The story of "Citadel of the Black Sun"

There was a game - if it would have been finished I would be famous - and rich. Here is the story of 1988.

There was a team called Golden Goblins back in Gütersloh who worked for us. Gütersloh is a village roleplaying a city. It is only famous because two large companies are there: Bertelsmann and Miele, otherwise its like a village. Restaurants close after 2pm until the evening, so no food during that time. Awesome!

Rainbow Arts was founded there along with Magic Bytes, two of the first companies in Germany in the game business. Rainbow Arts moved to Düsseldorf but the team stayed in Gütersloh working on a title called Grand Monster Slam.

This title is important later on for M.U.D.S., but that's a different story. Important is the artist, designer, creative multi-talented Hartwig Niedergassel, who worked on it with his specific style.

Remember also that Rainbow Arts distributed a lot of US companies in Germany as we somehow "invented" localisation, no one was doing it at that time. One of the companies we did was SSI, known for their AD&D RPG's "Gold Box Series" like Pool of Radiance. We had a good relationship and at some point they asked us if we could develop a title for them.

So I started prototyping with Hartwig and Heiko Schröder, a technical programmer (with whom I later founded my own company Wings Simulations). The game was PC only, the first title ever Rainbow Arts did only on PC specifically for the US (as Europe was dominated by Amiga/Atari ST).

The RPG's SSI did were top down but with some nice features: party, not single character like Ultima and turn based group combat. We wanted that but move forward with graphics. Back in that time (remember, year 1988) we needed to support 16 color EGA and 16 color VGA. Yes, sixteen. That's 16 ugly colors with two being black and white. The screenshots you'll see will show this. Hartwig was really an artist to get out those great graphics from those colors.

The special things I put into the RPG we wanted to create were unique and not known at that time:

Barby Doll System: I wanted to change the appearance of the characters depending on their armor and weapons they equipped (yes at that time everyone used static pictures). We talk 1988/89 after all:

Isometric Graphics: Most RPG's were top down due to technical reasons (remember no 3d, that came in 1996) but I knew it was possible to trick this as I wanted the system what Knights Lore did on Spectrum: full isometric view:
True Line of Sight and window/door functions

Line of Sight: But I wanted more: I wanted that you can enter all houses and only look inside if you had line of sight. So the inside of houses should be dark unless you peeked though a window or opened a door. Tactical war-games did this already, but in top down 2D.

Heiko made all this possible, he was very good at this stuff. So our game looked like this on the tactical screens or when you entered villages or dungeons: compare this to other RPG's of 1988/1989!

Cow Tipping
Note the black areas where you didn't have line of sight. Also we supported multiple stories of buildings, so you can walk up and down, or even jump out of the window from the 2nd story. The cows also were important: I believe we were the first game to include cow tipping :)

The right side was the function bar, we reduced all functions to a nice menu usable with the mouse. Oh, did I tell you full optional mouse control? That was unique as at that time most PC's didn't have a mouse as windows shipped much later. Most games were keyboard control only.

We also had nice graphics when changing locations. At that time you usually walked on a world map and only showed above detail when you enter locations. Remember 16 colors!
Location Intro Graphics

World Travel of your party
When we showed this game to SSI they were blown away. They immediately wanted it and put it under the AD&D license. We, a small German team, allowed to use the AD&D license AND work for SSI, a great US publisher. Wow, that was unique, a first for Germany. We loved it!
And it even became better: our producer at SSI Nicholas Beliaeff told us that SSI planned to change all their future RPG's to our engine if we finish. All. All AD&D RPG's with our engine. We would be famous!
One of the first games developed in Germany for an US publisher
But the world had different ideas with us.

First one employee of our daughter companies we acquired called Time Warp moved into our offices as we closed down their offices. That guy wanted my job, always working to criticize mine. He said openly he wanted my job he can do it better, and he hated RPG's. He didn't believe in them.

Second I fell in love with the girl friend of my best friend Bernard. Remember? He was one of the three of us managing Rainbow Arts. She and I came together and she split from Bernard, not good when you think the three of us had to work together on a daily basis.

Story short: I left the company due to private reasons (due to my girl friend, later my wife, we married in 1992, but she died on cancer in 2010) and that one guy took over all my projects.

Within three months he split the development team, made sure SSI hated my and the teams guts and the project was cancelled. Remember, he hated RPG's! The game was 70% finished. I can play through the alpha even today which I still have on my machine (I took the screens above from it). All it took is someone to finish the last steps.
But he cancelled it. Made sure SSI's wrath was on me and not him. What an asshole (name changed).

There it goes, a chance in a life time to write computer games history. One of the greatest games I ever did wasted due to an asshole, but I gained a wife in exchange for this and losing a best friend.

But thats not the only time fate destroyed one of such potential projects. I'll write about the other one soon.

Side stories: our first producer at SSI Todd Porter was such a fan of our game that when he left SSI for Origin he put many ideas and concepts from us into their game Knights of Legends.

The "asshole" from above continued being one: he joined a company which invented advertising games, stole their co-ceo and the companies customers and copied that companies business. Weeks later even that co-ceo was fired. The asshole is still CEO of that company and publishes games. And no, even today after all those years I won't accept your Facebook friend request if you read this.

Hartwig Niedergassel continued his great work with MUDS, my largest project at that time. Story to follow.

Heiko Schröder founded Wings Simulations with me in 1996 and was lead programmer on Panzer Elite and Söldner. He now works for Volkswagen as a programmer near Hannover.

Nicholas Beliaeff meanwhile after a great career is Vice President Development of Trion, the publisher of Rift. We are still frends and see each other on international game conferences about once a year - since 25 years!


The Story of "The great Giana Sisters"

As loyal readers of my blog know I joined Rainbow Arts in 1987 because they wanted me to recruit new projects (at this time it was Sarcophaser and Katakis Amiga). I also took over as development director meaning that I was in control of all development, quite a challenge for someone who never did this.

Remember though that at that time there was no best practice or experience to base this job upon. So that time was basically my education: I was allowed to do everything wrong and learn from it, we all did. We were three people leading the company now: Marc Ullrich, founder and Ceo, Bernard Morell in control of production (physical goods) and distribution, and me in charge of game development. I will get back to that trio soon in another blog post.
The really bad but famous Giana Sisters title screen, maybe one of the first female heroines in games

At the time I joined Giana Sisters was already in full production with Thomas Hertzler as programmer and Manfred Trenz as graphic artist (yes the same Manfred who did Katakis & Turrican on C64 later on). The project had like 3 more months to go, at maximum. The only thing I did was QA & Mastering, which was trivial at that time.

(Note: as Hans Ippisch noted the C64 original was created by Armin Gessert as programmer and Manfred Trenz as artist, the Amiga graphic conversions were done by Lothar I think, see below)

However I screwed up someplace else. There were magazines excited about the game as at that time you did pre-advertising for titles months ahead of launch as otherwise you could not sell into retail or get customers into the shop. Based on those ads we got requests for interviews, previews etc, which basically means the writers visited our studio and did their thing. Remember, no internet, no Skype, no mobile phones, only landlines and travel manually to get screenshots (no digital ones at that time either, they made photos of the monitors).

So ASM, a popular German games magazine but a little on the "yellow press side" interviewed me, which went well. Off the record we spoke a bit about the project and I told them how big of a fan Manfred and Thomas are of Mario Brothers on Nintendo NES. The writer asked "So basically Giana Sisters is a clone of Mario then". "Yeah" I said, "but. ..." it was too late, the writer had his tag line without telling me.

The Issue went into print with a cover of Giana Sisters and their line "Teut Weidemann: Giana Sisters is a clone of Mario!".

Great. I learned for a lifetime not to trust ANY writer in the gaming industry. So we put legal in charge and forced the magazine to stop the printing presses, destroy the issue and reprint. Yes we did that.

It was the first issue of ASM not appearing on time.

Giana Sisters was released on C64, C128, Amstrad, Spectrum, Amiga and Atari ST and was a smashing hit, the fastest selling game Rainbow Arts ever saw. The British distributor (a British company called US Gold) booked ads with a huge screenshot and the tagline "Giana Sisters - moving over Brothers". It created a huge hype and .... caught the attention from Nintendo. Until then they ignored that little game on the little home computer because it didn't harm them, but now the ads attacked their holy grail: the Mario IP.

It took just a few days until an armada (really, like 6 or 7) of lawyers in black suits, suitcases and tie went into our offices and shut the sales down, permanently, worldwide. We never had a chance. Nintendo hired like the best of the best.

Yes we sold games on tapes! Now a rarity.

It had long term consequences as well which we didn't anticipated: Nintendo, being a Japanese company, has a brain of an elephant. They never forget. So when the console market exploded and riches were found on the SNES market Rainbow Arts always was denied to publish games on Nintendo platforms. Only years later they could do this. Once a thief, always a thief.

Giana Sisters was re-released on iOS and Steam just recently and a new version was done by Spellbound, the company of the deceased Armin Gessert, the guy who did the spiritual successor of Giana Sisters "Hard'n Heavy" later on. Please note that the company Reline on the cover an dcredits was owned by Rainbow Arts and they used the label in fear Nintendo would notice. For the same reason Armin never wanted to be in the credits of the game :(

Thomas Hertzler left Rainbow Arts after Giana Sisters and founded blue Byte, the company behind The Settlers, Battle Isle and more. The company was then bought by Ubisoft in 2001 which has released Settlers Online in 2010, the game I have been working on.

That's how small the world still is in the gaming industry.


The Story of Apprentice on Amiga

End of the 80's my ceo Marc Ullrich called me into his office and introduced me to an artist. Marc said this guy owed us money but has none, but he want to compensate us with graphics he did. So here I got a stack of 3.5" discs full of graphics and the order "Make a game out of it, but make it cheap".

I forgot the name of the artist but I assembled a small team of one programmer and one artist to edit them. As the graphics where modular in 16x16 tiles and some neat enemies I decided to go with a platformer as at that time we didn't have one.

The graphics also contained crates which I used as the main element: you should be able to push and pull them, stack them, basically redesign the whole level with them. This element I took from Spherical, another game I did in 1987.

So Axel Hellwig the programmer made it possible to change the levels via crates while Thorsten Rappe edited the graphics to make them usable in the level editor. The production went good, although I need to apologize to Axel now as I had like 15+ projects on my desk besides being designer and producer of Apprentice plus Axel had really bad teeth and bad breath at that time - making it difficult to talk to him for a long time. Now of course he has changed, is married and all, but hey, at that time none of us looked after himself.

As the production had to be cheap we looked for cover art and checked our standard artist Celal Kandemiroglu for it: he promptly did one for a low fee - but it was butt ugly. I think its the worst cover he ever did. Note that Celal made nearly all 8/16bit covers of Germany at that time and made quite some impression.

Here is the ugly Cover:

So ready we were, no QA time as we did that ourselves, remember we had to make it cheap ... and shipped. It was a good success, no hit, but solid. But ... it is one of those games where I still get fan mail today.
I have someone on FB who called himself "Mark Apprentice Schneider" (name changed). Fanpages do exist as well: http://www.amiga-apprentice.de/index.html

Here is a video with the great music of Chris Hülsbeck himself:

And its mentioned in many podcasts of the 80's as well and is on Mobygames of course. This is one of the games which still gets a lot of attention, I will write about the other ones soon.

I forgot the small print: 
I have no idea what Axel or Thorsten do these days, but Celal is back in Türkey still doing great graphics an dchris Hülsbeckenjoys the retro fame and still lives in Marin County, California.


Retro Trend

My last blog entry gave me more feedback than any other before. People enjoyed it and are asking for more, so I will write up some stories about Giana Sisters, MUDS, Apprentice, Citadel of the Black Sun, Jinks and my time in Advertainment.

See you soon.


Katakis, Turrican & Co

The recent retro trend dug out many stories of the 80's and 90's computer game development and some people mix up my role and involvement into it. Even official magazines writing about the history of those classic titles like Turrican & Katakis got it wrong on some points.

So let me make a short time travel into 1987, where I started as Development Director of a company called Rainbow Arts. I was hired because I brought cool games to the company. The first was a game from a friend of mine called Sarcophaser, where I also did the graphics & level design.

In order to understand the sequence of events I need to tell the story of that year and the one before. While I did the graphics & levels for Sarcophaser I also had a side project I programmed AND did the graphics: a R-Type clone. R-Type being my favorite arcade I wanted to replicate it on the Amiga. I showed my demo on a cracker meeting (we all id do this in the 80's) and another group was amazed and showed me their demo: while theirs looked worse it ran in 50 frames per second, while mine looked nicer but only worked in 25 fps (this is important for later on, read on).

So when I started my job I contacted that group immediately and wanted to buy their game to publish. That group agreed (I think the price was 25.000 DM, about 13.000 Euros). The name of the group was Lightcircle but they didn't want to use their cracker/demo scene name for a published product, so they called themselves Factor 5 - as there were 5 original members.

Remember the game was on Amiga only. Meanwhile a wonderboy single person game writing machine called Manfred Trenz did a shooter on Commodore C64 called Katakis which was totally overkill for that 8bit machine. Looking for marketing synergies we called Lightcircles Amiga game also Katakis although they didn't have anything in common but being a sidescrolling shooter.

That is how Katakis was born on C64 and Amiga. Then ....

The official R-Type license was bought by Activision (the old UK one, not the new one of today) and they saw our Katakis and got annoyed as their conversion really sucked (as most arcade conversions used slave pens who ported games under 3 months but with bad quality) - so they sued us. A deal was made: we port R-Type to C64 and Amiga in exchange that we can rerelase Katakis, which they pulled off the shelves. We agreed and under 3 months time we worked on our dream arcade license and ported it to C64 and Amiga. The Amiga version was done by Factor 5 and myself as producer. The one important call I made was to leave the game in 25fps but have the players ship in 50fps. This made sure we didn't waste time on technology for 50fps but did finish in time. We did it in 2.5 months.

Again, until that time Factor 5 still consisted of the original members. One of them even now works alongside me at Ubisoft Blue Byte, so we go waaaaay back together :)

Anyway, after the Activision / R-Type adventure and having 2 hit games under the belt we asked what to do next. It was obvious we wanted to go further and so we looked again back at the one man single development superman Manfred Trenz: he meanwhile developed another shooter, this time inspired by Metroid: a 8 way scroller shooting game on C64 called Turrican.

Factor5 should make the conversion to Amiga. The challenge was to develop a technology in 50fps which can support 8 way scrolling. The final idea to make this possible was between Holger Schmidt and me in a Pizza Hut in Köln, we drew the principle on the back of a Pizza Hut paper. Note that 8 way scrolling and many objects was close to impossible on the C64, but Manfred pulled it off.

About half into the project a problem surfaced: Rainbow Arts was so successful that we had too many projects going. I couldn't manage 17+ projects all by myself (I was the only manager in development) so I turned to our business partners in the USA and asked around how they do it. They had someone called "producer", an unknown concept in Germany until then. Yes this sounds funny, but remember these were different times, a development team consisted of less than 5 people compared to todays 50-500. So we started to look for producers and came to the conclusion that game magazine writers would be ideal as they knew many games, right?
So we went down to the most popular magazine Powerplay and hired all their three important writers: Boris Schneider, Heinrich Lenhardt and Martin Gaksch. All but one started working for me - Heinrich being the one who chickened out. Boris was assigned to all Lucas Film Games products and Martin did a game called Rock'n Roll, which still has great memories today (he was a big Rock'n Roll music fan).
So to find a replacement for Heinrich we got lucky as our Partner EA Lucasfilm Games (yes we distributed EA Lucasfilm Games at that time) was calling us to look at a young guy who annoyed them that he wants to work for them but they don't have room for him. So we looked at this guy and he was called Julian Eggebrecht - and we hired him.

As Julian was very in love with action games so we gave him the teams of Turrican, which was more than half finished at that time - that was less risky as he couldn't mess it up right? He did a great job (!) and started Turrican II right afterwards - and finally left us at some point together with the Team Factor 5 to found the company Factor 5 to develop console titles - and later on when success came moved their company to California. He basically stole my team! ;)

So, here it is. I was involved in Katakis, the R-Type conversions and Turrican Amiga, although some people claim I wasn't. You can verify this story with anyone working on these projects, even Manfred Trenz himself. And no, I didn't do much on the C64 versions as Manfred had zero social skills at that time and was a wonder machine with no need of interference.
And yes I was responsible shipping over 75 games in just 3 years time - different times they were.

Factor 5 in the 90's
Boris Schneider meanwhile is married with kids and works since years for his favorite company Microsoft.
Martin Gaksch released a console magazine named Maniac and has enough money now to own the largest classic Nintendo collection of Germany
Heinrich Lenhardt lives in the US and still writes for some German magazines and web pages.
Factor 5 went broke despite having huge success with some of their console games and was split: the German part still exists as a service company for game programming and is led by Achim Moller, the original programmer of R-Type Amiga and Katakis Amiga - and works also for Ubisoft Blue Byte on mobile games.
The US side of Factor 5 is gone and the refounded company with the original founders and Julian Eggebrecht now works on players of TV streaming for your console, so yes, if you watch TV on your console chances are high that the old Factor 5 programmers wrote that piece of software.
The founder of Rainbow Arts Marc Alexander Ullrich later founded Strato, the largest German domain seller and internet provider, which he sold for millions later on. He enjoys his riches now and enjoys his hobby as a photographer.


What you can expect next

I am preparing a new talk "Dissecting the World of Tanks Monetization" for Games Connection.

I also talk on GDC Next in Los Angeles about the mobile games market and what it means for "us games industry".

As free to play also moves to consoles now I might have some thoughts to share there as well. Stay tuned.


The f2p audience and you

If you design a f2p game the formula MAU*Conversion *ARPPU will define your designers live. Whats important is that MAU is also a function of your setting & genre.

In other words if you pick a niche setting your reach will suffer, so will your revenue. If your setting is niche then marketing will have a harder time finding users - which raises acquisition costs which lessens your revenue.

So it is important to know how large your audience can be depending on those two factors. Hardly any marketing research has been done, most picks for those are gut feelings of the developers. Is science fiction niche compared to general topics? Or Fantasy?

If you look back into history you will notice that Fantasy on a world wide level was niche until Lord of the Rings hit the Hollywood blockbuster list. Yes, it was apart from one territory, the USA.

Oh no, you will claim, I read Fantasy all my life! It can't be! Well it was as you aren't the large reach audience, you are the niche. If you are large enough then f2p will work easier for you.

That is the difference between Clash of Clans and its "predecessors" Edgeworld (SciFi). Or why Candy Crush has such a large audience. Or why Call of Duty works better than SciFi shooters.

That is also why IP's seems to make it easier as there is already a defined audience. Note I say "seem" as that IP can also be a bane to your growth if said IP isn't popular enough.

So in order to lessen the risk, increasing revenue and lowering costs of user acquisition you should make sure your setting is cool - worldwide.

And I haven't even touched genre yet ...