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The Top Ten Most Heartbreaking Moments in Gaming History May 8, 2015

Posted by Maniac in Editorials.
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10. The Slow, Downward Spiral of Interplay

Anyone remember Interplay?  Back in the late 90s and early 2000s, I remember this company made some decent games with the Star Trek license, including titles like Starfleet Academy, which brought back George Takei, Walter Koening and The Shatner.  However, Interplay did a lot more than just make Star Trek games. I’m sure many of you will remember them for their contribution to the gaming zeitgeist in the form of the Fallout series, the first two of which are still considered some of the best early PC-RPGs.  As time went on, these guys continued to make a lot of games which stood out to me.  Messiah tried to add a new spin on the third person shooter genre.  Giants: Citizen Kabuto brought humor to what would have otherwise been a run of the mill shooter, and introduced the world to Planet Moon Studios.  Run like Hell had Bawls.  Well, the good times were not to last for Interplay and funding started to dwindle for them while working on their next Fallout title, forcing them to eventually sell the Fallout IP to Bethesda.  Bethesda would go on to make Fallout 3, a game which turned them into an overnight sensation.  This really did not help Interplay’s bottom line, as the rights to Fallout would eventually become completely absorbed by Bethesda.

I know that at one point Interplay was working on an MMO based on the Fallout license, but Bethesda Studios claimed ownership of Fallout and put a stop to that.  I don’t know what Interplay is currently working on, but you can thankfully still buy their games through services like GOG.com, and they are still being supported.  They’re still around, and if you’re interested, they might be willing to let you make some games using one of the franchises they still own for the right price, but that’s about it.  I would love to see a new Run Like Hell game made, but it needs to keep its Bawls.

9. The Incomplete, Buggy Game Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic II: The Sith Lords

Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic was considered one of the greatest titles on the original Xbox and one of the best games of 2003. It showed critics that the Star Wars license could still deliver incredible entertainment experiences even after the utter critical failure of the prequel trilogy, and became a ray of light for Star Wars fans everywhere. The game’s developer, Bioware, had become too busy with other projects to make a sequel for the game, so the game’s publisher, Lucasarts, shifted development of its sequel to the lesser known RPG developer Obsidian and planned to release it within a year.  When Star Wars Knights of the Old Republic II: The Sith Lords was released the hopes for the Star Wars franchise were utterly dashed.  Players bought KOTOR II on the Xbox day one with the hope that the game would explain what happened to the original game’s characters in the time since the original game completed, but sadly no answers would ever come.  Star Wars Knights of the Old Republic II: The Sith Lords shipped with an almost entirely new cast of characters (with the exception of a few secondary characters from the previous game including one fan favorite), and players hoping for a continuation to the original game’s story never really find out what happened to Revan.  I personally remember playing the thirty hour game over the course of four days, and I could not have been more disappointed with the game’s ending.  It just seemed like the game resolved nothing, and that wasn’t good enough for fans who had paid $50 US for it.

When the PC version launched a few months later it was discovered to be a buggy, rushed mess and fans were furious.  The game was never fully fixed by its developers or publisher, but fans have been trying to fix it on their own for years, trying to resurrect whatever incomplete content they can that was cut during the game’s rushed development period.  Years later, Bioware created an MMO based on The Old Republic, essentially dashing my hopes for a third game.

8. The Cancellation of Star Wars 1313

I’ve got another Star Wars related disappointment for you.  Star Wars 1313 was shown privately at E3 in 2012, and it quickly became one of the most anticipated titles of the show.  When it was shown running on next-generation PC hardware, Star Wars 1313’s graphics made even the jaded gaming press drop their jaws.  You would play as a bounty hunter dealing in the seedy underworld of Courisant, an aspect of the Star Wars universe viewers only glimpsed at for brief moments during the prequel trilogy.  The game developers were also holding back a huge secret, the game was going to star one of the fans’ favorite characters, Boba Fett.  After having been burned by overhyped Star Wars games like The Force Unleashed in the years prior, and still stinging from the critical failure of the Prequel Trilogy, the gaming media had high hopes that Star Wars 1313 would restore the Star Wars license to its former glory.  The game was shown one year before the Xbox One and Playstation 4 were even announced, so Lucasarts could not say what their target platforms for the game would be, but gamers everywhere, regardless of platform, were heavily anticipating it.  However, when George Lucas sold his empire to Disney, Lucasarts became unnecessary in the eyes of their new corporate masters, and development ceased.  While many hope that EA could revive the game in the future, it is unlikely this game will ever see the light of day.

7. Panzer Dragoon Saga’s Limited Release

The Sega Saturn was failing and Sega was just about ready to jump ship.  The console was costing Sega too much to keep manufacturing, and plans were already underway to develop a new, more cost efficient gaming console which could launch before Sony could start manufacturing their successor to the Playstation, the Playstation 2.  The problem was developers were still making games for the Sega Saturn, and one game was on track for release just as Sega was going to pull the plug on the Saturn, Panzer Dragoon Saga.  This game was getting incredible reviews and it was on track to become a major system seller, but it could not have been released at a worse time.  Sega pulled the plug on the Saturn, and only manufactured a small initial run for copies of the game with no intention to do another run. Most of the game’s copies were sold to anyone who preordered it, and the game was never re-manufactured despite its praise from critics and players alike.  In the intervening years, the game’s development could be considered a bit of a business conundrum.  If it launched sooner it could have been a huge system seller for Sega, however, would it have been as good if development on it had rushed?  Could any one game really have saved the Saturn?  We really don’t know the answer to that question, but before Sega pulled the plug, there was a nearly perfect storm of bad news coming from the Saturn department.  Consumer confidence in the platform was at an all time low, and retailers didn’t want to stock it given its high price.  I think that after the failure of Sonic Xtreme’s development, Sega felt that the Saturn was too much of a money pit to keep financing it, and one huge game would not be enough to make it profitable again.  A shame really, Panzer Dragoon Saga’s now considered a cult classic, and its popularity alone should merit new ports on the current consoles.

6.  The Failure of the Dreamcast

I just told you a story about a Sega failure to…tell you another story about a Sega failure, the Dreamcast.  Most Sega fans would probably put this event at the top of their list for most disappointing moments in gaming but for me it deserved a place right in the middle of the list.  By all intents and purposes, the Dreamcast should have been a success.  Sega took careful note of all the failures they made during the Saturn era, and they fixed every single problem they had.  They also looked somewhat to the future, knowing that online play was taking off like crazy on the PC, and they included a modem with every Dreamcast with the option for players to upgrade their modem to a network card if they needed that instead.  The Dreamcast had so much going for it, great hardware, wonderful development tools, and one of the best launch lineups of games in video game history.  The advertising campaign behind it was epic, which you can tell because everyone to this day still remembers 09/09/99.  The Dreamcast’s first day sales alone rivaled any product’s launch of its day.  The system sold like crazy at launch, completely selling out on its first day at sale, and Sega just wasn’t prepared for it.

So why is the Dreamcast considered a failure?  The games were great, many of them are considered cult classics to this day.  The hardware was great to work with, and many developers liked making games for it.  It improved on the Saturn in every way but it still failed, and here’s why.  If Sega had made one mistake with the Dreamcast it was in betting on the wrong horse, or in this case, the wrong storage medium.  In the year 2000, the DVD format hit the wide consumer market hard and everyone needed to have it.  It made other formats like VHS completely obsolete (and rightfully so, VHS’s quality was horrible), and with tons of great films being released on the format, consumers were buying up anything and everything that could play DVDs.  Sony’s Playstation 2, which would release a year after the Dreamcast, would not only have an incredible list of highly anticipated exclusive titles for it, it would have the capability to play DVD movies…and launch at the same price point as the standalone DVD players of the time did.  When the PS2 launched the Dreamcast simply could not compete, and sales for the platform tumbled and never recovered.  If there’s any lesson that could be learned from this it is probably that you have to keep a close eye on your competition, and if you have anyone on staff that could faithfully predict the consumer market’s tastes well, listen to them.

5.  The Discontinuation of Xbox Live for the original Xbox

Microsoft released the original Xbox console in 2001 alongside one of the greatest games ever made, Halo: Combat Evolved.  The Xbox came out a year after the PS2 completely dominated the gaming market, but that extra year gave Microsoft the chance to make a lot of improvements so their console could compete against Sony.  Not only could the Xbox play DVD movies (as long as you bought a seperate remote), every Xbox shipped with a network card, making it capable of playing games through a LAN.  This capability turned what would otherwise have been a simple single player console FPS into one of the greatest multiplayer phenomena of all time.  However, the Xbox could not play games online, and home users would have to network multiple systems in their homes to take full advantage of the Xbox’s Network Play feature, dubbed “System Link”.  A year later, Microsoft remedied this problem and launched the Xbox Live service, which allowed Xbox owners to play specific Xbox multiplayer titles online for a fee of $50 US a year.  It was broadband only, but this would guarantee decent game speeds, options for downloadable content, and even offered players the chance to voice chat with their friends.  It took off.  Many could consider the launch of the Xbox Live service in 2002 one of the greatest moments in the history of gaming.  By the time Halo 2 launched in 2004, a game which took full advantage of all of Xbox Live’s capabilities, Xbox owners everywhere had a huge reason to sign up for the service and start paying.

When the Xbox 360 launched in 2005, Xbox Live was the centerpiece of the console, and now all 360 games would take advantage of it, enabling all Xbox 360 games the chance to be patched, and gave players the option for cross-game voice chat with their friends.  It was a great time to be a gamer, the 360 could play a lot of original Xbox games, including titles which used Xbox Live, and as long as the player continued to pay for the service, they could play online on both consoles.  In 2010, Microsoft decided that they just weren’t interested in their original Xbox owner’s money for some reason, and discontinued Xbox Live support for the original Xbox, essentially cutting off Xbox players from the multiplayer gaming service, and preventing players from patching original Xbox titles or redownloading any of the DLC they purchased.  To this day, five years later, I cannot think of a single benefit Microsoft has brought to their consumers that would have necessitated this decision.

4.  The Confusing Legal Status to No One Lives Forever

In the year 2000, 20th Century Fox actually had their own game publishing company, called Fox Interactive.  They initially published games which used their own internal franchises, releasing games like Aliens Vs Predator and The X-Files Game, but later moved on to releasing games made from entirely new IPs.  In 2000, Fox Interactive partnered with game developer Monolith to make some games Fox Interactive would publish which did not use any of their 20th Century Fox properties.  In that year, Fox Interactive released two games developed by Monolith, Sanity: Aiken’s Artifact and No One Lives Forever.  While nobody remembers Sanity, despite the fact it starred Ice-T, EVERYONE seems to fondly remember No One Lives Forever, and rightfully so.  The game put a new spin on the 60s spy genre, instead of creating a gritty world like a James Bond film, No One Lives Forever was a humorous game which had more in common with the Austin Powers movies.  By 2003, Fox Interactive sold out their company to Sierra, who was in the process of being absorbed by a conglomerate, Vivendi Universal.  Monolith went on to create a sequel to NOLF, No One Lives Forever 2: A Spy in H.A.R.M’s Way, under the Sierra banner in the early 2000s.  The sequel was a game which was, in my opinion, an improvement over the original in almost every way.  A standalone expansion called Contract J.A.C.K. was released shortly after, but it was more of a spin off.  While the game bridged the story between the first two NOLF titles, it was more of an action oriented FPS, with less of the gadgets or humor the franchise was known for and it would sadly end up becoming the final game to be released in the franchise.

After that this story starts to look like a bad series of notations.  Vivendi Universal would go on to be acquired by Activision, who would later merge with World of Warcraft developer Blizzard.  Somewhere along the way, after numerous buyouts, merges, and corporate takeovers, the rights to No One Lives Forever became lost.  Now when I say lost, I don’t mean the studios actually lost the rights, I mean they lost the piece of paper that said they legally had the rights!  WB Interactive, who now owns Monolith, the studio who created the franchise, has been feverishly sending their lawyers against anyone who has been interested in reviving it, even though they themselves do not even know if they have the legal standing to do so.  If any lesson could be learned by this jumbled mess it would be this:  Developers, don’t sell the rights to your IP to publishers, they cannot be trusted with them.  And whatever you do, don’t sell your company.

3.  The Closing of Troika Games

This was a studio who had a reputation for biting off more than they could chew, and it would be their downfall.  Troika Games was responsible for some of the most imaginative and yet grounded RPGs on the PC, but they had a poor habit of releasing these titles in a buggy or unstable state.  In 2004, the same year that Half-Life 2 was released on the PC, Troika released one of my favorite games of all time, Vampire The Masquerade: Bloodlines, which used the same graphics engine.  In the game, the player, a newly sired vampire, would have to survive in modern day Los Angeles.  Everything you thought bumped in the night was real, vampires, werewolves, ghosts, zombies, magic and lots more, but above all else you had to keep this a secret from normal people.  The game was quite imaginative, taking the rules from White Wolf’s World of Darkness pen and paper games.  However, developing an ambitious PC RPG on an incomplete graphics engine not originally designed for RPGs was a daunting task, and while Valve was able to eventually stabilize the Source Engine, Troika had to develop their game while that was going on.  Furthermore, delays in the release of Half-Life 2 put a delay on the game’s release, eventually forcing it to launch day and date with one of the greatest PC titles ever made.  Because of that, sales were not good and when the time came for Troika to start their next project, none of the publishers were interested and the studio unfortunately had to close, leaving Vampire: The Masquerade Bloodlines in a buggy, unfinished state.  Quite a shame, I really wanted to see another game from them.

2. The Closing of Ion Storm Dallas

I know there are going to be a lot of people online who do not consider Ion Storm’s closing to be a bad thing, but after playing the epic game Anachronox, released just before the studio was shut down, I have nothing but sympathy for its developers.  Ion Storm, founded by industry veterans John Romero, Tom Hall and Warren Specter, were a Texas based game studio with the philosophy that good game design was the most important thing about a game.  However, simply being able to design great games is just not enough of a skill to help you manage a multimillion dollar business.  The studio’s flagship title, Daikatana, underwent numerous delays, restarts, and controversies before it would finally get a critically disappointing release in mid-2000, three years after it was initially expected to get released.  The game was critically panned across the gaming media, and sales were poor.  Had Ion Storm Austin not released Deus Ex some time later, a game considered by many to be one of the best PC titles ever made, who knows if publisher Eidos would have even allowed Ion Storm to finish Tom Hall’s epic space PC-RPG, Anachronox? Ion Storm Dallas was forced to close by publisher Eidos after releasing Anachronox in 2002, leaving the game without post-release support and shuttering any chance for a sequel, even though Tom Hall planned for the game to get further titles released, and plenty of work on the game’s sequel was already completed.  Warren Spector’s Austin branch was allowed to continue making titles under Eidos’s watchful eye.

Ion Storm could have been considered a reality check for game publishers, as they discovered pouring unchecked amounts of money into studios helmed by famous developers would not guarantee a decent end product or even good sales.  Now that the suits at the top knew it, it signaled the end of a great time for game development, and studios would find themselves bowing to publisher pressure a lot more often.

1.  The Discontinuation of the Sin Episodes

This is the one that hurt me the most. In 2006, game developers were tired of being completely dependent on game publishers for financing, and they thought for sure they figured out an entirely new business model where they could release a game in sections, called Episodes.  Each episode would represent a small portion of a finished game and would not require a large investment of time to develop.  Once the first episode was released, developer Ritual wanted to use the profits from the sale of earlier episodes to fund new episodes, completely cutting out the need for publisher money.  Since 1998, Ritual had been planning to make a sequel to the cult classic PC game SiN for years, but publishers were not interested in funding the title unless Ritual was willing to give them the rights to the SiN IP.  Ritual had developed several missions for Counter Strike: Condition Zero, one of the first new games released on the STEAM platform, for Valve in 2003 and had just finished work on Star Trek: Elite Force 2 for Activision.  Previously former rivals, by 2004 Valve’s relationship with Ritual was good, and the businessmen at Ritual thought STEAM could be the perfect platform to release a new SiN title, especially since Valve was not interested in the SiN IP.  In fact, Valve was planning to develop expansion packs for Half-Life 2 after its release, and Ritual inspired them to release the Half-Life 2 expansions episodically.  Sin Episode 1 was released in 2006, and Half-Life 2 Episode 1 released shortly afterwards.

The episodes were good, but the pricing model just wasn’t.  Both Ritual and Valve sold their games at a price point of $19 US each, putting it at the price of value software.  Retailers who carried it immediately stuffed copies in the bargain bin, not treating either title as major releases.  The SiN Episodes sold enough to compensate the episode’s development, but didn’t sell enough to fund new episodes.  Ritual, sadly, would not survive and their studio was sold to Mumbojumbo, who had no interest in continuing support for the episodes in any way.  If it wasn’t for the incredible success of the episodic titles coming from developer Telltale Games, the only company able to make the episodic game model work at that time, developers would have written the episodic game model off entirely.  Why did Telltale survive when no one else did?  Because Telltale had the foresight to offer their customers the chance to preorder future episodes of a game at a heavily reduced price, an early version of what we now call a game’s Season Pass.  Neither Valve nor Ritual offered that option, and even though Valve would eventually release Half-Life 2 Episode 2, they released it at retail in a completion of new and previously released games called The Orange Box.  Quite sad, I really wanted to know what was going to happen.  What was the most upsetting thing about this failure?  Not only did it prove that a fantastic developer could not make it big simply delivering a heavily polished budget priced title, it nearly killed all hope in the episodic gaming formula and reminded triple-A developers they would have to continue pandering to the major publishers for the time being if they wanted any hope of continuing to make games.

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