We've created something so innovative and different.
Date: August 20, 2008
City: St. Catharines
Spotlight by: Brian Wray
Nestled in the Niagara Region of Ontario, between Toronto and the United States of America, is St. Catharines. The bustling city is home to just over 130,000 mostly English speaking Canadians. St. Catharines houses one of the main telecommunications backbone between Canada and the US. It proximity to the American market makes it a prime location for commercial enterprises.
The city of St. Catharines is best know as the home of Brock University (a world class modern university), the Niagara IceDogs (Junior ice hockey team), several renowned wineries & vineyards and the home of more than 1,000 acres of parks, gardens and nature trails. Hidden in this industrious city between the parks and retail offices is one of the areas best kept secrets for few realize that St. Catharines is also the home to one of the industries most respected game development studios, Silicon Knights.
Silicon Knights is the brainchild of Denis Dyack and Rick Goertz. Denis and Rick both shared a love of games and decided to pool their talents to create their own games with a special focus on quality. Silicon Knights differs from most game development companies in that the company takes pride in the fact that the workers do not consider themselves as just employees, but are part of a guild, an organization of individuals working together toward common goals. This ins in fact Silicon Knights company philosophy. This philosophy must have worked for Silicon Knights gained world recognition as one of the best and most respected development studios in a relative short period of time. But just how did Silicon Knights achieve this status. Like most stories of greatness, the beginnings were anything but ordinary.
Silicon Knights co-founder and president Denis Dyack never grew up with aspirations of becoming a great game designer. In fact, he studied to be come a Physical Education instructor. It may be hard to image our favourite outspoken Canadian as a jock, but before he created Norse gods battling robotic henchmen, Denis fought his own battles on the wrestling mat. He was a member of the successful Brock University wrestling program (this is the same program that spawned Tanya Verbeek, winner of a silver medal at the ’04 Olympics and most recently a bronze medal in the ‘08 Games). His fighting prowess was not limited to the wrestling mat, he was also a Canadian Tae Kwon Do champion and studied various martial art styles. Denis also loved games. During his physical ed studies, he realized that this field was not his calling and changed his major to computer science. It was here that he met another computer science major and fellow gamer Rick Goertz. The two collaborated together to create their first game. This newfound partnership would later lead to the creation of Silicon Knights.
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Denis and Rick wasted little time and got to work on their first official game. In Spring of 1992, Cyber Empires was released for DOS, Atari ST and the Amiga platforms by publisher Strategic Simulations, Inc. (SSI). Although this was Silicon Knights first official game, Cyber Empires introduced many features that were ahead of the time. The game was a strategy game that mixed in plenty of action. Part of the game required the player to make key decisions about what would be the next move to make in an attempt to gain world domination, but unlike other games, the player could then take control of a minion and fight it out with the enemy. The game required quick mental and physical reflexes. Cyber Empires allowed for 1-5 players to battle against each other with the computer filling in for any missing opponents. The game received great reviews, but failed to be a financial success for Silicon Knights. Still the Canadian duo was inspired. They incorporated Silicon Knights and recruited new members into their “guild” and got back to work.
Fantasy Empires was released in 1993. It was basically an enhanced version of Cyber Empires, using the Dungeon and Dragons license of which SSI was the holder. The game featured the same action oriented strategy gameplay that made Cyber Empires so successful. Once again the game supported up to 5 players, that could be either human or computer controlled. Some of the new features in this game included the capability of upgrading units and allowing the player the choice of race he/she wanted to play. The game was another critical success for Silicon Knights. The small development studio from St. Catharines was starting to develop a loyal fan base.
After expanding their guild once again to 8 people, Denis Dyack and crew started working on a new game called Dark Legions. Dark Legions was designed to take full advantage of the Internet. The game was once again mixture of real time strategy with action style gameplay in a fantasy setting. This time the game only supported two players but allowed these players to battle remotely via modem. This may not sound very impressive by today's standards, as we are so used to connecting to other gamers over Xbox Live, but back in 1994 remote gameplay was virtually unheard of. Silicon Knights was once again ahead of the trend, and this time people took notice. Dark Legion was also different in that is was the first game that displayed a very rich and detailed story line, a feature that would become standard ingredient in all Silicon Knights future games. Dark Legions received critical acclaim, but just as Cyber Empires, it failed to make any real money as it was in direct competition with Warcraft: Orcs vs. Humans for consumer dollars. SSI's marketing of Dark Legions could not compete with Blizzard's campaign and Dark Legions faded away. This was the last Silicon Knight game published by SSI. SSI retained all rights to the Empires series of games, which was subsequently taken over by Ubisoft.
Denis Dyack took the company in a new direction for the next game. They started development on Blood Omen: Legacy of Kain. This new game was designed to stand out against all other games of the time. When development began on Legacy of Kain it was not being created for any particular platform but once Denis saw the potential of Sony's new game console, he shifted all development of the game to the Playstation. The console’s powerful processor and CD based media allowed the developer freedoms previously impossible. Legacy of Kain was a hybrid of action, adventure and RPG styles in a rich character driven storyline. It featured detailed graphics that took full advantage of the PlayStation’s processing power. As promised, Silicon Knights had managed to create a game that did stand out. Legacy of Kain was released to huge critical acclaim in November of 1996. With Crystal Dynamics now publishing and promoting the game, it became a huge financial success as well.
As we often observe, with great success comes legal problems. Soon after the release of Blood Omen, Silicon Knights ended it's partnership with Crystal Dynamics over a dispute about the ownership of the Blood Omen intellectual property. The dispute escalated to a lawsuit filed against Crystal Dynamics when it was discovered that they were working on the sequel to Blood Omen. The matter was finally settle out of court. Crystal Dynamics would retain the rights to the Blood Omen IP, but had to acknowledge the contribution by Silicon Knights in all future games. Denis Dyack and his guild having lost their very first successful franchise decided to move forward with a new game.
Silicon Knights may have lost the rights to Kain, but the guild had tasted success and they were primed for more. They quickly started working on their most ambitious title yet, Too Human. Similar in nature to Legacy of Kain, but on a much grander scale, the game was originally planned to ship on 4 CDs for the PlayStation console, making the game one of the largest available at the time. The game was set in rich Norse Mythology. It would feature lesser god Baldur and his adventures. The game was to be another mixture of game genres, something that Silicon Knights was very successful at pulling off. Development was quite advanced with Sony showing off a game build during the 1999 Electronic and Entertainment Expo. But Too Human would never grace Sony's console as on May 3rd of 2000, Denis Dyack announced that he had just signed Silicon Knights to be an exclusive second-party developer for Nintendo. Development of Too Human shifted from the Playstation to Nintendo’s new console (and the main competition to the Playstation) the Gamecube.
Interesting enough it was not Too Human that would be the first release for the Gamecube, but another title that was also originally destined for the Playstation, the Lovecraftian inspired Eternal Darkness. The game was an action/adventure game wrapped in a psychological horror shell. It was also the first game published by Nintendo to carry a Mature rating. Eternal Darkness continued the streak of critical successes for Silicon Knights. The game went on to win many awards , most in the category of writing and character development.
With Eternal Darkness out of the way, fans were hoping that development on Too Human would resume, these hopes were put to rest as it was announced that the next game from Silicon Knights would be a co-operative effort with Nintendo and Konami to bring a Metal Gear Solid game to the Gamecube. Silicon Knights created all the gameplay while Kojima and crew took care of the cinematics. Instead of making a simple port of the Playstation classic, Silicon Knights enhanced many features of the original to create a new Metal Gear Solid experience. In fall of 2004, Metal Gear Solid: The Twin Snakes was released. Once again the game was a huge success.
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In 2005, Silicon Knights ended their exclusivity agreement with Nintendo and announced a new partnership with upstart console maker Microsoft. They also indicated that development on Too Human would resume once again but the game would now be exclusive to the new Xbox 360 console. Most surprising was the announcement that this partnership called for a trilogy of games based on the Too Human universe.
Too Human for the Xbox 360 would be a bit different than the game originally planned for the PlayStation console, or even the game planned for the Gamecube console. This new Too Human was still set in Norse Mythology, but just about everything else had changed. This new Too Human would have more in common with Diablo 2 than with Legacy of Kain.
To facilitate development, Silicon Knights licensed the Unreal 3 engine from Epic Games. This was the first time they resorted to an external engine for one of their games. This move proved to be a costly mistake. After having redesigned the game to make use the Unreal 3 engine, Silicon Knights discontinued use of the game engine as they could not create the desired effects or enemy count while maintaining a consistent framerate. Development of Too Human was once again halted and restated once a new in-house engine was produced. This process was another setback that would once again delay Too Human. In August of 2007 Silicon Knight sued Epic Games for "breach of contract", “misrepresentation” and "inadequacies" of Epic’s support concerning the Unreal Engine 3. Denis Dyack went on notice stating they (Epic) did not provide the product as demonstrated. He indicated that Epic provided a gimped engine to ensure their (Epic) games would stand out from all the other games that utilized the Unreal 3 engine. Epic Games countersued Silicon Knights for using their engine without consent form Epic Games.
Many industry insiders indicated this latest setback was the final nail in Too Human's coffin, but lawsuit or not, Too Human development continued to move forward. As it turned out, this was not the final setback for Too Human. Over the next year, fear and confusion about this title only intensified when Denis Dyack himself promised that the game would feature 4 player co-op gameplay only to scale it back to two player a few months later. This move lead many to believe that development of the game was not going as smoothly as promised and that the game would once again be delayed.
On July 14th of 2008, Microsoft released a demo of Too Human on the Xbox Live Marketplace. The demo was downloaded over 900,000 times over the next 3 weeks and generating mostly positive reviews from gamers, even thou it was met with enmity by critics. Too Human was finally released on August 19, 2008. As expected, the game garnered mixed reviews from critics. This was the first game by the guild that was not critically acclaimed.
Having just finished Too Human, Silicon Knights is currently working on several new titles. One of which is an unannounced "psychological horror game" that many believe is a sequel to Eternal Darkness. To assist in the funding of this project, the Canadian government provided Silicon Knights with $500,000. Silicon Knights is also collaborating with Sega on yet another "to be announced" project (may end up being the same project as the previous one). Denis Dyack also indicated that Silicon Knights is committed to completing the Too Human trilogy, but development on the sequel is currently on hold.
Indifferent of the success of Too Human, the future for this Canadian development company looks very bright.
Silicon Knights' Game library:
* Cyber Empires (1992) (DOS/Atari ST/Amiga)
* Fantasy Empires (1993) (DOS/Atari ST/Amiga)
* Dark Legions (1994) (DOS/Atari ST/Amiga)
* Blood Omen: Legacy of Kain (1996) (Sony PlayStation, Windows)
* Eternal Darkness: Sanity's Requiem (2002) (GameCube)
* Metal Gear Solid: The Twin Snakes (2004) (GameCube)
* Too Human (2008) (Xbox 360)