5 Great Ways to Destroy Your Highly Anticipated Video Game
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!"
It Doesn't Actually Exist
As seen in: The Phantom
E3 marks the anniversary of a thousand broken promises. Remember that, when a video game company makes a promise to you, one of the reasons it's doing that is because promises are very, very cheap. For example, did you know that the Cracked video game coming out this November is going to support 68,000 simultaneous players, have some kind of RPG mechanic, be controllable by a wireless steering wheel and feature a sniper rifle? I am promising you that right now, and I can assure you, it is incredibly easy. Hell, it's also only going to cost $4, be etched on a disc made of solid gold and be called Chris Bucholz Presents Cracked Cops: Factmasters!
One of the most infamous broken E3 promises was the Phantom, a console announced in 2004 that would supposedly be capable of downloading every PC game that ever would be. This is something that consoles and computers are only just getting figured out right now; it would have been mind-blowing to see something like that in the primitive landscape of 2004, back when people were using Netscape and shitting in the middle of the street.
If it had actually worked, people would have accused it of being a witch.
The Phantom only had a couple of hurdles to get over -- namely, the technology and the licensing, which turned out to actually be the entire project. And sure enough, the Phantom soon found itself failing to exist, failing to even have a chance of existing. After a few years, it beat absolutely none of the odds and continued to fail to exist right to this very day. Later, the company would make a keyboard, which managed to exist like a motherfucker, but was, you know, a keyboard.
The Likelihood of This Happening Again: High
Right now at E3, someone is being handed a promotional USB stick full of lies, and live-tweeting about it, because it's very important to them that they be the first person to report the lies. So yes, this is probably happening, and will continue to happen until people stop being so damned gullible, which is expected to happen right after my Kickstarter to Cure Gullibility gets funded.
Ran Out of Money
As seen in: Deus Ex, System Shock, Duke Nukem Forever
Obviously, this isn't vaporware anymore ... it's more like corpseware, or perhaps deepcomaware. These are the saddest cases of all, because of how final they seem, dooming beloved franchises. Sometimes, with luck, there's a happy ending years later; after Ion Storm went tits up, the rights to Deus Ex passed to its publisher, Eidos, who after a half decade kicked the franchise to a different developer, who managed to do a fairly credible job with it. A similar story happened with Duke Nukem Forever, except without the credible job at the end.
The Likelihood of This Happening Again: Medium
Well, 3D Realms, the developer that refused to either shit Duke Nukem Forever or get off the pot, ran out of money in 2009. Although not the biggest delay in that saga, that set back the game another two years, and it wasn't too long ago, either. Also, the rights to poor old System Shock are still lost in the wilderness.
A fucking insurance company owns the rights to SHODAN. You just know she's going to be pissed off about that when she gets loose.
As seen in: Half-Life Anything
This probably has elements of a couple of the other items on this list. But more than anything, this scenario is marked by absolute silence from the developer, with no release dates or updates on the development progress. Nothing more than a simple statement that the game will be released "when it's done."
Finishing games before they're released is a pretty reasonable move, and it isn't, surprisingly, always industry practice. Xenogears was one of the best RPGs the PlayStation had until the halfway point, at which point it became one of the best slideshows the PlayStation had. And when we're dealing with a company like Valve, or maybe Blizzard, companies that have a habit of making outstanding, genre-defining games, we just kind of have to trust their judgment about what makes a game done.
"Relax, children. When have I let you down?"
The Likelihood of This Happening Again: Guaranteed
Well, this is happening right now. Go play your copy of Half-Life 3 and tell me I'm wrong.
One thing I find interesting is that these aren't even delays, really; no release date for Half-Life 3 (or Half-Life 2: Episode 3, or whatever they want to call it) has been promised. That silence is more telling than the lengthy development time; it implies that not only will the game not be released until it's done, but also it shouldn't even be talked about until it's done. Aside from being an amusing swipe at the video game hype industry, it's also, I think, a pretty healthy attitude for a video game fan to take.
Children and immature adults: Please spend your video game time playing video games, not reading about ones that don't even exist yet. We don't actually need previews, whether about video games or consoles or anything else. Fundamentally, it does not matter to us what the next Half-Life is about until we can play it. It does not matter to us how much grit the next whatever has before we can pick it from our own teeth. And it does not matter how powerful the next Xbox is until we can take it home and it accidentally sets fire to our house.
For more from Bucholz, check out 5 Silver Linings Now That Identity Theft Ruined Your Life and The 6 Most Overhyped Technologies.