Do you remember what you were like at age 25? It was only four years ago for me, and I already think I was pretty much the worst back then. Seamus Blackley also doesn’t have a stellar opinion of the man he used to be at 25. At the time, he was executive producer on the poorly-received Jurassic Park game Trespasser, and also “probably an insufferable jerk.” Blackley also said that the disaster that was Trespasser lead to the creation of the original Xbox.
Trespasser was developed by Dreamworks Interactive, released for PC in 1998, and billed as a sequel to the movie The Lost World: Jurassic Park. Hopes were high for this game, as the partnership between Microsoft and Dreamworks was being lauded as a move that would elevate games to the same level as Hollywood.
It was a disaster. “Of all the games released this year, none was as ill-received and terrible as Trespasser,” wrote GameSpot upon naming it the Worst Game Of The Year. “No game was implemented as poorly, and no game squandered its potential as much.”
I remember puzzling through a demo of Trespasser as a child, the disc a hand-me-down from my older brother. I wasn’t especially good at video games at the age of eight, but even as a kid I understood that what I was playing was a mess. It had a very realistic physics system, but that also meant that doing something as simple as picking up a box was a chore. As a foray into what would become the genre of open-world games, it offered the promise of endless exploration, but the newness of that idea meant that I had no idea where to go or what to do at any given moment. I never got out of the starting area.
In retrospect, Seamus Blackley’s dream that video games would one day let players choose their own adventures in a wide-open world was not wrong. Over email, Blackley told Kotaku that the game was inspired by his own youth playing in the deserts of New Mexico. As a young programmer at the groundbreaking studio Looking Glass Studios—creators of System Shock, Thief, and Ultima Underworld—he saw that rapid advances in tech would soon make this possible.
“The progression of technology I was involved in at Looking Glass, with 3D real-time rendering and physics (which were a big deal and totally new at the time, it’s hard to understand that now) had convinced me that it would be possible to create simulated versions of these wonderful adventures where the player could feel totally free, in a magical place,” he said. “That’s what I wanted for Trespasser: what if we could have had one of our awesome childhood adventures in that Jurassic Park world?”
When asked where it all went wrong, Blackley points the finger squarely at his own ego. Blackley had been something of a wunderkind at Looking Glass. He’d written the physics system for System Shock, and then made Flight Unlimited entirely based around that physics system. All those games were critical successes. “I figured that I was capable of pooping rainbows,” he said.
He left Looking Glass in 1995 and went over to Dreamworks Interactive, the new studio co-founded by Steven Spielberg and Microsoft. He soon found himself in over his head. “First and foremost, I had no idea how much help and guidance I had been getting at Looking Glass,” he said. “So when I went to run the project, it was a mess. Second, I was writing a completely unprecedented physics system to drive the game, while also being the boss,” he said. “So I was my own worst bottleneck, and a terrible example and metric for the team.” It didn’t help that he was young, working for “big scary movie bosses” on the Spielberg end of things, and hadn’t yet learned how to assert himself to them.
“I didn’t stand up for myself and the team very well, which was possibly the most fatal of the flaws,” he said. “Looking back, more honesty and more tenacity from me in dealing with that would have given us time to figure the rest out.”
Working on Trespasser taught Blackley a lot about himself, and about how to make a game like that work. Trespasser released before it was actually finished. He said that none of the things he imagined for the game were actually impossible to produce, but his own mismanagement lead to the team being forced to ship a broken game.
“The situation and how I handled it was purely my fault, but it was awful to have to ship something that we knew was broken, and that could have been fixed,” he said. “A huge lesson in this is that any innovative technology needs to be perfect when it ships, or it will likely fail.”
Trespasser was also released at the advent of internet fan activity—the good kind and the bad kind. “I personally took insane heat and humiliation online, and also death threats, people coming to my house, the whole thing. And the team got it just as bad,” he said. “The thing is, everyone wanted to have this experience of being free in the game world so much—and we know how compelling it is now in our modern games—that when we failed to deliver, they were pissed off!”
The things that Blackley envisioned for games are commonplace now. This month, Rockstar shipped its own huge, historical open-world game, Red Dead Redemption 2, and Kirk Hamilton’s descriptions of its pleasures reminded me of how Blackley described Trespasser over email. For Blackley, seeing these ideas implemented now is awe-inspiring.
“I see everything we tried to do, and that wonderful world I imagined, in so many games now. I distinctly recall seeing Uncharted for the first time, and I broke down crying,” he said. “It was what I had reached for and failed to grasp, and done with a level of quality and craftsmanship that were completely astonishing to me.”
If not for Trespasser’s failure, we might not have the Xbox. After the game flopped, Blackley jumped ship to Microsoft. “Bill Gates was an investor in Dreamworks, and I had shown him a tech demo, and he joked with me at the time that I should work at Microsoft,” he said. He took him up on the offer during the fallout from his broken game. He was put in charge of Windows graphics for games.
In 1999, Sony announced the PlayStation 2. “When [Sony] started talking about how they would beat the PC in 3D, I wrote a memo on how in fact, we could beat them, and, with the lessons from Trespasser on tech, teams, and PR, I started down the path of making that a reality,” he said. The philosophy behind the original Xbox pitch—”the openness, the demos, the developer-centric plan, all of that” was directly inspired by Blackley’s experience making Trespasser.
Still, Blackley said that despite all that he learned from the process, he still owes a debt to the team he “basically tortured” while working on Trespasser. “I had offers [from] experienced producers who would have helped me manage the project,” he said. “I should have relented and asked for help.”
“But at that point, I couldn’t. Young ego. Alas.”