It’s frankly ridiculous how close some games are to finished when they are cancelled - or, conversely, how vaporous they can be when they’re first shown.
This post originally appeared on Kotaku UK, on April 21, 2015.
At trade shows, you see maybe 50 games in the space of 4 or 5 days, and a small proportion of them fade into the background and are never heard from again. Sometimes you see something at Gamescom or E3, forget about it for years, and then suddenly think “Hey, whatever happened to that?”
Over the decade I’ve been doing this job, I’ve seen plenty of total vapourware: games that never got anything more than an announcement and some bullshots and maybe a concept trailer, projects that never make it past the idea stage. But then, I’ve also seen quite a few actual, working games that just never happened, for one reason or another. The stories of their demise are often rather sad. Former Eurogamer editor Kristan Reed and I were discussing this over breakfast, as partners do, so he’s made himself useful and tossed in some recollections as well.
This was a weird one. At Gamescom in 2008, the developers of Stargate Worlds decided it would be a great idea to hire a huge purple hummer limo thing and show people the game on a tiny screen in the back, rather than, you know, on the convention floor. I now suspect they didn’t have the money to hire a booth. I was driven around Leipzig for twenty minutes whilst two large men from purpose-build developer Cheyenne Mountain Entertainment sat awkwardly opposite me, telling me about all the amazing things they were going to do with the Stargate license. I wanted to believe, even though it looked terrible! I bloody love Stargate and this game had supposedly been in development for three YEARS by this point. It never even made it into beta and apparently there were all sorts of lawsuits around the place when the developer and publisher went into receivership a couple of years later. There was justified speculation at the time that the head of CME was running a scam - though the developers in the back of that car, tragically, seemed to be really invested in what they thought they were making. -Keza MacDonald
I can’t recall ever being less impressed with a videogame, but a delusional Midway Games believed otherwise. In a classic example of mid-’00s excess, dozens of people were flown out to Vegas to see it, driven around in stretch limos and taken to a horrible nightclub at the top of a glitzy skyscraper. Such transparent tactics could never work, because the game was total shit. It was pitched as “glitzy, indulgent and outrageous...a believable simulated Vegas” with the “tone and style of a Will Ferrell movie” that was “all about materialism” where you “gamble, race, party and fight” in a place where squirting tits with a soda gun and punching guys ten feet up into the air with your Buzz Bomb special move is standard-issue. Sadly, it was less GTA: Swingers Edition, and more The Sims: Idiot Frat Party. Everybody laughed at it, rather than with it, and to the surprise of absolutely no-one, it never came out and took Midway Games with it. -Kristan Reed
I saw Prey 2 at E3 2011. I’ve just spent ten minutes searching for the preview I wrote of it at the time, but like the game itself, it appears to have fallen off the face of the earth. I have, however, still got the hand-written notes I took at the show. Some extracts: “these are not nice-looking aliens”, “Blade Runner alien noir”, “super seedy”, “jump over trains, climb whole city”, “lift assist harness to fly” (?). It looked like a grittier Mass Effect, an open-world, extremely violent game involving a lot of killing and fluid, parkour-like traversal. I was impressed. The subsequent saga of Prey 2 is a strange one, but at one point Human Head did have an interesting-looking, working game on their hands here. -Keza MacDonald
Irem’s Zettai Zetzumei Toshi games were released in Europe and America under various names: Disaster Report, Raw Danger, SOS: The Final Escape. They were RPG-survival hybrids that cast you as a normal bystander in a huge city-wide disaster like a flood, earthquake, or tsunami. They were shonky, but interesting, like so many of Irem’s endearingly characterful PS2 and PS3 games. Zettai Zetsumei Toshi 4: Summer Memories was shown at Tokyo Game Show in 2010. It was set in a facsimile of Tokyo; you could enter collapsed buildings to help survivors. The fear of natural disaster is a spectre that looms large in Japan, but unfortunately, on March 11th 2011, Japan was faced with a real-life natural catastrophe in the form of the Touhoku earthquake that devastated parts of northern Japan. The game was cancelled three days later, despite being mere weeks away from its mooted release date, and developer Irem ceased game development entirely that April. -Keza MacDonald
Blizzard is now well-known for holding games back for years, but back in the Spring of 2003, no-one suspected that Starcraft: Ghost would end up being tossed on the vapourware pile. Blizzard was super-confident about it, and organised a screening at the Mayfair Curzon cinema, complete with velour seats and popcorn at 10AM. Unlike most games that languished in development purgatory, Ghost was actually pretty good, and then-Vice President Bill Roper talked a good fight (though, tellingly, left Blizzard shortly after this presentation). Shown off on Xbox for about an hour, I saw three distinct levels of this stealth-based action adventure, with a character called ‘Nova’ blessed with advanced skills in the art of espionage and tactical combat (and troublingly well-modelled bum cheeks). It was supposedly just six months away from completion, and looked like a solid contender and certainly a lot better than many of the games released that year. Presumably finishing up World Of Warcraft became the bigger priority… -Kristan Reed
It’s pretty rare that a game studio show you anything before it really nails the vision of what you’re going to see, but at E3 2006, LucasArts was unusually candid. Shown off behind closed doors, Indiana Jones really was just a tech demo, but a bloody impressive one. It had ‘next gen blockbuster’ written all over it, with NaturalMotion’s Euphoria engine able to handle the kind of unscripted physics techniques that brought the various fisticuff sequences to life. I saw Indy slugging it out in a Chinatown back alley, disarming a gun-toting thug and then yanking him onto the floor by pulling his leg out from underneath him. I also saw a chaotic battle on the roof of a moving tram, and was told to expect thrilling chase sequences that remain true to the spirit of motorcade in Raiders of the Lost Ark, the mine-cart scene in The Temple of Doom, and the free-for-all aboard the tank in The Last Crusade. It was to be set in 1939 (one year after the events of the Last Crusade) and was a “mystery of biblical proportions” spanning the globe. George Lucas was even said to be involved in overseeing the writing. So what on earth happened? I guess we’ll never know, now. -Kristan Reed