The games industry moves pretty fast, and there's a tendency for all involved to look constantly to what's next without so much worrying about what came before. That said, even an industry so entrenched in the now can learn from its past. So to refresh our collective memory and perhaps offer some perspective on our field's history, GamesIndustry.biz runs this monthly feature highlighting happenings in gaming from exactly a decade ago.
Who Pays for Polish?
In May of 2009, Take-Two Interactive delayed two of its upcoming games, Red Dead Redemption and Mafia II, "to allow additional development time for the titles and to maximize their full potential in terms of the quality of the player experience and market performance." In our coverage of the delays, we paraphrased Take-Two as saying the developers needed time for "additional polish." (It's worth noting that Take-Two does not appear to have used those words itself.)
"Additional polish" is a powerful phrase when talking about game delays because it works for lots of different groups. It makes players think the game is already good and polished, but the extra time will help make it something special. It gives the press a simple, understandable explanation for why a delay was necessary. And for publishers, it's specific enough to satisfy people's questions, but still so vague that it will always be defensible and technically true (the best kind of true, for a publicly traded company).
Beyond that, the phrase also implies a certain type of development environment. "Polish" is a finishing touch, a time for dotting of 'i's and crossing of 't's. It suggests a steady, level-headed approach to game development, an artisan giving their work one last assessment to ensure it's up to their standards. At least, that's the implication for the general public. For developers themselves, the phrase may conjure up images of 18-wheelers on fire and careening toward a cliff's edge.
Take Red Dead Redemption, for example. It would be almost a full year between the game's delay and its launch, and it doesn't sound like that year was spent on finishing touches. After the delay but before the game's launch, an open letter signed by the "Determined Devoted Wives of Rockstar San Diego employees" was published, describing deteriorating working conditions at Rockstar San Diego since March of 2009 (two months before Take-Two announced the delay). The post reported that the company instituted mandatory 12-hour work days for six days a week, depicting Rockstar management as dishonest and callous employers who didn't care about their employees' well-being or family lives.
"This is a (recurring) nightmare... The darkness!!!"
Sam Houser (allegedly), late in Red Dead Redemption's development
It certainly doesn't sound like the employees were having an easy time of it, but management wasn't exactly loving the Red Dead development experience either. A 2016 lawsuit filed against Take-Two by former Rockstar North studio head Leslie Benzies described Red Dead Redemption as in a desperate state in October of 2009 when Rockstar co-founder and Red Dead Redemption executive producer Sam Houser pleaded with him to travel to San Diego to help finish up the game.
According to the suit, "As the game's delivery date grew near, Sam Houser urgently reached out to Mr. Benzies in an October 22, 2009 e-mail, writing, 'The ups and downs are VERY extreme. We have to fix this. Quickly. Help! I'm freaking!'
"As Sam Houser reviewed more of the game that he had overseen for many years, he became more desperate writing to Mr. Benzies the very next day, 'This [RDR] is a (recurring) nightmare. But one i/we need to get out of. I have problems with the camera all over the place. So much so, that I can't be rational or specific about it. The darkness!!!' As reflected in his October 24, 2009 e-mail to Mr. Benzies, Sam Houser's desperation was escalating, 'PLEASE help me/us get rdr [Read Dead Redemption] into shape. I am a jabbering wreck right now. I need The Benz!'"
So while "additional polish" may eventually mean a great game for players or a windfall for shareholders, it's worth keeping in mind that it often means a lot more work for developers, and not always in the best conditions.
It Was A Different Time
● Bethesda's managing director for Europe Sean Brennan talked about Bethesda's plans for mature games on the Wii and how "We're not going to establish a new range and call it 'My Girly Game Range' or whatever these other companies are doing, it's so me-too and boring… We're not going to produce games for girls or pet-sim products." Putting aside the apparent contempt for non-traditional audiences, Brennan's pledge about pet sims was accurate, and I can't help but feel the company's games are weaker for it.
● Bobby Kotick was back on his bullish again, saying "We're bullish on the music category" as he prepared to launch Band Hero, Guitar Hero 5, DJ Hero, and Guitar Hero: Van Halen into the same holiday season as Rock Band: The Beatles and Lego Rock Band.
● Did you know that before Words With Friends creator Newtoy was acquired by Zynga and put to work on a succession of With Friends casual games, its first title was going to be World War Robot, created in partnership with comic artist Ashley Wood?
● Sony's E3 2009 presentation wasn't scheduled until June, but in late May the company accidentally leaked its biggest announcement of the show when it temporarily made visible the E3 episode of its Qore gaming program days before the show proper. The episode revealed the brand new PSP Go (an all-digital PSP redesign without the UMD disc drive) along with all the tech specs and even some quotes from Sony's US marketing head John Koller. Oops.
● Speaking of the industry's biggest showcase, check out how many games Activision and Electronic Arts brought to E3 in 2009. Electronic Arts had 28 titles to show. Activision Blizzard had 10. Last year, Activision went into the show touting an E3 lineup of just four games, while EA hyped its off-site EA Play event with a dozen games. (These numbers are just what the companies promoted before the show, and don't include E3 press briefing reveals.)
But Not THAT Different
● Telltale CTO and co-founder Kevin Bruner celebrated the company's fifth anniversary, saying, "It used to be we only made two or three games a decade. At Telltale, we release a new game every month, which fosters greater creativity with the teams, and the customers get to enjoy more content on a regular basis." I'll just note here that Bruner's Telltale embraced never-ending crunch to achieve that output and the studio's rapid expansion of work load and headcount after The Walking Dead was a contributing factor to it not being around to celebrate its 15th anniversary this month.
● Tim Sweeney predicted 10 years ago that we were 10-15 years away from 100% photorealistic computer graphics. (So any day now, essentially.) And while he didn't use everyone's favorite "uncanny valley" phrase, he did say getting those realistic graphics to move or behave convincingly is a much larger, longer-term problem to solve.
● There were rumors that a tech giant was finally going to get serious about games and would be acquiring a big-name native gaming publisher in the process, so that's two squares you can mark off on your "This AGAIN, games industry?" bingo card.
● The Associated Press reported on then-Electronic Arts CEO John Riccitiello's exorbitant pay of $11.1 million, which led the publisher to offer some explanation as to how that amount was not as obscene as it may have seemed at first glance. Current EA CEO Andrew Wilson received $35.7 million in compensation last year.