One of the most impressive games on show at ECTS this year was "Star Trek : New Worlds", a 3D real time strategy game created by a little known British company called Binary Asylum.
The game earned the title "Strategy Game Of The Show" in our Unofficial EuroGamer ECTS Awards. Due for release within months, there seemed to be little left to do apart from tweaking, testing, and recording the final voices for the opening cinematic.
So it came as quite a shock when, just days after the show ended, we discovered that Binary Asylum had been removed from the project by American publisher Interplay...
A Taste Of Armageddon
The reasons behind Interplay's decision are unclear, although rumours at the time suggested creative differences.
The result though was sadly much clearer - with the loss of their big project and the funding that came with it, Binary Asylum went bankrupt. The company was forced to close down, and the entire design team lost their jobs.
A message on their website reads "It is with the greatest regret that we have to announce that CDGM Entertainment Ltd (trading as Binary Asylum) has ceased trading".
Bob Wade, one of the company's founders, was kind enough to take time to talk to us about Binary Asylum, its origins, and the state of the gaming industry.
All Our Yesterdays
Binary Asylum was founded by Bob Wade and Andy Wilton, a pair of former gaming journalists.
"He was the programming brains and I provided the start-up capital", explains Bob. "We both knew we could produce games that were better than the majority we had been playing - so we went ahead and did it!"
The result was two Amiga games, "ZeeWolf" and "ZeeWolf 2 - Wild Justice". Bob describes them as "3D helicopter action games with a heavy mix of tactics involved".
"They were graphically impressive for their time, squeezing everything we could out of the old 68000 processors. No texture mapping or fancy stuff like that, but lots of fast polygons - even spheres!"
"Both games were big hits on the Amiga, but sadly it was a market in decline. A couple of years earlier and we'd be rich men now! As it was they sold OK and were very well received."
"We were very pleased with them and many more recent games, like Incoming, have built on the gameplay style since then."
ZeeWolf 2 was released at the end of 1995, but by then the Amiga games market was already on its last legs. Binary Asylum switched to designing for the PC, which proved to be a slow and painful process...
"The code base had to be started from scratch again, we had to abandon assembly language and switch to C. Switching platforms is never easy or pretty - cross-platform incompatibility is one of the biggest headaches that has always dogged the games business, and it shows no sign of going away."
"Why do you think so many programmers like C++ now - it's about the only thing that has stayed constant for long enough!"
The Enterprise Incident
After a few aborted projects for the PC, Binary Asylum were approached about New Worlds. Unfortunately Bob isn't able to talk about the game, presumably for legal reasons, so the last few years of Binary Asylum are something of a mystery.
What we do know is that the game made an appearance last year at ECTS '98, and it was already looking impressive. I can still remember my jaw dropping as the camera turned to show an Enterprise-style Federation starship crashed on the surface of a planet, half buried at the end of a trench where it had skidded along the surface.
The game was shown again at ECTS '99 last month, and this time there was far more gameplay on show. In fact, the game appeared to be almost complete...
Requiem For Methuselah
Then, on September 9th, Binary Asylum issued this press release -
That Which Survives
And that was the end of Binary Asylum... "All the employees have scattered to the four winds", Bob told us. "A truly special group of people, who I throughly enjoyed working with, has been split apart."
"Friendships and working partnerships will of course survive it, but you won't see that group of people working together again unless an enlightened billionaire pops up, gives us a large wodge of cash and lets us have complete creative control!"
"I have no doubt that everyone at Asylum will go on to do great things - they're a very talented bunch who deserve a better reward for all their work than Asylum has been able to give them."
Whom Gods Destroy
Binary Asylum's demise is just one of a string of closures. Most recently Sierra closed down one of their studios, cancelled several games, and shed over a hundred jobs. The gaming industry is becoming just that - an industry.
"Most creativity, originality and talent is crushed before it gets anywhere near a published game", according to Bob. "The industry just isn't set up to encourage new talent and ideas."
"There are lots of people struggling and battling to make classic games and to fulfil their dreams as well as the player's, but sadly very few of those hopes and dreams make it to fruition. For every great success story there are dozens of tales of rejection, defeat and misery - you just don't get to hear as much about those."
"I take my hat off to every programmer, artist and designer in the industry still fighting to create great games. They are the real life blood of the industry and usually the last ones to get any recognition or, more importantly, the financial rewards they deserve."
"Sadly, with today's corporate culture, marketing dominated product schedules and dwindling independent publishers, I can't see things getting better either - but I'll keep supporting anyone who's able to fight for the soul of the games industry."
The Doomsday Machine
Bob is understandably bitter about what has happened. What was a dream for him just a few years ago has suddenly turned into a nightmare, with his company shut down and his friends and colleagues laid off.
"Right now I can't think of a more thankless or ultimately depressing task than being a game developer. It was fun for a lot of the time, but that's like saying the rollercoaster ride was fun until the track ran out and we all plummeted to our deaths."
"If the recognition and rewards aren't there the whole time, and not just once every two years when you release a game, then it's not what you'd call a 'positive and uplifting' experience."
"Most game developers exist like slow-growing mushrooms - two years in a darkened room, a brief flash of daylight and freedom, then... well, I'm sure I don't need to spell it out..."
"Ask me again in a couple of years, maybe the memories will have mellowed." Thanks to Bob for taking the time to talk to us at what is obviously a difficult time, and our best wishes to him and the rest of Binary Asylum for the future.