Ripleying Yarns: More On Colonial Marines’ Strange History

By Alec Meer on February 26th, 2013 at 9:23 am.

OK, everyone’s probably bored of this by now, but if you’re still wondering just how the makers of Borderlands 2 could get Aliens: Colonial Marines so very wrong, more has emerged.

Kotaku’s tracked down alleged sources close to the project, who tell the semi-familiar tale of Gearbox outsourcing ACM to Timegate in the wake of Borderlands doing so well. In theory Gearbox had been working on ACM for four years by that point, but allegedly what Timegate received was “”basically a hodgepodge” of assets which required an enormous amount of work to turn into anything like a game.

Later in the process, these sources allege that Sega were requesting a more Call of Duty-esque, manshoot experience, while writers from both studios were doing stuff on fly and the level designers had to race to adapt to frequent changes. On top of that, “You could not pick two companies whose general workflow is more diametrically opposed. Gearbox is used to ‘work, work, work, iterate, iterate.’ TimeGate is the exact opposite – they’re always about shipping the product.”

The now in-famous “in-game” demo which looked so much better than the rather murkier final game, meanwhile, was specially created to run on an ultra-powerful PC beyond the means of consumers. “We were told many times through demo production, ‘Don’t worry about performance, just make it awesome,’There was a reason [the demos] were never playable.” I’m not personally sure that entirely explains why the final game was so dialled down, as a mid-range PC could muster far more than what we did get, but apparently what Timegate had made wouldn’t run on PS3. For that reason, plus the rather important allegation that what Timegate had made was pretty rubbish, once Gearbox finally returned to ACM after shipping Borderlands 2, they felt they needed to change anything they could.

“Design elements were altered or redone entirely. It looks like a lot of [TimeGate's] assets remained intact, with the exception of lower-res textures and faster-performing shaders,” alleges Kotaku’s source.

Six years after being commissioned to make the game by Sega, allegedly Gearbox by this point felt they had to finish the damn thing by hook or by crook. So they did. And here’s the kicker: “The game feels like it was made in nine months, and that’s because it was.”

With both Gearbox and Sega keeping tellingly mum about what went on, and Kotaku also reporting rumours that the studios behind the game are worried about being sued, this may be as close to the real story as we ever get. Sure, a bad game is a bad game and to some extent the reasons for that don’t matter, but it’s fascinating/horrifying to see just how convoluted and chaotic a high-profile, high-budget game can get.

Many more details, rumours and quotes in the original story.

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92 Comments »

  1. Nim says:

    When you don’t have a plan…

    • Carighan Maconar says:

      … make an Aliens game? O.o

    • Nim says:

      Sega didn’t really seem to have a plan when they cancelled a RPG close to being finished. That’s a lot of time, money and energy down the drain without any hope of seeing a return on those investments. The company instead chose to focus on Colonial Marines which already had been in development for years without getting anywhere. Sega owns the right to make games of the IP and commissioned the development but they seem to not a single clue about the actual status of the products during development. These games costs millions to develop, who commissions projects on this scale without bothering to check up on them. From the sound of Sega it doesn’t even sound like they know what the aliens franchise is about and tells Gearbox to make it Call of Duty like.

      Gearbox didn’t seem to have a plan either, if going by the state of the assets delivered to Timegate is any indication. Gearbox tells Timegate to focus on awesomeness and forget about performance, resulting in Gearbox having to redo a lot when the results cannot be run on the limited PS3 hardware.

      From my software developer point of view, this whole thing reads like crappy requirements from the beginning i.e. no idea what to make. Bad requirements propagated to design because if you do not know what to make you cannot make a plan how to make it. Bad design poisoned construction, because when you do not know how to make it, you’ll end up making a ton of construction errors.
      Finally when you eventually figure out what you’re trying to make it’s probably too late and you’re stuck with a engine ill-suited for the purpose of the game, with assets that you are not going to use and workers that are pissed-off. Then you’ll have to ship the mess you’ve got if you hope to get any of the money lost on development back.

      • wodin says:

        It’s been denied the RPG was anywhere close to being finished by the developers.

        • Nim says:

          Oh, I read that game was in such as state that people believed it to be a release candidate.

          • ffordesoon says:

            If the footage that recently leaked is any indication of the state it was in at the end of development, no, it wasn’t ready. It could pass for ready to ship, perhaps, if you squinted, but it clearly wasn’t ready.

            It did, however, look very promising in its unreleased state. Obsidian seems to have gotten the franchise in a way Gearbox never did. There was to be a permadeath mechanic for squad members, for example, and the player’s goal was not extermination, but survival.

          • Jason Moyer says:

            I thought the leaked footage of the Aliens RPG looked pretty good as it was really.

          • wodin says:

            http://vimeo.com/56606365

            Maybe Sega will see an outcry on the net that they never went with the RPG and get Obsidian to start making one and leave them to it…here is hoping. With the new console toys coming out there will be no major tech restrictions and it will also save the license which they must have spent a fortune on.

        • InternetBatman says:

          Did JE Sawyer pretty much confirm that it was not ready to ship? Think they could have done a neat job with it, but I doubt Sega is going back to them after Alpha Protocol.

  2. Runty McTall says:

    To be honest, if they do get sued then I expect much of it will come out in court. They may just quietly come to some mutual “agreement” and then we’ll be less likely to get the full facts, though.

    Certainly sounds like a turkey and running a dev team (or three (or four?)) for 6 years, with a well known license, must’ve cost tens of millions of dollars though, so someone is surely going to have to carry the can?

  3. drewski says:

    Interesting to see that it still charted very nicely, at least in the UK – but the plummeted the week after. Pre-orders, I guess.

    I’ll be fascinated to see what the final sales numbers are like.

    • ajaygunn says:

      I think the huuuuge marketing campaign played an even bigger part than preorders. It makes me think that Sega knew they had a stinker on their hands, so amped up the visibility of it in the hopes that less informed members of the public would buy it. And hey, it worked.

      • Prime says:

        I would like that kind of thing to become illegal. It’s certainly immoral, to knowingly push a disappointing/half-baked product on consumers. “Just release the damned thing and hope we recoup some of our losses” should be punishable by significant jail time and/or fines. And if you’re spending significant millions to “gloss over” the unpalpable truths of your product, to make it appear as something it most clearly is not, as happened with Colonial Marines, then punishment becomes all the more necessary. It’s Fraud, plain and simple.

        Yes, I am looking at you, Kerberos, Egosoft and anyone else guilty of releasing alpha quality material to market without being honest and open and ensuring consumers are aware of that fact before purchase.

        Marketing = Lies. Quite why we allow this absurd practice to continue is beyond me.

        • Screamer says:

          Hey, don’t throw Egosoft into that crowd, they cater for a very niche market and are the only ones that have flown the space sim banner all these years. Granted the games might be shoddy at release but their support is awesome, and you can expected a lot of extra content after release.

        • Somerled says:

          Kerberos had one big release flop. They immediately offered refunds and continued support for the game to bring it up to standards.

          Or it may be Paradox you’re thinking of, but they (and often developers under them, like Kerberos) typically continue work on games long after release too.

        • mouton says:

          You can’t protect people from themselves.

          • Universal Quitter says:

            But we can choose not to prey on them, and think of some way to discourage it, right? The law he was talking about would be absurd to try and enforce, but that doesn’t mean that we should just go “hey, anyone who gets ripped off deserves it.”

            Do you also think bullying victims are the ones at fault? People hit by drunk drivers?

          • Ragnar says:

            I think there are enough strawmen without comparing buying bad games because of marketing to getting bullied or getting hit by a drunk driver.

            People chose to buy games without waiting for reviews. I don’t think people need to be protected from their own choices unless those choices endanger others.

            There are so many video game review sources out there, not to mention GameRankings and MetaCritic. If you chose not to do any research, and just buy games blindly, you deserve to get whatever you get.

          • Vercinger says:

            We can, and it’s our duty to do it. The modern world is far too complicated for humans to handle, so removing some bad choices is a necessity if we want to see an increase in quality of life.

  4. Prime says:

    I’m amused by how Gearbox have just neatly and precisely undone all the good PR they gained rescuing Duke Nukem Forever, that other hodge-podge of a game that they apparently swooped down upon like shining angels.

    • The First Door says:

      I didn’t play much of Duke Forever, so I admit it might get better later… but what I played was still an awful hodge-podge.

    • Baines says:

      You mean the game that Pitchford overhyped with promises that wouldn’t be met, which got delayed, came out as a bit of a mess, got bad reviews, and which Pitchford got into some tiffs over the negative response?

      Strangely enough, DNF may ultimately have reduced worry over Colonial Marines. When Gearbox announced DNF, some people started asking how Gearbox could afford the time and money to pick up another project while Colonial Marines appeared to be sitting in limbo. Once DNF came out, it was “obvious” that Gearbox had done little to it, and thus hadn’t really diverted resources from other projects.

      • mouton says:

        They obviously cared only about the Borderlands which are still quite horrible in my book, despite having some serious pros.

    • Ragnar says:

      They got good PR for Duke Nukem Forever? The game was terrible, and misogynistic on top of that. I thought the general consensus wasn’t “Thank you for rescuing and putting out DNF!” but instead “Ugh, you should have just let it die.”

  5. amateurviking says:

    What a fucking mess this is.

  6. Schmudley says:

    Honestly, although I have no intention of playing this game (for one, don’t want to sully the beautiful memories of AvP or the sequel), I find the whole saga behind it fascinating.

    “Grabs popcorn”

    • Correa says:

      Had zero interest in the game but the whole fiasco has had me far more intrigued about wanting to learn more on it.

      *gets coffee and reads on Gearbox Forums*

  7. dangermouse76 says:

    What was that Mr Pitchford about magic tricks and maintaining the trust of your fans? Seems like an odd time to give that speech considering the state of this game…… maybe it was a pre-emptive apology ?

    Edit: Everyone gets a dud or two in my book though I’m not a monster Tim.

  8. mckertis says:

    “Many more details, rumours and quotes in the original story.”

    Allegedly.

    “Gearbox decided to immediately start working on Borderlands 2—internally codenamed Willow 2—so they decided to outsource the bulk of development on Colonial Marines—codenamed Pecan—to a company called TimeGate”

    codenamed Patsy. What is this insane obsession USians have with stupid codenames ? Does every project ever envisioned actually NEED a codename ? Okay, i have to go finish operation “putting the rubbish out”, codename Cerulean Gerbil 5.

    • Thermal Ions says:

      Hey, now that’s not a bad idea to get the kids to do their chores. “Hey kids it’s Cerulean Gerbil 5 time, and after that …”

    • Low Life says:

      Well there are a couple of reasons one might use codenames. One is to not reveal anything about the project while still being able to reference it, and the other is being able to reference it before it has an actual name.

      Why they would call the sequel of Borderlands (Willow) Willow 2 is beyond me, though.

    • solidsquid says:

      Possibly it’s something to do with publishers wanting to keep things as under-wraps as possible until the official announcement?

      Edit: Although I suppose that doesn’t explain why DoubleFine Adventure is codenamed “Reds”

    • Hoaxfish says:

      This is papa bear to alpha dog, the chicken is in the ocean, I repeat, the salmon is flying south. Get the monkey on the lamb, and we’ll take a bath after the shower. Over!

    • Archangel says:

      It’s a way of concealing their plans to avoid media scrutiny, information leaks, or other forms of undesirable “eavesdropping”. See also: every single movie (Return of the Jedi was codenamed Blue Harvest, for example), every single technology product, and every single military plan.

      And the word you’re looking for is “American”. “USian” is not a word, nor even is it a pretend-word. By way of example, this is not a GBian web site, nor do we refer to EUians or PRCians.

      Edit: Wow, you guys are fast. =)

    • Muzman says:

      As mentioned, it’s a lot like the movies. What’s funny is the movies has this huge network of spies and rumour press working away at it and leaks are a big problem. Games doesn’t have this at all. The gaming press are totally the industry’s cabana boy.
      Maybe they are anticipating such a future. Who knows.
      (or evidence of all the ex hollywood types working in games)

        • Muzman says:

          Yeah I suppose that’s one thing. Would there really be hackers cruising Timegate’s servers looking for ACM though? Or ACM at all? Better safe than sorry I suppose.
          I was thinking it’s probably useful for restricting who knows the game is being outsourced, in any case.

      • Surlywombat says:

        Movie leaks come from scripts and the paps taking location pictures. It’s a lot harder to get in most offices without being noticed. So its bit much to blame the press.

        Yet they do have outsiders visit and walking past a white board with “Half-life 3 major plot twist ideas” written on it is slightly more obvious than a whiteboard with “Project Brownbeaker brainstorms”.

    • Dances to Podcasts says:

      If you have a name from the start there’s always a tendency, conscious or not, to make the game fit the name, which is not always a good thing. There’s also the fact that names that come from a game once it’s done tend to be better, more fitting and unique names than names thought up beforehand.

  9. Core says:

    Footage from Obsidians cancelled Aliens RPG emerged also some time ago. I wish Sega had stuck with that instead of going forward with colonial marines.

    http://www.unseen64.net/2013/02/19/cancelled-aliens-crucible-new-videos/

  10. Radiant says:

    So a handful of seemingly well prepared entities proceed to catastrophically fail through confusion and miscommunication resulting in an incredibly poor final outcome?

    The irony of the story of Aliens development roughly following the story of Aliens the movie is not lost on me.

  11. crinkles esq. says:

    The sad thing is, we probably won’t get another chance at an Aliens game for years. The sadder thing is, the Aliens DOOM mod was much better than this game. Mostly because the creator of that mod understood that a good Aliens game needs to have as much suspense as it does shooting things.

    • Chudleigh Pandanus says:

      I wouldn’t be surprised to see another Aliens FPS from a reputable studio pretty soon actually ;)

    • Zenicetus says:

      I doubt it will be long before the next Alien game is announced, although the dev cycle will still take a while. The IP is too recognizable.

      There just aren’t that many big movie-related Sci-Fi IP’s that lend themselves to gaming, outside of the Big Three — Star Wars, Star Trek, and Aliens. And maybe Predator, but that’s now tied in with Aliens in people’s minds, I think.

      There have been some interesting small budget sci-fi films recently like District 9 and Moon, and I guess Avatar was popular. But none of those movies scream “make a good game out of it!” like Alien (or Aliens) does. Someone will pick it up again.

  12. Crazy Horse says:

    How can you be certain there aren’t any brains in your space garbage if you don’t check? Check your garbage for brains or check your brains for garbage, fool. That’s a negative.

  13. kevmscotland says:

    Sounds like they followed the Fox/Aliens heritage far to closely.
    The latter films were also plagued by having numerous cooks in the kitchen and writers and/or the studio constantly changing the goal posts.

    I guess in that sense, Gearbox succeeded in fulfilling the alien legacy, its just a shame they took their cues from Alien 3/Resurrection rather than Alien(s).

  14. Lars Westergren says:

    Next time people are furious about a cancelled title that sounded *so promising*, I will remind them of this. Despite the saying, sometimes 10 birds in the woods are better than one crappy bird in your hand, it seems. Especially when you paid good money for it.

    I can understand Sega wanting to ship *something* if you have put millions of dollars into development, but I wonder if the long term damages to the names of all those involved won’t be more expensive in the end.

    • Correa says:

      I don’t think SEGA will get tarnished as bad as what Gearbox is getting and rightly so if all the details that’s been slipped out are genuine. I am wondering if SEGA is going to come out with some statement though or if there even chatting with there lawyers about what to do next.

      All these leaked info isn’t keeping the horizon view steady, but wobbling from the desert heat.

      or something ¬_¬

  15. 7Seas says:

    I can’t believe this piece of shit was shipped and we lost the Obsidian Aliens… a crying shame and demonstrates terrible judgement on behalf of the publisher that now owns my beloved Relic.

    By the way Alec, I don’t see anything in the source article that says that the demo was built on on an ” ultra-powerful PC beyond the means of consumers”. The kotaku article just says ” high-end computer with specs that would be unfeasible for a normal console game.” Maybe a mischaracterization on your part unless there is another source? I mention this, because specifically in the context of the PC release that the demo ran on merely “high end” pc hardware means it should have been optimizable down to midrange gaming PC hardware without too much difficulty.

  16. Runs With Foxes says:

    I don’t know why people make such a big deal about the fake demo. Regardless of how the graphics changed, that demo showed a poor game with boring shooting and QTEs. There was nothing to get excited about, but all the previews dutifully puffed it up anyway.

    • zachforrest says:

      I certainly got the sense it looked a bit rubbish

    • Angel Dust says:

      I had the same opinion of the demo but the amazing thing about the version of A:CM that was released is that it is so bad (I ..er.. ‘acquired’ it the other weekend) that the demo version starts looking OK in comparison. It might be rigidly linear and uninspired but it’s at least slick with the expected level of spectacle and has some of that Aliens atmosphere. It still would have been rubbish but would have hit the spot when I felt in the mood for a polished, linear shooter.

  17. Tei says:

    1) Take high resolution PC game.
    2) Make a Lo-Fi version, so it runs on the PS3.
    3) Release this Lo-Fi version on the PC.

    …. Doom 3 BFG.

    The world is soo adamant in release dumbed down version of games, that have to dumberize PC games to re-release these games has his worst possible version.

  18. strangeloup says:

    I don’t have anything useful to say except I’m nostalgiaing about Alien Trilogy on the PS1 now.

  19. Brun says:

    So a lot of people keep bringing up Obsidian’s RPG in these threads. I’ve said this before, but I think it needs to be said again:

    While Obsidian has a very vocal and dedicated group of fans, I get the sense that their reputation in the industry is *far* from sterling. Especially after Fallout: NV and Alpha Protocol, they seem to have become the studio to avoid for big publishers. Whether that reputation is deserved is a matter for debate. Obviously most people here will say it is undeserved, but publishers are looking at things differently – sure they may make good narratives, but the technical aspects of their games can be quite weak and that has the potential to torpedo the entire release, especially in the critical post-release weeks (see Fallout:NV).

    • PikaBot says:

      I don’t know the story behind Alpha Protocol, but the buggy release state of Fallout: NV was pretty much entirely Bethesda’s fault.

      • Brun says:

        In what way? Because they made GameByro, and GameByro is buggy? I hear that argument a lot, but I don’t buy it. I have zero sympathy for Obsidian being screwed out of a bonus over Fallout: NV. If you’re going to tie a contract bonus to something as fickle and meaningless as MetaCritic, then you better make sure your game doesn’t manifest critical and gamebreaking bugs within the first 30 minutes of gameplay, if the game runs at all. First impression is *HUGE* if you’re going for a high MetaCritic score, since most players will submit their scores within the first few hours of playing the game. Gamebreaking bugs and performance issues will earn you alot of 0′s from pissed-off players. Fallout: NV did *not* make a good first impression.

        • SkittleDiddler says:

          Rumor has it that Bethesda were in charge of quality assurance for New Vegas, and they almost entirely skipped normal bug-checking procedures due to schedule constraints. I don’t know how valid that is, but there you go.

          That obviously wouldn’t excuse Obsidian for some of the more blatant glitches, but looking through Bethesda’s release history, the rumor makes a lot of sense.

        • PikaBot says:

          No, because Obsidian’s contract with Bethesda stipulated that Bethesda would be in charge of QA. You know, the part of the game development process where bugs are identified and fixed.

          Bethesda didnt do their fucking job, and then shoved the game out the door before it was ready to meet an arbitrary deadline. Story of Obsidian’s life.

          • SkittleDiddler says:

            So it was a contract thing? Color me shocked.

            Bethesda seem to have daddy issues.

        • TsunamiWombat says:

          As many above me have said, Bethesda handled QA. In fact, this is pretty standard – publishers handle QA quite often.

        • Sordarias says:

          QA is handled by the publisher, ENTIRELY. And you know how well Bethesda’s QA team is by now, I’m sure.

    • Beelzebud says:

      And yet New Vegas is a better game than Fallout 3. Let’s also not ignore the fact that Fallout 3 contained a lot of the exact same buggy crap that New Vegas did.

  20. Eddy9000 says:

    It’s a good article, Kotaku is becoming just like RPS these days.

  21. Beelzebud says:

    What bugs me the most about this entire ordeal is the way Gearbox has been (by way of anonymous comments, etc) laying the blame at the feet of TimeGate. Gearbox were the ones Sega contracted to do the game. The way it ended up is their fault. Period.

    I highly doubt that when Sega began working with them, their idea was for Gearbox to just outsource the work to another studio. Why would Sega need a middle man?

    And now because of Gearbox’s completely unethical business practices, we’ll never see the Obsidian made Alien RPG.

    • PikaBot says:

      Evidence suggests that it was a bad idea, but I think you’d need to support your theory that subcontracting is throughly unethical a bit more.

      • TsunamiWombat says:

        All the unconfirmed rumors about this suggest Gearbox funneled their Alien:CM money into Borderlands (Borderlands 1 folks, thats how long this game has been in prod) development, and gave a fraction of the money intended to develop it to timegate. So you could possibly accuse them of embezzlement? Misappropriation? I don’t known business law. The problem is proving intent to decieve/not produce product, which is nearly impossible.

      • Hmm-Hmm. says:

        Well, it does seem a bit strange. Consider the following: a house-owner hires a good carpenter to make wooden chairs, tables, cupboards, etc. and the carpenter decides he’d rather do something else and talks to another carpenter (whose work may be as good or slightly worse or just plain bad) and has that fellow do his work for a modest fee.

        In other words: Sega wanted (contracted) Gearbox to make the game, not TimeGate.

  22. Sordarias says:

    Sad to say, but I think TimeGate knew so much more about what made an Aliens game than Gearbox ever did, if their demo was ANY indication whatsoever. Granted, Obsidian still seemed to know EXACTLY what makes Aliens tick, but TimeGate was, just judging by the demo, far more competent than Gearbox was and Gearbox is ‘swooping in’ to ‘save the game.’ like an ‘angel.’

    Sorry, but no. I am not believing Gearbox’s rubbish, and neither should anyone.

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