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The History of "The Wheel of Time" Video Game

Updated: Jan 18, 2021

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Released in 1999, The Wheel of Time game is a first-person shooter where players take on the role of an Aes Sedai. Simultaneously adored and maligned by the greater The Wheel of Time fandom, the game is an intersectional point in the history of both the book series and the video game industry.

Developed by the now-defunct Legend Entertainment, The Wheel of Time is built upon the Unreal Engine 1 and featured both single and multiplayer game modes. The single-player mode is a traditionally linear FPS experience with a story worthy of the source material. The game takes place in a Portal World and is set before the books. This provides the game loose canonicity but also allows it to stand alone. The Aes Sedai that players assume is not particularly strong in the One Power. To compensate for this she must use Ter'angreal to defend herself from trollocs and darkfriends.

Lead developer of the game Glen Dahlgren has an excellent write up of his story developing The Wheel of Time published on his blog here. I will summarize his account below, and intersperse it with a letter I obtained from the Rare Books and Special Collections at Northern Illinois University Library sent by Robert Jordan to Legend entertainment. My intent is to form a clear picture of the history with information from both sides. I want to do this because The Wheel of Time game splices my favorite past time, video gaming, with my favorite book series. Further Legend Entertainment's use of the Unreal engine during the development helped pave the way for Epic Games to become one of the largest video game engine licensors and developers in the world. The letter I mentioned provided much of the motivation to complete this article. Given that it is relatively unknown by the fandom, I could not resist sharing it with the community and further promoting what I consider an extremely underrated game.

History of the Developer: Legend Entertainment

Founded in 1989 by Bob Bates and Mike Verdu after the closure of Infocom's development wing by Activision, Legend Entertainment was initially focused on developing text-based adventure games. Between 1990 and the release of The Wheel of Time in 1999 Legend released 15 titles, including the Spellcasting series, Timequest, Death Gate, and Callahan's Crosttime Saloon. Most of their games were either text or graphical based adventure games, a style that was immensely popular through the late 80s and early 90s. Legend built a reputation for their comedic adventures but faced stiff competition from studios like LucasArts. Likely sensing a need to expand their portfolio in 1998 Legend acquired the rights to develop both the expansion and sequel to hugely popular First Person Shooter game, Unreal. This caught the eye of Unreal's publisher, GT Interactive, and in 1998 Legend was acquired by them. This marked a shift toward Legend developing action games. After this acquisition Legend managed to fully develop 2 more games 1999's The Wheel of Time and 2003's Unreal II: The Awakening. Legend also assisted with the development of Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines also released in 2003. GT Interactive was acquired by Infogrames in 1999, renamed Atari Inc in 2003. In early 2004 after the completion of their last projects, Legend Entertain was officially shutdown.

Publisher GT Interactive currently lives in Atari, Inc, while the previous Atari Inc (Infogrames, Inc. the parent holding company) has since renamed to Atari SA.

History of The Wheel of Time video game.

The game began as something of a passion project for Legend game designer Glen Dahlgren. After leading the design on the Gateway and Death Gate games, he began to design a large scale multiplayer experience with interactable NPCs, spy networks, troop management, and player citadels. The idea was novel in the mid-90s. Multiplayer computer games were still in their infancy, but Dahlgren managed to convince management of the potential. Unfortunately, Legend soon acquired by Random House. That's right the book publisher. Lethargic when it came to software and games, Random House was more interested in Legend publishing traditional adventure games based on popular licenses. Fortunately, Dahlgren was previously gifted a copy of The Eye of the World and had devoured the rest of the series up to that point. He decided that if he had to make an adventure game, it would be one he wanted to make. Random House liked the idea of a game based on Jordan's works. Dahlgren posits that they saw it as a way to court him over to their label.

Unfortunately for Random House and Legend, Robert Jordan did not want an adventure game.

In a letter to Legend of Entertainment, Jordan communicated his specific desires for the game to target. We can infer from the content of the letter, though we only have Jordan's response, Legend was initially seeking to make a game staring Rand al'Thor. It is immediately apparent that this causes narrative problems with the books. The game has to be limited to only what is already published or it must be a side-story that will open and close completely separate from the series.

From the Rare Books and Special Collections, Northern Illinois University, Robert Jordan (James O. Rigney, Jr.) to Legend Entertainment, 1995

Jordan was concerned about this approach as it would alienate the game from the main plot of the series. Jordan goes on to explain that he believes the world of the books is the true star of the series and should take the front and center. It becomes less about the character that players. Further, Jordan was unimpressed with the adventure game pitch. He felt that those games had been done to death and was not a fan of that genre.

From the Rare Books and Special Collections, Northern Illinois University, Robert Jordan (James O. Rigney, Jr.) to Legend Entertainment, 1995

He was very interested in the possibilities of a fully explorable 3-D space, with interactive NPCs, and multiple non-linear ways to approach the game. Indeed Jordan's desires seemed to align with what Dahlgren originally wanted to make. Further, Jordan stressed the importance of including playable female characters. He argued that any exclusion of women in video games perpetuated a self-fulling prophecy because “Women do not play games, companies do not make games that feature women.” Jordan fought this mentality by stating that women want to play games but do not engage as often due to the lack of representing them in games. While games have gotten better about including female player characters you can still count on one hand the number of franchises that offer them as the only playable option.

From the Rare Books and Special Collections, Northern Illinois University, Robert Jordan (James O. Rigney, Jr.) to Legend Entertainment, 1995

Unfortunately for Legend, the new game was a hard sell for Random House. A short time later Random House withdrew their investments leaving Legend free, but with no capital. Legend courted the idea around, eventually landing at GT Interactive Software. As in many ambitious projects, features were cut from the game left and right. Much of the features outlined in his original design document were cut wholesale. Storytelling in-game was replaced with cut-scenes par the course for the time. For a time GT provided minimal funding, however when GT acquired Legend the funding increased buying the development team a little more time. The move from in-game storytelling to cut scenes proved challenging. The budget constraints led to a “you get what you pay for” situation with the animation. The first studio contracted produced cut scenes that were very low quality and the studio was constantly falling behind their delivery schedule. Fortunately, Dahlgren was able to find another studio that was able to salvage the work and thus the story of the game.

Upon the game going gold, Dahlgren and Mike Verdu went to meet Jordan and show him the finished game. By both their accounts Jordan was quite pleased with the game.

We played through more of the game, watched more cinematics, and had a good time. Jordan kept repeating that it was "absolutely gorgeous" and that he really appreciated our attention to detail, especially since this activity was very important to him while writing the books. Soon after, he stopped commenting on the game and wanted to talk about possible sequels. He was excited about pushing new areas of technology and implementing some of the untouched and more ambitious design ideas from my original concept. Given that my mind had already started wandering in those directions, I was happy to discuss them. - Dahlgren

Dahlgren's account of Jordan loving the completed game is corroborated by multiple interview snippets that can be found on Theoryland. Jordan was interested in pursuing a sequel with Legend at the helm once their other projects wrapped. However, due to their acquisition by Infogrames and subsequent shutdown, this became an impossibility. Jordan was pleased with Legend's work and impressed that they had to rewrite elements of the Unreal Engine to bring the gameplay more in-line with his wishes.

I like the fact that although the Unreal Engine turned out to be incapable of doing some of the things that I wanted them to do because they knew about these things that I wanted them to do, they were hired to rewrite the Unreal Engine so that it could do the things that I wanted it to do that previously it could not. - Robert Jordan, Interview Database, search term “wot game” Entry 16.

Game and Company: A Crossroads of History

During the development process, Dahlgren was constantly on the lookout for a game engine that could handle the 3-D environments and the freedom of movement within them. This also needed to combine those elements with the complex array of offensive, defensive, and transformative spells (Ter'angreal) that would make up the bulk of combat and world interaction. Both the BUILD (Duke Nukem 3D) and the Quake (Quake) engines were considered as they were mature options with published, or nearly published, titles under their belts. Only the Quake engine was truly 3-D, with BUILD providing the classic 2.5 perspective found in early 90s shooting games. Dahlgren eventually caught wind of a new engine called Unreal developed by a then small outfit call Epic Mega Games. Epic's founder Tim Sweeney was impressed with the concepts that Legend had produced and gave them a copy of the engine to prototype up some levels of The Wheel of Time. Sweeney was so impressed by the prototyping that, according to Dahlgren, this was the moment he realized engine licensing was a viable business.

Regrettably, The Wheel of Time game did not sell well upon release and as a consequence, there are fans of the series who either don't know about it or forgot about it. The game appears to go through various periods of rediscovery, likely driven by new readers to the series searching up information. Despite its failure to sell, the game is an interesting piece of First Person Shooter history as the studio and publisher that worked on it folded into the modern incarnation of Atari. The history is also undeniably tied to the Unreal Engine and franchise from Epic Games and it does appear that many of the lessons learned in this game's development made it into future titles. It is interesting to realize that modern mega-games such as Fortnite and streaming shows like The Mandalorian owe some of their behind-the-scenes technology to lessons learned during the development of The Wheel of Time.

Further Reading: As I mentioned above Glen Dahlgren has an excellent write of his experience with The Wheel of Time on his personal blog. It is a long read so strap in. If you find yourself itching for more he also wrote a short retrospective for the 20th anniversary* of the game last year and has published his original The Wheel of Time Experience Document. Also, I would like to add, that I want to publish the letter I obtained from Jordan to Legend on Theoryland for the greater community to read.

*(Note our beloved Unraveling the Pattern's comment at the bottom of the post)


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