These early screenshots and videos are from the original BottleRocket beta version.
To kick off development of the project in 2007, Namco Bandai chose BottleRocket Entertainment. The studio was staffed with many members of the team that had worked on Sony’s PlayStation 2 brawler The Mark of Kri, a critical darling known for an unusual targeting system where button command prompts appeared above enemy heads.
“I knew Jay Beard, (BottleRocket founder),” says Makoto Iwai. “There was a strong push from the studio side to use BottleRocket. They were quite renowned.”
Signed to a deal, BottleRocket put approximately 35 people to work on Splatterhouse. It was one of two projects for the studio, coexisting alongside a game based on DC Comics’ Flash for publisher Brash Entertainment.
For the new game, Namco Bandai stuck to that idea. A design document set out development goals for traditional brawler combat and a visual style reminiscent of the old games, along with other nods to the originals.
That wasn’t the plan BottleRocket followed, beginning a rift between the developer and publisher.
“There was a big pull between what Namco wanted and what Jay Beard wanted,” says Scott Holty, who joined BottleRocket seven months into development as a senior designer. “Those two things never really coincided. They were never in lockstep with what each side wanted with the game.”
Many involved in the project say BottleRocket’s approach resembled its past work a little too closely.
“They were really trying to shoehorn [in] that blue/red Mark of Kri targeting system, and that’s not what Namco wanted at all,” says former BottleRocket concept artist Dave Wilkins.
Along with that, the character designs moved away from Splatterhouse’s typical selection of monsters. In their place came designs that some on the art team found strange.
“There was a guy with a TV set on his head, and it was plugged into his crotch. It wasn’t very Splatterhouse-like,” says Alvin Chung, brought on as an environment artist at BottleRocket. “The new designs were just kind of oddball. I don’t even know how to describe it. […] From a video game perspective, they didn’t really read well. You couldn’t tell what it was.”
These ideas strayed from Namco Bandai’s desired path.
“They were basically supposed to work on Splatterhouse along with a design document of which we mutually agreed,” says Iwai. “That part only showed when our staff visited with them. Right after Bandai Namco staff left their premises, they started doing a different thing, which was ordered by Jay.”
“Every single time they’d deliver a milestone, [Namco Bandai] had complaints and issues with it. They kept reiterating they did not want Mark of Kri,” says Holty.
In addition to the design not meeting Namco’s specifications, a variety of behind-the-scenes problems at BottleRocket created a development bottleneck. Progress slowed.
“The big decision they made, which was a bad decision, was to use the Gamebryo game engine,” says Michael Seare, who began the project at BottleRocket as a physics programmer and later became lead engineer. “From a technical standpoint, it is a horrible engine in that it’s not fast. […] When it comes down to pushing bits around, it was terrible.”
In the art department, Chung came onto the project, joining a team composed mostly of recent graduates.
“I don’t think they [had] produced anything for the PlayStation 3 before,” says Chung. “I remember coming in and working on one level, and they never understood how a normal map could make something look good. It was mind-blowing.”
“Splatterhouse from the BottleRocket side started off showing some really nice progress, and then it started to feel like [BottleRocket] producers were showing us, ‘Look, we reworked the art on this character — again,’” says Russell Schiffer. “That started sending up red flags about ‘gosh, why aren’t you showing us more gameplay progress?’ […] We would see gameplay along the way, of course, but after so many of those, and it was several of them — other people, not me; the people on the business side — began to get nervous. When they looked into it deeper, they determined progress was not at the rate we wanted it to be.”
BottleRocket’s team, with Jay Beard continuing with more or less the same vision, progressed on Splatterhouse for 18 to 24 months. The Flash continued as well, keeping BottleRocket working at capacity. Then, in November 2008, Brash Entertainment shuttered, which meant that BottleRocket’s development on The Flash no longer had funding. That left BottleRocket with Splatterhouse and a second team without work.
Those we spoke to for this story gave conflicting answers on the fate of the Flash developers. Some said those team members stayed on and helped with Splatterhouse. Others said BottleRocket kept working on The Flash, with hopes of securing another publisher. Another person said they were let go soon after Brash folded. Multiple sources reported feeling surprised, though, that the company kept spending at this time, noting as an example that BottleRocket built an in-house theater room despite having only one project in development.
Namco Bandai higher-ups were still displeased with BottleRocket’s lack of progress. “When I saw it, it was a collection of features and pieces but with no real metagame behind it, and the tools were so poorly implemented that no design was coming,” says David Robinson, Namco Bandai’s executive producer on Splatterhouse.
“I went down there and started meeting with the guys, trying to get my own feel for it,” says Roger Hector, then the senior vice president of product development at Namco Bandai. “To make a long story short, everyone shook hands and said, ‘Yeah, we’re on it. It’s all good.’ When the deliveries were due and the stuff they were supposed to be doing wasn’t happening, I had to make a recommendation into Namco and say, ‘Hey, this doesn’t look like it’s going to look very well.’”
(BottleRocket founder Jay Beard didn’t respond to multiple requests for comment for this story.)
With quality issues continuing, Namco Bandai made the decision to pull Splatterhouse from BottleRocket in February 2009.
When the news broke to the gaming press, an unnamed Namco Bandai representative told Kotaku, “At this time, we are not ready to discuss specific development details about the game and wish BottleRocket the best of luck in their future endeavors.”
That same day, Namco Bandai brought a U-Haul truck to BottleRocket’s offices to collect development kits. Some on the team had no advance notice.
“It was just a normal workday,” says Holty. “Everyone goes to work and there’s a bunch of moving trucks in front of the company. Everyone’s like, ‘What’s going on?’”
Former Namco Bandai associate producer Dan Tovar, who had been with the project from its earliest point, recalls that day: “What followed was one of the most unpleasant experiences I have had to date in my professional career.” Tovar continues, “There were grown men crying. […] ‘Hellish’ doesn’t quite summarize it.”
“They pulled us all inside and said, ‘That paycheck you got today? This is your last check, because we don’t have any money in the bank,’” says Dave Wilkins.
Not all was lost for some members of the BottleRocket team, though. During the dev kit retrieval, Namco Bandai management handed out some business cards. Splatterhouse wasn’t canceled — development was to continue, but now under the banner of Namco Bandai.
“We think it was Jay who misled the studio,” adds Iwai. “Some of the artists were really good. Some of the game designers, too.”
“The management spent the money; the kids didn’t,” says Robinson. “We didn’t cancel the game. We fired the management.”
A month after the decision, Iwai stated Namco Bandai’s position publicly. BottleRocket lost Splatterhouse because of a “performance issue” with the team, Iwai said in a Gamasutra interview, vaguely describing the internal problems.
Two days later, BottleRocket sent out a sharp response: “Splatterhouse had been in development for over eighteen months and up to having the title taken away from us we had not missed any contractually defined milestones. So either there were no performance issues during that time frame or Namco’s management of the title was inept.”
Asked now about his comments, Iwai says, “I knew I couldn’t go into details. […] I know people tend to blame the publisher for canceling a project, but that’s not the case always. It was purely a performance issue.”