The improbable journey of Impossible Creatures

By Brenna Hillier, Monday, 23 November 2015 07:53 GMT

One man, one game, a tangle of acquisitions and missing rights: it is a love story for the ages.

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Earlier this month, an oft-forgotten Relic game called Impossible Creatures popped up on Steam thanks to publisher Nordic Games.

The release startled laughs of shock and recognition from veteran PC gamers, because Impossible Creatures was one of the first titles Valve used to demonstrate Steam, back before digital distribution was something we took for granted.

The demo probably came about due to Valve and Relic’s friendly relationship; the two both worked with Sierra Online. But somehow, Impossible Creatures never made it to Valve’s platform – until now.

And that’s pretty weird. Impossible Creatures certainly deserves a second look, and it still has an active fanbase, but in general it has been forgotten. Outside of the satisfaction of seeing it finally launch on Steam, it seems an odd choice for a re-mastered released, and it’s not as if Nordic has been in a hurry to move on the many properties it picked up in the auction of THQ’s assets. Why this one, obscure Relic title?

The answer is: someone really liked it.

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That someone is Nordic Games’ Reinhard Pollice. “Before we went into the whole auction process, we did our own research and digging. Impossible Creatures was on my list of titles I thought THQ could possibly have the rights to,” he told us.

“I played it when it first came out and really enjoyed it because of its interesting and new mechanics. It certainly was quite a good RTS game, like everything that comes from Relic.”

Pollice earmarked Impossible Creatures as a potential purchase when the publisher started looking at picking up THQ’s properties, but the situation was more complicated than he expected; first released in 2002, Impossible Creatures pre-dates THQ’s 2004 acquisition of Relic.

“The guys at THQ themselves didn’t even know that they had this title.”

“The guys at THQ themselves didn’t even know that they had this title,” Pollice said.

It turned out that neither THQ nor Microsoft owned the rights: Relic had them all along. Relic itself was sold to Sega, but Nordic managed to snaffle Impossible Creatures.

“It appeared in one of [THQ’s] trademark lists later on and after some requesting we got contract material between Relic and Microsoft, as we knew it was possible that the rights were still with Microsoft,” Pollice explained.

“There was some uncertainty but we were clear that Relic owned the IP so it made sense to include these rights in our THQ transaction.
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Dealing with Microsoft was “straight forward and easy”, Pollice said, but even after sorting the rights out there was still the matter of finding the actual game; it’s an unfortunate reality of the games industry that entire projects are routinely sent to data heaven.

THQ had nothing, but as luck would have it, Relic did. After “some back and forth”, Sega and Relic acknowledged Nordic’s claim to Impossible Creatures and relinquished everything they could dig up.

“Unfortunately this didn’t include the latest source data, but rather a drop from the 1.0 release,” Pollice said.

That means Nordic was missing “a ton of work” Relic did post-launch, notably refining its software development kit (SDK) and creating the Insect Invasion add on.

Relic couldn’t help any further; most of the staff who worked on Impossible Creatures were long gone, as far as Pollice knows, and the studio just didn’t have the data Nordic wanted. Plus, it was busy with its own projects.

Nordic didn’t give up there, though; it was determined to recreate the lost content.

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“We had one in-house developer, Wojciech Knopf, working on it, who put a lot of effort into comparing assembly stuff,” Pollice said.

“Then we wanted to make the multiplayer experience as convenient as possible and wrote a lot of stuff for NAT Traversal and port forwarding to make sure players behind modern router/firewall setups can connect. Usually this is a thing that gets too little attention during development and therefore doesn’t work properly, so we knew we had to get it right and it took months of testing.

“In this phase we brought in a group that still kept an Impossible Creatures community going and were longing for a way to play online multiplayer again as I think the servers were shut down in 2006 or 2007.”

“There were generally much bigger plans back in the days with Impossible Creatures.”

This faithful fanbase was none other than the team responsible for the Tellurian mod. “Especially Will Harradine and his team was an amazing help getting the remaster to where it is now,” Pollice said.

Although it’s gratifying to see Impossible Creatures accessible to new and existing audiences, it’s also a sad reminder that even much-loved games don’t always fill their potential. Certainly the then-independent Relic had bigger plans for the property than ever materialised.

“The Insect Invasion add-on which was originally planned as a full paid expansion pack but I guess due to limited success it was converted into a free downloadable expansion. There were generally much bigger plans back in the days with Impossible Creatures. Relic also worked on a game for the original Xbox platform based on Impossible Creatures,” Pollice revealed.

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At least we can finally play Impossible Creatures on Steam, a promise 13 years in the making. While Pollice said he doesn’t know why the game didn’t release on Steam after being chosen as a demo title for the then-nascent platform, he offered some speculation.

“I guess that between the presentation of the game and the actual release of Steam and the time Impossible Creatures actually got released, Relic got bought out by THQ and it was clear that IC was not very successful,” he said.

You might have expected Valve to get a bit excited about seeing Impossible Creatures finally launch on Steam, but Pollice said Nordic’s contact at Valve “wasn’t really involved back in the day”.

“But now that they realised that it’s quite a nice title with a great story behind it, they gave us a large capsule feature in the classic and cult classic section
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I’d like to think that, wherever they are now, the team who poured their hearts into Impossible Creatures are pleased to see it brought back with such loving care.

Impossible Creatures is available on Steam for $10.

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