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The History of Looking Glass @ Polygon

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The History of Looking Glass @ Polygon

Editorial - posted by Crooked Bee on Mon 6 April 2015, 19:16:00

Tags: Doug Church; Looking Glass Studios; Paul Neurath; Richard Garriott

Polygon's Mike Mahardy has written up a lengthy article recounting the history of the legendary Looking Glass Studios. Even though the article disappointingly, if perhaps expectedly, ends up calling the simplistic and not even particularly interactive Gone Home one of the true successors to the Looking Glass legacy, it is well worth a read.

Producer Lulu LaMer entered among the throngs, and as she stood in front of Neurath, she felt anxious. AverStar, a parent company, had recently divested Looking Glass because of growing debt. And the studio needed financial support to stay afloat.

"We usually had meetings on Fridays," LaMer says. "There was always some little update about attempts at funding. Maybe Sony was going to buy us, or maybe Eidos, or maybe this was going to happen."

The crowd was quiet. Team members had stumbled upon hard times, and they knew the company was in financial limbo — repo crews had already taken the plants lining the window sills while outside supervisors made sporadic visits to evaluate the company’s financials. But some still hoped that Neurath could pull them out of the hole.

"It didn't register with me that there was a slow bleed of people who saw the writing on the wall," LaMer says. "At our weekly meetings, we always had cake when somebody quit. And that year, we had cake every single week."

Looking Glass began in 1990. It was the first studio to create story-driven 3-D worlds, and it influenced designers for years to come. With titles such as Ultima Underworld, System Shock andThief, it proved that video games could be immersive phenomena.

But by 2000, Looking Glass had devolved into a collection of line graphs, each sloping downward at a steep angle.

"We’re closing," Neurath told the anxious crowd.​

And here's the bit on how the trouble started:

Throughout its lifespan, Looking Glass developed under several publishers — Electronic Arts, Nintendo, Origin Systems and Eidos Interactive. The studio also self-published three games, only one of which, Flight Unlimited, was a commercial success. It released in 1995 and, in two years, sold more than 300,000 copies. By 2002, the game would sell 780,000.

But in 1995, Looking Glass employed about 50 people, Neurath says. And Ned Lerner, Neurath’s co-founder, says the average salary at Looking Glass was $20,000. By this math, making enough money to pay everyone at Looking Glass meant wages of about $1 million a year. And that’s for normal 40-hour work weeks, a rarity throughout the studio’s time with tight deadlines and development crunch.

So in August of 1995, Neurath signed a deal with Viacom New Media in a play for financial stability. The agreement promised several titles under the new partnership, the first of which was Voyager, a graphic adventure based on the "Star Trek: Voyager" property.

But after 18 months, Viacom backed out of the partnership. Voyager was cancelled, and it was here that Looking Glass’ troubles began.

[...] Revenue from the first Thief was being burned, and a deal with the newly formed Irrational Games fell through at the last minute. The $2.5 million development cost of Thief 2 was an insurmountable hurdle.

But Looking Glass almost survived. Although Sony considered an acquisition, the studio came closest to signing a deal with Eidos.

"We all but had a deal done," Neurath says. "But at the 11th hour, they said, ‘Nope, we’re not going to do it.’"

Eidos had millions invested in developer Ion Storm, which had just suffered a major loss upon the release of Daikatana, a $40 million title that failed both commercially and critically. And the publisher couldn’t risk assuming more debt.

"My perspective is that someone there, at the executive level made the decision to pick up a bargain with the rights to Thief," Neurath says. "That, instead of picking up our entire studio."

Even now, 15 years later, the founder denies the idea that Daikatana’s failure was the nail in the coffin. That was a rumor among the developers, some say, and it got worse every time it circled back.

"It was the most painful ..." Neurath pauses. "It was very difficult. The roots of the issues go back to Viacom. It really put us at a disadvantage, and we had to exit in a way that we didn’t want to. We had no control over the company at that point."​

The full story of how and why Looking Glass had to close its doors is well told, so I recommend you read the article in full. It includes many other details, too, including a description of the "chain of nepotism" that helped form the studio in the first place.

There are 7 comments on The History of Looking Glass @ Polygon

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