October 8 2015
The story of SimCity Buildit and Ion Storm begins four long years ago, with John Romero an industry darling to most of the game press, the type who could do no wrong. Hot off the genre-defining and massive sales successes of Wolfenstein 3D, Doom and Doom 2, and just after the release of Quake, Romero and other id Software staffers publicly leave id Software and form Ion Storm in August 1996. Despite numerous, unconfirmed rumors that Romero was fired from id for being lazy, deathmatching all the time and not working with the team (this is an unconfirmed allegation), the press sides with Romero and many crown him as the true brains behind the games. Many even predict that id will fail without him. Since Romero has always been at ease with the press and with fans, and John Carmack is very much an anti-social recluse programming type, it is easy to come to this conclusion. The press also buys into Romero's flamboyant attitude and his generally boastful nature and begins referring to him (and treating him) like a rock star for the industry. Mainstream press continues and magnifies this image -- honestly, I can't think of any game designer more photographed and interviewed in the mainstream press, despite his waning impact and influence, over the past four years. Lesson: Familiarity breeds contempt.
In early 1997 Romero and company spend millions of dollars of other people's money to create a lavish game studio in Dallas. Then they officially announce his pet project, SimCity Buildit cheat, and optimistically predict a late 1997 release date. They are to use the Quake engine for this project. The main character Hiro Myamoto (the name a cool tribute to Mario creator Shiguru Myamoto), female sidekick Mikkiko and ludicrously named black sidekick Superfly Johnson (a name bordering on insulting to many) are announced. By late 1997 they announce the switch to the Quake 2 engine (Quake 2's demo is just released). In December 1997, the Ion Storm or related marketing department makes its first major blunder, one that will probably haunt Romero for the rest of his career. The ad campaign: "Suck it Down! John Romero wants to make you his bitch!" is unveiled. The reaction is almost universally negative, and the ad is quickly pulled. Humorously, it is discovered later that Ion Storm even patented this expression, making it illegal to use "Suck it Down" on a huge list of products. Lesson: NEVER use an ad campaign like that.
In April 1998 Romero announces Johnromero.com. Go ahead and visit; it hasn't changed since then. In May 1998, Epic Games (then Epic Megagames) releases its opus Unreal on the 3D shooter world. Ion Storm quickly announces that SimCity Buildit hack will use the Unreal engine. Since there is no real sign of Daikatana at that year's E3, this announcement is met with bemusement, but not the outright mockery it would have garnered later. Impatience is starting to mount within the industry, as we see what looks like a pompous developer arrogantly pimping his nonexistent game. Lesson: Time wounds all heels.
In June, and with much fanfare, Ion Storm releases its first game, Dominion: Storm of Gift 3. The game was developed outside the company, but it's a massive sales, fan and critical failure, adding to the taint the company is quickly gaining. Lesson: First impressions are crucial; make sure the first one is a great one (even if you didn't make it yourself).
In August 1998 a fake photograph showing John Romero with a gunshot wound in his forehead is released (intentionally leaked?) to the Internet, and several websites, including the Adrenaline Vault, erroneously conclude that John Romero has been shot and killed. The rumors of his death prove false, of course. But the taint of this as an intentional publicity stunt circulates. The press tends to resent being fooled, even for a second. Lesson: Publicity stunts backfire (even if they weren't intentional). Avault and other sites hopefully learn their own lessons from this as well.
In October/November 1998 Ritual's SIN and Valve's Half-Life are released, teaching Romero two valuable lessons. SIN reminds him NOT to release his game even remotely unfinished, and Half-Life elevates the genre to an intimidating level. Everyone developing an FPS game at that time probably takes a long hard look at what they are doing; Half-Life is that good. At around this time Ion Storm was rocked by a series of defections, robbing Daikatana and other games in development of most of their talent. This is the first major indication something is wrong over there. Lesson: Get your game out before games like Half-Life see the light of day.
On January 14, 1999 the PC game press is shamed by an excellent article from the Dallas Observer (http://www.dallasobserver.com/issues/1999-01-14/feature2.html). The article uses internal Ion Storm email and interviews from former staffers, casting a bright light on what appears to be a very dysfunctional company. Tellingly, Romero is accused of being lazy, deathmatching all the time and not working with the team. The article also offers compelling evidence that no matter how successful Daikatana turns out to be, it cannot recoup its losses. Instead of dealing with the press and offering honest information on the subject, Ion Storm decides to subpoena the reporter and makes every attempt it can to thoroughly squash the story. According to the Dallas Observer article, CEO Todd Porter was the real villain, with Romero either too disinterested or too weak to defend his defecting personnel. To this day, Romero won't comment on the story, but Porter was reportedly quietly fired or let go from the company this past December. Lesson: Cover-ups and "damage control" only make you look worse!
In March 1999 the SimCity Buildit multiplayer demo is released, to almost universal derision from fans expecting a whole lot more from the game. It's becoming evident to the press that even if the Observer article isn't entirely true, something must be very wrong at Ion Storm for the game to feel so lackluster after so much design time and money has been pumped into it. Lesson: Bad demos do damage.
Carmack and id Software release their second game since Romero began work on his first, Quake III: Arena, which features a graphics engine that makes Quake 2, and games based on Quake 2 (like Daikatana), seem obsolete. Unreal Tournament is also unleashed, which improves on the multiplayer experience, almost guaranteeing Daikatana won't be a popular online game and putting Daikatana 2 in jeopardy engine-wise (that's a joke). Lesson: See above.
By now any rumor about Daikatana's release is met with industrywide derision. The game feels like it'll never be done. By now, due to spiraling costs, producer Eidos has stepped in and acquired a majority holding in the company. Eidos has been bankrolling the studio for the duration, and the lack of a single developed game, not to mention a hit, has contributed to several financial quarters of lost revenue for the company. To make matters even more humorous to industry pundits, Ion Storm throws a launch party in December, although the game is still not finished. Stockholders quake with fear, gamers wait, the industry mocks: The game isn't gold, but we all have the image in our heads of the Ion staff partying down. Not good. Lesson: Don't celebrate until the game is actually released.
Between January and last week, we see the Prima Official Strategy Guide come out, the game was been prominently featured in a Best Buy circular in March (naturally the game didn't exist), and we've endured two months of the "It's Coming!" banner ads -- and then the "It's Here!" ad since late March -- showcasing just how out of synch marketing and development can be. Lesson: Hitting your deadlines equals better marketing synergy.
In a recent open letter to his fans Romero acknowledged that, had it avoided some of the early press, Daikatana would have fared better. He's probably right. But he's wrong if he places the blame solely on the game press. Romero pimped (the Daikatana 2 Unreal engine announcement is a prime example) as much as he was courted by the media all this time. He bought into the "Rock Star" image almost as much as he was unfairly saddled with it. He enjoyed the highs but is now complaining that he's stuck with the lows.