Inside a publisher or a studio, there are few surprises when a video game bombs in its reviews. Before it goes from gold master to warehouse to retailer, the focus groups are empaneled, the "mock reviewers" are contracted, and their verdicts are in. Everyone knows roughly where the game will land in the all-controlling 100-point scale of Metacritic. It takes hubris and delusion on the scale of Too Human or Kane & Lynch to be blindsided by a bad review score these days.
EA Sports knew where NBA Live 13 would have ended up last year just as surely as Gearbox Software knew what was coming this week for Aliens: Colonial Marines, whose disastrous review scores have spawned finger pointing, bait-and-switch allegations, nasty rumors and, worst of all these, the animated .gif meme.
Yet as much as EA has been beaten over the head for the failures in its NBA simulation, it can look to the ongoing Colonial Marines fiasco and feel some measure of vindication. Because this is what happens when you can't meet the high expectations of the license you're handling, and you don't have the presence of mind to call a timeout, even if you're seconds from the final buzzer.
Troubled games in other genres are, for the most part, delayed. In sports, because of the annual publishing demand, if you miss a year, that sucker has been canceled, which is vastly worse. The huge sums guaranteed by contract to the leagues licensing these games, and the ignominy of failing to publish anything, even the "roster update" slur hurled in comments and forum threads, make a delay of any type exceedingly rare in sports. Until 2010, sports video gaming had gone 14 years since the last licensed simulation had been canceled (Madden NFL '96, for the first PlayStation.)
Indeed, up to a week from its release in 2010, all signs still pointed to EA Sports launching NBA Elite 11 despite obvious internal signs of a troubled and substandard game. EA's CEO, John Riccitiello, told Kotaku in early 2011 that after the demo came out, the company did an internal review, and pegged NBA Elite as about a 60 on Metacritic, at best, as the discs were being stamped and the cases shipped. A series of embarrassing glitch videos on YouTube, coming from the game's demo, seemed to seal its fate. NBA Elite 11 was canceled one week before its launch. Despite the recall order, enough copies made it into the wild to become high-priced collector's items on eBay. If any retail game has been pulled so close to its street date, much less by a publicly traded company whose publishing calendar is information affecting its stock price, I'm not aware of it.
At least when EA Sports realized it had a bomb on its hands, it had the guts to fall on it.
"We could have shipped a product we weren't proud of dead against their game [NBA 2K11] that they are proud of and that we would have been proud of to ship ourselves," Riccitiello said at the time. "We would have probably lost 5-1 in the marketplace against that and firmly cemented a reputation for being one to ship secondary sports titles." Thus, Riccitiello said, he alone decided to effectively cancel the game, though it was described at the time as a delay.
Despite no direct competitor, no league opening day reminding folks the game wasn't out, and licensing costs likely a fraction of the more than $60 million EA Sports probably lost on NBA Elite, no one at Sega or Gearbox could make the same call with Colonial Marines. Yes, this series had a development history of repeated delays going back six years. Sega was unlikely to tolerate another request for more time from Gearbox. And this game, frankly, may have published because the existential threat of lasting brand damage wasn't as great as what EA Sports faced with its NBA title. Gamers expect sequels in the shooter and adventure genres if the title is successful. In sports, they expect them every year, and the fallout from a bad release can send a series into a tailspin with years left on the deal.
Most of the fallout, rightfully, lands on Gearbox's doorstep in Plano, Texas. If the studio wanted some advice on the lack of wisdom in going ahead with a broken, licensed product, it could have gotten plenty from its friends at 2K, which publishes Gearbox's hit Borderlands. Major League Baseball 2K9 dealt a crippling blow to the series when it released in a marginally playable state. 2K Sports had pulled development from Kush Games at the last minute, handing the project to in-house developer Visual Concepts on a nine-month schedule.
It seems to be the inverse of what is said to have happened with Gearbox and subcontractor TimeGate, the first studio credited in Aliens: Colonial Marines and the outfit responsible—or blamed—for much of the game's singleplayer mode. But we see the same results: Appalling visuals, animation glitches, and gameplay that offers almost no challenge. You can find comments in 2009 from readers looking forward to the next edition of Major League Baseball 2K. Despite a remarkable recovery in 2010, this sentiment has been rare ever since.
When EA Sports cancelled NBA Live a second time, most took its rationale as PR. The label's vice president, Andrew Wilson, said at the time it was "clear that we won't be ready" by the assumed launch date, and that EA Sports would cancel the game "and stay focused on making next year's game great." OK, sure. It was an embarrassing day for the publisher, and deservedly so. It had a workable, even acclaimed codebase in NBA Live 10 and, somehow in the three years since that release, has been unable to follow it with any functioning product.
But you know what? At least when EA Sports realized it had a bomb on its hands, it had the guts to fall on it. To keep a waste of everyone's time off of shelves and—going back to the early summer—to refuse to actively, let alone aggressively, market a product with known deficiencies. Sega and Gearbox couldn't or wouldn't do any of that. To cancel or to publish, whatever the choice, at this late stage these two were bound to pay. The difference is in how long they will.
Stick Jockey is Kotaku's column on sports video games. It appears Sundays.