Man In The Moonbase (Part 1) : The Death and Life of the Best Game You Never Played
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.
In 2002, Humongous Entertainment was a troubled company still beloved for its catalogue of popular tween-oriented adventure games. But its masterpiece was a turn-based strategy title that broke all of the rules: Moonbase Commander -- the best game you probably never played.
IN THE EARLY SUMMER of 2001, an unexpected email invited all three-hundred-plus Humongous Entertainment employees to a surprise off-site gathering at a hotel a few miles west of their main office in Bothell, Washington. The text was spare, lacking fanfare and context:
June 13th, 2001
Important announcement to all Humongous Employees. We are conducting a mandatory, all day, company meeting off-site tomorrow … All employees except Technical Support are required to attend. The meeting will start at 9 o’clock, please be prompt. Directions to the hotel are below and there will be copies of directions in the lobby.
Delivered early on a Wednesday morning, the invitation came as a surprise to almost everyone — unusual for such a large company with an admirable history of executive-level transparency. Not this time. Today the suits were playing a serious game of obfuscation.
Over the course of that morning, as more and more people parsed the email's vague details, the mood around the office fluctuated between cautiously hopeful and apoplectic. Those holding half-full mugs of burnt complimentary filter-coffee wondered if this wasn't an impromptu celebration for a long winter of arduous work and modest sales. In an industry still reeling in the aftershocks of the Y2K tech-bubble burst, Humongous Entertainment had survived mostly intact by hunkering down, sharpening its tools, and burning the furniture in order to keep doing what it did best: releasing budget PC adventure games for children in a timely and efficient manner. As far as the company's foot soldiers were aware, they had marched bravely through a dozen dire months and pulled through with the bottom-line intact.
The first half of that Wednesday unfolded into the afternoon with no further information. Just after lunch a second email appeared, another company-wide commandment warning employees of an impending network shutdown. Once again the details were hazy — at some point between three and four o’clock all servers would go offline for emergency maintenance. Employees were asked to leave the office and take the rest of the day off.
Few objected to the reprieve, but it was now impossible to ignore the ominous portent of these parallel surprises. By the time the servers quit spinning, the halls of the office were teeming with gossiping employees who had nothing but their guts to go by. But there was nothing more to say. By 4:30 that afternoon the lots fore and aft of Humongous Entertainment were empty.
Around 7pm someone returned. Maybe he was an artist hoping to finish a few more matte paintings before the week’s end, or a programmer struck by a sudden solution to a nagging problem. Or maybe he just preferred the office to home. Whatever the reason for his return, he never made it past the front door. His keycard had been disabled.
Two, three, four times he swiped it across the sensor with a casual, practiced swipe. Nothing happened. He pressed his face against the glass doors and nosed around, eyeing left and right to catch a glimpse of someone inside. The offices beyond stayed dark, inert with a stillness that suggested abandonment.
Nervous, the employee sprinted back to his car and sped away. He made a few phone calls on the way home. Nobody he spoke with knew what to make of his story. He worried.
The following morning on the near side of 9 am, employees began to trickle into the Embassy Suites Hotel in Lynnwood — a boxy lodging north of Seattle couched beside a freeway on an unremarkable stretch of overgrown urban verdure. Passing through the lobby, they made their way to the conference area where a smiling face standing behind a small podium greeted them. That face instructed them to line up single-file and wait. No further information was given.
At that point it’s unclear how many employees had heard the rumors now circulating about this meeting’s true purpose. Perhaps the story of the deactivated access card had gone viral. Certainly the collective mood was darker than the day before. There was no precedent for this cold bureaucratic contrivance.
When the majority of employees had been accounted for, those in the queue were ushered forward past the podium. As each person filed by, he or she gave his or her name to someone from the Human Resources department. That person checked the name given against a printed list and this resulted in a room assignment, one of two options — Mount Baker or Mount Rainier, conference rooms named for prominent Washington State peaks.
Rudely cleaved from friends and colleagues, each employee passed down a narrow hall and then through one of two doors into his or her assigned room. Both rooms filled fast, burbling with persistent chatter as people took their seats. Some minutes beyond the meeting’s advertised start time, occupants of the Mount Baker conference room finally got the news many already feared. A recently installed Humongous executive stood up and addressed them frankly.
They had all been fired.
The occupants of Mount Baker erupted in a rumble of resentment. The exec leapt back and the rented security guards stepped forward. But this precaution was unnecessary. The shock of the moment was quickly morphing into irritation, not violence. With one sharp slice, approximately a third of Humongous Entertainment’s workforce had been wiped out. Easy and efficient. So why bother with all this extravagant and wasteful corporate theater? It was an embarrassing way to go, culled from the herd by an efficient sorting scheme and sent packing with a brief speech. These now-former employees looked around the room and roughly counted the number of heads, looking for faces they knew and making note of those they couldn’t find.
A few dozen feet away, the occupants of Mount Rainier — those who had been spared — were learning the fate of their colleagues. It's impossible to judge how lucky any one of them felt, but almost nobody was what anyone would call relieved. The sadism of this spectacle was too cruel to leave anyone feeling safe. When both meetings concluded a short time later, employees and now-former employees poured into the lobby and spilled into the parking lot in a cyclone of disbelief, anger, and resignation. Then everyone went home.
In the days that followed there remained one last pinch of salt for the wounds of the recently chopped. Terminated employees had been told they would need to make individual appointments to return to the office and collect their personal belongings, a process that would be overseen by a personal escort to prevent any looting or theft of company assets. This procedure did not, however, allow for the collection of any work samples that employees had produced for the company — artwork, documents, examples of code to bolster their portfolios — most of which was tucked safely away on the Humongous’s internal network.
Instead, to honor the dozens upon dozens of requests for material, Humongous invited former employees to send an email with a list of their desired data. If properly vetted and approved, the work would be forwarded. On its face, it was a simple scheme. Whether it bore fruit however, is another matter. At least one former employee I talked to was promised everything he asked for. After weeks of queries, waiting, and follow-ups, he got nothing. After a few months, he stopped asking.
Founded one day before Halloween in 1992 by producer Shelly Day and Monkey Island creator Ron Gilbert — using a name suggested by fellow adventure-game luminary, Tim Schaffer — the original Humongous Entertainment entered the world as a game studio aimed at a thirsty but underserved pre-teen market. Its first titles were graphic-adventure games modeled on titles published by Gilbert’s alma mater, LucasArts — a rapidly disappearing mainstream genre that neverthless proved incredibly fruitful in a market hungry for top-quality content. Within four years of its founding Humongous had produced more than half a dozen games to relatively consistent critical applause, handily setting itself apart as a company dedicated to providing younger audiences with interactive entertainment of genuine worth.
In 1996 publisher and distributor GT Interactive purchased Humongous for a healthy 76 million. Although this acquisition imposed a broader business strategy on the studio, it left Ron and Shelly in the driver’s seat while giving this homespun Seattle start-up wider reach and deeper pockets. Around that same time, a group of motivated Humongous devs who had been quietly toiling under the auspices of Gilbert’s encouragement created an internal offshoot studio called Cavedog Entertainment with the specific aim of pushing a new real-time strategy IP to market. The result, one year later, was the critically acclaimed Total Annihilation. By the end of the 90s, Humongous Entertainment — still largely under Ron and Shelly’s guidance — was a name synonymous with solid content and credibility.
But this torrent of productivity was not to endure. At the tail end of 1999, parent company GT Interactive fell into a financial tailspin after reporting millions of dollars in losses due to poor sales and mounting restructuring costs. By the start of the holiday season, GT — and Humongous by extension — was up for sale. That December a French holding-company called Infogrames snapped up GT Interactive and its subsidiaries for a tidy price. By January, GT had ceased to exist and the men and women of Humongous Entertainment found themselves beholden to an overseas boss with a spring-loaded armadillo as its mascot.
My sixteen-month tenure at Humongous began just before this maelstrom at the millennium’s end. It was my first job in the game industry and my total lack of relevant experience amplified the sense of dread I felt in the throes of this transfer of corporate power. I was stunned at how silently an apparently successful company could be orphaned and adopted. But this, I was told, was preferable to the alternative: absorption, assimilation, and eradication by a larger publisher like EA or Activision. As a mere holding company, we assumed Infogrames would be content to let us sail our own ship as we had for so long already.
I was twenty-five in those days of anxious transition, a moon-eyed artiste with a degree in English Literature and orders to use but not abuse it. The basic writing requirements for my charge, the Junior Sports Network — a community portal for our line of pre-teen sports games — were rudimentary. I wrote newsletter dispatches, patch notes, and product blurbs, and amused myself to the best of my ability with a dense pun here or the odd Beckett reference there. And nobody cared — not my bosses, and least of all my audience.
Despite my low rank, I was lucky enough to have a small office — a musty room lacking windows that I shared with a fellow community Sys-Op, a guy roughly my age named Chad Verrall. Chad was responsible for the more technical aspects of our Junior Sports Network, which suited me fine. He passed off the writing assignments to me and I shunted server reboots and patch tests to him. We settled into a routine as regular as our paychecks. It was an easy gig even on our busiest days, which allowed me plenty of time to wander the building, spy over busy shoulders, and learn from my peers.
In later months, as my workload slackened to excess, this surplus of empty hours should have triggered a round of panic attacks. Nothing was getting done and nobody seemed to care. Team meetings dwindled to nothing, design ideas went stale on the page, and Chad and I were given fewer and fewer resources to manage our half-built community hub. We were floundering and our customers were fleeing. From my low vantage I couldn’t find the right angle to diagnose this downturn. Were customers leaving because Infogrames wasn't investing heavily enough in them? Or was Infogrames starving us to death because they didn’t see the value in catering to such a small customer base? Or was it a feedback loop of both?
Whatever the case, by the early spring of 2000, Chad and I spent barely one hour of every full day working. The rest of our time we used to surf the web for warez, muck around with on-line games, or fiddle with Unreal’s level editor. Never a wasted moment, least of all on proper work. But it was clear we were in a rut and the Junior Sports Network was spinning its wheels — a few hundred unique users a week at maximum. This wasn’t a community, it was a public funeral.
In late February of 2000, the fates served up a tenuous cause for optimism. A few months following Infogrames’ acquisition, Ron and Shelly announced their intention to buy back the company they had founded eight years before and return Humongous to its indie roots as a small but self-contained developer-publisher. They had already discussed the idea with Infogrames and had earned it's CEO's blessing. This lightened everyone’s spirits for as many weeks as this corporate reboot seemed plausible.
Less than a month later, the deal was off.
By the ides of March 2000, the NASDAQ had lost 10 percent of its value and the tech-industry was in a nauseating free-fall. Dotcoms that had commanded uncountable millions in capital at the year’s opening were disappearing with the barest whisper by summer, a trend that would continue through 2004, by which point only 48 percent would still be in operation.
Shelly and Ron were forced to cancel their bid as a result of this turmoil. Justifiably anxious, their biggest backers had pulled out, leaving the pair alone and underfunded. This left them with two unappealing options — stay on as the managing executives of a company they had lost control of twice, or split the difference and settle up.
Early that spring, Humongous’s founders announced their departure in a solemn cafeteria meeting. Shelly’s eyes glistened with sorrow as she explained the situation. Ron’s were blank and roving as he said very little. Sitting just twenty feet from the pair, I had a hard time processing the situation. In the ten months I'd been there, I had come to cherish the idea that I worked at a company co-created and shepherded by the Ron Gilbert, the man responsible for so many of my earliest and best gaming memories, and one of my inspirations for believing that a career in games was not only plausible but preferable to, say, medical school or the military.
Though I had never talked with the man personally — our paths crossed only once as we stood side-by-side at two urinals in the twinkling quietude of the second floor men’s room — I had always harbored the ludicrous hope that we’d meet in the aftermath of a routine company meeting and fall into a spirited conversation about games. I’d share my boundless ideas (every one an emerald!) and he’d smile and slap me on the back and say “By God, kid, you’re something special…” and within weeks I’d have an office and a team and a project all to myself…
However deluded and fanciful these daydreams were, they seemed 100 percent contingent on the leadership and creativity of a mentor like Ron Gilbert. His departure would leave a void I assumed was impossible to fill. Lacking battle-hardened industry experience, my impoverished imagination could not conjure a scenario where it would be possible to make games with the sort of autonomy and creative freedom Gilbert had always encouraged.
What transpired in the following months, however, proved me wrong in the most unlikely way imaginable.
Rhett Mathis first knocked on the door of our office at some point in May of 2000, only a few months after the Infogrames dynasty was in full bloom. Chad shouted him through and introduced us before the two of them fell into talking. Though older than me, Rhett was still a young man and rather unassuming, decked in the uniform of your average coder — a loose tee-shirt and crumpled jeans. His face was thin and introspective and seeded with a few days of stubble. The moment he sat down I realized I’d seen him many times before on a number of of my daily ambles about the building. But I had no idea what he did here.
“You’re not too busy?” Rhett asked, directing the question at Chad.
Chad shook his head.
“Cool. I’ll send you a link to the folder. The build’s pretty stable but the art is really basic, so readability might be a problem. Just let me know if anything is off or confusing.”
Chad nodded again. “You need four people?”
“Three is fine. No teams. All against all.” Rhett then turned to me. “You're playing, right?”
I didn’t know what we were talking about and looked to Chad for guidance. Rhett saw my confusion.
“I’m working on something new,” he said. “A turn-based strategy game. Nothing difficult. But I need a few people to help me test it.”
Chad nodded vigorously, his eyes flashing.
“You have to play, man. It’s great.”
It was all the goading I needed.
“Sure,” I said. “I’m not that good with strategy games, but I’ve played enough Starcraft to know the basics.”
Rhett laughed and stood, politely pushing his chair back to its origin.
“Good enough,” he said “This is nothing like Starcraft, but you’ll pick it up fast.”
A few minutes after he’d left our office, Rhett’s email appeared, linking us to a network folder where he had dumped the newest version of his prototype. I clicked the link and the folder expanded open. Inside was a file named “Moonbase.exe.” I copied this to my computer.
“Click through to the multiplayer menu,” Chad said over his shoulder. “Rhett started a game called Test. Join that.”
I double clicked the executable. My screen went black, then blinked on to a loud splash screen dotted with quirky icons that looked like blossoming metal flowers spread across a lunar surface. I clicked “Join Game,” found Test and dove in to my first game of Moonbase.
Fifteen minutes later, I was hooked. I had seen — and played — what I hoped would be the future of Humongous Entertainment. And it was glorious.
Moonbase was a exquisitely simple game with an odd yet ingenious twist on the traditional strategy-game paradigm. Presented through a top-down isometric view, the alpha build I played that afternoon was a clever hybrid of a turn-based tactical affair like Civilization and a ballistics-driven combat game like Worms or Scorched Earth. As a strategy game its core components reminded me of a number of familiar titles, yet it was unlike anything I had ever played.
The main goal of Moonbase was no different than most competitive games: eliminate your opponents before they eliminated you. Set on the surface of a barren lunar expanse, each player set out in possession of a single moonbase unit capable of deploying additional units tailored to specific tasks. Energy collectors were your most important tool, as they facilitated the harvest of precious power from icy palette-cycled pools of energy spattered about the map. Weapon units were also critical, providing all of your offensive needs in one deadly package. And then there were the esoteric modules — computer viruses, shields, scout balloons, and EMP shockwaves — each with its own special power and purpose. All in all, the arsenal was well-balanced, elegantly designed, and amenable to endless experimentation.
What made Moonbase unique, however, was its quirky deployment system. In most strategy games, players expand their physical base of operations by finding a vacant location somewhere on the map and double-clicking there to build it. After a few moments, time and resources pending, a new building will appear. By contrast, deploying new units in Moonbase required actual physical skill. Click the launch button, hold, watch your power-bar rise, and then release. As if from a catapult, your new unit sailed through the air and — if your aim was true — landed safely somewhere near your intended destination. A little too far, short, or too wide of the mark and Kaboom! Explosion. Better luck next turn.
This was a wicked twist on an old idea, adding whimsy to the otherwise rote task of urban planning, and it gave Moonbase a unique strategic depth that might have seemed ludicrous on paper. Imagine an additional rule in chess requiring Gary Kasparov to pitch his Rook across the room when attacking Deep Blue’s Queen. The comparison isn't far off.
After the three of us pounded through a few games that day, Rhett was back in our office asking detailed questions about the experience. Did you enjoy it? What was your favorite aspect? What was your least favorite? Did any of the weapons seem over- or underpowered? We talked for almost thirty minutes about the nuts and bolts of Moonbase and the scope of Rhett’s vision.
By the day’s finish, Chad and I were avowed Moonbase addicts. Rhett appreciated our enthusiasm and christened us as his unofficial gameplay testers. For the next two months we spent the better part of each day hammering on a new build at the expense of our our official duties. After two or three contests each morning we’d break for lunch. Later that afternoon we would play a few more times and then write him a detailed email of our findings, else he would join us in our lightless cave where we'd talk through our impressions and concerns.
One afternoon a few weeks into our experiment, I asked Rhett where the idea for Moonbase had come from and how long he’d been working on it. Not long, he said. He had lain its foundations in October or November of ’99, right around the time GT was imploding. Focusing on the basic architecture first, he coded the primary launching mechanics, the user interface, and the camera navigation, all of which he had done within Humongous's licensed SCUMM engine, a game-scripting tool originally built to facilitate the swift creation of graphic adventure games, not multiplayer strategy games. This alone was a pretty cool feat, transforming the same engine responsible for Maniac Mansion and the Secret of Monkey Island into a top-down isometric, turn-based strategy game — the game industry equivalent of an extreme make-over.
By the holidays, Rhett had made enough progress to convince him to continue. He started working on the game’s core units and the basic rules that made the gameplay emerge. He also invested some time into painting the game’s cute sci-fi sprites to make them passably appealing. This had the dual effect of helping the game’s readability even as it gave the game a stronger sense of identity.
Even with its temp art, Moonbase already looked and played like a real game. In less than six months, Rhett had produced a fully functional vertical slice and he had crafted it almost entirely on his own. The full scope of the project was coming fast into focus. Sure, no one could call it a finished game — it needed a full art and audio pass, cleaned up network code, a real menu system, and extensive play-testing — but there was an actual experience here, and it already played like a dream.
By the early spring of 2000 things were looking good for Moonbase. There was only one major barrier between it and total breakthrough success: Rhett wasn’t supposed to be making it.
In the game industry the Christmas holiday season is typically a time of lighter workloads, empty cubicles, and a flat sense of relief that the project you have been toiling on for the past ten or twenty or thirty months is finished and sitting on a shelf somewhere. Devs who haven’t died of shame after an attack of bad reviews usually fly the coop in mid-December to savor their vacations. Some jet to the Caribbean and return well-rested and pinked up, ready for a new project. Others stay home for a few weeks to catch up on all the games and movies they missed over the summer crunch. In the transition between 1999 and 2000, Rhett Mathis had decided to hang around the office and make a new game as quickly as possible.
This on its face isn’t so odd. Personal projects are commonplace in an industry stacked with motivated introverts with paid bills and free time. What made Rhett’s devotion to Moonbase unique was his decision to build the entire game during office hours, using proprietary technology, and without the consent of his employer. All this to say that Rhett would never own the game he was making. Every line of code, every sprite of art, every clever idea belonged to Infogrames.
“Well, I did a ton of sketching and unit concepting at home,” he told me via email recently. “This is really where all the rules of Moonbase originated, in my sketchbooks. I pretty much thought about Moonbase all the time … so once I was in the office, I'd know where to focus my programming efforts.”
Despite the game’s rogue status, Rhett remained uncommonly devoted to Moonbase until months on when he could no longer hide the fact that this — and not his assigned work — was his driving passion. In the face of mounting pressure to refocus his attention as the lead programmer on one of Humongous’s best selling franchises, he made a bold decision.
In the spirit of Google’s “Innovation Time-Off” policy, Rhett announced his intention to continue working on his personal project with an uncommonly polite ultimatum to the HR department:“As new projects were starting up, I had a really cool meeting with our Programmer Manager, Betsy Warren. I basically said, I have this game concept that I believe in, so I would like to step down from my Lead duties for one project and use my free time to work on this new game. I will gladly work full-time on whatever project you assign me to. And as long as you and the Lead are satisfied with my work, I will use my spare time to work on my game. Or something like that.”
This was a bold gambit. Humongous was still in a delicate transition period and corporate brass was in no mood for mavericks. But to his relief, Betsy was fine with his decision. She assigned him to a new project under the direction of a new lead. It was Rhett’s first demotion in 5 years of steady climbing and he couldn’t have been happier. He had a long term vision for Moonbase — one he didn’t expect Infogrames-appointed Vice President Andy Hieke would support without a strong prototype to back it up. But if Rhett could deliver what he had brewing in his head, he believed the rewards could be tremendous.
“I felt Humongous had the ability to deliver games that appealed to a broader audience. We had been so focused on 5-8 year-olds — and I think we did a great job there. I’m very proud of the kinds of games — but we'd kind of abandoned these fans once they got a bit older.”
As Rhett saw it, Moonbase would be Humongous Entertainment’s gateway game — a bridge that transitioned preteen fans of our Backyard Sports titles into more mature strategy games like Starcraft, Command and Conquer, or Cavedog’s own Total Annihilation. “It seemed foolish to capture the adoration of these young kids — to really build a reputation for quality with them by working hard — and then to just let them drop off the map. We had to evolve, we had to find new opportunities.”
Rhett's new toy seemed like the perfect opportunity, for the consumers and the developers alike. And he was certain his colleagues would agree. Having suffered through a battering decline in morale and motivation for half a year, Humongous employees were hungry for creative challenges, unique opportunities, and vindication.
“We had the talent, the tools, the technology, to make a reach for this tween to teen space. In a way, I felt like we hadn't been given our just due because we made kid's games. I wanted to deliver something that announced to the world that Humongous was a real game studio…”
Yet as as far-reaching and business savvy as Rhett’s long term goals appeared to be, his motivations weren’t always altruistic. Naturally. No tinkerer’s work ever is.
“…And, yeah, I wanted to prove to myself that I was a real game developer too....”
Continues in Part 2 (of 3)