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The latest entry in the Digital Antiquarian blog documents Interplay's journey as an independent developer/publisher. We learn a bit about such titles as Battle Chess, Neuromancer, and Dragon Wars. And then we get treated to a lengthy section going over Interplay's attempts to make a licensed Lord of the Rings RPG. It's quite a long read, but highly entertaining. Here's an excerpt:
Paul Jaquays had discovered Dungeons & Dragons in 1975 in his first year of art college and never looked back. After founding The Dungeoneer, one of the young industry’s most popular early fanzines, he kicked around as a free-lance writer, designer, and illustrator, coming to know most of the other tabletop veterans we’ve already met in the context of their work with Interplay. Then he spent the first half of the 1980s working on videogames for Coleco; he was brought on there by none other than Wasteland designer Michael Stackpole. Jaquays, however, remained at Coleco much longer than Stackpole, rising to head their design department. When Coleco gave up on their ColecoVision console and laid off their design staff in 1985, Jaquays went back to freelancing in both tabletop and digital gaming. Thus it came to pass that Brian Fargo signed him up to make Interplay’s next CRPG while Dragon Wars was still in production. The game was to be called Secrets of the Magi. While it was to have run on the 8-bit Commodore 64 among other platforms, it was planned as a fast-paced, real-time affair, in marked contrast to Interplay’s other CRPGs, with free-scrolling movement replacing their grid-based movement, action-oriented combat replacing their turn-based combat. But the combination of the commercial disappointment that had been Dragon Wars and the collapse of the 8-bit market which it signified combined with an entirely new development to change most of those plans. Jaquays was told one day by one of Magi‘s programmers that “we’re not doing this anymore. We’re doing a Lord of the Rings game.”
Fargo’s eyes had been opened to the possibilities for literary adaptations by his friendship with Timothy Leary, which had led directly to Interplay’s adaptation of Neuromancer and, more indirectly but more importantly in this context, taught him something about wheeling and dealing with the established powers of Old Media. At the time, the Tolkien estate, the holders of J.R.R. Tolkien’s literary copyrights, were by tacit agreement with Tolkien Enterprises, holders of the film license, the people to talk to if you wanted to create a computer game based on Tolkien. The only publisher that had yet released such a beast was Australia’s Melbourne House, who over the course of the 1980s had published four text adventures and a grand-strategy game set in Middle-earth. But theirs wasn’t an ongoing licensing arrangement; it had been negotiated anew for each successive game. And they hadn’t managed to make a Tolkien game that became a notable critical or commercial success since their very first one, a text-adventure adaptation of The Hobbit from way back in 1982. In light of all this, there seemed ample reason to believe that the Tolkien estate might be amenable to changing horses. So, Brian Fargo called them up and asked if he could make a pitch.
One has to suspect that Fargo’s honest desire to make a Lord of the Rings game for all the right reasons was indeed the determining factor. Christopher Tolkien, always the prime mover among J.R.R. Tolkien’s heirs, has always approached the question of adaptation with an eye to respecting and preserving the original literary works above all other considerations. And certainly the Tolkien estate must have seen little reason to remain loyal to Melbourne House, whose own adaptations had grown so increasingly lackluster since the glory days of their first Hobbit text adventure.
A bemused but more than willing Paul Jacquays thus saw his Secrets of the Magi transformed into a game with the long-winded title — licensing deals produce nothing if not long-winded titles — of J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, Volume 1. (For some reason known only to the legal staff, the name The Fellowship of the Ring wasn’t used, even though the part of Tolkien’s story covered by the game dovetails almost perfectly with the part covered by that first book in the trilogy.) While some of the ideas that were to have gone into Jaquays’s original plan for Secrets of the Magi were retained, such as the real-time play and free-scrolling movement, the game would now be made for MS-DOS rather than the Commodore 64. Combined with the Tolkien license, which elevated the game at a stroke to the status of the most high-profile ongoing project at Interplay, the switch in platforms led to a dramatic up-scaling in ambition.
Thrilled though everyone had been to acquire the license, making The Lord of the Rings, by far the biggest thing Interplay had ever done in terms of sheer amount of content, turned into a difficult grind that was deeply affected by external events, starting with a certain crisis of identity and ending with a full-blown existential threat.
Interplay finished development on the game in a mad frenzy, with the company in full crisis mode, trying to get it done in time for the Christmas of 1990. But in the end, they were forced to make the painful decision to miss that deadline, allowing the release date to slip to the beginning of 1991. Then, with it shipping at last, they waited to see whether their bet-the-company game would indeed save their skins. Early results were not encouraging.
Once you got beyond the awful, unwieldy name, J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, Volume 1 seemingly had everything going for it: a developer with heaps of passion and heaps of experience making CRPGs, a state-of-the-art free-scrolling engine with full-screen graphics, and of course a license for the most universally known and beloved series of books in all of fantasy fiction. It ought to have been a sure thing, a guaranteed hit if ever there was one. All of which makes its reception and subsequent reputation all the more surprising. If it wasn’t quite greeted with a collective shrug, Interplay’s first Tolkien game was treated with far more skepticism than its pedigree might lead one to expect.
Some people were doubtful of the very idea of trying to adapt Tolkien, that most holy name in the field of fantasy, into a game in much the same way that some Christians might be doubtful of making Jesus Christ the star of a game. For those concerned above all else with preserving the integrity of the original novel, Interplay’s approach to the task of adaptation could only be aggravating. Paul Jaquays had many talents, but he wasn’t J.R.R. Tolkien, and the divisions between content drawn from the books and new content were never hard to spot. What right had a bunch of game developers to add on to Middle-earth? It’s a question, of course, with no good answer.
But even those who were more accepting of the idea of The Lord of the Rings in game form found a lot of reasons to complain about this particular implementation of the idea. The most immediately obvious issue was the welter of bugs. Bugs in general were becoming a more and more marked problem in the industry as a whole as developers strained to churn out ever bigger games capable of running on an ever more diverse collection of MS-DOS computing hardware. Still, even in comparison to its peers Interplay’s Lord of the Rings game is an outlier, being riddled with quests that can’t be completed, areas that can’t be accessed, dialog that doesn’t make sense. Its one saving grace is the generosity and flexibility that Jaquays baked into the design, which makes it possible to complete the game even though it can sometimes seem like at least half of it is broken in one way or another. A few more months all too obviously should have been appended to the project, even if it was already well behind schedule. Given the state of the game Interplay released in January of 1991, one shudders to think what they had seriously considered rushing to market during the holiday season.
Unlike Dragon Wars, which despite its initial disappointing commercial performance has gone on to attain a cult-classic status among hardcore CRPG fans, the reputations of the two Interplay Lord of the Rings games have never been rehabilitated. Indeed, to a large extent the games have simply been forgotten, bizarre though that situation reads given their lineage in terms of both license and developer. Being neither truly, comprehensively bad games nor truly good ones, they fall into a middle ground of unmemorable mediocrity. In response to their poor reception by a changing marketplace, Interplay would all but abandon CRPGs for the next several years. The company The Bard’s Tale had built could now make a lot more money in other genres. If there’s one thing the brief marriage of Interplay with Tolkien demonstrates, it’s that a sure thing is never a sure thing.