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Cyberpunked: the Fall of Black9

Erin Hoffman | 20 May 2008 09:15
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The Ninth Circle
The producer's disruptive influence notwithstanding, production continued, and the team finally hit its stride. Seven of 12 planned levels were complete; multiplayer functioned and radically expanded; art quality rapidly improved; voiceover was in place and functioning, as were 80 percent of the weapons. The game hit that mystical realization point, where it goes from an idea to an actual interactive experience. It's this moment in which a game, for the first time, becomes alive.

Despite many late nights and early mornings in the office, things were looking up. So that, of course, was when everything went straight to hell. Communication between Taldren and Majesco broke down even further, and Taldren began, perhaps belatedly, planning an exit strategy: They rapidly organized and quietly pitched a second property to a handful of other publishers.

Around this time Majesco sent "programmer assistance": two programmers whose primary purpose turned out to be uploading our source code to New Jersey in the middle of the night - the only time the office was empty. During the day they would ask probing questions about the build process and the game's design.

The exit strategy almost worked. Taldren was in the advanced stages of closing a contract with Vivendi when Vivendi's purchasing department suddenly reorganized and froze their acquisitions. In late September Majesco called Taldren's founders out to New Jersey under the guise of a peace offering. There they were informed that Majesco would no longer be paying Taldren (including the severance fee expressed in the contract), and further would be taking the project in-house. They intended to lay off the development team, but offer the founders jobs in New Jersey.

Remember: Black9 was original IP. Majesco did not retain rights to it. What they were casually proposing was the brute-force corporate theft of a game from its creators.

It was, of course, a scare tactic. Majesco knew the team was demoralized to the extreme by this point; knew most developers will do almost anything in order to finish their game and get paid. They fully anticipated that Taldren would sacrifice its workforce wholesale to see the game through to completion, even in light of Majesco's flagrantly unethical and illegal behavior.

What Majesco didn't count on was Taldren's founders' decision to remain honest with the development team. Where other studio heads would have maintained development by any means necessary, including masking the crisis from the developers, Taldren's founders, by this point, were exhausted, angry and past desperation. They stared down the truth and closed the studio.

Majesco was stunned. Maybe even more stunned than we were.

I look back on my personal journal entries from that time, and the infamous company meeting when the bosses announced what would eventually become Black9's "indefinite hiatus." The grief process is there, starting with denial. "I'm not terrifically concerned about this. ... The game is too far along, and too good already, for any sane publisher to just drop it right now."

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