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The Long Road To Ruin December 13, 2007

Posted by David Gillespie in Video Games.
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I remember hearing a long time ago (couldn’t possibly remember the source) that the definition of insanity was doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result. You can see it play out with major corporations who don’t alter their strategies with changing markets, flying in the face of all the evidence presented to them, watching their consumer bases shrink in slow motion before them, unable or unwilling to make the turn before the iceberg collides.

I’ve just finished watching it play out at a company I used to work at, Auran, a game developer based in Brisbane, Australia. Those who played strategy games in the mid-90’s probably came across their biggest hit, Dark Reign, which set the company up and garnered worldwide acclaim. Of course then the publisher Activision bank-rolled a start-up and took pretty much the entire development team away; it’s safe to say things never really quite got back on track.

I spent two and a half years working at Auran as a game designer and producer, and I have never spent so many good, good days around a group of nicer, more intelligent people. I was blessed with teams that were passionate and inspired by the work they were doing. Leaving to chase other dreams in other cities was a hard if correct decision, but I have stayed in touch with a number of the people I worked with, and their Operations Director is my best friend.

So it is with a very heavy heart that I say the administrators have just walked into the building and the process of dismantling what was one of the great development houses in Australia begins. Thankfully the scene in Brisbane is booming and the staff will all have jobs to go to. Their publishing arm, N3v3rfa1l is likely to continue which is good news for its staff, with the continued involvement of Graham Edelsten and Tony Hilliam, the latter of who has invested a fortune over the years into a truly capable company that never quite managed to live up to its promise.

Auran never lived in the shadow of previous successes, it was always looking to break new ground and refused to rest on its laurels. Other companies grew past it in terms of size and projects, but to its credit it took on unusual and interesting projects, even when the direct ROI wasn’t as clear as would have been nice. It bet the farm on a unique idea for an MMO, a game that I was involved in as a Producer on the initial pitch that won a significant piece of funding from Korean publisher Hanbitsoft. That relationship soured over time, but the companies parted ways and Auran continued to innovate and push the title down a completely new direction instead of taking the me-too approach of so many MMOs. A variety of suitors would come and go in that time, but the vision was steadfast, and thanks to Tony Hilliam’s generosity, it meant they could forge a path that was all their own, not beholden to anyone else’s ideas.

The game, Fury, was released to mediocre reviews on October 16th, and while many of them acknowledged a good idea and solid game at the core of it, the technical issues proved insurmountable. The game has failed to garner a large enough following to make it viable, and Auran’s directors decided that the water was coming into the boat much faster than they had the capacity to bail it out. They can’t be blamed, though I’m sure in the fallout fingers will be pointed in all directions. It’s like the break down of a good relationship; in the end maybe nobody is to blame, and it simply ran its inevitable course.

I don’t know that I’ll ever go back to games, but if I did, I would seek out the culture that Auran created. Compassionate directors that valued innovation over a safe bet, the best and brightest staff from all over the world, a willingness to go against the odds even if failure means you don’t exist anymore. Auran went down with a corporate philosophy focussed on leaping towards the sun; you may not reach it, but at least, for a little while, you can get off the ground.

It is a really sad day.

N.B. I appear to have been linked back to from all over the web as the “Ex-Fury” Producer. While I worked on the game initially, they were very early days and I cannot claim any sort of stake in the title it became. Many people much smarter and more talented than me devoted themselves to it for a number of years, and despite the end result, they deserve the highest of acclaim. Also thanks to Bloody for the kind words, they have been passed on to the team.