Post­cards From The Clip­ping Plane

James Leach on over­con­fi­dent de­vel­op­ers who un­der­pro­vide

EDGE - - SECTIONS - JAMES LEACH James Leach is a BAFTA Award-win­ning free­lance writer whose work fea­tures in games and on tele­vi­sion and ra­dio

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

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