Betrayal at Krondor, celebrating 30 years

The 22nd of June marks the 30th release-anniversary of Dynamix’s fantasy role-playing game Betrayal at Krondor. While off to a slow start, its engaging and well-written story and masterful execution eventually resulted in one of the highest-regarded games of the period. Co-designer and writer Neil Hallford has written a number of fantastic in-depth, and must-read articles on his website.

The two-hour flight from Los Angeles to the lush pine-forested outskirts of Eugene seemed to last an eternity. Neil Hallford, despite his excitement, couldn’t help but wonder about the potential outcome of his journey. Would leaving his secure job and everything he knew behind for the unknown up in the Pacific North West be the right call after all. Earlier he had called in sick to his employer New World Computing as he didn’t want the company to know that he was heading for a job interview at Dynamix with the possibility of leaving behind his short but promising career in Woodland Hills.

During his short time at New World Computing, Hallford had made a name for himself as a designer and as an excellent writer, in fact, so much it had earned him a local reputation as one of the best in the business. By February of 1991, a new Director of Product Development arrived at the company, John Cutter, a seasoned technical wizard, great with rules and systems, and an instinctive feel for intuitive game design. While sharing some of the same traits, it was Hallford and Cutter’s many opposing talents that led the two to forge a great working relationship marked by mutual trust in each other’s judgments and skills.

Cutter had spent countless hours of his childhood holed up in the basement, lost in the immersive worlds of the Atari 2600 and in strategy and roleplaying board games like Risk and Dungeons & Dragons. Unlike his peers who only showed interest in playing games, Cutter found joy in re-imagining them, employing his own creativity to the rules and narratives. The Atari 2600 console gave way to the personal computer, enabling him to dive into the world of programming and craft his own rudimentary BASIC games.
When old enough to pursue a career in the industry, he landed his first job as a junior coder and designer at Gamestar. Two years went by and in the summer of 1986, he joined Bob Jacob‘s Cinemaware as the company’s first employee. Over the next five years, Cutter honed his skills by taking on various responsibilities, doing extensive design work, managing staff, and overseeing the entire product development process, helping build Cinemaware into an award-winning studio with several highly regarded and critically acclaimed titles, like Defender of the Crown, Wings, and It Came from the Desert.

Cutter had made a name for himself by being an extraordinary and respected team leader with a full commitment to creating unique and engaging gaming experiences and his reputation soon reached beyond the California state line. In the summer of 1991, after only half a year at New World Computing, Dynamix co-founder and CEO Jeff Tunnell reached out to him with an offer to come and serve as a creative lead at his company up in Oregon. Cutter jumped on the opportunity and left Hallford and the cramped offices that were New World Computing behind.

Tunnell had been reading American fantasy author Raymond E. Feist‘s Riftwar fantasy novels and wanted to adapt the 1985 novel Silverthorn into a game. He had offered Feist the opportunity to write the game himself, but Feist had jokingly informed him that Dynamix wouldn’t be able to afford him. Tunnell, instead pursued the license to the Riftwar universe and Cutter was assigned to work out a deal with Feist’s agent.
While Tunnell wanted an adaption, Cutter wanted the game to largely take place in Feist’s fantasy world of Midkemia but to have its own unique storyline, and who better to write it than his former colleague and teammate from New World Computing.

Hallford had been raised in a loving, academically-oriented family. With his parents being gifted natural storytellers they supported his varied creative and dramatic interests in writing, acting, and filmmaking.
At seventeen, just days after graduating from high school, Hallford started a job as a DJ at KTOW, a local radio station outside of Tulsa, Oklahoma. With access to the production studio, he and best friend Ron Bolinger wrote and produced Uncharted Regions, a Twilight Zone-like series of radio dramas that aired sporadically between 1984 and 1989. The dramas would later play a key role in helping Hallford land his first professional writing job.

In 1990, only six months after earning his degree in radio, television, and film production from the University of Oklahoma, Hallford secured a position at New World Computing as a writer and designer, thanks to his friend Kenneth Mayfield who worked at the company as a lead artist. Here he completed various tasks on Tunnels & Trolls: Crusaders of Khazan before he began writing the initial design for the third installment in the Might & Magic series.
In 1991 halfway through the design of the science fiction-themed role-playing game Planet’s Edge, Hallford received a call from Cutter with an offer to come up for an interview at Dynamix and be introduced to the Riftwar project.

Upon Hallford’s arrival at Dynamix’s office, it was apparent that this was a far cry from the place he had left in Los Angeles a few hours ago. Dynamix had been acquired by Sierra On-Line in 1990 and was now working as a subsidiary. Both companies were spearheading digital entertainment with a multitude of best-selling products on shelves in every store across the nation. The company and its 300 employees occupied almost the entire top floor of the Atrium Building, a former downtown mall. Entire wings of the floor were dedicated to single projects, each staffed with teams nearly as large as the combined workforce of the 30 people at New World Computing.

Hallford spend the majority of the morning, touring the offices, getting to meet people he soon could be working with. The highlight was a visit to the Aces of the Pacific team where a prepared tech demo showcased the company’s 3Space game engine. Nels Bruckner, a hip laidback programming wizard and one of several working on the 3D engine to fit within the Riftwar concept, fired up an impressive 3D demo. If any lingering doubts in Hallford’s mind about joining Dynamix these were being dispelled by what Bruckner showed him that morning.

Hallford’s 1:00 p.m. meeting with Tunnell was postponed as the CEO was tied up in another meeting. 3:00 came and went and it was now getting dangerously close to the time when Hallford had to catch his plane back to Los Angeles. At 4:15, Tunnell was still tied up but told Cutter on the phone he would meet him and Hallford at the airport. Rushing through the terminal, Tunnell was firing off questions with Hallford trying to answer them to the best of his abilities. At the gate, Tunnell shook his hand and said “If John’s good with you, then it’s alright by me.” 10 minutes later Hallford was in the air, climbing to 40,000 feet cruising altitude.

Dynamix’s 3D technology which initially had convinced Ken Williams of Sierra On-Line to acquire the company, was ahead of the competition and miles from the tile-based pseudo 3d environment Hallford had been working with on Might & Magic III at New World Computing. Now, high above the clouds heading home his mind was clear as the beautiful afternoon sky outside. Whatever hesitations he had arrived with this morning were completely put to rest. Being able to adapt the work of a New York Times best-selling fantasy author using the latest in technology with his former colleague, a significantly bigger paycheck, and the lower cost of living than what congested Los Angeles could offer, was an opportunity too good to pass up.

Back in Los Angeles, Hallford knew he had to break the news to management and the many co-workers he had built a relationship with. On Halloween 1991, all 30 New World Computing employees were lined up in the company’s lobby to send him on his way. That evening, with his trusty blue Geo Metro fully loaded with his remaining belongings, he turned northbound on Interstate 5.

After selling both Tunnell and then Feist, on the idea of writing a new story set in the Midkemian universe, Cutter and Hallford went to work on a first draft outlining the game’s main plot and storyline. In Cutter’s office on the top floor of the Atrium Building, the two discussed how much of the known world and characters of Feist’s novels would go into the game and to what degree it potentially would connect to existing plots. Another topic for discussion was how to approach the overall game design, while they knew it was going to be some kind of roleplaying game the question remained what system and what set of rules should be employed. It would have been straightforward to adapt a slightly altered iteration of Dungeons & Dragons, but that came with a number of challenges, especially when it came to its class and level system. Chaosium’s 1981 horror fiction role-playing board game Call of Cthulhu, based on H. P. Lovecraft‘s story of the same name, distinct itself by using no class system instead skills were developed based on the player’s choice and fitted much better with the simple and streamlined experience Cutter and Hallford pursued.

The initial draft for the story and overall gameplay, a Sierra-style adventure game with the inner of a skill-based roleplaying game, got the stamp of approval from Feist, and from both management at Dynamix and Sierra. With the approval, Hallford started writing out the story and dialog along with the game’s low-level design. Cutter, while serving as the project’s director and co-designer focused on puzzles, combat systems, and other high-level stuff. Around 15 people were assembled to do the core work with Bruckner, the laidback guy who had shown Hallford the impressive demo, now nearly six months earlier, as lead programmer.

By early 1992, with the production in full swing, an eager Feist, who was hard at work on his third book in the Riftwar saga, flew into Eugene to finally meet the team and get a first-hand experience with the ambitious project and the digital design innovations his universe and characters were undergoing. While Hallford had spent hours talking to Feist about all manner of things in a dedicated, heartfelt attempt to get everything right, he now felt the pressure, as he knew their first and most important critic was going to be Feist himself, who also had the editorial final say and whose name forever would be tied to the game’s success or failure.

The team had ambitions of being the first true 3D role-playing game to market but a late evening in March of 1992 would throw a spanner in the works. As the team gathered around lead programmer, Bruckner’s screen it became apparent that someone had beaten them to it, and not just anyone. On the screen was the latest title published by masters of the computerized roleplaying game, Origin Systems. Ultima Underworld: The Stygian Abyss had hit the market. While not an immediate commercial success, it was praised for its 3D presentation and called the next true evolutionary step in the roleplaying genre. Over the following years, Ultima Underworld sales would reach around 500,000 copies and influence games such as Bethesda SoftworksThe Elder Scrolls: Arena and Valve‘s Half-Life.

Two years into development, at the beginning of 1993 Tunnell, the brainchild behind acquiring the Riftwar license left Dynamix to establish Jeff Tunnell Productions. With Tunnell gone, Dynamix underwent a series of administrative changes. For Cutter, this brought on mounting frustration in his attempts to establish effective communication with upper management resulting in Hallford being burdened with increasing responsibilities within the team. Thankfully, both remained committed to the project and were pulling in the same direction. Dynamix chose to relocate from its long-standing business hub at the Atrium Building in downtown Eugene to the more spacious and upscale Riverfront Research Park that was going up near the University of Oregon. Here the team would complete Betrayal at Krondor and on the 22nd of June 1993 the game was published for MS-DOS on floppies by parent company Sierra On-Line.

After more than two years in development, Dynamix’s parent company, Sierra On-Line published Betrayal at Krondor on the 22nd of June 1993.
The cover features Roger Smith’s amazing painting of Gorath of the Ardanien, who together with Seigneur Locklear and Owyn Beleforte travels south to the city of Krondor to come up with a plan to stop the upcoming Moredhel invasion and save the kingdom from another disastrous war

Initially, sales were slow, but as more and more positive reviews turned up, sales started to pick up. It slowly became evident that Cutter, Hallford, and the team had managed to create one of the best roleplaying games of the time. Before the end of the year, Betrayal at Krondor was declared 1993’s best role-playing game and crowned overall Game of the Year by Computer Games Strategy Plus. The game was re-released on CD-ROM the following year where it in June of 1994 won Computer Gaming World‘s Role-Playing Game of the Year award.

The CD-ROM version released in 1994 included CD audio of the original game’s MIDI music soundtrack, a 5-minute video interview with Feist, and a Windows hint program

Betrayal at Krondor requires a lot of reading which gives it a book-like atmosphere. The game consists of nine chapters each with a main plot and a number of side-quests. The player is free to explore the world available within each chapter and perform optional side-quests to enhance each of the three characters’ abilities, gain cash, upgrade weapons and armor, etc.
Gameplay occurs from a first-person perspective or from a 2D top-down map view while traveling the overworld, dungeons, and caves, but switches to a third-person view during combat

With the completion of Betrayal at Krondor, Cutter, and Hallford had begun early conversations with Feist for a new title, dubbed Thief of Dreams but with the initially slow sales of the floppy version the right to the Riftwar universe was sold back to Feist and all plans were ultimately canceled. Later on, after the title had grown into a commercial and critical success, work began on Betrayal in Antara, a spiritual successor but without ties to Feist’s universe, developed by Sierra using an updated version of Krondor’s game engine. Around the same time 7th Level announced their fully licensed sequel, Return to Krondor, but all this is a story for a future article.

A testament to Hallford’s dedicated and faithful work on Betrayal at Krondor, besides the Game of the Year award sitting on his desk, came years later when his story was followed up by its own novelization, Krondor: The Betrayal by Feist in 1998.

Sources:,, Wikipedia, LinkedIn, Computer Gaming World, Computer Games Strategy Plus

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