by Great Bob
At the age of 15, some of us are given permission to drive the family car. If your name happens to be Peter A. Baumann, your dad lets you start a MMORPG. Herein lies the tale of Red Dragon Software, and the greatest story of vaporware in the short history of Massively Multiplayer Online Role-playing Games.
In 1999, people began hearing of a new game to hit the market. The game planned for a capacity of nearly a million users. It promised a land mass hundreds of times larger than any other MMORPG on the market. The FAQ read as if written by customers who had left EQ or UO dissatisfied. Red Dragon Software would give us multiple player races, housing space for everyone, the ability to influence the politics of the world. It seemed to be the Holy Grail the community was looking for. By December of 1999, over 500 people would have sent in fifty dollars to play in the beta. By January they would be screaming for refunds. Today only the web site, and a burnt out husk of a message board seem to remain.
"Chuck", not his real name for fear of legal reprisals, remembers the first time he heard of Rune Conquest. "A coworker showed me the site. Both of us had quit UO, and we were looking for something new. I just wish that we hadn't found that." Chuck wasn't alone. Over 500 people sent Red Dragon Software 50 dollars to take part in the beta test. Many more waited on the sidelines for the chance to play.
The FAQ for the game looked too good to be true. It promised that between 5,000 and 100,000 players would be able to play at once on the same "sphere". Red Dragon Software would be maintaining over 5 spheres, with a plan to go up to 20 within the first year. They promised graphics to surpass any current game. How good would the graphics be? Well, according to the games FAQ "I would like to remind these players that even if you DO have to drop the graphical quality of Rune Conquest down to that of Asheron's Call, or even lower Rune Conquest will still be more fun.". Better graphics than Asheron's Call? But what about trade skills? Once again, the FAQ; " Some of Rune Conquest's MANY actual "trade" skills include: Armor Craft, Weapon Craft, Glass Blowing, Alchemy, Weaving, Carpentry, Architecture, Gem Cutting, Jeweling [sic], Taxidermy, Tailoring, Stone Cutting, Sculpting, Mining, Enchanting, Lumberjacking, Farming, Ranching, Bow Crafting/Fletching, Basic Metal Craft, Advanced Metal Craft, Canvas Painting, Object Painting, Tinkering, Pottery, Fishing, and Tanning." They even promised housing for everybody. With multiple player races, and superb Player vs. Player combat options, this seemed like the next step in the market.
What kind of company could make a game like that to compete against games published by Electronic Arts, Sony and Microsoft? In the case of Red Dragon Software, it would be a golf supply distribution company and the owner's 15 year old son. Peter Baumann Sr. describes himself as a multi millionaire whose first company "invented and sold the first cordless phone" (much to the surprise of the folks at AT+T). His son was 15 years old and according to the father, "He wants to "home school" ASAP so he can work full time on his computer games. He's designed five to date. He has attended private schools all his (short) life. Next Spring he's going to take the California High School Proficiency Test so he can graduate High School two years early." At the time of this article, the five games in question are unknown. At one point, Peter Jr. brought to his Father an idea for a company. With Ultima Online taking in over 1.7 million dollars a month in subscriptions alone, why not tap into that market?
By December of '99, some would wonder if the company ever really existed at all.
While many of us were sitting down for Thanksgiving dinner, others were getting exciting about the beta test for Rune Conquest. It was the end of November, and the beta was going to start in just over a month. The ride was about to get very bumpy.
"For me, I started getting suspicious when they posted the screenshots" says "Chuck". "At first they were reluctant to do so…and then when they did it just made things worse." For a game that promised to blow the competition away graphics wise, the screenshots would begin to open a can of worms that wouldn't ever be closed. The screenshots were in 8-bit graphics, with the textures taken directly from Quake. Peter Baumann Jr., posting under the name of "The Dark One" on the message boards, along with his father, who posted using the alias "PURESTROKE", would offer an explanation. The poor quality of the screenshots, according to Baumann, was because of a malfunctioning graphics card. If that was the case, why not just go out and pick up a Voodoo card? As Baumann would write in a message, "the 8-bit screenshots are something that we are dealing with. I would like to explain to those of you who do not understand how corporations work the reasons behind our graphics cards malfunctioning. You see, big corporations have to order hardware like this in bulk in order to get reasonable prices for all of the hardware. This is what Red Dragon did. Most of the graphics cards we received from a company I will not name here do not work."
An odd explanation, to be sure, but enough of one for people to send in money to RDS.
You see, RDS was doing something unheard of in the MMORPG industry. It was going to charge people to take part in the Beta. For 50 dollars, not only would the beta testers be allowed in the first round of testing, but they were making an investment. Players who gave RDS money would be given deity powers inside the game… powers they could keep even after the game opened for good.
"Call it what you will: blind faith, wanting to be part of an elitist group, or just hoping to be a part of something really special" said Chris Roth, one of the people who paid for the beta, "I am proud to say that I pre-ordered a game based on the hope that it will be all that the makers said it will be." Others weren't so sure.
"Was I stupid for sending money in?" asks Chuck. "I guess part of it was that I was greedy. Look how much rare items sell for on eBay. If I was given special privileges, I thought that I could make a fortune selling my account down the road. Besides, I was still excited about the game. Every interview they posted on their site promised something new and exciting. Besides, what kind of company would charge for a product that didn't actually exist, at least in some form?"
What exactly did exist? The similarity between the screenshots and Quake wouldn't be the only one noticed. On the website was a picture of a dragon. For some it was a very familiar dragon, one that they had seen before… from a Dungeons and Dragons game. For a game that promised hundreds and hundreds of creatures, why would they have a stolen image of a dragon? There was also a question of music files they had on the site. The game promised hour after hour of original music. Good music, too. Not the repetitive "adventure" music found in other MMORPG games. Why then were the only music files on the site MP3s of public domain songs of pop and heavy metal acts of the eighties? If the game was going to go to beta in a month, where is the content?
Did Red Dragon Software even exist at all? One poster presented his case that it didn't.
"Neither Pure Stroke Golf, nor Red Dragon Software exist as corporations in the state of California. (or any other state under the names Pete Baumann, or Chris Anderson.) Pete Baumann owns corporations in Florida, Texas, Minnesota, California, Colorado, etc. Why would he not incorporate Pure Stroke Golf and Red Dragon Software?" reported one person in an e-mail sent to Mastersage, a web site operator of an Ultima Online related site. "Pure Stroke has supposedly been in business since 1991. The web page was registered on October 4th at Network Solutions, Inc. Both sites are registered to Mr. Chris Anderson, [web master and programmer allegedly working on the game] and not to Pure Stroke Golf, Red Dragon Software, or even Pete Baumann."
Peter Baumann would be able to refute these claims, but eventually the domain registration process would come back to haunt him.
Most of us in the business world have heard the expression "the customer is always right". In Peter Baumann's world, the customer was always a child… a vicious child out to destroy his life's work.
"Once again, we have an anonymous individual who is afraid to identify himself (or herself)." ranted Pete after a poster on a message board questioned the policy of paying for a beta test. " $50 to beta test? NO! $50 for additional benefits that no-one else will receive, benefits that may be worth a lot in a few years, at no risk! How old are you, Falenkai? Do you have any business experience? What is your success story? Like I thought, NONE!"
This would be the side of Peter Baumann the customers would see from now on. Gone were the days of discussion between RDS and the fan base. Now was the time for angry recriminations. Soon RDS would begin to eat their own.
"Who is Blueknight?" Peter Jr. asked about one detractor "I'm pretty sure I know who he is. Two months ago we interviewed about 35 potential new programmers for Rune Conquest. We…almost hired one in particular, we even entered into a contract with him to give him stock in our company if he came on board…but the more we checked out their references, the more we suspected a scam. We ended up not hiring them, especially when we caught one of them trying to steal company secrets about Rune Conquest. Now to the present. My dad has friends at the FBI, and as I am typing this response to the supposed doubting-Thomases, my dad is talking to his agent friend as to how they will track down Blueknight and make him pay for his actions...effective immediately we are 1) starting a search for Blueknight and his associates, 2) instructing our attorneys to prepare a civil action against them (in the event the Feds do not proceed with criminal action"
Another incident occurred when one of the potential Rune Conquest players filled out a phony form for a piece of golf equipment at Peter Baumann's other site. "Pure Stroke Golf will issue $1,000 in stock in Red Dragon Software, Inc. to the first person who identifies the moron who submitted the above order on the Pure Stroke website," proclaimed Peter on a public forum. "You game players on the Rune Conquest Zone forum seem to think I, Pete Baumann, treat you with disrespect. When idiots like the child who filled out the above order sheet act like children, you'll have to excuse me if I don't take some of you seriously."
All this was nothing compared to what his own employee would receive.
Chris Anderson is a web server owner who does hosting for assorted companies. In October of 1999 Peter Baumann approached Chris to host a web site for his golf company. Chris went and registered the domain names in his own name. Chris was also brought on board, apparently to work as a programmer for Rune Conquest (his exact role, however, remains unclear even today.) Eventually Peter demanded the domain names be turned over to him instead.
"I am posting this message to let you all know that I Chris Anderson and My Wife Laurie Anderson feel as though our lifes have been now threatened by Mr. Pete Baumann." Posted Chris on the message forum. "Mr. Baumann seems to need mental help and if anything is to happen to my wife and I, I want you to know who is responsible for it!…I now feel our lifes are in danger and have hired help but I'm afraid he is capable of more than a simple court suit. I have deleted both of his web sites and plan on keeping you all posted daily in the event he try's physical harm to my family. This is NOT A JOKE!"
It may have been paranoid, but in Chris' mind, it wasn't a joke. Why did he feel his life threatened? We may never actually know, but within a few hours, and a conversation with Peter Baumann, Chris recanted his post. Legal issues would continue.
Peter Baumann claims that Chris Anderson, when he left, took with him all the files needed to maintain the Rune Conquest web site. The web site would be down for over a month while the situation was resolved. While this was taking place, the date for the beta test came and went.
While Peter claimed a dispute over missing files had delayed the beta test, other questions were coming up. The most pressing question of all once again involved the screenshots. While many people noticed the similarity between the original Quake engine and the screenshots, other noticed something even more damning.
Those exact screenshots had been used by somebody else….a program called A4, from 3-D Gamestudio.
What is A4? A4 is a 3-d development engine, for those learning how to program in a 3-d environment. The screenshots, according to those who owned a copy of the program, were unmodified shots from the shareware version of the engine.
With the date for the beta test past, people were forced to wonder if there was even the beginning of an engine. Some rushed to Rune Conquests defense, mentioning how the professional version of the A4 engine was being used by a game called "Unknown", and that it did indeed support multiplayer options. Others pointed out that even if that was true, the multiplayer option in the engine wouldn't be able to handle even a thousand players….let alone the 100,000 advertised by Rune Conquest.
More damning, why use screenshots from a demo program included with the engine? If they were within even 2 years of actually going to beta, why wasn't there an original screenshot? Why claim that the engine for Rune Conquest was written from scratch, when evidence suggested a situation much to the contrary?
A cry went up from the beta testers.
"When we wanted a refund" says Chuck "it took forever for them to get around to offering me one." Others would decide to stick with them.
"I guess the main deciding factor in staying with them" says Chris Roth "is that I wanted to be part of something special. I like being part of a select group of people who showed support for an upcoming game by ordering it in advance, even when a completion date has not been set. Paying $50 to get into a project that could become an outstanding online role playing game seemed to me a small price to pay. I still have great hope for this game and very much want to be a part of it." When was the last time he heard from RDS? "I last received an email from them on the first week of March. It was talking about the email they sent in late February saying they were canceling the preorders and giving everyone a refund (an email which I never received), and then how because of the outcry from the pre-order folks, decided not to cancel after all. Since then I have sent them 2 emails, one a suggestion and the other to report a change of email address. I have not received a reply regarding either email that I have sent. I am disappointed with the lack of consistent updates, but from what I have read they are having some trouble with this Chris Anderson guy, so I am hoping things ill pick up once that mess is ironed out."
Nietzsche would respond, "Hope, in reality, is the worst of all evils, because it prolongs the torments of man."
What is the status of Red Dragon Software, and their flagship product Rune Conquest? It seems that only 15 year old Peter Baumann Jr. holds the answer. Speculation abounds amongst those who were a pert of this story. Even today, some will hold to the position that there never was a Red Dragon Software in the first place. Others believe that if there was a scam perpetrated, that it was by Peter Jr. on his own father, giving him false expectations about a product that could not be delivered. Talk to others, and it was the father trying to scam money from a customer base he knew little about.
Finally there are those who believe that there is still a game there… a game that, if it ever gets released, will be everything that was promised.
allegedly a developer on the game, no longer responds to e-mail
messages or ICQ. The message board hasn't be used for months. The web
site, now back up, has removed some things from their FAQ, removed the
music files, the stolen art work, and still promises that a game will
be released. E-mail sent to RDS remains unanswered. Chris Anderson has
vanished, his phone disconnected. "Chuck" has yet to receive his
refund, while Chris Roth, and players like him, still wait for the day
that the beta begins.