The ones that got away

Everyone's familiar with Angry Birds, right? Finland's finest export and poster child for the app developer world. It's a great game that has defined a genre and enjoyed phenomenal commercial success to boot. Yes, those chaps at Rovio certainly knew what they were doing when they did that and, if they can do it, why can't I?

That's the public face of a fantastic success story and it continues to serve as an inspiration to a great many people, both jaded veteran and enthusiastic rookie alike. Of course, the bit that gets glossed over is the fact that Angry Birds wasn't their first title. Or second. No, those plucky guys had to dig through over 50 previous projects before they got one that went crazy.

At Bullfrog we got lucky early on - our Angry Birds moment happened with Populous. Again, a classic title that spawned an entire genre and a couple of sequels. But it wasn't the first original Bullfrog title at all - that distinction belongs to a little-known shooter-with-puzzles game called Fusion.

After we finally hit the headlines, we see an incredible list of hit games, almost all critically acclaimed. We could do no wrong and every game we made would be a Great Success.

Yeah, well that's just not true. We had plenty of success and a really talented pool of staff, but it's not as if we could just knock every game out of the park. In fact, sometimes we'd be unable to get to the park in the first place...

Behind the scenes

When projects fail to make it
Actually, it was a lot easier at the start. We'd pretty much make whatever we fancied making then hand it off to the powers that be to ensure that it got sold. Then again, the games were quicker and cheaper to produce, so they didn't have to shift that many units before they started making money. As team sizes increased and development resource requirements snowballed, things got trickier.

The pressure to make each game a success mounted and, occasionally, hard decisions had to be made. Some of these were internal whilst others would occasionally find themselves played out in the public eye. Either way, these events invariably ended up in bitter recriminations and usually more than a little ill feeling directed towards EA's marketing department.

As it happens, I've been fortunate to have worked at a great many studios on a great many titles. Thankfully, some of these have been released and some have even been successful. Unfortunately, I've also worked on my fair share of titles that haven't seen the light of day.

Of course, this post is not intended to go all Bill Hicks on things but instead to highlight some of the cool stuff that people have missed out on.

Biosphere, Amiga, Bullfrog

We're off to a bit of an odd start, I'll admit. Biosphere was never actually canned - it eventually came out as Gene Wars on the PC - but the game that was released was very different from the game that was originally made. It was the brainchild of my late, great friend Richard Reed who had this concept of a team of planetary engineers that would pick up contracts to terraform planets according to the whims of clients. You'd journey to these worlds and seed them with flora and fauna in an attempt to make a stable ecosystem to the client's liking. Gene Wars, by contrast, was just an RTS with a slight smattering of genetic manipulation thrown in. It was still pretty cool, but I feel there's plenty of stuff to explore with the original idea.
Back when screenshots had to be "printed" in "magazines"

Creation, PC, Bullfrog

Actually, throughout the history of Bullfrog, there have been many games that have carried this name, including Populous and Magic Carpet. The final incarnation, led by Guy Simmons, saw you exploring an undersea world (Paul McLaughlin always did have a thing for submarines...), filled with interesting fauna and trying to fight off a crazy fungus before it took over the world. The plug was pulled (sorry) because "underwater games don't sell".

Void Star, PC, Bullfrog

A 3D, RTS set in space that saw huge capital ships dancing around and tearing chunks out of each other. There were many races, each with their own ship designs and tactics. This was canned because "no-one wants an RTS in space". It was about a year or so before Homeworld was released.

Indestructibles, PC, Bullfrog

Born out of one of Peter's throwaway comments, Indestructibles was our take on MIST - My Incredible Superhero Team, a superhero game that saw you patrolling a city, fighting crime. Create your own hero and do battle with the criminal underclass. That went because "no-one wants to design their own hero and we can't get the Marvel license". What we'd come up with was the love-child of Crackdown and City of Heroes. The main guy - Captain Indestructible - was even immortalised in a small statuette, where he remains - keeping a watchful vigil over an apartment in Brighton.

Stunt Car Racer Pro, XBox, PS2, Lost Toys

It occurs to me that I haven't often talked about my time at Lost Toys, which is odd as it was a very good time indeed. Perhaps that's something for a later post. Sadly, Lost Toys didn't last and one of the main reasons was us being unable to get a publisher for Stunt Car Racer Pro - the proposed sequel to Geoff Crammond's classic. Sticking with the old Bullfrog methodology, we'd made a multiplayer racer on rollercoasters that was actually great fun to play and even included the man himself's input, but it's all for nowt if you can't source the funding.

George A Romero's City Of The Dead, PS2, Kuju

ZOMG! Zombies!
It was low budget and used the ageing Firewarrior engine, but this zombie FPS still had some corking details. Deformable zombies - you could blast limbs off until only the head remained and it would keep coming. Pump-action shotgun - right trigger fires, left trigger pumps. Very visceral. Fatal bites - once bitten, you would eventually turn into a zombie - something that was very interesting in multiplayer... Okay, this one wasn't canned either but the publisher went bust and there's not much you can do about that.

Paperwings, PSN, Weirdwood

The brainchild of Ben Carter - one of the best coders you could hope to work with, Paperwings was about gliding paper aircraft around a paper world. You'd explore, solve puzzles and reveal the world's secrets as you went. Then there was also some really clever and sneaky tech in there to ensure that the entire world was populated by other people doing exactly the same thing. It was designed around the Sixaxis' tilt controls and had a very chilled vibe to it. It was very early in the PSN's cycle and had a multitude of graphical overhauls that never fully satisfied Sony.

I haven't even touched on the multitude of projects that I was part of whilst working at Black Rock that didn't make it, but even this in-no-way-exhaustive list should give you a bit of insight into the trials and tribulations associated with trying to get a game to market.

That's why, if you've managed to come through that little lot and actually release something, I doff my cap to you.


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