How Aliens: Colonial Marines Fell Apart

How Aliens: Colonial Marines Fell Apart

Aliens: Colonial Marines is a bad game, by most accounts. Reviewers have almost all trashed it, fans don’t seem to like it, and the final product looks nothing like the impressive demo that developer Gearbox showed last year.

So how did it happen? Although the full picture isn’t quite clear yet, over the past few days we’ve heard that the six-year development process for Aliens: Colonial Marines was tumultuous and divisive, a product of multiple studios with conflicting visions. And it shows in the resulting game.

According to one person familiar with the project who spoke to Kotaku under condition of anonymity, Gearbox outsourced the bulk of Colonial Marines (codenamed Pecan) to a studio called TimeGate, most recently responsible for the shooter Section 8 and its sequel.

This comes on the heels of a massive Reddit post that’s been making the rounds today from someone claiming to work at Gearbox. Although we can’t confirm that the Reddit post is credible, everything we’ve heard from our source matches up.

The Redditor explains that TimeGate left the single-player campaign in “a pretty horrid state,” and that last September after Borderlands 2 shipped, Gearbox was unhappy with what TimeGate had left them. Sega was already upset with Gearbox for asking for multiple extensions since the project launched in 2006, so Gearbox had to buckle down and release a game they knew wasn’t going to be very good, the Redditor said.

The post on Reddit matches what our source has told us, but there’s more. When TimeGate took over the project, our source said, they threw out most of what Gearbox had done beforehand. All of the art and design that Gearbox had produced during the previous four years was gone.

So from 2010 until late last year, while Gearbox was working on Borderlands 2 (internally codenamed “Willow 2”), TimeGate handled the bulk of development on Aliens. A small team at Gearbox helped out with multiplayer work, as explained by both our source and the Redditor, but TimeGate built the single-player campaign.

Late last year, when Gearbox saw what TimeGate had done, most of their developers weren’t interested in taking the game back, our source said. Gearbox’s team was upset that their work had been thrown out, and they didn’t want this to be a repeat of Duke Nukem Forever, a game that took over a decade to develop until it was finally finished by Gearbox and released in mid-2011 to tepid response.

But Gearbox had to finish the game, and according to our source, they had to throw out much of TimeGate’s work and start from scratch. This lines up with what the Redditor claims:

Campaign didn’t make much sense, the boss fights weren’t implemented, PS3 was way over memory, etcetcetc. GBX was pretty unhappy with TG’s work, and some of Campaign maps were just completely redesigned from scratch. There were some last minute feature requests, most notably female marines, and the general consensus among GBX devs was that there was no way this game was going to be good by ship. There just wasn’t enough time.

Considering that SEGA was pretty close to taking legal action against GBX, asking for an extension wasn’t an option, and so Pecan crash-landed through certification and shipping. Features that were planned were oversimplified, or shoved in (a good example of this are challenges, which are in an incredibly illogical order). Issues that didn’t cause 100% blockers were generally ignored, with the exception of absolutely horrible problems. This isn’t because GBX didn’t care, mind you. At a certain point, they couldn’t risk changing ANYTHING that might cause them to fail certification or break some other system. And so, the product you see is what you get.

People at Gearbox knew the bad reviews were coming, our source said. They knew that the game wasn’t good.

We’ve reached out to Gearbox, but they would not comment on the record. However, in a recent interview with IGN, Gearbox head Randy Pitchford said that TimeGate handled development “probably about 20 or 25 per cent of the total time,” and that “if you take preproduction out of it, their effort’s probably equivalent to ours. Now, it’s not fair to take preproduction out of it, but that says a lot about how much horsepower those guys put into it.”

Pitchford’s statements also seem to match up with what we’ve heard.

We reached out to TimeGate this afternoon, but they have yet to get back to us. We’ll continue to update as we hear more.


  • So was the demo playable or prerendered?

    Good news is Wii U is rumored to be postponed indefinitely so they have the best version.

    • The demo was playable, and a great piece of work – everything an Alien game should be. The actual game however, isn’t too bad…
      The matchmaking/multiplayer is pretty meh, the challenges are stupid, but the campaign is ‘good’ (i.e enjoyable if you loved the movie) but overall lacking in depth.

      I’ve been playing 4 player coop on the hardest difficulty, and we are all enjoying the challenge.

    • It looks like the demo was playable, but on beefed up hardware with totally unrealistic expectations for shaders and such. Just my guess anyway.

  • Was wondering how a studio that brings out some goods games, gets so many wrong too. Now I know. The reality is, they should not accept projects that they can’t do (or deliver) to their high standards. Despite being panned, I still would like to give this game a try (to see for myself) but maybe now I will wait till its a bargain bin game.

  • A cautionary tale about outsourcing if I ever heard one. Sounds like they would have been much better off hiring internally. (I’m sure there are plenty of legit business reasons why they didn’t, but it couldn’t possibly have gone worse than this if they had :P)

  • This is what happens when you rush a game…if they had given it another year or two, this might have been a good game that earned them a lot more money. Oh well, i’ll keep on holding my breath for a decent Aliens game.

  • I said it before, who keeps giving gearbox money? Have they released a game since borderlands that wasn’t a complete flop (though I think borderlands was a turd itself)

        • Borderlands 2 sold nearly 5 million copies and there were heaps of people that liked it (not saying you’re wrong to not like it, people have their own tastes)… Borderlands 2 sold to the Borderlands fans because Gearbox actually made a superior sequel, with the biggest problem being the inventory UI.

        • I’d hardly call myself I die hard fan and I quite enjoyed it.

          also sold better than the original which would also suggest a number of new players to the series.

    • Gearbox has done plenty to give themselves a lot of credibility. Unfortunately, they seem to have gotten screwed royally here. Word around the campfire is the multiplayer is acceptably fun, co-op sucks and the campaign is a turd. Seeing as GBX only did the multi, that’s not unbelievable.

  • The bit that stinks to me is it looks like there must’ve been an embargo on reviews being released prior to the games intended release date.
    In Australia releasing on a Tuesday is a rarity anyway, but to then have all retailers suddenly selling it the week beforehand, and no reviews coming out at all until the advertised release date about 5 days later makes me think they knew they would lose a shitload of sales if people actually knew in advance how bad this licensed turd is. But by releasing it early, and not allowing reviews to be published they guaranteed people that were excited by what they had heard would rush out and pick it up.

    • There definitely was an embargo, Jim Sterling was counting it down over Twitter to drum up interest in his review over at Destructoid.

    • I doubt that’s the reason for the street date breaks, unless all the Zeldas, Assassin Creeds, HAlos ect were all due for mass negative reviews as well. It’s just so they can then get sales before their competitors.

  • I was just in JB, and the review tag under this game was 5 full stars, with the comment, “Just pretend you’re playing as Ripley. RIPLEY!”.
    (I took a picture)

  • Randy Pitchford is, and always will be the person responsible for this. Whatever or whoever he decides to blame, in the end, we can thank Randy Pitchford. Decisions were made and that’s how it happened.

    #RandyPitchford #GearBox

  • Well I think the bigger problem here is the publishers attitude towards review embargoes and consumer stupidity with regards to pre-orders. I hope a lot of people learnt a lesson here.

  • This reads like “we wish we had an inside source, so lets pretend we do, but quote or reference a Reddit post for anything that requires some real pointers to what went on”.
    Horrid game and an article to suit.
    I sound like a bitch, but this is how it reads to me.

    • Yeah, I find any testimony from reddit to be dubious, regardless of how true it seems to ring based on the publically available evidence.

      It seems more likely that the person was a playtester who filled in some blanks with assumptions rather than an actual Gearbox employee. I know a guy who playtested Duke Nukem Forever for them about 6 months ahead of release and his comments about DNF could have assembled a pretty similar narrative if you added in facts dug up post-release.

    • According to one person familiar with the project who spoke to Kotaku under condition of anonymity…

      they have a source.
      the article is comparing Kotaku’s source’s story to what another insider posted on Reddit.

      • So why not use their words rather than another sources word?
        Why have a source if all you will do is say they said the same thing as some other guy on another site that I can quote a large chunk from and then seem more legit?
        There is not one point in this article that is directly attributed to their source, only confirmations of the Reddit post.

        • well…. just read the reddit post, & at a guess, id say half the information in this article comes from that, and the other half, from Kot’s inside source.

          the reddit post says that GBX outsourced to TG & that Sega were getting pissed with the delays, so GBX rushed it out the door.

          The ‘insider’ confirms this, and goes on to add detailis about what was done with the work TG had done on the project; that is to say, GBX scrapped it & started over.

          so yeah, information here was gathered from both sources. but if you want more of a justification, then ask the articles author.

  • I wish developers were more frank like this. It helps to give games a human side.
    It’s to easy to forget that while we’re all happily bashing the game through our disappointment, in the end the developers never wanted to make a bad game. They had the best intentions with a franchise that they most likely love even more than we do, but they made some wrong choices and in the end were stuck with pushing out something they didn’t want. It’s a pity.

    • A:CM is a bad egg. Gearbox are good devs, and this is just an example of how oversight on outsourcing is pretty damn important.

      Still, its not the end. Gearbox will surely let this die down, put out another one or two good games (Borderlands 3 / Brothers in Arms etc) to show they still have it & then in a few years, we’ll see a reboot of the Alien FPS genre. & hopefully, that one will be the game Gearbox wanted to make.

    • I don’t know if you can absolve Gearbox entirely. If the article and source are to be believed, they:

      1) Took on too much work that they knew they could never complete. In six years, they decided not to hire some more staff to take on extra work. Instead they

      2) Outsourced a great deal of that work to another company, apparently without the permission (maybe even without the knowledge) of the game publisher

      3) Apparently decided never to hold any kind of progress meeting or review the ongoing work (how could they not know the old work had all been tossed? I find this incredible)

      4) Realised too late they’d been handed a lemon, and rushed a dodgy game out the door just to avoid missing a deadline (if they really were 100% about the quality, they’d cop the penalties from the publisher and put the time into fixing the game).

      If nothing else, they are entirely guilty of incredibly poor project management, and possibly worse.

      • This is why you have release calendars and WIP reports/meetings to keep up on progress of releases of any kind of media. If the product manager cant keep to the release calendar deadline, Pitchford should’ve/would’ve been the first to know. If he didn’t, its his job to make sure he has people that communicate this to him EARLY ON enough to 1) assign another product manager, or if you dont think an outsource company can deliver on licensing conditions, 2) DROP the licence. If it was an outsource issue, again his responsibility.

      • Agree with the first 3 but the 4th irks me and really displays the disconnect between the community and developers. It’s like you think think that 100% about quality is even possible, furthermore we actually expect developers to cop lawsuits FOR US. We can sit here all we like and point fingers but we’re at home, nothing to do with the project and we’re telling them what they SHOULD have done in hindsight (we know very little of their internal structure or even what their management is like). It’s also possible that this was an unavoidable outcome that was the result of uncooperative publishers or other variables, it only takes optimism in this case because we know (and will likely always know) so very little. But our answer is “fix our game, whatever the cost”.

        • It’s also possible that this was an unavoidable outcome that was the result of uncooperative publishers or other variables

          That isn’t a good excuse. I mean SEGA they gave them plenty of extensions as is. And fundamentally, GBX agreed to work on the game, so they are responsible for delivering results. The best thing a publisher can do is agree to a delay. GBX didn’t hold up to their end of the deal.

          What I still don’t understand is why they had to outsource their work. They loved the IP SO much and yet they were content to entrust duties to a developer known for making only decent titles? It makes no sense.

          They should have put Borderlands 2 on hold since the first did well, and dealt with A:CM. If A:CM did badly, they could have recovered with BL2. Now they look like a studio who fucks up good IPs.

    • It’s no different in any industry. Bad management is bad management. Doesn’t matter if you make AAA games, movies, cars, brooms or clothing.
      This is a perfect example why humans have invented project management techniques, lean manufacturing and continuous improvement programs, timelines, user specifications etc etc etc.
      Stuff like this just shouldn’t happen if the task(s) are being managed properly.

  • GBX was dumb for outsourcing to a turd like TG but ffs…
    Im so pissed off with TG for royally fucking this and putting GBX in this position.

  • personally im not minding the game, graphically well could of been better gameplay is pretty decent, ive only been playing multiplayer atm only played the first stage of the campaign and i enjoyed it 🙂

  • Its a massive shame. Im a huge fan of the Alien series and especially Aliens. After this really doubt any studio will approach the series again. Was really looking forward to this game since playing the original Aliens vs Predator. Will probably buy it when it drops into bargain status.

  • I would just like to say I’m getting really sick of Kotaku bashing Aliens: Colonial Marines
    Apart from a few bugs the game is fun and fast paced.

    • Hope you are being sarcastic the game is awful :/

      Especially considering how interesting the demo looked, this has been a turd.

  • Am I the only one that absolutely loved Aliens: Colonial Marines? I mean, it did have some issues but what game doesn’t? I thought it was a very fun game to play, remarkably well done.

    The campaign didn’t make much sense, they were missing a few textures here and there and the allied AI was sometimes retarded. But the atmosphere of the game, the Alien AI, the weapons, the sounds, the environments, the graphics, the game modes of multiplayer, all spot on.

    Definitely worth the mere 40 NZD I paid. 😛 Not a huge amount to shell out for such a fun game.

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