There’s plenty of games that enjoy huge commercial success, and many others that sell millions that don’t even get the recognition they deserve. But there are hundreds, if not thousands of games, that are just as quality but for whatever reason, never find their true audience.
I was thinking about this when digging through my calendar this week. There’s a string of quarterly investor calls over the next few days, including major companies like EA, Activision-Blizzard, and so on.
I was wondering about the impact of the last 12 months on gaming habits, what it’s done to certain franchises and even thinking about the enormous success of games like Cyberpunk 2077 despite all their launch troubles. And that triggered a further thought about all the really good games that don’t break through, either not at all or at least not in their initial form.
The Last Express is one of those games that commercially struggled when it was released. The story of how it was made is genuinely fascinating, with the game being shot on 16mm film with partial automation — a huge technological accomplishment for the mid-to-late ’90s.
It was structurally fascinating, too. Unlike most point-and-click or FMV adventures at the time, The Last Express played out completely in real-time. The player had three days, or around 8 to 10 hours, to resolve a murder on the Orient Express’ final journey before the beginning of World War 1.
The non-linearity of the story, design, unique aesthetic from the rotoscoping technique and recreation of the time period made for a game that still stands out, even today. But, sadly, The Last Express suffered from some horrific luck.
Only weeks before The Last Express launched, the game’s publisher, Broderbund, lost their entire marketing staff. That killed the necessary advertising push that would have been key to helping The Last Express — which cost $US5 million to develop at the time — break even.
To make matters worse, the game’s distribution was split between three companies: Broderbund, GAMEBANK and GAMEBANK’s parent firm, SoftBank Group. The three-way deal was a result of a bidding war for the game’s distribution rights, but after the game was released, SoftBank dissolved GAMEBANK entirely and quit the video game industry.
That meant the PS1 port of The Last Express — and any hope for a second wind of interest, an essential key for the long-tail success that adventure games traditionally relied upon — was cancelled. To make matters worse, GAMEBANK’s death also spelt the end of the game’s wider distribution. The Last Express wasn’t even available on store shelves the Christmas it launched, leaving it a million units behind its break even target.
A classic video game story about a commercial ‘failure’ is Earthbound, a game crippled more by Nintendo’s internal failures and processes than a lack of public appreciation. While Earthbound would eventually become one of the best selling games on the Wii U’s Virtual Console, getting a weird, quirky game like Earthbound through Nintendo’s labyrinthian processes for a wider Western release in the ’90s was an enormous challenge.
“Inside Nintendo, I kind of don’t know that they ever really understood that the game had as big a grassroots following as it did,” Marcus Lindblom, who worked on the game’s English localisation, said.
A game that I loved that saw absolutely no commercial success was from a studio known for making nothing but hits. Looking Glass Studios’s resume is nothing short of banger after banger: Ultima Underworld 2, Flight Unlimited, System Shock, Thief: The Dark Project, Destruction Derby 64, Thief 2, System Shock 2, and under a previous company name, the original Ultima Underworld and Chuck Yeager’s Advanced Flight Trainer.
But some of their games were enormous commercial failures. Terra Nova: Strike Force Centauri was a tactical 3D shooter with some great Mechwarrior vibes. But the game’s development became hugely expensive due due to an executive decision to include full-motion video, attempting to mirror the success of Wing Commander.
With the FMV shooting all done in-house, the majority of the game’s budget ended up being eaten by the game’s cut scenes. That resulted in key features like online multiplayer being cut, and more time was lost due to rewrites of the script to keep the cutscenes and missions coherent.
Terra Nova was also exceedingly brutal for its time. PC gaming had a reputation in the mid ’90s for scaling poorly, and Terra Nova suffered heavy slowdowns even on high-end systems. Here’s a review from back in the day:
It falls firmly into the Flight Unlimited/EF2000 nose-dive of running like a sick dog on much less than a P60. Even on a P133, when you turn on the extremely flash external camera views, there’s a noticeable slowdown. It’s virtually impossible to recommend it to anyone not in possession of a Pentium.
Of course, you can run Terra Nova today on practically anything. But it’s no surprise that all of the game’s success were buried under the fact that most people didn’t have systems that could run the game when Terra Nova released, and the lengthy delays meant Terra Nova was competing with like Civilization 2, Duke Nukem 3D, Warcraft 2, The Ripper and other hugely popular non-PC games (like Pokemon Red/Green, which launched 2 days before Terra Nova) at the time.
There’s a ton of other games that come to mind that never really quite took off, but always have a spot in my heart for one reason or another. The original StarTopia was never hugely successful, but it was hard not to appreciate its Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy-style of humour, even if the combat was abhorrent.
Grim Fandango was another game that struggled, selling about half the units that Full Throttle did. The game did eventually break even. But it was one of those instances where the industry had moved past the adventure game genre, with more advanced 3D graphics and online multiplayer all the rage. “Ron and I have always felt adventure games have the same market they always did, which is about 200,000 units sold,” Tim Schafer told San Francisco Weekly in an interview after Double Fine’s success on Kickstarter. “But with Call of Duty people expect 15 million units sold … People were told, ‘You guys like these kinds of games, but you’re not worth it, so we’re not going to make this kind of game for you.'”
You could even broaden the bucket further, including handhelds like the PS Vita. The video game industry is filled with stories of projects that deserved better, or incredible ideas and releases beset by horrific luck and timing.
So I’m curious to hear from you. What games do you love that never saw the financial success they deserved? Any Ouya fans in the comments?