The various stages of failure: When and why certain games never see the light of day
Hello internet creatures! I got caught slacking last week, so I must apologize, but rest assured that my nose is back to the grindstone this week with a new opinion about something trivial. There has been some noise in the past couple weeks about a cancelled South Park game, so I have decided to explore the phenomenon of unreleased games and the reasons for why certain games make don't make the cut.
For organization's sake, I'm going to be going through different stages of games' development cycles and explaining why games at that stage are cancelled. In addition to the various stages of game development, I think it's important to distinguish between announced titles and unannounced ones because a game's cancellation can mean very different things between the two states. I'm going to be thorough and provide as many examples as I can, so hold on to your butts because this could get long!
Vaporware means that the game in question never existed in a playable form. The only evidence for the game's existence lies in design documents, concept artwork, and sometimes a CG trailer (labeled as "gameplay" *coughKillzone2cough*). Often, games are announced with just trailers in order to judge the level of demand for that title, not only for the public, but for publishers. Sometimes a game's concept just isn't strong enough or the studio is not well-known enough to attract a publisher and the game is cancelled. This was the case with Sadness, a game slated for development on the Wii that was announced in 2007. Featuring a teaser trailer with a unique black and white aesthetic, the developers broke off with their publisher due to artistic differences and were never able to find another publisher. The announcement of the cancellation left potential fans and Wii owners filled with... Sadness.
Unannounced vaporware is much more common. In the creation process for new games, studios often have small, nimble creative teams coming up with new ideas for games. If a new game idea isn't approved by the bobble heads of the studio, it is often shelved after a short concept pitch during the game's "pre-production" phase. Because studios rarely throw away work and certainly don't announce such things, the public is unaware of 99% of these failed projects. Some leaks do happen however, like what happened with Black 2. Set to be a sequel to Criterion's destructive shooter, creative problems in pre-production left the project stalled indefinitely. It was revealed that a target trailer was developed internally and Alex Ward, former creative director of Criterion, released two screenshots of this trailer.
Games in the prototype stage are rough outlines of what the final game should look like. Mechanics are tested in this stage and the art, sound, and effects are often placeholders. Prototype footage rarely accompanies a game announcement because the game often looks too rough to present well to the general public. There a few exceptions however, as in the case of Peter Molyneux's B.C., a game which supposedly would allow the player to take control of a tribe of primitive humans. Like B.C.'s eventual failings, announced prototype games often fail because of bad planning or creative differences. Molyneux eventually decided B.C. was too ambitious of a game and stopped production, giving birth to a trend of Molyneux over-promising and under-delivering for many years to come.
It's much more common to see unannounced prototypes eventually surface years after their projects are cancelled. A good example of this phenomenon would be the game that inspired this article - a South Park game that was being developed by Buzz Monkey Software for the original Xbox and Playstation 2. Looking at the footage that has been released, the game is clearly broken in many areas, but the prototype gives a good sense of what the game would look like. Games at this stage of development get cancelled for many reasons, but most often, studios often kill prototypes because the game doesn't show promise of being fun! I think we're all grateful this South Park game got canned, given how excellent the Stick of Truth looked and played.
This is the most common stage for most announced games to be cancelled. Games at this stage have a lot of room to go in terms of content creation, such as levels, artwork, and final game polish. However, some levels might be almost complete, especially if a demo is being showcased at an event. At this point in game development, a game can be canned due to pretty much anything. In the case of Star Wars 1313, the Disney acquisition and subsequent shuttering of LucasArts lead to the game being cancelled. Starcraft: Ghost was most likely shelved due to Blizzards infamous perfectionism - not being able to match the bar of quality they promised in their announcement. Games cancelled in this stage are often the most disappointing cancellations because their playable sections show promise, only to vanish like a ... Ghost.
Games also often reach this stage without being announced before getting quietly cancelled. Similar to prototypes, these games are cancelled because the studio or publisher is not confident in the final product's quality. Blizzard, ever the perfectionists, were working on a massive MMO code-named Titan, for almost a decade until finally admitting defeat. At times, miscommunication between a publisher and a developer can cause delays to cancel a game, as in the case with Star Wars Battlefront III. Developer Free Radical had launched a huge failure in the game Haze and communication breakdowns with LucasArts lead to funding being pulled and massive layoffs for the studio.
In this level of development, games are largely feature-complete and most art and sound is finalized. These games are very close to final products, only requiring the lengthy process of bug-fixing and polish to reach launch. This final process can be long and full of potholes, making it very possible for less experienced developers to trip before the finish line. However, it is uncommon for seasoned studios to fail to release a game at this stage. When it does happen, it occurs often because of a massive oversight that should have been caught earlier in the vetting process. EA's Dawngate, a MOBA clone in the vein of Dota 2, was cancelled recently after six months of open beta. This unprecedented cancellation was due to poor public reception of the game, mostly because it was unoriginal and dull. In another case, a game called Six Days in Fallujah was canned by Konami when the game was all but finished. The game's subject matter was deemed too controversial, as it featured the then-ongoing conflict between the U.S. and Iraqi insurgents. Only announced games make it to this stage of development, as marketing campaigns are in full swing to generate hype before a game's launch.
There you have it. I hope you enjoyed this breakdown of how and why some games never get made. Although many games never make it past a stiff cancellation, usually due to copyright issues with dead IP's and such, some ideas are just too good to lie dormant forever. Just recently, we've had Star Wars Battlefront come back to life, Final Fantasy versus XIII transition into Final Fantasy XV, and The Last Guardian re-announced. So if your favorite game's sequel was cancelled, don't give up hope and keep waiting for Half Life 3.