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How 8 games crawled through ‘development hell’ — and what they found on the other side

Above: Come on ... just a little farther ....

Image Credit: Sony

Here’s what we know about Team Ico’s game The Last Guardian (pictured above): It’s the follow-up to the developer’s well-regarded Ico and Shadow of the Colossus; it stars a boy and a puppy dragon; it has been in development for seven years, and nobody knows if or when it’s going to come out.

This is not a new story. Well, the bit about the puppy dragon is pretty original, but you know what I mean.

Games often disappear for months or even years, resurfacing briefly so that the developers can tell us that they are, in fact, still working on them — and also that they can’t tell us any more than that.

Most of these games eventually disappear because, like fairies or Freddy Krueger, they can only exist if someone believes in them. Some of them actually come out. Here are eight from the latter group — and what took them so damned long to reach retail.

Daikatana

Daikatana

Above: This wasn’t even impressive in 2000.

Image Credit: Ion Storm

Time in development: 3 years

So, what happened?

Three years isn’t a huge amount of time for a game to be in the making, but in Daikatana’s case, it was a little over five times longer than developer Ion Storm thought it would take.

Daikatana ad

Above: Yes, even you.

Image Credit: Ion Storm

Designer John Romero, who had previously found success from his work on Doom and Quake, split off from id Software to form his own company. He announced two plans: One, to make a game called Daikatana, and second, to make you his bitch.

He succeeded at one of those things.

The game’s ambition was as big as the ego necessary to create that ad campaign: It was an epic tale taking place across multiple time periods with weapons and baddies for days. Its main problem, however, was timing.

Daikatana originally used id’s original Quake engine, and after a few underwhelming demos, it became apparent that the tech needed an upgrade. This meant a port to the newer and shinier Quake II system, which added time to development, and then this even that didn’t matter because developer Valve came out with Half-Life and its GoldSrc engine in 1998, which was itself a modification of Quake that looked and played way better.

So by the time Daikatana finally launched in 2000, it was already two years behind, and it looked it.

Was it worth it?

The general consensus across the Internet is “No.” Daikatana launched to middling reviews and quickly became the industry’s mascot for overhyped and undermade games. The fervor has died down a little over time, and some recommend it as a silly, B-movie-style diversion.

Alan Wake

Alan Wake

Above: It might have taken longer because the writers thought up a whole bunch more “Twin Peaks” references they could work in.

Image Credit: Remedy Entertainment

Time in development: 5 years

So, what happened?

Developer Remedy Entertainment, creator of slow-motion badass Max Payne, decided to try something different for its next project after its dalliance with trigger-happy insanity.

It announced Alan Wake at the Electronic Entertainment Expo trade show in 2005, and then the project more or less disappeared for four years. We got some screenshots and a trailer two, and then, suddenly, Remedy reminded us that Alan Wake was still a thing that was happening. And finally, in May of 2010, it was out.

Among the causes of delays were the team’s decision to make Alan Wake more linear over its original design as an open-world game. You can still see remnants of its sandbox-y nature in the form of useless collectible coffee Thermoses scattered around the map and some brief driving sequences.

Was it worth it?

It was. The game launched to generally glowing reviews (it currently has a score of 83/100 on aggregate review site Metacritic) and spawned two DLC packs and a standalone action pseudo-sequel, Alan Wake’s American Nightmare (released in 2012).

Much like David Lynch and Mark Frost’s mystery series Twin Peaks, from which Alan Wake draws heavy influence, the game has built up a loyal fanbase.

Unlike Twin Peaks, however, we might actually see more Alan Wake someday.

Fez

Fez

Above: Those giant voxels take a while.

Image Credit: Polytron

Time in development: 5 years

So, what happened?

Outspoken developer Phil Fish’s cube-loving puzzle title experienced the kind of tumultuous creation cycle that indie-development nightmares are made of. It had the fairly commonplace financing problems, dissolutions of partnerships, and on-the-fly programmer swaps.

But perhaps more unique to Fez was that Fish redesigned the visuals as he went, swapping out art like an electronic version of the Theseus’ Ship thought experiment until the game we received in 2012 did not look anything like the one he’d started creating five years earlier. The concept, gameplay, and backstory remained, however.

You can see all of this in the excellent 2012 documentary Indie Game: The Movie, and once you spend an hour-and-a-half watching Fish slowly (and understandably) unravel under the immense pressures upon him to finish and release the game, you might appreciate that we got anything at all.

Was it worth it?

Fez has some weird glitches and crashes in it (even outside of the ones that are actually part of the game design), but it’s otherwise a fascinating, charming, and challenging game. Its puzzles are clever and satisfying, although one of them is so obtuse that fans discovered the solution without understanding why it was the answer.

Add in the soundtrack’s mysterious hidden images and its capability to turn otherwise kinda-normal people into Pi-level maniacs, and it’s one of the most creative and mysterious titles in recent years.

And we almost got a sequel, but fans ruined that for everyone.

Thanks a lot, fans.

Malice

Malice

Above: Never heard of this one? Well, you might want to prepare yourself.

Image Credit: Argonaut Games

Time in development: 6 years

So, what happened?

Malice was first planned for Sony’s original PlayStation console, but developer Argonaut games later decided to port it to the PlayStation 2 and Microsoft’s first Xbox with a planned release date of 2001 (to coincide with the Xbox’s launch).

Along with the upgrade, Argonaut aimed to bring some star power into the project, casting members of rock band No Doubt as voice actors, including lead singer Gwen Stefani as the title character. And if you can handle a lot of repetition, this is what that would have sounded like:

The game missed its 2001 launch goal, and later Argonaut announced it would be delayed until 2003. In 2003, the developer cancelled the game. Just as suddenly, however, Malice found a new publisher and finally came out in 2004.

Was it worth it?

Apparently not. Malice debuted to middling reviews, and even the fact that you spend the entire game hitting things with an enormous hammer was not enough to make up for its apparent lack of ingenuity and charm.

L.A. Noire

L.A. Noire

Above: My favorite thing to do in L.A. Noire was walk around and find random pedestrians that were the same actor I’d just interrogated, only with a mustache.

Image Credit: Rockstar Games

Time in development: 7 years

So, what happened?

L.A. Noire (the “e” at the end was for “Entirely different from that Frank Darabont T.V. show that changed its name to Mob City anyway and wasn’t even on that long, so our silly and confusing name was totally worth it”) aimed to be a gritty, period cop drama with mind-shattering new tech. Developer Team Bondi created its own face-scanning system so that it could have real people that you recognize — mostly from Mad Men — playing the characters with stunning realism.

Crazyface technology (not its real name) enabled the developers to create L.A. Noire’s interrogation system, in which players could determine whether the character they were talking to was lying or telling the truth by watching how the subject reacted to their questions.

But mostly, it was just kinda weird because while the heads were realistic, the characters’ bodies were still the same oddly animated models we’ve seen in games since Grand Theft Auto III introduced Giant Mitten Hands in 2001.

Regardless, all that scanning and rendering for a huge cast of character actors takes time, especially if you invented the thing and are still figuring out how to use it. It also went from a PlayStation 3 exclusive to a multiplatform release and consequently switched publishers from Sony to Rockstar Games.

Oh, and it also takes place in a meticulous digital re-creation of 1947 Los Angeles, and that probably took some time, too.

Was it worth it?

It depends on whom you ask.

While L.A. Noire was a critical and financial success, Team Bondi closed shortly it came out. Rockstar retains the franchise rights, however, so we may not have heard the last of it.

Team Fortress 2

Team Fortress 2

Above: It did not always look like this.

Image Credit: Valve

Time in development: 9 years

So, what happened?

The original Team Fortress launched in 1996 and returned in 1999 as a showcase for developer Valve’s Daikatana-shaming GoldSrc engine. It was a team-based multiplayer shooter with nine playable classes and a variety of modes.

Development of the sequel started alongside the re-release using GoldSrc, but Valve later moved it over to its fancy new Source engine, which caused some delay.

Team Fortress 2 Original

Above: Oh, hey. It’s the Gun Guy class from every game, ever.

Image Credit: Valve Software

And then Valve stopped talking about it for six years. Oh, also, back then, it was going to look like that picture on the right.

So, yes — a lot can happen in six years, but Valve can literally afford to take its time with these things. Just ask people who are still waiting for the developer to announce a third Half-Life game.

Team Fortress 2 finally launched with its new, cartoony art style in 2007 as part of Valve’s Orange Box compilation which also included Half-Life 2, its two follow-up episodes, and Portal.

Man, that was a really good collection.

Was it worth it?

Yes. In addition to creating the virtual world’s first hat-based economy, Team Fortress 2 is still one of the most popular multiplayer shooters out today. And sometimes when you’re at a convention like the Penny Arcade Expo, you’ll see two groups of fans dressed as the opposing teams run into each other and start pretending to fight.

And that alone is worth the wait.

Too Human

Too Human

Above: This one is maybe the saddest story in this whole article.

Image Credit: Silicon Knights

Time in development: 10 years

So, what happened?

Too Human is a tough game to describe. It’s a third-person action title based on Norse mythology combined with Deus Ex-style cyberpunk stylings.

Oh, hey. I just described it.

Developer Silicon Knights originally planned to release it for the original PlayStation before switching to Nintendo’s GameCube and then finally coming out on the Xbox 360. So it existed on three different consoles from different companies across three hardware generations, and that alone makes it notable.

It was also planned as the first part of a trilogy, so who knows how long that whole thing might have taken.

Other than the game playing Musical Chairs with its hardware, development of the final version suffered from some issues Silicon Knights cited with the Unreal 3 engine it had licensed from Gears of War developer Epic Games.

And that’s when the saddest part of the story happens.

Was it worth it?

Despite its extremely popular demo, Too Human launched to average reviews and sales.

Later, Silicon Knights sued Epic, citing a lack of technical support and a failure to deliver on the terms of the license. Epic sued right back for unpaid royalties and won. The judge awarded the Unreal creator $4.5 million and ordered further that every copy of Too Human be recalled and destroyed.

So, no. Probably not worth it.

Duke Nukem Forever

Duke Nukem Forever

Above: Duke Nukem Forever’s story might be sadder than Too Human’s but for completely different reasons. Its greatest tragedy is that it exists at all.

Image Credit: 2K Games

Time in development: 14 years

So, what happened?

You knew this was coming.

Duke Nukem Forever, which spent a decade-and-a-half as the gaming world’s greatest punchline, started its public life in 1997 when series developer 3D Realms announced its existence. Before it came out in 2011, development had gone through five engines — its predecessor Duke Nukem 3D’s Build, Quake II, Unreal, Unreal 2, and a heavily modified version of the last.

It also survived 3D Realms’ downsizing and a switch in developers; Borderlands creator Gearbox Software picked up the then-cancelled project in 2010 and carried it through to its release.

Meanwhile, the Internet had been assembling lists of things that had happened since the game’s announcement (including all of the Sims and Grand Theft Auto series, 19 hardware launches/updates, and Britney Spears’ entire musical career), so it actually appearing on store shelves was something of a buzzkill.

Was it worth it?

The game sold about half of what publisher Take-Two Interactive projected, and critics did not receive it well. Reviews cited overly long load times, antiquated design, and one level in particular for its indelicate, Duke Nukem-esque handling of some very disturbing subject matter.

So, after all that time, Duke Nukem Forever’s final joke was on us.

But think of it this way: What would the Internet have done if it had actually been good? I don’t think we could have even handled that.

More information:

Valve is an entertainment software and technology company founded in 1996 by Gabe Newell and Mike Harrington and based in Bellevue, Washington. The company became famous from it’s first game Half-Life. Valve currently develops and ma... read more »

The Rockstar Games label was founded in 1998 to create innovative and progressive interactive entertainment. It is a wholly owned subsidiary of Take-Two Interactive Software, Inc.... read more »

Take-Two Interactive Software, Inc. is a leading developer, marketer and publisher of interactive entertainment for consumers around the globe. The Company develops and publishes products through its two wholly-owned labels Rockstar Ga... read more »

Gearbox Software is an award-winning independent developer of interactive entertainment based in Plano, Texas. Founded in February 1999 by game industry veterans, Gearbox quickly distinguished itself as a respected and recognized d... read more »

Alfonso John Romero (born October 28, 1967 in Colorado Springs, Colorado, U.S.) is a director, designer, programmer, and developer in the video game industry. He is best known as a co-founder of id Software and was a designer for many ... read more »

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2 comments
Suedes MaelStrom
Suedes MaelStrom

I decree that from this point on The Last Guardian shall now be know as the 'Puppy Dragon.'

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