What It’s Like to Work On a Video Game Flop
We speak to developers behind <i>Infinite Crisis</i> and <i>Hellgate: London</i> about when best-laid plans go so very wrong.
This article originally appeared on VICE Australia.
It's difficult to understand how people can stay passionate about game development. The job is impossible. You pull ridiculous hours, meet stringent deadlines, cross your fingers, and hope like hell your product meets a very particular combination of acclaim and marketability to green-light a sequel, or at the very least keep the company intact. Sure, there's a chance you work at Blizzard or Infinity Ward and are playing with house money, but this is still an industry that lays off twice as many people as the US national rate. If you make video games for a living, you are going to be disappointed again, and again, and again, and again.
Once upon a time, Steven Ashley was paid to draw Superman. He joined Turbine, Inc in 2008 to work on the lauded Lord of the Rings Online, but two years later, after the company was purchased by Warner Bros., he was named lead artist on a nascent, DC Comics-themed MOBA called Infinite Crisis. Every day Ashley would convene with his team and adapt some the most iconic superheroes in the world to a conventional League of Legends battleground.
"We had nearly two years of characters planned, and we also thought about how those characters would change the game when they were released," said Ashley. "I remember our creative director had a spreadsheet plotting everything, down to the point of making sure we had a female character, and then a male character, and then a robotic character scheduled."
The job didn't come with an expiration date. Free-to-play multiplayer games like Infinite Crisis are in constant development. There's always another hero, or skin, or map on the horizon. If things broke right, Ashley would've been dreaming up new versions of the Joker for the rest of his career.
Unfortunately, things did not break right.
"When we had our farewell stream we showed some of the characters that were not quite ready for release, but we at least wanted people to see them," says Ashley. "In the end it was kinda bittersweet because people were like, 'Oh, I always wanted a Raven!'"
Infinite Crisis exited beta on March the 26th, 2015. Barely two months later, on June the 2nd, it was announced that the servers would be shutting down. It is, without a doubt, one of the biggest flops in modern video game history. Turbine laid off dozens of people, and is today refocusing on mobile games. Most of Ashley's team are working other jobs: some in the industry, some elsewhere. This isn't a particularly unique story; game development can be a volatile, unfriendly business. Something like Infinite Crisis – with its limited game modes, redundant core concept, and ice-cold hype – seemed doomed from the start.
But that doesn't change the fact that this game, like so many others in the landfill, defined a lot of people's lives for a very long time. You won't find many consumers elegising the death of Infinite Crisis – in some ways I think we take a sick pleasure in watching overzealous projects fall on their face – but that doesn't mean that the men and women at Turbine weren't aiming for the top. If you go to the game's abandoned website you can see hopes of a global eSports scene and some long-term narrative exposition. What happens when all that optimism falls away?
Article continues after the video below
"There's a lot of gallows humour," says Ashley, reflecting on Infinite Crisis' distressed late period. "There are a few people at every studio who jump out as soon as a project hits trouble, but the vast majority of people do stick it out. It's not just loyalty to the game; it's a loyalty to your team. Everyone is putting in a lot of hours and trying to salvage it. We were dedicated to the end, up to the moment the executive producer made the call to shut it down."
Ashley points to a number of mistakes over the course of Infinite Crisis' lifespan. The game was originally designed for consoles, but was re-platformed in the middle of development for PC, which delayed it long enough for competitors like Smite and Dota 2 to take bigger pieces of the pie. But he's also an industry veteran, and that comes with a certain amount of pragmatism. If you're going to make video games, it's important to keep your hopes in check.
"No game is a sure thing, and every game that anyone has ever worked on comes with a feeling of, 'This may or may not hit'." – Colin Day
"No game is a sure thing, and every game that anyone has ever worked on comes with a feeling of, 'This may or may not hit'," says Colin Day, who worked on the first-person RPG dud Hellgate: London. "The few exceptions are big studios who are building a sequel that they can't afford not to make, but for the rest of us you never know if the game is going to work, even if there's a lot of money behind it."
Like Ashley, Day has spent nearly 20 years in this business and has bounced around a number of different studios. In the past he's worked on Diablo III, Command & Conquer: Generals, Dungeons and Dragons: Online and Marvel Heroes. More recently he's spent time in his own start-up called Spellbind Studios making a game called Rogue Wizards. "It's super awesome," says Day, on being outside of the triple-A machine. "I wish I could do this forever – and we'll see if I can. If it makes money, then yay! If not, I have to go get a job again."
'Hellgate: London', cinematic trailer
"You only get to see the stuff that comes out and gets a bad score," continues Day. "The people who work in the industry get to see a whole lot more that never sees the light of day. This isn't just in video games – all across the tech industry people are working on things that get cancelled. You work on stuff for a long time, you pour your heart and soul in it, and when it gets shuttered it's devastating. It's a terrible, terrible feeling."
Ashley's perspective is a little bit different because he's always been someone's boss. As a team leader, he says there's responsibility to resist cynicism, and find different ways to motivate the people working under him when things get bad. Once Infinite Crisis started to tank, he took special care to reassign his artists on tasks they were passionate about. "Let's say you've been part of the environment team and you always wanted to be a part of characters. Well, then here's some characters for you to work on," says Ashley. "Once the project starts to fail, I try to make their career and their experience the motivators."
"Once morale starts to crumble it's real tough to get it back on track. It's a poison that's really infectious." – Steven Ashley
"You want to project something a little bit more positive. It's not likely that anything we've done personally has contributed to [the game's troubles]. I take on my team members as my charges. I want to set a good example," he says. "You have the high point where you're moving forward, but when you get that first inkling that it's not responding to players in the way you had planned, it's a punch to the gut. Once morale starts to crumble it's real tough to get it back on track. It's a poison that's really infectious."
There's something vaguely fatherly to Ashley's tone. When he broke into the industry he didn't have a strong mentor who guided him through the rough patches of game development. You get the sense that one of his primary duties is to make sure the people around him keep things in perspective.
"We had a lot of guys who were straight out of college and had never experienced this before," says Ashley. "They were freaked out. I had to tell them that unfortunately this is a reality in this business. It's happened to me four times. I tried to make it as constructive as possible, because a dour manager doesn't help anything. I don't want to say you need to 'spin' [the state of the game], but you do want to be encouraging. When it's appropriate, be a meat shield. Keep them insulated. When the hammer does come down some people will cry or react, but your team will be prepared for it."
'Infinite Crisis', "What Do You Fight For?" trailer
Maybe Steven Ashley is a glutton for punishment. At this point in his career he's seen so many projects fall short. Infinite Crisis took up nearly five years of his life. Five years culminating in a two-month commercial release before cancellation. Five years for a 6/10 from Gamespot. Five years, and yet another withering disappointment. Five years for a bunch of jokes from people who had not bled about how Infinite Crisis was a cheap League of Legends knockoff. He is getting too old for this shit. He doesn't deserve this. And yet, he remains. Ashley exited Turbine, put together his portfolio, and is currently the senior environment artist at the small, eager Proletariat Inc.
"We're working on Streamline, which just hit open beta," says Ashley. "After managing artists for so long, it's kind of nice to focus on myself for a little bit, but maybe later on if a lead position opens up, we'll see, but this is pretty great right now."
You exhale, you pick up the pieces, and you roll the dice again. The resilience of people in the games industry is either crazy or inspiring depending on your perspective. But that's also what makes them so indispensable. Nobody gets involved in this business for the money or the stability. You do it because you love it. In my time in the media I've written for so many inaugural start-up companies, only to watch the money slowly disappear. The doors will close. You always need to figure something else out. Nothing is cosy. Sure it's frustrating, but you don't have a choice. When you're born to do this you have no choice but to embrace your own stubborn naiveté and keep risking disaster.
"You're with a really creative group of people, and no matter if a game survives or it fails, nothing can really replace that experience. It makes me want to keep going." – Steven Ashley
"The best advice I give people is to build games that you love," says Day. "It's the opposite of mobile game developers who build stuff that will sell based on analysis. But I'm kind of old school. I make stuff that I like, and if the stuff that I like appeals to other people, then it'll find a market. If not? Well, now it's a hobby."
Colin Day is boiling down a career's worth of inspiration into a project he can firmly call his own. Steven Ashley coming off a job where he sent his Batman concept art directly to DC Comics. They are both living the dream. Every few months Ashley reunites with his Infinite Crisis team. They talk, they inspire, and they commiserate. "The connection is still there," says Ashley. "It never quite goes away."
"I have all these memories of all the different people and teams and directions," Ashley continues. "I remember the really tough meetings with the president, or the producers of the company. But I also remember the moments where I really tried to endear myself to my team. It's tough, but it comes back to the core of why I'm in this industry. You're with a really creative group of people, and no matter if a game survives or it fails, nothing can really replace that experience. It makes me want to keep going. I'll enter the next game with the same degree of wonder."