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.
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.
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.