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Why We Should Stop Idolizing Canceled Games

Posted on Friday, June 6 @ 12:30:00 PST by blake_peterson

And while Battlefront III had not been canceled, it had started to become vaporware; forever in development, but never completed, shuffled from one canceled development team to a new one. If anything, hyped vaporware games have an even harsher path since further development updates are expected, and expected to keep up with contemporary software developments, but maintain the same excitement as the first time they were shown. Some, like Starcraft Ghost, simply fizzle out, but are never officially confirmed to be canceled, in spite of the huge excitement they inspired on creation.

Starcraft Ghost is a game worth discussing, a third-person stealth shooter that these days is pure vaporware, not even being developed at Blizzard. But every year the question is asked of the Blizzard overlords, and every year, some executive of some sort says something on the lines of "It's on hold, not dead." You can find listings of these questions and answers simply by doing a simple web search for the game. Looking for a grounding on what happened, the web search also showed that the generally least informative source, its Urban Dictionary entry, was perhaps the most informative and concise, if speculative:

A Blizzard Entertainment game, from the StarCraft series that started development in 2001, with a planned release date between 2002 and 2003, but development had been placed on hiatus as of 2006. 

Planned initially for the PS2 and Xbox game systems, a GameCube version was also in the works, but canceled in 2005. The employees of Nihilistic Software, the company that was developing the game, had quit en masse due to an internal power struggle with Blizzard, and Swingin' Ape Studios was acquired by Blizzard to continue work, at which point the GCN version was dropped to concentrate on the other two versions.

A walkout of employees from Nihilistic is, of course, unverified, and is one of those rumors you see floating around on forums, with little in the way of substantiation. Blizzard clearly hasn't abandoned Ghost as a brand, with a novel released in 2006, a trio of graphic novels from Tokyo Pop in 2009-10 (before the manga publisher shuddered to a halt in 2011), and another novel in 2011, keeping the legacy alive. Interest is still clearly palpable for a game first revealed in 2001, though with such a long legacy of expectation, how can they possibly deliver a game that would satisfy the long-waiting fans? 

Perhaps this is why Half-Life 3 simply never shows up—a game whose development is so under wraps that in Reddit AMAs and other interviews, Valve head Gabe Newell doesn't refer to it directly, but jokingly as Ricochet 2, a reference to an early Half-Life mod. Perhaps this is also why Final Fantasy Versus XIII took so long in development that it became Final Fantasy XV, not because the existing development has not been adequate or exemplary, even when compared to prior entries in the series, but simply because the expectation is so high that unless it is truly revolutionary, it cannot match the quality demanded. 

Though not all canceled (or vaporware) games follow the path of Starcraft Ghost or Star Wars 1313, games can be canceled for political or ideological reasons. Six Days in Fallujah, created by Atomic Games, was developed after soldiers, with whom the developer had worked, returned from the Second Battle of Fallujah in Iraq. They created the game with the idea of presenting the combat experiences of the troops in a way to bring a realistic sense of the fear and uncertainty of urban combat to gaming. With the war so close, and the battle so recent, the game was put on hold after controversy over how it might be seen as exploitative and how it would concern anti-Islamic sentiment. While Atomic wants to see the game published, seeing it as a tribute to the soldiers who served during the battle, no publishers have yet been willing to touch it. 

Perhaps a more politically fraught tale is that of Ubisoft and Red Storm's Rainbow Six: Patriots. Patriots distinguished itself with a trailer that featured military insurgents, homegrown militiamen calling themselves the True Patriots, who abduct a man who got rich during the financial collapse and force him to wear an explosive vest. These men in the Patriots trailer, who were meant to be the game's villains, were cited as inspiration in a recent May 26th New Yorker article, "Rogue Element," for an insurgent American militia group, called FEAR, that grew out of discontented military and ex-military personnel, several of whom were convicted of murder for their actions as part of the group. 
Patriots has been on hold as the development team has been replaced and rebuilt from the ground up, and it has recently suggested that if it is released, it may not be called Patriots at all. While it's not unusual for games to undergo massive changes in content and style during development, that a game trailer inspired a group of men who eventually committed real homicides is a sobering fact that no doubt must weigh on Ubisoft and Red Storm in continuing development of the brand.
These games raise the question not of why a game was canceled, but whether or not it should have been created in the first place. Is a game that fuels an ideology of domestic terror justified in existing? For better or worse, chances are triple-A publishers and developers are not likely to take the bet that it is.  
On a more domestic level, many canceled, high-profile games could have potentially been amazing, but it also bears keeping in mind that they were canceled for a reason. In the case of 1313, the game was canceled because LucasArts developments were discontinued. However, this doesn't necessarily mean that it was actually a good game, and the decision to dissolve LucasArts may have rested on the question of how strong the existing IPs were. Similarly, Bionic Commando developer Grin folded after Square-Enix reportedly decided they no longer cared for the Nordic direction of their Final Fantasy XII tie in, Fortress, and simply stopped paying them for it. But whether the game was good at all is anyone's guess. Whether it had even developed far enough to make that determination is another question altogether.  
Perhaps the greatest argument against the revival or championing of canceled games is what happens when vaporware finally, unexpectedly, comes to fruition. These are games like Prey which sort of arrive and fizzle out, spectacular failures of delayed games like Daikatana and especially Duke Nukem Forever, famous for its never-ending development and constant addition of new ideas and mechanics. The teasers were consistently amazing at first, until the final game arrived as a package of a continuous decade of development ideas without a unifying direction and cruddy implementation, with a plot and characters that were stuck back in the '90s, but without the benefit of throwback charm.

Duke Nukem Forever was—beyond the poetic schaudenfreude of a game whose inclusion of "Forever" in the title seemed to indicate how long it would be in development—a critical and commercial failure that probably should have sunk along with original developer 3D Realms which went out of business in 2009. However, Gearbox purchased the game and finished it, giving the world a chance to see just what a 14-year development cycle could generate. It may not have been the worst bet, since the name still has brand recognition, and Gearbox may be able to create newer, more cohesive titles in the brand. 

Games that are canceled outright or let go by studios, but have potential, are often bought and salvaged by other developers or studios. When THQ folded, for instance, the more promising properties in development (South Park: The Stick of Truth, Saints Row IV, etc) were bought by other publishers, while other IPs and franchises (Darksiders just barely squeaked in at Nordic games) are abandoned. There were rumors that EA was potentially going to purchase Star Wars 1313, and LucasArts other Star Wars games in development, but clearly they passed and decided instead on internal development, farming out Battlefront to DICE and other game concepts to Bioware and Visceral. It's worth suggesting that they may have made the right decision based on what was there.

Games that are canceled, whether for financial, political, or executive decisions, remain in an unfinished state. Regardless of talent or the excellence of the work that has been put into them, what we see is never indicative of a completed project. What we as the gaming public are allowed to see are only the best fragments of that unfinished development, the gems that shined the brightest. But these gems do not represent what the finished game would be, and might not even have ended up included in the title.
It's probably best, in cases where games have been canceled and remain un-rescued, to recognize that we are often seeing the best of what could be salvaged from a sinking ship. Those concept designs and gameplay videos are whatever valuables could be carried off. What we never see is the hull that rotted through, causing the ship to settle deep beneath the detectable horizon.
Tags:   E3, Evergreen

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