The Game Archaeologist uncovers Shadowbane: Talking with Josef Hall and Todd Coleman, part 2

Shadowbane creators
Don't miss the first part of this interview with the makers of Shadowbane, which we posted last week! And now for the thrilling conclusion...

The Game Archaeologist: What was the reason behind the free-to-play switch in 2006? Did this help the game's population any?

Josef Hall: Todd and I left Wolfpack shortly after it was acquired by Ubisoft, so we don't really have insight into the decision-making process behind the switch.

Todd Coleman: From what I have heard, it had a very positive impact on the size of the player population -- but yeah, I have no idea what it meant to the game monetarily.

The Game Archaeologist: What is one of your favorite memories of working on this team?

Hall: There are so many amazing memories from the nearly four years that we were there. I'll start with one of the funniest memories. I remember one year, for E3, we took the entire company and set up a giant war tent inside of the convention center, in which we constructed an eight-foot-tall trebuchet. We launched Shadowbane t-shirts into the crowd. When a security guard walked over, I thought the jig was up, but the way he was looking at the trebuchet prompted me to ask, "Do you want give it a try?" He smiled, nodded sheepishly, launched a Shadowbane shirt into the crowd, and then just walked away grinning.

And, of course, I remember one of the most inspiring team meetings I've ever experienced...

Coleman: Yeah, that's the one I was going to mention. There was this one team meeting near the end of the project. The team was dead tired, we'd been crunching nights and weekends for well over a year, our families were pissed, we'd all become absentee spouses and parents, our publishers were pissed, and (once again) Wolfpack didn't have the money to make payroll. The team was struggling with bugs and management issues and huge design challenges and it just seemed like there was no end was in sight.

Josef and I stood up in the meeting and said, "Gang, we can't ask you to continue on this track any more. We've asked too much already; it's affecting your families and your finances and your sanity. The cost is way higher than we expected it to be, and we can't ask you to do it. Josef and I are not giving up -- we'll finish this game ourselves, if we have to -- but we can't demand anything more of you. If you need to get off the bus, we understand, and we won't blame you. We'll pay you what we owe you and help you find other jobs."

And then one by one, each member of the team stood up and gave the reason why he'd stuck with us so long and why he was going to see it through to the end. All of them had a different reason -- pride of ownership, loyalty, bull-headed persistence -- but they all stepped up and gave a reason. Every one of them. That was an amazing moment.

Wolfpack Studios
What have you taken away from your time with Shadowbane to use at KingsIsle?

Hall: There are too many lessons to recount. It was definitely a first-class education in making a large online game the hard way. If I had to pick the two main lessons we learned, I would say the first is to focus on where you want to innovate. Shadowbane tried to do just about everything in a different and often more difficult way. This slowed down development and in many cases really didn't make much of a difference to the player.

Second, don't compromise on quality. This is a very tough one since often the developer doesn't really have a choice, but with Wizard101 from the beginning it was understood by everyone that quality would not be sacrificed -- the game would be released only when it was absolutely ready.

Coleman: We also don't talk about what we're doing, until it's ready. Shadowbane should be the poster child for getting the marketing cart before the development horse. It's bad for a number of reasons: you get your community excited too early, that excitement turns to frustration if the product is delayed, and you lock yourself into design ideas (like "we should have 30 classes!") that sound good over a beer but turn out to be a nightmare in reality.

If you talk too early, it also has this weird tunnel vision effect on your development schedule. We have players absolutely convinced -- convinced -- that Shadowbane was in development for six or seven years. The math doesn't even work; we sold Reliant in 1999 and I wasn't able to get free of our previous company until January of 2000. We shipped the title in March of 2003. All told, that's somewhere between three and four years, which is pretty normal for an MMO. It just seemed unreasonable because we revved up our community far too early in the process.

With Wizard101, we announced the game about two months before U.S. launch. At that point, it was basically a finished product.

Looking back, what one thing do you wish you and the team had done differently for this game?

Hall: You know, this is a question that I have mulled over for years. There are a million small changes that I would make now that I have more experience, but when I think about changing the big decisions it usually leads to a scenario where the game would never have shipped, and that, even given its rocky history, would have been a loss.

Coleman: Ha! That's funny, because I immediately thought of a handful of things that I would change. If I had it to do over again, I would:

1. Secure a more realistic budget on the front end. I say that, of course, but let's be real: It's not like we weren't looking for more money and failing to find that money; we moved forward the best we could. So I'm not really sure this one counts -- it's not like we were offered more money and refused it.

2. Not communicate to the world until the product is done. Of course, communicating to the world is how we built that rabid fan following, and that's what got the attention of the publishers, which is where most of the money came from. So while it wasn't ideal, I'm not sure we had an option here, either.

3. Scope the game design. And, OK, just to play devil's advocate with myself, if we had set a lower bar for the design, would we have built that rabid fan community? Maybe yes, maybe no.
So I guess I'm going to change my answer and agree with Josef on this one. It's easy to second-guess the path you took, but who is to say any other path would have been better? We did the best we could with the resources at hand, we hired a great team, and we busted our asses trying to create something that no one had ever done before (or since, for that matter)... and it almost worked.

Shadowbane concept art
Do you see any "spiritual successors" to Shadowbane on the current market?

Hall: It's been pretty cool to see elements of Shadowbane show up here and there in other MMOs. Games like Darkfall have obvious connections, but even games like Age of Conan reflect some elements, such as the siege system. Maybe it's time for Shadowbane 2?

Coleman: I think Shadowbane has left its mark on a bunch of titles, both here in the U.S. and internationally -- Shadowbane was suprisingly successful in China. But I haven't seen any game attempt the same degree of strategy, with a fully dynamic world where players can build castles anywhere and then reduce them to dust. Occasionally I will read an article about a new castle siege system, and my ears perk up -- but so far, every one I've encountered has revolved around a handful of designer-placed castles that the guilds are supposed to fight over, basically a pre-mapped game of capture the flag. That can still be a lot of fun, mind you, but I would love to see someone try to make a fully dynamic world simulator again.

In your opinion, what was Shadowbane's greatest legacy? What could future MMOs learn from its features and approach?

Hall: I hope that its legacy is to push developers to try to build different types of online games. It's been well over a decade since the first large commercial MMOs were launched, and I feel like we're still just starting to scratch the surface of what's possible.

Coleman: I totally agree with Josef. So many MMOs are announced and launched, and very rarely is someone willing to throw the dice on a new type of system or go after a different breed of gamer.

I think the key is to pick one key system, and innovate there. With Wizard101, for example, we took a gamble on our combat model; we made it a turn-based CCG that plays like an old school Final Fantasy game. If you try to innovate in every area, you'll end up with a bunch of stuff that's half-baked and the market will abandon you. But make one system that is great -- and really innovative -- and they'll stick with you for years.

Thank you both so much for sharing your memories and experiences with us!

When not clawing his eyes out at the atrocious state of general chat channels, Justin "Syp" Olivetti pulls out his history textbook for a lecture or two on the good ol' days of MMOs in The Game Archaeologist. You can contact him via email at or through his gaming blog, Bio Break.
This article was originally published on Massively.