31 - Ghosts of Games That Never Were


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What about the games that never make it to market? Do they have stories worth telling, or lessons worth learning? These are the ghosts of games that never were.

With help from The Video Game History Foundation's Frank Cifaldi, The Strong Museum of Play's Andrew Borman, Games That Weren't author/curator Frank Gasking, Tomb Raider superfan Ash Kaprielov, and a couple of old developer interviews, I round out season four by looking at the life and death (and afterlife) of Half-Life for Mac, Desert Bus, Citizens, and Core Design's Tomb Raider: 10th Anniversary Edition — along with the strange fascination we have with games that didn't get published.

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Core Design's Lara Croft Tomb Raider 10th Anniversary Edition loading screen

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(Partial) Transcript

Over 30 episodes of the Life and Times of Video Games, I've dug deeply into a wide range of stories about people, companies, games, and... [wololo] er, moments that have helped to shaped the games industry into what it is today. But what of the games that didn't get that chance to make that mark? The games that began development, but didn't end it? The games we never got to see, or only got snippets of, before they were quietly buried and left undone?

For episode 31, I'm doing something a little different. I'm exploring a topic, and building my story out of a bunch of smaller stories. After the break, you're going to hear about the ghosts of games that never were.

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If you hang around game developers for long enough, you'll hear them talk about "where the bodies are buried." Not literal bodies, of course, but rather these games that didn’t survive long enough to be published. The projects and ideas and pitches that went wrong. The horror stories. The mistakes. The things that didn't pan out.

Take Half-Life, for instance. Not the critically-acclaimed, best-selling, massively-influential 1998 PC release, but rather its planned Mac conversion. Valve and publisher Sierra had hired a specialist company called Logicware to do the Mac version, which went along just fine — barely a hitch in its development schedule. Mac gamers were abuzz with excitement. They were going to get Half-Life in late 1999, with all the updates the PC version had received pre-installed. It would even be possible to play multiplayer matches against PC owners.

But then word came through that feature parity would be too expensive, and would require an ongoing financial commitment that Valve and Sierra weren't willing to make. Logicware had to rip it out. Mac gamers would only get the basic Half-Life experience, and they’d only be able to play against fellow Mac owners. But still, they’d get Half-Life.

Except they didn’t get any of it, because Half-Life for Mac was abruptly cancelled — after it was done.

Logicware owner and veteran programmer Rebecca “Burgerbecky” Heineman recounted the story of its cancellation to me in a 2015 interview.

Rebecca Heineman: I was like we're three weeks from shipping. We're past beta. We're gonna ship this game. And they said, nope, we're cancelling the project. However, we're giving you an early completion bonus. Here's your money, everything. We'd love to work with you; we're going to line up other work for you. But we're just not going to release this game.

And I'm just sitting there going 'I am so lynched.' Because the Mac gaming community in 1999 was like waiting for this game and we couldn't talk at the time about why they cancelled it.

To protect her staff, Becky gave everybody three weeks paid time off. Things were about to get nasty.
And you're all getting your bonuses too, but for the time being can you like lay low because they're going to throw eggs at you. *laughs* And trust me, god, the emails and death threats and so forth that I got *shudders* — Yeah.
Behind the scenes, it turned out, Sierra and Valve had had a little freakout. Somehow they’d got the idea that Half-Life for Mac would be looking at half a million sales. In reality, a Mac game at the time would typically get anywhere from a few thousand to a few tens of thousands of sales, though Half-Life was such a big deal it’d almost-certainly get around 50,000 — one-tenth of their expectations. And the discrepancy didn’t register with the publishing decision-makers until they got orders in from retail partners just before release.

They did a double take. Wait a minute. Shouldn’t there be an extra zero there? Now they’d have a bunch of angry Mac owners who wanted their promised feature parity and they’d barely even turn a profit. It wasn’t worth it anymore, so Valve owner Gabe Newell took the hit — writing in a public statement that he personally made the decision after realising the market realities would render Mac owners, quote, “second-class customers”. Instead, he said, he’d rather “just eat the money” they’d spent on Logicware’s development time.

***

The reasons are rarely as colourful as this, but games get cancelled all the time — sometimes early in development, and sometimes, as with Half-Life for Mac, when they’re already finished.
Frank Cifaldi: A game might be done, and it might be OK, but they start doing a cost analysis and it just becomes too risky to manufacture the thing because that's a significant cost and they're not sure they'll get it back.
This is Frank Cifaldi, founder and co-director of The Video Game History Foundation, and long ago the proprietor of a website called Lost Levels — which was dedicated to finding and highlighting the stories of cancelled and unreleased games for the Nintendo Entertainment System (and other platforms).

Frank says cancelling games almost always comes down to money.
If the entity financing this commercial product doesn't feel that they will profit from selling this commercial product, then it makes sense to not — especially in the old days — manufacture the thing. And a lot of cancelled games from the older days, that's what it came down to.
So whether a game’s almost-done or only in an early prototype stage, he argues, whether the developers are happy with the design or not (and often if it’s cancelled then they’re not), and whether the game looked unlikely to earn worthwhile profits or there simply isn’t enough money available to complete its development, the decision reduces down to money.

But let’s not be purely reductive here. I think the best stories of creative endeavour lie in the nuances of financing and expression and labour. So let’s go deeper.
Andrew Borman: So then really 2003-ish, I was interested in the Xbox in particular, and I started to see all these games that were changing in development in a way that was much more apparent because we had the Internet at that point. And then you start to hear about games that are cancelled. And to me, I started thinking, what's happening to these games? Why is it happening? What's the story there?

This is Andrew Borman, cancelled games aficionado and Digital Games Curator at The Strong Museum of Play. For more than a decade before he joined The Strong, and still — to a lesser extent — in the years since, he ran PtoPOnline, a website-turned-YouTube channel dedicated to cancelled games from the PlayStation 2 and Xbox era onwards.
And to me what's most interesting is trying to focus not on necessarily the negatives. It's a game that wasn't done for one reason or another. Sometimes it's because it's bad, sometimes it's not. But trying to tell the story of the people that were working on these games as much as possible, knowing that they're locked behind NDAs a lot of the time, and trying to tell what it was and where they were going with it, if they had been able to complete their mission. It's just such a fascinating story because they worked on this thing sometimes months or years, only to then have the game cancelled, sometimes without us ever hearing about it.
That gets you through the first nine minutes (roughly a quarter) of the story. For the rest, including the finding of a lost artefact of Tomb Raider history, the strange afterlife of the unreleased Desert Bus game, and the historical value of uncovering all these games that weren't, you'll have to either listen to the audio or subscribe to my Patreon — where $3 or more a month gets you access to complete transcripts of every episode, among various other bonuses.


   

The Life & Times of Video Games

The Life & Times of Video Games: A documentary and narrative-style audio series about video games and the video game industry — as they were in the past, and how they came to be the way they are today.

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