parents owning a PC that could run it, and that meant that by the time I could afford my own PC in 2009, I was already years behind. Since then, I've resigned myself to the fact that singleplayer games are mostly my passion, despite owning WoW and even having bought game time to try it out.
I'm sure it's very good, but that type of fantasy setting doesn't particularly appeal to me. I'm more likely to try Guild Wars 2 instead. Sorry.
Wow, I hate even admitting that especially since it's such an influential game and definitely the kind of game I would love. I just completely missed it when it came out and I never got around to it. When I finally did try it a few years ago, I was just like, ew. Ugly. I guess I'm a bit of a graphics snob, and have a really hard time playing older games unless I've got some nostalgia for them (the original Half-Life, for example, I can jump right in and feel fine).
Same thing happened with Morrowind. I tried it for the first time a couple years ago and, nope. I just couldn't bear the looks. I am a shallow, shallow person.
I tried, I really did. Whenever I try to get back into this classic cRPG I find myself getting bored halfway through the gloomy opening dungeon. I like the humour and the mysterious premise, but something about those stone grey environments made the idea of sinking another 50 hours into the game seem arduous. From everything I've read about it I know that I'll probably love it if I give it more of a chance. Maybe I will migrate to a desert island with a laptop and maroon myself for a month so I can finally wade into next year's Top 100 discussions having played it.
Warren Spector is stuck in Prey. The director of Deus Ex, who has worked on many games since labeled "immersive sims"—in fact, he coined the term in —has been playing the modern games inspired by classics like Thief and System Shock. But he hasn't finished Prey yet. Or, as he puts it: "The crew quarters are kicking my butt."
He's enjoying it though, just as he enjoyed the other recent immersive sim from Arkane Studios, Dishonored 2. "I thought they were both excellent examples of what I think of when I say 'immersive sim,'" Spector says. "They removed barriers to belief that I was in another world and they let me approach problems as problems, rather than as puzzles. I'm really glad Arkane exists and that they're so committed to the genre. Without them I'd have fewer games to play!"
Spector's not the only one who'd mourn their loss. Arkane is still around, but there's this uneasy feeling in the air that there's now some reason to worry. Not about Arkane, necessarily, but the immersive sim in general, this genre held up as the shining example of PC gaming at its most smartest and most complex. None of the last three big-budget immersive sims—Prey, Dishonored 2, and Eidos Montreal’s Deus Ex: Mankind Divided—have broken a million sales on Steam.
It's always been a niche genre, defined by player freedom, environmental storytelling, and a lot of reading diary entries. How long can they be propped up by the fact that some designers really like making them?
In the 1990s and early 2000s immersive sims seemed like the future, an obvious extension of what 3D spaces and believable physics and improving AI could do when working together. But they rarely sold well. When Ion Storm’s third Thief and second Deus Ex game flopped, the studio closed. Looking Glass Studios, responsible for System Shock, Ultima Underworld, and the first two Thief games, was already gone. The immersive sim went into hibernation for years.
Despite the love and praise for games like Deus Ex, they're not easy to sell to players. Jean-François Dugas, executive director of the Deus Ex franchise at its current owners Eidos Montreal, says it can be tough even convincing people to make games that let players deviate from the critical path.
"You need to realize and accept that you will build a ton of material that a good part of your audience will miss," he says. "Since you are building possibilities through game mechanics and narrative scenarios, you know that you might not be able to bring all the pieces to the quality level you would like. You have to rely on the effect of the sum of the parts to transcend it all. The GTA series is a great example of that. When you look at all the pieces individually, they’re not the best in class but what they offer their audience when combined is unparalleled. After that, there is a big effort required to convince your team and upper management that spending money on things that many players will not see is a good idea," he says with a laugh.
Spector disagrees with the notion that immersive sims are harder to convince publishers on. "Honestly, I haven't really noticed any particular challenge. It's not like you go into a pitch throwing around geeky genre identifiers. The reality is that immersive sims are action games, first and foremost and most people get that. It's just that the player gets to decide what sort of action he or she engages in and when to do so. Selling action games isn't that tough. Well, at least it's no tougher than selling any other game idea—they're all tough to sell!"
After Looking Glass and Ion Storm's closure the influence of immersive sims was still felt, as people who'd worked on those games brought similar ideas to Oblivion, Fallout 3, and BioShock. The immersive sim philosophy survived in STALKER, Pathologic, and the early projects of Arkane Studios, Arx Fatalis and Dark Messiah of Might & Magic.
And then in 2011 Eidos Montreal's prequel Deus Ex: Human Revolution came along, a true immersive sim and one with the Deus Ex name stamped across it. It sold . The year after that Arkane teamed with Bethesda to bring out Dishonored, a game in the lineage of Thief which enjoyed "" of the year. Sequels to both followed, as well as Prey, Arkane's spiritual successor to System Shock. The immersive sim was back.
And yet in 2016, Mankind Divided's launch sales were significantly lower than Human Revolution's. In response the series has seemingly been put on hold, though a publicist told me Eidos Montreal are "not quite ready" to answer questions on why it appears to have failed, or whether there will ever be another full-size Deus Ex.
There are plenty of potential reasons why Deus Ex: Mankind Divided sold disappointingly. It launched a long five years after its predecessor. Its microtransactions and pre-order model were unpopular, and though reviews were positive, most noted that it felt shorter and had an even less satisfying ending than Human Revolution. And yet, though they lacked those specific problems, neither of Arkane's immersive sims was a smash hit either. Perhaps Dishonored 2's launch issues on PC hurt sales, though the history of video games is full of rocky launches that sold like gangbusters. As I write this, Car Mechanic Simulator 2018 is still in Steam's top 25 in spite of its bugginess.
Even in their heyday all it took was two commercial failures, Deus Ex: Invisible War and Thief: Deadly Shadows, for immersive sims to go out of fashion for years. Are we about to see that happen again?
Human Revolution and Dishonored both seemed to find an audience beyond traditional immersive sim fans, beyond the people who know to try 0451 in every combination lock . Their success encouraged Eidos Montreal and Arkane to go ahead with big-budget follow-ups, but of course games cost a lot to make, both in terms of time and money, need to justify that with strong sales.
Spector says, "it's clear that there hasn't been a huge immersive sim hit on par with some of the other video games out there. I mean, we're still waiting for the game that sells a gazillion copies! I think part of the reason for that is that immersive sims require—or at least encourage—people to think before they act. They tend not to be games where you just move forward like a shark and inevitably succeed. In the best immersive sims, you have to assess the situation you're in, make a plan and then execute that plan, dealing with any consequences that follow. That's asking a lot of players who basically have to do that every moment of their waking lives—in the real world, I mean."
Dishonored 2 applies the immersive sim's freeform gameplay to combat like nothing before it.
It wasn't just immersive sims that didn't sell as well as expected in 2016, however. Titanfall 2, Street Fighter V, and Watch Dogs 2 also struggled for their own reasons—while big, acclaimed games like Overwatch and Battlefield 1 dominated. Dugas says that "your product needs to be more than 'GOOD' today to be successful—whether you are making a movie or a game. People have options and last time I checked there are only 24 hours in a day. If you are not good enough, your audience has gone somewhere else. Bottom line: I believe that if we make outstanding games, no matter what type of genre it is in, people will be there, whether it’s an immersive sim or not."
Jordan Thomas, who worked on Thief: Deadly Shadows and all three BioShocks before going indie with The Magic Circle, puts it this way. "Are immersive sims suffering specifically in the market or is everybody? I lean more towards the latter. I think the games space is experiencing a new boom and the simpler your concept is to communicate the more likely you are to find your demographic quickly because they're seeing hundreds and hundreds of concepts at a time. I think that immersive sims traditionally have struggled a little bit with helping people to understand what they're about because they're about many things. They're about a feeling, a cross-section of ideas, whereas a game that is like, 'No—this is just to quote Garth Marenghi—Balls-to-the-wall horror,' it's easier for people to wrap their heads around from a marketing perspective."
Making games like these is expensive, too. "Looking at something like Prey," Thomas continues, "everything is just sparkling. The sheer amount of salesmanship that can go into all of the different reactions that the player can concoct with their chemistry set—literally, in that game, but you know what I mean. The idea of objects being combined to some clever result, every single inch of it shines."
As an indie developer, that level of detail and scope is simply out of reach. "I do think that most indie games that would self-accept the label immersive sim have to compromise because the games that typically are associated with this subgenre were kitchen-sink games."
Perhaps immersive sims are just a particularly tough sell in a crowded market. The next ones on the horizon—a Dishonored 2 expandalone, a spiritual sequel to Ultima Underworld, and both a new System Shock and a remake of the original—might face the same problem. They all have something else in common, though. They're all tied directly to existing immersive sims, whether directly or spiritually. None of them are brand new ideas.
It's said that though few people saw the Velvet Underground live, everyone who did seems to have formed a band of their own. The original Deus Ex sold 500,000 copies, a decent amount at the time, and it can seem like practically everyone who bought a copy became a game designer (or at least a games journalist) after studying from its design bible. Its influence is unavoidable, as is System Shock's. That's not to say their influence makes for bad games. Prey is the best thing I've played this year, even though it's essentially System Shock 2 with zero-gravity bits. But there's perhaps a limit to the number of spiritual sequels to the same games we really need. If poor sales motivate future immersive sims to move further from their roots, to try out new settings and inspirations, that might be a silver lining to their current troubles.
Hope comes in the shapes of games that incorporate some of the core elements of immersive sims without being kitchen sinks. Thomas gives the example of Near Death, a survival game set on an Antarctic research base.
"Near Death is made by folks who worked on assorted BioShocks and Deus Exes," he says, "but it is not oriented towards combat whatsoever. It is set in a world with no magic, just you versus an environment which, arguably, is one of the callsigns you might associate with immersive sims." It's another game that presents problems rather than puzzles, in "a fully realized environment that has rules that you must learn in order to eke out an existence. It is that concept writ large. You are trying not to freeze to death and you are using your wits to combine systemic objects in the environment based on some amount of real-world common sense."
It may not seem like it when you're punching a tree to collect wood for the hundredth time, but according to Thomas there's a direct connection.
"I honestly feel like a lot of the people who are building these ultra-successful early access survival games are influenced by immersive sim design. That notion of systems alchemy is at the core of that. When the trend caught on it felt fresh, right? It felt liberated from some of the rhetoric associated with immersive sims and very seldom about story at all. It's if you took the parts of the genre that we used to say we loved, which were that all of the rules of the game could be atomized and combined into new molecules—that's what we told ourselves as developers of these things. 'This is a real place, man! With a sort of mathematics that you can learn to speak and you're gonna express your mastery through doing that!' But survival games are that crystallized and they let go of a lot of the high-minded philosophy and let atavism rule."
Survival games aren't the only place the influence of immersive sims is felt. New open-world RPGs and sandbox games are all obliged to emphasize player choice. Horror games like Alien: Isolation and Resident Evil 7 borrow directly from the immersive sim playbook right down to the environmental storytelling through graffiti, and stealth games like Hitman with creative paths to murder can evoke the same feeling. Indie games like Consortium, The Magic Circle, and even Spider: Rite of the Shrouded Moon each take aspects of the immersive sim each and expand on them, and so do walking simulators. Both Gone Home and Tacoma take the bit of Thief where you rummage through someone's belongings and read their diary, building up an idea of who they are, and make that the entire game. Tacoma is even set on an abandoned space station, possibly the most immersive sim location imaginable.
If immersive sims become too commercially risky for the current climate, and if they go into hibernation for another decade, they won't really be gone. Thanks to the spread of their concepts throughout games they can't really go anywhere—because they're already everywhere.
Have You Played? is an endless stream of game retrospectives. One a day, every day, perhaps for all time.>
There are lots of things I love about NEO Scavenger [official site]. I love how, despite its lo-fi visuals, it conveys the fickle fortunes and indifferent cruelty of a wilderness better than many technologically superior survival games. I love its ridiculously detailed combat system that lets you rugby-tackle feral dogs. I love the ambient sound effects that convey the misleading serenity of its natural environments; the chirping of birds, the wind in the trees, the soft crunch of grass underfoot. Delightful. (more…)