The game reached a near-complete state, with 3 stages finished, and 3 bonus stages after each ‘main’ level. Each stage was different in some way, such as the first being a normal scrolling brawler-style stage, the second being closer to a platform game, and the third being a unique concept, where Dredd has to fight off waves of ‘block warriors’, making sure that the two ever-decreasing bars never reach the bottom- if one of them is emptied, the stage is over and has to be repeated. After the final level is beaten, the game ends with a preview for the next level, apparently featuring the character Judge Death from the comics.
Gaming Hell managed to get in touch with Jake Simpson, former programmer on Judge Dredd, and former artist Erik Kinkead. Both shared details about the development of the game and why it was ultimately cancelled:
So, after the success of Terminator 2 – The Arcade Game, Midway were looking for another movie license to make an arcade game out of, and since the Judge Dredd movie had been announced at the time, they decided to grab the license and beat the cinemas to it. Utilising a slightly-better form of digitised graphics than the original Mortal Kombat (pioneered in this game) it was planned for release in 1993. The inspiration came from a different source.
Jake Simpson: The actual premise of the game was it was supposed to be a cross between Mortal Kombat and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles – we literally had one in my office to play, the 4 player version…
It’s a scrolling brawler! You should be familiar with what’s gonna go down by this point- just fight through waves of enemies, and beat the boss character at the end of the stage. In fairness, it’s a rather sophisticated one for its time, as each stage is different in some way, be it the controls or the mission objective. It’s definitely a different approach than the norm.
Jake Simpson: We wanted each level to have a different mechanic (although not too different) because at the time, no one else had done that, at least not in a brawler.
The layout is actually recycled from NARC, Williams‘ ultra-violent run-and-gunner.
Jake Simpson: The control panel was used because ‘everyone else said it had worked out well with Narc. This was my first game, so I just let it go. (…) The jumping level with the robots literally went in about a month before test. It was only because Eric had done some renders of robots and we looked at it them and went “What can we do with this?” – Eric and I built that alone very quickly… I’d never even attempted to code a platformer before and had no real idea what I was doing. (…)
Yes, some of the levels were too hard. They were absolutely designed to be quarter suckers. The trouble with games like this – story games – is that most of the time people will only play through once. This isn’t a sports or combat game where you play to test your skills against another player, so you replay. This is a once through kind of game, so we needed to take as many quarters as we could without pissing off the player, so things were definitely harder than they should be for playing for free on Mame.
After the third shooting gallery, the game abruptly ends and you’re greeted by this screen, which promises that “DEATH IS COMING….”. Obviously, the next stage would’ve involved Judge Death somehow, but how?
Jake Simpson: The last level was basically Judge Death in Resyk – he was reanimating corpses that were rolling out on a conveyor belt at the back of the screen and you were shooting them and him – you’d have your gun but it could be knocked out of your hand and you’d be manno e-manno until another one dropped into the level. The Judge Death stuff was about 60-70% done. We had Judge Death leaping around and attacking you, that much I do remember. I don’t remember if he was reanimating corpses though, even though I knew that was the plan.
Also, in case you’re wondering why Death looks so crazy-awesome here, it’s because he was a mannequin, much like Leglock and Goro from Mortal Kombat. Eric Kinkead was particularly impressed with it.
Erik Kinkead: Oh man, that Judge Death model was so awesome. At least, if not as cool as Goro. I would go into either Tim Coman or John Vogel‘s office and look at that thing constantly. Although that close up picture of him… Doesn’t do the model justice.
However, it was never released. Hell, it wasn’t even completed, but was playtested in Chicago. Unfortunately, the locaction test didn’t quite go to plan, so the plug was pulled on the project.
JakeSimpson: We were still relatively early in development to be testing – normally the game doesn’t go out on test till it’s 100% complete and we weren’t – but we were starting to get glimmers of the fact that this wasn’t going to be great and we wanted to know early so we could just put a bullet in it and stop wasting our time, if that was the case.
I think part of the reason we did abandon it was because it *was* such a labor of love, and it just wasn’t living up to our expectations, either in what the game was or how it was doing on test.
We never finished it because we put it out on test and it just didn’t do great numbers… I remember having a bug that crashed the game in the block wars and that totally destroyed our on test numbers. I remember at the time NBA JAM was out, Mortal Kombat was out, and our numbers were no where near theirs, so we all got very demoralized and just gave up. In retrospect we _should_ have finished this – Midway paid for the license and we should have completed it. We probably could have in a month. I remember the meeting where we all sat there and looked at each other and just shrugged and said “What were we thinking?”. We were young and stupid. Enough said.
Both Jake and Eric remember a different level that was cut- a Spy Hunter-esque racing stage using Dredd’s Lawmaster.
Jake Simpson: There was another level we had which got cut – the motorcycle chase. It was a top down thing, where you were on his bike and you had to chase a car on a high ramp over the city. The ramp was damaged so you had to jump sections… We cut it because honestly, it was no challenge. A few jumps, some left and right and that was it. Looked gorgeous though, but all that really nice Mega City At Night imagery took up way too much image space, so we cut it entirely.
Sadly, the Lawmaster chase stage was gutted from the location test version to make space for the Death stage.
Jake Simpson: The code for the Motorcycle was there, but none of the graphics were.
Fortunately, the game was preserved, to an extent- although only four boards were ever made, a version of the game slightly older than the version play-tested was dumped and is available to play in MAME.
Jake Simpson: Only 4 machines were made. I had one, that went to my sisters pub in the UK and was destroyed when that burnt down. One went to Tim Coman, one went to Mark Penacho and I’ve no idea where the last one ended up. I also have no idea how the roms got out into the world – I will say that they weren’t the final ones we put out in the world though.
Return to the West that never was in this genre-blending total conversion for Unreal Tournament 2004. Equipped with an array of steam-powered weaponry, acrobatic skills, and mystic Spirit Powers only you stand against a ruthless, mechanized foe. A self-styled “steampunk fantasy-western,” Damnation stands apart, providing the gaming community with not only fresh, new gameplay, but an untapped world to explore as well. Damnation is a new breed of gaming experience. As a first/3rd person action/adventure title, Damnation’s gameplay is unprecedented. Combining the immersion and precision-gunplay of a traditional first-person shooter like Call of Duty with the navigational puzzle design of 3rd-person adventure titles like Prince of Persia: Sands of Time, Damnation is a new paradigm in genre-blending gameplay.
In September 2005, the team wrote a postmortem on BeyondUnreal about what was going to be their next plan about the project:
We sit here, now, in the newly formed office of Blue Omega Entertainment and look forward to starting full production of the retail version of Damnation in just over a month. The lessons we learned from the prototype have strongly shaped the structure of this new development studio. Since our Grand Finals submission, we have completely stopped development of the mod. We have spent the last four months doing nothing but preproduction. We have meticulously planned out our design docs, production pipelines, and schedule. Everything that went wrong with the prototype has been addressed and reworked from the ground up.
Most prototypes aren’t as fully realized as Damnation: Hell Breaks Loose. We didn’t necessarily need to put as much effort and time as we did into creating polished art assets just to test out the game design. Given the chance to do it over, I don’t think we would change that though. Taking the art production pipeline as far as we did on the prototype showed us where all the holes were. It taught us what we could outsource and what absolutely had to stay in-house. We were able to make mistakes that on the full game could have cost us millions, but on the mod were only annoyances.
In the end, even though we didn’t win the license, we feel that the prototype was a success. We were able to test out our game design and get tons of great feedback from the mod community. We now know that we are more than capable of taking the Damnation concept to completion and we feel confident that it will be a great game. In fact, the lessons we learned about valuing quality over quantity ensure that whether the final game matches our current vision or not, it will be fun. We believe that that focus alone is enough to make it a success.
Blue Omega tried to pitch their Unreal Mod to develop it into a commercial game and when they found a publisher interested in the project, the team worked hard to expand Damnation into a full title for the then next gen consoles. But the development of this new version didn’t go as planned: officially revealed in March 2008 for a release planned in December of the same year, the title was pushed back in 2009 for a release in May. Damnation received unfavorable reviews by the press.
In January 2013, VentureBeat investigated with former Lead Game Designer Jacob Minkoff what went wrong during the development:
Damnation was intended to be something very special. The game germinated from a hybrid first/third-person action game entered into the first Make Something Unreal competition in 2004. While it didn’t win, production continued with a full retail release as the ultimate goal. Aspirations were high among the team, and its plans for the game were lofty.
Blue Omega was aiming high with Damnation. It wanted to create huge battlefields that player and adversary alike could traverse any way they saw fit. It was seeking to create both organic locations and enemies, throw the player into the mix, and watch the emergent gameplay spiral out of control in the most fantastic of ways. Things eventually did spiral, though no one, especially the player, benefited in the least.
“Damnation was a product of a green team that didn’t really know what they were doing. It was my first professional game development project; the same was true of many members of the core team.”
The eagerness of the team also led them to overlook the huge challenge set by the new console hardware they were developing for. “We were on the cusp of a new generation, and we learned lessons that have since become common knowledge in game development,” said Minkoff.
In trying to expand upon Damnation so dramatically while working with new hardware, Blue Omega tried to accomplish too much too soon. “Making a sprawling — theoretically — triple-A game on console and PC was simply too much for us to handle,” said Minkoff.
This problem was only exacerbated by the decision to outsource large portions of the game and maintain an uncommonly small in-house team. The strategy was originally intended to afford this core team the greatest level of flexibility and allow it to adapt throughout development. As Minkoff revealed, this simply was not the case in practice.
“Outsourcing was a problem,” he said. “You need the time, experience, and budget to turn on a dime — to throw out what you’ve made and try something else quickly, and within constraints. We did not have the resources or knowledge to do that at Blue Omega.”
This inflexibility, caused by inexperience and outsourcing, led to the game’s woefully protracted development cycle. Few games command four years to make, and when they do finally see release, it’s usually justified with high levels of polish and production value. This was the opposite for Damnation. The longer it stayed in development, the more out of touch and less impressive it became. Level architecture, A.I., textures, animations, movement, physics, audio mixing, sound effects, dialogue, cutscenes, acting, weapons, and general common sense all had their merits eroded over the years it took Damnation to gestate.
“In the end, you usually run out of time or money,” said Minkoff. “With Damnation, we ran out of both. One of the primary reasons why you see so much architectural reuse is because it was cheaper to pay for a retexture than all new geometry. It also took less time to do so, giving us more hope of us meeting our release date.”
It could have been a great game had the team been more experienced, focused, and time-efficient. Minkoff sees the silver lining: “Many games never ship at all because the investment to make the game simply pass console certification would be prohibitive. That it shipped at all is a triumph for Damnation’s team.”
His positivity likely emanates from where Damnation took him next and where he was able to take its fundamental concepts. After the game’s completion, Minkoff moved to Naughty Dog and designed some of the most memorable sections of the Unchartedsequels. There, he was finally able to realize his ambitions for Damnation thanks to an experienced team and appropriate resources.
That the similar yet vastly superior first Uncharted game was in development at the same time as Damnation and saw release two years earlier to critical acclaim is an irony that is not lost on Minkoff. Instead of wallowing in the past, however, he is looking toward the future and building upon his first game’s auspicious past.
“Everyone has to learn somewhere,” he said. “I learned on Damnation.”
More recently, someone claiming to be a close source from the developers wrote under a video by Youtuber Matt McMuscles:
I work for the guys who came up with and had it made. They hired a company to do the coding and worked with a publisher to get it out on the various platforms. It was coming along with issues, as the developer wasn’t listening to my boss, and then the publisher decided that they were tired of waiting and forced them to release it when it was half done. The original concept of the game was awesome, and would have been amazing if they actually made what he paid for. An alternate history of the US where the South won the Civil War, with the tension and conflicts that arise from having an enemy directly border you. With steampunk elements. It sounded really cool.
The retail version retains some of the mod’s gameplay such as the acrobatic moves and spirit vision.
The original Damnation 2004 mod can still be downloaded here.
The license granted EA exclusive rights to develop a series of 2-D and 3-D action-adventure interactive entertainment software products based on the Gen13 comic book series for personal computers, Sony PlayStation, Sega Saturn, and other advanced entertainment platforms.
EA’s games will feature the comic book’s seemingly average teenagers – the Gen13 – who are actually missing subjects from a top-secret government experiment to create super-humans. Escaping from their keepers, the youths are labeled as fugitives who pose a national security threat to the United States. Their only hope for survival is to use their newly-found powers to battle their enemies and to learn the secrets of their past. The Gen13 are kids on their own just trying to have fun – when they’re not running from spies or saving the world.
High Score Entertainment, the studio responsible for Madden NFL 95 and NHL 95, were in charge of producing and designing the Gen13 game. The high level concept was that the Gen13 video game will deliver the detail, depth and play-control of Mario, the great platform/shooter dynamic of Earthworm Jim, the hard-core action of Street Fighter and an adrenalizing soundtrack of heart-thumping techno and contemporary modern rock- with all the mind-blowing artwork and spectacular characters that only the Gen 13 universe can offer!
Regarding its gameplay, Gen13 was going to be a mix of vertical shooter, beat ’em up and one-on-one fighting game, with a cooperative mode:
THE GAMEPLAY: The normal gameplay engine will be similar to that of Earthworm Jim where the player controls at least one of the five different Gen13 characters. There are also “team-up” levels where the AI controls additional players on the screen. In the case of a two-player game, both characters will be actively controlled.
In addition to side scrolling fighting/shooting, the engine will be designed to be flexible, allowing for a variety of scenarios such as: vertical shooter, static screen action, zoomed in cinematic sequences, zoomed out view of gameplay, and forced scrolling action.
The boss combat engine will be a dynamic 3-D environment where the characters can cruise around in an arena. The closer the character is to the “boss,” the closer the camera will be. The camera will zoom out respectively when the characters are apart.
CHARACTER DESIGN: All your favorite Gen13 characters are in the game, each with their own special moves and animation. WildStorm Productions sent EA visual character specifications in order to ensure that the characters are intricately and properly portrayed.
The Gen13 characters can’t get by on their good looks and sparkling personalities alone. Throughout the game will be various ways to help the player survive, in the form of traditional gameplay “power-ups.” Of course, Gen13 offers that extra twist: The Ultra Move. The most potent powerup in the game is the “Ultra Move.” Each character has only one “Ultra Move” hidden somewhere in the levels of the game. The “Ultra Move” is the ultimate manifestation of a character’s Gen Active power.
BOSS DESIGN: The design team asked Jim Lee and J. Scott Campbell to create the bosses for each of the levels. They have also been commissioned to create the mother of all end bosses to climax the Gen13 game. The mother of all bosses will require true teamwork from all of the Gen13 characters in order to defeat. The game ending boss would be introduced in comic form in an upcoming Gen13 series. A possible marketing ploy would be to offer a secret code that is unlocked upon completion of the game that will allow the player to send away for a poster of the mighty end boss.
LEVEL DESIGN: Levels will provide diverse physics and game mechanics to give a variety of challenging gameplay experiences. Levels on skates, on ice, driving vehicles, flying, swimming, or climbing will give the user several types of gameplay to master. The different areas of Gen13 will be truly living and breathing environments. Locations will be chosen not only for good gameplay and storyline, but for exciting and realistic visuals. 25 levels were designed conceptually, many of which were drawn out for the developer. Some of the levels include the Grunge and Freefall traveling to Las Vegas in “Viva Las Vegas”, Fairchild discovering an underground complex under the city in “Down In It”, Grunge saving Freefall from One-Eyed Jack in “No Tut In Common,” and Freefall loose in a shopping mall after hours in “Mall Maul.”
BONUS: Arcade classic bonus games will be hidden throughout the Gen13 game. The games will be spoofs of famous arcade games that are recognized by all. The goal of the bonus games is to score points to earn extra lives.
Once the design documents finished, EA was looking for developers that could have achieved the vision they had for their Gen13 game. Three different game companies made tech demos to show to EA. Those studios were Evolutionary Publishing, Realtime Associates and Gray Matter Inc. Ultimately, Gray Matter was the developer retained by EA.
DEVELOPMENT HISTORY: With the design documents completed, EA proceeded to entertain bids from possible developers. Potential developers included Evolutionary Publishing (Fox Hunt), Realtime Associates (Crusader: No Remorse, Iron Man & X-O Manowar in Heavy Metal), and Gray Matter Inc. (Perfect Weapon). Each developer submitted technical demos for review. It is important to understand that developers have concurrent projects in progress while technical demos are being created and some have more time and resources to dedicate on this than others. The technical demos are not to be taken as indication of how the resulting gameplay would be.
Evolutionary Publishing submitted two progressive interactive technical demos of Rainmaker and Qeelocke. Both demos allowed the user to move the character in a platform environment. The backdrop was from the “Viva Las Vegas” level. The more recent demo allowed Rainmaker to scale the wall of the pyramid in Las Vegas. Evolutionary Publishing decided to utilize 2D sprites for the characters whereas the following two competing developers used 3D models.
Realtime Associates submitted a playable demonstration of their progress in representing Freefall as a real-time rendered 3D model. This demo was put together in less than a week.
Gray Matter Inc. submitted a non-interactive art demo to illustrate the graphics style of the various Gen13 characters including an end boss as well as a fly through to the “Down In It” level. The graphics captured the essence of the design documents and ultimately Gray Matter was chosen as the developer.
But after some months of work, the game was cancelled for economical reasons. Gray Matter shutted down and EA decided to drop the licence.
CANCELLATION: After just a few months of programming, Gray Matter developed two polished interactive levels, an arena mode, and FMV for both the PlayStation and PC. Three different characters were created for the two side-scrolling levels as well as enemies. Four characters and an enemy Boss were programmed for the Arena mode. Unfortunately the agreement between Gray Matter and Electronic Arts reached an impasse due to business politics. As a result Gray Matter closed down therefore ceasing all projects and all employees losing their jobs. Due to the amount of money spent and the popularity of Gen13 wavering, EA decided it was not financially feasible to engage another developer and instead decided to cut their losses.
Like many other games, over the years, the tech demo made by Realtime Associates and the prototype by Gray Matter leaked onto the internet.
Titan A.E. is a cancelled action/shoot ’em up game developed by Blitz Games Studios and published by Fox Interactive, from 1999 to 2000, for the PC and the Playstation. It was based off the animated Sci-Fi adventure film of the same name.
In August 2000, Eurogamer got in touch with Philip Oliver, co-founder of Blitz Games Studios, who explained what happened during the development of the game:
“When Fox purchased the Don Bluth studios they started developing Anastasia, and we were asked to put a concept together for a PlayStation game. They were very impressed, but it was decided that Anastasia was not the right game for the PlayStation, and they produced an activity centre for PCs with somebody else instead. However, they promised that next time they had an opportunity, they would consider us first.”
“Then in January 1999 I got a call asking if we would be available to produce an arcade action game for the new film from Don Bluth – Planet Ice. We started work in March 1999, and a few months later the film was renamed Titan A.E.”
The game was based very closely on the movie, in which a young man by the name of Cale finds himself racing across the galaxy to save what is left of the human race, after the planet Earth was destroyed by a powerful but xenophobic alien species called the Drej. “The storyline of the film reads very much like the plot for a video game, and therefore it made perfect sense to follow the same story and let the player control Cale and Akima [the movie’s love interest], and escape from the Drej to find the Titan.”
The game’s settings and visuals were also closely based on the movie, and “Fox Animation (the Don Bluth group) sent us monthly updates of the film, as well as concept artwork and 3D models of things likes space ships. It’s only been in the last few months that we’ve needed audio, and they have been very supportive.”
It was showed at E3 2000, and IGN wrote some more details on the title:
(…) Titan A.E. pits players as either Cale or Akima as they fight Drej aliens and search for the lost ship known as Titan, which holds the secret to salvaging the last of the human race.
Players can take the game on in two ways, through a third-person action/adventure game, or through the cockpit of a ship. Environments and detailed characters will appear from the movie itself, and the story will parallel the movie, but it’s likely that the development team will take some creative license to create an engaging game on its own.
But only a month later, the project was cancelled after the movie bombed in the box-office:
IGN learned today that Fox Interactive has decided to halt the development of Titan A.E. for PlayStation. Previously set for a fall release in North America, the title was based on the animated film by Don Bluth that completely tanked at the U.S. box offices with a total gross of just over $22 million.
While the poor showing of the movie at the box office seems like a good enough reason to cancel the PlayStation game, according to a PR representative from Fox Interactive it was only one of many different factors that resulted in the decision to discontinue the development of the game.
At Eurogamer, Philip Oliver added:
“Producing video games is a risky business. Development costs are high and time scales long. The public naturally buy things that they have heard of, therefore it removes a great deal of risk to produce games based on popular licenses. Unfortunately it means less creative freedom for us producing the game, and ultimately the game’s success is based more on the license than the game itself. Titan A.E. did not do well at the US box office, and that effected everyone involved in spin-off’s from the movie. It’s a great shame that the American public didn’t buy into Titan A.E. ; I believe lack of marketing had a great deal to do with it. It was a good film, and this sets back the whole movie industry in attempting to create SGI animated sci-fi movies, which ultimately could have been great, as well as a good source of material for the games business.”
Some years later, the playable demo of the game leaked on the internet, and a PSX demo CD is also available for purchase on Ebay.
Before being released in this form, the game was initially planned to be a First-Person Shooter with horror elements. Its development was very chaotic and spanned approximately for 7 years, with various changes of responsabilities and developers, alongside communication issues.
The development story of The Bureau: XCOM Declassified was shared in August 2013 by Polygon. It began in 2005 when 2K Games/Take-Two Interactive acquired the licence from Atari which was in financial trouble. The following year, the publisher boughtIrrational Games which operated in 2 studios, the main office in Boston, Massachusetts, and its subsidiary in Canberra, Australia. Both companies were tasked to work on a new X-COM game and started some different pitches:
In 2005, Take-Two purchased the rights to sci-fi strategy franchise X-COM from Atari. In retrospect, its motive was obvious. The publisher was in the midst of acquiring an enormous amount of talent, and wanted an established video game franchise that could be pushed immediately into development. Following their acquisition by Take-Two in 2006, Irrational Games and sister-studio Irrational Games Australia were renamed 2K Boston (we’ll continue to call it Irrational for clarity, since it switched back to its original name later) and 2K Australia.
Both studios quickly began conceptualizing X-COM games. At this point, Irrational was still a year away from releasing BioShock, which would rocket the studio and 2K Games to mainstream relevance. Irrational team members liked the idea of a second project, and Ken Levine was an outspoken fan of the original X-COM games. A small group crafted a handful of pitches. One of the earliest pitches, claims a source, was a loyal sequel to the classic X-COM games. The engine Irrational used to power its tactical superhero game Freedom Force seemed like a perfect fit for X-COM’s tactical strategy design. However, that concept was scrapped early on for an X-COM first-person shooter.
But translating the storied strategy franchise into a new genre proved difficult. Concepts were created in rapid succession, most of which never made it past the storyboard phase. Ownership of the project bounced back and forth between the Boston and Australia offices as both teams struggled to find a way forward. The pitches shared some similar elements, like the theme of resistance. One pitch imagined Earth post-invasion and full of resistance fighters. The intention was to create scenarios in which humans were outclassed, outmatched and outsized. A source describes one storyboard pitch in which a hero — who resembled Foo Fighters lead singer Dave Grohl — placed boom boxes on plinths in a city square, inspiring humans to rise up against their alien overlords.
In another pitch, which developed into a full demo, the player escaped a commandeered an alien vessel by selecting a location on Earth and transitioning from the ship, through the cloud and onto the ground. In a later scene, the player climbed the back of a giant alien, searching for a way to kill it. This demo was, according to a source, “E3 ready.” Most of the single-player pitches came from Irrational. 2K Australia, meanwhile, focused on creating a multiplayer mode. One demonstration involved asymmetrical team-based multiplayer, with one side playing as humans and the other as aliens. The mode, according to one source, was similar to the Aliens vs. Predator series, with the various races having unique abilities and weapons.
In 2007, following the advancement of BioShock’s development, Irrational Games took the decision to fully focus on that project, leaving 2K Australia as the sole developer of the new X-COM game. The multiplayer mode planned by them was dropped in favor of a single-player campaign. However, later in that year, 2K Games decided to put 2K Australia as a support developer for 2K’s other subsidiaries. For more than 2 years, between the release of the first BioShock and the release of its sequelin February 2010, the X-COM project wasn’t a priority:
By 2007, BioShock had taken shape. Seeing BioShock’s potential, Irrational head Ken Levine decided the studio wouldn’t continue development of an X-COM game, and the project transferred fully to 2K Australia. The multiplayer prototype was scrapped, and 2K Australia began work on a single-player campaign. Though, according to a source, team members at 2K Australia chose to build off one of Irrational’s final concepts: a first-person shooter set in the 1950s in which humanity is woefully under-equipped to fight an invading alien menace. The rest of the game — the story, the mechanics, the point — would be revised.
From late 2007 to early 2010, 2K Australia was tasked by the publisher to act as the developer equivalent of the supportive best friend to the publisher’s other studios. First it helped Irrational finish BioShock, then contributed to the game’s PlayStation 3 port. In 2007, a handful of high-level employees left Irrational to found a California-based studio called 2K Marin, which was built initially to create BioShock 2 and become a premier studio within 2K Games, producing a new IP of its own. 2K Marin needed help, though, so 2K Australia supported the development of BioShock 2 until its release in early 2010.
For three years, alongside this work, a small group within 2K Australia continued work on X-COM, but finding time and resources was a chore. Progress slowed. With BioShock 2 finally out the door, the team looked ahead to finishing X-COM and establishing 2K Australia as leading triple-A studio. 2010 should have been a great year for 2K Australia. With BioShock 2 shipped, the studio finally had its chance to lead a game, and escape this unexpected de facto helper role.
Some people at the publisher side of 2K believed 2K Australia had had a good deal of time — three years by their count — to nurture the X-COM pitch. They were pleased with the initial concept — even though, one source claims, the original vertical slice had been built by a skeleton crew. They named their pitch “X-COM: Enemy Unknown.” The creative leads at 2K Australia wanted the game to be mysterious, and hoped to create a first-person shooter that elicited fear and confusion. The subtitle, Enemy Unknown, wasn’t just a play off the original X-COM’s European title, which was also Enemy Unknown. It was more like an explicit mission statement: You could see the enemy; you could fight the enemy; but you could never truly know the enemy.
The elevator pitch was essentially the original X-COM meets The X-Files, set in the 1950s to 1960s. The time period — something close to it, at least — would survive years of revisions. Practically everything else would not. As a government officer, the player had neither the weapons nor the technology to fight the futuristic aliens that were invading Earth. But they did have a handy camera. The core mechanics of the game were researching and running, with a splash of shooting. The player’s most important skill was photography.
The pitch was, in some ways, strikingly similar to those of the original X-COM games, despite being first-person. The player would select missions from a number of locations on a map. While the general construction of a stage would remain the same each playthrough — the streets and homes of a suburb would be static, for example — certain aspects of the missions would be procedurally generated. So the enemies you encountered, the location of valuable information, the entrances to rooms, the time of day and the mission goal would be a different combination each time, allowing the player to freshly experience the same stage multiple times.
The other half of the pitch focused on the X-COM base. After collecting information, the player would return to an appropriately retro 1950s military base. Here, the player would complete research goals and devise strategies for future missions. The art direction was abstract. Aliens would be wisps of air, globs of goo or puffs of clouds. The first enemy was the titan, the large obelisk that would later be the iconic centerpiece of the game’s marketing materials.
Character 3D model named ‘Rebel Girl’, owned by Irrational Games. Might be from the 2006-2007 iteration.
As it was pointed out by Polygon, following the release of BioShock 2, a large part of 2K Marin was brought in to help 2K Australia developing X-COM. While the single-player campaign was still the focus of 2K Australia, 2K Marin began creating a brand new multiplayer mode for the game, this time similar to Left 4 Dead games. However, communication issues started to surface, as both developers were located on different continents:
Following the release of BioShock 2, 2K Marin’s staff was divided into three groups. The first was a small, multi-discipline team assigned to BioShock 2’s downloadable content. The second consisted of five of the studio’s senior employees who would conceptualize and pitch a new IP for Marin to begin following X-COM’s completion. The final group, which consisted of most of the studio, was assigned to X-COM. To alleviate communication issues between two continents, the publisher assigned 2K Marin to multiplayer responsibilities, while 2K Australia continued work on single-player, (…)
The work seemed doable, according to multiple sources, if not ideal. The division of labor resembled something akin to a outsourcing, and Marin was too large and responsible for too much to have minimal creative input. Marin spent the first few months developing multiplayer designs, building a framework and modifying 2K Australia’s single-player engine to run multiplayer settings. The earliest multiplayer prototype was a survival game in which four players worked to reach a certain point on a map. It resembled Left 4 Dead, complete with an artificial intelligence director deciding when and how to spawn enemies.
Meanwhile the relationship between 2K Marin and 2K Australia remained creatively and structurally confusing, further troubled by the difficulty of simply scheduling a daily conference call across an 18-hour time difference. Most communication took place between the mid-level producers at both studios, who would pass along task lists from Australia to Marin. Team members at 2K Marin felt they didn’t have a direct line of communication back to 2K Australia for when they had questions or alternative ideas. Both sides craved the simple ability to sit in a room with co-workers and hash things out.
XCOM was officially revealed in April 2010 by 2K Games. The same day, decision to merge 2K Australia into 2K Marin was made. This wasn’t well received by many members of both studios for different reasons, and, above all, the communication issue between them was still there. Quickly, it was all clear that the single-player mode and the multiplayer mode wouldn’t reach the alpha state milestone scheduled for November 2010, and 2K wanted a public presentation for E3 2010. Again, the multiplayer mode was scrapped, and 2K Marin had to help 2K Australia for the single-player campaign:
On April 14, 2010, the publisher merged 2K Marin and 2K Australia under the single banner of 2K Marin. It’s unclear whether or not this was an intentional play to artificially bond the two studios. Whatever the case, the name change was not well received by many members of both studios. Australia felt it was losing its identity. Marin felt that it was absorbing a team of developers it hardly knew. The press release quaintly referred to the two as “sister studios.” On the very same day, 2K announced XCOM to the public.
In the press release, the game was simply called XCOM. No hyphen. No subtitle. The words “Enemy Unknown” were abandoned, though the press release emphasized the “unknowable” theme of 2K Australia’s original pitch, mentioning the player’s “frailty — against a foe beyond comprehension.” The press released described XCOM as a “Mystery-filled first-person shooter from the creators of BioShock 2,” which wasn’t entirely true. 2K representatives clarified that the game was being led by the the Australian division, referred to by this wordy label: “the Canberra, Australia arm of 2K Marin.”
Renaming the studios didn’t fix their problems. The team in Marin continued to receive instructions via task lists from Australia, and resentment began to build within both studios. Marin wanted more creative input — its name was now on the project. Australian wanted its chance to lead a project — even if it was now the “wing” of another studio. The name didn’t fix the the studios’ biggest problem: a fruitful line of communication wasn’t coalescing.
By May, it was clear that Marin’s multiplayer and Australia’s single-player would not meet the alpha milestone scheduled for November 2010. 2K chose to scrap the multiplayer and assign Marin to help Australia complete the single-player campaign. The two developers, separated by half a world, had barely a month left before XCOM’s scheduled first public presentation at E3 2010.
Subsequently, the tasks were shared with 2K Marin in charge of mission design, and 2K Australia the strategy layer base. But some struggles were still there, especially for 2K Marin’s programming and animation departments, which were unable to properly execute 2K Australia’s vision regarding the enemies. On the other hand, communication improved a lot, but, slowly, 2K Marin started to have more and more influence on the design:
To maintain a degree of compartmentalization and prevent communication issues, 2K Marin was assigned “Field Ops,” the first-person missions, while 2K Australia worked on the strategy layer of the XCOM base. Though designing the base was 2K Australia’s priority, the studio’s leads also directed the design for field ops, being developed by Marin. This, according to many sources, caused a good deal of creative tension.
2K Marin’s various departments struggled to execute on Australia’s direction of mysterious levels and unknowable enemies. Sources say the themes were difficult to express in moment-to-moment gameplay. Animators struggled with telegraphing the attacks of the amorphous goo enemies, and programmers failed to express how the enemy or the player took damage. Despite the game being labeled a first-person shooter, its core mechanic was research, via taking photographing evidence and retrieving information. The goal of a mission was typically to keep an enemy alive, and extract research from it. But because most enemies lacked faces, artist and programmers labored over ways to express the direction a character looked and whether or not the player was in its line of sight. This made the stealth nature of research missions particularly difficult. The very simplest mechanics of most games — like knowing whether the enemy was looking at the player — were made difficult by the too-alien nature of Australia’s enemies.
If the project wanted to progress, problems needed to be worked out face to face, person to person. So the leads at both studios agreed to make it happen. To ease the tension and clear the lines of discussion, the two studios began swapping small groups of employees, sending developers on the nearly 12-hour journey across the Pacific Ocean from one location to the other, for weeks and months at a time. It sort of worked. According to many sources, communication gradually improved, but the building frustrations had taken a toll. An exodus of employees had already begun. With communication improving, 2K Marin slowly influenced the creative direction of the project. Leading up to E3 2010, the studios began to focus on research and upgrading abilities within XCOM, and decreased the emphasis on strange, mysterious encounters. The design was changing.
A vertical slice of the game was ready and showed behind closed doors at E3 2010. Reactions from the media were very mixed, as many had difficulties to understand why this new entry was a First-Person Shooter, instead of a turn-based strategy game. Many previews based on this presentation were written. For its part, Joystiq concluded:
While there are still some unanswered questions — 2K Marin wouldn’t say whether or not you can issue squad commands, for one — I walked away from the demonstration fairly impressed. At the very least, 2K Marin has nailed the feeling of the old X-COM games, especially the feeling of otherworldly fear during missions. If the research progression manages to be as addicting as it was in the originals, XCOM just might surprise some die-hard fans. It certainly surprised me.
But after E3, troubles occured following the departures of two key members of 2K Australia, prompting, again, 2K Marin to gain more influence in the design department. Also, concerns were still present for the enemies design, which was responsible of many gameplay’s problems, and the decision to reboot the project was taken. Several pitches and prototypes for new features were made by 2K Marin:
In late 2010, 2K Australia was rocked by the high-level departures of Art Director Andrew James and Design Director Ed Orman. 2K Marin plunged into the leadership void, quickly taking on additional creative responsibilities. Members of Marin had already been promoted to senior roles, even before the departures, so they were easily slotted into the updated org chart.
There was internal concern amongst leads at both studios and the publishing side of 2K that XCOM would not be completable if it continued down the path of “mysterious” enemies and a research-based mission structure. The project underwent a small reboot. The leads wanted to protect much of the work that had already been done on the game. The hope was to find something that would improve XCOM, and allow it to ship sooner, rather than later. The overall structure would remain the same, but the in-level experience would change.
During the reboot phase, the game’s leads at 2K Marin wanted to establish whether the backbone of the game would be shooting or stealth. Members of the various departments within Marin began rapidly creating pitches and prototypes for supplemental features, pushing again for familiar, readable tropes from other games. Some of these included a Splinter Cell-like mechanic where enemies saw the player’s last known position. Another prototype resembled a traditional third-person shooter. At one point, a suspicion system was in the game, in which the player’s unusual behavior would alert the aliens, a la Invasion of the Body Snatchers.
Around this same time, the designers decided to give the player control of the two squad mates, an option that hadn’t been available in the 2010 builds. Control of squad mates was initially limited, but made the game more strategic, and inspired some team members to pitch the shift from first-person to third-person, allowing the player to see more of the battlefield. The ideas would be grafted onto the current build to, ideally, strengthen what was already there. One source describes this iteration of XCOM as “a victim of its own timeline,” stuck with systems and tools that had been chosen years earlier. Intentionally or not, the groundwork was being laid for a larger reboot.
2011 wasn’t getting better for 2K Marin and the game. First with the cancellation of their new I.P. in order to refocus resources on XCOM, then with new changes for the title: story, level design and enemies. 2K Marin became the lead developer instead of 2K Australia:
The Marin directors who had been working on the new IP were gradually put on XCOM, and the new IP was canceled, further damaging the morale of the team at Marin. One source claims many employees had taken jobs with the studio on under the impression BioShock 2 would be followed by the new IP and the studio would become one of 2K Games’ premier developers. XCOM had been seen, at first, merely as a small, quick support job for 2K Marin. Suddenly, the new IP was gone and the team was stuck in what was beginning to feel like a development quagmire. Some at 2K Marin felt as if they’d inherited another studio’s problems.
Whether or not XCOM would be released seemed, briefly, inconsequential. The purpose of 2K Marin had changed. It wasn’t to be 2K’s new premier studio which would — alongside Irrational and Firaxis — produce high-budget games based on its own IP. Instead 2K Marin had become something else: a clean-up team.
Jordan Thomas, who served as the studio’s creative director, became the narrative lead and overhauled XCOM’s story. The previous version hinted at American civil rights issues in the late ‘50s and ‘60s. Thomas brought these story details into the main storyline, and moved the story to the year 1962 to play off global Cold War paranoia.
To streamline the development, the game was restructured as a linear sequence of levels — casting the randomized level sets to the wind. Furthermore, humanoid enemies were introduced to the cast of villains, with the previous mysterious enemies taking supplemental roles. 2K Marin was becoming the lead studio.
In the spring of 2011, 2K Games approved that 2K Marin was going to do a totally new demo for the next E3, instead of working on the current version, which displeased some senior employees. That demo was made in 10 weeks, but it wasn’t enough for 2K Marin to implement every new features they wanted to make. The pitch initially made by 2K Australia was discarded:
Multiple sources claim senior level employees at 2K Marin weren’t happy with the state of the game leading into E3. One source describes the early 2011 build as a hodgepodge of previous iterations. In the spring of 2011, senior team members asked 2K for permission to put the current version aside and instead spend the 10 weeks leading to E3 constructing a demo for the game the team wanted to make. This was a chance for a fresh start — or something like it.
According to one source, the publishing side of 2K was supportive. With the random levels and detective mode of 2K Australia’s pitch removed, the current version of XCOM lacked a hook that elevated it above a generic first-person shooter. The source claims that 2K executives were and still are vocal about releasing high-scoring games and believed more time might produce a better final product. In theory, the task was comparably straightforward: switch the perspective and add some new powers and alien abilities. The art assets could be salvaged. The game could be saved.
For the demo, the senior team members wanted to add a third-person perspective and expand squad control, but neither fit the current build of the game. There wasn’t enough time to make the entire demo run in third-person, so for a second time 2K presented XCOM at E3 as a first-person shooter — despite the fact that the 2K Marin team knew the game would ultimately use the third-person perspective. In the demo, a first-person character directed squad-mates by shifting to a third-person perspective — the shift to a paused third-person meant they didn’t have to animate the lead character just yet.
The press reacted favorably to the demo, more so than it had the year prior during the behind-closed-doors presentation. Typically, a game’s E3 appearance is followed by a slow-drip of publicity, including screenshots, trailers, developer diaries and interviews, but the XCOM project had been totally silent. Jordan Thomas explained by saying, “We just felt it wasn’t X-COM enough.” 2K announced the game’s release date: March 6, 2012, less than a year away. XCOM had been scheduled to launch against Mass Effect 3, possibly the biggest sci-fi game of the generation.
After E3, the start of what would become The Bureau: XCOM Declassified began within both studios. Cleared once and for all of the communication issues, those two teams decided to definitely pivot on a Third-Person tactical shooter, instead of a horror First-Person Shooter. But this pivot caused additional delays in the development since a large part of the game had to be redesigned:
The E3 2011 demo served as the template for the revision of XCOM as a tactical third-person shooter. Beginning with the creation of the E3 demo, both studios felt there was a clearer sense of creative direction. It was the most collaborative year, according to one source, with many more employees shuttling back and forth between the Marin and Australia offices.
According to one source, Thomas decided XCOM would be a bridge between the Firaxisgame and the original series. The gameplay would pivot on the third-person tactical shooter genre, making a clear and definitive cut from the stealthy, horror style of the original pitch. The team even contracted a voice cast, recording the script in 2011. (According to another source, most of those roles would be recast over the next year.) But even with the improved work environment and creative guidance, development was taking longer than expected — particularly because the switch to the tactical genre required many environments to be completely redesigned.
The rest of the story no longer concerns those scrapped versions of XCOM. Sadly, further development of The Bureau: XCOM Declassified didn’t went well as 2K Games was the target of everything that went wrong during 5 years of development from this point on, alongside losing money in this still-not-released title. In order to solve some problems, they decided, in October 2011, to entirely remove 2K Australia from the game, and many higher-ups of 2K Marin changed responsabilities and roles, especially Jordan Thomas, who left the project and joined Ken Levine on BioShock Infinite. After some additional setbacks, The Bureau: XCOM Declassified was released in August 2013 and got mixed reviews by the press.
XCOM wasn’t the first failed attempt at taking risks for the franchise. Years prior, another canceled hybrid First-Person Shooter/strategy game named X-COM: Alliance was on the way and suffered of 7 years of development before being canceled in 2002, not without having to change publishers and developers many times.
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