At Stardock I’ve seen some of our gaming projects tank. Even before release there was a consensus that things had gone wrong. Terribly wrong.
We’ve done about a dozen games and out of that dozen, we’ve had 2 solid disasters and one near disaster. This is gong to be long (Mark if you’re reading this, maybe make this into an article? Here’s your dirt! :) )
So let me share the experiences of the 3 and see what they have in common:
Example #1: Avarice (OS/2 game)
I’ve had my share of disatrous projects. One of our OS/2 games called Avarice (http://www.stardock.com/products/avarice/) was a nightmare project. It had great talent on it. The designer, Dave Pottinger, is the lead AI guy over at Ensemble now (Age of Mythology, etc.). The “producer” was Mike Duffy who also went on to start his own game company. And I was “the suit” on that game. I…e. I wasn’t directly involved on its day to day but ultimately set the budget and scheduling.
The problem was that the game was massively ambitious. It began development in 1995. It was basically a “Super Myst” game. It supported up to 1280x1024, 24bit graphics (in 1995!). Everything you saw on the screen was a real object. Walk into the library? Every book was a real book that you could read. You could manipulate objects in all sorts of incredible ways. And it had an AI that was designed to let you truly interact with NPCs in the game who would do all sorts of different things (including move around).
I mean, heck, look at this shot:
This is 1995 time frame here. I.e. DOS games, 320x200x256.
But despite all the talent, technology, etc. Things fell apart. As the evil “suit” I had to get more and more involved as the game got later and later due to its ambitious design and frankly, un-fun gameplay. The time and cost was vastly exceeding the return that an OS/2 game could bring in.
So I had to have them axe out a lot of the AI stuff because it just wasn’t fun. You had NPC’s that could (and did) kill each other which in turn could cause the game to be not able to be completed. You had all sorts of other situations that because of the dynamic nature of the game would cause it to be unwinnable. And of course, the bugs.
Despite the incredible talent on the game, the final result was not what anyone wanted (myself included). It was still a pretty neat game. Most people did like it, but it lost a lot of money and was ultimately a pretty obscure footnote in the “various clones of Myst” saga.
The start-up, Continuous Software Systems, died as a result (hence how Dave ended up at Ensemble putting his considerable AI skills to work on Age of Empires I/II/and Age of Mythology).
Net result: Game failed despite having an extremely talented team at all levels.
My conclusion was that the game was simply too ambitious and as a result a lot of the technology and such was untested and the “fun factor” had not been tested.
Example #2: LightWeight Ninja
This game was not ambitious at all. In fact, it was a training project that became a train wreck. The team that made it actually got merged itno the GalCiv project once LightWeight Ninja was finsihed.
The game isn’t terrible. It just has no market. The full game at 200 megabytes is too big for a download but too simple of a game for retail. It also, as a side scroller, has a lot of other games to compete with and 2 interns just couldn’t compete with that. And they weren’t supposed to. It was an internal project meant to show them how to use our various internally developed game technologies.
But we all learned a lot from it. In this case, the problem was a lack of a directive force. There was no one to sit on it day by day and say “This in, this out. By the end of the week have this, this, and this done.”
Example #3: Entrepreneur
This game wasn’t a disaster at all. It ended up selling 75,000 copies and its lowest review was 3.5 stars (thanks Tom Chick! I’m glad I did what I did to your car. YOU know what I’m talking about).
But it was a near-disaster. I lost friends over this project and Stardock nearly collapsed completely. I.e. if it had come out 2 months later, there’d be no Stardock today. No Object Desktop, no WindowBlinds, no GalCiv, etc. Everyone working on the game pretty much hated it. As late as 4 months before going gold the team signed a petition asking that we abandon the game and start making a totally new game.
1 month before going gold we began the final playtesting of it and the game sucked. It was no fun. It was a boring, dreary, painful experience.
Desperate, we tried to think of a quick way to make the game not suck. The result was to add in cards. Direct Action cards. We’d been Magic the Gathering fanatics for awhile. So we basically threw this in. Put “mana” on the different RISK like regions in the game that if you controlled you got mana from them each game year and then could use your direct action cards.
It saved the game and was probably the best feature.
But that was luck. What went wrong there wasn’t lack of management but losing the overall focus – is this game fun.
So 3 examples.
The first one was a hyper-ambitious design with 3 people who, on their own, became part of very successful companies/games (Dave at Ensemble, Mike one of the big guys now working on Jimmy Neutron, and well me the loser at starduck or whatever the hell we’re called).
The second a case of no controlling legal authority pushing a specific focus.
The third a case where no one had stepped back and asked whether the game was “fun” until it was almost too late (well we all knew the game sucked but we didn’t really try to do anything about it until near the end when we all concluded that the problem was the game and not just that it wasn’t finished yet).
Is MOO3 a failure? It would be very inappropriate of me to comment either way on that. But if it does fail, you have 3 possible and different reasons or a combination of that could lead to it.
Phew. Glad I type 120WPM!