“I’m happy to work with any publishers that are interested in Stargate: The Alliance”
-Ben Lenzo, CEO of Perception
This is it. Despite the on-going weekly video coverage that can be found here, this is the final big piece to the Stargate SG-1: The Alliance puzzle. What better way to finish off this coverage than with an interview with Ben Lenzo, CEO of Perception. With the help of numerous Perception devs, we have been able to bring you coverage that I believe is extremely in-depth. The Alliance hasn’t slipped into obscurity, but rather it has become a hot talking point on many websites and forums once again. It’s been quite a roller coaster ride, I must say. From being anonymously sent a working build of The Alliance, to Skyping with the CEO of Perception, this has been quite the journey. Once again, I wish to thank all the folks who worked on The Alliance but never got the recognition. Your efforts are truly appreciated, and I only hope that our coverage has been to your liking. Everyone else, enjoy the interview.
Retroplayer- Hi Ben. Tell us a little about Perception.
Ben- Initially Perception started out doing animations, TV commercials, and things like that under contracts. This was around 1997 or so. At the time you could make a game with storytelling elements, and we always planned on getting into games because my training is mainly in writing and directing. I couldn’t afford to fund the development of a film, but I could get enough money together to make a game. We started off doing contract work on other peoples’ games. We did some audio work on an EA Sports game, and some other little contract jobs here and there. We also did some Arcade titles ourselves, but we decided to move onto the home market. We could have started our own IP, but we decided to go and try and get something licensed. I mean, we did stuff before but no one really knew who we were and a licensed title would really help us with that. We ended up going with Stargate because I think it’s perfect for a FPS. Not your typical FPS either, it’s not a simple run and gun. Also, compared to the TV show, we’re not restricted by budget if we choose to create different types of worlds and levels.
Retroplayer- How did you acquire the rights to Stargate?
Ben- We approached MGM. We had a design document, and it went back and forth a bit because the type of deal we wanted with MGM changed a few times. We eventually tied up things with MGM. Then- and this quickly gets into the JoWooD stuff- our original relationship with JoWooD Productions was that we were going to invest in them. They’re a publicly listed company in Austria. We were going to invest in them and release Stargate through them.
Retroplayer- Did you create the story to The Alliance yourself, or did you work closely with the creators of the TV series?
Ben- We came up with the story completely. The term “Alliance” refers to the alliance between Anubis and the new race we created for the game, the Haaken. What they did with the Ori in the later seasons of the TV series is what we were trying to do with the Haaken. They were a threat to the Ancients themselves.
Retroplayer- Seeing as you were introducing a new race to the Stargate mythology, were the creators of the show a little hesitant or feel threatened?
Ben- No. The creators of the show were very supportive. They just didn’t want us to screw it, presumably. The game wasn’t canon so it wasn’t a problem. I do know they planned on making a reference to the Haaken at some point in the series. I got a call from Peter Deluise, who was directing an episode, asking about what happened to the Haaken during the game. Once the ship went down with the game they must have scrapped the idea. But the game is a different animal to the TV series, so they didn’t feel threatened in any way, shape or form.
Ben- Well, they were in the original prototype. I’m not sure if they’re in the build you have though. We had them in the last mission, running up the walls, along the ceilings. For the time it was pretty impressive stuff.
Retroplayer- Was development for each platform going smoothly?
Ben- The PS2 and Xbox version were further behind the PC version. The PS2 one was frankly, a pain in the ass. The Unreal Engine was difficult to work with on the PS2. James Steele, our PS2 Lead, is still ripping his hair out about Stargate, Unreal and the PS2. But it was still in pretty good shape. Although, on the PC you could have these massive levels- massive for the time, certainly- on the PS2 you had to cut them right down. For example, while there might be 1 load on a mission for the PC version, on the PS2 version there might be 5 loads.
Retroplayer- When I open up the audio files the soundtrack is broken up into small 30 second chunks. Can you explain this?
Ben- Yes, this was awesome. We developed a system whereby we could cross fade between different musical moods. It was all original scoring and depending on what’s happening on screen, the music would change accordingly. We didn’t want to have it as a stale soundtrack, and by doing this it kept it feeling cinematic. We had two guys internally who worked on sound- David Anthony and Aldo Sampaio. They worked on the sound, the voices and David managed the external composer.
Retroplayer- In your own words, tell us the story behind Stargate being cancelled, Ben.
Ben- OK. It’s not a simple explanation though. As I said before, we were going to invest in JoWooD. We were going to put something like 11 or 9 million euros into the company. This was back in 2003. We would have been the major shareholder in JoWooD. That deal was announced in Austria and JoWooD went and raised money off the back of it. They then turned to us and said that they no longer needed our money but still wanted to publish Stargate. We agreed and signed that deal on Christmas Eve 2003. In February 2004 – bare in mind they just raised 17 million euro the previous December – they asked if they could delay payment to us. Basically, within the space of a year JoWooD were in debt and they changed management. The former CEO there, a guy called Andreas Tobler, was a really good guy. He knew what he was doing and he knew what he didn’t know, which is just as important. The new guy who came in was a finance guy who knew nothing about games. We still weren’t getting paid by JoWooD and in 2004 we lent them something like 500,000 euros.
Our deal with MGM stated that if we sublicense it with anyone else MGM has to approve it. So, if we wanted to get a distributor for Australia for example, MGM would have needed to approve it. That’s all pretty standard stuff and MGM approved JoWooD. We put it in our contract with JoWooD that if they got a sublicense they would have to get our approval and we would have to get MGMs approval. If MGM says yes, we can’t say no. But it just needs to follow that chain of command up and down. So, MGM has control of what happens to their IP – that’s a very important thing.
Before E3, in around April of 2005, we were all ready to go and we heard from JoWooD that Namco were interested in distributing Stargate SG-1: The Alliance in the US. We thought they would have been a great partner. They would have paid JoWooD a seven digit amount for the US distribution rights. So, JoWooD sent through the contract which needed to be approved by us and ultimately MGM. Instead of sending through a draft of the contract, they mistakenly sent through a contract that was signed a month before. JoWooD had already been paid that seven digit figure. They did that because they had no money. As a result, Perception is automatically in breach of its contract with MGM because it had “let” a sub-licensee screw up. So, JoWooD had basically lied to Perception and MGM about the real status of the deal with Namco. They also sent MGM a copy of the contract with Namco that was signed a month before. It’s keystone cops. Complete amateur hour. Obviously the shit hit the fan. We ultimately decided to go forward with Namco. Keep in mind that Namco were told by JoWooD that JoWooD owned the rights to Stargate, and that they could do whatever they wanted with it. So when we met Namco at E3 they were very surprised when we told them we (Perception) had the license rights to Stargate, not JoWooD, and that we had the relationship with MGM. It was a surprise to them because a) they’d been told by JoWooD that they owned the rights and Namco had paid them big $’s for it and b) a developer normally doesn’t get a licence, the publisher does. So Namco had paid a lot of money, but in reality had nothing to show for it.
But everybody (Perception, MGM) felt that Namco were a good partner, so we got the deal done.
The PS2 build of Stargate wasn’t ready for E3. However, Namco requested that it be there to which JoWooD said yes because they needed the cash. The reviews at E3 were pretty good, but the PS2 build was scratchy. I went to Austria in July of 2005 because JoWooD had still not been paying us. They had been in breach since the previous December. We didn’t want to terminate the contract as we knew they were trying to sort themselves out. I had a chance to terminate it when I was over there. But their new CEO told me that they would have gone under, they wouldn’t have survived it. They had around 30 people over there. I thought, if it could be resolved, I didn’t want to be held responsible for 30 people losing their jobs. So I didn’t terminate.
When I got back, I eventually said to them that they had until August 5th to pay us. If they didn’t we would have to terminate the contract. The day of the deadline, they issued their own press release, basically saying that they were terminating the contract because the game was crap, that they owned the rights to Stargate, and that they would look to release it somehow in the future. They cancelled it because they said it would have cost million of dollars to complete. You know how during press releases a company will would put something like “about JoWoodD” at the end? Well, they put “about MGM” which made it appear that this press release was coming from MGM. That was a problem. They did it on a Friday night before the market closed in Austria. I only found out of Saturday morning.
In fairness, the game was late. This blew up in August, the game was slated for a September release, and we were going to miss that deadline for around February the following year. Keep in mind that our contract with JoWooD had penalties if we were late up to two years. Six months isn’t a huge deal. It’s not good – I’m not suggesting it is – but it’s not a massive delay considering JoWooD had no producer on the title until July 2005. There was no QA done with the publisher. We paid for QA to be done ourselves, but it wasn’t as extensive as it should have been. Also, we had put up 500K euro for marketing, which unbeknownst to us at the time, JoWooD kept and didn’t use for marketing our game, but to pay their own bills..
We then started getting feedback on the builds from MGM. Remember, at the time, MGM had laid off a couple of thousand people, due to the buyout. The “interactive” division that they once had, was only now there in name. They had nobody that knew games and it was clear pretty quickly that they didn’t know what they were doing. I’ll give you an example.
We would sent a build clearly stating that, say, “this is milestone 9 and we plan to put feature X in milestone 10″, they would get back saying, “feature X is not included. Fix”. Or even, “the PS2 version of the game had a lower resolution than the PC version of the game. Fix”. What I basically think now is that they decided to let time run out on this until they could terminate the contract for failure to release on time. Plus, the MMO development had begun, and I think MGM thought The Alliance would have hurt it.
What happened was that after the whole JoWooD thing, Namco were still happy to be our US distributor. But when JoWooD didn’t back away from saying they owned Stargate, Namco decided to pull out of it. Namco lost the 2 million they paid JoWooD up front, they never saw that again. After that there were 3 publishers interested in taking over from JoWooD but MGM never approved them. We had definite publishers ready but MGM were not forthcoming. I should have told MGM, “Hey, we paid a lot of money for this franchise, you confirm with a press release that we’re the rightful licencee and approve our publishers.”
We brought JoWooD to court and sued them for two things on two separate occasions. They put out a press release that mislead their shareholders (i.e. that they controlled the Stargate Licence). That took two years to get to court because JoWooD kept stalling. Keep in mind that in the actual court proceedings, the CEO of JoWooD did not deny any of our claims. There are emails between the CEO and the producer, where the producer basically says, the game is late but we’ve known that for ages and we’re partly to blame for that but it’s looking good. That email is dated the day before the CEO puts out that press release. That was all presented to the courts and all on the record. But the judge ruled against us. We appealed and are still awaiting for a court date – 3 years later. Take from that what you will.
Lets just say that it took until November 2008 to get the money Perception was owed. On that, I can’t go into detail. It was an absolute killer. We had a great game, a great company, and that’s how it all went down.
It’s not a good representation of JoWooD as a company though. It was just ultimately led by an idiot. This CEO has done this type of thing to other developers since, but JoWooD has now gone bankrupt because he cooked the books.
Ultimately, MGM terminated our license agreement because we allowed a sublicensee (JoWooD) to use MGM copyrighted information, which was that “About MGM” press release and the Namco situation.
Ben- There was an RPG planned that had ties to Stargate: Atlantis, or started in Atlantis. But it moved from that to being generally set in the Stargate universe (not the show Stargate Universe to be clear). There was a pretty extensive design document on it at the time. What I can remember is that you could play as male or female, good or evil. You were living in a place were some were ascended, and some could not make that transition into ascension. At some point the player was going to get Goa’uld’d and that symbiote was Anubis. Then, that Goa’uld could change host at will to gain different characteristics.
There was also a Stargate RTS. It was a traditional RTS but had some RPG elements. If you were fighting for control of a planet, you could then use the Stargate on that planet to advance on to new planets. You could become a system lord by gaining control of planets. It’s basically like a leader board, but it’s a persistent leader board with planetary control. Now, it was in the really, really early design stages, but in this System Lord mode, you literally had thousands of planets to pick from. You could only attack an A.I owned planet if you owned no planets, so it forces players to fight against each other. You might have minor Goa’uld in your service that are giving you resources to conquer even more planets. So then you could start galaxy-wide campaigns and massive factions that take place within that online community. So the game was just an RTS, but the leader board introduced a whole other element to it. I’m not sure if we agreed on this, but if someone became too dominant, we were going to step in and lead a full GM assault. So, you basically had this galaxy net. You could view all the galaxies you’ve conquered on a map to show the areas you control. Sure, we had to build a good RTS around that idea, but that persistent element made it Stargate, it really did. Another idea was that a resource for the Goa’uld would be fear, while the humans’ resource would be good will. The Haaken were in there too. They would capture souls as power.
Retroplayer- We’ve been getting plenty of people asking us if there is a future to Stargate The Alliance. Is there?
Ben- There’s a grass roots want for the game. We still get emails ourselves from time to time. Commercially, it would make sense for MGM to want to finish the game. It’s not something that Perception itself would do however. Personally, I’m a writer and director. I don’t do games at all now. We’d be happy to work with a publisher and developer to either complete the game as a PC only title (with relevant art updates etc) or in what is more likely, do a PC, PS3 and Xbox 360 version of the game
Because Stargate: The Alliance was so close to being finished, I actually tried for a while to re-badge the game, remove all Stargate references, and just release it as a game. I could only do that near the end of 2008 and by that point it would have needed more than just taking out any references to Stargate. I think the working title for it was “Shadowline”.
Retroplayer- What have you and Perception been up to lately?
Ben- Well, Perception exists as a company but it has nothing to do with games any more. I recently finished directing “One Flew Over the Cuckoos Nest” for a production company in here in Sydney, I have an animated show in pre-production in America, and some producers are just on board for a series we’re pitching to a network in Australia. I’ve been directing some TV and theatre, producing, and writing.
Retroplayer- Do you have a message for all those fans who have supported Perception and The Alliance even until today?
Ben- I’m very grateful, but I think it needs to be said that this support is mostly focused on the TV show, rather than Perception. Maybe that’s a little modest, I don’t know. Maybe I’m selling Perception short and we’re fuckin’ awesome and I’m not realizing it. I’m happy to work with any publishers that are interested and present the idea to MGM. If any developers or publishers want to contact me through you, that’s fine. We have all the assets, code, and audio files. If something did happen it would make me so happy. Something like that doesn’t happen often.