You love a video game and you want a sequel. So you decide, with friends, to make one. A decade passes; your game never gets done. The companies that own the original games have shut you down twice. This is when it might be time for David to agree that Goliath has won.
But past the point when you've been called naive — when it just makes no sense to fight anymore because you've jumped through the hoops, you've landed splat on your face and you're now dreaming of a $75,000 gamble to finally release your game— there is a glimmer of hope.
Goliath may appreciate your fighting spirit, after all.
Ten years ago, a group of fans of the legendary computer adventure game series King's Quest decided that they, on their own, would make a ninth game in the series. Five years later they received their first cease-and-desist letter from a massive corporation. A little over two months ago they received their second. Today, the project known as The Silver Lining suddenly sparkles with a glimmer of hope.
The amateur development team, who call themselves Phoenix Online Studios, believe good news might at last be coming their way again.
Activision, the company that owns King's Quest and the company so many gamers love to hate, may let this stalled project revive once more.
"Given the overwhelming community support for the Silver Lining project," a company statement released to Kotaku on Sunday read, "Activision is in discussions with Phoenix Online Studios about allowing them to continue to finish the game and then release it to their fans."
David has been fighting this fight for a while.
The Quest For An Ending
A decade ago, Activision had nothing to do with the game that would be King's Quest IX. Neither did Katie Hallahan and Rich Flores, two King's Quest fans who would eventually devote seven years — and counting — of their lives to the sequel.
At its inception, in 2000, King's Quest IX was going to be a simple game, a fan-made sequel to a beloved adventure game series that had become neglected by its owners, the massive conglomerate, Vivendi Universal.
The first King's Quest was released in 1984, its sequels leading an 80s charge of text-driven (and, later, point-and-click) graphical adventure games from Sierra Entertainment. They were sensations, some of the most popular video games on computers.
But by 2000 King's Quest was on the decline, its eighth installment, released in 1998, a disappointment to fans. Creator Roberta Williams had retired and Sierra was in the process of being subsumed into far larger corporations. In the decade to follow, the adventures of King Graham and the rest of Williams' cast of characters would see no official follow-up.
"I liked the games when I was a kid," Hallahan recalled in an interview with Kotaku in Boston in late March. "It wasn't a story that got a proper ending or a proper conclusion." Hallahan is 29. She works in education. Since she graduated college, she's been one of many people to have a side project: Giving King's Quest that next chapter, possibly its last.
The Phoenix Online Studios King's Quest IX endeavor was going to give the series its fitting end. The Phoenix team wasn't a standard video game development group. No one was working on the game full-time. No one was even a professional game developer. They had no office; most of the team hadn't met each other in person. They were located around the world: in the U.S., in Venezuela, the Netherlands, Canada, Sweden, Australia and more, all King's Quest fans finding time on the side to make a dream project.
A rare-in person meeting of some of the Phoenix Online Studios principals: Neil Rodrigues (Programmer), Richard Flores (Art Director and Director), Petter Holmberg (Programming Lead), Michael Fortunato (Art Director), Katie Hallahan (Co-Designer and Public Relations), Cesar Bittar (Director and Designer)
Rich Flores, a computer animator in Montreal, joined the project in 2001. He was 22. "I thought — we all thought - this game would be out before I hit 30," he told Kotaku in late March. He is now 31.
A year later, Massachusetts-based Hallahan joined. "Maybe when we were starting off we didn't really know what we were doing, the scope, what's manageable and what's not," she said. "But I think with as much as we've learned in the eight to 10 years we've been working on it, we have a good idea of what's do-able."
The lessons were hard, not just because there were some long hours, days and weeks of work. Not just because it's hard to corral an international operation. Not just because everyone, at some point loses hope, especially when the fans not working on the game wonder what in the world is taking so long, why the deadlines keeo slipping.
Sometimes, to make matters worse, the people who have the right to make a King's Quest sequel show up and remind you: You don't.
The Defeat That Would Be A Victory That Was Actually Something Else
King's Quest IX hasn't been called "King's Quest IX" in five years, because no one is allowed to call it that.
In 2005, the year Hallahan, Flores and the rest of the Phoenix Online Studios project thought they would release their conclusion to Roberta Williams' royal saga, they instead got a letter from Vivendi Universal telling them to stop.
Neither Hallahan, nor Flores, nor Phoenix Online Studios director Cesar Bittar, nor any of the 20 or so King's Quest fans making the game actually owned the rights to King's Quest. Vivendi did. And Vivendi told the fan developers to cease and desist.
This was bad, but then came the reprieve. Late in 2005, following a fan protest, Vivendi announced, in an article written by me for MTV News, that the Phoenix developers would be allowed to release their game, so long as they didn't sell it and didn't call it King's Quest.
The game was renamed The Silver Lining and, in theory, the most awful part of this saga was past. "That felt like that was the biggest hurdle we could have faced," Hallahan said. "And we got past it, which is amazing to feel that."
Flores recalled the project taking flight after that. "Since the whole Vivendi thing, we always worked under the impression that, either way, we will release this game."
Incidentally, 2005 may be the last year Flores played a King's Quest. He loved the games, but the old ones get old. Plus, he'd become disaffected with video games, turned off by all the first-person shooters. He wanted something more like King's Quest. But to get back to King's Quest he'd need something new, like the game he was making.
After the Vivendi fan agreement appeared to be locked in, there was silence. The Silver Lining didn't suddenly come out, as some fans hoped.
Four years passed, and the moment finally came when it seemed fair to ask if maybe they were just being naive.
Image of The Silver Lining, from 2005 (as is the one atop this post)
Activision, Have Mercy
Consider these fans, all working day jobs, all inching the project along in the side hours.
Flores and Hallahan are both co-directors of the game today but they said that every co-director quit at some point. Flores dropped out for six months, burnt out and frustrated. Then he came back, because, with distance, he realized, "That was a good project and I put so much into it I want to see it to the end."
But they were just fans. They were just amateurs. And Vivendi Universal Games by 2008 was merging with Activision, and Activision Blizzard, the company that has millions hooked on World of Warcraft and makes billions from Call of Duty — a company that could become angry with the creators of one of its golden geese and fire them — just might be a hard company for a group of fan-developers who have no rights to King's Quest to deal with.
In mid 2009, with The Silver Lining again close to release, the game's directors discovered that their agreement with Vivendi, that document that had applied such a kick in 2005, was compromised.
It might not count.
Flores, Hallahan and the rest of the team had learned in 2007 that they needed everyone who had ever worked on The Silver Lining to sign away their rights to their work, to vow that they did not claim to own a piece of the game. Given the number of people who had been involved in the project at one time or another, they gathered more than 150 virtual signatures.
But that wasn't good enough.
In mid-2009, The Silver Lining team discovered they had to provide physical signatures, not virtual ones. They gathered 120 of them. Their contact at Activision, Rod Rigole, switched departments, taking on a role as vice president of legal affairs for Activision's World of Warcraft studio, Blizzard. He told them, Flores and Hallahan said, that it was too late to seal the old deal. That great 2005 Vivendi agreement? It was scrapped. (Activision did not respond to Kotaku requests for clarification about this timeline and Rigole's involvement.)
The creators of The Silver Lining, on the cusp of finally, really, releasing their game were once again starting over in their quest for legitimacy.
They were back to having no legal right to be doing what they were trying to do.
The Silver Lining folks got the sense that Activision had forgotten about them or, worse, had them confused with other fan projects. Their ties were frayed. Their chances seemed shaky. But in December of last year they submitted a build of the first episode of their game to Activision. It was at that point, Hallahan said, "we learn that they know nothing about the game or the team."
Activision started asking questions. Flores and Hallahan said they took that as a sign of interest, maybe progress. But in February came something other than a question. It was a letter from Activision: cease and desist.
The Silver Lining
Activision put a stop to The Silver Lining in February 2010. It blocked the game from coming out. Its letter forced the amateur development team to wipe their webpage of any assets related to the game. In late March, a month after the cease and desist, that still hurt.
"It's a shame that Activision wants to wipe it out of history," Flores said to me in Boston. "We can't even leave a record of it behind?"
The hurt would have been less, he said, if they were being shut down because a new King's Quest was in development. "If they were making an official game...I would be like, 'It sucks that our project is going off but at least there will be something new.'"
This would have been the time to give up, perhaps. More than nine years of work down the drain, a functioning and professional-looking King's Quest sequel stymied right as it was ready for launch. All-nighters for nothing. Stress for nothing. No satisfying conclusion for The Silver Lining, no more than there was for Roberta Williams' series.
"This is the longest job I've had," Hallahan told me right about that time in March when things to any outsider would have seemed lost.
Said Flores: "This is the longest job I've enjoyed."
In late March, Flores and Hallahan told me that they still thought there was hope. If Activision would just talk to them, maybe something would come of it. "It's just this one last hurdle we need to get past," Flores said.
Or, they suggested, they could buy King's Quest. They had heard a rumor — one Activision wouldn't comment on to Kotaku — that the company had tried to sell the King's Quest series a couple of years ago. And maybe, for the price they heard it was going for, for $25,000 or $75,000, these fan developers would be able to buy it. Maybe Activision, which wasn't speaking to them as developers, would speak to them as business people.
And if that didn't work, at least Phoenix Online Studios would make some other games, games they owned, games they could sell, games that wouldn't get tangled up like The Silver Lining.
Richard Flores and Katie Hallahan
April 2010, however, was quiet. For most of the past month, Activision did not call back. The company did not make it known whether King's Quest could be had for any amount of dollars.
Last week, Kotaku started pressing Activision for comment on all of this. The company's Thursday announcement of a deal with Bungie was in the headlines, but for Phoenix Online Studios, all they'd had was quiet hope.
And then, as the week came to a close, it happened. Activision got in touch. "We finally had a response," Hallahan told Kotaku this past Saturday. A day later, the company issued Kotaku the statement printed higher in this story. "This situation came to our attention a few months ago," the company's statement had begun. Now, they were responding, and responding with a dose of hope.
"It seems more and more appropriate all the time that the game is called The Silver Lining," Hallahan told Kotaku back in late March when things were still bleak. "No matter how many stumbling blocks we run into, whether it's random bickering about tiny issues between us or getting a cease and desist a second time, we're always looking for the silver lining on those situations. Alright, we've got this in front of us now, what can we do with it?"
As shocking as it might seem, a decade after trying to make a sequel they had no right to make, The Silver Lining team is on the precipice of the most unexpected of outcomes: Victory.
The Quest is nearly complete.