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Area 51's Lead Designer Admits Project Was 'F'd Up' 93

Posted by Zonk
from the startling-honesty dept.
Wired has up an interview with Blacksite: Area 51's lead designer Harvey Smith. Smith is well known for his work on great games like Deus Ex and System Shock, but his latest title is getting a lot of negative press. In the interview, Smith as much as admits the team failed in their quest to make a great game. "'We got hammered so hard [by reviewers], and we deserved it ... Everyone was forced to share tech. It took eight months to get one thing working.' He wouldn't specify what that one thing was, but did note that technical problems set the team back, time and time again. Another of Smith's complaints was 'the fact that we had four days to Orange Box something,' meaning to fix and polish a level. Smith called this 'completely reprehensible.'" Kind of shocking to see this kind of honesty from the games industry.
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Area 51's Lead Designer Admits Project Was 'F'd Up'

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  • by johannesg (664142) on Thursday November 29, 2007 @04:05PM (#21522913)
    He was lead on Deus Ex 2, if memory serves. Even during development Warren Spector was distancing himself from the lead role, giving Harvey Smith all the 'credit' - or so we assumed at the time. Then the game came out, and well, you know the rest...
    • by ImperfectTommy (137724) on Thursday November 29, 2007 @04:35PM (#21523361)
      The success or failure of a game can not be attributed to one person. Studios like to play up known names to sell their games, but the reality is, large productions are pulled in many different directions due to the differing interests of the developers, publishers and distributors. Sometimes the product development team can balance those needs and sometimes it can't, but there is no one person to blame. Regardless, it's a team effort. Also, I believe Harvey said "we," which is appropriate.
      • Re: (Score:2, Interesting)

        by Anonymous Coward
        I think you hugely underestimate the power of a good or bad leader. Simple indecision by the person at the top can be enough to destroy a project, and an enthusiastic, supportive leader can inspire their 'troops' to great things. I think the most notable present-day example of one person's leadership defining a company is Steve Jobs at Apple (yeah, I know Apple is not a game studio). Look where Apple was with and without him. His perfectionism, energy and vision infuses everything Apple does. Everybody ther
      • by Valdrax (32670) on Thursday November 29, 2007 @08:50PM (#21526755)
        The success or failure of a game can not be attributed to one person.

        A good manager alone can't guarantee success, but a bad one alone can guarantee failure.

        Not that I'm saying that's what happened in this case. I've watched a game during development and seen all its promise destroyed by a publisher's deadlines (Master of Orion 3), but I won't agree that it isn't ever possible to attribute the failure of a product to one person.
  • Nevada? (Score:1, Insightful)

    by firehawk2k (310855)
    I thought we were talking about the actual facility in Nevada...
    • Re:Nevada? (Score:4, Funny)

      by tyrantking31 (1115607) on Thursday November 29, 2007 @04:34PM (#21523353) Homepage
      Yeah, that'll happen. The key is to note the word followed by the colon, to the left of the headline. The headline in this case, "Games: Area 51's Lead Designer Admits Project Was 'F'd Up'". The key word here would be "Games". Happy reading.
    • yeah, what a rip! It so got my hopes up! Dammit. Who designed Area 51 anyway? We should find him and ask if the project was F'ed up lol
      • yeah, what a rip! It so got my hopes up! Dammit. Who designed Area 51 anyway? We should find him and ask if the project was F'ed up lol

        It was designed by an intellectual carrot...

    • by Hatta (162192)
      I thought they meant the Area 51 [wikipedia.org] arcade shooting game from back in the day.

      Speaking of which, does anyone know of a good USB light gun with linux support for MAME?
  • technical problems set the team back, time and time again
    Technical problems can usually be traced back to poor hiring decisions. Do you think the industry is ever going to learn that it is worth it to pay more for better developers?
    • Re: (Score:2, Funny)

      by Dancindan84 (1056246)
      You should tell them. I hear they have a call center in India you can make suggestions to.
    • Or lousy timelines... If you're perpetually behind schedule you're always hurrying. Nothing gets done right. He said they went straight from alpha to final product. Even if your team is amazing you're still going to end up with a half-assed product if you release it before it's ready to go.
      Games are already quite expensive and most devs get paid pretty well. Management just needs to learn that play testing and honing can make the difference between a game that gets 6/10 and a game that gets 9/10. Stop rus
      • by dan828 (753380)
        Seriously. They should take a note from 3drealms, whose shooter "Duke Nukem Forever" is going to be the most amazing FPS ever!
        • They would have released it earlier but they knew that it was such a great game it would destroy society by causing everyone to stay at home and play it. They did the right thing and pretended it was still in works.
        • by PhearoX (1187921)
          Yeah! I can't wait for Team Fortress 2 to come out! I saw some screenshots back in 1999 and they look pretty incredible.

          Errr Orange Box? WTF is Orange Box? ;)
      • by absoluteflatness (913952) <absoluteflatness@ g m a i l . c om> on Thursday November 29, 2007 @07:49PM (#21526073)
        On a related note, game websites really need to stop grading on an "out of 10" or 100 scale. It seems to remind reviewers of standard grading scales, where everything below 60% is failing, and so every review site and magazine seems to live within the 6 to 10 range of the scale. If you really thought a game sucked, was derivative, had bugs, etc., slap that sucker with a 2. Movie reviewers and their 5 or 4-star system don't seem to have a problem with throwing out zeroes and ones when appropriate.

        The impetus for this complaint is that the linked Metacritic site to illustrate how the game's been getting "hammered by reviewers" shows a 65, or "Mixed or average reviews." This only seems to fly as "getting hammered" in a world where the scale is hoplessly skewed. It's like the media-stereotype "Asian parent" grading scale: anything below an A is an abject failure.
        • by ssfsx17 (1192943)

          It's like the media-stereotype "Asian parent" grading scale: anything below an A is an abject failure.
          Off-topic: Many asian parents actually fulfill that stereotype... much to the detriment of the mental health of their children. Luckily for me, I went to school with mostly non-asians and thus made it out alive. No such luck for the self-segregated communities who take over the local schools.
        • Just an FYI: Ars Technica [arstechnica.com] has done exactly that with all of its reviews. No more numbers. (I believe they got some ridicule for assigning an infamous "7" to most reviews) I think it's definitely a move for the better.

          That being said, I've seen several people bitch about the lack of a rating number on the forums. So you can't please everyone...


          --LordPixie
        • by kalirion (728907)
          I never noticed that problem with PCGamer. At the front of the reviews section they remind what the scale really is (50 = Merely OK, 60 = Above Average, 70 = Good, etc). Thing is, "Above Average" really is failing when you consider how many better games are available. It may not be a bad game, but if there are dozens of better games out there in the same genre, few people will get it.
    • Technical problems can usually be traced back to poor hiring decisions. Do you think the industry is ever going to learn that it is worth it to pay more for better developers?

      F*ck-ups come in many forms. While developers can be to blame, so are architects, team leads and management. I have worked for a company where there was no process, or the process was that bad, development was done on production machines and developers were given bad information. I tried to improve things, but sometimes some companies
      • I have worked for a company where there was no process, or the process was that bad, development was done on production machines and developers were given bad information.
        The pretty much sums up my workplace...
    • by spocksbrain (1097145) on Thursday November 29, 2007 @04:29PM (#21523271)
      What?!? You mean all those kids with a degree in 'Game Design' from Devry University really didn't know what they were doing?

      "I think this guy should move over this way..."

      "Whoa, dude. We should like, totally use that sound effect from the last level..."

      "You mean this one?" *bleeerp*

      "Yeah, man!" (high fives)
      • by corky842 (728932)
        Don't forget to tighten up the graphics on level three!
      • by brkello (642429)
        I wince every time I see that commercial. I figured it was made by people who want to scare kids away from making games.
      • There's a place for those proverbial Devry grads:

        Entry level grunt coders and junior level designers. Implementers, not lead innovators.

        Fresh game design grads should be implementing someone else's innovations until the cream of that junior designer crop rises and their idea actually bears fruit and does not just stink like fertilizer the likes of which cannot be abided(sp?).
        • No, the place for 'game design' grads is more likely to be the shoe department in Target.

          The people who design quality games are experienced codemonkeys who work extremely long, hard hours. Not some doe-eyed frat boy who thinks big explosions would be neat-o. I suggest people read the biography on Carmack and Romero. Carmack spent hour after miserable hour doing nothing but write code for months to get out each doom and quake engine. Romero, however, was the poster child of the "gaming game-designer", he di
          • by Travoltus (110240)

            No, the place for 'game design' grads is more likely to be the shoe department in Target.

            *rolls eyes* This sort of hackneyed elitism is boring.

            The people who design quality games are experienced codemonkeys who work extremely long, hard hours. Not some doe-eyed frat boy who thinks big explosions would be neat-o. I suggest people read the biography on Carmack and Romero. Carmack spent hour after miserable hour doing nothing but write code for months to get out each doom and quake engine. Romero, however, was

    • We were all beginners once. Don't tell me you cam straight out of college a master coder. Even a team full of top coders will need a backup of greenbacks because once the top coders salaries are paid there's not much else in the pot.
  • Politics + Games = ? (Score:4, Interesting)

    by JCSoRocks (1142053) on Thursday November 29, 2007 @04:19PM (#21523119)
    It's cool that he's accepting responsibility for some of the ugliness... but you have to wonder about the whole politics in games thing. People are playing games for entertainment, for fun. They don't necessarily want to get a lesson from you about politics. I understand that there's a fine line between making your game an interactive version of something like "An Inconvenient Truth" and making a game with political undertones. But you can't produce something meant specifically for entertainment and then balk when people don't "get it". I'm not sure if I'd want to play a game full of any kind of message - whether I agreed with it or not. That's just not why I'm playing. Do any of you guys play games looking for secret moral / political messages?
    • It's all well and good to say "I believe in personal accountability." but if you'll note, other than that one phrase there isn't a single quote in the entire article where he actually takes responsibility. Each and every one of them is phrased in such a way as to imply that these events were forced upon the team, and by someone other than him. Only the government does a better job at this special brand of "personal accountability."
      • by random256 (676708) on Thursday November 29, 2007 @04:37PM (#21523387)
        And yet, he really should be taking full responsibility for this mess. Read http://www.gamasutra.com/view/feature/1552/the_subversion_game_an_interview_.php [gamasutra.com] for an eye opener into how this guy thinks. It was also published in Game Developer mag a few months before. Especially pay attention to the things he starts saying about game development around page 3, and the fact that he mentions Deus Ex every other sentence or so in an article about his new game, and tries to railroad around actually talking about his new game. Never have I seen a game designer with his head stuck so far up his own ass.
        • Re: (Score:1, Funny)

          by Anonymous Coward
          I'll see your Gamasutra article (by reading it) and raise you one Derek Smart. I'm pretty sure you should fold though:)
          • by random256 (676708)
            Speak not the devil's name, lest he appear!

            And crap, you're right, you win. I remember the old usenet flamewars with him.

            But this guy is a close runner up in my opinion, and every bit as whiny as this press release shows. I can only imagine how bad Smart would be nowadays with all the press every hack game designer gets if they open their mouths now.
        • Reading the interview is like listening to a character out of Idiocracy.
    • by Jartan (219704)
      Whoa there buddy. You sound like you might be talking about what most creative types call "art". Don't you know art is a "Good Thing(TM)"? The political/moral message from these artists, who are all philosophers and statesmen of great skill no doubt, will make you "think about things". Thinking about things that artists want you to think about is all the entertainment you need!
    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      by Rico_Suave (147634)
      Good point. I think people, regardless of their views on the current situation, are sick of having their entertainment littered with anti-Iraq war propaganda at every turn. (note the terrible box office receipts for Lions for Lambs, Rendition, The Kingdom, etc.) We get enough of it on the news; we don't need it in our entertainment media, and particularly not video games. Most people see video games, movies, etc. as a means of escape - not an excuse to get preached at by individuals whose opinions we co
      • If you had that much of a problem with the recent movies I'm sure you'll love the fact that in the upcoming "GI Joe" Movie they aren't "Real American Heroes" but instead work for the UN.
      • by mqduck (232646)

        but is there *anyone* that doesn't already have their opinion firmly in place about the Iraq War?
        Yep, those on the supporting side. They may have HAD it firmly in place, but feelings on that side aren't so strong these days, especially compared to the opposing side (though "opposing" tends to mean something like "get out eventually", especially if you listen to the Democrats).
        • Perhaps, but do you really think a mediocre FPS is going to be instrumental in changing someone's opinion? Like when someone has a snarky political bumper sticker on the back of their car... it doesn't make me go "hmmm, maybe the next administration *will* be the end of an error?" - all it accomplishes is to irritate people who disagree with it. (which may be the point, but that's another discussion altogether)

          Point is, there's a time and place for that kind of stuff, but it's probably not in videogames,
    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      by Vthornheart (745224)
      I wouldn't be a fan of a game that's trying to give a *secret* moral/political message (as in some kind of brainwashing technique/subliminal message).
      However, like a good novel, a video game sometimes has something important to say. If they've woven it artfully into the plotline (i.e. not hammered it into place or constructed a poor plotline around the idea), I find the game to be even more entertaining than when it's purely "for fun".
      For instance, in the book world I loved the message from "Speaker of
    • No, because even games with awesome stories and plots with really overt political overtones make super shitty sources of brain food. If you really care about games, who cares about the plot?

      This is an industry which requires a certain buy in to the concept of, "Our enemies must be killed, but only if you're having fun doing it."

      Call me when a game puts you in the shoes of a poor arabic boy who kills the shit out of those Americans. A game possibly critical of western civilization? It won't sell, and not bec
  • I hope this serves as a lesson to any other company working on a first person shooter (it really won't) the market's so bloody diluted with FPS's now if they can't knock it out of the park, there's no point in trying.
  • So now Orange Box is industry slang for obsessively polishing a game? Go valve.
    • So that means George Lucas will do an "Orange Box" of Star Wars?
    • Our good friends at Wikipedia [wikipedia.org] claim, or at least did when I pasted it:

      Alternatively, in software engineering an orange box is any mechanism that record the sequence of events leading to a crash.

      So Orange Box here doesn't refer to Valve; who knows? Maybe that's why Valve called it the "Orange Box" (along with the "Black Box"): it reifies their next phase of data mining; every "Orange Box" continuously records gameplay data for analysis back at HQ. In a software engineering sense, every "Orange Box" is an or

  • Seriously? (Score:5, Insightful)

    by nbannerman (974715) on Thursday November 29, 2007 @04:28PM (#21523259)
    Kind of shocking to see this kind of honesty from the games industry.

    Really, Zonk? Nothing in this article surprises me at all. I think any project, in any industry, can suffer from the problems described... Complaining about it afterwards doesn't help though.

    The Project Lead needs to stand up sometimes and say 'No, this isn't working, we need to stop and re-assess the situation'. It is entirely possible to deal with these problems - a decent Project Lead would do exactly that imho.
    • Yeah, this statement doesn't strike me as anything too new, personally. Hell, as a developer I find myself often with lower opinions of games than the general public I meet who's played them.

      The Project Lead needs to stand up sometimes and say 'No, this isn't working, we need to stop and re-assess the situation'. It is entirely possible to deal with these problems - a decent Project Lead would do exactly that imho.

      For the celebrity developers who get to release the game "when it's done", yes, this is an o

    • Speaking as a Project Lead in a non-games industry job, you can damn well do that. Then you get told by your boss that there's no time to re-assess, and to just keep going. You can make the attempt, and probably should, but in my experience, and watching other project leads deal with this, you are often SOL, and your only choices are to try to keep juggling the shit and make it slightly less shitty, or quit.
      • by Tim C (15259)
        Been there, done that, at least in the small scale. On my last project I got sick and tired of telling the project manager that we needed designer time for stuff only to be told that there was "no budget left for it". So it added to my work load, took me longer, didn't get done properly, got raised as a bug by the customer, and we had to fix it anyway.

        I guess that comes out of a different column on the spreadsheet though, so that's all right.
    • Check this out... (Score:4, Interesting)

      by ludomancer (921940) on Thursday November 29, 2007 @08:31PM (#21526555)
      I have been in the game industry for 15 years. It's a big mess. Four days to polish a product?

      On majority of the projects in my career, from Sony to Activision, and many smaller studios in between, four days of polish time was and continues to be about as likely as the company buying every employee a new house for all their hard work.

      This is the norm for us, folks. We usually ship our games out around an alpha stage, every single time. The people who have the money in this industry and who make the overall decisions have the sole goal of making money. Polish, Gameplay, and anything else that would result in a quality product are pushed to the back as long as other elements of the equasion, such as marketting and brand recognition, can be used to hide it.

      As well as being a developer I am also a gamer, having grown up with the industry since it's infancy, and I hate the situation the medium is currently in. Right now we're most likely witnessing the turning point for interactive media. As it grows and becomes adopted as the new popular media of choice, it also becomes more and more diluted to appeal to the wider audiences, and what were essentially going to be left with in 10 years is television all over again. Hundereds of games (channels) and nothing is on worth watching. :(

  • I had high hopes for this game and the TV ad made it look like an awesome game. I was ready to buy. But then I read one review and decided against it. Too bad, because the premise and story sounds awesome. Hopefully someone will do it right soon. I think there is still a huge audience out there looking for a game with this theme. With organic aliens so big, menacing, and mutating that you wet your pants. And a few advanced weapons so powerful that using them depletes your energy. It would be fun to have a f
  • by radarjd (931774) on Thursday November 29, 2007 @04:34PM (#21523341)

    He's also confused how so many could ignore, or not appreciate, the satire. After describing one scene in which the player fights back a horde of military veterans turned to monsters by the United States, all of them under a banner reading, "Veterans Memorial," Smith asked, "how can you look at all these elements and not think this is super fucking subversive?"

    The quote above strikes me as greatly amusing. Ham fisted satire is not exactly what I'd call subversive. This kind of statement seems like something an attention seeking high school student would come up with. It seems like something more subtle would also be more effective.

    • Obviously the dev team never got around to properly configuring Subversion [tigris.org].
    • by mqduck (232646)
      Yeah, I'm not even exactly sure what the metaphor is for, but I don't think even I'd support it - and I'm somewhere on the "those who fight in Iraq are war criminals" side.
  • For those of us that aren't in the game dev industry, what does it mean when he says "everybody was forced to share tech"?
    • by spectecjr (31235)
      For those of us that aren't in the game dev industry, what does it mean when he says "everybody was forced to share tech"?

      Sharing of common technology between studios. [gamespot.com] ... it's about halfway down.
  • Cue all the Nintendo and Blizzard references ("the game won't ship until it's ready to ship").

    See also: Starcraft II, Metroid Prime 3.

    • Cue all the Nintendo and Blizzard references ("the game won't ship until it's ready to ship").

      See also: Starcraft II, Metroid Prime 3.

      Even diablo ii. almost 8 years later I picked up a third copy (lost 2 others) last week. Still fun. And it likely has as much to do with blizzard proper as it does with blizzard north as hellsagate wasn't as much fun. The developers of hellsgate are almost the same as the core team for D ii. I think the extra things Blizzard demanded of them made D ii a much more enduring game.

      • And it likely has as much to do with blizzard proper as it does with blizzard north as hellsagate wasn't as much fun. The developers of hellsgate are almost the same as the core team for D ii. I think the extra things Blizzard demanded of them made D ii a much more enduring game.

        Keep in mind that the core team is only a fraction of the entire team. For each person whose name you know there were many others who made significant contributions. My understanding is that one of the things that makes Blizzard
  • There are a few developers that I support whole-heartedly and will buy anything from them sight unseen. Carmack. Miyamoto. Spector. Wright. Meier. Even though they have the occasional flub, they more than make up for it in the quality of their work.

    Then there are some developers, who once made a name for themselves but have completely destroyed any credibility they once had and I will NEVER buy another of their games again. Harvey Smith, demonstrating his complete and utter incompetence in developing DX:
  • I've been trying to enjoy this game on the PC but it's tough. It's a bad console port. The first thing that hits you is the highly overdone motion blur of the unreal 3 engine. There is no option to disable it or turn it down. When you move your crosshair the whole screen blurs out, worse than I've seen in any game. The last time I played I was given a vehicle to drive and was shocked and dismayed to find that the only way to drive it was mouse control. I don't mind the political messages hidden within
    • Agreed, the overuse of motion blur and colour corection make it look like the game's running on a 1st generation, budget lcd tv. Runs like an absolute dog as well. Shame they didn't get to put in the time and optimization that CoD 4 obviously got, because that looks amazing, runs much smoother and it's gameplay pisses all over Blacksite.
  • FTA:

    He's also confused how so many could ignore, or not appreciate, the satire. After describing one scene in which the player fights back a horde of military veterans turned to monsters by the United States, all of them under a banner reading, "Veterans Memorial," Smith asked, "how can you look at all these elements and not think this is super fucking subversive?"

    Because boring, oft-repeated, obvious plots are not subversive? Unless you think Universal Soldier was a shining example of subversion? Taking s

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