Acclaim’s Project Top Secret: Reflections Part 1: Prologue

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This is one piece I’ve been kicking around in my head for quite a while now. I’ve put it off, I’ve been rather noticeably busy, I’ve made excuses, or quite simply I just wasn’t ready to put it all down. It’s not because I have trouble recalling everything that took place, or trouble writing it. It’s not because there’s some worry of terrible secrets being revealed or concerns I’ll say the same thing. What has held me back is because it was quite honestly one of the more transformative episodes of my professional life. I’d been drifting on the fringes of the game industry for years beforehand, mostly in the indie scene, consulting on projects in a story capacity, providing QA, did some freelance writing for a couple of published MMO’s. (Though that work is lost in the mists of time, only I and the people I wrote for might even remember). I even did some voice acting for a couple of indie projects, but nothing I’m going to talk about, since it was a long time ago and not really relevant.

One step before Top Secret was the crew I dealt with who ran Pirate King Online, doing a stint as a forum moderator, consulting behind the scenes on the community, and a bit of GMing mixed in there. It was fun gig and they were a great bunch of people who I still talk to on occasion, though it’s been several years now. It was a fun ride and I’ve picked up a few people from then who are still in my core circle of gaming friends and contacts to date.

It was and is however, Project Top Secret that fits in the chain of events that leads from 2007 to where I am today. It’s been nearly 4 very intense, wild, and often rewarding years since that first time I posted on the PTS forums. Along the way from then to now, I have made some very close friendships, some very good contacts in the industry, and I’ve had some fabulous opportunities, and learned a helluva lot more about the industry in that amount of time.

Let me state right now, say what you will about David Perry, and I know there are strong opinions out amongst the gaming community about the man. For me however, he and Rusel DeMaria (another giant in his own right) saw something in me and several others that were worth poking a stick at and pushing us to see what we could do. I was given the chance to learn from both of them, work with and for them on Top Secret and other projects and I learned more in the “Dave Perry Crash Course” to the industry than I can begin to really explain intelligently.

That’s not to say I agreed with everything that took place over the course of PTS. There were some decisions I didn’t agree with, and I did speak out against some things. However, those were more in the nature of circumstances of the time rather than anything else and again, not really relevant to this story.

Actually let me stop right here. If you’re expecting dirt, or for me to go on a long rant about how it ended or anything, you came to the wrong piece. I’m going to recall significant events, and I’m going to give my thoughts and impressions on some of the personalities involved, though some names I am going to omit, partly because it’s not worth dredging up, or because I simply don’t remember.

Anyway, David is so wildly creative, ideas simply pour out of the man like water through a leaky bucket. He can look at something and spin ideas in rapid fire, many of them very creative and very spontaneous. This of course worked well for me as I’m the same way (sometimes I find myself carried away but I’ve learned to keep that instinct in check). Sometimes he would flood us with ideas that left us spinning and while we soldiered on there were times at the beginning when I was a tad overwhelmed. It was like working with a creative whirlwind that would spin me on my ass and leave me in brain lock for a few minutes.

Rusel on the other hand, while a very creative soul in his own right, is in my mind the perfect balance to David, probably why they’re such a good working team. He’s thoughtful, articulate, deep, yet behind that thoughtfulness there’s a very wicked sense of humour that often sent me into rolling belly chuckles during some of our IM conversations.

The third primary personality, though he was infrequently involved in the project, is Historian, I could use his real name of course, but he’d probably shoot me. He was the community manager for Acclaim and regardless of what might be said, he did genuinely care about the Acclaim community. There were times, and still to this day, that I enjoyed pulling his tail to see him bellow at me. Sorry Hist, but it’s true. I took a fair amount of amusement out of irritating you sometimes, all in good fun of course. Historian was my initial contact with the PTS staff, and it was he who extended the invitation to be a mod for the PTS forums.

That invitation came as something of a surprise to me as I didn’t really expect it and at first I sat on it for a while before I replied as I was unsure what I’d be getting myself into. Looking back at it now, I’m glad I took the time to think about it, knowing what I know now, I would have made the same choice, but I would have been better prepared for what was to come.

Now PTS for those who were living under a rock at the time, or simply didn’t care, was David’s big plan to bring together the gaming community to help design a MMO. I looked at the opportunity to perhaps do some writing, get some notice and exposure, and perhaps learn something. (Let me tell you, I really stepped in it with THAT assumption). I almost passed on it when it was announced it would be a racing title. It was a very near thing in those early days as just another forum poster nobody, but I wasn’t really doing anything interesting so I figured “What the hell”, even racing games could use some story. So I stuck around, posted some ideas, dropped some story pieces I’d written long before from my personal storyline archives, and watched this thing develop.

It was chaotic in the early days. Most of the forum posts were “I have a great idea for a game!” or “Why don’t we do this!” and things like that. Like many of the unwashed, we didn’t really know what this was going to actually entail and at first it seemed rather disorganized. Which it was. I think no one really knew how much of a response this project would get, nor did anyone outside of a few of the people who were already established indie’s or with industry experience know how much bloody work it would become. Decisions were made by popular vote, which anyone knows a committee can’t really decide what kind of toilet paper to buy, let alone game design elements.

Since we were, literally, a virtual game design community, all work was done via posts on the Project Top Secret message forums. The forum was organized with a section on “Hooks”, Art Style, Setting, and so forth. These debates got fairly heated and I watched all around me this community of the creative and the naive argue back and forth. I wrote a couple of posts for tolerance, understanding, and that many of us were hoping to get our ideas across but few could really explain them on the right level. It was pretty wild, with thousands of voices all shouting to be heard and when decisions were made (through voting) the numbers of people who stayed involved would drop so much at a time. Sometimes it was due to the direction taken, other times and quite consistently through the entirety of the project’s existence it was when people realized just how much work this would actually be.

I’m going to stop here for now; this was mostly a set up piece on a rather long story. I do want to mention, out of it all, aside from the three people I mentioned above, there are some other stand outs I want to include. Nikita and Michelle, these two along with one other, became the basic core of my friendships made during PTS. Nikita has gone on to make Iphone apps and last I heard from him, he’s doing pretty well for himself. He’s good people all the way, creative, organized, intelligent, with a keen sense of how things work and you can’t ask for a better guy who can dig deep to get something done. We worked together on some things for David outside of PTS and I am very glad to have made his acquaintance, and kept it over the years.

Michelle, well where do I begin? There are times when I wonder which of us is which. I’ve jokingly referred to her as my other self for we are very much alike, though our skills diverge in very complementary ways. We have been collaborating on projects both for David, and right up to the present. When I was pitched the idea of GameTheory digital, I knew right away who I wanted to work with and she’s now the Editor-in-Chief of the magazine. I appreciate her friendship more than I can say, and there were times during PTS when she kept me from throttling someone over some design choice, or story suggestion, and so on.

There are a few more I could name right now, but now that I’ve reached over three pages, I’ll end this here. Fear not though, I will touch on other people involved in the project, on the advisory board (which later became the producers) and some others who were big impacts on the project or on my time and work with the Project. I hope this makes a good start, there’s a lot more to write…

About David "AnjelusX" Slauenwhite
Anjel Syndicate Editor-in-Chief, Gamer, Lover of Books, Conjurer of Words, Worlds, and Stories, Coffee Worshiper, and Nova Scotian. "I've been gaming since I stood on milk crates to reach the controls. New games, retro games, you name it, I probably love it."

  • Rusel DeMaria

    Anj, it was quite a wild ride… herding a bunch of creative and opinionated, passionate cats with all the wrong tools. And yet, it was an amazing experience and, like you, I came to know some wonderful people – yourself included. Remembering it through your eyes is enjoyable for me. I don’t know if I could do justice to the experience from my end, which was at times game design adviser, counselor, law enforcement, DP’s Voice, mediator and judge. I did my best to encourage talent, head off wrong directions, placate mutinies, make suggestions without having too much influence, assist individuals and groups, decipher people’s motives and much more. I wouldn’t hesitate to do it all over again – but with different formats. You are so right about everything you’ve written, not the least of which is how disorganized and confusing it all was at the beginning. It was a work in progress, to be sure, but I think, despite the obvious failure to get a product launched, it was a rewarding experience for many of the participants.

    Thanks for revisiting it.

  • Michelle

    I have so many thoughts about PTS. I’ve often thought about putting them down on paper but never knew where to start. You’ve captured the essence of the project in your usual wonderful style.

    This was a learning experience beyond compare, but the most wonderful gift I received from this was the people I met. I see Rusel has already posted. I’m not surprised. He was always there for us, no matter how difficult we were, how many problems we threw at him, or how much we tried his seemingly limitless reserves of patience.

    David is the most amazing whirlwind of creative ideas. One never knew where the conversation would go – never quite where you intended it, but it was always an interesting trip!

    Rusel often said he’d like to do this project again, but this time, do it right. I’m right there with him. It was most definitely an E-ticket ride, and I’d get in line all over again without a moment’s hesitation!

  • I remember setting up all those forums. The most complex setup I’ve ever done.

    I will say this, I have never regretted any of the moderators I chose for PTS, but I have to say that not all of the choices were mine. You were brought to my attention by someone and I agreed with them, that you were a great choice. So, consider that someone else saw something in you as well.

  • So many thoughts run through my head when thinking about PTS, but I’m in total agreement that it was worth the time, a wild ride, a great learning experience and I want to participate in another such project. A telling of the PTS story from Anj’s point of view sounds like a wonderful read to me.

    Maybe we could bring together a few of us from the “old days” together, who are interested in a PTS II, to discuss possible project designs. PTS always seemed to have so much potential, and now we have people who’ve experienced that kind of methodology, but boy it was crazy at times.

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  • Christopher “Asurael” Honour

    A fun read I must say, I’m actually still looking forward to the next part =).I still look back at the couple of years we all poured into PTS and think of them fondly. As everybody has said already, I don’t regret any of it (meaning everything I had control over =P) and best of all is how much we learned and who we “met”. I remember early on in the project when we still weren’t sure of how things were gonna work, my game pitch idea almost “won”, which wouldn’t truly have been in the spirit of a fully community designed game but at least it was something that really encouraged me to stick around. Things went from a contest mentality where I thought I had to hide my ideas, to helping out other people with their ideas, even making artwork for them, then becoming moderator, then advisory board member, then producer, etc…

    I remember things a little differently maybe, which is why its fun to see how you recall the events and write your thoughts about the project and the community. I expected to come out of the project with a bit more inertia I suppose, but things have gone real quiet since then. If a PTS2 ever manifested itself I would definitely be the first one there to sign up.