Column

Why do games and their developers fail?

From Outcast 2 to Duke Nukem Forever, the debate rages...
It is a cold hard fact that the games business is just that, a business. When push comes to shove if you aren't making money then the game is over. There are times, however, when I begin to wonder if the people with the money actually know what's going on. I remember buying a DVD when the technology was just breaking in the UK and finding one of those stupid marketing research pamphlets on the inside. Glancing over the questions one has always stuck in my mind. The question was to tick what was the primary reason for buying a particular film over another and among the list was 'the studio'. I couldn't, and still can't, understand how someone would think "Oh, that film was made by Warner Bros, it must be good, I'll get it." What made it memorable was that some marketing monkey boy must have believed that to be case. To me it showed a complete lack of understanding between the people releasing the DVD's and the people buying them. It has taken years of marketing research by the studios to realise that the kinds of people who like to buy DVD's want extra features about the making of the films and interviews with cast and crew. If they had just asked me at the start, or any other film fan, I could have saved them time and a whole lot of money. I guess I've only myself to blame as I never did send back the pamphlet. In the same regard I often wonder about the people in charge of which games get made, and which do not. Now, a lot of games companies don't succeed due to a number of reasons, but most fail because their games aren't particularly good. Corporate natural selection, as it were. There are two other types though, that make no sense to me. One kind that make or are potentially making great games, but still fade away. Then there is my favourite enigma, the kind of company that seem to be making a game that almost the entire gaming audience can see failing right out of the gate. Let me talk about the first kind as a sort of epitaph to the death of a good friend. The most recent example of this was the tragic demise of Appeal, the Belgian developer that had made Outcast. Outcast was a tremendous game in so many ways. Graphically it was unique thanks to the voxel technology they used so well. It had extremely sophisticated effects for the time, including software bump mapping, depth of field blurring and even some screen anti-aliasing. It's soundtrack was an auditory masterpiece thanks to the Moscow Symphonic Orchestra. The gameplay a brilliant mix of adventure and action. Yet despite critical praise, and reasonably good commercial success, somebody somewhere decided that the sequel would not be. Why do games and their developers fail? In Appeal's case, one of the problems was the initial choice of using voxel technology. Whilst it gave the game a very organic landscape, the engine took a long time to develop. For the sequel they wanted to move to polygons and so it was a case of back to square one as they worked on a new engine. But from the screenshots that are still available on the website that sits like an eerie ghost town, it looked very advanced. By aiming for the Playstation 2 platform as well as PC it would have given them a more stable platform as well as a huge market. After all, more and more games are becoming more open and free form for the player. But what may have been a huge hit was cancelled so Cutter Slade, the saviour of Adelpha, is no more. Another company that went under despite critical praise was Looking Glass studios who developed System Shock 2, and the Thief series of games. In their case Eidos Interactive’s decision was very strange as many of the employees were rehired by Ion Storm to work on, Thief 3. So evidently someone inside Eidos believes in the title. The Wing Commander games were going from strength to strength, a home-grown property within the industry so no restrictive licensing was applicable. Each title met with critical and commercial success. Then Origin just stopped making them and the final serving of that brilliant universe was the spin-off movie that left a bitter taste. One can at least appreciate that the game series went out on a positive note. A game license that broke my heart when it was cancelled was the planned Babylon 5 game. It was in production during the height of the show’s popularity. It was to be a space shooter with the unique ship handling that characterised the Star Fury's of the show. When the Star Wars games had been so successful why cancel this promising project? It's interesting to note that the great TV series suffered similar problems from the mysterious people in charge. J Michael Stratsynski was messed around as to whether the fifth series would be green lit. Thus the fourth series had the narrative crammed into it leaving the fifth with little to do, only truly reaching its high in the final episode "Sleeping in Light". Why was this series messed around with? Well, the powers that be wanted a spin-off series, too blind to see they were destroying the very thing they wanted to prolong. The spin off was an abysmal failure. Why do games and their developers fail? There will of course be information that we are not privy to in each of these cases. Perhaps the games were vastly over-budget. The games cancelled mid-development may have been further from completion than I believed or were over ambitious in their scope and rather than scale back, cancelling was preferable. Or maybe it was simply personal or creative differences. For whatever reason I certainly would have loved to see the games come to fruition and I wonder what inner politics during development led to their downfall. Now we come to the second type of company and no matter how strange the first are, the second are even more curious. Their are a few examples that spring to mind in this category, from Eidos' impossible release schedule that destroyed the Tomb Raider series by not giving sufficient time for innovation, to the merciless march of the Army Men. Two prime examples stand out above all others, a lovely pair of double D's, Daikatana and Duke Nukem Forever. I want to make it clear that I am not out to vilify the companies or individuals responsible, far from it. I have the utmost respect and admiration for anyone who has the energy, enthusiasm and courage to go out and create a game and release it to the unforgiving public. For those of you not familiar with the story of Daikatana it was the brainchild of an id Software employee called John Romero. He left id to form Ion Storm alongside Tom Hall with grandiose ideas about big epic games, large teams, fantastic designs, plush offices and all the cokes you can drink. Back in the optimistic technology boom he got it. The game was being developed for the Quake engine, then when Quake 2 was released they decided to switch engines to keep Daikatana looking competitive. This was not an easy move. The team suffered personal and technical difficulties and was burning money rapidly. The game suffered lengthy delays and when released was a critical and commercial failure. Now Daikatana had some commendable design elements that just didn't quite work together. Why do games and their developers fail? How did this game ever reach the shelves though? In November 1998 the game was a year behind schedule and eight key team members, dubbed the “Ion Eight”, walked out on the company. Surely that should have sent alarm bells ringing at Eidos that all was not well in the glass tower. I wouldn't advocate firing the personnel, instead why not take the talent and put them to work on other projects. After all, Ion Storm was also working on (in separate offices) Deus Ex and Anachronox. The fact that Daikatana was finished despite all the problems is a credit to John Romero's passion and drive for the project and I personally would like to see him return as a lead designer for PC games. Finally though let us talk a bit about one of the most long awaited games ever, Duke Nukem Forever. As the saying goes, he who does not understand history is doomed to repeat it. And Duke Nukem looks a lot like Daikatana from where I sit. It has suffered huge delays. It has an ambitious design, probably unrealisable. It has a following whose hopes are so high that it could not possibly meet the expectation. Evidence of this point can be seen looking over the forums at 3D Realms website where one blind worshipper believed that once released Duke Nukem might destroy the games industry by raising the standard beyond everyone else. Has this fool been living in a dream world, has he not played some of the amazing games that have come out in the five years that Duke has been in development? Ironically 3D Realms made the decision way back in 1998 to switch to the Unreal engine to save time! How many other Unreal-powered games have been released since then? I'm going to go further than 3D Realms are prepared to, and make an educated guess that it will be out by the end of the second quarter of 2003 or it will never see the light of day at all. How have I reached this conclusion? Well, given that the 3D Realms website contains no new information for that past two years about the game (and the movie/screenshots no longer cut the mustard) I base it on two premises. One, if it was going to be released for this Christmas we would have heard something, anything, about it by now. Two, if it is not out by the end of the second quarter 2003 then Doom 3 will be all too nigh on the horizon. And if the brief history of computer games has told us one thing it's that nobody can beat John Carmack on his own turf. I would like to believe that Duke Nukem Forever, or the next Tomb Raider, will be great. That they'll make me eat my words. But when these games come out, all I'll be able to think about is how great Outcast 2 or Babylon 5 might have been. I suppose I have the better of the two worlds in this instance. In mine I can pretend that Outcast 2 was a monumental epic game that rivalled all before it. In Duke's, the game as always, will have the final say and all the hype and expectation will only add salt to the wound. Why do games and their developers fail? Now I’ve had my say, I’d like to hear your thoughts. What do you think of those pulling the strings in the games industry, are they making the right choices and the right games? What about Duke Nukem Forever, a destined failure, or potential ground-breaker 3D Realms suggest. Use the comments form below to vocalise and discuss.
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