Wrench is a cancelled car-combat game that was in development by Ensemble Studios since the early ‘00s, and in its latest form it could have been published by Microsoft for their Xbox 360. It was developed as an internal demo and cancelled before being officially announced to the public, but bits and pieces of its history were shared online by former Ensemble devs such as Rich Geldreich:
“Unfortunately, mostly due to limited funding, our XNA demo didn’t see the light of day. This R&D and tech would later be used in a prototype at Ensemble named “Wrench”, then in a really cool internal demo Ensemble Studios got to show to Bill Gates in 2004 named “SevenDemo”. SevenDemo was a physics and graphics demo we put together in about 10 days to demonstrate what the still in development Xbox 360 console would be capable of doing. I was told he was very impressed. A few months after SevenDemo was shown, the Wrench prototype game was canceled (see below), so I rolled onto Age of Empires 3. Later, I used a lot of this tech in what would eventually morph into Halo Wars.”
“I first worked on the rendering and shader code of a prototype 3rd person car combat project named “Wrench” (also see here). After Wrench was canceled (this kind of game just didn’t match our strengths, honestly), I helped modernize and optimize Age of Empire 3’s graphics engine. (Age3 looked really good already, but Wrench had rendering and lighting tech that pushed the game even further.)”
“The team at Ensemble made this demo with the Wrench prototype code in approximately 7-10 days, where it was known inside Ensemble as “SevenDemo”:
“Video of the never before seen “Wrench” graphics/physics engine technology demo shown to Bill Gates by Ensemble Studios (Dallas, TX) in early 2004. We put this D3D9 shader model 3 demo together in roughly 7 days, but we had been working on the tech for around 18 months. The prototype AMD graphics cards we were using at the time became unstable at high clock frequencies, so we unfortunately had to show it at only 640×480 or 800×600 resolution with no AA. The real-time participating media effect used on the entire scene (pay attention to the light rays poking in from the front garage doors as they are riddled with bullet holes) consumed around 40% of our entire GPU budget. This effect is 100% dynamically computed by ray marching through dynamic 16-bit spotlight shadow maps, and was a very advanced effect for 2004. This demo shows light prepass rendering, HDR rendering, omni light shadows via dual paraboloid shadow maps, spotlight shadow maps, and dynamic light scattering effects on the omni/spot lights. Much of this engine code wound up shipping in Age of Empires 3 and Halo Wars.”
“The Wrench gameplay prototype was a 3rd person outdoor car shooter. We had multiplayer working. The prototype was coming along, but I think Ensemble got pressured by Microsoft to pivot back to RTS game prototypes. This led to the “Phoenix” prototype, which then led to Halo Wars 1”
At the time Cyclone Studios was mostly known for BattleSport, a “futuristic sports game” published by 3DO in 1997 for their 3DO console, Playstation, Sega Saturn and PC. In BattleSport players battle in small arenas controlling armored hovercraft. The main objective is to shoot an energy ball into a target to score points, while killing your opponents. You could somehow imagine it like a mix between “Rocket League” and “Quake 3 Arena”.
BattleSport was popular enough to deserve a sequel and soon Cyclone Studios started working on BattleSport 2 which was officially announced by 3DO at the time, originally planned for the ill-fated 3DO / Panasonic M2. As wrote by Gamespot:
“Battlesport II (working title) Another former M2 title, Battlesport II is a futuristic sports game planned as a PlayStation-only title due spring of ’98. The first Battlesport game was originally released on the 3DO console system, and it is due for the PlayStation soon through Acclaim.”
“3DO has secured approval from Sony to develop a sequel to BattleSport, one of the better titles for the original 3DO hardware. The game is currently under the working title of BattleSport 2 (no big surprise there) but it may end up as BattleSport Extreme among other possibilities. It has not yet been decided whether the game will focus more on combat or sports, but, “It will be drastically different than the first,” according to a 3DO spokesperson. BattleSport 2 is slated for an early 1998 release.”
Some more details about the game were shared by former Cyclone Studios President Helmut Kobler, in a short interview posted in 1997 on the n64.com website (now closed):
“N64.com spoke with Cyclone Studios President Helmut Kobler, who gave us an idea what the game will be like. “We definitely want to bring a version of BattleSport to N64,” said Kobler, the 28-year-old former University of California at Berkeley student. “We’ve spoken with Nintendo, they’ve given us the OK to make it, but right now we’re focusing on bringing a little more order here in-house before we move on to anything else.”
Cyclone will orchestrate a Nintendo 64-specific title, with loads of changes, abilities no other system will have, and has yet to decide which system the game will be developed for, 64DD or N64 cartridge. “Battlesport is born to be on a system like N64,” Said Kobler. “And there is a possibility of the game going four-player, if two systems could be hooked up. As far as I know, a link up is a possibility, but I can’t speak for Nintendo. […] But we’ll only do the game when we feel it’s right. We’re a small company, and we like it like that, so we need to be ready, and need to manage our resources properly.”
Kobler’s plans to make a version of BattleSport for Nintendo 64 include alterations like improving the graphics so that tanks and arenas will contain a quantifiable leap in polygons, and special effects that will include smoke and exhaust, and an altogether far more detailed world. “You wouldn’t just see a flat wall area, crowds, color, and much more would be seeable. And tanks could destroy certain parts of the arenas,” Kobler says.
[…] Lastly, explained Kobler, the game will have new parts to it, which add to the strategy. “Some of the new elements will include underground and above-ground tunnels to hide from the enemy, and pits as well,” he added.”
In the end BattleSport 2 was still primarily in development for Playstation, but unfortunately it seems that Sony, 3DO and Cyclone Studios were not exactly sure how to enhance this sequel. As we can read in an interview with Lance Lewis (former Cyclone developer):
“MT: What is the current status of 3DO’s BioSwarm for the Playstation?
LL: We actually finished a playable level to demo at E3 in 1998, although it was never shown there. In defense of the game, I think it had really begun to take shape, and it was quite unique. However, this was one of those projects that just had too many “red flags” around it from day one. It was originally a sequel to the 3DO Multiplayer game BattleSport. I believe Sony wasn’t too keen on the idea, so it was redesigned and called N.R.G. (energy… get it?). Again, it wasn’t received too warmly so it was redesigned again to become BioSwarm. All of this was going on while the game retained that same engine, presenting a problem for the design team. I feel technology should be built to house a game, a game shouldn’t have to be restricted by pre-built technology. Now, there was nothing wrong with the technology, it was great in fact… but… it was built to do a particular style of game, so every design after that was obviously going to be limited. Upper management really didn’t care about details like this and so once again the 3DO theme: “Re-use, re-use, re-use…”
Unfortunately Lance Lewis passed away in January 2018; family and friends organized a “celebration of life” ceremony for him in San Jose.
To learn more about this lost game we got in contact with James Hampton, former Lead Game Designer at Cyclone Studios on BioSwarm, who recall when he started working on the project:
“Eddie Ruvinsky and Rob Adams were the lead programmer and artist on the team, and together they put together a playable level that featured these articulated hover ships that Rob had designed. When I started at Cyclone Studios, I was tasked with building a game design based on this prototype.
I agreed that the ships were fun to zoom around the arena they built, and wanted to add some unique mechanics that could help the game stand out in the vehicle combat genre. As a group we brainstormed and came up with a bunch of pop-culture inspired enemies and arenas.
The core idea for BioSwarm (as seen in the storyboards for the intro movie) was that a pair of intergalactic garbage men come across Earth, and when they see how polluted Earth is, they saw as the perfect landfill to dump their toxic waste on. This space trash turns out to be these energy based creatures that travel in swarms which defended itself by bringing stuff to life to fight for them. Each of the arena would be set in different kinds of trash themed locales such as ‘Silicon Slums‘ (where old computers parts and monitors go to die), a nuclear power plant, and even a Vegas like level that focused on ‘trashy pop culture’. Example: in the Automobile wrecking yard level, the swarm summons a boss monster whose body is made up of automobiles and car parts (this is the enemy creature seen in the BioSwarm poster and video). This initial build included a subtle easter egg in that a lot of the cars used in the boss monsters body were based on the vehicles the dev team drove to work every day.
The amazing art duo of Rob Adams and Mark Dixon came up with some excellent concept art to show what these new kind of enemies could be.”
BioSwarm’s gameplay was quite different from its early conception as BattleSport 2. Sports’ mechanics of scoring points by shooting balls in a target were dropped in favor of a more combat-focused gameplay, merging cult classics vehicle combat games such as Twisted Metal and Vigilante 8 with an interesting “flocking Artificial Intelligence”.
As told us by James:
“The goal for the BioSwarm player was to round up these alien energy creatures that defended itself by bringing inanimate objects to life to act as their protectors. Sort of a science fiction take on rodeo lasso-ing using these Hoverships to chase down, lasso and capture the ‘swarm’ of creatures. The Swarm used a “flocking” AI algorithm which resulted in these dynamic movement patterns of the swarm moving as one.”
The team worked hard on BioSwarm until April 1998, when Cyclone Studios were fully merged into 3DO and the project was cancelled so that they could instead focus on titles based on their “Army Men” franchise. They developed “Army Men: Air Attack”, published in 1999 for Playstation, Nintendo 64 and PC.
Before BioSwarm got canned the team was able to develop a “pre-alpha” version, which offered a taste of what the moment to moment gameplay was like. While not everything was implemented, you could control a hover ship in an environment inspired by Three Mile Island / nuclear plants and chase down the swarming creatures and zap them. This early demo was presented to the executives at Cyclone and 3DO, as well as a handful of journalists from some of the game magazines publishing at the time (such as EGM). We hope one day someone could rediscover BioSwarm‘s playable demo to share and preserve it online.
On a curious note, years later after Cyclone Studios merged with 3DO their former office space was used by Thomas Dolby’s company Beatnik to work on audio software solutions and games for Macromedia and shockwave.com. James remembers Dolby shown him a demo of Beatnik’s software remixing “She Blinded me with Science” in the same conference room they used to pitch game ideas while at Cyclone.
Huge thanks to James Hampton for helping us preserving more details to remember this promising lost game. All BioSwarm art was developed by lead artist Rob Adams and Mark Dixon. Also thanks to Ross Sillifant for the contribution!
There would have been different gangs to choose from, each one with their own style and car-type, somehow like in Twisted Metal. Players could also been able to fully customize their vehicles with new parts, colors and decals, before destroying them during missions.
Only a few images remain to remember the existence of this interesting project. As you can see it looked really promising. Many different arenas would have been available to play in, set in such locations as a demonic amusement park, a shuttle launchpad and many more.
This string of failed projects can attributed largely by the shifting focus of the company, and THQ’s own goals during the time after purchasing Juice Games in 2006. With the studio itself undergoing a transition away from boxed retail products and moving solely into digital goods, Juice Games was also undergoing its transformation into THQ Digital Studios Warrington.
Shortly after releasing their two digital games, THQ Digital Studios were then closed down by THQ in June 2011 due to “lackluster sales of Red Faction: Battlegrounds”. Talking to Eurogamer, an inside source who worked at the studio claimed that THQ had cancelled several projects over the years, and that they “struggled to find an idea THQ were happy with”.
In the mid and late ‘90s 989 Studios / Sony Interactive Studios Los Angeles developed many popular games for the first Playstation, titles such as Bust A Groove, Cool Boarders 3, Jet Moto 3, Cardinal Syn, Twisted Metal 3 and Syphon Filter. Unfortunately they also worked on many other projects that never seen the light of day, such as Dark Guns, Sorcery, Warhawk 2 and The Diabolical Adventures of Tobu.
Another unseen game they were working on was labeled as “DR”, possibly the initials for something like “Death Race”, some kind of post-apocalyptic racing / combat game inspired by the Mad Max movies, featuring strange vehicles with guns and bio-mechanical designs. Unfortunately there’s not much more available from this lost game, but only a few concept arts were preserved, create by artist John Duggan at the time.
We can speculate DR was meant to be played somehow like Twisted Metal and that could be the reason of its demise: Sony gave 989 Studios the Twisted Metal IP to develop a full sequel to their car-combat game, a title that could have been more profitable than an original project with similar gameplay.
DR remains another interesting unseen game we’ll never play by one of our favorite studios from the original Playstation years. If you know someone who worked on this game and could remember more details, please let us know!
Chase is a cancelled action adventure with RPG and racing elements that was in development around 2010 for Xbox 360 and Playstation 3, possibly to be published by Evolved Games. While we received some details about the game’s story and gameplay, we don’t know the name of the studio that was working on this project and it seems that only an early tech demo was developed before its cancellation, probably because the pitch was not fully green-lighted by the publisher.
Described as a “cinematic and emotional action RPG and Driving game”, Chase could have mixed some interesting gameplay mechanics from different game genres, within modern day real world settings. Some of the areas planned for the game included California (Los Angeles), Nevada (Vegas), California (San Francisco), Utah (Salt Lake City), Arizona (Grand Canyon), Texas (Baytown Refinery, largest oil refinery in the United States), New York (New York City), Michigan (Detroit), Illinois (Chicago) and Louisiana (New Orleans).
Such games as Burnout Paradise, GTA, Twisted Metal and Midnight Club: Los Angeles were quoted as inspirations for the game’s feel and gameplay, and in Chase players would be able to explore 12 different areas in North America, driving around with many upgradable vehicles (cars, trucks, motorcycles, jet skis and airboats) while trying to escape from enemies or chasing down a target, for example a truck with a gas tank that has to be destroyed. Each vehicle would have had many weapons at its disposal, you could customize your car as you please to became a powerful road warrior. By looking at the early tech demo footage, we can say it kinda looks a bit like the Mad Max game tie-in developed by Avalanche Studios and published in 2015.
Two playable characters were available, Logan and Gina chase, each with their own skills and strengths. We can assume the final game would have included many cinematic cut-scenes with a feel similar to high-speed action movies, with reckless driving, chases, car combat and crashes. Levels would have had destructible environments, dynamic night and day cycles as well as weather that would influence gameplay.
Here are some details from the beginning of the story planned for the game:
“Logan Chase has only scratched the surface of the plot from the secret group called The Hand of the Patriots. The clock is ticking and it’s up to Logan and his wife Gina to stop the chain of events that will cause the United States to fall into chaos.
Logan Chase has lost everything and is now an inmate of a maximum security prison awaiting his execution date. This former agent has been labeled an enemy of the state, locked up and all that he cared for has been taken away from him.
The victim of a major cover-up he has been betrayed and lied to by everyone he trusted even his own lawyer. There is a long list of dirty cops, rogue agents and other dark forces standing between him and freedom. Believing his own life is over Logan’s only concern is for his wife. Before his imprisonment he was able to secure her escape. Gina Chase is probably the only person that knows his innocence and is also a target on the run.
HAND OF THE PATRIOTS: From America’s social elite to generations of political dynasties and hard core religious zealots . The Hand moves in shadows and has pull in it’s many political, religious and charity organizations. They are the one’s who are pulling the strings.
After receiving the final verdict of guilty Logan is being transported back to the prison along with other prisoners. He is told by the warden that they finally have word on where his wife is and she will soon be taken. Handcuffed and bound he fights but can’t get free. But then the prisoners attack the guards and grab the keys. A fight between the prisoners and guards begins on the bus.
The prisoners have the bus and the cops are chasing them. A firefight between them begins. (This includes cars and helicopters). Logan shoots down the helicopter and takes out most of the pursuing cop cars but the bus is on fire and can’t go on much longer. He spots a transport filled with new cars. He decides to jump for it from the roof of the bus. Logan makes the jump and begins to hotwire one of the new cars. The cops are closing in as he starts the car and floors it off the carrier.”
It seems that while Chase was set in real-world settings, there would have been some sci-fi or near-future elements, such as chemical compound used by Hand of the Patriots to render the masses passive and release their free will, and the high-tech combat cars you can see in the footage below.
Multiplayer was also planned for Chase, we can assume it could have been some kind of car combat online mode similar to Twisted Metal.
If you know someone who worked on this game please let us know! We’d love to save even more details about it, before it could be forgotten.