Nicholas Lovell chronicles 10 games which eventually killed their creators
[About the author: Game industry consultant and analyst Nicholas Lovell is also the man behind GamesBrief, a leading game trade publication where the following article originates.]
At the end of last year, we saw a lot of lists of best games of the decade. But we didn’t read about the turkeys.
The games that really flopped. The games industry’s equivalent of Waterworld. Or Ishtar. Or Heaven’s Gate.
I’m not just talking about games that were bad. There are lots of those. I’m talking about games that took down companies. Some of them were never released. Some of them came out and no-one cared. Some of them even made decent sales – just nowhere near enough to cover the costs.
And all of them were costly for someone. Several of them destroyed companies. Some destroyed careers. Others were, in my view, brave and sensible gambles that didn’t pay off.
So there is some schadenfreude in this list. But also a great deal of respect. Because you can’t make great games without taking risks.
Argonaut was a poster child for Britsoft for 20 years. Founded in 1982 by a precociously young Jez San (who received an OBE for his services to the games industry in 2002), the company was best known in its early years for Starglider on the Atari ST/Amiga and Starfox on the Super NES. The company took VC money from Apax in 1996 and floated in 2000.
The company then developed a reputation for working on character-based games: Croc, Harry Potter, Catwoman.
But it was Malice that caused Argonaut the biggest headache. Touted as “one of the most impressive games on the Xbox" prior to the launch of the console, it was used as a tech demo for the new platform and was due to be published by Microsoft Game Studios. Then the bad news started. Gameplay redesigns. A switch of publisher to Vivendi Universal Games. A rumour that the game was going to be held back for the launch of the unannounced Xbox 2. Then, in May 2003, Vivendi Universal Games canned it.
Argonaut was a big developer by this stage (over 200 people, if memory serves). The Malice cancellation coincided with the canning of another project (Orchid), and commercial challenges over Catwoman. The writing was on the wall for one of Britsoft’s founding companies.
Malice was eventually published by Mud Duck in North America and Evolved Games in Europe to mediocre reviews. Two months later, Argonaut called in the receivers.
Flagship Studios was founded in a blaze of publicity in 2003 when the team behind Diablo quit Blizzard to go it alone.
Their first (and only published) project was Hellgate: London. Set in a post-apocalyptic London, the game was an action role-playing game not dissimilar to Diablo, but in 3D.
The game launched in October 2007. It was a PC-only title and failed to live up to (admitted extremely high) expectations.
As Bill Roper, CEO of Flagship Studios put it in an interview with PC Zone: “”…we simply tried to do too much with the game…Vista, DirectX 10, being both a single-player boxed product and a multiplayer online game, a simultaneous launch in seven languages across Europe, the US and South East Asia, and creating our own fully-featured online destination on top of all that.” He all but admitted that the game was released before it was ready in order to meet its committed release date of Halloween.
A Metacritic score of 70 didn’t set the world on fire. Flagship then had to go out and find new publishers for projects from a studio that had taken four and a half years to launch its first game (with a huge budget) on a single platform.
A tough call.
In the end, they couldn’t. 1UP covers the whole story brilliantly in an interview with Bill Roper. But a summary could read like this:
A team from a hugely successful, well-funded company went independent and tried to build the best game they possibly could. It cost too much, had too big a scope and was full of bugs. They learned a lot but the process of learning was too expensive.
Flagship Studios filed for bankruptcy in 2008.
Majestic didn’t deserve to be a turkey. And Electronic Arts doesn’t deserve to be pilloried for it. But a much hyped game that lost Electronic Arts between $5 and $7 million died on its arse.
The game was innovative, alright. An Alternate Reality Game (ARG), Majestic didn’t take place on a single platform. Instead, the game was a conspiracy theory played out across multiple media including special websites, instant messenger, phone and email. Players were drawn into a science fiction thriller and EA was going after the “War of the Worlds thing”, referencing Orson Welles’ famous radio version of War of the Worlds that caused some listeners to believe it was real.
The game wasn’t helped by 9/11. Since it involved players being drawn into a web of conspiracy that could be confused with potential terrorist action, EA suspended the game temporarily after the attacks.
But the real problem was that although the game was critically praised, players wouldn’t pay for it. 800,000 people started to register for the game, but only 71,000 completed the registration (according to CNN).That number fell to 15,000 who were actually prepared to pay for it, paying either $9.95 a month or, later, a flat fee of $40 for a retail copy with unlimited online play.
As a CNN headline on Majestic’s demise put it: “PC gamers demand something different, then promptly reject it.”
Angel of Darkness marked the point at which Eidos’ demise as an independent publisher became inevitable.
Ever since Lara Craft burst onto our screens in 1996, she had been the darling of the media. And the stock market. It seemed as if whenever Eidos’ share price wobbled, all the company had to do was announce a new Tomb Raider and the stock would surge.
But there came a point when relying on a tired franchise, poorly executed, would no longer rescue them. And that point was with Angel of Darkness.
The game shipped on 30 June 2003, the last day of Eidos’ financial year. If the company released the game on that day, it could recognise the initial orders as revenue in the 2002/03 financial year. If it failed, then it would not meet its financial targets for the year.
So the game was released and critically panned. Over the next two years, Eidos’ finances became progressively worse until eventually a bitter takeover battle led to acquisition by SCi and the departure of most of the management responsible for Angel of Darkness. Core Design was sold to Rebellion and Crystal Dynamics took over development duties for Tomb Raider: Legend.
Eidos never fully recovered and was acquired for £84.3 million by Square Enix in February 2009.
John Romero’s Ion Storm started with a bang. Founded in a blaze of publicity in 1996, the company’s slogan was “Design is Law.”
Daikatana was originally planned to be released in time for Christmas 1997. It was based on the Quake engine, and early advertising consisted of a blood red poster with the words “John Romero is about to make you his bitch”. But when id Software showcased the much-improved Quake II engine, Ion Storm realised that it would need to upgrade.
The switchover, and a range of design challenges, led to delay after delay. Daikatana was finally released in June 2000, over two and a half years late.
Gamers weren’t convinced the wait was worth it. A buggy game with sidekicks (touted as an innovation) who more often caused you hindrance than helped and a uninspiring enemies achieved an average rating of 53.
By this time, Eidos is believed to have invested over $25 million in the studio. And they called it a day. Eidos closed the Dallas Ion Storm office in 2001.
The full story is covered brilliantly in Masters of Doom: How Two Guys Created an Empire and Transformed Pop Culture by David Kushner, which I highly recommend.
It pains me to include this title because Richard Garriott is a personal hero of mine. The Ultima series of games from Origin Systems were the seminal games of my childhood and Ultima Online is one of the only MMOs I have ever become immersed in.
Electronic Arts acquired Origin Systems in 1992. The relationship between Richard Garriott and the corporate structure at EA was not a happy one (see Brad King and John Borland’s Dungeons and Dreamers for a great insight into Origin/EA, as well as the early days of id Software.) In March 2000, Richard quit.
He founded Destination Games, which partnered with NCsoft to launch new massively multiplayer games. Richard helped out on City of Heroes & City of Villains, but, in 2007, Tabula Rasa was the first game released by his new company.
Tabula rasa means “clean slate” in Latin, a fresh start for the man who was instrumental in the creation of the RPG genre and then the MMO genre. And Tabula Rasa was nothing if not ambitious.
A new and innovative combat system. Cutting-edge graphics. Even a brand new language. The game cost an estimated $69 million of NCsoft’s money.
And the gamble didn’t pay off.
Tabula Rasa did OK. Not spectacularly, not terribly. But it had cost a lot a make and, like all MMOs, had substantial ongoing costs. NCsoft took only fifteen months to declare the Tabula Rasa experiment over and close the game. At least 120 people were made redundant from NCsoft, and the entire Western operation was re-organised.
Richard and NCsoft remain in dispute over his allegedly forced departure from the company.
And it all makes me very sad.
Things were looking good for the Nottingham-based developers when Ubisoft commissioned them to develop Haze, a first-person shooter set in a world where the army pumps its soldiers full of narcotics to help them fight better.
The game was first announced at E3 in 2006. It was to be a multi-platform release (PlayStation 3, Xbox 360, PC) in Summer 2007.
It was not to be.
The game slipped to Winter 2007. The 360 and PC skus were dropped. The game was eventually released 12 months late in May 2008 to mixed reviews (Metacritic average: 55). Reviewers acknowledged the ambition of Free Radical’s design, but it was let down by glitchy graphics, shallow characters and weak story.
Six months later, Free Radical filed for administration with the loss of 140 jobs. Crytek, the German developer, acquired the rump of Free Radical and renamed it Crytek UK.
After the acquisition, Karl Hilton, now managing director of Crytek UK, blamed the complexity of the PS3 for Haze’s shortcomings.
Whatever the reason, Haze was the last title that Free Radical developed.
It seems a bit challenging to put a game in this list when it never saw the light of day.
But Dragon Empires was the game that brought Codemasters to its knees, and ultimately saw the end of the involvement of Codies’ founders the Darling brothers.
Dragon Empires was incredibly ambitious with high-quality graphics in a massively-multiplayer online game consisting of “player versus player clan action across 100 lands spread over 5 empires”. The title was announced in September 2001 with a release date of Q2 2002.
The date slipped.
Codemasters showed prototype code at E3 2003, with a release date of September that year. Then spring 2004.
Finally, in September 2004, Codemasters announced the end of the project. Codemasters’ development director Gary Dunn said: “unexpected obstacles with the server code, in particular our ability to serve clients at a scale which would have permitted us to launch the game as an MMO.” Because of the delays, Codemasters undertook a six-week review of the viability of the project; ultimately, it was decided that it would take too much time and cost too much money to fix the problems.
It’s hard to estimate how much Dragon Empires cost. But a full team for 4-5 years does not come cheap.
Balderton Capital bought a 40% equity stake in the company in 2005. By June 2007, Balderton had acquired 100% of the company, ending the Darlings’ involvement in the company they founded in 1986.
Can a game that sold five million units really be a turkey?
If it still doesn’t make money, it can.
Enter the Matrix was designed to integrate with The Matrix Reloaded, the second movie in the Matrix trilogy. Both game and movie suffered from a disjointed plotline that required viewers/players to participate in both to make sense of the story.
Reviews weren’t great (Metacritic: 62) and despite Enter the Matrix’s sales figures, Atari still reported a thumping great loss of $38.6 million in the financial year to March 31 2004 (or a profit of $766,000 if you include a one-off dividend the company received.)
Atari had one last stab at a Matrix title, producing The Path of Neo in 2005. The game adapted all three films into a PS2/Xbox brawler, complete with a new ending for the franchise. But it wasn't enough to offset what were probably very costly licence terms, and Atari didn’t renew the option to make a third and final Matrix game. After all, the company didn’t make a profit on Enter The Matrix, even when that title that sold five million units. And given the critical battering that the films and the games received, Atari clearly didn’t want to try again.
Eventually, Atari founder Bruno Bonnell was forced out as CEO in November 2004. Atari has been in almost-permanent restructuring ever since, with five chief executives in the last five years.
And while Enter the Matrix is not entirely to blame, it is symptomatic of the whole sorry saga.
Could any list of turkeys omit Duke Nukem Forever?
Duke Nukem Forever has been in development since 1997. Originally announced as a sequel to the 1996 title Duke Nukem 3D, endless slipped released dates led developer 3D Realms to announce in 2001 that it would be “released when it’s done”.
Duke Nukem has seen multiple engines (Apogee’s inhouse Build, id Software’s Quake II, Epic’s Unreal, then further inhouse adjustments), several publishers (GT Interactive, Gathering of Developers, Take Two Interactive) and endless new features and ideas. 3D Realms has claimed that it has invested over $20 million of its own money in the title, over and above any publisher advances.
It’s hard to give the ins and outs of Duke Nukem’s decade of development hell in a short space. Wikipedia makes a decent fist of it so I would recommend you check that out if you’re interested.
But the end game is that after a decade of teasers and trailers, Duke Nukem Forever officially became vapourware. Take Two announced that it owned the rights to Duke Nukem Forever but that it would not fund it, and 3D Realms laid off almost all of its staff in May 2009.
Duke Nukem Forever may hold the record for the longest development schedule of any game in history. It may be some time before anyone challenges that record.