Behind the Vapor: Games That Never Debuted
If you've checked out Crispy Gamer's coverage of the Game Developers Conference (GDC) over this past week, you've likely salivated at the prospect of so many promising games on the horizon.
But what if the best of the show never makes it to retail?
Duke Nukem Forever
It could happen, as many hundreds of announced (and often, much-hyped) games in development never debut -- either because it takes so long to develop it falls into the dreaded "vaporware" abyss or it's officially canceled by the publisher.
It's a reality in the multibillion dollar interactive entertainment industry -- one that's often swept under the rug in the hopes that the community will forget these games even existed. Not only could this majorly disappoint a hardcore player eagerly awaiting the game's release, but this isn't easy for the developer whose team likely poured blood, sweat and tears into the project day after day, for years.
So, what happens? Surely, a game maker doesn't anticipate a 24-month project taking four years, nor would it expect a publisher to pull the plug on funding.
Is it vaporware or not?
First, let's differentiate the term "vaporware" from a canceled game. "Vaporware is any announced product -- in this case, a videogame -- that doesn't ship, year after year," says N'Gai Croal, an independent videogame design consultant and former Newsweek editor. "Vapor, of course, implies hot air [blown by the developer or publisher about its game], so if you put a mirror up to its mouth it's still alive -- as opposed to a killed game, which is, well, dead."
Perhaps the most notorious example of vaporware in the videogame world is 3D Realms' Duke Nukem Forever, first announced back in 1997. Yes, 12 years ago. Though promised to launch "when it's done," the cheeky first-person shooter has never seen the light of day, yet has not been officially canceled either. An example of a killed game, on the other hand, is Blizzard's StarCraft: Ghost, a sci-fi stealth action game announced in 2002 and cancelled in 2006.
OK, so why does it happen?
The reasons why a videogame never makes it to launch can vary greatly from project to project.
One reason is that the development team changes personnel over time, and it can be difficult to fill another person's shoes. "The Duke Nukem Forever team, for example, has gone through a lot of staff changes over the years, which can be very tough on everyone -- and keep in mind it's hard to motivate a team under these conditions, too," says Croal.
"If a developer loses a key programmer or lead artist, or wants to accelerate development time on a game, the corporate knee-jerk reaction is to simply throw more money at it and hire additional people," explains Billy Pidgeon, videogame analyst at the IDC technology research firm. "But this can add stress on the team and, ironically, slow down production, because existing developers now have to bring the new programmers up to speed and work on the game, too. It becomes a clusterf*ck, essentially," adds Pidgeon, who worked in game development as a producer at Acclaim and Hi Tech Expressions before becoming an industry analyst.
Another reason why games fail to make it to market is because technology changes over time, which can make a late game look outdated. "Games are built on a foundation of technology; and sometimes it can be cement, as in a case like a competent company like Valve, while at other times it can be like quicksand," says Croal. "There is a real risk when you have a window of time for a certain look -- if you wait too long and miss your window, it can be perceived as behind-the-times and negatively impact critical reception of game." Croal also cites id Software's star programmer John Carmack, who once stated that "great design you can't implement in a reasonable amount of time is a bad design."
Duke Nukem Forever
(Changing engines can also delay production. Duke Nukem Forever, for instance, famously switched from the Quake II engine to Epic's Unreal engine in the summer of 1998.)
A third reason is when the publisher feels the game isn't living up to the franchise's reputation, and as a result would rather kill production than release a substandard product. In the case of StarCraft: Ghost, Pidgeon says the concept might have seemed like a good idea on paper but not translated to a great gameplay experience. "Here you have a property where expectations are so high -- Blizzard has even reached legendary status in countries like [South] Korea -- and if a company feels that property can be damaging because it's a substandard game, it's a good thing to kill it," says Pidgeon.
A videogame that misses its launch window might lose out on sales or marketing opportunities, such as a movie-based game that is supposed to coincide with the film. Though it wasn't directly tied to the 2008 film "Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull," perhaps one factor that led LucasArts to cancel its Indiana Jones videogame was that it didn't make it in time for the theatrical release or DVD/Blu-ray launch. The game might also have not lived up to the publisher's expectations, and with an IP as big as Indiana Jones, one must also consider the effect on the movie license and merchandising line.
It's OK to kill games
While it can be heartbreaking to read about a favorite game being canceled, the alternative is probably a worse scenario.
"Big companies can afford to scrub a subpar game, but for some smaller publishers, some revenue on a game is better than none," says Croal. Perhaps this is why a billion-dollar publisher like Electronic Arts can halt development on its Batman: The Dark Knight game, while less-financially stable publishers might decide to launch the game anyway and throw marketing dollars at it in the hopes it sells well. "The problem with that," continues Croal, "is that a stinker here and there for a big company can be OK, but can ruin smaller publishers."
"It's probably better if a lot more games were taken behind the barn and shot," suggests Pidgeon, "because there's a lot of garbage out there."
Mum is the word
In preparation for this feature on vaporware and canceled games, we found all of the publishers we contacted -- except for Blizzard -- declined to comment on their failed games. Is it because it's like rubbing salt in the wound?
"Success has many fathers, while failure is an orphan," says Croal. "A lot of people [at LucasArts] want to talk about Star Wars: The Force Unleashed or LEGO Star Wars, but who wants to talk about Indiana Jones? A good deal of money was spent on it and people lost their jobs over it, so when you have a failure -- especially for a game that was showed publicly, with a brand like Indiana Jones -- it will be hard to get info on what happened on it."
"It's almost like talking about a miscarriage -- losing a game is a sore spot with developers; plus, they may be restrained legally on what they can say about it, such as contract negotiations going south," says Pidgeon.
What's the best way to approach marketing for a "vaporware" game that eventually launches? In the case of Duke Nukem Forever, the answer is with a great deal of humor, suggests Pidgeon. "If the game ever comes out, I'd inject it with a great deal of B-movie humor, because there's no way the product can live up to the hype at this point. Humor fits the Duke Nukem franchise, too." Pidgeon -- who relates Duke Nukem Forever to Guns N' Roses' infamous "Chinese Democracy" (an album that allegedly started in 1994 but didn't launch until late in 2008) -- says he'd also bring the price down to $20 and do a "volume play" to spur sales.
The best games that never were
Here's a brief look at some of the higher-profile games we never played:
Announced in September 2002, Blizzard Entertainment's StarCraft: Ghost was a third-person tactical action game, designed for the PlayStation 2, Microsoft Xbox and Nintendo GameCube. Based in the StarCraft universe, the game starred a futuristic female soldier, Nova, in charge of the human Ghost squad. With high-tech weaponry and vehicles, a Hostile Environmental Suit (to enhance her speed and strength) and psionic abilities, Nova led the fight against hostile alien creatures from the Protoss and Zerg races. The publisher also demonstrated multiplayer support for the game.
"We made the decision to put StarCraft: Ghost on hold because we felt our resources were better used supporting our PC and Mac development [and] that?s where our focus is currently, with World of Warcraft, StarCraft II and Diablo III," says Bob Colayco, public relations manager for Blizzard Entertainment.
Adventure game fans might recall learning that Blizzard had also canceled development on a planned point-and-click adventure game, Warcraft Adventures: Lord of the Clans, based in the Orc-tastic Warcraft universe.
In the fall of 2004, legendary game designer Peter Molyneux and UK-based Lionhead Studios announced they were canceling development on the prehistoric Xbox title, B.C., first shown in 2001 at a European press event.
Developed by Lionhead's internal group Intrepid Computer Entertainment, the game was to be an immersive action/adventure hybrid, in which the player controlled a tribe of cavemen. Gameplay included building up and defending the tribe's resources from nasty dinosaurs. (Yes, we know humans and dinosaurs didn't actually live on earth at the same time.)
"The decision to suspend work on any games project is always a very difficult one, particularly when it is a title with the potential of B.C.," wrote Lionhead's Molyneux in a brief announcement on the company's Web site five years ago. "We hope to revive the project at a later date, and will endeavor to assign as many of the team as possible to other Lionhead projects."
While an undisputed game design genius, Molyneux has a reputation of taking a long time to develop games, and many of the features he divulges don't make it into the games. "Molyneux likes to talk about his games before the gameplay is fully locked down, which is both good and bad," agrees Croal. "It's good because he can gauge the response to his ideas, as games are a heavily iterative process, but the flipside is, he sets high expectations." Croal brings up the famous example from Fable, where Molyneux, when discussing how "alive" the world was, said that if you knocked an acorn off a tree, a new tree would grow where it fell. It wasn't in the final game.
At the 2006 E3 Expo, the LucasArts room was all abuzz over its Indiana Jones videogame for the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3. Not only did it star Dr. Jones, one of the most recognized adventurers in pop culture, but it showed off "Euphoria" technology and a "digital molecular matter" system that helped make the game look and feel unscripted. For example, Indy might fall a different way each time he was knocked down, depending on the physics of the impact.
As recent as January 2009, a LucasArts rep allegedly told Joystiq the company remained "absolutely committed" to the Indiana Jones franchise. "While we are aware that fans have been eagerly awaiting additional information on the upcoming game, they can rest assured that details are forthcoming."
Hmm. Perhaps LucasArts was referring to Indiana Jones and the Staff of Kings, due out this June for the Nintendo Wii, PlayStation 2, DS and PSP.
Duke Nukem Forever
Duke Nukem Forever
"Our most ambitious project ever is finally done," said Scott Miller, CEO of 3D Realms, on Apr. 1, 2007. "We?re excited to get the game into everyone?s hands and let them experience it for themselves. We hope they enjoy it. I think it?s our best game yet." In case you missed the date of the announcement, this was an April Fools' joke.
Despite published screenshots and a vague video trailer, Duke Nukem Forever still hasn't launched and the Texas-based company won't comment on its status.
The follow-up to the blockbuster PC game Duke Nukem 3D, which launched in January of 1996, was also to be a first-person shooter featuring the over-the-top violence, language and sexual themes found in its predecessor. The location was to be in Las Vegas, when a retired Duke, who owns a casino known as "The Lady Killer," comes under attack from aliens.