In 1996, I stood staring at a box in the local game emporium, slotted between fare like Amok, Duke Nukem 3D and Star Wars: Dark Forces. It was Terra Nova: Strike Force Centauri. A critical success, a commercial failure and one of influential developer Looking Glass Technologies’ most intriguing one-offs. Eighteen years have passed since this science-fiction mech game was released and it still remains a formative gaming experience. While many rightly remember Looking Glass for their work on the Ultima Underworld series, the System Shock and Thief games, this hard-fought technological masterpiece deserves a second look.
Dan Schmidt, Looking Glass veteran and production director on Terra Nova, was happy to revisit the game and his thoughts on what was admittedly one of the toughest development cycles of the time.
During his time at Looking Glass, Schmidt bumped elbows with some of the industry’s most talented. It was a melting pot of ideas and breakthroughs. People like Seamus Blackley, Ken Levine, Warren Spector and Harvey Smith all worked on some of the studio’s finest titles and their efforts continue to influence game design to this day. Be it raw engineering or narrative evolution, Looking Glass was an intellectual pioneer in not just getting games made, but in the process, pushing the medium forward on a number of crucial fronts.
“It was a pretty exciting place!” Schmidt recounted, “Looking Glass was a collection of really smart, creative, and passionate people trying to make the best games they could. The downside was that, sometimes, we thought that being smart, creative, and passionate was sufficient to solve every problem. The intensity of it could also be a drawback, and eventually got to be enough that I moved on.”
He went on to mention former colleague Austin Grossman’s novel You as a great place to get a taste of the time and place during that era. “Although it’s heavily fictionalised, that’s a good place to get a broad sense of what it was like at Looking Glass back then.”
And back then, it was a place riding high on critical success of Ultima Underworld: The Stygian Abyss. A touchstone from which many cerebral first-person titles took inspiration thereafter, the studio – then known as Blue Sky Productions – enjoyed critical acclaim and saw the game reach nearly 500,000 copies sold. They would go on to create the Sega Megadrive/Genesis version of John Madden Football ’93 and have it be their best-selling game, reaching sales in excess of one million copies. Never again would Looking Glass develop such a high-grossing title. Terra Nova might have very well been the studio’s first and very costly mistake.
The game was incepted the same year as The Stygian Abyss released. In 1992, Looking Glass co-founder Paul Neurath envisaged a realistic squad-based battlesuit title, inspired by the works of Joe Haldeman and Robert A. Heinlein. Originally entitled Freefall, the game had the player deploying LALO-style into combat zones, proffering a realistic simulator-style experience. Neurath spearheaded the enthusiasm on the project and so began a march towards an unintentional release date, five-odd years later.
As Schmidt put it, Looking Glass was a team that developed systems and games would come out of it. Terra Nova was a classic example of this early design philosophy. It featured a raft of remarkable programming feats and sought to render on a scale yet unseen in video games. Seamus Blackley had designed specialised procedural animation systems with inverse kinematics, along with the game touting real-time effects such as weather and a day/night cycle. Even weaponry was affected by differences in gravity, depending on planetary or lunar battlespaces.
“The outdoor renderer, for its day, was awesome.” Schmidt recalled, “No one had come close to rendering that large of a vista before. The seamless sense you got of being in a large landscape, from the time you jumped down until you got picked back up, was really exceptional. There were lots of gasps when people saw it for the first time at trade shows.”
I asked him about his work in the early days of the game’s development, where he was charged with programming the game’s artificial intelligence, specifically the push to make squadmates feel more than merely useful, but active and alive.
“I think I was too close to the friendly AI implementation to really see it as a success, since its original ambitions were so high,” he mused, “But the way that you really work with your squadmates, tell them to do things fairly independently, and cheer them on when they succeed or save your butt or curse them when they fail was pretty successful too.”
However, despite the high-concept vision and technological leaps, development on Terra Nova took a turn with the release of Chris Roberts’ Wing Commander III: Heart of the Tiger in 1994. Though not totally responsible for the game’s production hiccups, it was the industry fascination with Full-Motion Video – and in particular, Roberts’ rather successful utilisation – that saw a lot of funding diverted to chasing this fleeting dragon.
“FMV was definitely a reaction to the outside world.” Schmidt admits, “It’s probably hard to imagine now, but at the time FMV was becoming so prevalent in games of this type that it seemed almost embarrassing to release a game without it.”
Despite the addition of cutscenes being far past the point of logical inclusion, scriptwriting and casting was completed by outside parties and, as is the natural case, completed with little studio interaction. It was seen by many of the team, including Schmidt – who was at this stage now project leader – as an irritating misuse of time and funds. But the shoehorning of cutscenes was not entirely to blame for the game’s belaboured production and cost blowout. Terra Nova had started life imagined as a hard science-fiction combat game. Utilitarian and unrepentantly brutal. And it wasn’t actually very fun.
I’ve always longed for a true space marine combat simulator, fare seen in Terra Nova‘s fictive inspiration. Technical suits, highly specialised small arms, dropships and heavy weapons. But going by Schmidt’s account, it seems there’s an interesting line to be drawn. Ironically, a simulator of this particular calibre isn’t merely the sum of its systems. And not even Looking Glass could code their way out, were this the case. I posited the hypothetical that, had Terra Nova retained or blitzed its way deeper into simulator territory, it might have found its feet with military game nuts. A sort of science-fiction Steel Beasts or offworld ARMA.
“In theory, maybe, but we would have had to solve all those problems, and we never did!” Schmidt said, “So I don’t think there’s much use to be gained from hypothesising about the Terra Nova that might have been; it only ever existed in theory. It’s not like we had a working simulator-style game that we then cut features from.”
The enthusiastic few who had outlined and encouraged the pursuit of this now-weary vision had, by this stage, left the team. It was up to Schmidt and those under him to salvage the game. Terra Nova simply had to ship. It had been in production far too long to cancel, and were that possibility ever to eventuate, it had the cloying propensity to bankrupt Looking Glass.
At the eleventh hour in late 1995, six months prior to release, Schmidt and the team decided to rejig the entire combat model. The simulator elements that had been retained were dropped or replaced in favour of a lighter, more arcade-style experience. UI elements like armour value brackets were added to target locks as visible feedback markers relating to damage done. It was a faster game with greater pyrotechnics. Terra Nova might not have been the game Neurath had imagined, but it was a game that was, in Schmidt’s words, at least somewhat enjoyable to play.
Terra Nova was released on March 5, 1996.
The game was well-received, being favourably compared to Activision’s juggernaut Mechwarrior 2: 31st Century Combat. While marks were made against the game’s now-somewhat dated visuals, many applauded the tactical depth and sense of scale. Despite acclaim from many media outlets, recognising the scale and nuance of Looking Glass’ science-fiction combat game, Terra Nova failed to sell little more than 100,000 copies.
One good thing about game sequels is the chance of iterative refinement. Therein exists a base-load of raw mechanical attributes that, more often than not, benefit from a second pass. An incremental or drastic grind and polish, augmented and offset by new technologies. The great tragedy of Terra Nova‘s extended development cycle and commercial flatline was that, despite Strike Force Centauri being conceived as the first of a grand new science-fiction universe, this was the first and last outing the IP ever received.
I asked Schmidt if anyone at Looking Glass was still interested in keeping the IP alive, and the answer was clear.
“I had been on the project for over three years, so I was definitely ready to move on!” Schmidt declared. He mentioned that work had briefly begun after launch on an online multiplayer component. However, the people responsible soon disbanded and the writing forTerra Nova was on the wall. “I think at that point it was probably clear from sales figures that it was time to look to new IP.”
Looking Glass took a fiscal hit to the chin with Terra Nova. Despite rising to greater critical heights with subsequent titles like Thief: The Dark Project and the masterful System Shock 2, another commercial bomb in 1997 with British Open Championship Golf caused a financial wound that would expedite the studio’s closure in 2000.
And thus, one of gaming’s most influential powerhouses ceased to exist. Looking Glass’ talent went on to found and design some of the industry’s biggest and best; heavy hitters and smart design their continued trademark currency. But has the industry changed since those halcyon days?
“It’s really hard for me to say,” Schmidt said, “Largely because I work almost totally on the development rather than business side of things, and also because despite my long career I’ve only been at two game companies, so I don’t have a large data set to draw on.”
“Some of the problems – the hits-driven nature of the business, publisher demands and so on – are certainly still the same. I do think it’s easier for smaller companies and indie developers to make an impact now. When I started working in the early Nineties, the big consolidation of game companies was just starting and it was getting harder to get noticed if you weren’t a big publisher; that seems to have reversed somewhat now.”
As Kickstarter and crowd-funding have become indelibly etched in the lexicon of modern gaming, I began pondering the viability of something like Terra Nova existing today. Imagining the exuberant pitch by Paul Neurath, this inspired slice of military science-fiction being proposed and ogled by a cavalcade of digitally-enabled would-be patrons, I asked Schmidt to make a most nebulous of speculations. Would a game such as this enjoy the benefit of modern technology and digital delivery?
“I do think that given modern tech, you could make a slimmed-down version of Terra Nova with a much smaller team in a much smaller time that could provide a pretty similar experience, and I imagine that it could be pretty fun.” He replied, though adding quickly, “Of course I am probably conveniently forgetting just how complicated it was to get all the parts of it running and working together. But I don’t see any reason that people wouldn’t buy it and play it if it was a fun game.”
In a cheeky closer, it seemed only fitting to niggle Schmidt about whether he’d like to return to the IP, if circumstances were different. And was there a developer out there who, in his opinion, has the stuff to do right by Terra Nova – be it as it was imagined, or how it should be.
“Man, I dunno, there are lots of great studios and developers out there.” He stated. “If you make me throw one name out there, I’ll say Arkane; I thought that they did a great job of carrying on the Looking Glass tradition with Dishonored. I myself have been happy to move on to new IPs as well. Maybe I could just throw in some opinions now and then and get a credit as Creative Consultant!
Someone should drop Harvey Smith and Raphaël Colantonio a line.
As I concluded the interview and this article, I look back with amplified fondness for this fascinating game. The incline of its development seemed to appear increasingly vertical, and yet despite the disappointment that many of its creators have expressed over the years, there remains little quite like Terra Nova. I’m still looking for a game of that granularity in the science-fiction sphere. That degree of field tactics. That sense of mechanically-aided agility and technical combat. The rolling terrain. The weather. Hell, even the cheesy, hull-busting FMV shlock. Dan Schmidt and his team soldiered on and delivered the goods, and for that, I thank them.