Union Logic, Neural Storm, and the Ottawa shareware scene
CW: Some discussion of a game where objectification of women was an obvious design goal / marketing angle
So this whole fringe game history project really began when I started Please Register This Shareware, which was a project that had me playing lots of old shareware games more or less at random, and actually paying attention to the registration screens. It wasn't long before I stumbled upon a game that asked me to send money to an address in the city I live in, Ottawa, ON. I began to get VERY curious about whether I could perhaps track the folks that made it down, and talk to them about what making shareware was actually like.
Jason Struck and Mark Lewis go on to form Triton Studios, which AFAICT never releases anything. (The only reason I've heard of Triton Studios at all is because of this gushing article in a local magazine). They then change their name to Union Logic and become a shareware publisher.
Union Logic published three games:
- Radix: Beyond the Void, which is written by a young team of local students calling themselves Neural Storm Entertainment. However, the game is ALSO published by Epic Megagames.
- TeenAgent, a fairly respectable adventure game developed in Poland.
- Vinyl Goddess from Mars, which was created by Jason Struck and Mark Lewis under yet another company name, "Six Pound Sledge". They were originally contracted by Epic to develop Jill of the Jungle 2, but when that relationship went south, they apparently decided to crank the sleaze factor to 11, finish it up, and release it themselves.
In 2013, when I was digging all this up, Jason Struck and Mark Lewis themselves are unfindable on the internet. (I haven't looked recently; some preliminary googling suggests that Jason may have started his own indie studio recently?) After Union Logic closed down, they vanished; no further games credits, no new companies under their names, no LinkedIn accounts, no Twitter, they're gone. And I can't help but wonder... what's the story? Who are these vaguely shady characters that tell the world how huge they're going to be, change their company name with every new product, and then vanish? How does Epic Megagames play into all of this?
Long story short: In 2013, I tracked down one of the developers of Radix and sent him an email. His responses have been sitting rotting in my inbox ever since, because I had nowhere for them to go. But now I have an appropriate venue to dump this stuff out into the larger internet!
(Email to follow in a seperate post.)
Here is my email interview with Shahzad Malik, conducted August 16, 2013.
How did Neural Storm start?
Hopefully I don't bore you with my long-winded background on how Neural Storm started, but it's a fairly fun story so I'll just start from the beginning! ;)
The beginnings of Neural Storm actually started when I was in high school. Myself, Dan Dufeu, and Jon Mavor were high school friends that were completely engrossed by Wolfenstein 3D when it came out in the early 90s. We just loved the whole concept of a first-person 3D shooter since it was a completely new way of experiencing a video game. Since we were all self-taught C programmers with an interest in gaming, we decided to start building our own 3D engine similar to Wolfenstein 3D. This was back in 1993, and we all must have been in Grade 12 or so.
Back then, building a 3D engine wasn't easy, since there was no commercial Internet to scour for sample source code or get coding tips. There also wasn't an easy way to draw a simple texture mapped polygon like we have today with OpenGL or Direct3D, so we had to learn and write all that stuff on our own. We eventually figured out the whole ray-casting approach used by Wolfenstein 3D, and we had a pretty comparable 3D engine working. Then Doom came out, which took things to a whole new level. Doom used something called Binary Space Partition (BSP) Trees to render their 3D worlds so fast, since the ray-casting approach wasn't scalable to the types of 3D environments in Doom. Since we wanted to be competitive to Doom, we scrapped our ray casting engine and then started working on our own BSP engine.
This must have been early 1994, and since we wanted to figure out BSP trees we started connecting with people on dial-up Bulletin Board Systems (BBS's) that had more graphics experience than us. We eventually met a local software developer name Jean from Hull who ran a BBS that we often connected to, and he happened to be super knowledgeable about 2D/3D graphics techniques since he ran a consulting software business called Protologik that did some Virtual Reality and Digital Video applications for governments, museums, etc. He also had a rather slimy but hilarious business partner named Rui who handled the business development side of things. It turns out that Rui wanted to get into the educational games market, so he was interested in partnering up with us to build a Doom-like 3D engine. His game was going to be called "ICE 3D", and it would have a futuristic Bladerunner style look to it. The backdrop for the game would be that a new ice age was upon us, and many North American cities were re-building above the ice since the old city was buried underneath. Rui wanted the game to be based in Ottawa or some other Canadian city, and it had to have some educational aspect to it, since he had some half-baked plans to get government funding for it (back then, getting government funding for non educational video games was considered absurd, but today it's quite normal).
From our perspective, the idea sounded great, since Rui seemed to have some biz-dev experience, and we could consult with Jean for technical help along the way. So we started working with Rui and Jean in their office in Hull, which was actually a 60+ year old 3-story house converted into an office. Jean lived on the main floor, the Protologik office was on the second floor, and we worked from the top floor which had a slanted ceiling that we would bang our heads on, and also a cracked window. Rui provided us with some chairs and desks, and also a computer to work on. He also came up with a plan to pay us some hourly rate, but it was a "deferred salary" that would only be paid out once the game was released and made some money (so we were told to track our hours!). We were a bunch of naive high school kids, so we went along with that plan at the beginning, and Rui at least reimbursed us for bus passes to make it over to the office. So we would go to Hull a few times a week such as after school and on weekends and work on the 3D engine. After a few months when we started to get a BSP tree based engine working, we decided to try to get our partnership details in writing, but Rui kept stalling and never came back to us with anything. So eventually we crafted up our own agreement where we decided that since we weren't actually getting paid, we would own all the IP and source code until a game was released and published. Of course, when we showed it to Rui, he blew his top off. It's too bad I can't fully describe that meeting in writing, since Rui's mannerisms are hard to recreate with just words! ;)
Anyways, after that we decided that it would be better to just start our own company and continue building our 3D engine (and eventually Radix) on our own as an independent development company. Greg MacMartin, who was another high school friend, joined us a few months after the Rui days ended and he became our lead designer.
How did you decide to make Radix as shareware?
Shareware really took off as a viable sales and marketing approach with the success of games like Wolfenstein 3D and Doom. Apogee (who published Wolfenstein 3D) was also doing really well with a bunch of other shareware titles like Commander Keen and the original Duke Nukem. Even Epic Megagames was making a name for themselves with titles like Jill of the Jungle and Epic Pinball. I think part of the success could be attributed to the fact that BBSs were really popular at the time, so it was really easy for anyone to just download a game and then share it with their friends legally on a floppy disk. From a development standpoint, shareware also let us have more control and higher margins when compared to traditional publishing partnerships with companies like EA (who at the time would take something like 90% of profits). In comparison, shareware publishers would typically give 40-50% to developers.
What was your contribution on Radix?
I worked on the 3D rendering algorithms, as well as some of the gameplay code and other general programming tasks. I'm not an artist, but I also created lots of textures for the game as well as a bunch of levels.
Where did you work making the game?
By the time we were heavily into Radix development, Dan, Greg and I were in our first year at Carleton. So we would do our coursework during the weekdays, and we would independently work on Radix tasks in the evenings from our own homes as time permitted. But once Friday rolled around, Dan would drive out to Orleans in the East End of Ottawa (where Jon now lived), pack up Jon's gigantic CRT monitor and PC into the trunk, and then drive to Kanata (where myself, Dan, and Greg lived), and then pack all of our machines into the trunk as well. We would then set up shop in Dan's parent's basement in Kanata, and work away until Sunday night while listening to techno/trance music and eating lots of pizza. We would also occasionally work from Union Logic's office, which was based in the Bell's Corners area of Nepean. Once the summer rolled around, we went full-time on development and ended up getting our own office in Kanata. It was in a really nice building in the Kanata South Business Park, and we managed to get a really good rate for a few months since there was some vacant office space on the main floor that was wastefully being used for storage. Since Jon was always making his way to Kanata from Orleans, we eventually just ended up renting a 3-bedroom townhouse in Kanata. So Jon took one of the bedrooms as a place to stay while in Kanata, while the main floor living room was converted into an open-space office for all of us. This was the place where we finally finished and shipped Radix.
When did you partner up with Union Logic? How did you find them?
Our meeting with Union Logic was just by chance. When we severed our ties with Rui and Protologik, Dan mentioned that story to his cousin. Dan's cousin then said that we should meet one of his friends who was also working on video games, to see if we might be able to work together. It turns out that friend was Mark Lewis who was a co-founder of Union Logic along with Jason Struck. We met with them, and at the time Union Logic was working on Jill of the Jungle 2 with Epic Megagames. Union Logic wanted to get into the shareware publishing business as well, so they liked what we were doing and that was the beginning of our partnership with them.
Did you shop the game around to any other publishers before going with Union Logic?
No we didn't. In hindsight it would've been good if we had taken a more active interest in the publishing side of things and tried to shop the game around, but we were just super passionate about development and really didn't want to concern ourselves with the biz side of things. The publishing terms with Union Logic were better than what we could get with either Apogee or Epic, and they were also local, so we were comfortable with that arrangement at the time.
How involved was Union Logic in the development of the game?
Union Logic developed the low-level sound system in Radix, and they also helped with some of the art. As mentioned earlier, they also provided us with a place to work during the early days of Neural Storm, as well as some financial support in the form of cash advances.
How did the team get along?
The team dynamics were awesome. Everyone was passionate about what we were doing, and we had a common goal of shipping a 3D game, so it was a fun time. On the in-game credits page of Radix there is a section where a random quote appears near the bottom of the page, and most of those quotes are based on inside jokes and incidents that occurred during the development of the game. There is probably an entire story associated with each quote.
How did the switch to Epic as a publisher go down?
It was both exciting as well as disappointing. Exciting because it was Epic, and they were considered a leader in the shareware space. But disappointing because our original assumption was that Union Logic would be publishing the game, and that was what they were getting their cut for. Based on our agreement with Union Logic, they were allowed to make deals with other publishers, and Neural Storm would get diluted if Union Logic made any sub-publishing deals. We never anticipated that would happen since Union Logic wanted to compete head to head with Epic and Apogee, so we didn't think much of the clause originally. But when Union Logic made a last second deal with Epic, it really sliced into the potential profits that Neural Storm would see from the sales and it really made us question the value that Union Logic was providing for their stake. In hindsight, a good lawyer would have been very useful when we made our deal with Union Logic, but we were a bunch of young kids driven purely by passion and putting too much trust in others to do the right thing. Lesson learned!
What was your impression of the relationship between Union Logic and Epic?
From our perspective, it seemed like Union Logic and Epic had a good relationship. Epic originally asked Union Logic to develop the sequel to their Jill of the Jungle, which was a big deal since Jill of the Jungle was one of the games that Epic was known for. Eventually Epic decided not to pursue the sequel, so the core of Jill of the Jungle 2 ended up turning into a game called Vinyl Goddess from Mars. Six Pound Sledge became the studio name for the group of developers that worked on Vinyl Goddess, and Union Logic was the publisher. (As a side note, the name Six Pound Sledge came from an actual six-pound sledge hammer that Union Logic had in their office... it was used to knock down a bunch of walls in their original office space in Bell's Corners when they were renovating... ;) )
To this day we're not entirely sure as to why Union Logic decided to sub-publish through Epic. We were originally told that Union Logic felt they didn't have the resources to publish Radix effectively, so that was why they went to Epic, but I still wonder what else was going on behind the scenes.
Were you involved at all with any other games Union Logic was publishing, eg. Vinyl Goddess From Mars?
No, that was an internal Union Logic game that we were not involved with. The main Union Logic guys as well as some other local developers worked on it, and the team was collectively called Six Pound Sledge Studios. I do remember when they did a photo shoot for the box cover art at the Union Logic offices, where they hired a famous stripper to pose as the Vinyl Goddess. ;)
What was Cygnus Multimedia and how were they involved?
Cygnus was an American company that helped us with some of the textures and art in Radix. They had worked on some other shareware games at the time and were considered to be a good place to go for contract artwork.
Were you aware of any other people doing shareware in Ottawa?
I think shareware game development was a hot area in the mid 90s, but surprisingly there were not a whole lot of games that came out of Ottawa around that time. From what I remember, there was just Radix, Vinyl Goddess from Mars, and a few other games that Union Logic had worked on a few years earlier. There was also a guy named Mike Voss from Ottawa who had made a side-scrolling game called "Clyde's Adventure". He eventually made another game through Apogee called "Hocus Pocus". Here is a page that talks a bit about it: http://www.3drealms.com/news/2006/02/the_apogee_lega_3.html
Can you tell me a bit about your move to Cavedog? It seems like a bunch of people from Neural Storm went at once. How soon after Radix was done did that happen?
After we shipped Radix, we were all kind of burned out from the whole experience (especially the business side of things). Dan and I decided to continue our degrees at Carleton, while Jon ended up going to E3 and meeting with Chris Taylor who ended up offering him a job to work on Total Annihilation. After Total Annihilation shipped a year later, Jon teamed up with Greg and pitched a game idea called "Amen: The Awakening" to Ron Gilbert at Cavedog, and he approved it. So Dan and I then joined that team for about a year and a half. Unfortunately Cavedog kind of just collapsed around that time, so that game never actually shipped.
Dan and I eventually finished our degrees at Carleton and went into other software development careers, while Jon and Greg continued in the gaming world in Seattle and Vancouver respectively.
Are you still in touch with people from the Radix team?
Yes, I do keep in touch occasionally with Dan, Greg, and Jon. Greg is currently running his own studio called Interdimensional Games in Vancouver working on a 3D action-adventure game, while Jon is running his own studio in Seattle called Uber Entertainment. Uber actually had an awesome Kickstarter campaign for their upcoming "Planetary Annihilation" game.
Steph Keef, Mark Lewis, Jason Struck (Union Logic): I don't have any of their contact info... Steph actually had a huge falling out with Union Logic right before Radix shipped. I've looked for their contact info online, but it's like they've all disappeared from existence. Maybe they went back to Mars with that stripper?
Frank Krul: another hilarious character who had a huge falling out with Union Logic before we shipped. No idea where he is.