Jake Hughes was working as a model designer on Starship Troopers when he received a call from Peter Marquardt. Marquardt was an actor—he played the bad guy in Robert Rodriguez’s first film, El Mariachi—but he also had a passion for games. The pair originally met on the set of Wing Commander IV, where Marquardt was shooting for the game’s cutscenes.
“He calls me up and he says, ‘Hey, John Romero is making a company and they’re looking for associate producers, come on out,’” Hughes says. “Peter was working on Daikatana, and Tom Hall was needing an associate producer. So I came out and I met Tom, and we connected instantly … because they all knew about Starship Troopers.”
A week later, Hughes was offered the job as associate producer of Anachronox, the third game by Ion Storm Dallas. He was one of around 80 individuals invited to join the company at that time. Most were men, nearly all were under 30 years old and their backgrounds ranged from model designers to members of bands such as Information Society. Few of them had worked much in the games industry before. “Tom was actually the only person who had the experience [on Anachronox],” Hughes remembers. “This is, of course, Ion Storm, right? Where ego is a thing.”
In March 1997, Hughes made the drive from Los Angeles to Dallas to join Ion Storm. Its lavish office in the penthouse of Dallas’s Chase Tower wasn’t ready yet, so the team used a smaller office in the interim. Hughes’s office cubicle was connected to Romero’s. “I actually got to hear him play deathmatch every night,” he remembers.
For Hughes and everyone else involved, Ion Storm Dallas was videogaming nirvana, a company with huge talent, huge investment and huge ambitions, dreamed up by arguably the most famous man in the industry at the time. The honeymoon wouldn’t last, though. Within a year the studio would be plagued by turbulent office politics, a slew of public image crises and a host of development problems from which its reputation would never fully recover.
Ion Storm Dallas was founded on 15 November 1996. Its four founding partners were John Romero, Tom Hall, Todd Porter, and Jerry O’Flaherty. Hall and Romero had previously founded id Software along with John Carmack and Adrian Carmack (no relation), while Porter and O’Flaherty had cofounded a company together which they sold to the publisher 7th Level.
“In January 1996 I decided to leave id Software after shipping Quake,” says John Romero. “I contacted Tom Hall while he was at 3D Realms/Apogee and asked him if he’d be interested in starting another game company later in the year after Quake shipped.” At the time, Tom Hall was working on Prey, a first-person shooter that was struggling to find direction, and which ultimately wouldn’t ship for another ten years. “Romero called me one day and asked, ‘What if there was a company where you could design the game you want?’” Hall says. “I replied, ‘That would be a dream.’”
The four men came together to begin planning their outline for the company. “We all agreed that we should name the company something that represented the new vision: multiple game genres developed simultaneously,” Romero says. The initial proposal was ‘Dream Design’, but there were several other companies using that name. “I made up a bunch of names and logos, and Romero really liked ‘Ion’,” says Tom Hall. “But that was also similar to others, so we looked at various words to combine with it.” Romero states that the ‘Storm’ part of the name came from his lead coder Kee Kimbrell.
Ion Storm’s slogan, meanwhile, was ‘Design is Law’. It stemmed from the frustration Hall and Romero experienced at id, where they were forced to wait for John Carmack’s latest 3D engine iteration before they could make a game. The pair believed that game design should come first and the technology should facilitate it. In 1996, this was a radical idea. Romeo and Hall planned to achieve it by licensing the technology from other companies, bypassing the need to build it themselves. “Ion Storm was to be a creative release,” Hall says.
The founders would each be in charge of their own team. Hall, Porter and Romero would design a game each, while O’Flaherty would oversee the art team assisting the other three. Meanwhile, they needed someone to run the day-to-day business, so they turned to another disillusioned id Software employee.
A wild west
Mike Wilson was id’s head of marketing, and had previously been VP of development for DWANGO, an early online gaming service that provided the matchmaking for Doom’s multiplayer. After several years waiting on Quake, Wilson was bored. “They were gonna keep on doing what they were doing, which wasn’t very exciting for me at age 26,” he says. “What John was up to seemed greener pastures at the time.”
Wilson was hired as CEO of Ion Storm, primarily to ‘big-up’ the company in marketing. But he had bigger plans for Ion Storm as a business. id had rocked the industry with its 3D shooters. It had made huge money and spawned a legion of similarly lucrative imitators from Duke Nukem to Rise of the Triad. Publishers were desperate to get a slice of the pie, particularly from anyone associated with Doom.
“The publishers were lining up to throw money at a game design on a cocktail napkin,” Wilson says. “If you were part of that Dallas mafia you could get a $2 million or $3 million deal.” Before Doom, developers would usually get single-digit royalty percentages from their publisher. After Quake, Wilson struck a deal for 40% royalties with Activision for Quake’s first level pack. “It was just a Wild West,” he says.
Between August and December 1996, Romero and Hall started talking to publishers with Porter and O’Flaherty joining the negotiations in October. “Eidos became a strong contender because they were on the rise and had the cash to fund several games at once,” Romero says. Ion Storm negotiated with Eidos for $3 million for each of its three games, plus 45% royalties.
Wilson’s plan for Ion Storm was bigger still. Back at id, Wilson had wanted the company to publish its own games and reap all the money from its products. But John Carmack was interested mainly in pioneering technology and didn’t want to turn id into a games publisher. Consequently, Wilson brought this plan over to Ion Storm. “The plan was for Ion to be part of what would later become GodGames—Gathering of Developers—and so we were gonna knock out these three games from Eidos, one from each partner, and I was to be working on the self-publishing plan in the background.”
Wilson states he was on holiday when the deal was officially signed. When he got back, it had changed dramatically. Ion Storm was now into Eidos for not three games, but six. “[Eidos] really wanted to lock these guys up, because they were investing in what would help start the company,” he says.
The other founders told Wilson not to worry. They could halve the workload by creating a second studio to make three of the six games (what would ultimately become Ion Storm Austin). Besides, the whole point of Ion Storm was ‘Design is Law’. The issues that had plagued id during Quake’s three-year development wouldn’t be a factor as Ion Storm would use tried-andtested tech. The games would be built in no time.
Assholes like us
Everything about Ion Storm’s early days was larger than life. A few months in, the studio moved into Dallas’s Chase Tower. To get to their office, the designers had to change elevators on the floor which hosted the Petroleum Club. “Which is exactly what it sounds like, a bunch of oil money barons sitting on leather and mahogany smoking cigars [and drinking] scotch,” says Wilson. “And here comes all these young long-haired dudes in shorts and combat boots, going up to the penthouse which those guys absolutely fucking hated. It was really meant for assholes in the oil industry, but suddenly there are these new guys with Ferraris who could afford that place.”
The penthouse office (completed in 1998) was 22,000 square feet of real-estate that had never been occupied. Its interior was designed specifically for Ion Storm. Facilities included a theatre, an arcade, a dormitory and a shower room. “Nobody used the shower. But sometimes at night we would bring in LaserDiscs and watch movies,” says Jake Hughes. “We would get food delivered sometimes and we would hang out. We’d play deathmatch.”
The internal culture of Ion Storm has been the subject of much fascination. Ion Storm Dallas is frequently cited as being the industry’s first ‘rockstar’ developer. It was a word that conjures an image of wealth-fuelled extravagance and excess, the unholy trinity of sex, drugs and rock and roll. Everyone I spoke to who worked at Ion Storm Dallas refutes this image. Hughes describes it as “malarkey”, while Richard Gaubert, the writer on Anachronox, explains the atmosphere was “less like a rockstar environment and more like a dorm”. After work, the designers would play Quake, and later Quake II, deathmatch until late at night, an activity that was punctuated by swearing, smack talking and the occasional breaking of keyboards and computers. Gaubert cites an example of some of the studio antics: “I remember one day, sitting on the floor of the hallway outside my office, trying to get some writing done,” he begins. “Sometimes a change of scenery helps with writer’s block. And nearby, to my left, some engineers were wrestling on the floor, and to my right, my boss was drawing a picture on the whiteboard of himself sodomising a religious figure. I remember drinking in that moment and thinking, ‘man, I work in a weird, weird, wonderful place.’”
This fraternity-like atmosphere wasn’t exclusive to Ion Storm. In fact, it had been carried over from the glory days at id, when the founders lived together in a lake house in Shreveport, Louisiana—ordering in pizza and playing D&D while making Commander Keen, and later smashing keyboards and throwing CDs at the wall of their Mesquite office while making Wolfenstein and Doom.
Ion Storm was partly Romero’s attempt to bring back those fun and carefree days, only with the creature comforts Ion Storm’s wealth afforded them. “We wanted the environment to be fun, because we believed that if you’re not having fun making a game, it will show in the final product,” Romero explains. “Our developers were gifted, driven modders who had a passion for making fun stuff.” The approach was successful to a certain extent. “I loved every minute at Ion Storm,” says Hughes.
Whatever the reality of Ion Storm’s culture, the press was more than happy to view Ion Storm through the rockstar lens. “John was the perfect personality for them because he had the crazy long black hair and he would say whatever,” Wilson says. “He was driving the yellow hummer and the Ferrari, and had the big McMansion in north Dallas. He was just exactly what they wanted.”
Moreover, Romero’s seemingly abrupt departure from id to start his own, more ambitious company was the ideal story for the media. “A desire for the out with the old, in with the new, because id’s boring now. John Romero’s not even there,” Wilson says. “They created this rivalry between the two companies that would not have existed otherwise, and that led to friction with the technology.”
Wilson was happy to give the press what they wanted, presenting Ion Storm as this bold, ambitious, in-your-face new developer. But nobody factored in the gap between the studio’s boisterous internal culture with the outside image of the company as gaming’s new North Star. “While marketing’s goal was to convey how excited the company was for its products and its future, it had the opposite effect—it came across as egotistical,” Romero says. “Needless to say, the Daikatana ad was a thick layer of icing on that cake.”
Romero refers to the infamous “John Romero is about to make you his bitch” advertisement, which appeared in magazines in the spring of 1997. Wilson explains the ad was created by an agency belonging to the Richards Group in Dallas, specifically the work of the artist who also designed Daikatana’s cover art. Wilson thought it was hilarious, epitomising the in-your-face attitude at the core of the company. “I remember very clearly presenting that ad to John in his cubicle,” he says. “He also thought it was hilarious, and was like, ‘Fuck yes.’ And then he sorta started to think twice about an hour later. He was like, ‘I dunno man,’ and I think my words to him were, ‘John, don’t be a pussy.’ And that was it. He signed off on it.”
Neither the press nor the public got the joke, and from that moment the relationship between Ion Storm and the outside world began to sour. “We let that happen, let ourselves get talked into it, and it was too early and the wrong way to go,” Tom Hall says. “We should have shut up and made awesome games.” From this moment the press would begin to build a new, far less pleasant narrative about Ion Storm, and events within the company would only serve to reaffirm the suspicions of those on the outside looking in.
Corners of power
Arguably the biggest mistake Ion Storm made was failing to establish a clear hierarchy within the studio from the start. Romero was Ion’s figurehead, but he never intended to run the business personally. id got rich by making great games and getting other people to sell them, and Romero planned to do the same at Ion Storm. Hall, similarly, was there to make Anachronox. Todd Porter and Jerry O’Flaherty were more business oriented, in theory, but they also had their own teams to run. Wilson, meanwhile, was technically CEO, but had no real executive power. “Myself and the other business guy [COO Bob Wright] owned a combined 5% of the company,” says Wilson. “Those guys owned the rest.”
When Ion Storm moved into the Chase Tower penthouse, the four partners moved from their temporary cubicles into their own offices. These became known as the ‘Four Corners of Power’, reflecting the theoretical structure of the studio. In reality, what emerged from this structure was a battle for supremacy between Mike Wilson and Todd Porter.
Like Hall and Romero, Porter had worked his way up the ranks of game development, teaching himself to code on the Apple II before joining Origin. “Todd is very charming. He’s good looking. He’s very funny. And he’s got a way about him,” Hughes recalls. But Porter hadn’t enjoyed Hall and Romero’s level of success. “I would say that he probably didn’t deserve to be on the reputation level of John and Tom, as far as what they’d done,” says Will Loconto, Ion Storm’s audio director, who worked on both Daikatana and Todd Porter’s game, Dominion: Storm Over Gift 3. “But he jumped right into it and I think he felt like he was right up there with them.”
Indeed, it’s claimed that Porter’s newfound power had gone to his head. Wilson recalls that in a conversation with the other founders, Porter “asked them to all wear blazers to work so that new people would understand who were the bosses, and they would be respected”. In another instance, Porter asked one of Romero’s level designers, Sverre Kvernmo, to get him a coffee. “In his blazer, just like he was literally the guy from Office Space, like, ‘That’d be great, if you could just get me a coffee?’ It was like, ‘Do you know who that is?’
“He was cruel to people, and I feel bad saying all this because, look, we were all immature, egotistical assholes at that time, there was no question about it. And Todd was older, significantly older, and my guess is like most of us, he’s a completely different person than he was in 1997. But at that time he was fucking horrible,” Wilson continues. “I told him one time very publicly that he can’t talk to people like they’re construction workers. You’re not a foreman and these people are artists and programmers.” Wilson isn’t the only one who saw something off with Porter’s attitude. “He was never a jerk to me, but I saw him do it to other people” says Loconto.
There are several given explanations for Porter’s alleged behaviour. At 36, Porter was one of the older staff members at Ion Storm—several years older than Romero and a decade older than Wilson, who was supposed to be CEO. This may have implied a natural superiority. In addition, to try to fast-track one of the company’s six game projects, Porter had brought over a half-finished strategy game from 7th Level named Dominion: Storm Over Gift 3. He convinced the other founders he could have it out the door within three months. But in fact the project took a year to develop. When it did finally release, it bombed in reviews and sold a measly number of copies. “Everything was a distraction from the fact that he wasn’t actually making a game, and he had no idea how to make a game,” claims Wilson. Loconto cites an example from the project that Porter was developing before bringing Dominion over, a game called Doppelganger. “He hired these 3D artists that came in and made these 3D statues of all the monsters in the game, before there was a game.”
Between them, Porter and O’Flaherty began encroaching upon other areas of the business. Porter began turning up to Daikatana team meetings, which baffled the designers, and the pair hatched a plan to create a comic book publishing wing of the business, which Eidos promptly shut down. These various schemes, alongside the troubled developments of first Doppelganger and then Dominion, began sucking money from the company. “[The founders] didn’t realise they were gonna be competing for resources too,” Loconto says. “When they’re telling Eidos they need to hire three more producers for Todd’s team, I’m not sure how well that went over with Tom and John.”
Wilson was no milksop either. He was an uncompromising business negotiator, could be just as fiery as Porter, and incurred a scandal himself when he borrowed company money in order to pay for a new car after wrecking his own. The key difference, according to Wilson himself, was that he was liked by the other Ion Storm employees because he took their side whenever Porter went off on a power play. “I was 26 and full of piss and would just take it out of Todd at any chance I got, because I was just like, ‘somebody’s gotta fuckin’ call this dude out on being an asshole or this whole company is going to be an asshole,’” he says.
I contacted Porter about the statements made against him at Ion Storm, and his own recollection of events couldn’t be more different. “I liked Mike Wilson back in those days and like him still today. In fact, a couple of years ago we attended a good friend of ours’ memorial and had beers together.” Porter also disputes that there was a “mythic power struggle” between himself and Wilson. “That just didn’t exist. We disagreed, for sure, but you have to remember that Mike was the CEO, Bob Wright was the COO and they ran the business.”
On the subject of the blazers and the coffee, Porter says, “I truly don’t remember doing those things,” and that he “would never intentionally be cruel to anyone.” He cites the long working hours and staying overnight at the office trying to get Dominion finished, and says, “It’s highly likely I lost my temper from exhaustion. But that doesn’t make me cruel—it makes me human.”
As for why Porter brought Dominion over from 7th Level, he explains that, “I believed in the project and wanted to finish the game I’d started,” but also adds that at the time 7th Level was going bankrupt and he “didn’t want to see all those people I hired—who had become my friends—lose their jobs”.
In the end, Wilson entreated Romero to fire Porter, stating, “We have to get rid of him.” Together they went to the office of Bob Wright, Ion Storm’s COO, to discuss how they would do this. But in the elevator Romero decided he wanted to give Porter another chance, and so the firing never happened. Not long after that, Wilson was called into a similar meeting, where he was told he was being let go. They cited the friction that Wilson was causing with Porter, alongside his unwillingness to let go of the GodGames plan. “You’re not ever gonna play nice with Eidos, you’re pissing them off, and we can’t do this [Gathering of Developers] plan while we still owe all these games. We need to just focus on making games,” Wilson says, recalling the gist of the conversation.
Wilson believes that Porter persuaded Hall and Romero to fire him. “He was having them over at his house on weekends and they had talks like, ‘Wouldn’t everything be great if Mike just wasn’t around and there wasn’t all this fighting?’” But Porter claims he had no knowledge of Wilson’s impending firing until Hall and Romero called him and O’Flaherty to meet with them at a Mexican restaurant to discuss the matter. “It was John and Tom who wanted Mike out, not me or Jerry. They had serious problems with him, not us. After much investigation, Jerry and I agreed with them and all of us were present at the final meeting with Mike.”
However it went down, Wilson was out. But this would prove only to be a stay of execution for both Porter and O’Flaherty, who would depart the company under a different cloud around 18 months later. Romero is reluctant to comment on the specific nature of Wilson and Porter’s relationship, stating, “I view them as I would any employee, and I don’t feel comfortable disclosing interactions they may have had.” Meanwhile, Tom Hall explains that the reason Romero and himself didn’t intervene earlier was because they were occupied with their own projects. “We were focused on making games,” Hall says. “We became aware of people causing chaos and people taking advantage of the situation. We just wanted to make games.”
Live by the sword
Romero’s vision for Ion Storm was of a game developer that did not have to compromise, and that extended to Daikatana. The game would feature 24 levels that took the player on an epic journey through time and space. Players would travel from Ancient Greece to 25th-century cyberpunk Japan. In a first for the genre, story would play a central role, including advanced AI sidekicks who would accompany the player on their adventure. It’s a premise that still sounds tantalising today.
As Romero puts it, the story of Daikatana has “taken on a life of its own”. Its problematic development has acquired legendary status. Because of this, it’s worth setting aside the familiar narrative for a moment to ask what went right on the project. “The team was composed of modders who loved FPS games and believed in a vision of making something that was incredible,” Romero says. “We introduced complex sidekick AI, tons of content and really fun deathmatch, and, perhaps most importantly, we shipped a game under incredibly trying conditions.”
These conditions began with the engine. Despite the ambitious scope, Romero estimated that by licensing the Quake engine, his team could have the project turned around in six months. But in early 1997, Romero and Hall saw Quake II in action. They were blown away by its engine, which included among its features coloured lighting and support for hardware acceleration. Their games were already behind schedule, but they figured it was worth the time investment to incorporate the Quake II source code in order to keep their games visually up to date.
John Carmack was a superb coder, but id’s third-party support was rudimentary at best. “Carmack really didn’t want to be bothered with phone calls from anybody. I think it was in the original contract, you got two hours of talk with him,” Wilson remarks. There had been other successful third-party id Tech games, namely Raven Software’s Hexen and Heretic, but support for them came mainly from Romero, who assisted the development of both titles while still at id.
Consequently, the Daikatana team was left to fathom how to incorporate the code by itself. At this time, 3D graphics rendering technology was improving at an exponential rate, and the complexity was compounding with it. As a result, the code base for the Quake II engine was radically different. Ion Storm received the Quake II source code in November 1997, but it would take until March 1999 to fully implement it into Daikatana.
Ion Storm wasn’t the only company to struggle keeping up with the times. Duke 3D, Unreal, and Jedi Knight had all taken over 30 months to develop, while 3D Realms’ Prey and Duke Nukem Forever were both delayed far longer than Daikatana on account of multiple engine changes. Interestingly, one company that decided not to play technological catch-up was Valve Software. “They had the same thing, where they had the Quake source code and they chose not to incorporate the Quake II source code,” says Jake Hughes. “They bought themselves like four months of development time.” The game in question was Half-Life, which launched in November 1998. In many ways it stole Daikatana’s thunder with its narrative-led shooting and advanced AI.
Rumours of his death
One of the stranger stories that emerged from Ion Storm began with the ‘news’ that John Romero had died. In an interview with Texas Monthly magazine, a photo was published of Romero lying on a gurney with a fake hole in his head. The image got onto the internet, without context, triggering an outpouring of grief, and when the image was outed as fake, outrage.
“I got phone calls from people on the West Coast in tears going like, ‘what has happened?’ And I was like, ‘he’s right here. I can hear him laughing,’” Hughes says. The mishap was a perfect microcosm of Dallas’s problems, how its culture was wrongheadedly used for marketing, which caused a blowout and damaged the company’s public image.
The whole reason for founding Ion Storm was to get away from id’s technology-driven design, and yet, in a tragic irony, Romero once again found his design frustrated by John Carmack’s technology. But this wasn’t the only issue. Daikatana’s development was also hindered by team upheavals and morale issues, and there are lingering questions over Romero’s approach to leadership.
The story goes that for large chunks of time, Romero was out of the office on press trips and being the public face of the company. “There were a lot of times where somebody wanted to ask him something and he wasn’t there,” Loconto says. “But then a lot of times he was there and people would complain because they were trying to work and he’s deathmatching or whatever.”
Loconto doesn’t hold this against Romero. Instead he believes it came as a consequence of his wanting Ion Storm’s atmosphere to be like that of id. “I don’t think that’s what he signed up for really. I think he signed up for, ‘we’re gonna make a cool game. I’m gonna get a kickass team and all these guys are gonna do what they’re supposed to do.’” But that casual approach couldn’t function in a studio as large as Ion Storm. “You can’t translate that camaraderie that was at id when they had a small team into even a 20-to-30-person team,” Loconto adds. “You can’t count on every single person to carry their weight unless they’re being managed.”
Romero disagrees entirely with the sentiment that he wasn’t present with the team, stating that he “was at the office most of the time” and that the deathmatching was part of the work. “Playing was necessary to know where we were in terms of hitting the mark. It was the same process for Wolfenstein 3D, Doom, Doom II, Quake and so on. If you don’t want to play your own games, who else will?” Meanwhile, any recreational deathmatching “only happened after 6pm some days”.
The combination of repeated delays and managerial disorganisation, along with long working hours and increasing hostility from both press and public, led to a high staff turnover, particularly on the Daikatana project. “Daikatana went through significant team changes and had, as an example, five lead programmers by the time it launched,” Romero says. Loconto was involved in perhaps the most notable of these staff departures. In November 1998, eight Ion Storm employees walked out of the studio to join a developer associated with Mike Wilson’s new publishing venture, Gathering of Developers, which he’d formed with 3D Realms and Terminal Reality after being fired from Ion Storm.
“He needed a team to do the KISS Psycho Circus game, and basically it’s a hard thing to say no when somebody says, ‘We will give you $2 million to start your company if you come do this.’ And we got $2 million to build that game,” Loconto says. It was Loconto who told Romero they were leaving. “[It was] one of the hardest things I’ve ever done in my life,” he adds. “I would say that he felt personally betrayed.”
Daikatana’s problems came to a head during E3 1999. Hughes worked on Daikatana for several months to help prepare a demo for the show. “Everybody worked very hard on it, and then like a week before, Romero wanted all of these changes made and it was kinda like, ‘Dude, these haven’t been in here for like a month. Why did we wait until now to address this stuff?’”
The demo ended up running at five frames-persecond, and was another PR disaster for Ion Storm. But the story is more complex than Hughes recalls. According to Romero, he had already departed for E3 before this event took place. “While I was gone, a cofounder told the team to make a bunch of changes to Daikatana and told them I wanted those changes made, which was a huge lie. The team made the changes and we got an update which basically broke the E3 demo of the game.”
Romero doesn’t specify who the cofounder was, but the same story is told in David Kushner’s 2003 book, Masters of Doom, and in that case the founder in question is named as Todd Porter. We went back to Hughes with the Romero’s account, and he responds that, “It’s possible those notes came from Todd. The sentiment from the team was that the notes were from John.”
“I was so mad when I found out what happened,” Romero says. Indeed, in Kushner’s account, it’s this event which led to the departure of Porter and O’Flaherty from Ion Storm in July 1999. Romero doesn’t comment on their leaving in any detail, but on the subject of Ion Storm’s atmosphere, he mentions that, “After Todd and Jerry left Ion Storm in the middle of 1999, the entire atmosphere changed and the company felt just great. Everyone was in high spirits and working hard to finish our games.”
Romero says that the final year of Daikatana’s development was “nose to the proverbial grindstone”, and that “everything changed and went well up to launch”. Sadly, it wasn’t enough to save Daikatana from reviews that ranged from lukewarm to scathing when it launched on May 24, 2000. “It could never live up to the hype generated in the early days,” Romero laments.
Tom Hall’s Anachronox was even more ambitious project than Daikatana: a vast, sprawling sci-fi comedy modelled in the JPRG style, and inspired by everything from Ender’s Game to the animations of Chuck Jones—all developed by a team of just 15 people. The idea for Anachronox came to Hall in the bathroom. “Then I had to figure out what it meant.” It seemed to be a combination of ‘anachronism’ (something out of its correct time period) and ‘nox’ from noxious (poisonous, harmful). So that twisted into meaning ‘poison from the past’.
The main inspiration for Anachronox, however, was Chrono Trigger. “Chrono Trigger is my jam,” says Hall. “Many RPGs have the base of exploring a game world/ story and growing over time and decisions affecting the world. But this one one-upped that with a set of interesting characters with wildly different stories having their own take on events and unique ways to play.”
Like Daikatana, Anachronox used the Quake and later Quake II engines. But the game had the additional problem of being an RPG that used a shooter engine. This meant a lot of the development time was spent trying to figure out how to do things that hadn’t been done with the engine before. In one example, for the first in-game area—a giant, slum-like space station, known as the Bricks—the team wanted to create something it had dubbed “N-Directional Gravity”.
“[Hall] wanted it so that the gravity could come from anywhere so that people were walking on walls,” says Hughes. “But we just couldn’t figure it out.” In the end, the team faked the effect by essentially playing animations of characters walking up walls during cutscenes. “Honestly, we spent more time trying to figure out how to do N-Directional Gravity and then abandoning it than it took to incorporate the Quake II source code.”
The main problem, however, was the size of the game. Hall and Hughes spent the first year of development writing a massive, 400-page design document. It became so big that Hall had to hire a writer to write the story that he wanted to tell, at which point Gaubert came aboard. “I took the outline that Tom and Jake wrote, and fleshed out the plot, and tried to integrate gameplay elements. I would look at the levels and figure out what moment-tomoment non-combat gameplay could happen in them,” Gaubert recalls.
Even with Gaubert writing every line of dialogue for a 60-hour RPG, the game was still, far, far too big for the 15-man team to make. Eventually, the decision was made to cut the story in half. The cut content would be held back for the planned sequel. “Jake and Richie came into my office one day saying the epic plot I’d laid down would take too long to make, so I looked at it and there was only one clear place to cut it,” Hall remembers. “Roughly in half. Sorry folks!”
Anachronox suffered from technical issues and delays just like Daikatana and Dominion, but it wasn’t as troubled by upheavals within the team. The team was smaller and more intimate than the others, suffered less from departures during the project, and Hall, Hughes and Gaubert all got on well together. “It was like, just a great creative meld between the three of us,” Hughes says.
Anachronox launched on June 27, 2001. Critically it was received very well, but commercially it sold poorly, a factor that Hall puts down to poor marketing. “I give Eidos amazing credit for supporting us through shipping. They were awesome. But we spent millions on development, and $50,000 on advertising. Five ads in magazines and that was it.” According to Gaubert, however, the reason Eidos spent so little on advertising Anachronox was because the game missed its original marketing window due to delays. “They had timed their marketing towards our original release date, but we missed it! I think we had blown through all the marketing money before we had actually finished the project, so we shipped with little fanfare.”
Two weeks after the launch of Anachronox, Eidos informed Ion Storm Dallas that it was closing the studio. Although it wasn’t getting paid, the Anachronox team stayed on to finish a patch it was working on. I asked Hughes what he took away from his time at Ion Storm. “Hubris,” he says. “That’s the story of Ion Storm, it’s amazing how it happens time and time again. All eyes on a certain company, and you can make some bad decisions and you can also make something great.”
The story of Ion Storm Dallas is often viewed as a cautionary tale, one that has been told before and will probably be told again. Two decades on, it’s a story that’s still clouded and contentious in parts, with very different perspectives from some of the industry’s strongest personalities. But not everything that came out of the studio was bad. Hughes and Gaubert became fast friends, and the Anachronox team still meet up once a year at GDC. Loconto, too, looks back on that time with fondness. “I’m glad to have been a part of it,” he says. Even Wilson—who says he spent his time at Ion Storm “so stressed out… I literally remember not being able to turn my head to talk to someone without turning my entire body”—felt like he learned a lot from the experience. “I think it took me down a notch as well, as far as thinking I was invincible at the time,” he says.
As for Romero, he describes his time at Ion storm as a “tremendous learning experience”. He says, “It was far from perfect, but ultimately, making games isn’t always about having crazy success. Sometimes, games and companies don’t turn out to be what you hope they will be, and you do the best you can.”
And even if we adopt the dimmest view of Ion Storm Dallas, if we focus on all the mistakes and believe every internet rumour, there is one thing that John Romero got right. “He wanted to help me make a game and was willing to do whatever it took for me to make whatever game I wanted to make,” says Warren Spector. “He made some big promises to me, and lived up to every one of them.”
The game in question was Deus Ex, created by Ion Storm’s second studio, Ion Storm Austin.