From Dream To Disaster: The Story Of Aliens: Colonial Marines

On December 11, 2006, Sega announced that it had snagged the rights to the much-beloved sci-fi franchise Aliens. Eager to get people excited, Sega quickly announced that it had two big games in the works: a role-playing game and a first-person shooter.

In the coming years, one would be cancelled. And the other probably should have been.

Aliens: Colonial Marines, the shooter released earlier this month for PC and consoles, has been almost unanimously declared a bad game. Two weeks ago, we attempted to figure out just how it fell apart, but we didn't have the full story. Today, we can paint a clearer picture.

In an attempt to sort through the rumours and figure out just what happened to Colonial Marines, I've spent the past few weeks talking to people with connections to the game. Some preferred to talk off the record; others agreed to let me report what they said so long as I didn't use their names. And the story behind A:CM -- a story of dysfunctional development, miscommunication, and conflicting visions -- has grown increasingly clear.

(Unfortunately, despite weeks of fan and press requests for an explanation about what went wrong with this game, representatives from Sega and Gearbox both declined to comment for this story.)

Just days after announcing their Aliens acquisition, Sega announced that they were making a first-person shooter with Gearbox, the studio then best known for developing Brothers in Arms and some of the expansions to Half-Life. When Sega made that announcement, pre-production had just started, according to multiple sources. There was nothing to show, because nothing existed yet.

Meanwhile, Sega contracted independent studio Obsidian Entertainment to handle the Aliens RPG.

"There was really good synergy between both teams about what needed to happen. It was a very love-love situation."

Over the next few years, both Aliens games were delayed multiple times. By 2009, Sega was going through some financial difficulties and both games were costing them a great deal of money. According to one source, Sega's producers said they had to choose between the first-person shooter and the role-playing game. They chose the shooter -- and unceremoniously cancelled the RPG.

Also in 2009, Gearbox released Borderlands, the Diablo-esque shooter that went on to become a surprise critical and commercial hit. Because of this sudden success, Gearbox decided to immediately start working on Borderlands 2 -- internally codenamed "Willow 2" -- so it decided to outsource the bulk of development on Colonial Marines -- codenamed "Pecan" -- to a company called TimeGate, best known for the first-person shooter Section 8. At the time, TimeGate was finishing up development on the sequel, Section 8: Prejudice.

Around November or December of 2010, TimeGate had a company meeting to talk about its next project. Things went well.

"There was really good synergy between both teams about what needed to happen," one source told me. "It was a very love-love situation."

"Everyone at [TimeGate] was pretty stoked," said another source.

So Gearbox sent over the game materials, and TimeGate's team started to work on project Pecan -- although at least a few staffers were shocked by how little progress Gearbox had made on the game.

"There was obviously not four years of work done on the game," one source said.

According to three people familiar with the project, Gearbox didn't put a lot of work into Colonial Marines between 2007 and 2010. Instead, those people told me, Gearbox chose to focus on Duke Nukem Forever, Borderlands and Borderlands 2. Colonial Marines was not a priority.

One source told me that when TimeGate got the project, Colonial Marines was "basically a hodgepodge" of assets, including the shader -- or lighting processor -- from Borderlands. "A lot of assets just didn't seem like they fit there," the source said.

I've heard conflicting things about how much of Gearbox's work was retained by TimeGate. According to one source, TimeGate threw everything out. According to another source, TimeGate's staff worked with what they had, even if that did require a ton of iteration.

But by all accounts, starting at the end of 2010, TimeGate was the developer of Aliens: Colonial Marines. Gearbox had oversight, and much of TimeGate's work had to go through approval by producers at both Gearbox and Sega, but the bulk of the project was TimeGate's responsibility.

In 2011, TimeGate started facing big problems. The first major problem was the game's story: even four years after Colonial Marines was announced, nobody had locked down a final script. Narrative designers at both Gearbox and TimeGate were writing and rewriting constantly, and TimeGate had to discard entire scenes and levels because of story changes during development, according to three sources.

"For a couple months, we were just kind of guessing," said one of those sources. "It's really weird to work on a game when you don't have a basic idea of how things will work."

And then there was interference -- with three companies involved in decision-making on Pecan, bureaucracy was inevitable. According to one source, Sega's producers wanted Colonial Marines to feel like Call of Duty -- in other words, more shooting marines, less shooting aliens. Upper staff at both Gearbox and TimeGate disagreed with this mentality, the source said, and there was a tug-of-war between developer and publisher on how the game should be designed.

"There was also the 'too many chefs' syndrome when it came to gameplay, where too many people gave feedback on both ends and it ultimately led to further delays," said a source. "In one case, working on a particular task took me a month to finalise, as there was inconsistent and delayed feedback."

Another issue: incompatible management styles. Gearbox and TimeGate are two very different developers that approached the game in two very different ways.

"You could not pick two companies whose general workflow is more diametrically opposed," said one source. "Gearbox is used to 'work, work, work, iterate, iterate.' TimeGate is the exact opposite -- they're always about shipping the product."

Over the course of development, the team scrapped a lot of levels and missions, one source told me. One cut mission, for example, involved a scientist who would follow the player around and turn out to be a secret agent for Weyland Yutani, the evil corporation that plays an integral role in Aliens fiction. "He was scrapped because escort missions are stupid," the source said.

"We just spent a lot of time trying to make the game shippable," said the same source.

And then there's the demo. As many angry reporters have pointed out, Gearbox and Sega spent a great deal of time showing off a demo that looks nothing like the final product. People have demanded an explanation, and many have accused Gearbox head Randy Pitchford of misleading his fans.

The truth might not be as malicious as some have speculated. According to a few sources I spoke with, the demo for Colonial Marines was built by TimeGate -- with animation assistance by Gearbox -- and ran in real time. As is standard for E3 demos, it ran on a high-end computer with specs that would be unfeasible for a normal console game.

"We were told many times through demo production, 'Don't worry about performance, just make it awesome,'" said one source. "There was a reason [the demos] were never playable."

(Press attending E3 2012 could join hands-on multiplayer sessions, but the singleplayer demo was not playable there.)

The demo looked better than the game does because the demo didn't have to be optimised for old hardware. Though these games are created using powerful PCs, any console game has a "performance budget" -- the ceiling above which an Xbox 360 or a PS3 cannot go. The Colonial Marines demo was way over performance budget, and the development team had to cut back significantly for the final product.

"We were constantly cutting back more and more in terms of texture, shader and particle fidelity, in order to fit into the jacked memory restraints," said another source.

"The game feels like it was made in nine months, and that's because it was."

In the middle of 2012, once Gearbox had finished most of Borderlands 2, they took the project back from TimeGate. And Gearbox changed everything -- partially because what TimeGate had produced was not very good, two sources told me, and partially because it couldn't run on the PlayStation 3.

"[Gearbox made] big changes to lighting, texture and shader complexity," said one source who had not played the final game, but was familiar with some of the later builds. "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."

A number of TimeGate staff were removed from the project and, in some cases, let go from their jobs. And while Gearbox's staff knew that they didn't have enough time to fix this disaster of a project, according to one source, they felt like they couldn't ask for another extension from Sega. Not after seven years.

"The game feels like it was made in nine months, and that's because it was," said a source.

As for the rumours? The scuttlebutt at both Gearbox and Timegate revolves around potential lawsuits -- some people at Gearbox are worried that Sega might sue them as a result of this project, and some people at Timegate have heard similar rumblings. One anonymous blogger claiming to be a Sega employee accused Gearbox of lying and breaking agreements with Sega, but we have been unable to verify that, and some of the other blog posts -- like the story of a drunken barbecue conversation about killing off Sonic -- call the blogger's validity into question.

Those are all just rumours. The exact terms of Gearbox's contract with Sega remain unclear, and neither side has spoken up. Over the past few weeks, I've had several conversations with representatives from both Gearbox and Sega, but neither would comment on the record.

While some details remain sketchy, we're starting to see a more complete picture of how Aliens: Colonial Marines turned out so awful. Bureaucratic meddling and a troubled development cycle have turned this game from Alien fan's dream to unmitigated disaster.


    Such a good write-up! Thank you for providing valuable insight into what happened with this god awful mess. I knew the way they seemingly 'went backwards' from their original real-time demo's had something to do with console hardware limits.

    It's a sign of the times, great opportunities to expand upon solid intellectual-property (how can you fuck up aliens?) being missed because of publisher meddling, contracts, bureaucratic hurdles without end. Business men.

    What happened to the good old days of 12 guys cramming in office space they pay for out of their own pockets? That's how blizzard made Diablo...Diablo III is crap (and coming to ps4, oh joy). I wish this 'entertainment industry' never exploded the way it did...

    Bioshock infinite is going to have a '1999' mode so at least I can look forward to that in March. HotS from blizzard OTOH will be a steaming pile compared to SC: BW from 14 years ago...the script/writing in the game makes my head hurt it's so dumbed down.

      HotS from blizzard OTOH will be a steaming pile compared to SC: BW from 14 years ago...the script/writing in the game makes my head hurt it's so dumbed down.

      You only care about the script writing? Mmkay.

      Gameplay wise SC2 is far, far superior to BW in just about every conceivable way. Many people look through rose tinted goggles at BW and how good it was, but you compare it to SC2 and it's night and day. Idiotic AI and pathfinding, 12 unit selection limits, a lot of mostly useless units, clunky controls. It was a good game for its time, don't get me wrong, but to claim it's better than SC2 (at least from a gameplay/multiplayer perspective) is pretty silly. SC2 has its flaws too of course, but it's still far superior game.

        Yeah, you could say that playing Starcraft for the story is silly, and maybe you're right. But not everyone enjoys the intensity of the multiplayer, and Starcraft/Brood War's story was pretty good; Starcraft 2 felt way too... Hollywood in comparison.

          Next up... we compare PONG to SMASHCOURT TENNIS 3...

            Pfft! we all know Pong wins hands down no contest! =P


        I think the comparison is the changes from SC to BW and SC2:SoL to SC2: HotS. BW balanced the game in such a way that changed a lot of the meta and how armies interacted w/ each other. It was and still is counted as one of the best expansions for a game.

        Now lets look at HotS. This close to release and w/ the exception of the Zerg units there's barely any changes on the army set ups or any new synergies on the other 3 armies. As far as changing the multplayer environment its rather lacking at this point...

        Oh as for the "worrying about the scriptwriting". I dunno I thought the whole excuse for splitting it "Pokemon" style to three games was because "the story was too big" for one game. If your splitting something to three parts for one game one would expect the story would back that up =P

          Now... THATS a much better way to compare :) Well done dude.

          To be fair though.. As a zerg player I would always say "Man.. Sick of being a reactive race. We need..." And everything I said the Zerg needed, they've implanted in the expansion. Terran don't need any changing because they're a bloody good race (since the first game was focused on them). Toss will probably get their own in their own expac. Oh and I also agree, splitting it up into 3 games was just $$$ grabbing and lazy from Blizzard.

          I think the comparison is the changes from SC to BW and SC2:SoL to SC2: HotS. BW balanced the game in such a way that changed a lot of the meta and how armies interacted w/ each other. It was and still is counted as one of the best expansions for a game.

          If you think that the meta won't change at all in HoTS you are either ignorant or delusional. The game feels completely different.

          BW introduced a number of useless units. Valkyries, Devourers, Dark Archons - they were never used in any kind of serious competitive sense. Corsairs were only really used in PvZ. Dark Templar weren't even new units as they were in SC's original campaign. So really BW added Lurkers, which filled a splash damage gap that zerg desperately needed, and medics which increased terran infantry survivability. Throw in a couple of upgrades like goliath air attack range increase and ultralisk speed boost and you have multiplayer BW. The game eventually got to a balanced state through a number of patches after that.

          Like I said, rose tinted nostalgia goggles. Go back and look at BW again, then honestly tell me again that it was really that revolutionary. Look at the Dawn of War expansions as a comparison - they added entirely new races to the game.

          Now lets look at HotS. This close to release and w/ the exception of the Zerg units there's barely any changes on the army set ups or any new synergies on the other 3 armies. As far as changing the multplayer environment its rather lacking at this point...

          What are you talking about?

          - Mothership core changes protoss early game tremendously. It increases their early harass potential while also fortifying defenses. Forge Fast Expand will no longer be considered standard in PvZ, more like an alternative option.
          - Oracle provides protoss with many new harass options and an option for a genuine air tech path.
          - Mech is now viable in TvP (this is a HUGE shift from WoL)
          - Zerg can no longer rely so heavily on infestors
          - Colossi no longer dominate PvP late game

          And that's just what I can think of off the top of my head. You should go back and take a look at HoTS again because I don't think you've given it much time at all.

    At the moment it all seems like "he said, she said" sort of thing and both parties are trying to pass the buck to each other.

    The thing is, i have played a couple of hours of A: CM and i can see glimpses of a game that could have been awesome but in the end we got something mediocre, not bad just mediocre.

      It's all here say anyway, there isn't any actual proof of what happened... not very impressive to say the least.

    Regardless of who built this steaming pile of a game, responsibility falls to Gearbox. Sega asked them to make a quality game for an amazing license, and the final product was god awful.

    After all the build up and anticipation for this game, I can't help but feel like Randy Pitchford (someone who I previously respected immensely) has taken a giant shit on the heads of Gearbox and Aliens fans alike.

    He needs to man up and publicly take responsibility for this debacle.

    Randy Pitchford's been very uncharacteristically quiet of late hasn't he? Weird.

      too busy posting borderlands 2 shift codes on twitter to weigh in probably.

    Duke Nukem Forever.. Lives.

    Look the way I read this is that Gearbox's job was to make Colonial Marines. They decided to instead focused on their own IP Borderlands and it's sequel. They handed this off to TimeGate to work on for a period of time. How did that come to be? Who decided TimeGate should work on this? Did Sega give the okay? Did they recommend them to Gearbox?

    As it stands, to me this is Gearbox's bomb. They contracted the work to TimeGate which is where all this started going downhill at.

    At least we got Borderlands 2..

      Amen, brother! As long as the Borderlands IP is cherished then I'll forgive Gearbox anything. That said, I haven't yet played the DLC for BL2, which I hear was farmed out to a third-party dev...

    alien vs predator was even better then this and that was released years ago

      And that was a 'bad' game too.

    It really isn't as bad as the gaming media/community would have you believe...

    A nice write up, but there isn't a single identified source in the article. I understand video games are a world awash with NDAs and leaks, but this is all just skuttlebutt until someone comes out on the record on the issue.

    Normally I don't prefer reading the longer articles due to being busy at work but that was well worth the read.


    Interesting writeup but there's a critical piece of the puzzle missing
    Where does Alien's Infestation for the DS fit into this?

    If you check out the credits of the game Sega was publishing that game with Gearbox being in contact with the main developers which were Wayforward. As the game was supposed to be released as a tie in with Colonial Marines.

    But if there was an Aliens RPG that was cancelled due to financial troubles with Sega, how did Sega come to publish that game?

    Shame it was disappointing. Wonder if we will ever see a good Aliens game.

    Escort missions are stupid? In a game based on ALIENS, an escort mission is ****ing ideal... jesus... missed opportunity much???

    If you contract out work, you merely delegate the work out in your stead, so it's as if you worked on it yourself.

    Therefore if you had to point the finger at someone, that'll be Gearbox. Sounds to me they were extremely negligent with their conduct, having not made any progress for 3 years and continued to ignore it by prioritising their own internal projects.

    SEGA should sue Gearbox.

    What i find most annoying about this is the fact that they lowered the quality of the game (textures and such) in order to make it run on the consoles. I'm not a programmer so i am ignorant in regards to what it would take to have kept the better looking textures for the PC version of the game and then the lower textures for the consoles.

    All i can hope is that the next generation of consoles bridge the gap between PC and Console so that game developers can make games that look as good on all systems, Currently its the PC that always suffers.

      I think blaming consoles for this steaming pile is a cop out. Theres a metric shit tonne of console games that look better than this. MGS2 on ps2 looks better than this.

        The main problem was that the game COULDN'T run on consoles with the first demo. This was originally way over the performance budget of consoles. I don't full place the blame on consoles though, it's more like Consoles are the disease and the doctors (the game companies) are the ones taking the wrong way out.

        They should've kept the high performance requirements for PC and then just ported it to consoles soon after rather than cutting it down from the beginning.

        I love consoles (for certain games, GoW, Darksiders, etc), but they're quite a problem since it A: gives developers a way out, and B: Imagine gaming as an ocean. Computers are a huge and powerful cruise liner and consoles are anchors. The problem is that the anchor chain has already been stretched way too far and as such, PCs are (for the most part) being hamstrung to favour a far less capable platform.

    I wonder if they are going to patch the game at all. Whether it be graphically, story, bugs, better MP with dedi servers or something, or even more campaigns, even if it is DLC (not that I'd pay for the DLC).

      I doubt they will spend any more money on this

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