Like Tears in Rain: The Untold Chapters of Might and Magic
Rare indeed is the franchise which runs for 25 years without amassing a few lost tales or unproduced instalments along the way. By no means can Might and Magic boast as such; the series has undoubtedly seen a very fair share of forgotten, unannounced, heavily-altered or incomplete games and products.
To take stock on the 25th anniversary and summarise the lost possibilities spanning the series, here are some insights into the concepts you never got to experience, new and old alike: the untold chapters of Might and Magic.
Might and Magic Online (ca. 1995-1998)
Jon Van Caneghem was ahead of his time. With Might and Magic V: Darkside of Xeen released in 1993, he came to the (accurate) conclusion that online gaming was the way forward for RPGs; whether ignoble or otherwise, he sought to capitalise on this emerging medium and extend Might and Magic into the multiplayer spectrum. Might and Magic Online formed the centrepiece of his vision.
In need of finances to back up his next-generation project, Van Caneghem chose to sell New World Computing and its publishing rights to The 3DO Company, headed by EA Games' founder Trip Hawkins. Meridian 59 – the first commercial 3D MMORPG in existence – was a 3DO publication, and the Might and Magic creator made efforts to spearhead the new incarnation of his series between 1996 and 1998. Working with Meridian's developers, Archetype Interactive, he initiated design work alongside some of the first seminal names in the MMO field: the resumes of Damion Schubert, Mike Kennedy and Rob Ellis II each indicate their involvement.
Unfortunately, the game never reached fruition, being cancelled before 1998 to make way for the revival of the core RPG series. In an April 2004 interview with Computer Gaming World, Van Caneghem made a direct reference to its existence, and cited some of the reasons for its failure to materialise:
"Well, there were a few. I believed that MM RPGs and Heroes games could have gone on for a very long time if we had created something new and innovative every 2 to 3 years. But the need for "sales growth," mandated by 3DO, required us to make a new MM RPG and a new Heroes product every year – some in 10 months or less!
Second, one of the main reasons I was excited to go with 3DO was the ability to create Might and Magic Online. 3DO had the entire infrastructure from their game Meridian 59. With all the ideas I had (most of which have still not appeared in current games), we could have created something really awesome. The future for me in 1996 was definitely online games. Alas, the decision was that for the same budget as MMO, 3DO could make three PS2 games."
Though the MMORPG based on Van Caneghem's series didn't find its way to store shelves – and still hasn't, despite evidence of a second attempt under Ubisoft - Meridian 59 spawned a lengthy legacy, and even made its mark in Might and Magic VII: Brian "Psychochild" Green, one of Archetype/Near Death Studios' developers, revealed to Castle Gobs that some of the cavernous dungeon layouts in the game are taken from Meridian's maps.
Might and Magic: The Worldcrafter (1995-1997)
Might and Magic Online marked the beginning of a trend which quickly extended beyond the field of videogames, when the franchise started to broaden. As covered by Marzhin in 2006, New World Computing recruited Geary Gravel, a Phillip K. Dick award-nominated science-fiction and fantasy author, to extend the backstory of the series on paper: in 1995, spurred on by Bill Fawcett (one of the creators of the Swords of Xeen fan-mod), Might and Magic: The Dreamwright was published by Del Rey Books, and the inside jacket promised two sequels to follow. Whereas the first continuation, Might and Magic: The Shadowsmith, followed in 1996, the third and final chapter – subtitled The Worldcrafter – was nowhere to be seen.
Faithful as they were to the backstory established in Might and Magic's first five titles, it seemed clear that the novels were building up to a much-coveted revelation: the first appearance of the Ancients (the Worldcrafters in question). There are subtle indications in both stories of the Ancients' continued activity, and one character – a mysterious "aged individual" who passes remarks on the Wire (an arcane network of energy first mentioned in Might and Magic V) and provides protagonist Hitch with technologically-advanced gifts, even commenting on a "carefully-managed breeding program" – epitomised their impending inclusion.
The novels were, however, created to serve a purpose beyond extending the fiction of the series: Gravel was assured that their events would serve as a frame to the story of Might and Magic VI, then undergoing preliminary design work. With minimal information to work with, Gravel developed the setting by himself, assured that New World Computing would build their game around them and not vice-versa. Time passed, and when 1998's Might and Magic VI: The Mandate of Heaven finally went gold, it appeared to contain no terms, characters or locations from Gravel's stories. Instead, it had been written as a follow-up to Heroes of Might and Magic II: The Succession Wars, continuing the story of the Ironfists and the kingdom of Enroth.
Now dubious as to the purpose of the exercise, Gravel declined when asked to write a third, unrelated novel to fulfill the deal; he had grown fond of the world he had developed, and had already written several chapters for The Worldcrafter (which still exist, somewhere, in hard-copy form). Disappointed at being unable to conclude the story arc, he was released from the contract with the help of his agent, declining to "switch gears and tackle a whole new universe". Between 2006 and 2009, we contacted Geary Gravel, who kindly agreed to share some of the details he could recall regarding the plot of the final instalment.
He had "planned to detail Hitch and Diligence's long journey back home from the rescue of Pomponderant they had embarked on at the end of Book Two – and incidentally reveal how the ancients had first come to this world, [and] explain the role of the yeofolk and the underground ruins". Another interesting detail from the unfinished conclusion sheds new light on the stories: "The first chapter opens with Diligence finding herself somewhere unfamiliar without Hitch. She starts exploring and encounters strange creatures, including some raucous giant birds and a talking metal mask that she finds in a field." Considering Melian, a similar talking metal mask who appears in Might and Magic VI, perhaps New World Computing did not entirely deign to abandon the universe established in the books?
Further solid connections can be made: the character of Pomponderant has a cameo role in Swords of Xeen, and two locations which debuted in the stories – the jungle of Aldamar/Auldemar, and the quirky isolationist nation named The Wheel – reappeared much later in Heroes of Might and Magic IV, retroactively suggesting that the stories took place on Axeoth, perhaps in the distant future. Additionally, characters from Gravel's War of the Fading Worlds series make a minor appearance in The Shadowsmith, on page 139.
Heroes of Might and Magic III: Armageddon's Blade – The Forge (1999)
The next discarded concept in the series came in mid-1999, with the advent of the first expansion pack to the extremely-successful Heroes of Might and Magic III. Gregory Fulton, a new designer who had written Heroes III's developer diaries and provided essential contributions to the storylines of Heroes III, Might and Magic VI and Might and Magic VII, collaborated with Jon Van Caneghem to plan the newest faction in the Heroes lineup. They decided to pick up where Might and Magic VII's Evil ending left off: the dark adventurers of Terra and the Lords of Harmondale revive the Heavenly Forge, an Ancient facility capable of creating advanced, futuristic weaponry.
The Forge town was the result, showcasing a true conflagration of Antagarich's fantastical races and the Ancients' magnificent instrumentation. Goblins received blasters, Zombies were armed with buzz saws for arms, Ogres were equipped with rocket launchers, Minotaurs were bestowed with jetpacks, and Nagas became fused with caterpillar tanks. Flamethrower-wielding pyromaniacs and the mechanised Dreadnoughts rounded off the lineup. Dieselpunk was to take Antagarich by storm as Erathia's medieval military locked arms with the grotesque Deyjan armies.
Instead of attempting to prevent its construction (as in the finished product), Catherine, Roland and Gelu were to seek out Armageddon's Blade of their own will – ultimately using the superweapon to wipe the Forges from the face of the continent. Oil Pumps, mechanical generators, a runway, the Tesla Coil grail structure and facilities radiant with artificial light adorned the town screen's bleak, overcast sky. The Cyborg (might) and Technician (magic) heroes would command these evil-aligned armies. Though highly overpowered – the strongest in the game, supposedly – the Forge units were to be campaign-only inclusions, slow to generate in towns, and costly to recruit. Even some non-7th tier creatures were to cost precious resources.
When the Forge was showcased at E3 in May 1999, New World Computing met an unexpected backlash: the Astral Wizard fansite proposed a boycott of the expansion, with roughly a hundred fan e-mails requesting the town's removal. Upon the leak of one Naga Tank sketch by NWC artist George Almond which displayed partial nudity, some became worried that the Forge would prove distasteful. Greg Fulton received a death threat from one indignant individual. Later, when management made light of it, he was so incensed that he quit his job.
In interviews prior to his resignation, with the fan community and GameSpot's Andrew Park and Micheal Mullen, Fulton confirmed that the Forge had been removed from the game and replaced with the Conflux (an elemental town originally intended for the second expansion) but pushed forward due to the controversy. The storyline had been altered accordingly to include the Kreegans as the new main anatagonists and the Light ending to Might and Magic VII was instead implied as canonical.
Despite disappointment in the lack of community trust, he felt there was not enough pro-Forge activity to justify its inclusion, and that it was unwise to fight the (albeit small) percentage of vocal fans who opposed it. To those who protested against the Conflux, he replied that "you'll get the elemental town, and you'll like it", whereas to Adrenaline Vault, he commented:
"The Forge introduced sci-fi elements into the Heroes universe for the first time, but sci-fi has been a part of the Might and Magic series since the original in 1986. Some of our fans were unaware of the history of sci-fi in the Might and Magic series and were very vocal in their opposition to this new inclusion. There's a 13-year history of listening to the fans at New World Computing, so we decided to move in another direction. I still feel the concept of sci-fi would work in the game. We just need to make sure we don't shock our fans with it."
For several years, the Forge endured as a taboo subject, hotly debated when mentioned: to many fans of the RPGs, it continued an established Might and Magic tradition going back to 1986, whereas to Heroes players it appeared to introduce out-of-place science-fiction into what seemed – to them – to be a purely magical, fantastical universe. Whatever the case, the Forge town – in its justified, yet extreme, attempt to improve continuity – arguably achieved the exact opposite, diluting the storylines of Enroth and Axeoth.
Forge-related developments do continue, though: in 2009, a forum member named benhur appeared at Heroes Community and posted, for the first time ever, a full .RAR file containing the original animated graphic files from the Forge's town screen as it appeared at the town's original announcement at E3, apparently created by New World Computing's Phelan Sykes some ten years earlier.
Rogues of Might and Magic (ca. 1999-2000)
The Forge was just the first among several unrealised concepts at the turn of the millennium. Following the completion of 3DO's Requiem: Avenging Angel in 1999, the development team was instructed to put their first-person shooter engine to good use on another project – the PC adaption of the ill-fated Crusaders of Might and Magic, a third-person action adventure set on a new, unheard-of world – Ardon – in our beloved fictional universe.
At that point, the original PlayStation concept had already been under production for a couple of years, with a design document and plenty of art finalised; unable to make use of these assets due to engine incompatibilities, the under-staffed Requiem team was, alas, left with only seven months to cobble together a working product. The result was only loosely based on its counterpart, and its release was forced to coincide with the gold master of the PlayStation version in Christmas of 1999. Despite heavy promotion, neither release was particularly well-received and both sold terribly, but these problems didn't dissuade 3DO from investing in the creation of a sequel.
Reasoning that "a new name and a new character" might redeem this false start to their action-adventure spinoff subseries, 3DO's marketing team ordered alterations to be made to Crusaders of Might and Magic 2. It emerged under the title of Warriors of Might and Magic one year onward, in December of 2000. The former lead character of Drake – voiced by Kevin Conroy of Batman fame – was abandoned without any in-game explanation, along with all loose plot threads concerning his fate, to make way for new protagonist Alleron. Lead designer Eric Robson – interested in the back story of the Ancients and the Kreegans – made a valiant attempt to recover continuity with the Might and Magic brand by selecting enemy types and spells from Heroes III. However, with the Requiem team situated in San Francisco, their communication with the creators of the franchise – New World Computing, in Los Angeles – was limited.
Again, Warriors was released on three platforms to abysmal sales and reception, and, again, 3DO inexplicably green-lighted a sequel with further drastic alterations: the concept which began as Warriors 2 was renamed to Shifters, finally omitting the brand name in response to poor sales from the flagship Might and Magic titles developed at New World.
Lead character Alleron was retained from the previous instalment, but at this point the Requiem team felt less concerned with maintaining connectivity to the MM series, introducing steampunk elements alien to the established lore. Much like New World, they contended that 3DO's executives were doing irreparable damage to the franchise with harsh development deadlines, an unending stream of Army Men games, and little concern for product quality. The title of another MM-related spinoff – Dragon Wars of Might and Magic – was also truncated to Dragon Rage in a similar strategy.
In 2000, between the releases of the aforementioned games, Robson and Owen Lockett pitched a far more-inspired game design to 3DO, heavily influenced by the Thief series of stealth games created by Looking Glass Studios. Envisioning an open-world, dense urban setting filled with active characters, they developed a short prototype where every building in the city had a unique interior, with every NPC acting on individual schedules (unremarkable accomplishments today, but considered revolutionary in 2000). Despite a comprehensive game design, their concept was rejected by 3DO because the publisher's officials didn't think the Thief series had made enough money. The only indication of its existence lies in the Warriors game itself, in the form of a piquant Easter-egg: a gravestone marked "Rogues of Might & Magic".
Another poignant quiet goodbye from the former Requiem team, this time specifically to the character of Drake, was also included in Warriors – the player can encounter his corpse while exploring the Catacombs of Ardon. Amusingly, some members from the Looking Glass teams who had worked on Thief eventually joined Arkane Studios, the developers of 2006's Dark Messiah of Might and Magic, which is believed by some to be a spiritual successor to Crusaders – for better or worse.
Might and Magic: The Sea of Mist – background and plans (2000-2001)
Amidst this growing mound of spinoffs commissioned directly by 3DO, another literary enterprise reared its head. Hearkening back to the botched attempts at creating novels whose plots intertwined with the games, New World Computing and HarperCollins editor Josh Behar began dialogue with prolific author Mel Odom to bring to fruition the third novel in the Might and Magic series: The Sea of Mist.
The book began life as a tie-in to Might and Magic IX, while the project was undergoing brainstorming at New World. Basing his narrative upon the original MM9 plot as envisioned by MM9's then-lead designer Tom Ono – centred on Axeoth's continent of Tamarck – Odom added his own touches to the original document given to him, renaming proposed hero Pazel to "Praz-El", adding the towers of Soronne and taking further liberties. Cover artwork was provided by accomplished digital illustrator J.P. Targete.
When Tim Lang replaced Tom Ono as MM9's lead designer, he abandoned Ono's concept and crafted the setting of Rysh and Chedian for the game. Giving Odom free reign with his writing, Lang severed most of the ties common between his design document and Odom's novel, Tamarck and the events that took place there: he believed constraints created by the events of The Sea of Mist did not afford the player a real chance to create their own stories. In the final novel there is just one remaining passing reference to Might and Magic IX, probably retained as a "development relic" by accident: the city of Heronport, mentioned in MM9's item descriptions, is also briefly alluded to in the book.
The story line ends on a frustrating cliffhanger, with Praz-El embarking on a pilgrimage to the keep of Murlank to be educated in the dark arts, and lead villain Sendark privately revelling in his accomplishments, having never even physically encountered our hero throughout the course of the text. Recently, I learned why: The Sea of Mist was intended to serve as the first chapter in a series, with at least three books, or more, planned. This franchise never materialised; we can only speculate as to why not.
As eloquently summed up in Marzhin's review, the finished plot was not applauded by fans, eschewing the compelling charm and wonder of Geary Gravel's earlier works in favour of a more generically visceral tone, with few ties to the core games' overarching plot and spirit. The Ancients and the Kreegans went unmentioned, with allusions to a conflict between "the Gods and the Dragons" instead dominating the narrative. Furthermore, the few returning characters – Nymus, Alagar, Clancy and Xarfax of Heroes III, along with Daria and Necros from the Ardon instalments – received little more than brief cameos, and without the enthusiasm of its target audience in tow, one can only conclude that The Sea of Mist's sales were probably less than stellar.
Legends of Might and Magic – the original concepts (2000-2001)
Meanwhile, suffering from severe financial problems (despite the enormous commercial success of Heroes of Might and Magic III), 3DO commanded New World Computing to develop Legends of Might and Magic – a second sister franchise to complement Heroes and the original Might and Magic RPGs.
Assigning programmers originally intended to work on Heroes IV to the new flagship title, New World drew up an extensive, very ambitious and – as one former employee described it – "frankly, cool-sounding" concept for a pioneering first-person adventure, described as a cross between Neverwinter Nights and MM9, featuring co-operative single player and a random adventure generator. A complex time-travelling story line spanning the series' worlds had been planned out between Jon Van Caneghem and designer Christian Vanover, situated on Aalondor, an as-yet-unexplored continent on the planet of Axeoth:
"The Gate of Anduran is an incredible machine that can allow travel between the worlds of the Might and Magic universe. Unfortunately, an evil, power-hungry madman has come upon the secret of using it to transcend both space and time. His plan is to travel back in time and to alter the course of history, an act that could very conceivably result in the destruction of the world. The world is clearly in dire need of someone to thwart his malevolent scheme."
"With King Rydric fighting a war in a far off land, Rydric's advisor and friend since childhood, Zephram Dagrath, attempts to reassemble an ancient and powerful machine that will allow him to travel back to a pivotal moment in time – a moment where he could have done one thing differently to put himself on the throne instead of his friend. After a visit from a strange shaman who claims that the advisor's actions will set in motion a series of events that will destroy the world, the King's son, Prince Golwyn, and his five companions, the six playable characters in Legends, must start a quest of their own – to stop Zephram from using the machine before all is lost."
Some two years of work were invested in the original concept and storyline, with sketches, screenshots, prototype builds and even an impressive, emotive cinematic trailer created and publicised at E3 2000. Even so, the team assigned to the game quickly reached the conclusion that they had over-designed the project, planning far beyond the resources available to them: butting heads with the extreme limitations of the LithTech engine they had chosen, and unable to make serious alterations so far behind schedule, they elected to abandon their bold design document, instead using the assets they had to redefine Legends into a simple death match game, comparable to "fantasy Counter-Strike". Regardless of the fact that it had fulfilled one of its original goals – becoming the first fully-online Might and Magic game – it earned mediocre reviews on release in 2001.
Legends continues to attract a devoted, if small, community of players. Unfortunately, though, the overambition poured into its production overshadowed fellow Might and Magic projects: the Lich Lab, the Inventa Storca and the Tomb of a Thousand Terrors as they appear in Might and Magic IX – the Tomb even containing a statue of the Dragon Pharaoh from Might and Magic V – were originally created as maps for Golwyn and his comrades to sojourn through, and Heroes IV's adventure AI was crippled due to its programmers' prior occupation with Legends.
Heroes of Might and Magic V – New World Computing (ca. 2003)
Though certainly not unequivocally lauded like its predecessor, Heroes IV received good reviews, and sold well enough to propel forth the development of Heroes of Might and Magic V. Most players know of Heroes V in its current incarnation only: the divisive yet solid offering developed by Nival Interactive in collaboration with publishers Ubisoft Entertainment, which revived the franchise after four years of nothing. However, this was not the first attempt at a Heroes V production: a short-lived development effort under Jon Van Caneghem and some of New World's last remaining artists and designers had previously begun circa 2003, defiant in the wake of 3DO's impending bankruptcy.
When Celestial Heavens was still a StrategyPlanet site, one of its forum members visited New World Computing and saw the planned Heroes V factions on a drawing board. Based on exclusive information, I can confirm that the six planned factions he described were indeed conceptualised under these preliminary names/themes: Lizard, Mythic, Haven, Tower, Necropolis and Fairy. In essence, influence from all eight of the classic Heroes III factions (aside from the Inferno) remained: Haven, Tower, Necropolis and Fairy need no further introduction, Lizard was a clear successor to the reptilian Fortress, and the Mythic town denoted the Gothic themes of the original Dungeon of Heroes I and II, "fused" with the brute force of the Stronghold and boasting architecture comparable to a Greek Acropolis.
As indicated by Christian Vanover, the story – if any had been developed – was supposedly to take place in Axeoth. The actual artwork released includes a slew of pencil drawing concepts by Nowa Morisaku-Yu, rendered structures by Keith Talanay, and fully-textured creatures – both new and old – for three towns by Tracy Iwata, including an oft-praised depiction of a Phoenix. One design is also strikingly similar to the Kirin of Heroes VI's Sanctuary faction, though the creature itself first appeared in Might and Magic as early as 1986.
The new magic system was to fuse the idea of a generic pool of spells from Heroes I-III with the faction-specific schools of Heroes IV, and the underground map layer was to be removed due to Van Caneghem's dissatisfaction with its overuse. Towns would visibly expand on the adventure map, the AI was to be fully rewritten, and the general gameplay would return to purer strategy as opposed to the personal, character-centric questing of Heroes IV.
Ultimately, Ubisoft and Nival used very few, if any, of the NWC elements in their finished game, seemingly abandoning them after Van Caneghem declined an offer to participate on the rebooted project, although one significant change – the Academy/Tower town's shift from snowy terrain to deserts – remained consistent from the game's beginnings at New World, if only by strange coincidence.
Might and Magic X (2003-?)
Not long after the "Great Cataclysm" in 3DO, Tim Lang found a place as the first game designer in Nival Interactive's new US studio. Nival had a good relationship with Ubisoft, and – interested in ascertaining whether or not the publishers were planning Might and Magic X – Lang drafted his own sequel proposal, its story outline building on inconclusive plot threads from the previous RPG:
"In the nation-state of Mendossus, it's been 5 long years since the king began conscripting the population to fight in the war across the sea against the violent and ruthless Chedian. The Chedians had briefly stopped raiding Mendossus for a short time while the joined together to fight off the invading Beldonian hordes 6 years ago. Because of the conscriptions, the formerly safe nation is rife with violence. The roads are now unsafe to travel because of bandits. Large groups of predators have taken up residence in the forests. Formerly safe temples and forts have been overrun by monsters.
Because of this abuse of conscription by the king, a small resistance had formed in Mendossus. Led by a mysterious outsider, this resistance has become a thorn in the side of the king and his advisor, Archibald. They actively hunt down the members of the resistance. When the player first meets the king, the first mission he gives the party is to infiltrate the resistance and kill its leader.
Once the party infiltrates the resistance, they discover who is in charge of this group of rebels is none other than Nicolai Ironfist, nephew of Archibald and son of the king of the now destroyed Enroth. He tells them a dangerous secret about the conscriptions.
Under the influence of the evil Archibald Ironfist, the king has been lying to the population. There is no war with Chedian, and none of the men conscripted ever go into the army. Archibald has teamed up with a very powerful creature to disrupt one of the most important projects in the history of the universe.
A group of Ancient Scientists, after thousands of years of hibernation have awoke to find that Research Platform Enroth has been disrupted by the destruction of the planet. Banding together, they begin a mission to rebuild the Research Platform and continue its important mission of study. Archibald, along with a creature known as a Sheltem are actively working to not only disrupt the construction of the new Research Platform Enroth, but take it over for their own, nefarious use."
One cannot help but wonder where Tim's plot may have led, had it been fully fleshed out – with the return of the Ironfists, Sheltem, Enroth and the Ancients, many classical elements and plot devices appeared ready to come to the fore once again. Many unexplored subplots and red herrings in Might and Magic IX – the inevitable result of an under-funded and rushed game – may have found resolution and reconciliation had the project been pursued. I still reserve hope that Ubisoft will green-light a new RPG faithful to classic Might and Magic conventions some day.
Currently, Tim acts as an advisor to the Might and Magic X fan project under development by Deyja Vu Studios, an effort which I also contributed to as a story writer before leaving the team; I wish them all the best, and hope they can suitably resolve the legacies of Axeoth, the Ancients and the Kreegans as they stand. Whatever the case, though, at least it's possible to argue that the Ancients have indeed been revealed, somewhat: the three Wyrdes in Arslegard, visible among the Gods at the end of MM9, were in fact the formerly-hibernating scientists planned to feature in the next game.
Kingdoms of Might and Magic (ca. 2005-2006)
Might and Magic X, it seems, was not the only potential project cut down as Ubisoft acquired the franchise. Heavy evidence suggests that another unannounced endeavour faded into obscurity while Heroes V and Dark Messiah claimed the spotlight: a project which appears to have been the second major attempt at creating a Might and Magic MMORPG. Alas, just as Jon Van Caneghem's Might and Magic Online had failed, this false start also remained buried for several years.
The now-offline portfolio of Ranjeet Singhal – a 3D artist formerly employed by Wolfpack Studios, whose only-released project was the MMORPG Shadowbane – previously contained his rendered art depicting a "Death Knight" and a "Magic Warrior", both evidently inspired by Heroes V's art direction. Singhal and his colleagues are also noted for having worked on Legacy of Kain: The Dark Prophecy and other cancelled, unannounced sequels to various franchises. His resume, and the descriptions which accompanied the images, explicitly cited "Kingdoms of Might and Magic" as the project in question, mentioned it was an MMORPG, and named Ubisoft as his employer. Despite similar nomenclature and the common genre, I can prove that the art bears no direct relation to the Heroes Kingdoms browser game of 2008.
I managed to preserve Singhal's artwork – but not the portfolio – by posting it at the Might and Magic Wiki. The discovery inspired me to further investigate the existence of this enigmatic lost title, and after some scrutiny, webstalking and bad coffees, I eventually came across the little-known website of another of Ubisoft's clients: Robert D. Brown, a conceptual artist who most notably worked on the Oddworld series. There, a piece of very familiar art was visible in his online gallery: the confusing yet widely-known "beta Ashan" map, displaying locations from Heroes V's final incarnation of Ashan such as Irollan, Heresh and the Griffin Empire alongside Axeoth's Palaedra and the overtly-named infernal region of Kreegar.
A recent site revamp also includes some of Brown's other Ashan-related artwork: a painting of what is very clearly a Haven castle, and a map of "Telluria" – the missing link between the beta Ashan map and the canonical Thallan, omitting almost all references to Axeoth's locales. And, of course, Brown's resume revealed that he too had worked for Wolfpack Studios alongside Ranjeet Singhal. To seal the deal, I posted the original map on Might and Magic's Facebook page and inquired about its origins, where Xhane publicly confirmed that it had been produced for a project which had never been announced – this comment coming some two years after the Kingdoms browser game was first revealed.
Everything seems to fit: Wolfpack's only successes derived from Shadowbane, so why else might a publisher absorb them? With World of Warcraft dominating the market in early 2005, we can deduce that it would've been financially foolish of Ubisoft not to pursue some ideas while the specifics of Ashan were still in fluctuation, having so recently obtained the Might and Magic brand. It's probably impossible to confirm for certain how far they were planning to go, but at least we can be secure in the validity of the artwork: a piece quite similar indeed to Robert D. Brown's Haven castle wormed its way into 2009's Might and Magic: Clash of Heroes as part of a cutscene, visible at the beginning of Godric's chapter.
Heroes of Might and Magic VI – under Nival Interactive (circa 2006-2008)
Obviously, Kingdoms was not the first abandoned project in the series, and certainly won't be the last: no matter the publisher, Might and Magic seems destined to inspire new ideas, some wildly successful and others morbidly embarrassing. It is constantly renewing itself, as asserted in the recent 25-year-celebration video, and even its most recent offering is by no means an exception to this maxim.
While Black Hole Entertainment hold the reins with what is soon to be released under the title of Might & Magic Heroes VI, they were not the first to lead its development effort. As hinted by producer Erwan Le Breton, production on Heroes VI dates back as early as 2006, supposedly reaching some kind of playable demo stage before Nival's participation was cut short, since the very pre-production stage of the game got finalised prior to changing the developer. A few of the earliest Heroes VI images have been released, each one worth a thousand words. I'll try to cut that number down.
One extremely-early, carnal piece depicts a gargantuan, Behemoth-like monstrosity against a surreal backdrop: the disproportionate style indicates the prevalence of Heroes V's Warhammer-esque art direction (moving even further towards direct plagiarism if you ask me, but that's a subjective matter). Exaggeration and Kafka-esque melodrama was to be a staple if this painting is a reliable indication; a more "gritty" style, totally contrary to the fairy-tale charm of classic Heroes, seemed to be emerging. However, it was mentioned that the image was one of the first created as part of a collection of often contradictory ideas raised while the developers sought a new artistic feel for the game.
As for the adventure map, two mock-ups are currently available: the first and the second. I would conjecture that interactivity was to play a far greater role: terrain seemed to be transformable, capable of being altered entirely under certain circumstances. The final image depicts three heroes whose models can be extracted from the Tribes of the East data files – their textures, however, were not included in the expansion, visible here for the first time. With coral armour and varied colour palettes, they signify the plausibility that the Reputation system had been planned even at this early stage.
Based on the fact that the models were located among the Heroes V files, one might assume that they were made for a Fake Gameplay Footage video, akin to the one created for Ubisoft's unknown shooter game. A commentator also mentioned to me that, despite the current town screen debacle under Black Hole, players would likely have been truly outraged had the concept under Nival survived: town screens were apparently to be discarded altogether in favour of an on-the-map expansion framework, typical to most RTS games.
Needless to say, despite a few worthy and redeeming features, the earlier outlines for Heroes VI perhaps had little going for them in the context of the Might and Magic series, abandoning many an essential convention in favour of radical – and, I am certain, heavily-disputable – changes. If the current version of the game is not considered conservative enough by the fanbase, there is at least quite some solace in the fact that things haven't been shaken up beyond recognition.
Reflecting on all of these pared-down plans, I can't help but register some level of frustration, considering what might have been. This article barely scratches the surface; it's a virtual certainty that there have been even more fanciful ideas and titles in pre-production out there which, alas, never saw the light of day.
It's impossible to know whether any more of them will be revealed in time, but, then again, that knowledge would probably take most of the bliss out of the ignorance.
And what of the untold chapters the future holds? Can the Might and Magic brand, with all its peaks and troughs, continue to polarise, shock and, most importantly, delight us for another 25 years to come? I don't know, but one can always hope.
My sincerest thanks to Eric Robson, Geary Gravel, Mel Odom, Sermil and Tim Lang for all of their various exclusive insights into work on the Might and Magic series. Extreme gratitude to Acid Dragon, cuc, Demilich, Marzhin, MMXAlamar and others for their trust, assistance and insights, and a very special thanks to Kalah for graciously hosting the article.