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Ten Turkeys from the Noughties – part 1
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. (Hell, if I’d finished this at the end of 2009, I could have written “you can’t have Christmas without turkeys”. Does that work as a metaphor?)
Anyway, here it is then. My top ten turkeys of the last decade.
Part 1 today. Part 2 available here.
And, as usual, please let me know of any I missed in the comments.
Malice, Argonaut, 2004
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 hold 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.
Hellgate: London, Flagship Studios, 2007
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, Electronic Arts, 2001
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.”
Tomb Raider: Angel of Darkness, Core Design, 2003
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.
Daikatana, Ion Storm
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.
And if you want to guess who else is in the list, just write them in the comments.