Pandemic’s Brisbane studio is no more, the result of ongoing cost and headcount reductions throughout Electronic Arts. To put it kindly, EA restored the studio’s independence; in effect, they washed their hands of several years of aborted projects and management decisions. In the aftermath, we have heard from several inside sources who have each shared their thoughts on how it all went wrong.
NOTE: While our sources generally agree on the series of events that led to the studio’s closure, they have each placed varying emphasis on the significance of certain factors. This is understandable, as their different roles at the company afforded them unique perspectives on the situation, and shouldn’t detract from the core reasons why the studio eventually closed. We have noted these differences where they arise.
When Pandemic Brisbane wrapped up Destroy All Humans 2 in late 2006, they didn’t want to work on another iteration of the series. THQ wanted them to do another sequel, this time on Xbox 360 and PS3, but Pandemic eventually declined the offer. Instead, their focus shifted to a couple of new IPs.
At this point, the studio was split into two small teams – Alpha and Bravo. Alpha began pre-production on a concept that would eventually become a project known internally as “The Next Big Thing”. It was to be an open world game for the Wii. (Our sources did not reveal any more details than this about the actual game design, except to say it still looks impressive today.)
The Bravo team were pitching a few ideas to Pandemic’s LA office, but they were all rejected in favour of an LA concept billed as Destroy All Humans except with Crypto replaced with the son of Satan and tormented souls as collectibles. Enthusiasm for this project was low and within a few months it was canned, to Brisbane’s relief. (Despite some thematic similarities to Dante’s Inferno, in development at EA Redwood Shores, one source assures us there is no connection between these two games.)
Bravo’s new project came as a result of Pandemic’s negotiations with Time Warner and DC Comics, which in turn lead to a contract with EA to make a Batman game. The only hitch was that EA’s rights to the Batman IP were set to expire in 18 months. EA needed the Batman game released within that timeframe. Pandemic felt this meant EA would do anything they could to ensure that timeframe would be met and they could recoup their investment.
Pre-production commenced with the Brisbane team excited by the idea of turning such a revered franchise into the as-yet-untitled game. It seems that it took several months before the team was informed that the Batman game they were making had to be based on the upcoming Dark Knight film. This not only meant they were tied to a very specific vision of Batman – and that several months worth of planning had to be scrapped – but they were now tied to an even tighter deadline: the theatrical release of the movie.
With the Batman game now officially a Dark Knight game, Pandemic decided to make an open world Gotham City despite none of the senior members of the team having experience in making open world games. (Mercenaries was made in LA, not Brisbane.)
Compounding this problem was the choice of technology: the internal engine being used at the LA office for Saboteur. It soon proved unsuitable for the type of huge open world it needed to handle. One source notes that they never got the streaming to work properly and that instead of scrapping the engine, they kept modding it in directions it was originally never intended to go. Another mistake.
(None of this should not be taken as a criticism of Saboteur, still very much in development at Pandemic LA. Our sources believe that title is well on track to deliver a quality game. What’s important is that the Saboteur tech was built for that type of game, not the streaming open world environments of the Dark Knight game.)
The tech issues were exacerbated by introducing an HDR lighting “solution” which not only took seven months to implement, but needed more valuable time whenever environmental changes were made. Our sources do disagree on this point: one claims that it would take an entire weekend to re-bake the lighting information into the building meshes; another claims this is an exaggeration.
While our sources agree the results were visually impressive, the game would bring the studio’s dev kits to their knees, typically crashing within minutes of being loaded and rarely capable of running at more than 5 frames per second. One source claims this is what happens when management prioritises art beyond the capabilities of the game’s technology.
On the design side, the design team didn’t receive level design tools until six months into the project. Meanwhile, management was making design decisions above the Lead Designer, many of which had to be reversed once the tools were in place.
As for the quality of the design, our sources disagree. One says many of the game’s mechanics were brilliant and potentially revolutionary, while the batmobile and batbike were loads of fun once you looked past the streaming problems. Another says the missions were mostly borrowed from other open world games and the core gameplay was dull and boring. The work on the sound design, however, was reportedly magnificent and beautifully responsive to the in-game action.
Either way, for the Dark Knight to become a title worthy of the Batman name, it needed more resources to sort out its host of design and technical problems. More and more people were brought onto the team, mostly as external contractors. At one point, our source says, there were 130 people working on the game. The human resources were there, but a more important resource was missing.
The real killer was having to hit the same release date as the movie. Eventually it became clear this would be impossible and the decision was made to focus on launching to coincide with the Dark Knight DVD release in December 2008. This would be the absolute deadline, as EA’s rights to the Batman IP expired in December.
By September, the Dark Knight game was supposed to be in alpha. However, there were still massive problems with the game: huge glitches with the missions, the graphics, the technology. These were all issues that potentially could have been fixed, but essentially the quality just wasn’t at a level it should have been at that time in the production schedule. The game had to ship just a few months later, but everyone knew it was in no state to do so.
The Dark Knight was canned.
Pandemic Brisbane lost about 20 people at this point, not an unusual move when a major project like that goes under. The remainder of the Bravo team stayed on, unsure of what would happen next. Then when in December EA made moves to reduce its workforce, Pandemic’s Brisbane studio was always a prime candidate to feel those cuts.
One source claims that EA’s new label structure is setup to make this type of cut easy to administer. On the one hand, EA promotes the likes of Bioware, DICE, Maxis and Pandemic and forges high profile deals with the likes of Valve and Grasshopper because, to gamers, those names are more valuable than EA.
On the other hand, our source claims, EA affords these teams a degree of autonomy that makes it easier to pull the plug when things don’t go according to plan. Pandemic’s inability to produce a hit title in recent years meant that something had to give. One source suggests that Brisbane was amputated in order to save the rest of the patient in LA.
The end result is that Pandemic Brisbane was let go by EA. The Alpha team is apparently still together in some form and retains the rights to “The Next Big Thing”. They may be in a position to pitch this Wii title to other publishers. The Bravo team is gone. And so is the Dark Knight game.