It's a truism that everything will always be better six months from now, but that's never truer than it is at E3. For the uninitiated, E3, or the Electronic Entertainment Expo, is an annual convention where the world's biggest video game makers show off their upcoming products to the Internet's most pee-scented journalists, each one of whom is struggling to differentiate between the 12 urban first-person shooters being shown to them. They all look "gritty," our intrepid game journalists enthuse.
Unfortunately, not all of the promises for extreme grittiness are going to be fulfilled. Indeed, the video game industry has a history of underdelivering on such promises; there's a long list of massively anticipated games that didn't come out until years after their initial announcement at E3. There are a few reasons why this happens, which I've enumerated in an extraordinarily gritty list below for your reading delight:
As seen in: Daikatana, Duke Nukem Forever
Daikatana is infamous in the gaming world, a completely foreseeable catastrophe, the video game version of the Titanic.
Constructed out of the Quake II engine and hubris.
Cracked has beaten up on the game before, so I won't do too much of that here. (OK, just a bit: It was buggy and uninspired, had mediocre graphics, wasn't very fun and was awful.) But remembered just as much as its awfulness is how long it was delayed; from 1997 to 2000, Daikatana blew past at least three of its claimed release dates.
There were a few reasons for these increasing delays, many of them having to do with incompetence. But by far the biggest reason was the decision to switch game engines halfway through the development process. First a primer for the less nerdy: An engine is essentially the brains of a video game. It's the part that knows what should or shouldn't be on the screen, and can tell when something is about to hit something, and what that something should look like when it happens. The engine doesn't care much what's hitting what; that's left for the artists and game play designers to plug in later. Take an engine, plug "rocket" and "grayish/green space marine" and "shower of meat blobs" into it, and you've basically made a video game.
The problem the guys who made Daikatana had was that the new engine they switched to was so wildly different from the old one that most of the game play and content they had created wouldn't work anymore. They had to start from scratch, creating all their rockets and meat blobs again. This ended up taking a year longer than they'd expected, and by the time they had caught up, they were apparently so tired of making video games that they just stopped. "Fuck it," I imagine a lot of people saying around the office those last couple months. "Fuck everything."
The Likelihood of This Happening Again: Low
This hasn't seemed to be too much of a problem lately. Engines have become friendlier to work with since Daikatana came out and are a bit easier to upgrade between new versions. More importantly, project management in the video game industry has matured significantly since the '90s, when development teams and budgets often quickly outgrew their managers' ability to control them.
And while we're talking about management problems ...
As seen in: Duke Nukem Forever
This is a well known problem in project management where, halfway through the development process, someone decides to add something to the scope of the project. This something, whatever individual merits it might possess, causes the rest of the project to slow down. Changes have to be made to accommodate the new feature, often causing old work to be undone. When this happens once or twice, it's a nuisance; when it keeps happening, it can stall a project forever.
The most famous case of feature creep has to be Duke Nukem Forever, the long-delayed sequel to 3D Realms' first-person stripper-soliciting masterpiece, Duke Nukem 3D.
Duke, pictured here in a rare moment not actively objectifying women.
The original Duke game was developed back in the mid-'90s, when it was possible for a fairly small team to build a cutting edge game in a matter of months. The level design of a game back then was only marginally more complicated than what you might find in a shoebox diorama. As the gaming technology grew more advanced, so did the development process. Dozens and hundreds of T-shirt clad geniuses were now necessary to create modern gaming engines and content, and the six-month development cycles quickly became two-year development cycles. Anything that might have once caused a small delay now had much bigger consequences.
These delays crippled the team developing Duke Nukem Forever. Like when the lead designer saw snow in another game and, instead of being delighted at how magical the universe was, decided his game had to have snow in it, too. (Putting snow in a game is real tough.) Or when he saw Half-Life and decided his game had to have more Half-Life in it. (Putting Half-Life in a game is real tough.) Every time a new game came out with an innovative feature, the Duke team had to stop what they were doing and cram that feature into their game. And with every delay, the technology they were working with grew more and more out-of-date, eventually forcing them to change engines, and to deal with all the problems that entailed. By way of comparison, Daikatana changed engines once. Duke Nukem Forever changed engines at least four times.
The Likelihood of This Happening Again: Medium
There's no reason to suspect the problem will go away entirely. Remember that feature creep isn't just a video game problem; it rears its head in most forms of software development, and almost any project in general. But dealing with feature creep is also pretty straightforward; it just takes some strong managers who understand concepts like milestones and are willing to lean on programmers who don't have families. Which is something the game industry has happily (maybe sadly for the programmers) gotten better at over the last decade.
"Hail to the Gantt chart, baby!"