Earlier this month Gearbox Interactive released their highly anticipated first-person shooter based on an original story in the Aliens universe, Aliens: Colonial Marines. The game is set between Aliens and Alien3, with the player taking on the role of Winter, a Colonial Marine sent to investigate the appearance of the U.S.S. Sulaco over LV-426, in a continuation of the storyline from Aliens.
Unfortunately, while the gameplay trailers for Aliens: Colonial Marines showed a dark and atmospheric game true to the original films, the actual released product was anything but. Full of bugs (the technical kind, not the Alien kind), terrible gameplay, lackluster graphics, and a variety of other flaws, Aliens: Colonial Marines was widely panned by the gaming press and has elicited a firestorm of criticism from gamers who felt duped into buying a substandard product at a premium price, based on false or misleading pre-release information.
After the release of the game, rumors have leaked through Reddit and the gaming media that Aliens: Colonial Marines was doomed from the start and that, much like Gearbox’s previous efforts with Duke Nukem Forever, Aliens: Colonial Marines should have gone from “Oft-Delayed” to “Cancelled”.
Calling the development of Aliens: Colonial Marines “troubling” would be an extreme understatement.
Aliens: Colonial Marines was first announced as a PlayStation 2 exclusive in 2001, to be developed by Check Six Games and published by Fox Interactive and Electronic Arts. That game was ultimately shelved, and the publishing rights passed to Sega. In December 2006, Sega and Gearbox Software announced that they were working on a completely new game based on the franchise. The title was eventually revealed to be (surprise, surprise) Aliens: Colonial Marines.
In late 2008, the game was delayed, reportedly due to layoffs at Gearbox Software.
In 2010, Sega announced Aliens Vs. Predator, which they stated would come out before Aliens: Colonial Marines.
Aliens: Colonial Marines was delayed repeatedly up through 2012, when Gearbox finally announced the game would be coming to Xbox 360, PlayStation 3, PC, and Wii U (at a later date). During this period, Gearbox President Randy Pitchford demos the game to press and players; the demo is moody, atmospheric, detailed, and actually scary, and serves to build a lot of hype for the title prior to release.
After seven years in development, not including the aborted PS2 version, Aliens: Colonial Marines finally hit shelves on February 12th, 2013.
The results were underwhelming, to say the least. Metacritic averaged the reviews in the 40s, which is a stunningly low score for a major release. Shortly after it became clear that Aliens: Colonial Marines was an epic failure, well-sourced rumors and innuendo started to fly over the internet.
First off, due to me breaking NDA, I can’t provide any proof that I’m not just talking out of my ass. But I figure you’d be interested in hearing what I have to say regardless. I’ve been on the project for around a year and a half, so some of the following are things I’ve heard from more senior guys.
Pecan (the internal codename for ACM) has a pretty long history. SEGA, GBX and 20th Century FOX came to an agreement to produce an Aliens game around 6 years ago, after which SEGA almost immediately announced it, long before Pecan had even started production. The game has been in active development in the past, only to be shelved in favor of another project (Borderlands, Duke, etc), and each time it was resumed it would undergo a major content overhaul.
SEGA, naturally, wasn’t super pleased about the delays, but GBX got away with it for a long time and the contract between SEGA and GBX kept getting augmented to push the projected release further and further back. The last time it was resumed, GBX outsourced a good portion of the game to outside companies. Initially, the plan was for TimeGate to take the majority of campaign, GBX would take MP, Demiurge and Nerve would handle DLC and various other focused tasks. This decision was made mostly so that most of the developers at GBX could continue working on Borderlands 2, while a small group of LDs, coders and designers dealt with Pecan.
Somehow the schedules for Pecan and Borderlands 2 managed to line up and GBX realized that there was no fucking way they could cert and ship two titles at the same time. Additionally, campaign (which was being developed by TimeGate) was extremely far behind, even as Pecan’s Beta deadline got closer and closer. In April or May (can’t remember which), Pecan was supposed to hit beta, but GBX instead came to an agreement with SEGA that they would push the release date back one more time, buying GBX around 9 mos extension.
About 5 of those 9 months went to shipping BL2. In that time, TimeGate managed to scrap together 85% of the campaign, but once Borderlands 2 shipped and GBX turned its attention to Pecan, it became pretty apparent that what had been made was in a pretty horrid state. Campaign didn’t make much sense, the boss fights weren’t implemented, PS3 was way over memory, etcetcetc. GBX was pretty unhappy with TG’s work, and some of Campaign maps were just completely redesigned from scratch. There were some last minute feature requests, most notably female marines, and the general consensus among GBX devs was that there was no way this game was going to be good by ship. There just wasn’t enough time.
Considering that SEGA was pretty close to taking legal action against GBX, asking for an extension wasn’t an option, and so Pecan crash-landed through certification and shipping. Features that were planned were oversimplified, or shoved in (a good example of this are challenges, which are in an incredibly illogical order). Issues that didn’t cause 100% blockers were generally ignored, with the exception of absolutely horrible problems. This isn’t because GBX didn’t care, mind you. At a certain point, they couldn’t risk changing ANYTHING that might cause them to fail certification or break some other system. And so, the product you see is what you get.
Beyond gameplay, the story has been raised as an issue several times. I can’t really comment without feeling bad beyond saying that the script was approved by 20th Century FOX, and that the rush to throw a playable product together came at the cost of the story. Campaign does a pretty bad job of explaining a lot of the questions raised at the start of the game, and so hopefully there will be DLC to flesh that out a bit better.
I’ll answer some questions, but I have to run soon, so it may take a while for responses.
When TimeGate took over the project, our source said, they threw out most of what Gearbox had done beforehand. All of the art and design that Gearbox had produced during the previous four years was gone.
So from 2010 until late last year, while Gearbox was working on Borderlands 2 (internally codenamed “Willow 2″), TimeGate handled the bulk of development on Aliens. A small team at Gearbox helped out with multiplayer work, as explained by both our source and the Redditor, but TimeGate built the single-player campaign.
In late 2012, when Gearbox saw what TimeGate had done, most of their developers weren’t interested in taking the game back, our source said. Gearbox’s team was upset that their work had been thrown out, and they didn’t want this to be a repeat of Duke Nukem Forever, a game that took over a decade to develop until it was finally finished by Gearbox and released in mid-2011 to tepid response.
But Gearbox had to finish the game, and according to our source, they had to throw out much of TimeGate’s work and start from scratch.
And then a Quality Assurance Tester chimed in with a Reddit AMA (Ask Me Anything), where his identity was confirmed by the AMA Moderators. The AMA itself has since been taken down, but there are some juicy tidbits floating around here.
“So you are basically saying that Gearbox used money meant for A:CM to fun Borderlands 2 instead …”
Indeed I am, though more that it helped fund the first game.
“What happened that made it suck so bad?”
Gearbox didnt care about the game, they spent the money from acm on the borderlands games. Look at the release dates of borderlands and when aliens was anounced, they had the other companies like timegate do the work. When they got the game back timegate had done a terrible job. When it came into sega it was **** basicaly. Gearbox only cared about fixing ‘progression blockers’ (things that stop a player from getting through a level) or crashes.
“Do you happen to know if the Wii U version is still coming out? Because there are rumors floating around that it’s been cancelled.”
Oh wow. Yes okay. I was hoping someone would ask this. I have played the WiiU version. The one that is supposedly the best of all of them? It is not. It is the worst. It is a bit of a joke. The WiiU is basically the same game as the console version but with framerate issues, worse texture loading, and horrendously misguided minigames thrown in. You get a ‘scanner’ to scan enemies and get bonus points that aid your harming them. When you cut open doors (which happens a lot in the game) you have a game where you have to keep the heat ‘optimal’. They just add frustration, and take away even more from the fun. We don’t know if it will come out, Sega are conisdering canceling it, but right now its still going.
“was the demo shown at E3 ever actually in the game? and if so how did it get cut out?”
Never in the game. Maybe in 06 that was the plan, but in terms of ‘the game’ that never existed. That certainly isn’t unreal 3 for example, which the game is built in. That area is kind of in the game, in a later mission called hope for hadleys. You go and save some marines, but it is nowhere near as exciting as that demo.
“How much money did Sega waste on this games development?
And when did Sega realise there was a point of no return and the game wasn’t going to get any better? I would have thought, they’d have realised this sooner given it’s announcement in 2008.
PS: Will sega sue gearbox?”
Many tens of millions. Including marketing. Think over forty, nearer sixty. Sega only got it for test mid last year. The seniors really **** it up, they saw gearbx as being an amzing company and thought they had borderlans with aliens. They didnt think to check on it.
Yes, there will be legal ramiffications.
“Did it’s quality increase or decrease from when you tested it to the final product?”
Hard to say. They removed some promising stuff. For example the game starts with a cutscene. It used to be that youa ctually moved through the ship with your leader and kind of experienced it yourself. This worked much better. There were also more cutscenes planned, like explaining the marine from the movies origin better etc.
“Do you have any idea why the writer decide to just **** with the canon in such a distasteful and unjustified way?
Also, was the game at any point good when you play tested it? Did you see potential or was it just a hot piece of garbage the minute it was handed to you?”
The original story had some **** stuff too, but they made it worse. They were going to have stuff where you would free aliens, like empty the cages. They got rid of that. You also had control over your squads etc, and one of your squad would at somepoint come out as working for the enemy and try to **** you over.
The game came in super buggy, with lots of placeholder stuff saying what would come in. There was originally a cool opening where you go through the ship and actually take part in prep to go nto the sulaco. They changed that to a cutscene rather than bother polishing it. Numerous cutscenes were dropped too. We were shocked at how bad it was, but we thought it would get better, I mean how could they release it like they did?
“Who is, “They” in regards to the people who made the story worse? Timegate? Gearbox?”
Gearbox. Timegate didn’t do as much as gearbox. They were involved, but everything we said we said to gearbox. Timegate may have done it in the past, but when we had it gearbox were in charge.
“Would you consider the DLC to be something that can save the game?”
if it had been in the game from the start maybe. It was really fun, and very hard. big levels full of increasingly tough waves of xeons.
“Why was so many development studios were involved in the making of this game that been in production for a long while now? Were they trying to get it out before the deadline?”
Gearbox was busy with other games. they took this on before borderlands success so rushed intot he sequel, putting other companies on the game to help. demiurge did the entire WiiU version.
To sum up: Gearbox took Aliens: Colonial Marines on as a way to finance Borderlands, which ended up being a smash hit. They farmed it out to a number of other studios, who may or may not have junked everything Gearbox did. Ultimately, they were contractually forced into shipping a shoddy, sub-par product as a result of spending all their development time and capital on Borderlands 2. Moreover, Gearbox lied to the press and gamers by showing demo footage that resembled nothing in the final product. Fox Interactive, who hold the Aliens license, as well as Sega, are far from blameless; they approved a bad story that junks existing canon from the Alien movies, and approved Aliens: Colonial Marines for release.
Looking at this from a consumer perspective, as well as a gamer and an Aliens fan, I can’t help but be genuinely disappointed and angry at everyone involved. It’s pretty clear that Aliens: Colonial Marines wasn’t ready for primetime. At the same time, if Gearbox had tried to delay the game another six months to fix even a few of the issues that plagued it at release, there’s a pretty decent chance it would have been cancelled entirely. In this case, that might not have been the worst idea for any of the parties involved.
Image: Wikimedia Commons