Every year video games are cancelled; every year studios close down. But what about the video games that get lost in the fire? What do developers do when their dream project is lost? And what happens to the games that got away?
Somewhere, in the imagination of a handful of developers, is a graveyard; on each tombstone a name. The Lost Ones. Projects pitched, slaved over. Late nights, stress, struggle; reward cruelly snatched at the very last minute.
These are the games that history forgot, left to decay, inaccessible on outdated servers hidden in the bowels of some dusty office. Decades of graft stored, never to be seen or worked on again, like a lost ark. ‘We have top men working on it Doctor Jones. Top. Men’.
Late last year — a room somewhere in Melbourne — Gerry Sakkas paces in frantic circles. The news hasn’t sunk in. The video game project he’s spent the last two and a half years working on, has been cancelled. The work he invested in, the output he was so proud of, has been buried.
Gerry’s friends will never be able to play the game he’s worked so hard on. His parents will never see the fruits of his labour. The game he has put so much of his life into will never, ever see the light of day.
“I really couldn’t go through that again,” says Gerry, ex-designer at Visceral Games Melbourne. “Even to this day it hurts that our game never came out.”
Man In A Room
Late last year, as a result of new leadership, one man — sitting in another room — evaluated the entire current output of EA’s studios, deciding which games would be kept, and which would be cancelled. Blood Dust didn’t make it.
“We didn’t even speak to him,” says Gerry. “He didn’t reach out to us. He was one of the guys from DICE. He literally sat in a room for a week and said, ‘that game’s going through, that game’s not’.
“Our game, it was basically 90% done. In fact, probably more than 90% done. We had been working on it for two and a half years, then EA just cancelled our entire studio because of new leadership. As far as we know the game is never going to be released.”
Gerry Sakkas is now 25 years old. When development on Blood Dust began he was 22, a QA tester straight out of university.
“That was the hardest part for me,” begins Gerry. “I started three years ago at EA as a tester. I did two games – Dead Space and The Godfather. From there I became a designer on Visceral Games’ last project.
Blood Dust was Gerry’s chance to prove himself as a designer, and he grabbed the opportunity with verve and gusto.
“Through working on that game I was promoted another two times,” says Gerry. “Then the game never came out, which means that no-one ever really knows what I became. As far as anyone knows all I am is a tester!
“And that’s the hardest thing of all, because when you’re applying for a job or anything like that people are like, where’s the proof of your work? I have to say, 'well the game was cancelled. I can’t give you that proof.'”
“It gets easier,” laughs Craig Duturbure. “That scar tissue is pretty thick my friend!”
In his 20 years of working in games development, Australian development stalwart Craig Duturbure has seen many of his projects cancelled. He estimates that for every game he worked on that made it to market, double that number didn’t even ship.
“In my career I've released about 18 games,” begins Craig. “I reckon at least double that have been cancelled at different points in development.
“I estimate I've had over 30 games cancelled.”
As someone with extensive experience in the industry, Craig empathises and understands Gerry’s situation.
“These days recruiters only look at Metacritic scores,” says Craig. “If they’re looking for someone, they have to see a game that's been released, and they have to see a score next to it. Even if you manage to show them work you've stolen illegally off the publisher’s hard drives, it's still unfinished stuff; you can't give someone a proper experience of the game.
“Producers typically have a really hard time because you can't show a design document! No-one wants to sit down and read a 80 page design document.
“Without anything actually concrete it's really hard — because they have to take the word of someone they haven't met before over someone with a folio of work.”
For Gerry Sakkas, it was akin to spending three years at university, then pulling out of the course one month before graduation.
“It’s exactly like that,” claims Gerry, “that’s exactly what it was like.”
“Game cancellations are especially hard for new guys. I got promoted three times over two and a half years, but I have nothing to show for it. You tell recruiters that and they’ll say it’s impossible to go from lead QA to lead designer in that time. Sure, you have references, but that’s not always enough.”
“If you’ve done ‘nothing’ for two and a half years, it’s like you’re out of the industry.”
Craig sympathises with Gerry’s difficult situation, but recalls more extreme examples.
“It can be an awful, situation. There was one guy, he'd worked for ten years and he'd never had a game released,” says Craig. “He actually had nothing to put on his CV at all. He'd been working for ten years and getting better at everything but had absolutely nothing to show for it.”
You’re having friends over for dinner. You’ve slaved over dessert. You pick up the baking tray and slip. Disaster. A whole afternoon ruined. You forget to save an assignment, a Photoshop file becomes corrupt — we’ve all experienced the incredible frustration that comes from lost work. But what happens when the effort spans years, not hours? How do you cope with that level of disappointment when all your work amounts to nothing?
“To this day it hurts that our game never came out,” says Gerry Sakkas. “Because it was really good and we all believed in it.
“There was a process. The game was kind of just taken from us at the last minute. First there was the shock of ‘I’ve lost my job’. Then the pain of having done essentially nothing for the last three years, then you get angry that the game will never come out. That’s really bad.
“You just have to base your happiness on everyone moving on after that,” continues Gerry. "We have a bunch of guys from our team in new jobs, like working on the new Assassin’s Creed. They’re doing heaps of stuff – they’ve gone to THQ, Ubisoft, EA, I think some went to Bioware as well. That’s the good bit, because you get to see that the talent is being recognised.”
Craig Duturbure is a little different. He has the air of someone who has become accustomed to the nature of game development, and the very real risk of cancellation. But despite having over 30 games cancelled at various stages of development, he acknowledges that the pain of lost work is still very real.
“Whenever it happens it really sucks,” says Craig, “because you've done so much work, with good ideas and awesome art. “You try not to care. You do a project and you’ve got your thick skin and everything, you think ‘okay I’ll just do this for the money, and not worry too much if it gets cancelled’, but you can’t stop caring. And you get passionate about stuff — you can’t help it — and then it gets killed again. The only thing that changes is the turnaround of that emotion gets faster.”
Over 30 of Craig’s games were never released to the public — literally more than he can remember — but a handful are unforgettable.
“One game we worked on was based on the film The Farm, a film you probably haven't heard of because it tanked,” laughs Craig.
“The PlayStation version was just insane — it was so good. The art was fantastic. The team was doing late nights. They were just crushed, because they had this game that they couldn't even show. You can't even legally take a copy home and show your friends, because legally the game is supposed to stay on the servers at work. Not fun.
“That one was probably about 10 months of work.”
Craig still vividly remembers the first time he suffered the loss of a project in progress.
“That was years ago,” begins Craig. “It was a platformer called Radical Rex. That game came out, and it was fine, it was well received. That was the first project I ever worked on.
“Then the Mega CD came out and we quickly asked ourselves what we could do for it. That was my first full project, I was like, ‘cool, I get to design an entire level from scratch’. I had all these plans – it would look like this, I had ideas for art, gameplay and all these puzzles, then it was like ‘oh, it didn’t happen.’ I was like, 'whaaa'? What happens to all this work, you know?”
Surprisingly, Craig’s worst experience with cancellation was a simple pitch, a pitch Craig and his time put an incredible amount of work into.
“You put a lot of creative energy into a pitch for a game you’re excited about,” says Craig. “It’s usually a really tight turnaround and you have to design some really amazing features to convince whoever holds the license or is paying the money or whatever.
“The worst one was the Mad Max pitch we did for Beam Software. We managed to get a decent budget and we had a fair amount of people working on it for a few months to try and get this pitch to impress Kennedy Miller.
“We had concept art and story boards all over the walls, we had this cool story we had worked out about where it would fit in the time line using some of the characters from the movie. It was awesome. We had this amazing 3D rendered trailer for the game, and then it got canned.
“Everyone was just shell shocked and miserable.”
For Gerry Sakkas, the pain of losing two and a half years of work was brutally intense. Unlike Craig, who has had years to process the realities of a harsh, unforgiving industry, Gerry has no desire to become accustomed to the very real threat of cancellation.
“There’s no way I could go overseas to another studio, work for two and a half years on someting and have the same thing happen,” says Gerry. “I really couldn't go through that again,”
The Room No-One Enters
In the dark recesses of a room no-one enters, sits a server. It’s login details lost, an inaccessible history. This server contains information, the raw materials that make up the video games we consume, but it also contains The Lost Ones.
This is where video games go to die.
“The hard part about games being cancelled is that all these ideas just sit on a hard drive somewhere, and eventually no one actually remembers how to access the information,” says Craig.
“So it’s gone.”
“These games, they eventually get archived, and sometimes someone forgets the password and they’re gone forever.
“Just before THQ Brisbane closed down,” he continues, “I tried to see if I could get my hands on any of the documentation for projects I had worked on, but people actually didn’t know how to get into the archives. The IT person had changed hands a few times and suddenly the password was gone.
“All the work and design documents that I had done were completely gone.”
But even if files are stored properly, and the work is accessible, there’s little chance said it'll be used in a video game that ships. The best you can hope for is your work is of some use, for something.
“You never really know what’s done with everything,” explains Gerry. “You assume they’ll keep some of the assets and they’ll be used in other games. We did so much art and stuff – EA could probably make it into a completely different game if they wanted to.”
That’s the best case scenario — the assets you toiled over for months may find a place, wordlessly, in another project. In most situations, however, the hard work of many goes completely unrecognised.
“Like I said before eventually someone forgets the password and they’re gone forever,” says Craig. “There’s a few yellowing print outs hanging up on a wall, with Blu-Tack rotting away – and that’s about it.”
Light In The Tunnel
Having suffered mercilessly at the hands of a ruthless industry, both Gerry Sakkas and Craig Duturbure have had a hand in creating independent game studios, in an attempt to wrestle back some semblance of control over their own destinies. Craig’s company Grapple Gun Games specialises in iOS and Android games, as does Playside, the studio Gerry Sakkas launched alongside four ex-colleagues.
“There is positivity with how the situation is now,” says Craig. “People don’t have to work on three year games that might bomb – there are alternatives now. There’s some light in that tunnel.”
After an intensely disappointing experience working for EA, Gerry helped start PlaySide to make sure he never had to suffer the pain of cancellation again.
“EA offered us all jobs in America,” claims Gerry, “but a lot of us didn’t want to go. We started PlaySide to make the games we want to make and control when they ship. It’s all controlled by us, it’s not controlled by some guy walking into the office and closing down the studio within a week.”
According to Craig Duturbure, ease of access and lowered barriers to entry makes starting your own studio a far more achievable dream. When he started out 20 years ago that simply wasn’t an option.
“In the past you couldn’t start your own company because you needed all this tech and all this hardware,” he says, "and you needed a publisher to release it. At least now there are options. You can say to people: ‘you have skills, and you’ve got these contacts now, you can do that’.”
But despite his optimism, Craig still finds it difficult to resolve the issue of lost work. He is still haunted by the games that got away.
“At THQ we used to talk about building a little graveyard made of icy pole sticks with the name of every project we did that got cancelled written on it,” laughs Craig. “We didn’t end up doing it in the end, but every time a game got cancelled we’d think to ourselves, it’s just another icy pole stick in the grave."