Games

Most Games Don't Take Seven Years to Finish. Here's Why 'Gunsport' Did.

Between handshake deals falling through, publishing deals exploding, and game code proving unusable, a lot happened to 'Gunsport' on its journey to your screen.
September 3, 2020, 1:00pm
A screen shot from the video game Gunsport.
Screen shot courtesy of Necrosoft Games

Countless video games, even if they're announced and shown to the public, are eventually cancelled and never see the light of day. It's far more common for a promising idea to run into any number of a million problems—fatal design issues, lack of funding, you name it—and join the legions of video games that are left half-finished on a random hard drive.

Gunsport, best described as volleyball but with futuristic guns, seemed destined to be one of those games. Developer Necrosoft Games built a working prototype for Gunsport all the way back in 2013, and at multiple points, seemed to have a path to being released. But nearly every step of the way, something happened, and the game was ultimately cancelled—several times.

And yet, this week Gunsport released in a most unlikely place: Stadia. A platform that didn't exist when Gunsport was conceived became the landing pad for the eccentric sports game, the end of a long and winding path that has chewed and spit out many games just like it.

"There's relief, there's exhaustion, there's a baseline wonder at whether anyone will like it," said Gunsport designer Brandon Sheffield, "and there's the guilt of how long it took and how much more I wish we could do."

Sheffield most recently wrote the critically praised script for Lab Zero's RPG Indivisible, before recently disclosing that he'd cut ties with the developer because its owner is toxic and has been the subject of sexual harassment allegations.

The idea for Gunsport came to Sheffield while playing the 1978 Midway arcade game Dogpatch at a classic gaming expo in 2013. In Dogpatch, players shot at tin cans in the air. The goal is to keep the can in the air by peppering it back and forth with bullets, and the last player to keep the can in the air scores a point. The game quickly captured his imagination.

It's hard to explain where ideas come from, but in this moment, one came to Sheffield.

"As I was playing this very rudimentary game, the idea of shooting a ball with four players, plus goals, with loose volleyball rules arrived fully formed into my head," he said.  "I also became really intrigued with the idea of using guns in their traditional form factor but without the ability to kill, or even hurt others. The idea of an action game that used guns as the primary agent of change, where you absolutely could not hurt anything with them—that got me excited to really push this thing."

Not long after, Sheffield traveled to Poland for work and put together a small team that started cranking one that would quickly become a working prototype. It'd only been a month.

As fate would have it, Sheffield was traveling to Japan to cover the Tokyo Game Show, a moment when he was still straddling games journalism and development. Because he was press, Sony invited him to a tiny event where the company was trying to showcase how many independent developers were making games for the PlayStation 4, which would launch later that year. Xbox 360 had been the indie showcase of the previous generation.

Sheffield had a copy of Gunsport in a laptop, and quickly asked if it was okay if he set up his game and had people try it out. The problem: he didn't have any PlayStation controllers, so he asked the person closest to him for help. They shuffled off and found one controller but Sheffield needed two, prompting him to, again, ask the random Sony employee for help.

"He sighed and went off and found another," said Sheffield. "That's when I heard folks murmuring behind me in Japanese: 'I can't believe he's asking him! Of all people! To go and get controllers!' It turned out he was the VP of Publisher Relations for Sony. Oops!!"

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The impromptu showcase was a success, however: the game had a publishing deal—well, sort of. Sheffield had a "handshake" deal to publish the game, which isn't uncommon in the video game industry. The handshake is a promise to figure out a proper contract later. But in this case, the person behind the other handshake ended up quickly going out of business.

Sheffield declined to say who the publisher was.

The game managed to land another deal with Iron Galaxy, primarily an engineering support developer that's worked on, for example, porting games like Overwatch and Skyrim to Switch. But Iron Galaxy has also dabbled in original game development, having worked on the Kinect game Wreckateer, multiple seasons of Killer Instinct, and, for a moment, a publishing label that specifically sought games that could potentially break out as an esport.

The initiative, which included games like Divekick, had its ups and downs and ultimately didn't work out. The deal to publish Gunsport was far enough along to formally announce the game and show it to press. Former Iron Galaxy CEO Dave Lang, who now oversees business development for the studio, explained what went wrong during a GDC talk a few years ago:

Full Disclosure: I'm friends with Lang in real-life.

"We were taking too long to get the game to where we wanted it and we simultaneously ran out of money as Iron Galaxy decided they didn't have enough resources to devote to publishing anymore," said Sheffield. "They offered to pay us our next milestone so we could stay afloat, but I felt too guilty and said no."

As part of the split, Iron Galaxy handed the Gunsport rights back to Sheffield again.

But soon enough, there were more problems: their netcode was a disaster and needed to be written from the ground-up. The network programmer quit. Then, another programmer left the project. The game was adrift for a year.

All told, this is three years into development of a game that would ultimately take seven years to ship. Lots of games take a long time to finish, but Gunsport was caught in stasis.

"I definitely felt like this thing was doomed at some point, and you get into that cycle of thinking about the sunk cost fallacy," said Sheffield. "The idea that because you've put so much work into this thing, you should keep going, when in fact most of the time it's best to cut your losses."

During a period where Sheffield was working out of some extra space at the offices of Other Ocean and Digital Eclipse, Sheffield found a new partner to help rebuild the game's tech.

Days go by. Months go by. Years go by. And yet, Gunsport remained.

screenshot-01.png

Gunsport fell into a limbo where it was just cool enough to continue developing, and had just enough issues that it always needed another level of investment to be finished. When Sheffield would meet with companies and they'd ask what he was working on, he could pull out Gunsport. Sometimes, that actually worked out—it's why the Stadia deal eventually happened—but other times, the game's reputation would raise eyebrows from people who knew some of the backstory.

"That actually backfired on us a couple times, because I could see them thinking—still!?" he said.

It was at E3 2019 where Sheffield took a meeting with Google about Stadia. One of the many big problems Stadia has had since its launch in late 2019 is a lack of games to play. Google was excited to publish Gunsport, a revelation that took Sheffield a bit to process.

"It was a great moment really, to just be certain I could finish this thing that had at that point been hanging around our necks for six years," he said, "and which we'd worked on so much as to become pretty numb to the idea of ever finishing."

After meeting with Google, Sheffield was walking by himself to an AirBnB he was renting for the event and saw Iron Galaxy's Dave Lang on the other side of the street. He shouted that he'd signed Gunsport, and Lang ran across the street. The two then shared a big hug.

The deal took only two weeks to hash out, and a little over a year later, the game is done.

Gunsport is a game that's been close to Sheffield since he started his development studio seven years ago, and it's taken nearly that entire time for the game to actually be released.

"I think these weird emotions are also coupled with this bizarre feeling of guilt I have," he said. "Why did this take so long, compared to what we're actually showing? Shouldn't we have more to show from all this time we've been working? Of course the game didn't take 7 years, we weren't working on it the whole time—but it has been worked on across that span. That's so long!"

Part of Sheffield's guilt is watching so many games his friends have made die along the way.

"Why is this game the one that gets to live while so many others have fallen by the wayside?" he said. "Why Gunsport? It's not about social issues, it doesn't help anybody, it's just a game, right? But that has value too...right?"

Follow Patrick on Twitter. His email is patrick.klepek@vice.com, and available privately on Signal (224-707-1561).