DIE WOCHE DES JUBELS – Zur Feier der 100. Folge erscheint in der Woche vom 13.7.2020 jeden Tag ein Podcast. Montag sind wir mit der Einleitung und einer freundlichen Plauderei unter Kollegen gestartet, Dienstag Folge 100, gestern gab es eine Einführung in die oft erwähnte Welt von Warhammer weiter. Heute reichen wir noch das komplette Interview mit Richard Leinfellner zu Dark Omen nach, morgen kommt eine Folge „FoN“ (normalerweise hinter der „Paywall“). Wer uns zu diesem Anlass loben, kritisieren, feiern oder flamen will, ist eingeladen, hier zu kommentieren oder auf unseren Discord zu kommen: klick.
So, wir reichen noch eben des Interview mit Richard Leinfellner nach, aus dem die Zitate stammen, die im Dark-Omen-Podcast verwendet wurden. Knackige 23 Minuten, kann man mal eben so zwischendurch weghören. Leinfellner ist Österreicher, lebt aber, seit er 13 Jahre alt ist, in Großbritannien und fühle sich nicht mehr sicher genug im Deutschen, um das Gespräch auf Deutsch zu führen.
Wir führen zuweilen Interviews oder Gespräche „im Hintergrund“, mal für Infos, mal für O-Töne und haben uns vor eine Weile entschlossen, die immer noch mal zusammenzuschneiden und separat öffentlich zu machen, um die Erkenntnisse daraus auch anderen Videospiel-Archäologen nicht vorzuenthalten. Hier ist eine Liste von den Gesprächen, da finden sich auch zwei Interviews (mit Ron Gilbert über Grafikadventures und Bob Bates über Textadventures), die wir bisher nicht aktiv veröffentlicht haben, außer auf Patreon/Steady.
Viel Spaß beim Hören:
Sprecher: Richard Leinfellner, Gunnar Lott
Audioproduktion: Christian Schmidt
Titelgrafik: Paul Schmidt
Intro, Outro: Nino Kerl (Ansage); Chris Hülsbeck (Musik)
TRANSKRIPT: Dark Omen / Shadow of the Horned Rat: A Conversation with Richard Leinfellner
This interview was conducted by Gunnar Lott in June 2020 over VoIP. It was edited by Christian Schmidt and transcribed by Anym, a member of the Stay Forever community.
Stay Forever: Hello, I am Gunnar Lott of Stay Forever. My interview partner today is Richard Leinfellner, a veteran of the British games industry. He worked for Palace Software and Mindscape and Bullfrog and Electronic Arts as a programmer, producer and in management. Later, he ran Babel Media, a giant outsourcing provider for the games industry. Many thanks for agreeing to be on the show, Richard!
Richard Leinfellner: Happy to be here!
Stay Forever: So, let’s talk about Shadow of the Horned Rat. That game was published in 1996. Take me back to that time! What was your job like at Mindscape? What was the world like?
Richard Leinfellner: Yeah, basically I was running the software development department in the UK for a large US company called Mindscape. The whole department starts off doing conversions, so we used to take American software like Wing Commander and convert it to British systems or we’d do localisation, but we also started doing our own projects and the team really wants to work on their own projects, not just other people’s work. So it really came out of the team wanting to do their own things. And originally we were working on SNES and SEGA Genesis, but PC really started taking off, especially as DirectX started. So, we had a bunch of real Warhammer freaks working at the studio. Jeff Gamon was a massive Warhammer player and he ended up being the lead programmer, really, really good guy. And there’s also Steve Leney who was our lead artist and he was a massive Warhammer fan and I knew nothing about Warhammer at all. I was the producer and we just started talking about what we wanted to do next and they said: “Oh, we’d love to do a Warhammer game.” Then I set about the logistics of actually getting a license. They are quite a protective company. I was very lucky that I met two top guys there. I mean “top” not just in terms of seniority, they’re such nice people, a guy called Andy Jones and another guy called Phil Gallagher. And Phil was in charge of licensing and Andy was kind of the – it’s hard to put – he was kind of the go-to person for everything where you didn’t know where to go to and we went up to see them and we pitched them and we said: “Hey, we want to do this game.” And that was really it!
Stay Forever: Ah, it can’t have been that easy!
Richard Leinfellner: Well, it wasn’t easy, because the initial reaction was: “Well, we’ve never done this; we only ever do our own stuff! We are wary of video games.” Because they saw video games as – if people are playing a video game, they are not playing their game. So there was a little bit of apprehension, because to them it’s not just a game, to them they refer to it as “the hobby”. It’s an entire hobby. So, everything from playing the game to painting the pieces and it was just a totally holistic experience for them. So they couldn’t quite see how a game that would just focus on the game would fit into that. But we had quite a few meetings with them. I think we gradually put their fears to rest. One of the stipulations of the deal was, we all had to spend a day at their headquarters in Nottingham and we basically had to play their games, so everyone that was going to be on the team had to play the game, including the management, including me. They walked us through the different characters. They showed us how the models are made. We got a really full-on becoming-part-of–extended-family experience with them, which was really nice. You know, a lot of licensors just want to see the money, really. And they were really wanting us to do a good job, if you know what I mean. So it was easy, because very few people approached them, but it was also difficult, because the biggest difficulty was convincing the US company to do it. So, actually my biggest difficulties wasn’t really Games Workshop, my biggest difficulties was the management back over in California, Novato.
Stay Forever: Was Warhammer at that time a British thing?
Richard Leinfellner: Entirely, entirely. I think they had a couple of licensed outlets in the States. This is before the Internet, so you can’t just google it! So, we’d have to say: “There’s this store in San Francisco, this place, you can go and have a look at it.” That was it! They physically had to go there, you couldn’t just google it! So, a lot of persuading had to be done that this was really a thing, because they were used to doing big licenses. So, it was seen as a quaint British thing for them.
Stay Forever: So, they were essentially humouring you.
Richard Leinfellner: Well, there is a degree of that, because having worked for American companies pretty much my working life, there’s very much a not-made-here syndrome, if it’s not made in America, it always seen as being second class. They think we don’t understand the market, we don’t understand the culture, we don’t understand the football and it’s the same pretty much in Japan as well! But we persevered and we got it through.
Stay Forever: Was this part of a grander plan, so of a multiple games license or was it just tipping the toes in the water?
Richard Leinfellner: I think we had to option to do a sequel, so there was always the possibility of doing a sequel.
Stay Forever: Andy Jones, whom you already mentioned, was involved. Was he a liaison from Games Workshop?
Richard Leinfellner: He was, largely. So, I dealt with Phil on the commercial side, so the licensing agreement and the deals and Andy was the day-to-day approvals person. We had to get everything approved by them. Every single graphic had to be approved. They gave us loads of reference. There were so good! They wanted us to do a really good job, so we got loads of kits and we got all the models we needed. They were fantastic to work with, really generous with their time, especially Andy! So, he played the game. He wasn’t just sitting back, but for a large part, they let us get on with it, really. I think they accepted we knew what we were doing.
Stay Forever: Mindscape and Mindscape as a developer had no experience with that type of game.
Richard Leinfellner: No, but one of the companies that Mindscape acquired quite early on was a company called SSI. They used to do things like Panzer General. They had an understanding of the RTS market. SSI was a wholly-owned subsidiary of Mindscape and actually what happened really was the management of SSI running the development of Mindscape.
Stay Forever: So, you had somebody to go to for technology or for design or for just a general feel for a strategy game?
Richard Leinfellner: Not really. To be honest, my methodology in those days was just not to get on the radar, so we don’t get cancelled. A lot of times, we showed them what we had to show and tried to just get through the day without getting cancelled. If you’re an executive at a video game company, your biggest threat is always… a lot of people think the threat is external competition, but if the company is big enough, your biggest threat is the person in the next office or the person across the water, who wants your budget.
Stay Forever: Especially when you’re in a faraway land and the management is in the US.
Richard Leinfellner: Exactly and it’s not seen as their baby. Say for example it is very successful; they don’t get credit for it. So, there’s a degree of that.
Stay Forever: What was your role exactly? So, you were the head of the team and the producer, but you are also credited for programming?
Richard Leinfellner: Yeah, so my background is programming, but it turns out I was quite good at management and the reason I was credited with programming is that I was probably the best bug fixer inside Mindscape in the UK, so when there was a nasty bug, they’d come to me and went: “Richard, this keeps crashing…” And then I’d sit down and figure it out, so I introduced some systems like memory management and stuff like that. This is the biggest thing we ever built. So, if you build something really big, you have to think differently. It is not just a cartridge which is 8K or 16 whatever. It is a massive thing with loads of assets. So, I did some of the systems, did a lot of the bug fixing, but it’s also the time, actually, I sat in an office one day after just fixing a really nasty bug and feeling really good with myself and I said to myself: “I have to stop doing this.” Because if I’m programming, it’s just me having a reserve parachute in case I fail at producing, because I can always go back to programming, if I’m a failed producer. So, that day I actually deleted my C compiler and I stopped programming and I no longer fixed bugs for people, so that’s when I decided to become a business person, really.
Stay Forever: A business person, yeah. But that’s hard to let go, the skills that brought you there!
Richard Leinfellner: Guess what I’m doing now, I’m back to my hobby: programming! Right? What goes around comes around. It’s in the blood.
Stay Forever: How did you go about the technology? I read things about Silicon Graphics.
Richard Leinfellner: To be honest, everything was home-built. We built everything directly onto the GDI graphics subsystem. Silicon Graphics, that was the Nintendo 64 days, when they told you to program on Nintendo 64, you needed to have a Silicon Graphics machine. Do we spend 250K on two of them? No! One of them was 250K. And literally within a year it was propping open a door. It was totally the worst money we ever spent. But no, we didn’t use those. We didn’t use them for that. We just used the usual tools. I think it was Microsoft C or something.
Stay Forever: I feel it’s a strong difference if you play this game having played Warhammer before or not. You see this in the reviews from the time, where you had editors reviewing it who had never played Warhammer before and were totally confused by: “Wut, my unit’s gonna run?! What is this psychology thing?!”
Richard Leinfellner: Yeah, I know: the routing thing! That was actually one of the things we had major meetings over, about the routing behaviour, because in the game you have to show that actually happening. And the player is going: “Don’t run away! Don’t run away! What can I do to stop you running away?” Well, no, you can’t do anything about it. I think one of my reviews started off with: “I really don’t like this sort of game!” And I way like: “Why are you reviewing it? Find somebody who does!” It’s like me saying: “I’m going to have a cheeseburger, but I don’t like cheeseburgers.” You know, reviews are reviews. But we did try to make it. So, the biggest conversations with Games Workshop were we wanted to make it more like a video game and they wanted to make it more like a tabletop game.
Stay Forever: I feel many decisions feel to have fallen on the tabletop side. I feel it’s very faithful and it feels very realistic because Warhammer in a way, even if it’s tabletop game, feels realistic, but it doesn’t feel that video-game-y and I feel that has hurt its reception.
Richard Leinfellner: Well, yes, and the reality is that I don’t think the US company got behind it. I don’t think they spent any marketing money on it. I think we did respectably. We did well enough to commission the sequel.
Stay Forever: Can you give a concrete example of this design process, this back and forth between video game and tabletop?
Richard Leinfellner: Well, one specific example comes to mind. This is kind of a weird thing, we had this discussion: How do you go around things? Because you don’t have this problem in the tabletop game, because you don’t have to worry about the physical space as much and of course in a video game, you have to go around things, you have to follow things, so these little units have to make their own decisions, because you can’t control everything! So a lot of it was really to do with how do we control this and how do you issue orders. This is probably the bit where we spent the most time thinking: Tabletop isn’t going to work! This just isn’t going to work! We need a different way of doing this! I think the navigation was a specific example, because you never have navigation in the tabletop version. And of course, when you’re doing a quasi-3D game, it’s all about navigation. If your units are milling around doing stupid things, it looks rubbish! They have got to move with purpose!
Stay Forever: Why the decision to make it real-time?
Richard Leinfellner: Well, it’s quasi-real-time. It’s actually turn-based under the hood. And it was purely commercial. It’s a real-time strategy game, RTS. There was a feeling if this wasn’t real-time it would bomb in the States.
Stay Forever: The tabletop game is about resources in terms of points. By losing a unit, I lost 500 of my 2000 points, whatever. But the computer game is essentially about time, because it’s my time as the decision maker. I cannot give every unit the perfect orders, because I’m so pressed for time, switching around everything. I cannot guide this unit carefully around this ravine or this pass, because I have to help with another fight. This makes the strongest departure from the tabletop.
Richard Leinfellner: Yeah, I think that was really deliberate, because at the end of the day, it is a computer game. We set out to make a fun computer game, not necessarily to make the world’s most faithful Warhammer game.
Stay Forever: It was pretty faithful for that.
Richard Leinfellner: It was, but we are skirting this, because we wanted it to feel real-time. Under the hood, it is still turn-based. It’s just we hide that.
Stay Forever: The German press called it a “battle simulator”, which I feel is a very fair description. Who was the target audience in your mind? Was it existing Warhammer fans?
Richard Leinfellner: Yeah, it was pretty much existing Warhammer fans. If I’m going to target somebody else, then don’t buy the license. The license cost money, you know. Yeah, we were targeting Warhammer fans.
Stay Forever: But sometimes licenses provide nice background material.
Richard Leinfellner: Nyah, here with my commercial hat on: Yes, but for the amount of money the license cost, I could employ lots of good artists. The license is what we call “pre-sold”. What it means is you have name recognition when you go in the store. Obviously the content is really good and they had loads of content and we used a lot of it, but the real license is really name recognition, because otherwise it could just become another RTS from a studio you’ve never heard of.
Stay Forever: And there were many RTSes coming at that time.
Richard Leinfellner: Exactly, there was a lot of RTSes.
Stay Forever: We touched this briefly when talking about the reviews. The game felt unforgiving to many of them.
Richard Leinfellner: Yeah, it was seen as very hard.
Stay Forever: I feel part of it is that people were unfamiliar with the routing and the psychology and everything, but part of it is it is really hard. The game doesn’t give you much replenishing of resources.
Richard Leinfellner: It doesn’t and that’s a common problem when you don’t have enough time to test a game. The reality is, when you’re building a game, you never play the whole game. You play the bits you’ve just coded or the bits you’ve just worked on. So, you’re basically playing the game in these little chunks and you think: “Oh, that little chunk is OK, that’s not too difficult.” The only time you can really play the whole game is at the end which is of course when you have major pressure to ship it. To be honest, if you really want a beautifully balanced game, you need to sit on it for two or three months. So, yeah, I’d say any game like that, unless you have a lot of experience, you are going to make it too hard.
Stay Forever: Was this toned down, the difficulty, in a subsequent patch or another version?
Richard Leinfellner: If we did a patch, it wouldn’t have been how we would have done that, because there wasn’t really any way of patching things. I think you’ll probably find the community patched it.
Stay Forever: I have something in the back of my head that was like the last battle was described as unwinnable and I felt it pretty easy and I feel I read something like: “Oh, this was because you played the other version.”
Richard Leinfellner: OK, it is possible, because don’t forget: This is really before the Internet came. If we patched it, we would have just issued new masters and then you would have had maybe 10,000 units go out with one level and the next 10,000 would be the next level.
Stay Forever: How successful was the game in the end? Do you know numbers?
Richard Leinfellner: It wasn’t a runaway hit. We had a good amount of critical acclaim. Reviews were mixed, but the good reviews were very good and it was seen as we’ve learned what we’re going to do with the first one, now let’s really do the proper job on the second one, Dark Omen. So to get anything green-lit for a sequel, you have to be successful, so we definitely hit the minimum bar. Also, don’t forget, Games Workshop love it! They absolutely loved it! So at this point, suddenly, a lot of the things we were saying to make it more game-y, they were saying: “Yes, we agree with you, you were right!” The relationship just really grew and then the US kind of got on board a bit, so we thought we were really going to nail it with Dark Omen.
Stay Forever: Dark Omen, ❤. What did you have to do with the game? You went to EA/Bullfrog?
Richard Leinfellner: Oh, no, no, no, no. I started Dark Omen with Mindscape and I left about a year into development, about half-way through development. I was headhunted by EA and I went to EA. When I was at EA, they had a problem with Bullfrog. So I took over running half of Bullfrog, so I took over Populous III for example. At that point, EA needed a hit, sorry, Bullfrog needed a hit, because they bought the company on the premise of that it’s going to be a hit factory and they hadn’t shipped anything. So I was talking to Les Edgar who was Peter’s business partner and Peter had left by then, Peter Molyneux had left by then. And we talked about how to make hits and I said: “Well, what’s your most successful game?” And he said: “Well, Theme Park!” I said: “It’s really obvious, just do a sequel to Theme Park.” And Les said: “Well, that’s a really good idea, Richard, a bit obvious, but nobody wants to work on this.” So I said: “I tell you what, Les, if I find a team to do that game, could I hire the team?” And Les said: “Yeah, if you find a team to do a Theme Park, absolutely, you can hire the entire team.” So I went to E3 and I was walking down the corridor and you know a guy called Kevin Bachus? Kevin is a friend of mine. So, I was chatting to Kevin and I said to Kevin: “I’d love to get my old team back, because they would do this for me.” They would actually do this game for me. I wanted them to do Theme Park World or a Theme Park sequel. So Kevin just says: „Go and talk to Chuck at SSI!” He was now running development, so now all of the studios reported to him and he was still at Mindscape obviously, so I just went to the SSI booth, and I left Mindscape on good terms so I said to Chuck: “I don’t suppose you got ten minutes for a chat?” And Chuck said: “Yeah, I’ve got ten minutes.” So I sat down with him and I literally made this up on the spot, I had no plan, I said to him: “What about, Chuck, here’s the deal, you let me out of my ‘no hire, no compete’ clause in my contract, so I can hire my old team, so I will take the whole team from the UK to EA, I will take Dark Omen over to EA, so we’ll buy Dark Omen from you and we’ll cut you a check next week, we’ll just give you cash.” I should point out I had no authority to do this deal, at all. Schnapsidee, right? So Chuck goes: “That’s interesting, let’s talk some more.” Because I knew at that point they were thinking of closing the UK office down anyway, because they couldn’t manage it, they didn’t have anyone really running it. So, I phoned Les and said: “Hey, Les, you know you said I could hire a whole team?” He goes: “Yeah?” I said: “Well, what if I just bought a game, but it comes with my entire team from Mindscape and we get to publish the game and we get the team that makes us Theme Park World.” He goes: “Well, that’s OK.” “Can I have two million dollars please, next week?” “Yeah, that’s doable.” So, basically, I stayed over a bit longer, did the deal with SSI. Part of this would be that we would transition the whole team to EA, they would finish Dark Omen, EA would ship Dark Omen and they would become EA employees or Bullfrog employees. So that’s why Dark Omen ended up at EA, because I bought it.
Stay Forever: That’s a nice story.
Richard Leinfellner: But it gets funnier. About a year later, I got a phone call from SSI and they said: “You know Dark Omen?” “Yeah?” “We’d like license it back, to put on a compilation,” because they were doing very well with these compilation packs, “we’d like Dark Omen on the compilation.” “Yeah, that will cost you two million dollars.” So I got my money back as well.
Stay Forever: Oh, they paid two million dollars to put Dark Omen on compilations?
Richard Leinfellner: Yeah, we got a royalty from it as well. So, it was really quite a sweet deal. There you go, that’s the scoop!
Stay Forever: That’s nice! Do you have any opinion on how Dark Omen turned out? To frame it from my side, I feel it’s the game that Shadow of the Horned Rat wanted to be and I would so have liked to see Shadow of the Horned Rat with the Dark Omen engine because I feel Shadow of the Horned Rat is the more mature game in storytelling, but the systems are sometimes not as well thought out or tested out as Dark Omen’s.
Richard Leinfellner: Yeah, every time we do the second one, we get better. You’ve learned from the first one, right? So the team was better. The other thing is EA had really good resources. I mean, they spent a lot of money on development. If we needed stuff, it was like: “OK, what do you need?” So, we suddenly had a lot more resources and we had a really good marketing team as well. They got behind it, so it was just really quite a different experience. We thought about doing another one, because we got quite good at this, but then Bullfrog had so many IPs and we were now EA/Bullfrog people. So, it seemed silly paying for an IP when you’ve got a stable of IPs you can just have for free.
Stay Forever: Who did the main game design for both games? Who conceived this game as a series of battles of a mercenary force? That’s unusual!
Richard Leinfellner: I would say it’s probably Jeff Gamon and Steve Leney. They were the real drivers behind this. I will totally put up my hands: I’m not a Warhammer fan. Design was their baby.
Stay Forever: So the main design ideas of how this game was structured and so came from the source material, essentially, by fans.
Richard Leinfellner: Yes, it did. They were massive, massive fans. I never felt like I could tell them anything about how to make a Warhammer game. They knew far more than I ever did.
Stay Forever: But they were not game designers. You handed game design to a programmer and an artist.
Richard Leinfellner: I come from a time when there were no game designers, there were just programmers. The evolution of video games: In the beginning there were programmers, then along came art, then came – I suppose – production and then very later on in life came designers. It’s one of those evolution things. To be honest, to have somebody come in with the title designer, people go: “Who the hell is that person?” We all design the game, there’s not just one designer.
Stay Forever: Very nice. Do you know how successful this game was?
Richard Leinfellner: Yeah, it did pretty well. EA was very happy with it. I can’t remember the exact numbers. And what was really amazing about this, is of course now they knew they had a team that could deliver. And that meant I got the budget to do Theme Park World and Theme Park World did spectacularly well.
Stay Forever: And that worked out for you. So, the team went straight over with no losses, no people quitting?
Richard Leinfellner: No, no, I told them exactly what the plan was. I’ve known these people for almost my entire life. I made it absolutely clear there’s a real purpose to you being here. Stage one is ship Dark Omen, stage two is doing Theme Park.
Stay Forever: I believe I visited the studio, because we did a preview for a games magazine on Theme Park World.
Richard Leinfellner: It looked like the cooling towers in Aliens, right?
Stay Forever: Yeah! That was very nice! Thank you very much! I won’t take up more of your time. If you have a parting anecdote to share… ?
Richard Leinfellner: I tell you what’s most amazing is, people still remember these games and that’s always just amazing to me. I even talk to people who are still running Populous III. I was playing a Populous III game online with people like six months ago! It got totally annihilated by the way. And you think: “God, this has been such a long time ago and it’s just amazing, people still love it.” You suddenly feel it’s not just about money. You’ve really touched people’s lives. And that’s really heart-warming, actually.
Stay Forever: I feel people who love Dark Omen, loved it very much, very, very much. Like I did! I played it dozens of times. And as you told, it’s still running. People are making mods for it and everything. It’s really well loved.
Richard Leinfellner: It is good, it is good. It is kind of a form of art. It’s nice to be appreciated like that.
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