The Atharon Conspiracy

© Tom Edwards 2006 | About this article | Valid XHTML

For all our efforts, modding is still a niche sort of thing. True, we’ve had the occasional commercial breakout like Counter-Strike and now Garry’s Mod, but by and large we don’t have much to do with the wider world. We don’t yet have any notable cultural significance, and nobody from outside the gaming community takes much of an interest in our work. Certainly, you’d never expect a globe-spanning conspiracy involving six different mod teams, NDAs and other signed contracts, IP theft and Deus Ex designer Harvey Smith.

Guess what?

This is the story of a fictitious man directing a fictitious company in the creation of a real game. Using a pseudonym, a group of experienced fraudsters (referred to as 'J' - see About this article) recruited a significant number of modders between May and November 2005 for unpaid work on Realms of Valhallon: Age of Campaigns, purportedly a free Half-Life 2 mod. Campaigns was to act as a gateway for developers and players alike to Age of Nations, a retail MMORPG developed full-time and under contract; in reality, the fraudsters’ plan was almost certainly to take their victims’ work on Campaigns and sell it on, keeping every last drop of revenue to themselves.

Opening shots

J’s five-month deception began with a string of forum posts calling for amateur developers to join Ruccus Productions, a newly-formed company that planned to create a “medieval/fantasy” game with a “new type of combat system”. Ruccus consisted of fifty employees across both Campaigns and Nations and had recently purchased a Source engine license, readers as far apart as the Troy: Divine Playground and CGTalk forums were told. There are no prizes for guessing that the truth of the matter was less dramatic. Ruccus didn’t exist as a legal entity, much less have fifty employees — they were only just starting to arrive.

“I am currently part of a preproduction team that has just purchased the Source engine…”

Whether or not J held a license might seem obvious, but there is a curious argument supporting the idea. While it is true that the logical option is to only begin negotiations at the last minute, when everything has been assembled and handed over and the risk is minimal, the project was almost certainly known of by Valve. Quite aside from forum posts and an official website (now defunct), J conducted an interview with ModDB and maintained a page of the Valve Developer Community. It would seem they either held a license, or perhaps more likely had some form of agreement with Valve that ensured them one at a later date, when they had the proof-of-concept Campaigns complete. Whatever the case may be, Valve did not respond to any of our requests for information — feel free to draw your own conclusion from that.

Valandil Trebuchet.
Valandil’s physics-powered Trebuchet.

The response to the forum blitz was not, it would seem, as positive as J had hoped. Despite further replies on several of the better-received posts cajoling people to join up and giving precise instructions for doing so, modders and cynical developers just weren’t ready to join a new company that was somehow carving an MMO out of a FPS engine. They didn’t even know the game’s name, and in the end a mere five people were taken on.

Those recruited were swiftly placed into different ‘divisions’ based on their expertise, with little inter-communication. Indeed, nobody with whom I spoke knew how many others had been involved, and few were familiar with those outside their own division other than their fellow leads.

Each division was set to work building prototypes from the Source SDK. Pål Trefall, my main contact for this article, was one of the first recruits thanks to his extensive design documentation on medieval mêlée combat systems. He recounts how his coding division began its prototypes with his own, pre-existing targeting design that was to become the basis of Campaigns’ camera.

This prototyping continued, but after three months and a string of further recruitment posts development was still crawling.

So the net was cast further afield.

Expansion: Valandil and Hoplites

In the August of 2005, Valandil was an established mod with plenty of attention going its way. Yet, as the then co-lead Greg Chadwick explains to me, behind the cheery façade it was falling apart. The thirty-strong team had just split up, with two members forming Age of Chivalry and more following shortly after. “We weren’t getting stuff done”, Chadwick recalls, “and the team was divided on various gameplay issues”.

There didn’t seem to be much time before the entire project collapsed. It was into this atmosphere that J arrived with the lure of Campaigns, and it isn’t hard to see why the approach (this time in private and more detailed) was taken up by Chadwick, main lead Bill Lowe and a handful of the team’s artists. NDAs and other legal documents were signed, and Valandil was swiftly merged into Realms of Valhallon.

At this point production shifted from prototyping to a demo for the Valhallon’s future publishers, incorporating ideas from Trefall’s design documents and Valandil’s existing project. The scammers were looking for a publisher for Campaigns, but the team believed the search to be for Nations.

Each division worked separately from both each other, and, J ensured, the nonexistent professionals working in the equally nonexistent Ruccus offices. And for good reason. Among the senior staff listed on the private developer Wiki were Deus Ex’s Harvey Smith, Big Huge Games’ Michael Gates, Daniel Gilbert from NovaLogic and Richard Cooke, who has worked on a variety of big-name games. Aside from never seeing their work, supposedly all for Nations, the team were warned against contacting them externally.

“J had created a very believable story for Harvey”, Pål recalls, “making up a story of him involving himself secretly with our project while he was still working at Midway”. Similar tales were spun for the other developers, none of whom had any idea of their fictitious involvement.

During October, a second mod team was contacted. This time it was Matt Taylor’s Hoplites, which like Valandil had seen stalled production. The only two active team members, Taylor, a modeller, designer and concept artist, and his texture artist companion Ecno, were swiftly brought on board. Taylor was promoted to lead of the modelling division.

Then, suddenly, everything changed.

The Turnaround

Start of #Developers buffer: Wed Oct 12 18:46:11 2005

[16:09] * Now talking in #Developers
[16:09] * Justin^Out is now known as Justin^Music
[16:50] <Matt^modeller> almost meeting time
[16:50] <Justin^Music> yes it is
[17:00] <Matt^modeller>
[17:00] <Matt^modeller> trying to come up with a lil different design for the heavy's greaves.
[17:00] <Justin^Music> nice
[17:01] <Matt^modeller> I could just drop another knee pad ontop of the heavy's greave
[17:01] <Matt^modeller> That'd probably look nicer
[17:03] <Matt^modeller> oh maybe have some protection over the boot.
[17:11] <J^Director> Hello all
[17:11] <Justin^Music> hey :)
[17:11] <J^Director> I'll assume everyone's here
[17:11] <J^Director> :D
[17:11] <J^Director> The Americans at least
[17:12] <J^Director> Alright, we're going to go over some of the changes happening with the project
[17:12] <J^Director> Most basically, in one way or another the project is becoming commercial
[17:12] <J^Director> That means that we'll be turning a profit on campaigns
[17:13] <J^Director> And it therefore warrants  a budget
[17:13] <J^Director> We have been speaking with a potential investor who is interested in publishing Campaigns
[17:13] <J^Director> I have been specifically asked to construct a budget for the project
[17:13] <J^Director> Which will include some middleware
[17:13] <J^Director> Advertising
[17:14] <J^Director> Distribution
[17:14] <J^Director> And other things
[17:14] <J^Director> The part that I need feedback on is payment for developers
Dystopia poster
Team Dystopia were also approached by J.

The above meeting took place shortly after J founded Pax Belum. Unlike Ruccus, Pax was a real company, or at least would have been had the paperwork gone through in time, suggesting that not only was the investor mentioned during the conversation real, but that he or she was serious enough to make the con gang turn their scam into a legitimate project.

It might be argued that the motivation for this change was an attempt to access the team’s bank accounts, but given that many members were still in school at the time that seems unlikely. What’s more, it was during this period that J entered ultimately unsuccessful negotiations to purchase Dystopia: part of his failure being, in the words of Dystopia lead Robert ‘Fuzzy’ Crouch, that J “wanted [the] teams to merge and all work on a number of projects”. He and his team, however, “felt that we were better off focusing on Dystopia on our own”. Troy: Divine Playground was contacted but declined their offer likewise.

There is only one conclusion to be drawn. The team, and it must be said the gang themselves, had worked so hard and so well that it had become more profitable to pay each division for its work and form a legitimate company than to take the goods and run.

The move meant big changes, as you might expect. There was now money at stake and a new milestone system was introduced to regulate its flow: each milestone, such as a complete set of team models, was worth a set amount of money. 60% of each packet would go to the division lead, and the rest was to be shared out between the other modders working within it. Sixty percent may seem like a large amount, especially sixty percent of several hundred dollars each time, but as J warned during the meeting “it [would] be normal for the lead to do most of the work”.

“It had become more profitable to form a company than to take the goods and run”

This extra workload was largely because of the increasingly impossible demands placed on the team, not to mention J’s consistently high standards. The final coding budget included twenty-one engine and game-level milestones, and was expected within a year with a negotiated four to five hours of work per day from each coder. In comparison to a full-time development job this might not seem like much, but was a good deal more work than any of the team had bargained for when signing up. “We can’t work on this seven hours a day”, Pål despaired at one point during a chat with J.

Similar demands were made for the other divisions, and Matt Taylor recalls the expectation of “an army” of six normal mapped and textured models a month from his modelling group.

However, no money would ever change hands. Before any of the milestones could be completed, and fortunately before any of the contracts sent to the team could be signed, the deception was revealed.

Armistice’s End

On the 14th of November 2005, Harvey Smith’s reply came exactly as Pål had feared. He did not have an AIM name called “RoV ADirector”. He had made no lengthy posts. He had never play-tested their systems. And he had never spoken to any of them about bow systems, although they did sound fun. In other words, the act was over.

“I took it rather calm”, Trefall tells me. “I was honestly feeling a mixture of dumbness and relief. Of course, it was a dream shattered as well, but that came in the followup reaction, not in the immediate one. I contacted Bill and a few others I knew had worked on mods or had come onto the project after I joined. We agreed that we’d get a lawyer on J and wouldn’t tell him anything before we knew all there was to know.”

And so Realms of Valhallon came to an end. Background checks revealed that neither Ruccus nor Pax Belum existed, Matt Taylor’s father, lawyer for an American senator, sent a Cease & Desist to a residential address mentioned on one of the Ruccus contracts, and Taylor himself was nominated to confront J with the group’s findings — an “awesome” chatlog frustratingly lost at some point in the intervening months. Finally, it was agreed among the team that they would shift their focus back to Valandil, taking with them the work on Realms of Valhallon that was so nearly signed over to J. Trefall, Chadwick, Taylor and many of their division members are now at work on the reborn project under its new name: Atharon: Armistice’s End. Bill Lowe, who became burnt out and moved on, has been the only true casualty.

But now that the team are working independently again, it has rapidly become clear just how supportive J was. “J had been an excellent leader,” Pål says, “Always available, always eager, always full of energy. He was pretty much online all the time, twenty hours a day. It was very difficult picking up the leadership position after him for Bill and myself”. Taylor gives similar praise: “with the amount of time [J] put into it everything was really well organized…I’ve never been on a more productive team”. There is no doubt that — fraudster career path aside — J, or rather those behind that name, had a very positive impact on the modders they conned for five months. From them, and from their absence, the current Atharon team has learnt the value of strong leadership, how to organise a large project, and how to consistently produce quality work under strict deadlines. It is a curiously sunny outcome from what could well have become a waste of years of the team’s lives.

“A dream one has put a lot of effort into making real…”

This happy ending leads me to one final question for each of the division heads. What if the group had come clean when founding Pax Belum and turning the con into a genuine enterprise? Admitted that they had mislead the team, and sincerely wishing to change their ways? Would they continue working on their labour of love for a group of people who deceived them, but were now offering a genuine entry path to the industry and prestigious jobs?

The Atharon Conspiracy ends with their answers.

Pål Trefall (code)

“Based on the fact that he started to give us more and more unrealistic deadlines, ridiculous deadlines actually, and that he wanted us to work with him on creating the feature document for an engine he wanted built for the game…I think I’d say no if I could get the others with me like I did. Of course, there is a question of morale here, but also an answer to a dream one has put a lot of effort into making real.”

Greg Chadwick (code)

“I probably wouldn’t have taken him up on the offer. He’d have to re-earn my trust in some way.”

Matt Taylor (modelling)

“Definitely. I joined the project originally under the idea that would all be volunteer work, so the prospect of getting paid was just a bonus. This is what I want to do with my life.”

About this article

The Atharon Conspiracy was first published at ModDB on the 24th of May 2006, after around a month of research and writing. Not surprisingly, it attracted the attention of the group in question, but despite its positive closing notes, and even compliments, their ire came along for the ride. Although their arguments and threats were clearly empty and hollow, ModDB decided to take the article down rather than risk being seen in any form of legal trouble — even fake legal trouble — by its sponsors and partners.

The group’s Pax Belum website reappeared shortly after their threats to ModDB were sent, unintentionally revealing that they were indeed continuing work on what I can only assume to be a legitimate game, as a proper and legal company. At the same time however, they wiped all information concerning Realms of Valhallon under their control from the web, probably trying to hide their past from investors.

A long period of silence followed, with the article hosted at its current address. In June 2007 I was contacted by J and asked to remove the “unfair and frankly maliciously libelous” piece — I refused, as no factual argument had been presented, instead suggesting a compromise where the article would be made anonymous if proof could be provided that the behaviour it documents was a thing of the past. The offer was not acknowledged and I heard nothing until the following September, at which point J claimed to be “in talks with a lawyer and drafting a Cease and Desist letter”.

After I had asked for time to arrange representation of my own, J decided that we were “not getting anywhere” and agreed to reach compromise. I was happy with the facts presented to me over the next few days and replaced the article with its current, anonymous version on the basis that it was no longer necessary to identify J; that he was not exploiting others.

--Tom Edwards, 12 Jul 2006 & 1 October 2007