Postcards From The Clipping Plane
James Leach on overconfident developers who underprovide
You know the band Sigur Rós, right? Yeah, you do. Three Icelandic lads who do catchy ethereal post-rock warbling. In 2005 they put out a song called Hoppípolla. Something about jumping in puddles. But you will have heard it a lot. In adverts, the stirring bits of music they play at courageous-children awards – that sort of thing. Anyway, legend has it that the moment they finished it they started referring to it, gleefully, as The Money Song. They knew they had a big hit on their hands. They simply knew it. And, yep, it was.
I’ve had the pleasure of working on a few games like this. You just know it’s going to be amazing. Of course, being amazing doesn’t guarantee success, but sometimes you just have the unshakeable knowledge you’re creating something that’ll get the world weeing in delight. Of course, pride comes before a fall and all that. But this isn’t one of those lessons. Rather, it’s about what everyone starts thinking about after the game has scooped the jackpot: a sequel. Lots of sequels. But for one developer I worked for, this wasn’t enough. It decided the title was so good, people would immediately want to play it again. This isn’t quite as ridiculous as it sounds, because, although nobody was saying it, the game – amazing as it was – was a few hours too short. Frankly you could finish it in a lunch break. On your phone.
The plan was to add in lots of easy-to-implement features and changes for those attempting it a second time. Playing it a second time would actually be a different experience. It was to be like buying two games for the price of one. And nobody in the meeting room was sighing wearily at this.
Entirely new content wasn’t on the table. There wasn’t time to write, code and draw all that. So the first idea was that the player, having won, is transported back to the beginning, but with all the weaponry, experience and skills they’d earned. This would, of course, grossly affect the balancing and make it far too easy, so the enemies would have all their strength and other stats ramped up by an order of magnitude. This would have the novel effect of making someone who’d achieved victory do the same thing, but greatly hampered.
The next plan was to make it look different. The desert area, which took an arduous seven minutes to traverse, all without food or water, could be rendered white. Voilà, a brand-new snowy landscape. And, no, you can’t eat the snow. You still have to do it without water.
Next, all the major NPCs had their names changed. That’s it. Just their names. As we all know, changing a name makes someone utterly different and unrecognisable. It’s apparently how Carlos the Jackal evaded Interpol for decades. Oh, and it made sense to change the names of the items and weapons as well. And the places. It’s like when Durham briefly changed its name to New Jack City in 1991. People who grew up there were instantly strangers in a strange land.
The crowning achievement was to remove many of the helpful things the player would’ve encountered the first time around. The logic here was that removing things is easy and quick, and the player would’ve gained the knowledge and experience to do without them. So no shortcut through the caves, no powerups on Mount Skull (previously known as Mount Desolation), and no Fire Sabres (Flame Swords, the first time around). It wasn’t all to be an unrewarding and painful revisit, though. The powerups that did remain would be twice as powerful, and the hugely annoying Slug Trolls (previously Troll Slugs) at the canyon would be gone.
So it was to be two surefire successes in one. And the only way people would know it was by finishing the game for the first time. Unless the PR people went against strict orders and explicitly stated that there was an entirely new game buried at the end of the experience. Which they promptly did, to several huge gaming websites.
Actually I’m doing the whole thing a disservice. There was indeed new content. A little cutscene for those who completed the game twice. I say cutscene. It was a thinly veiled advert for the exciting sequel, which would be out in two years. They were going to put this out separately anyway.
It’s fine to realise when you have a monster hit on your hands before it’s even out. It’s smart forward-thinking to plan for it. So how many did the game sell? I tried Googling this but got varying figures. I’m still in touch with the lead programmer, though, so I’ll ask him later in the week, if he’s not too busy serving others when I stop by to grab a Happy Meal.
This is about what everyone starts thinking about after the game has scooped the jackpot:
a sequel. Lots of sequels