The closing of Factor 5 today is sure to affect many developers and gamers. With the studio shuttered, I'd like to share my experiences with it as a gamer and reporter.
Ambition is what drew me to Factor 5.
As a gamer I came to the studio's work a little late. I missed their Turrican days, their era of making games for the Super Nintendo and Genesis. I came upon them as an N64 gamer, spotting their logo at the intro to Star Wars: Rogue Squadron. That 1999 shooter was one of the first games to utilize the N64's RAM expansion pack for improved graphics resolution. That was the first hint to me that Factor 5 was a studio interested in pushing technology.
The next game Factor 5 game I played — still before I had become a reporter — was the one that forever charmed me to the studio. It was Star Wars: Battle for Naboo, a new-Trilogy sequel to Rogue Squadron. A hidden feature is what won me over: stuffed into its N64 cart was audio developer commentary for each of the game's levels. I'd never heard such a thing before.
This was a studio of developers with whom I wanted to speak. And I would.
At the start of the GameCube era, in 2001, I was just beginning to cover games. I played Factor 5 GameCube launch title Star Wars Rogue Squadron II: Rogue Leader as a novice reporter at my first E3. It is, to this day, among the best-looking games developed for a Nintendo platform. I don't remember talking to Factor 5's U.S. president Julian Eggebrecht then, nor for its 2003 sequel, Rebel Strike. But it was by that second GameCube game that I was writing a freebie column for IGN about the GameCube.
What I wrote about Rebel Strike highlighted the second defining characteristic of Factor 5 for me: they bit off mouthfuls at a time. Rebel Strike was not just a full new game. It housed the entirety of its predecessor, re-crafted for split-screen co-op. It contained not just audio commentary but making-of documentaries. But there were signs of rough edges: peculiar dips to black between gameplay and in-engine cutscenes; a group of on-foot side-scrolling levels that played poorly and curiously lacked audio commentary.
In 2006, I finally got paid for something I wrote about Factor 5. I was at MTV and covered the topic of developers using audio commentary. I referenced Factor 5 as a pioneer.
Factor 5 disappeared from my radar after that until I finally met Eggebrecht in person at a Sony event in 2006. He was showing, for the first of several times, the dragon-combat game Lair. He was a champion of PS3 motion control, a booster for the system's technical prowess and ambitious as ever. He wanted a game with air combat, ground combat, allusions to the ethics of modern war, hooks to the PS3's web browser, elaborate cutscenes and so much more. There were those two signatures of Factor 5 again, summed up in one word: ambition.
But Lair was rougher than Rebel Strike. Factor 5 barely attempted to hide this. In one of the more open displays of developer frustration with their own game, the studio included commentary in Lair that alluded to the game suffering from what was described as a curse of the dragon games, a problem that they said extended to personal problems among some of the staff. Following up in an e-mail, Eggebrecht said to me in 2007: "I am not a believer in ghosts, but this one was haunted."
Factor 5 faded away again, rumored over the next two years to have canceled its deal with Sony, possibly returned to working with Nintendo. Then came the news reported in Variety that Factor 5 was one of the studios suffering from having made a deal with the collapsed publisher Brash. I reached out to Eggebrecht again, who all but confirmed that the studio had been making a Superman adventure and expressing hope that the game would still come together.
"With that said," he wrote to me in November, "Things are obviously in flux and we hope that the game proves to be as indestructible as our hero…"
And then? Today's news. Factor 5 in the U.S. is no more. I've not heard back from Eggebrecht about this turn of events. The statement on the company's official website indicates that its German parent company still has projects coming.
There may be a future yet for Factor 5. There definitely was a past worth appreciating.