The Mindwarp was not your usual Sim game from Maxis, and should have been their first proper foray into the realm of action-based titles back in 1997. It should have also been simply called “Mindwarp”, had it not been for someone at Maxis’ main office accidently appending “The” to the front!
Developed by Maxis’ satellite office in Salt Lake City (originally the Virtual Arts group, which had been acquired by Maxis and turned into Maxis Labs), The Mindwarp was best described as a mixture of Descent and Microcosm, with organic-like structures throughout. One potentially exciting feature at the time was with the tunnels that reconfigured themselves, based on how well you are playing. It had been unclear for some time though about the actual story to the game, and what exactly you were meant to do. The press also seemed confused at the time.
Some suggested that you controlled a Synaptic Probe within an alien brain, shooting antibodies, and where you battled against computer or human controlled opponents using high levels of strategy. Others suggested that you controlled a space ship swallowed up by an organic entity called The Mindwarp, and must find a series of Dream Fragments to join together to unlock the secrets of the entity you are within. The latter would end up being the closest overall, with someone actually listening to Maxis it seems.
Technical Art lead Lance Thornblad would explain to Games That Weren’t exactly what it was all about. “The Mindwarp was a single-player maze-like game in a twisting tube structure (like Wipeout, but fully enclosed).”, he began. “Unlike Descent, there was gravity that would keep the player on the bottom of the tube and magnetized, but they could do a corkscrew around the top with enough momentum. The player had various weapons that would fire projectiles down the walls of the tube and could also jump to shoot down the center when encountering floating enemies.”
“The sci-fi story was about an alien mind made up of tubes that had pulled dream fragments from human consciousness.”, continued Lance. “You played an astronaut turned cyborg-like character that looked like something from an anime with blasters instead of forearms. The main objective for each level was to gather the fragments and return them to a dream pool. The dream fragments were these floating, ghostly objects. There were a variety of enemies that slid or ran on the tube walls and they were meant to be manifestations of dreams and nightmares.”
“We had intended for an ecosystem to become apparent, where some of the creatures hunted others.”
“There were creatures that inhabited these tunnels, some were aggressive and others were passive.”, added artist and level designer Derek Mebius (who Lance had interviewed and recommended to work on Mindwarp). “We had intended for an ecosystem to become apparent, where some of the creatures hunted others. Eventually the idea was that these tunnels were revealed to be part of a larger living entity that was part organic and part cybernetic. Each level had the player searching out the ‘dream fragments’ that had to be assembled in the pool before access to the next level was granted.”
Certainly from the screenshots shown at the time, the game looked full of promise. Lance felt the custom built Maxis engine was in the same class as that of Quake and Descent. The engine was not just limited either to creating Descent-like titles, and was utilized in SimCopter as well. Lance was not keen to name who worked on the project with him (in case anyone wished to remain anonymous) – so as a result, we only know of Garrett Smith (artist), Derek Mebius (artist/level builder) and of course Lance himself at this stage.
Although the game was still some way off completion, the press started reporting on it during 1996, showing off early screenshots in some cases. The game was apparently showcased at shows such as the Spring 1996 ECTS, and adverts were also printed – of which Lance was not particularly keen on. “There was a full-page advert done with little to no consultation with the team.”, he recalled. “The HORRIBLE advert had a spiral effect that said ‘The Mindwarp Will Suck You In’ over and over. Guess how the largest text was cropped?…” Surely the adverts were not a premonition? Or were they?
Although seemingly progressing well enough, behind the scenes was a different story, with clues to this originally found via a grainy promotional clip of the game on YouTube, where a commenter named Azraelle (who claims to have worked on the game) suggested that its cancellation was probably for the best, as it had been in “development hell” throughout. A games tester at Maxis named Brad also claimed to have seen a playable demo of the game at the time, and recalled it being very buggy.
“A key problem with the game was ultimately an issue of too many cooks in the kitchen. Too many ideas for what the game was supposed to be and not enough consensus on what it actually WAS.”, confirmed Derek. “There was a lack of direction and some of us tried to fill in as best we could, but companies in the mid nineties did not have the patience of publishers today, for good reason.”, added Lance. “The entire production was less than two years, including an office move, hiring a staff, working on a separate game (a golf game, I think), trips to Maxis HQ, etc. All of this was using a work-in-progress software engine that was built from scratch.”
Although struggling, the team pressed on as best as they could, and even began an overhaul of the game to try and save it. Whilst this was underway in 1997, Maxis’ stock was falling and they were eventually acquired by Electronic Arts. “Immediately after that purchase, our studio was shut down.”, recalled Derek. “All assets were then transferred to other departments and eventually forgotten about.”
“In my opinion, the finished and polished game would have been received with similar fanfare and success (to Descent) if not for the production issues.“
It signified the end for The Mindwarp. The game was reported by SEC as looking unlikely to be released, with reports in 1997 confirming that the game was indeed cancelled once EA had fully taken over. It seemed EA lacked confidence in the title due to the ongoing issues, though Lance felt the game just needed more time. “In my opinion, the finished and polished game would have been received with similar fanfare and success (to Descent) if not for the production issues.”, he reflected.
The Mindwarp wasn’t completely dead and buried though, with an interesting twist when six from the ashes of the Salt Lake City team (including Lance and Derek) would go on to form a new company called VooDoo Technologies. Their first game was to be a sport-based title called VooDooBall, utilizing Mindwarp’s tubular engine, which had been brought from Maxis/EA.
“VooDooBall was nothing like The Mindwarp though, except for just using the same engine and taking place inside of tubes.”, explained Lance. “You could play single-player or against a friend. Essentially, it was a very strange and quirky game of Pong. The ‘ball’ was a spherical, cartoonish head that would grunt and say funny things when you hit it back and forth. The ‘paddles’ were green Hulk-like fists. The entire tube would spin as you moved back and forth to hit the ball and there were all kinds of bizarre power-ups that changed up the game. The levels started straight and simple, but got more corkscrew-like and thus ramped up difficulty. The heads would also swap out for different characters and we hired a really good voice actor to play all the parts.”
Although offered to several publishers, no-one would bite and take it on. Eventually the studio was shut down as a result after running out of money. “It’s a shame we couldn’t sell the game, but publishers saw it as too weird and risky – and they were right – but the game was pretty darned fun!”, sighed Lance.
Over 20 years since the cancellation of both titles, we asked both Lance and Derek if they had anything of either development that could be shared today and preserved. Derek confirmed that he no longer had anything, though suggested that he may have notebooks from his time on The Mindwarp, so will hopefully share more details with us soon. “I ended up with a lot of files, but could not get the game working and this is back when I had the proper equipment.”, Lance separately confirmed. “Even if I could get it working, the legality of me sharing any of it would be questionable. When we started Voodoo Tech, we bought the engine code, but I don’t think that included the rights to the Mindwarp IP.”
Sadly it means that if the game is to surface in some shape or form, it may have to be via other ways. We hope at least for now to try and find the so-called playable demo rumoured to have gone out on a Maxis compilation CD. One press item also suggests that a one level demo was to be hosted on Maxis’ website at the time, though we’re unsure if this ever happened in the end (with the Wayback machine not proving fruitful). Lance is though pretty sure that the rumoured demo was only planned, but never happened and is almost certain that the Maxis one-level demo on the web site never happened, as they were the ones in charge of the page and were shut down beforehand.
In the meantime, we have dug out a large number of screenshots from the game shown in the press, the badly thought-out adverts, the promotional video clips from the Maxis Pinball game CD and various magazine articles from the time. Lance has also contributed a photo of a Mindwarp branded brain-shaped squeeze toy that he still owns and that was given out at a California convention. We then finally have a number of promotional T-Shirt photos, including some from an ex-Maxis employee Kevin O’Hare and with others obtained from an online auction. Check out the gallery and resources area below.
Hopefully one day we will get to experience The Mindwarp for ourselves in some shape or form, with a glimpse of what was going to be a very different genre of game for Maxis, and not quite what you might have expected to see from them back then. It’s a curiosity no doubt, and one that many would love to experience some day.
With thanks to Clint Basinger for suggesting to cover the game, and contributions from Lance Thornblad, Derek Mebius and Kevin O’Hare.