I wish I could have come up with a wittier title for this post but I really can’t think of one.
So, Aliens: Colonial Marines came out this week and if you’re reading this, you’ve probably heard that it’s basically hot garbage. It’s funny, I almost pre-ordered this game with a discount on the PC but at the last minute, I had an urge to back off thinking I should wait until release and see how it was received. I’ve had this before with other games and almost every time, I’ve ended up being right and the game I almost pre-ordered turned out to be bad. I don’t know if that means I have some sixth sense for this stuff or if I’m just way too invested in this hobby. I’m inclined to think the latter.
My opinion on Gearbox Software (who was supposedly the primary developer on this game but more on that later) is mixed. Their Half-Life expansions were pretty good but I thought the first two Brothers In Arms games were good ideas that were very poorly executed. The most recent entry in that series was actually quite good and I really enjoyed both Borderlands games, despite the lazy Family Guy-esque writing. And oh yeah, there was Duke Nukem Forever but that I don’t really blame them for as it was a disaster they inherited from failhouse 3DRealms and it simply had to ship.
Aliens: Colonial Marines is something very different however. Not many people expected Duke Nukem Forever to be good and it certainly wasn’t hyped up to be substantially more than it became. That was very much the case with A:CM. In the game’s 6+ years of development (during which it was apparently cancelled/put on hiatus at least once), gamers were promised a rich, cinematic experience that did justice to the legacy of the property. Indeed, several very strong demos were given and it appears that they were near complete lies. What we got was a game that embodies all the traits of a half-assed, soulless movie cash-in, the exact kind of shovelware that doesn’t sell any more. It’s not what anyone expected from Gearbox and while SEGA’s put out their fair share of garbage over the years, they seemed to be behind this in a big way.
Make no mistake, we were lied to. When a game is demonstrated pre-release, the work in progress footage is supposed to improve in the final product, not get noticeably worse. That the latter happened clearly demonstrates that the demos were doctored to artificially hype up the game to a standard it was never intended to ship with. This is blatant deception and it’s a disgusting abuse of trust. Gamers and Aliens fans alike were taken advantage of.
The question now is, who is to blame for this mess?
There’s already been a lot of speculation thrown around. Gearbox is one of the increasingly rare successful independent AAA studios but they’ve always done that in spite of juggling multiple projects at once and enduring several cancellations. Originally, they were thought to be the sole developers of A:CM and mostly claimed that but in later trailers, logos for TimeGate Studios, Demiurge Studios and Nerve Software appeared. Demiurge is a general outsourcing studio that’s worked with Gearbox before so that wasn’t a surprise. TimeGate and Nerve have a lot of multiplayer experience and previous Gearbox titles have had multiplayer handled by outside companies so that wasn’t a shock either. Things got weird when a supposedly ex-Gearbox developer mentioned on a forum that the studio had actually only handled a minor amount of A:CM’s development centered around multiplayer when in fact TimeGate had done the majority of the campaign work. That’s very odd as while TimeGate’s not a very good studio as a whole, their few single player efforts have been frankly dreadful. If true though, it certainly explains a lot.
In the many years that A:CM has been in development, Gearbox has come into its own with respect to IP. They launched Borderlands which became a smash hit franchise and they also acquired Duke Nukem. While Duke Nukem Forever was an awful game, it sold well and reportedly made money. Doing outsourced development work for big publishers is how many independent studios make a living but Gearbox had broken the mould and was doing well on their own. Did they at one point decide that this contract job for SEGA was no longer worth their time and that they should direct their resources towards their owned IP which stood to make them a lot more money? Did they just rush this game out so they could get the contract off their books after being saddled with it for so long? Could be. Some have even speculated that they pulled a Silicon Knights and took SEGA’s money but devoted most of it to their own projects, only giving the minimum amount of required effort to A:CM in order to meet their legal obligations.
From what I’ve gathered, game developers don’t seem to be required by publishers to undergo audits to see how their development advances are being spent. As long as milestones are met, the publisher has no right to ask where the money’s going. That’s certainly what happened with Silicon Knights and if notorious cash-bears like Activision don’t demand to count every penny, what’s the likelihood that SEGA would? It’s possible that Gearbox pulled off an elaborate con, getting money from SEGA to develop a game they’d lost interest in, putting that money into Borderlands and buying Duke Nukem, two things that have so far paid off big for them. If so, they were not only deceptive to their partner but they spat in the faces of gamers, many of whom also bought Borderlands and Duke Nukem Forever, in the hopes that we’d forget about this before their next big release comes out. I don’t think Gearbox’s games have been universally good but even the ones I didn’t care for always felt like products that had their full effort behind them. A:CM feels like an outsourced hack job and worse of all, one that was largely intentional.
That said, I wouldn’t put it past SEGA to share some if not most of the blame in this situation either. This is a company that hasn’t managed to find its footing since well before they got out of the hardware business. They have put out some good games and have found successful niches with things like the Total War series but on the other hand, we have titles like Binary Domain and the endless flood of garbage Sonic games. Since Aliens is a property they licensed from Fox, it’s likely they had a certain minimum number of titles with the brand they had to release or risk getting severely penalised. Activision operates under similar terms with the Marvel and James Bond licenses. If they don’t put out a certain number of games in a certain time, they lose the license and a bunch of cash in the process. Given the development Hell A:CM has been in, SEGA perhaps didn’t care if the game was any good and didn’t give Gearbox & Co. enough money for it, they just decided to slap something vaguely complete together and crap it onto store shelves so they can tell Fox “There’s your Aliens game, get off our backs.” In a situation like this, there is little Gearbox or any developer can do. They have to work with the money they’re given and if that’s not enough to make a good game, you don’t get one. Someone at SEGA likely crunched numbers and knew that simply by having Aliens on the box, this game is likely to sell a certain minimum amount and that amount was enough to justify a meager budget so that they could still turn a profit or at least, limit their losses. It’s a gross reality and little comfort to the gamers who have been ripped off but it’s possible.
Truthfully, given how Gearbox themselves were hyping the game pre-release and how blatantly deceptive the marketing demos were, I find it hard to believe that aren’t at least somewhat culpable in this situation. Ultimately, we’ll probably never know the real truth behind this unless one of the parties gets angry enough to sue the other or a whistle blower from inside SEGA or Gearbox comes forward. There is little doubt in my mind that some real corporate deception and conning took place here. There are just too many fairly obvious signs to show that not all was well behind the scenes here.
In the end, only the gamers really suffer. Thankfully, reviews of this game were honest and didn’t try to gloss over its issues as they do with many others. The word is out and anyone who didn’t pre-order this game now has no excuse to claim they didn’t know what they were in for. Whatever political bullshit happened between Gearbox and SEGA is their problem but the gamers are the ones who pre-ordered a title that had established names on the box and which was blatantly sold to them on lies. And despite that, no one who cracked the plastic can return it for a refund. There is something deeply, fundamentally wrong there. This side of the games industry is in dire straits right now. Every day, we read another story questioning the viability of not only AAA development but even of consoles as a whole. Every major hyped title that comes out has to ooze quality and at least live up to if not surpass expectations. Disastrous releases like A:CM only push the AAA industry further into the grave and sends the message to gamers that $60 is no guarantee of quality and that maybe they should be more hesitant before opening their wallets. What has happened is nothing less than a slap in the face to gamers and everyone involved with this product should be hanging their heads in shame and offering apologies. I’m not holding my breath but rest assured Gearbox and SEGA, I and many others won’t forget this the next time we’re asked to pay full price for something with your names on it.