Why Fifth Column did not develop into a fully fledged game

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Before Total Rendition, I worked on Fifth Column.

With the recent conflicts in Nagorno-Karabakh, which (alongside Philip Dick’s Man in the High Castle) inspired Fifth Column, it is rather unfortunate Fifth Column ultimately was released as a concept game, having gotten no further than a one-level prototype.

Many of the people I collaborated with eventually moved their own ways and indeed, none reappeared to work on Total Rendition, although I have since spoken some of my collaborators on cordial terms.

Indeed, that the Fifth Column team disbanded was not the cause of Fifth Column’s failure to thrive and rather a result. Here is a disclosure what really happened.

Institutional problems

Originally, I had intended Xylographix to be a BV (a Dutch limited company). However, if I did, the Dutch tax service would – and they do so till day – tax my income as if I earned the so-called DGA-norm.

Theoretically, it was possible to get around that by petitioning the Dutch tax service to relieve this, but if they refused, this would become an argument that would end up in court. I could have gone to the UK back then, and perhaps, I probably should have. On the other hand, why would you leave your country behind?

Instead, I organised as Xylographix as a sole tradership in my name, representing my capacity as executive producer, concluded a royalties agreement between the collaborators and me personally, the idea being Fifth Column could be released as an Early Access or crowdfunding, then, once enough income rolled in, a BV could be established which could dole out a salary high enough to cover the DGA-norm.

Of course, this was a shaky proposition. On the other hand, at the time, it didn’t really seem like there was a better alternative. It is hard to raise investment without owning a corporation. However, owning a corporation in the Netherlands is difficult if you lack liquidity. Since I dropped out of the Computer Science programme at the VU University in order to work on Fifth Column, I was no longer eligible to receive a study loan, although that was arguably not enough to cover the DGA-norm anyway

Eventually, the rest is history. The funding never rolled in while we ran out of runway. I suffered a nervous breakdown (and political abuse of psychiatry), though the nervous breakdown was a consequence of the project’s failure, not a cause. At the time, I wasn’t comfortable talking about because one generally doesn’t do game development to become a corporate law practitioner (mind you, ZeniMax was established by lawyers!)

Lessons learned

Professionals focus on logistics. Inability to cope with bureaucracy at the time meant that Fifth Column was doomed almost from the beginning. Anticipating collapse, I had already enrolled to become an undergraduate philosophy major at Leiden University (at age 24!). Academically, this was a failure in that I was ran out by my co-eds before I could graduate, although the experience would inspire the development of Total Rendition.

It is to easy to imagine that Fifth Column may have contributed to my experiences in relation to Leiden University. While I have received a lot of positive feedback from both Armenians as well as Azerbaijanis regarding Fifth Column’s premise, the message of Fifth Column may have been perceived as somehow inconvenient to the Dutch government, despite the main character was a British SOE commando and the Nazis the antagonists.

Fifth Column was set in an alternate timeline exploring how the 1960s could have been, had Nazi Germany prevailed over the Soviet Union. Its political element was unavoidable: During Fifth Column’s development, several important events occurred which made Fifth Column’s premise suspicious within the politico-cultural climate of the Netherlands, notably the MH-17 disaster.

Yet I had hoped that Fifth Column’s narrative was subtle enough to avoid attracting overt hostility (other than from Neo-Nazis, but I’m half-Jewish, so that’s unavoidable). Yet, I was wrong. And I went to Leiden to find out I had become a target of the (would-be) Dutch political elite. It would precipitate my departure from the Netherlands, although in way, this created a strong incentive to move to the UK.

What if?

Fifth Column’s premise explores a what-if scenario. What if Fifth Column became the hours-long AAA game it was envisioned as? We may have been seeing a lot less discussions among gamers whether or not narrative-driven games are disappearing. Best of all, it could have become a focal point of fraternisation between Armenians and Azerbaijanis. Unfortunately, this was not meant to be.

Many were riled with excitement in anticipation to Fifth Column, whereas on the contrary I have faced a lot of open hostility for building Total Rendition. A few have made reviewbombs (despite it is still work-in-progress) and a former collaborator (whom I am not mentioning here) has predicted Total Rendition’s purportedly inevitable failure. Yet, in spite of the challenges, Total Rendition is more likely to succeed in its original aims than Fifth Column ever was.

From a legal perspective, Total Rendition is better organised. I have more experience. Progress is slower, yet also steadier. While Total Rendition has faced considerable overt opposition, it has nonetheless outlasted Fifth Column by several years already. Total Rendition has already made it to Steam whereas Fifth Column hasn’t got any further than IndieDB.

It’s a shame Fifth Column’s development floundered, since Fifth Column, as a cultural phenomena, could have made a very positive impact. On the other hand, ideas for its in-game universe may resurface in the future. Either way, development work on Fifth Column was an important stepping stone to Total Rendition. And as always, thanks for reading!

See also

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