Why We Should Stop Idolizing Canceled Games
Posted on Friday, June 6 @ 12:30:00 Eastern by blake_petersonA plea to focus on what is, rather than what could have been.
On the eve of E3, there's always that building of excitement at what will be revealed: new games, new IPs, technological advancements, and the latest in our favorite series. It's also a place where we often see a lack, a gap or space where games we expected and hoped would show up are missing. Beyond Good and Evil 2 never seems to show up, and now Prey 2 is threatening to lurch into a similar development cycle as its predecessor, and occasionally games that were anticipated are simply removed from the playing field.
And while it's true that we may have missed out on the greatness of what might have been, some canceled games come to fruition, I think it's also worth saying that we're probably better off with the cancelation of many of these potential greats, because the reality of what they actually would have become is quite simply unlikely to live up to the way-out-of-the-control hype.
It wasn't long after the cancelation of Firefly that I began to hear about Browncoats, groups of fans wearing the show's odd mix of Old West-style garb and high-tech sci-fi gear—soon having their own small conventions and get-togethers. Not that there was anything surprising about that, since the show had exemplified what many considered to be the finest virtues of American television at the time, while at the same time heavily pushing the effects envelope for a science fiction TV show; and expensively too, with a reported cost of one-and-a-half million dollars an episode.
And while DVD sales and Firefly fandom eventually justified a film sequel, it's star Nathan Fillion suited up again as Malcolm Reynolds for a Halloween episode of Castle, and as fans yearn to see it revived (perhaps as a Netflix-limited series), I strangely find myself playing devil's advocate for the cancelation of its original run on FOX. On television, Firefly, if it had been successfully renewed, would have meant ordering a 20-26 episode season a year, 26 episodes during which there would have been lame filler episodes, unfulfilled subplots, side characters whose development takes away from the main story, and enough time for the Executive Producers to move on to other pet projects, and for Firefly to decline.
In a way, Firefly's cancelation was a gift. It killed the show before it had the chance to acquire any of the mediocrity that simply is a part of the cycle of a standard network television series. It opened up the pathways of the imagination of what the show could be, without any of the negative reality of what most shows, even the best ones, become slowly over time. With canceled games and their idolization, this imaginative leap is even stronger, because unlike a canceled TV show, we never get to experience the game fully, only catch a glimpse of what it might be.
On one night, near the end of E3 2012, attending members of the GameRevolution staff huddled around a laptop to watch footage of a new IP that had been revealed behind closed doors. The game's footage would soon be taken offline since it had been uploaded illegally, but it had everyone amazed at what looked like a next-gen Uncharted in outer space. Everything, from surfaces and textures, to the movement of the characters and the seamless transition from cinematic to gameplay looked like it was a step beyond current games. It was the demo level of Star Wars 1313.
Star Wars 1313 continued to deliver modest updates after that E3 demo, but it wasn't long for this world. Disney purchased all the Lucas properties later that year for a tidy $4 billion dollars. It was only eight months later that Disney announced that all the LucasArts IPs had been placed on hold; and one month following that, on April 3rd, that LucasArts was being shuttered, its existing projects canceled, with an announcement that it would continue as a licensor for Lucas properties, and game development would be handled by other companies (EA eventually was announced as the benefactor of this deal).
But rather than passing in a quick, quiet death, canceled games have a habit lingering on and igniting the imagination even more than canceled television series. Partially this is because assets and videos of the tech used in the games leak as artists and developers who are unemployed buff up their resumes, portfolios, and demo reels trying to get new jobs. The games they worked on may have been canceled but they still have the work they did on them. Additionally, gameplay videos and cinematics excite us, but tell us nothing about how a game actually plays once you get your hands on it.
Star Wars 1313 is the latest of these, and every update we get is another seeming gem of a game that comes with cries of "Why did they cancel this game!?" and "Curse their wretched Disney overlords!!!", sometimes with nasty swears included. Since its unveiling, we've been treated to the original trailers, extended footage of that gameplay session, concept art trailers with discussions of the setting, a reveal that the game was about Boba Fett, and a bunch of gorgeous concept designs showing how the game would appear. And with each piece of media offered to the masses, Star Wars 1313's legend has grown.
But the reality is never that simple when it comes to video games. Nor was that amazing gameplay trailer what Star Wars 1313 was going to be. In May of 2012, a month before E3, George Lucas reviewed the game and told the development team to refocus the game to make fan-favorite Boba Fett the protagonist instead of their new characters, changing the direction of the game completely. What was shown at E3 was what the game had been prior to this executive decision (the player character in the trailer was most likely not, as has been suggested, a "placeholder" for Boba, but the original main character). This shift from Lucas resulted in some pretty art of Fett, but ultimately meant the game was going to have to go through further redevelopment (and 1313 had originated as a Gears of War-inspired tie-in to the long-gestating but never-produced Star Wars live action TV show, Underworld) and had already been heavily redeveloped at that point.
What 1313 actually would have been is anyone's guess: Its production crew was a bizarre mish-mash of staff from all over LucasArts development, as well as people from Industrial Light and Magic—whose tech for the game was so advanced it's been shown as a potential movie-making tool. However, to say that it would have been fantastic may be looking through rose-tinted glasses.
LucasArts was known within the industry for the heavy turnovers in company presidents, with the pet projects of prior company leads being slashed or heavily redeveloped, and a series of massive restructuring every time the head of the company changed. It was run more like a movie studio in that regard, but games take longer to develop than movies, and while the executives played musical chairs, the projects suffered or were outright canceled.
During the development of Star Wars: The Force Unleashed, LucasArts was also working on another (then next-gen) PS3 and Xbox 360 title, Indiana Jones and the Staff of Kings. Both titles highlighted the use of NaturalMotion's Euphoria Engine, but next-gen development on Staff of Kings was scrapped to focus on Force Unleashed (with only PS2, Wii, DS, and PSP versions of the Indiana Jones game released).
Force Unleashed, and its sequel, were met with a negative reception, in spite of the Euphoria tech being a real breakthrough in the combination of AI character actions and physics. A game cannot be sold solely by the cool things its engine can do; it has to actually be a solid game. It's quite possible, especially considering the development process that LucasArts had suffered, that 1313 might have ended up another Force Unleashed or, worse, Indiana Jones and the Staff of Kings; with the game's original vision and promise abandoned.
Another heavily idealized title from LucasArts that never reached fruition (despite going through multiple developers) was Battlefront III. And like 1313, Battlefront III's legend has grown more from it being canceled than what it could possibly live up to in execution. The final footage of what was said to be a prototype for the next Battlefront was an FPS with a focus on vehicular combat, but what was perhaps more exciting were closed studio Free Radical's designs for a Dark Side Episode 4-era Obi-Wan Kenobi, in tattered black robes, with golden eyes, and a red lightsaber.
I'm going to share a not-so-secret of media development with you: concept art always looks amazing. Concept designers are amazing illustrators whose job is to come up with concepts that are targets for final game models, scenarios, or environments. So it's no surprise that a Sith Lord Ben Kenobi designed for Free Radical's canceled Battlefront III looks amazingly badass. How could he not? It's the ideal playground for these artists to work with the material and get to express their imaginations.
Concept art is where every game looks like a masterpiece. But compare the character models in Free Radical's demo video to that Obi-Wan piece of art; could it, during that era of game development, aspire to that level of detail?
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Live action trailer starring Emily Ratajkowski. (1:47)
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Assassin's Creed Unity TV spot. (1:14)
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Dynasty Warriors 8 Empires trailer. (2:50)
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