Sin City

The games industry enjoys a drink.

Contrary to popular assumption, creating a videogame is a demanding, stressful, and time-intensive balancing act between creativity and commodity. It can mean developers work long hours, and often for very little pay, as there’s no shortage of talented graduates hoping to break into the field.

As with all project-based work, there are frequent crunch times to meet milestones, and working weekends is not uncommon. This is a high-stakes game, and overworked professionals in an outwardly glamorous industry need to unwind.

Like the majority of the Australian development industry, the Mana Bar is in both Brisbane and Melbourne. We’ve had developers from most of the local studios come through the doors of our videogame-themed cocktail lounges. We’ve poured drinks on the house as developers have celebrated the launch of their games, and we’ve poured drinks on the house when studios have had to close their doors.

Unfortunately, in recent years the latter has been increasingly common. With the rising Australian dollar, the country has become a less attractive proposition for American and European publishers looking to outsource game development. Our local industry has often relied on foreign investment and as that has dried up, so too has much of the console and PC development scene. Often, the games these talented teams quietly worked on never saw the light of day, nor had a chance to spark the global public’s imagination.

Here are the inside stories on some of the most promising Australian-made games you never knew nearly existed, and that you’ll never get to play:

SIN CITY

Transmission Games (Melbourne, Australia)

In May 2007, US publisher Red Mile Entertainment picked up the licensing rights to turn Frank Miller's Sin City graphic novels into a videogame. That was good news for Melbourne developer IR Gurus. In August that year, Red Mile formed an agreement to acquire the remaining shares and effectively purchase the developer.

IR Gurus changed its name to Transmission Games and began pre-production work on Sin City: The Game (working title).

It was to be a third-person action adventure title using the Unreal Engine 3, aiming for release on the PlayStation 3, Xbox 360 and Nintendo Wii around Christmas 2009. The storyline was completely new, though Frank Miller was heavily involved writing brand new characters, and mentioned that he was "keen to expand (Sin City) into an interactive experience."

An interview in March 2008 with close Frank Miller associate Flint Dille – designer, and writer on the project, who would go on to work on Blizzard’s Diablo III – elaborated, saying he hoped to produce sequels for the game every other year after the initial release.

“The whole studio was excited by the prospect of Sin City,” Mark Flanagan, who was the Senior Artist at the time, told Gameplanet. “We were massive fans of the graphic novels. A lot of pre-production art, programming prototypes and even international recruiting was well advanced. We definitely wanted to do this thing justice.”

A team of 17 Transmission Games staff worked pre-production for almost a year, until in August 2008 Red Mile announced it had moved the project to another developer.

The official statement was that Transmission Games was also working on Heroes over Europe at the time, and Red Mile (as the US publisher) felt that Transmission was stretched too thin. Freeing up the Sin City development team meant the developer could focus solely on getting their other game Heroes over Europe polished, and out on time.

However, when a co-financing deal with Atari fell through in February 2009, Red Mile Entertainment announced that its financial situation was untenable. This was bad news for Transmission Games as it was a month away from completing Heroes over Europe.

Heroes over Europe eventually shipped before Transmission games went into liquidation and closed down later that year, but not a word has been heard since regarding Sin City or the other studio (Red Line) that took over development. Red Mile Entertainment still owns the licensing rights to Sin City for at least another six years.

THE DARK KNIGHT

Pandemic Studios (Brisbane, Australia)

Fresh off the success of Destroy All Humans 2 in late 2006, the Brisbane arm of Pandemic Studios split into two internal teams and started working on separate projects. Able to negotiate a deal with Time Warner and DC Comics thanks to their close relationship with Electronic Arts (who ended up acquiring Pandemic in 2008), the studio began development on a game based on the Batman franchise.

After six months of pre-production, EA informed the studio it now had an exciting opportunity to create a tie-in with the upcoming Dark Knight movie. Set to be an open world game based in Gotham City and using a modified version of the Saboteur engine (a previous Pandemic game), it would feature playable sequences with the tumbler vehicle.

Then all was quiet for over a year, until an interview with Gary Oldman in July 2008 confirmed he had seen the game, and that, “a lot of effort had gone into getting Batman’s gliding abilities to feel suitably smooth and fluid.” It was later confirmed that all the principal actors had leant their voices to the game, with the exception of Heath Ledger who had passed away.

An anonymous source who worked at Pandemic at the time told Gameplanet, “the entire team was so excited to be working on such a high profile property. We were all huge fans Batman Begins, and the chance to work directly with Christopher Nolan on the game adaption for the sequel seemed almost too good to be true!”

Problems arose however due to the fact that EA’s rights to the Batman intellectual property were set to expire in December 2008. This meant that Pandemic had a theoretical 18 months to develop the game, though in reality it was closer to 12 months as the studio had to rework the game to tie in to the Dark Knight movie franchise six months into development. Next, the idea was also to launch the game alongside the release of the movie in July 2008, cutting the development time even further down to six months.

Pandemic had some experience developing open world games, but its custom Saboteur engine wasn’t designed to accommodate environments on that scale. Once it was decided the game still needed more time, the release was moved to coincide with the retail release of the Dark Knight DVD in November 2008.

Leaks of the game’s cancellation hit media outlets in August 2008, setting off a chain of events that began with EA trimming the Pandemic workforce in December, and concluded with cutting the studio free in January 2009.

Interestingly, The Dark Knight is the only Batman movie not to have a videogame tie-in release.

BLOOD DUST


Visceral Games (Melbourne, Australia)

In early 2009 rumours started floating around that EA's Visceral Games was working on a title based on the famous 19th century serial killer, Jack the Ripper. The truth was that Visceral Games’ Melbourne branch had begun development on the singleplayer component, but it was eventually moved to focus entirely on the multiplayer.

The multiplayer version eventually evolved into Blood Dust, a standalone downloadable title that was to be released a year before the singleplayer version. EA ultimately canned the singleplayer game altogether.

The multiplayer game was a third-person shooter, with three factions, nine unique classes, 100 upgradable weapons, abilities such as leaping and wall-running, and dapper top hats. The art direction and took strong cues from England’s Victorian era.

This was Visceral Games Melbourne’s first real shot at developing an original intellectual property from scratch, rather than doing ports of other Visceral Games such as Dead Space and The Godfather.

An anonymous source who worked on the project told Gameplanet: “The game was so much fun that the team routinely broke into multiplayer play-sessions during work hours, and this was after we had already been playing the game for over a year. Anyone who has worked in games before can tell you that this is not often the case. Lunch hours, Friday afternoons, etcetera, were filled with trash talking and cries for revenge throughout the office. It was a title with a lot of promise.”

Blood Dust was nearly 80 percent finished when EA decided to pull the plug on the game last year.

EA then closed down Visceral Games Melbourne in September 2011. The publisher stated the closure was due to the studio having no active projects to contribute to, though some unnamed sources claim it was new vice president of EA's Games Label Patrick Soderland who deemed that Blood Dust would be unprofitable.

THE AVENGERS


THQ Studio Australia (Brisbane, Australia)

THQ Studio Australia already had a reputation for reliably releasing licensed titles based on the Nickelodeon cartoons SpongeBob Squarepants and Avatar: The Last Airbender. Development then turned to a third-person game set in the Warhammer 40,000 universe that was unfortunately cancelled, perhaps a portent of things to come.

Thanks to a partnership with Marvel Entertainment early in 2010, the studio got the green light to develop a game based on The Avengers. Over 18 months and 200 staff worked tirelessly to create a first-person shooter that aligned with the unannounced movie, featuring playable characters such as Iron Man, Thor, Hulk, and Captain America.

A focus was placed on melee combat, with characters able to block, counter-attack, and perform finishing moves. Unique combat mechanics were available to each character, such as Iron Man’s ability to fly and hover, Captain America throwing his shield, and the Hulk picking up and throwing enemies.

“The creativity, talent and camaraderie of everyone involved is what made THQ Studio Australia great,” former quality assurance tester Jason Quinlan told Gameplanet. “Everyone had something to contribute and this passion to create a truly fun experience shone through into our final project.”

Developed for Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3, The Avengers used a custom in-house engine and THQ eventually turned to Melbourne-based Blue Tongue studios to assist with the PC port, as well as providing additional development on art assets and level design.

Midway through 2011, word got out that THQ was considering studio closures, so the developer put together a showreel of the game’s current state to be sent to Marvel Studios in the hope they could convince them to support the continued development.

No such luck. On August 9, 2011, THQ announced the closure of both THQ Studio Australia and Blue Tongue Studios, effectively cancelling any further progress on the game.

EDGE OF TWILIGHT

Fuzzyeyes Studios (Brisbane, Australia)

The development process for Edge of Twilight was never a secret, anyone can still find plenty of images and trailers online that indicate the game was very close to completion. It was also uniquely positioned as an original intellectual property created by an independent Brisbane-based studio called Fuzzyeyes.

Edge of Twilight was a third-person action adventure game set in a steampunk fantasy setting. Divided into two separate realms of day and night, the story and themes were to be greed, oppression, genocide, and cause and effect. The game also featured the voice talents of homegrown soap star come bona fide Hollywood name Melissa George, and Faith No More singer Mike Patton (who also voiced The Darkness character in the titular videogame series). Targeting release on Xbox 360 and PC in 2009, media events showcased the game and critics responded positively to what they saw, with many highlighting the duality of the levels and the God of War-like combat mechanics.

However in September 2009, Fuzzyeyes announced that it had let go of the majority of its staff, and that development on Edge of Twilight was suspended. Although Fuzzyeyes’ main studio was based in Brisbane, it also had development houses in Taipei, Taiwan, and China.

“The game had great potential,” former Fuzzyeyes designer Simon Neech told Gameplanet. “The development team was top notch and have in fact moved on to other studios to do some fantastic work on popular AAA titles.”

Rumours circulated that things went south, or more specifically, to SouthPeak Games. In 2007, SouthPeak announced its acquisition of Edge of Twilight for distribution, but reneged on payment promises as the title looked to miss its scheduled release date. Though there has been no official announcement in over two years, Fuzzyeyes CEO Wei-Yao has indicated to Gameplanet that there may be a reveal regarding Edge of Twilight’s development in the near future.

New beginnings

It’s easy to look over these cancelled titles and closed studios, and conclude that the best days of Australian game development are behind us. Easy, but untrue. There are Australian studios still hard at work. 2K Australia, for example, is collaborating with Irrational on BioShock Infinite. Australia has also produced a number of titles that have captured the world’s attention: Dark Reign, Star Wars: Force Unleashed, and de Blob. Then there’s L.A. Noire, a title mired by developmental controversy perhaps, but also a game that received high praise from media the world over.

Even more exciting are the rise of digital distribution and the proliferation of mobile development. Finally unburdened by Australia’s geographical distance, developers are reforming into smaller, more agile teams to create original intellectual properties that have captured headlines from Sydney to Los Angeles and London. Studios such as Halfbrick and Firemint are leading an indie revolution with games such as Fruit Ninja and Flight Control.

As far as I’m concerned, that’s cause for celebration. Drink, anyone?