Back to the Future. What’s Next for Legacy Games?

I’m two months into my new/old job as CEO of Legacy Games. How’s the company doing?

I feel a bit like an archeologist, carefully searching through past history to come up with a theory of who Legacy is and where it needs to go. Warning – This won’t be a quick read. It’s a four part blog, paralleling the different phases of Legacy Games. I’ll try to parse out what worked, and didn’t work, and how those learnings are driving my current decision making about next steps with Legacy.

Emergency Room – Lessons Learned

Twenty three years is an eternity in video games. That is how long ago I founded Legacy Games. Everything was sold on physical discs and at retail. The company began by selling a PC CDROM game called Emergency Room, one of the first medical simulations in the market. Players could use up to 50 different tools to diagnose or treat any of 400 different diagnoses. My best friend from college was an ER doctor in San Diego, and helped us create cases that could be enjoyed and played by the average retail consumer.

I was surprised by the product’s success. The timing, which was completely accidental, couldn’t have been better. We originally launched our game, under a different company name, in the same month and year as the hit TV show ER, (September, 1995). Warner Bros. was not happy with us, but luckily I had trademarked the name, which we still own, before the game launched.

Video game development is like Vegas. A first-time gambler will hopefully lose at least a little because if they don’t, they will chase the winning lottery ticket the rest of their lives. My initial experience with Emergency Room may explain why later, I struggled to shut down failing games and walk away from so-so opportunities. I always thought that with a little bit more money and/or work, we could hit the jackpot, like we did with our first game.

On the other hand, because of Emergency Room’s success, I learned to trust my own judgment in terms of the kinds of games that a retail customer would buy. And who was the customer anyway? To everyone’s surprise, many of the units were actually sold to women – a fascinating factoid, given that most people at the time didn’t believe that women played games. The industry catered almost exclusively to the male core gamer, with games like Half Life and Baldur’s Gate. But this knowledge encouraged me to want to create more products that would appeal to game player’s like myself. (Given the arc of my career, one could say I over-learned that lesson!)

I learned about the power of brands. Even though Emergency Room was not based on the TV show ER, the two catapulted to success at the same time. In those days, a popular network show could garner 24+ million viewers each week. The buzz associated with ER was huge, and our little simulation was a beneficiary of that popularity. It certainly sparked retail buyers’ interest and opened up distribution channels that we wouldn’t have otherwise expected to penetrate.

I also learned about the importance of sequels in the games business. We fed the appetite for more medical cases by coming out with new retail boxes every six months – Emergency Room 2 and 3, Emergency Room: Code Blue, Emergency Room: Disaster Strikes, Emergency Room: Real Life Rescues, Emergency Room: Heroic Measures. After that, we created among the first animal doctor games such as Pet Pals and Zoo Vet. You get the idea. It was a little insane, but we kept “the little engine that could” going, for about five years.

The biggest mistake made with Emergency Room is that we picked the wrong platform to develop on. I naively thought it was enough to have a great game concept. Emergency Room was built using an authoring tool similar to Flash. The code was buggy. Sometimes the video or audio wouldn’t play. It was slow. Maybe this doesn’t sound too scary anymore, with soft launches and endless beta trials. But back then, you pressed 100,000 discs, put them in boxes, and crossed your fingers that it would work on most of the many different operating systems and configurations. I shudder to remember those all-nighters, testing build after build. What customers put up with back then…

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Each Emergency Room sequel sold about 10% less than the preceding one; it became clear that we needed to come up with a new game concept. Then a crazy thing happened. I was attending a benefit dinner for a local charity, and ended up sitting next to one of the most prolific Hollywood producers at the time. In a long career that is characterized by good fortune, that was the luckiest thing that ever happened to me. But that’s a story for next time…