Reviled by critics, mocked by gamers and the focus point of a class-action lawsuit against Gearbox Software and Sega, Aliens: Colonial Marines (A:CM) is a master class in what NOT to do in game development. There is a veritable pot of gold at the end of this tragic game – if you know where to look.
Allegedly seven years in development, A:CM looked like Halo-like blockbuster right up to launch, when early reviews told a very different story. They alluded to buggy gameplay, low rent graphics, laughable dialogue and a disjointed, uninspired plot. The only redeeming qualities? The music, atmosphere and production design.
The early reviews were right. Sega’s marketing – including “real” footage from a demo that didn’t really exist – was very wrong. Metacritic rates A:CM for PC at 44 percent, 48 percent on Xbox 360 and 43 percent on PlayStation 3.
Less is More
Gordon Ramsay is known for tormenting ambitious chefs if they go overboard with their cooking. That’s a lesson the (many) studios behind A:CM should have learned as well. The campaign lasts from 5 to 8 hours, but it feels much longer. There simply is a ton of padding, repetition, and trickery. As if the developers KNEW they didn’t have enough, so decided to repeat missions, textures, entire levels in order to make the “minimum” 8-hour long campaign of modern first-person shooters.
The result is a boring game. There are exciting moments for sure (already eclipsed from my memory, unfortunately) but they are few and far between. The lasting memories are of endless repetition, going back to the same locations, fighting the same enemy soldiers. Just terrible.
“Less is more” also applies to pricing. Lower prices are equal to “more value.”
There is one very easy way Sega could have dealt with the storm before it even took shape. All they had to do was cut the price to $19.99. The messaging would be as follows: “We screwed up. We can’t in good conscience charge $60 for Aliens: Colonial Marines. Please accept our apologies and enjoy the game for a price we consider fair.”
Putting the two together we end with the following: a campaign that is 4 hours long for a fair price. Just imagine how the press and players alike would have reacted. In my opinion, the outcry would be almost non-existent and Sega would sell at least 4 million copies, not to mention secure better review scores (probably in the 65-70 percent range).
Play to Each Platform’s Strengths
The PC port of A:CM is regarded as the best way to play the game. After a couple massive patches, the lighting is now light years ahead of the aging PS3 and Xbox 360 versions. It’s less buggy, too. Finally, PCs can offer much higher resolution than consoles, which makes the game look considerably sharper.
I played the PS3 version. The frame rate is locked at 30 frames per second (v-sync enabled by default) and it can drop below 30 from time to time. Nothing major though. There are a couple patches out for the PS3 version, but they’re small (unlike the the 8 GB behemoth released for the PC). I didn’t have a lot of issues with the PS3 version, I just hoped it would run better (60 fps would be nice) and have higher-res textures.
Now, the Xbox 360 version is supposed to be terrible. It’s not locked at 30 fps so frame tearing is constant. Performance varies wildly as well, and textures are supposed to be even worse-looking than the PS3 version.
Gearbox and its minions really should have been more careful with the console ports. The game was clearly optimized for PCs and then shoehorned into 7 year-old hardware. If Halo 4 could look stunning on the Xbox 360, A:CM could have easily done the same. Now, if you consider that the Xbox 360 is the most popular SKU due to Xbox Live/online gameplay, Sega’s mistake is even more disheartening.
Screwing Xbox 360 owners was probably a costly mistake for Sega.
Under Promise and Over Deliver
I was taught this concept early in my PR career. A lot of agencies like to promise the world to prospective clients. The idea is to clinch the business first, then worry about delivering later. At Novy, we do the opposite. We don’t promise a thing. We try to be realistic, honest-to-a-fault, then go all-out to come up with the best possible results. We lost bids in the past by sticking to the facts but we’re much happier for it.
Hype has become a way of life for some. Indie or AAA, it’s too easy to succumb to temptation in order to “generate buzz.” Previews and teaser trailers are usually the culprits, with a famous example being Killzone 2’s “target render.” Marketing moguls take over, promise the world to players, then it all crashes down at launch. A:CM is now the poster child of misguided hype and what many see as outright lies before launch.
Game PR needs to be almost journalistic prior to launch. Stick to the facts. Explain what influenced the devs, illustrate with untouched screenshots (no Photoshop allowed!), allow journalists to play beta builds early on. Don’t make checks you can’t cash before the game is even in beta. If you game is an innovative racer, don’t write “innovative racer” in the press release. That’s just an adjective. Explain what you’re trying to do in clear terms.
Journalists will decide if it’s innovative or not.
Players appreciate candor. Things would be very different for Sega and Gearbox if the hype was kept in check.
Annoying Characters are Annoying. Get Rid of Them
O’Neal drove me nuts throughout the campaign. He wouldn’t shut up even during combat, enjoyed shooting at walls, and would stay back while I was mangled by Xenomorphs in the next room. Worse than useless: O’Neal was worthless.
An experienced screenwriter would have seen this coming. Sega could then choose to eliminate O’Neal altogether, or get him killed in the first mission. Imagine players’ reactions if that was the case. Instead, they let the story (and characters) fester. The result is a game with characters made out of cardboard – lifeless animatronics who deliver lines as if they’re reading a phonebook.
If you can’t make sure the story is going to be top-notch, have less of it. Use scrolling text, abolish cut-scenes, cut dialogue lines. Minimize your exposure so the damage can be contained. Another way to go is to double down on gameplay so story and dialogue are less of a factor.
Irritating players for 8 hours is NOT the way to go. A:CM makes this mistake way too often, which ruins the whole thing – at least for me.
Reviewers are Not 100 Percent Right All the Time
Some gave A:CM a 2 out of 10. Four out of 10 were very common. A reviewer that shall not be named must have played a different game, because he gave A:CM a 9 out of 10 (wut?)
Most of us are HUGE fans of the Alien IP. Sure, we might belong to different factions (“Alien is the only true Alien movie” / “Aliens kicked ass” / “Alien 3 Director’s Cut is an unsung masterpiece”) but we all love the universe created by Dan O’Bannon and Ronald Shusett. The disappointment with A:CM was massive. It sounds like a #firstworldproblem but reviewers are humans like you and me. They WERE saddened by the end result. So, in my opinion, some of them over-reacted.
A:CM is a 5 out of 10. Deeply flawed, buggy, with terrible character animation, plot, you name it. But it’s also fun from time to time. It oozes atmosphere. The Aliens soundtrack, taken from the movie, simply rocks. I think some of the low scores are more psychological than anything. They go beyond game criticism because of what the IP means to fans.
Boss Fights Should be Exciting, not Painful
The boss fight is the “big finish” of your level. It’s when expectations are re-calculated, when courage takes a hit and you wonder if you’re going to make it. Bosses demand creativity, cunning, and dexterity in order to be beaten.
Now, if your game is buggy… A boss fight can actually end it right then and there. Game over, back to GameFly/GameStop.
The Raven boss fight, when the player finally gets to use the legendary Power Loader to fight Xenomorphs, is broken on the PS3 version. I used to be a tester, so I know what I’m talking about. I was stuck for a solid 2 hours, replaying it over and over again. In my desperation, I decided to look for walkthrough videos on YouTube. Most of them were of the PC version and they certainly didn’t look that hard. It seemed to me that the player was not taking damage from Xenomorphs while operating the Power Loader…
On PS3, soldiers (the lowest class of Xenomorphs) would hit me constantly while I was trying to kill the Raven. Sometimes it would be a one-hit kill. What’s even worse, the boss fight was so buggy that, while dying, the game would prompt me to hit “R3” to melee one of the enemies. Wait a minute – what?? I’m DYING (already dead in fact, just watching my character’s body hit the floor) and you want me to press R3? WTF?
And so I spent 2 hours trying to get past this excruciating, buggy, ridiculous boss fight. If it were not for my wife’s encouraging words, I would have quit. Rage quit.
Well, that’s what I learned from Aliens: Colonial Marines. How about you?
Jovan Johson is an attorney with L.A. firm Johnson & Moo. Like Novy PR, Jovan specializes on helping indie and mobile developers grow their companies from one-man start-ups to successful studios with a global audience.
Stray Pixels asked Jovan a few questions about attorneys, contracts, working with foreign publishers and more. Let us know what you think in the comments!
1. When should indie studios seek out a lawyer?
Indies should probably seek legal counsel once they begin working with others, including artists, programmers, marketers, etc. This will help ensure the terms of their agreement are written clearly and structured properly.
For example, last year my partner and I met with a potential client who produced a song (which, of course, is a form of intellectual property) that turned out to be quite successful. Gross revenue was close to $460,000, costs and expenses were approximately $25,000. Under his arrangement with the recording artist the producer’s share should have been $160,000, give or take.
The producer’s first problem was that he drafted the contract he signed with the artist. The document he came up with was quite detailed but didn’t make any sense. I’m not saying that as an attorney. I’m saying that as someone who reads and writes English. Next, he involved himself with investor-partners who were attorneys. The producer didn’t have an attorney review this second deal either. At the end of the day, he’s probably going to wind up with nothing to show for his efforts. In fact, he may be in debt before the ordeal is over. If he would have retained counsel from the beginning, he would probably have $160,000 in his bank account right now.
Some people think they cannot afford a lawyer. If you’re doing business and want to succeed, you can’t afford not having a lawyer.
2. How are mobile deals structured nowadays? What is the publisher role, for example?
The publisher’s role is to promote the game and sell units. They should provide input on polishing the game and a base level of PR and marketing. For that they receive a percentage of revenue, which may seem high to some developers. However, it’s better to have part of a financially successful game than 100% of one that sells 200 copies.
Some publishers have relationships that help with key placements within the Android Market and App Store, but that will not show up as a contract term.
3. What should developers watch for before signing a contract?
It’s always important that both parties have a clear understanding of what’s expected of them. Warm and fuzzy feelings are nice but the content of the written contract is what matters.
Some common issues that developers need to understand before signing a deal are:
4. Can working with foreign capital or a foreign publisher affect the way a contract is drafted?
Absolutely. If you plan on dealing with a foreign publisher you may have an issue in terms of choice of law. If the publisher insists on their local law, it’s a good idea for the developer to hire an attorney who is familiar with those laws.
Any deal regarding capital gets complicated quickly because it may be a securities transaction. Most attorneys are NOT capable of reviewing these contracts. Get help immediately if you’re thinking about a deal with capital, especially if it’s foreign capital.
5. Tell us about yourself. Were you always a gamer? When did you decide to focus on indies?
I’ve actually been a gamer on-and-off. Of course, I can remember spending many hours playing Nintendo when I was in elementary school. Same thing throughout high school, college, and after law school. Let’s just say if I get into something, I’m really into that thing. It’s best that I stick to casual games.
One of my brightest friends released a couple of iOS games. He worked with a small team on a handshake deal. This made me wonder about others making games without business and legal assistance. I’ve had a great time working with all of my indie clients. That makes me feel like I’m on to something.
6. Where do you see the game industry in the next 10 years?
I think gaming may go the way of movie studios. That is, large game companies who are financially sound will focus on blockbusters. That leaves a big opening for the indies to produce most everything else.
I also think mobile games will continue eating away at the market share console games have enjoyed for so many years. Game engines like Unity allow for increasingly advanced mobile games. It’s astounding, really. Google and Apple release mobile operating systems at a break-neck pace and developers take advantage of that.
Another advantage mobile developers have is that very few people want to buy a new Sony / Microsoft / Nintendo console year-after-year, but statistics seem to indicate that many people will opt to buy a new iPhone annually.
7. Is there anything else you’d like to say to Novy PR’s clients and readers?
Don’t hesitate to reach out to us for help. We answer emails and return phone calls. Kamal Moo, my partner, focuses on music and film law and has been around the block. We’re currently working with a fan-funded project, Angry Video Game Nerd The Movie. If you have a creative project in the works, there’s a good chance my firm can provide the attention and advice you need.