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Top Turkeys from the Noughties – part 2

By on January 18, 2010

Last week, I listed five games that left financial ruin in their wake in the first decade of the twenty-first century (you can read Part 1 here).

Here are the concluding five. Five games that their publishers would rather forget.

Tabula Rasa, NCsoft, 2007

Tabula Rasa packshot

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 200, 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.

Haze, Free Radical/Ubisoft, 2008

Haze packshot

Free Radical had a very strong pedigree. The core team worked at Rare on classic N64 titles like GoldenEye and Perfect Dark. Then they founded Free Radical and developed Timesplitters.

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.

Dragon Empires, Codemasters, never

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.

Enter the Matrix, Shiny/Atari, 2003

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.)

Tellingly, Atari did not renew its option to make two further games based on the Matrix franchise. While it’s possible that Atari simply didn’t have the cash resources to make further AAA titles, it’s also possible that the licence terms were so onerous that the company didn’t make a profit even on a title that sold five million units. And given the critical battering that the films and the game received, perhaps it was a wise decision.

Either way, 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.

Duke Nukem Forever, 3D Realms/Take 2, never

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.

That’s it. The top ten turkeys of the Noughties. Are they any you disagree with? Any others that should be in here? Should I have squeezed Ubisoft’s Avatar tie-in into the list at the last minute? Let me know your thoughts

About Nicholas Lovell

Nicholas is the founder of Gamesbrief, a blog dedicated to the business of games. It aims to be informative, authoritative and above all helpful to developers grappling with business strategy. He is the author of a growing list of books about making money in the games industry and other digital media, including How to Publish a Game and Design Rules for Free-to-Play Games, and Penguin-published title The Curve: