Even galaxies die
November 23, 1999
The year is 1996, and best-selling fantasy author Tracy Hickman of Dragonlance fame unveils his latest creation: Starshield. It is a science-fiction/fantasy project introduced through the novel Starshield: Sentinels, laying the groundwork for a paper/pencil roleplaying game (RPG), a large-scale online game (EPG), and in-character roleplaying the likes the Net has never seen. To aid him in this endeavor, Tracy Hickman hires a small company out of Albany, NY to write the RPG and spearhead the online game: New Millenium Entertainment (NME).
NME made their mark on the RPG world by cashing in on the X-Files-influenced Conspiracy-X line, is heavily enthusiastic about the project, and immediately devotes its time to Starshield. Tracy also hires the Arizona-based company Infomagic to handle the Starshield web page, and routinely makes public appearances to explain the project to his fans. By the end of the year, Starshield has hundreds of participants interacting on a cheap web-based bulletin board system (BBS), eagerly awaiting the completion of the online game and paper RPG.
The year 2000 now dawns ahead, and the Starshield web site is once again losing its home. The RPG has been in “beta” stages for two years, and the EPG never got off the ground. Tracy Hickman no longer makes weekly appearances in the Starshield chat room (the third incarnation of which only recently disappeared), and the longest standing participants of the Starshield project, who remained through thick and thin, are now slowly turning their heads. All it would have taken to make Starshield a success was a little planning and organization. All it would have taken to keep Starshield afloat was some leeway from Hickman, leeway that never came.
For the majority of its three-year public appearance, Starshield has been in the hands of extremely devoted fans, while every company that touched Starshield turned its back, as Tracy Hickman repeatedly made bad business decisions, and held onto a project he had no time for, and kept a hold of only to cash in on what money might eventually loom ahead. Instead of allowing Starshield to break free from its confines to grow into the boots originally made for it, he let Starshield crumble to fill a small e-mail listserve on which every aspect of Starshield now dwells. Three online message boards and six companies later, Starshield is the ultimate example of how not to run a project. Fortunately, to make my point, I had the pleasure of talking to sources close to the project, who were with it for its full three years of misery. They know why the projectt failed, and perhaps how it could have been avoided.
Starshield was born in an English pub, where authors Tracy Hickman and Margaret Weiss (the famous Dragonlance duo) conceived of a fairly unique idea based around the ideas of quantum physics. Tracy thought up a galaxy where realities change like weather, and where virtually any form of science or magic can exist in unison. The idea was to allow dragons to interact with spaceships, where magical spells came into contact with laser cannons. By no means was the idea original, but the way Tracy conceived it put an interesting twist on things.
Perhaps more interesting than the idea itself, however, was the way Tracy hoped to gather future customers. Instead of simply publishing a roleplaying game and throwing it on store shelves (as was expected in the industry), he believed that the average consumer should have input on the game’s development, and from this sprung the idea of an online community that shaped Starshield just as much as he or Margaret would.
With plans in motion to launch the Starshield web page, a Starshield trilogy, a roleplaying game, and an online strategy game, Tracy believed that Starshield should remain a unified whole; Hickman believed that every facet of the project should interface with the other, so that actions players took in the online game would be reflected in the trilogy, and in turn the RPG, the web site, etc. He would also have no qualms if the storyline the players created was different from his own vision; Starshield was to become a living entity in itself, to follow the participant’s lead. Implementing this idea would allow the average participant to see their name in print, and allow them the opportunity to directly influence the development of the project, in every aspect.
New Millenium Entertainment (NME)
If it was one thing that Tracy did right, it was hiring NME to write the RPG. Ironically, if it was one thing he did wrong, it was not hiring NME to write the RPG.
NME was a fairly new startup, with offices in a friend’s gaming store. With one serious project already bringing in money (Conspiracy-X), NME took on Starshield after Tracy pitched the idea to them at a gaming convention. NME immediately got underway with the project without a formal contract in hand, and hired Ricko Dakan, a freelance writer who had worked on numerous gaming projects, to write the first draft of the roleplaying game.
In early ’97, NME had completed the design of a sweet convention booth for GenCon. The online game was already underway, and after some local Starshield participants (including one Frank Torkel) contacted them, they set up biweekly beta test and development sessions. Back then, the enthusiasm for Starshield was phenomenal. Bernard Trombley, NME’s president, worked closely with Alex Jurkat (NME editor) to develop a rich history for Starshield. With amateur talent from the beta team, Starshield’s history, and the concepts behind the Starshield Universe, were quickly explored. For the weeks that followed, Starshield’s future looked very bright, and then suddenly, the beta sessions stopped. NME explained to its testers that Tracy, after over a year of contact, had not ironed out contract details, and they finally had enough. Despite the fact that NME kept in touch, trying again and again to get the contract finalized, Tracy either did not respond, or did not budge. None of the participants really knew what happened.
By mid-’97, NME dropped Starshield completely, and aside from minor contact with Alex Jurkat, Starshield lost the only roleplaying company that wanted to pick Starshield up. By the end of the year, even Alex disappeared, and though somewhat hopeful of a new contract pitch, NME slid off into the shadows.
InfoMagic, Inc. (IM)
A resident of Flagstaff, AZ, Tracy went with his own ISP to host the Starshield web site. In addition to an ISP, however, InfoMagic is a major manufacturer and distributor of Linux CD’s, the very same you’ll find in most local computer conventions. Needless to say, InfoMagic was a profitable company with some business sense.
Scott Kammerzell, the Starshield contact at InfoMagic, spent a significant portion of his time at the company dealing with Starshield’s participants and Tracy Hickman. It was his job to maintain the Starshield web site, and keep all things online in order. Unfortunately, InfoMagic proved to have much less skill than Tracy must have originally seen. The Starshield website suffered from a horrendous lack of updates, and at no point in Starshield’s history had a completed site existed. Simply put, InfoMagic hadn’t the time to deal with Starshield, and figured it was just another web page, from just another author.
This became painfully evident when InfoMagic decided that updating the web site was too much of a burden for them, and after some talk with Tracy, they established the Sifters, a group of official, unpaid Starshield volunteers that would take participant submissions and put them into HTML format, and then upload them to the website. These Sifters, named after a position in the Starshield background, were highly dedicated, and did more work than InfoMagic ever did. Their payment, for years of work, was a copy of the novel’s cover, converted into postcard format.
InfoMagic, promising an online store and a CD-Rom (consisting of the EPG engine, RPG, and other bonuses), suddenly started to communicate less and less with Starshield participants. In 1998, after a series of minor revolts in the Starshield community, Tracy Hickman, with some hesitance, decided to can InfoMagic, Inc. The company who had done so little with Starshield, despite the promises it and Tracy made, finally dropped off the same cliff NME did, and was never heard from again.
Twin Forces (TF)
Once NME dropped out of the picture, there was no one working on the online game. This Empire-Playing Game (EPG), in which participants create Empires to interact in trade, war, etc, was pitched to a small computer company called Twin Forces. TF had never written a game before, and dealt primarily with Java applets. Their vision for the game was a series of java applets to map out the galaxy, and allow players to maintain aspects of their Empires. Hired by InfoMagic with Tracy’s approval, Twin Forces broke from one of the core ideas behind Starshield: user participation in development. This created more grunts from the already agitated Starshield old-timers, who had watched for over a year as Starshield fell down the hole of damnation. Twin Forces believed that the game should be developed behind closed doors, and despite limited online discussions and technology demonstrations, Twin Forces started to spend less and less time on the EPG.
TF had so ruined the idea behind the Starshield EPG, that some of the more influential participants decided that keeping their EPG was a waste of time and effort. TF not only refused to make use of user ideas, but envisioned the EPG to be a closed-ended game, where players could “win or lose”, instead of keeping a constantly growing universe as originally envisioned. Even more terrible a revision to the Starshield project, Twin Forces blatantly ignored the reality differences present behind the Starshield theme, basically creating a game that hardly resembled the idea pitched to the consumers in ’96.
Even before InfoMagic left the scene, TF jumped boat because of lack of funds. Their version of the game, completely different from what the participants had been promised, would have cost millions to build properly.
Golden Hydra Industries (GHI)
Pat Garaelb, one of Starshield’s mid-term participants, pitched the idea of an online game to Tracy Hickman after InfoMagic shut their doors. Boasting a staff of dedicated workers, and showing off internet-based BBS door games similar to small-featured text-based MUD’s, Pat and his team wanted to work with Tracy to write the online game.
Almost immediately, the aggravation levels of long-term Starshield participants rose. Once again, Tracy had embraced an idea so completely different from the one he himself pitched in ’96, that Pat had to work extra hard to win people over. His idea, however, was nothing more than a simple BBS door game: closed-ended, and small in scope. Again, this EPG was not a growing world, and Pat refused to work with the Sifters, the participants, and attempted to usurp full control of the Ss project.
After fluctuations in online activity, Pat began noting Tracy’s reluctance to finalize the Starshield contract. After a few weeks, Pat disappeared, and so did the GHI web site. Tracy never got back to Pat about the Ss contract.
“The Mystery Game Company”
No one knew who these guys were, but after GHI disappeared, Tracy made one of his ever-so-infrequent appearances on the Starshield listserve, in which he told everyone that some gaming company wanted to pick Starshield up and make a Blizzard-like game based on it. Likely, this was to be similar to the then-popular Starcraft, and though Tracy assured everyone that the contract negotiations were taking place, after a week, all talk of the company disappeared.
Immersive Entertainment Group, Inc. (ImEG)
What began under InfoMagic as the Sifters, eventually organized with minor directive and appointment from Tracy Hickman into a fairly large hierarchal organization, boasting various departments, branches, and offices.
When GHI fell, these devoted Sifters, who had managed everything from official background, stories, and game plots, to PR and galactic maps, finally nailed Tracy down and demanded that their work be protected from future change if “The Mystery Game Company” took over. In an online conference that took place in late Winter/early Spring of ’99, Tracy told the Sifters to form a legal company, to which he would contract Starshield’s work to. Tom Schruefer, Dan Pond, Frank Torkel (from the early beta days), and Tim “Falcon” Langlamet, each Sifters in charge of certain areas, took the paperwork under their wings, and a couple months later, ImEG was formed, with stock belonging to Tom, Dan, and Frank.
Contract negotiations began, and contract negotiations ended.
For about half a year, ImEG was on Tracy’s ass about the Starshield contract, and for the latter half of this time, ImEG had to deal with Tracy’s agency, The Lazaer Agency. Unfortunately, during these negotiations, it became abundantly clear that Hickman and The Lazaer Agency had no desire to develop the Starshield project with long-term financial potential, and instead focused on immediate profit for Hickman, at the expense of ImEG’s work.
After ridiculous requests from Tracy, including a million-dollar insurance option, individual trademark purchases, and a mandatory royalty payment of $2,500 (whether or not ImEG made any money off of Starshield) a year, ImEG explained that they could not put that kind of money up, as Tracy knew. Regardless, Tracy and Lazaer responded with minimal consideration, and turned down the contract, as they claimed, because of “creative differences.” Apparently, Tracy was no longer concerned with consistency in the Starshield Universe, and opted for Starshield to die, rather than have anyone maintain it. Curiously enough, without ImEG, no one was going to run Starshield at all, so it wasn’t as if Tracy would have lost money by allowing ImEG to have the contract. The truth finally showed: Tracy simply didn’t care.
How you can run a project better than Starshield:
Lesson One: Don’t ever, ever, start a serious project and claim that a significant portion of the funds will go to funding the colonization of Mars. Especially if you can’t back that up. If this is really your motive, don’t tell any of the companies you want to work with until the money is already flowing in in spades.
Tracy should have watched over his project himself, instead of running after where the money was. At every turn, Tracy abandoned Starshield in favor of some other project, whether or not the project he was working on had any more potential than Starshield to make money. It’s not like he didn’t have any time at all; Tracy was spotted numerous times at online conventions, newsgroups, etc, and was even reported to have been out drivin’ around in his VW Beetle instead of tending to contract agreements he promised he’d deal with. Lesson Two: if you claim to believe in a project, then stick with it. Otherwise, make it clear that you’ve moved on.
Tracy decided to let the project keep growing in the hands of morons without a clue. For convenience’s sake, he let IM take the project, and because he didn’t do any research into what they were capable of, or what they wanted to do with it, he let TF play around with the EPG. Then, out of desperation, he started to sign on with GHI. Lesson Three: Research who you contract.
So, Tracy screwed up a couple times, but despite it all, the dedicated Sifters were there. And though they were the ones keeping Starshield alive and protecting Tracy’s project and good name, he fucked them over. Numerous times he told them that compensation was coming, and even suggested they form a company he could work with. Lesson Four: Don’t break your promises. If you do, your credibility is void.
New Millenium Entertainment went bankrupt due to some bad gaming lines, specifically the Battletech CCG. They sold the rights of Conspiracy-X to their layout man and close friend George Vasilakos, who formed Eden Studios. Bernard Trombley and Alex Jurkat are now employees of Eden Studios, along with Ed Healy, a Starshield drop-out from the early days. Conspiracy-X continues to grow in popularity, with numerous sourcebooks on the table, and amazing layout for a small startup company. Eden has its own offices now, and the company continues to rise without Starshield, throwing nearly half-a-dozen new lines onto the table, with much success.
Scott Kammerzell left Infomagic, Inc, and began working for a hotel, where the grievances of online maintenance and Starshield can’t bother him any longer.
Twin Forces continues to develop web technology; they have done rendering work for Star Trek: The Next Generation, have worked on a 3D front-end for the tank game Bolo, and still boast their work on the Starshield EPG, despite the fact that nothing ever came of it.
Golden Hydra’s headquarters drowned out when the area flooded. Pat received hospitalization for some injures after falling, and neither he or GHI have been heard of since.
“The Mystery Gaming Company” is still a mystery, and likely was never truly interested in working on Starshield.
Immersive Entertainment Group, Inc. left Starshield to watch from the shadows. They are currently working on at least two gaming lines, based off the “shared worlds” concept that Starshield boasted in its early days: Erebus, a dark fantasy world, and AllWorlds, an Empire-driven Starshield-like project. Frank Torkel sold his stock and left the group after"real” creative differences.
Most members of the Beta Team still keep in touch. Some of its members were awarded with the sole honor of conceiving Zanfib’s Guide to Failed Projects, the two most important pieces of literature in the Starshield project.