Interview: The man who “killed” Starsiege: Tribes

tribesboxHow did a six-year-old, critically-acclaimed game franchise die and why has it been so hard to revive? Who and what killed it?  Chris Mahnken, the producer for Tribes: Vengeance, tells us about the events that ‘killed’ the franchise’s hopeful revival and its final installment released in 2004.

[Note: This is a reprint from my original column at around 2009/2010, but in light of the recently revealed Midair I thought it would be fun to re-post (with some clean up and a little editing) and re-visit another piece of Tribes history.]

A (very) brief history…
The original Starsiege: Tribes was released in 1998 as an online only, team-based, class-based first person shooter. It was the first of its kind to introduce jet packs and aerial combat mixed with standard run-and-gun shooting. The original Tribes was also among the first of its kind (if not *the* first) to seamlessly integrate long range outdoor combat with indoor combat, as well as vehicle-based combat all into a single game.

Tribes was successful with critics and spawned a huge fan following. It was also successful enough to spawn two PC sequels: Tribes 2 in 2001 and Tribes: Vengeance in 2004.

Vengeance was designed as a sort of ‘return-to-roots’ version of the game in the aftermath of Tribes 2, which though ultimately successful was somewhat mired in problems due to behind-the-scenes corporate trouble. Tribes: Vengeance was also the first game in the series to add a single-player campaign.

So what went wrong? And why is Chris Mahnken “the man who killed Tribes?” Chris tells us about the game’s troubled development and “why he did it” (which he didn’t, really).

PC Game Examiner: Set the scene for us when you were handed the Tribes IP.

Chris Mahnken: I was working at the Sierra offices in Seattle – on a Special Forces game that never saw the light of day – when VU Games management decided to cut headcount by shutting down the Dynamix offices in Oregon. Just about everybody got the “immediate” package: “Thanks, here’s your check and a cardboard box for your stuff, no need to come in tomorrow”.

The exception was the Tribes 2 team.

Those guys were told that they had to stick around until the patch for Tribes 2 was finished, or they wouldn’t get their parting gift, which was a pretty big bonus. So they all stayed. But it would be a stretch to call them motivated. You might say they were motivated to do the bare minimum to keep from getting fired, but not to excel. As you might guess, the resulting patch would best be described as doing slightly more good than harm.

So that was how I picked up the Tribes franchise. From there we came up with the idea of a second patch, and an additional content pack of maps, a new faster mod version of Tribes 2 that we called Classic, and the Team Rabbit game. All of those were produced outside of Sierra.

The patch was done by the original engine guys from T1 and T2, who had moved on to form Garage Games long before T2 shipped. The maps were put together by a guy in Minnesota. Classic was done by two guys on the east coast who played under the nicknames of Zod and Zodd. Team Rabbit was a strange cross between Tribes and Roller-Ball done by a smart kid named Michael Johnston, who played under the nickname Kinetic Poet.

All told we were able to produce the patch and the new content in just a few months, and for about $10,000, which is dirt cheap considering what we got, and also about $10K over my budget for the project.

PCGE: Were any of the original Tribes developers on the team for Tribes: Vengeance?

Chris Mahnken: The only person who carried over from Tribes 2 onto Vengeance (which is actually the 4th Tribes game) was Michael Johnston, who moved from Canada down to Australia to work on the game. The rest were completely new to the franchise, and even Michael had no previous relationship to the creation of any of the existing titles.

PCGE: What were your goals for Tribes: Vengeance in terms of story, gameplay, etc.? What did you want to accomplish for the franchise?

Chris Mahnken: My goals were to make a Navy Seals game, but Marketing decided that before we could do the Seals game we should do a 4th Tribes game. Our marketing manager for Vengeance was a big fan of the Tribes franchise, although he couldn’t really play. Over the course of a few months we worked ourselves into a bit of a frenzy about making Tribes more of a competition based game for teams, and creating a solid single player story to bring new people in. We sold the game to management as Tribes Story – the first Tribes game with a real story attached.

So to sum up: Sports-like multiplayer, and single player story to bring in loads of new players.

PCGE: What are some of the obstacles you faced in terms of story and/or game design? Were there any internal struggles?

Chris Mahnken: All through the development of the game Sierra was slowly being shut down by our Vivendi corporate overlords down in lovely Culver City. It was unfortunate, because we were actually making a profit, while they were losing money hand over fist. They closed Dynamix, Papyrus, Impressions, and about 10 other smaller studios over three or four years in an attempt to stem the bleeding. It was kind of like somebody with a gunshot wound to the chest trying to heal themselves by cutting off hands, feet, arms and legs.

For our team it started with marketing and PR being moved to LA, and my Marketing manager being laid off. That left me with a marketing guy who didn’t have any idea about first person shooters in general, much less Tribes. His suggestions were that we should make it much more like Counter-Strike, and we should definitely add “bullet time”.

The end result was a game that had no support from the corporate offices, and ended up with one magazine cover about 8 months before it released, and one single magazine advert and not even any web ads.

PCGE: Were you happy with the final product?

Chris Mahnken: I was happy with the direction we were going, but Sierra was closed down about six weeks before the game shipped, so I didn’t have a chance to finish the game.

PCGE: What would you have done differently or changed about Tribes: Vengeance if you could (and why)?

Chris Mahnken:  I would have added three or four months to the schedule and focused entirely on the multi-player maps and the competitive match play system (which never really got finished). If you’re making something for people to compete in, the surrounding tools for that competition are critical. We never had a chance to finish them.

The game also ended up shipping right with several of the biggest shooter franchises, because we shipped on schedule and they were all late, so by meeting our schedule we ended up hurting ourselves. That 4 month delay to improve multi-player would have put us in a nice open space in the release schedule.

PCGE: Tribes: Vengeance garnered solid reviews. How did the fans react? I know I’ve heard some die-hard Tribes fans disparage Vengeance for various reasons.

Chris Mahnken: People don’t like change. You see it all the time with people who leave WoW to go play something else, and then go back to WoW. They’ve got a big investment in their characters and gear, and their friends are all there. It’s not as easy to recognize, but in the shooter market you get exactly the same thing, only people haven’t invested their time in gear and levels, but in skills. When you change things you devalue their skills, and that’s not happy time.

Imagine what would happen if the NBA changed the height of the basket, the size of the court, and the weight of the ball every year. I believe we just might see some disquiet from the players.

So with Vengeance being more like the original Tribes, and less like Tribes 2 in regards to physics and map design, we made part of the audience happy, and part unhappy. But leaving out the tools the hardcore fans needed to hold competitive matches made everybody angry. I think that if the tools had been there, the polish had been applied, and there had been any marketing behind the game, it would have been accepted by the fans. Instead it was doomed to fail by the choices of Vivendi management.


Part 2

[Note: Some parts of this part of the interview have been removed simply because they were only relevant in 2009/2010 (when the article was originally published).]

PCGE:  I saw you cleaning up bystanders playing Tribes at the booth at PAX 2009. Now that the rights to Tribes have been sold to Hi-Rez Studios, what are your thoughts about the future of the IP?

Chris Mahnken: I wish them all the best, and if it’s a good game I’ll be playing it. They’re going to have a big hill to climb in order to satisfy what is perhaps the most vocal and divided fan base in games. Tribes 1 and Tribes 2 fans make the disagreement between Quake 1 and Quake 2 fans look like Sunday brunch with Memaw.

PCGE: There still seems to be a strong Tribes community. Do you think it would be possible to see Tribes resurrected in such a way that it could take a spot among the FPS multiplayer elite like Team Fortress 2?

Chris Mahnken: No. I hope it could, but without a console presence I don’t see any game making that kind of a move, and if ever there was a game that screams “don’t put me on console, I’ll suck”, it’s Tribes. There just isn’t enough fine control on console for a shooter like Tribes where everything happens so fast in all three (XYZ) axes at all times.

The ability to fly past somebody in mid air, and spin with them as they pass from above and to your right to below behind and to your left is unique to a mouse and keyboard layout. If somebody can figure out how to do it on console then they deserve a medal. So far lots of auto-aim help is the only thing that can come close to saving a game like Tribes on Console.

PCGE: If you were in charge of resurrecting the Tribes franchise from the ashes, how would you do it? Any advice for the current IP holders?

Chris Mahnken: No, I wouldn’t touch it.

PCGE: What are some of your favorite PC games of all time?

Chris Mahnken: NASCAR from Papyrus. TribesMonkey IslandCommand and ConquerGeoff Crammond’s Grand PrixDark ForcesNo One Lives ForeverDiablo 2.

PCGE: What was your Tribes moniker?

Chris Mahnken: Thrax Panda.

PCGE: What were some of your favorite Tribes maps?

Raindance and Snowblind. I actually enjoyed some of the less well-known maps and game play styles like Find and Retrieve, but nobody remembers any of them.

PCGE: What were some of your favorite tactics? What type of role did you play?

Chris Mahnken:  I could do just about anything except snipe. My favorite was heavy offense. Nothing was quite as much fun as repeatedly torturing the enemy and just not caring if you live through the attack.

PCGE: What were some of your Tribes pet peeves? Aside from hating “How’d that feel?”

I think the sniper rifle was designed quite poorly.  The ability to mine+disk caused some major problems later in the game’s life – it’s a hard skill to master, but it allowed players in light armor to easily kill players in heavy, and it disrupted the last bits of the game’s balance. In T2, the Shock-lance was awful, but only about 10% as bad as the Rocket launcher.

I also harbor a deep hatred for all the people who spent hours learning to fly a shrike into me.

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