…and some days aren't so good

As many of you know, I work at Origin Systems, one of the pioneers of the computer gaming industry. I remember playing their first ground-breaking game, Ultima, back in middle school, and being delighted throughout high school and college with each new product they created. Their games were a part of my (arguably misspent) childhood, and it was a delightful denouement to my decade-and-a-half love affair with the company to come to work there 6 months ago.

When I came on, I started playing Ultima Online, Origin’s 3 year old Internet game, for the first time. (They no longer make their games for the Macintosh, so this was the first time I’d been able to play.) The sense of community and involvement among the game’s 220,000 or so subscribers is a remarkable thing to behold, and quickly sold me on the power of this kind of game — Persistent State Worlds, as they’re called in the industry.

Even more exciting than UO to me, however, was two more PSW’s that were in production: Ultima Online 2, which was going to take Ultima into a beatiful, fully 3D world, and the unannounced but widely-known Harry Potter Online, based on J.K. Rowling’s books chronicling the adventures of the yound wizard. UO2, though late and over-budget, was among the most widely-anticipated games for 2001, and Harry Potter Online could hardly help to be a hit with Harry Potter mania at such a fever pitch.

Yesterday so very much changed.

After doing an audit of all the Persistent State Worlds that Electronic Arts (Origin’s parent company) had under development, the decision came down that UO2 and Harry Potter would both be cancelled — UO2 because it was way over budget and still a long way from completion, and Harry Potter because the decision-makers were afraid that they would have missed the peak of Pottermania by the time the game actually hit production. In addition, most of the UO2 and Harry Potter staff would be released, since their wouldn’t be any work for them to do.

In fairness, it looks as though EA is really trying hard to make this a minimally disruptive transition for the people losing their jobs. The terms are the most generous I’ve seen in a situation like this. The artists and world-builders are being given help getting their portfolios updated with the work they’ve already done for UO2, HR has brought in people to help the displaced find new positions, and the range of job opening at other EA sites is being made available to these folks. Kudos to EA for the way they’re handling that part of things.

But that doesn’t make things any less sad. While making these announcements, Jack Heistand’s voice broke more than once. The artists who had invested an enormous amount of their creative energies into the cancelled products looked on in disbelief as the wolves of financial pressures ripped their children to pieces before their stunned eyes. There was a steady stream of people leaving the meeting room after the announcement was made, even before the Q&A had wrapped up.

So, today Origin is a sad place to be, even for those of us staying. The people who will be leaving the company are in their offices until Friday, gathering their personal effects and finishing a few things out. The news has broken across the Internet, where there’s bile, ambivalence, and sadness. (And lot’s not forget saddened ambivalent bile.)

And me? I’m still here. But the halls of Origin no longer seem the magical place they did 24 hours ago. With these departing artists and visionaries goes a lot of what makes Origin a special place to be. Farewell, folks, and best wishes.