Vapor war

Info:Correction Date: 05/06/1999
Vapor war
ION Storm's Daikatana still isn't out, but several legal filings are
By Christine Biederman

For a bunch that set out to have the highest profile in the $2.5 billion-a-year, in-your-face computer-game business, the silence has been deafening. In fact, if you strain hard enough, you can almost hear the noise of industry coming from the top floor of Chase Tower, the penthouse offices of Dallas game developer ION Storm.

Sure, the delivery date of the software company's long-delayed game Daikatana has slipped again--officially, from "this spring" to "summer." (ION's publisher says it will be autumn before it's out.) But there are definite signs of progress. A demo of Daikatana's multiplayer capability, which will allow players to face one another head-to-head in the first-person shoot-'em-up, was finally released. It was a month late, and the industry response was less than rousing, but it was released. Few journalists have been invited into the penthouse of late; even industry publications such as Gameweek have been sent home without interviews.

"My comments to the guys at ION have always been, 'Just shut up and finish the games,'" says Rob Dyer, president of Eidos Interactive, the U.S. division of London-based games publisher Eidos plc. Eidos is the company that has by now fronted nearly $30 million to ION in anticipation of heavy sales for Daikatana and other ION creations. Dyer refused to comment on a rumored Eidos deal to make ION an in-house development wing. "I'm going to let the games speak for themselves," says Dyer, referring other questions to London.

But behind the scenes, in courthouses and boardrooms across the city, another sort of gaming continues. Last month, ION filed amended lawsuit pleadings suggesting that Eidos may be close to pulling the plug. ION's suit alleges that last November's walkout of the Daikatana development team "jeopardized [ION's] relationship with Eidos and caused Eidos to restructure its business venture with [ION]."

According to people in a position to know, Eidos may acquire 51 percent of ION, making ION more or less a part of Eidos. But the same sources say that ION's remaining shareholders--John Romero, Todd Hall, Jerry O'Flaherty, Todd Porter, and Warren Spector--will not get rich from the deal, which apparently involves no cash. Instead, Eidos will forgive a portion of its advances to the developers in exchange for its chunk of ION--a move that will enable Eidos to keep closer tabs on ION's operations.

ION Storm President and Chief Executive Officer Todd Porter did not return calls seeking comment on the deal or on his future with the developer. Two weeks ago, Gamespot, a gaming news Web site run by computer-industry publisher Ziff-Davis, suggested that if the Eidos deal goes through, "changes affecting top-level management at ION [are] also likely." (In response to Gamespot's inquiries, Porter denied that Eidos was " investment" in ION.) And, as the Dallas Observer reported in its cover story on ION's problems ("Stormy Weather," January 14), Porter's talent for surviving putsches should never be underestimated.

Gamespot also reported that ION's business and marketing departments would be eliminated.

For now, though, the surest sign that Porter is still in charge can be found in courthouse pleadings. In March, ION amended its countersuit against former ION partner and chief operating officer Robert G. Wright III. The new suit alleges that Wright breached his fiduciary duties to the company in a number of imaginative ways. ION still claims that Wright was the instigator of dissension among the ranks, and specifically, that he encouraged the Daikatana production team to demand Porter's head.

ION now, however, claims that Wright and his wife instigated the Observer's unflattering cover story on the palace intrigue that has plagued ION. The petition also seems to hint that Wright was behind the November 1998 resignations of the Daikatana development team--a charge that Porter made to the Observer but offered no evidence of.

Apparently, ION is still fishing for who slipped copies of Porter's company e-mails to the Observer. In January, ION subpoenaed the Observer to appear at a deposition and reveal the names of its confidential sources--a request that this reporter respectfully declined, invoking the reporter's privilege 81 times.

Its pleadings reveal that ION is betting, "on information and belief," that the e-mail culprit(s) were one or more members of the departed Daikatana team. The team is now known as "Third Law" and ensconced at Gathering of Developers, the company former ION CEO Mike Wilson set up when he was ousted in a Porter-led coup. Unfortunately for ION, so far in depositions every member of Third Law has denied being an e-mail source for the Observer.

Still, the depositions have revealed some interesting tidbits: For example, Todd Porter's e-mails were not password-protected. Moreover, a number of current ION employees and Porter loyalists were among the possible suspects, having saved the e-mails to disk and taken them home.

ION also accuses Wright of goldbricking and "drinking to excess," as well as secretly manipulating the Observer into doing a negative story on ION "while at the same time appearing to distance himself from the situation." Wright performed this ventriloquist act, the petition suggests, by manipulating his wife, criminal lawyer Elizabeth Miller, into acting "as a subterfuge" for him.

Contacted at work, Wright declined comment on the allegations; Miller did not return the Observer's calls. Attorneys for ION, in turn, did not return calls asking what evidence, if any, they had to support these allegations.

Of course, the suit--which is scheduled for trial on June 1 but will likely be delayed--is young, and there are additional people to be deposed. Among them is Wilson, another ex-ION partner and Porter rival. "Fuck 'em," says Wilson, when asked about the legal wrangling. "Did I mention that I wasn't paying the slightest bit of attention?"

Last month, Porter became a runner-up for Gamespot's "Coaster" award, given annually to the worst computer game released. This time, Porter took top dishonors in the strategy/war genre for Dominion: Storm Over Gift 2, which was released last summer. Porter was a Coaster winner in 1997 for G-Nome, a previous real-time strategy game.

In last week's Dallas Observer, Christine Biederman's story "Vapor wars" contained three errors. The story should have said that Tom Porter--not Todd--is a shareholder in the computer game company ION Storm. The correct title of an earlier ION game is Dominion: Storm over Gift 3--not Gift 2. The game G-Nome is a first-person shooting game, not a real-time strategy game. We apologize for the errors.