Friday, 30 September 2011

When video games flop

The Getaway (2002, PS2)

Unbelievably hyped up and billed as a suitably violent antidote to compete with the Grant Theft Auto series, The Getaway should have been huge.

A massive budget and marketing campaign led this to be one of the most anticipated games to be built in this country, especially considering a successful series of British/ London Gangsta films such as Lock Stock and Snatch had recently achieved worldwide success.

Despite The Getaway makers Team Soho taking well beyond the scheduled release time to hone intimate details of the London scenery, the game did manage to knock a GTA title off the top chart spot in Britain but fell short of the hype and the game faded.

Fans complained the production values and storytelling had usurped game playability and the enjoyment factor fell short of the hype.

The Getaway achieved moderate sales and after a ‘redistribution of resources’ in 2008, Sony shelved the project.

Psychonauts (2005, multiplatform)

An innovative, detailed and hyped game from prolific underachieving developer Tim Shafer, Psychonauts was well received by critics yet sales came short of even 100,000 copies.

Based on the exploits of Raz, a young boy with psychic abilities, he finds that there is a sinister plot occurring at his summer camp. A strange and imaginative plot featuring a Tim Burton-esque neon wonderland, the game is set in a glowing context of dark yet playful adventure.

Despite a long list of industry accolades, publishers Majesco suffered financial difficulties relating to Psychonauts and resolved to no longer develop “big budget” games after netting a loss of $18 million shortly after the game’s release.

Lead mechanic Shafer was quoted as saying “Together we are going to make what could conservatively be called the greatest game of all time ever, and I think that’s awesome.”

Even if the critics agreed, sales stalled and the company was left to try and milk every avenue in a loss recouping exercise, releasing a double soundtrack and campaigning successfully to have it put on the Xbox download catalogue.

Grim Fandango (1998, PC)

LucasArts first adventure game featuring 3D graphics, Grim Fandangos has a special place in my heart despite being a genre-upsetting flop.

Developer Tim Schafer and others in his team responsible for the development of Grim Fandango would leave LucasArts after the sales barely breached six figures. Schafer’s new company, Double Fine Productions would go on to produce Psychonauts: see number 10.

Grim Fandango (which was the inspiration for the name of a marginally successful band I was in followed the exploits of Manuel ‘Manny’ Calavera, a travel agent in the Land of the Dead, as he unfurls a complex web of lies and corruption at the heart of the afterlife.

The plot was fantastically diverse and written with a plethora of quirky characters and setting akin to a Lucas film. Like most adventure games, Grim required a lot of patience to advance your character to the next stage through point and click reckoning but its real beauty was the tone and atmosphere of the game.

The characters were mostly husky voiced Mexicans with oversized craniums dressed in black and who chain smoked their way through a series of dimly lit, corrupt landscapes.

Theatrically stunning and music adding a tense dimension, the game exuded mischief and was applauded by the gaming industry in 1998 for its endeavours. ProGamer named it the seventh most underrated game of all time.

Unfortunately, this great game did lead to the demise of Lucas own Adventure Game department and the rest of the industry have followed suit.

Its legacy is best immortalised in the words cited when inducted into Gamespot’s Hall of Fame in 2003: “Ask just about anyone who has played Grim Fandango, and he or she will agree that it’s one of the greatest games of all time.”

Tomb Raider: The Angel of Darkness (2003, PS2, PC)

There are certain things that made Lara Croft popular so wrapping her in more clothing making for a more dapper yet demure damsel just didn’t stimulate the demographic as much preceding titles.

Angel of Darkness did not sell well and unlike some aforementioned titles on the list, was panned by the most mainstream critics for pandering too much to steady fans of the series and not being courageous or open to allow other gamers in.

It was the slowest selling Tomb Raider to date. Shifting little more than 1.3 million in sales in 2003, a below average rating did nothing to help stimulate the market as Lara had done before.

The game had been rushed by Eidos to meet quarterly targets so the game was riddled with bugs and blighted by uneasy controlling and unsteady camera work. It was the first Tomb Raider release on the PS2 and did not mark an easy entrance.

Accused of murdering her mentor, Lara bounds across Europe to clear her name taking in a host of cities, towns and subterranean caves.

Perhaps just an excuse to take in breathtaking skyline shots of Paris and Prague, the game has settled on sales of just over 2 million units compared with almost 8 million apiece for Raider I and II.

Battlecruiser 3000AD (1996, PC)

Battlecruiser became a byword for long, drawn-out failure during the 1990s.

One of the most notorious PC gaming failures, Battlecruiser 3000AD (aka BC3K) was hyped for almost a decade before its disastrous release in the US and Europe.

It was a ferociously ambitious game constructed by derisible industry legend Derek Smart. It was billed as “The last thing you’ll ever desire” in pre-release blurbs in gaming magazines.

The idea behind the game was huge, farfetched and ultimately pioneering. The player had free reign on the galaxy, doing whatever he or she had in mind.

Want to fly onto an alien planet and blow everyone away with a ray gun – sure.

Want to climb into the cockpit of any craft you like a fly around in it – why not.

In theory it really was a gamers dream.

But for seven years, Smart was essentially a one man band; coding and doing his own PR for the game.

His tardiness was documented on the Usenet forum which he subscribed to which just served to make gamers excitement turn to frustration. For seven years his technology was being bettered and usurped so rather than cutting any losses, Smart would start again using the new breed of tech to rewrite his game.

The game was finally released in November 1996, by Take Two Interactive and reportedly over Smart’s protests who knew the game was unfinished in many areas.

Written for a DOS, Windows 95 had taken over so graphics and music were well outdated. Commands were unintuitive (Alt-Ctrl-E to fire weapons). Understandably, the gaming community was united in mercilessly destroying the game in reviews and reports.

Smart publically battled his critics and kept working on the game until a stable version of the game Battlecruiser 3000AD v2.0 was released.

The game sold poorly even forum users and Smart followers campaigning to boycott the game. Smart released follow up patches for the game and still blames Take 2 on releases an unready game for poor sales.

The Last Express (1997, PC, MAC)

This was another example of an over-ambitious video game which took years in the making but The Last Express was hailed as a daring pioneer of modern gaming.

The title took five years and $6 million to construct but was set in a noir universe of art-nouveau characters and in real time. It featured an intelligent, plot advancing script and was painstakingly tested; honed to what was billed by many critics as near-perfection.

The Last Express received rave reviews both in print and online. Newsweek called it “exquisite” and “thrilling” and MSNBC said “the mystery and characters are very fascinating” and “this game is definitely for everyone”.

Set on the Orient Express in 1914, Robert Cath, is travelling from Paris to Constantinople World War I. Cath is wanted for murder and meets up with a friend to find a gateway to the East, and a possible exit from their respective dilemmas.

But treachery, lies, political conspiracies, personal interests, romance and murder acted out by a supplementary cast of honed soldiers representing Germany, Persia, Yugoslavia and Russia stand in their way.
However, Brøderbund, the game’s publisher, did little to promote the game through worthwhile channels, instead encouraging word-of-mouth proliferation.

Unsurprisingly then that the game released in April 1997 was not a success, selling only about 100,000 copies, a million copies short of breaking even.

Game developers Smoking Car Productions quietly folded, and Brøderbund was acquired by The Learning Company, who put the game out of print.

Uru: Ages Beyond Myst (2003, PC)

The previous three games of the Myst series had sold over 12 million copies by the time Uru: Ages Beyond Mist came along.

But by that time, sadly, it looked like gaming had moved on. Described by Time magazine as being the video game equivalent of ‘the weird, arty kid in a family of jocks’, 2003s title struggled to find a place in a gaming world obsessed with GTA and other shit ’em ups.

It was perhaps a bit too gentle, and although the franchise had thrived on this earlier in its life, attracting a 30 percent female audience, the curtains were drawing on the series.

The original Myst involved clicking through a fantasy world and solving puzzles in order to unravel a conflict between a father and his two sons whereas Myst 4 evolved to an RPG puzzle game based on real world events.

It was criticised for being too slow paced and for having puzzles that were too hard, the compared to fast action, heart-pumping titles also on the shelves.

The game was another whammy to the pockets of its developers and publishers, taking five years and $12 million to complete.  The title sold about 250,000 copies and was a notable flop.

Uru’s poor sales were considered a factor in financially burdening Cyan, contributing to the company’s near closure in 2005.

Shenmue (2000, Dreamcast)

Another well-received game that failed to recoup its losses with Dreamcast owners.

We seem to have a recurring pattern here, but the game took five years to make and its development cost Sega $20 million.

Shenmue is a well-crafted adventure game where our protagonist Ryo Hazuki to witness his father’s murder at the hands of villain Lan Di.

After Ryo swears revenge for the murder of his father, and begins investigate his father’s assailant. He learns that the mysterious Lan Di is the godfather of a crime organisation and starts to pursue the Mad Angles gang who Lan Di presides over.

He asks enough questions to threaten the gang who then kidnap his friend and love interest. He battles the gang and sets off to Hong Kong to find, and presumably kill Lan Di.

The game was left on a cliffhanger but unfortunately for fans, the series was blighted by financial woe due to the cost and poor sales of the title so the story was never satisfactorily concluded.

Many critics hailed it to be a masterpiece, with its graphics being cited as near-perfect for the time. Other reporters found the game to be self-indulgent and uninspiring yet was also voted number 25 on the GAME Greatest games of all time list in 2008.

Sales were not cataclysmically bad, reaching well over 1 million for a console that was proving a successful venture for Sega. But strangely, Sega needed to move four times the normal number of copies to break even given the lavish budget. In fact, every Dreamcast owner would have to have purchased two copies of the game before the company ventured into profit.

Pac-Man (1982, Atari 2600)

There was no reason why the home edition of Pac-Man should fail. The arcade game was not only adored but a salient pioneer of gaming.

The home edition was eagerly anticipated yet was rushed through so was anything but a faithful re-enactment of the arcade classic.

The graphics barely resembled the arcade original, and to the annoyance of aficionados, the ghosts blinked unnecessarily making it difficult to evade them.

Atari rushed to print 12 million copies of the game (only ten million Atari 2600’s had been sold) and saw an initial surge in sales, shifting 7 million copies making it the best-selling Atari 2600 title.

But after being lashed by critics who focused on the gameplay and audio-visual differences from the arcade version, customers started to return the game in increasing numbers.

Pac-Man 2600 was initially praised for boosting  video game industry’s presence in retail, but this honour was quickly withdrawn and the game was cited as a contributing factor to the North American video game crash of 1983 and proved near-fatal for Atari.

Daikatana (2000, PC, N64)

Daikatana put simply, was a farce. Perhaps more ludicrous than even the Battlecruiser fiasco.

Lead designer John Romero was famous for projects Doom and Quake and felt he was invincible as work started on Daikatana. His cult-status demanded this was an eagerly anticipated game so received top billing in gaming mags and produced over the top hype and advertising slogans to really garner support.

But hyper and OTT was all this game came to embody. With one of the most startling back-stories of a games development, some fans asked in jest if a game could be made about the making of Daikatana.

Romero’s initial game design was to be completed in March 1997 yet it was complex and required a huge amount of content.

Ever the optimist, and again feeling invincible, Romero believed that development could take just seven months to finalise – setting Christmas 1997 as his goal.

The game was to use the engine behind 1996 game Quake by id Software. Quake had taken its nine-person team only six months to complete and on this basis Romero claimed his eight artists could hone Daikatana in seven.

But his team Ion Storm was still forming as a company, with entry level employees in a revolving door of employment.

In June 1997 only the software had been completed and showcased to an unmoved E3 audience; the translation to the new engine would take until January 1999.

By this time in-fighting and Romero’s ego were so prevalent that 12 members of the Daikatana team quit leaving the gaming maestro on his own.

A poor demo was released in March 1999 which failed to impress and Eidos, parent company of Ion Storm who had financed them to the tune of $25 million stepped in.

In June 1999, Eidos and Ion Storm agreed the parent company would take majority ownership and continue to fund the project if the founding members would disappear.

Sure enough, two of the founding members of Ion Storm left the company.

The game was released at the turn of the millennium and had reached gold status by Easter yet critics and players alike panned it and panned it good. Ion Storm continued to struggle with financial problems and in 2005 was shut down by its sponsors.

E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial (1982, Atari 2600)

E.T. is another should-have-been game but failed on so many accounts: gameplay, poor level design, buggy software, rushed delivery, unwarranted hype, and utter commercial failure.

Loosely based on the multi-award winning blockbuster after Atari had Steven Spielberg put pen to paper, the game was expected to be a best-seller. But as with Pac-Man 2600, the title was so unsatisfactory for gamers, it was sent back in huge numbers.

A swift release to capitalise on the film’s popularity was deemed essential so E.T was coded up in about six weeks.

The game was described as frustrating, poorly designed and was nearly impossible to navigate without the manual. Before long, cartridges were languishing in the clearance bins and 99p boxes in gaming shops.

It appeared Atari learned no lessons from Pac-Man and produced five million E.T. cartridges. The majority of them came back and with so much unsold stock and unusable merchandise, their last resort was to send 14 truckloads of cartridges to a landfill in Alamagordo, New Mexico.

Thanks in part to E.T. Atari posted a $536 million dollar loss in 1983 which signalled the start of their sharp descent into the dungeon. The company was sold off in pieces a few years later.

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