Five years ago, fans of the hit computer-game series "King's Quest" grew tired of waiting year after year for a new chapter. So they decided to make their own.
Originally set for release late this year, "King's Quest IX" would have been the product of an unpaid group of 50 designers working online in several countries, including the U.S., Canada, Venezuela and the Netherlands. But in September, the owners of the "King's Quest" trademark, Vivendi Universal Games, sent the team a request to cease and desist.
What the designers had been doing was the equivalent of filming their own "Star Wars" sequel a few years after "Return of the Jedi," in the hope that George Lucas would let them get away with it. Though they planned to release the game for free, they knew they didn't have a strong case to continue.
After months of negotiation, however, the parties have reached an agreement, and Vivendi has confirmed to MTV News that the fan game will indeed see the light of day.
"After extensive evaluation, Vivendi Universal Games is pleased to announce that the fan-developed trilogy project 'The Silver Lining' (previously known as 'King's Quest IX: Every Cloak Has a Silver Lining'), based on characters from Sierra Entertainment's 'Kings Quest' series, has been given approval to continue development," the company announced in a statement. "We look forward to seeing the first of its three upcoming chapters, 'Shadows', completed soon.' "
The surprising rebirth of "King's Quest IX" owes as much to fan community as the development of the game. It's evidence that fan campaigns to save a scuttled project or canceled series sometimes do have happy endings.
During the project's five years of development, Phoenix Online Studios, the all-volunteer group behind the game, had not made contact with Vivendi. "We thought they were unaware or uninterested," said Saydmell Salazar, the Phoenix group's spokesperson.
But shortly after the group launched the game's official trailer and announced that the first third of the game would be available for download by the end of the year, the Vivendi letter came and the team immediately shut down operations, hoping to get in touch with Vivendi and plead their case. "Eventually what got them to talk to us was the fan community," Salazar said.
One of the most vocal of those fans was Matt Compton, a 33-year-old Los Angeles film producer who had enjoyed the "King's Quest" games as a kid. When he found out the project had been shut down, he thought: " 'How smart is it of Vivendi to basically spit on people that they're actually hoping will buy their games?' So I thought, 'Maybe there's something we can do to get Vivendi's attention and say, 'Hey, you guys might want to rethink this.' "
Compton teamed up with some other fans, who were already petitioning Vivendi, and organized an e-mail letter-writing campaign. Within five weeks his site, www.savekqix.org, had drawn more than 23,000 unique visitors and his crusade had garnered more than a thousand letters of complaint to the game publisher.
In mid-November Compton wrote a press release to alert the gaming press that many fans wanted "King's Quest IX" to be saved. It got some online buzz. Later that same week, according to Vivendi spokesperson Marcus Beer, the game publisher finally secured a copy of the early game from Phoenix Online Studios. At press time, Beer had not confirmed what made Vivendi give Phoenix's game the green light.
Members of the Phoenix team acknowledge that Vivendi, as owners of the "King's Quest" series, had solid footing to shut the game down. But they said they threw that caution to the wind in part because of their passion for a series they felt had been damaged by its most recent official installment, the 1998 "Mask of Eternity." The game had replaced the franchise's trademark story-heavy, thinking-player's adventure with a focus on battle-heavy action. Many series fans felt betrayed. Since then it had seemed that Vivendi was content to let the series go dormant.
"We wanted to bring closure to the series," Florida-based Phoenix project director Cesar Bittar said in November. Bittar's team was well on its way to producing a fully 3-D adventure — replete with 200 characters and a script that took up 1,500 pages — before being stopped in September. The new game would tie up loose ends from all the series' installments, including the maligned "Mask of Eternity."
Phoenix's project had not been without precedent. Another far-flung group of unpaid game designers called Anonymous Game Developers Interactive had released unauthorized remakes of the first two "King's Quest" games in 2001 and '02. "Both games were initially developed without permission from the copyright holder," said Stijn van Empel, the group's Netherlands forum administrator. "We realized that it was thin ground we were treading on." His team reached out to Vivendi and secured retroactive approval.
Salazar said once Phoenix began to negotiating with Vivendi this fall, the company proved to be understanding, especially after the development team was able to provide a DVD with a working demo. As a result of the agreement, the game will lose its "King's Quest" moniker but will otherwise be unchanged, still featuring the series' characters. The game will now be released in 2006.
Bittar said he had intended for "King's Quest IX" to serve as much as a résumé-builder as an effort to restore a favorite series to glory. For his efforts he had endured sleepless nights and lost weekends. Was he sorry then, even when it seemed the game was dead, that he'd tried so hard? "I don't complain," he said. "I love this. I would do it a thousand times."
For more on the game formerly known as "King's Quest," go to kqix.com.