When Games Get Stuck in Development Hell

3 min

Development Hell.  This mystical place is a haven of paper pushers, idea men, and marketing gurus all standing around a giant, oblong, finely polished wooden table, passing their papers back and forth, trying to figure out what to do with an idea in which they’ve sunk too much money.  “Development Hell” is a term that was crafted for the film industry describing when a production company options source material, then spends years trying to figure out how to get the story from concept to big screen.  While the term may have been coined by the film industry, it has found a new home in video game development.

With video games, Development Hell is a strange beast that can strike at any time.  It rears its head, affecting jobs, the production process, and the quality of a product.  Development Hell doesn’t refer to the delays that often plague video games, which is requested by studios to sometimes tighten up experiences and make sure they are providing the best quality product.  Development Hell is something deeper and more sinister, that takes titles from the limelight, brings them behind closed doors, turns them into something completely different.

Why does Development Hell take such a strong hold in the video game industry?  Generally it is because the development process of a video game is so malleable.  Video games normally start with a concept, the a prototype, then work their way to alpha, from alpha to beta, with builds and parts of builds bridging the gaps in between.  It is inevitable that these processes will run into trouble somewhere along the way.  Sometimes concepts don’t come together as one might have thought, so the game goes through a constant revision process that scraps old ideas, and experiments with new ones along the way. Even great games run into trouble and are forced to push their release.  However, when team aren’t able to recover from the unavoidable hiccups, publishers get nervous and that’s when the real trouble starts.

I had a great mentor in college who taught me to never trust delays.  Delays happen, sometimes with good reason, but most often they are a lighting the way for trouble.  The recent story of The Bureau: X-COM Declassified is the perfect example of delays leading to bigger issues.  Currently playing through Declassified, there are two stories of this game.  One side is explained in Polygon’s recent article about what Development Hell can do for a game, the other is that The Bureau is just a bad game.  2K Australia’s difficulty getting the game to come together, missing alpha stages, and failing to mesh with 2K Marin is largely responsible for the decline of the title.  That is not to blame 2K Australia, who were burdened with plenty of side projects which kept them preoccupied when they should have been allowed to worked on the X-COM shooter.  However, the continued silence from 2K should have been the real indication that the game was falling apart.  Delays are one thing, but when studios like Naughty Dog or Rockstar have delays, they still push out content consistently, keeping the public aware of the game’s progress.  A total radio silence, like that of 2K’s on The Bureau, is the biggest indicator a game is in Development Hell.

Earlier this year, Aliens: Colonial Marines provided another example of Development Hell.  Published by Sega, who gave the project to Gearbox Studios to develop, Colonial Marines found itself in a radio silence akin to the previously discussed X-COM Declassified.  After a demo of the game left everyone excited, and put Alien(s) fans in a tizzy, the game spent five years hindered by delays and dodgy interview responses.  There is much speculation about how the game was developed, however TimeGate Studios has been reported as shouldering the majority of the work as Gearbox moved key pieces to continue work on Borderlands 2.

However, when it comes to recent stories of Development Hell, few are quite as bad as Team Ico’s long delayed, might-be-dead, The Last Guardian.  Nothing represents what Development Hell can do to a game quite as well as Fumito Ueda’s follow up to Shadows of the Colossus.  Team Ico started the PS3 generation widely respected for both Colossus and their first title, Ico.  When they released their CGI trailer for The Last Guardian–which is still available on YouTube–it was met with both raised eyebrows and open arms.  Then the game started to slip into the ether.  While Sony continues to confirm the existence of The Last Guardian in some form and capacity, the fact remains that the game hasn’t seen the light of day since its initial reveal in 2009.  The development was further complicated when Ueda and the game’s executive producer, Yoshifusa Hayama, left Team Ico, though Ueda said he would continue to work on the game in a contracted status.  Despite redistributed resources from Sony Santa Monica, and a continued effort, the game is in the deepest, darkest Development Hell.

What is Development Hell?  Often times, it means the death of a game.  Publishers like Take-Two, Sega, and Sony often pour too much money into development so that by the time a game reaches Development Hell they are less concerned with tight gameplay, interesting art, and engaging story, and are anxious to just get the stupid game on a shelf.  There are rare occasions of games coming out the other side unscathed, like when people had began to wonder about the state of BioShock Infinite when it missed its 2012 window.  However, when games go off the map completely, there’s little that can be done to bring them back.  Development Hell is not designed to help a game get better, it’s designed to kickstart the birthing process.  So when you see that a game has missed a couple expos, when release dates get pushed back, when big names start leaving the project, remember that no game ever comes out of Development Hell unscathed.

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