So there’s a lot of talk at the moment about how and why Aliens: Colonial Marines is as bad as people have said and have played, and there’s a lot of people tossing blame about. So this entire thing is, basically, giving my own analysis from a gamer and a wannabe game developer perspective, and contributing my own thoughts and opinions on what is possibly the biggest talking point of this current year.
So to start off, the major facts: Aliens: Colonial Marines is produced by Sega under a license provided by 20th Century Fox, with development from Gearbox Software, TimeGate Studios, Demiurge Studios and Nerve Software. Released 12th February 2013, it was met with criticism from a wide variety of sources, both professional and otherwise (Source: Games Industry International) and is currently under a lot of speculation as to why it’s gone wrong – both within and outside of the industry.
So while the argument is clear in stating that it’s a horrible game (to the point Metacritic is giving 42%-49% for it at the time of writing across three platforms), the argument is not clear as to who the blame rests with. Now there’s 6 companies involved – 2 publishers, 4 development teams. So let’s narrow that off for a start and cut out 20th Century Fox since their involvement is simply in licensing the franchise (and possibly being the ones to go to for source material for canonical purposes).
Now at this point, standard procedure would be to blame Sega, as a production company, for not giving enough time to let the game be finished. Normally I would agree (they did let a woeful game out the door after all), but something tells me they were inclined to take the hit if they were going to recieve it because it had taken 6 years by this point for the game to get past the gate and they were undoubtedly tired of waiting and investing money into something that was taking far longer than most AAA titles in the industry to date. You have every right to complain if a development company was pushed after 2 years of game development to get a working title out – games aren’t that easy to make, and they never have been – but 6 years is a long time in the industry (as an example, the PS1 was released in 1995, the PS2 launched in 2000 – a whole generation) and for a game to take that long to develop is usually a bad sign for everyone. Sega were likely cutting their losses and opted to release a game rather than sue a company (which would incur costs on both sides either way). In this case, I personally refuse to believe Sega are the major ones at fault: They were giving the time, but didn’t want it being wasted further. I’d feel the same way.
So this brings us to development. And there’s not many people really gunning at the multiplayer side of things – in fact, there’s even been evidence of support for the multiplayer through the glimpses of the horror that is single player. Was it a different team? If you read the reports at face value, that’s the only part Gearbox worked on. So what were the other teams doing? Nerve had apparently worked on some of the multiplayer maps and, since they don’t seem assigned to any other detail, we can discount Nerve from the problems (Source). Along the same vein, the Wii version set to hit later on is a project for Demiurge, seemingly disconnected from the main development (and may hit different scores as a result) so they are safely out of the hot zone (Source).
Why didn’t I eliminate Gearbox at this point? And what about TimeGate? If you have looked at the last two sources, you would see a pattern in them both: TimeGate was assigned to work with single player campaign, then Gearbox was left to patch up the roughness of what was, ultimately, a redone game from what Gearbox sent them. So naturally, the inclination at this point is to throw TimeGate under the bus (they were, after all, notorious for making games that didn’t quite hit everyone’s tastes with Section 8), but I want you to hold your stones for a little bit longer and to consider this Reddit post from the inside.
Now for all intents and purposes, this could be fake, but it matches a lot of what’s being said from other sources. But even if TimeGate did shelve the work done previously, even if their work wasn’t up to the par that is expected of AAA titles in the modern era, it’s no different to what Gearbox have done themselves. They shelved the game several times for something more favourable to their interests and when they finally decided they couldn’t hold it off any longer, they outsourced it. Even if the Reddit post is made up, the fact remains that this was a game 6 years into development and something clearly went wrong. The primary development team for the project was Gearbox in all of that time.
This is a culture that needs to change in the gaming industry. If you’re going to choose to work on a game, do it. If you can’t do the job right, don’t expect someone else to do it for you and let you take the credit for it – and in turn, don’t expect to accept help then blame them for when things go wrong. And don’t bite off more than you can chew, either: If the Reddit post is factual, that’s what happened with Gearbox, and they ultimately had to throw up ACM because they couldn’t swallow the task they were left to do in the time that was left to them. And patching is never the answer: Patching is fixing a problem that should never have been there in the first place. For minor things akin to what you see in some games (e.g. dancing dead corpses in Halo 4) they may not even need patching and can just be left in for amusement purposes (not all bugs are necessarily bad, just not correct). When it’s a fundamental behavioural pattern that needs patching, or a fix to storyline consistency, these are problems that should’ve been fixed in the QA stages, not in a patch.
An editorial/open letter posted on Velocity Gamer brings up several key issues with the industry and so I will not deliberate on that further. However, I will state that, for this game, to me the blame lands squarely in the combined failures of TimeGate and Gearbox. If Gearbox truly claim they placed 80% of the effort into that game, then 80% of the blame for how horrible the game turned out rests on their shoulders to burden, and the fact they had six years to develop this game and handed segments of it off to other companies because they were too immersed in their own franchises to care about it is a shameful lack of responsibility. TimeGate may have some blame to take for making a campaign that was a shameful tribute to the Aliens franchise, but how much of that is their fault ultimately pales in comparison to the negligence on Gearbox’s part.
If this is going to be a sign of the future for Gearbox as a development company, I fear I am unlikely to be offering my support to them in future, and I daresay that a lot of consumers will be spending their business elsewhere also. I’ll admit, I enjoyed Borderlands 1, but Borderlands 2 is really making me struggle to get past Level 28 and hasn’t really done enough to engage me into the game itself (if anything else, it’s made me over-conscious of storage space, which is a bad thing). And the reviews of Duke Nukem Forever speak for themselves (that and I don’t have that game either). There’s no doubt in my mind that Gearbox will come out of this scarred and bloodied, but what they do next will determine whether they survive the onslaught to make up for their failings or if they will be, ultimately, another development company that will find themselves shutting their doors for good. Perhaps even before they get to making it to a trilogy.
It all depends on their next move. And so far, none of them are making many friends in the industry.