Do you remember the sheer amazement and madness that rippled the gaming industry in 1997, when GoldenEye 007 was released on the Nintendo 64? A game that was not only ahead of its time in terms of graphics and gameplay, but allowed 4 mates to get together in one room and tear each other apart (virtually, of course).
I’m sure like myself, many of you have had magical moments on the 3-pronged joystick, courtesy of Pierce Brosnan’s pixellated twin.
Or do you prefer Perfect Dark – carrying forward the gameplay mechanics of GoldenEye, but now with multiplayer bots and such a huge array of game modes that it was pretty difficult for your friends to get bored for an entire day’s worth of play?
Both of these classic, genre-defining console first person shooters were developed by Rare (before, of course, they were taken over by Microsoft). Rare are a shadow of the hit-churning machines they were in the 80s and 90s, and much of this is down to the fact that most of the leading developers left the company in the late 90s.
A few of these leavers (notably one David Doak) formed the new company ‘Free Radical Design’ in 1999, and created the TimeSplitters series of games, which followed on from their previous works at Rare, and essentially became to the PS2 what GoldenEye and Perfect Dark were to the N64.
Indeed, TimeSplitters 2 is one of the highest rated games on the PS2, and rightly so. The game builds on Perfect Dark’s excellent multiplayer modes with a brilliantly funny and enjoyable 1 player mode, which takes you through different points in time.
A sequel to this (TimeSplitters: Future Perfect) was released 3 years later, and a next-gen sequel had been planned for the PS3. This brought out a lot of excitement from the gaming industry, as people were itching to see how they would harness the new technology and improve an already classic experience.
However, on 17th December 2008, it was announced that Free Radical design had gone into administration (this can be seen on the bottom of their website: www.frd.co.uk).
How did this happen?
It would be naive to think that the state of the global economy wasn’t a factor in Free Radical’s demise. Many reputable and well-established firms have been destroyed (Woolworths comes to mind in the UK) as a result of the lack of spending power available to consumers. This would obviously discourage publishers from investing in games that weren’t guaranteed to sell by the bucket load.
But game sales have stood strong over the holiday period. GAME, the leading games retailer in the UK, has reported a whopping 24.2% increase in revenue over 2008 from 2007. There has been strong and persistent demand for games (admittedly largely for Nintendo products) over recent years, and there are many reasons for this.
Not only are games more interactive and immersive than leisure substitutes such as movies, they are relatively good value for money. If the average game keeps you playing, say, for 20 hours (and many last a good deal longer than this – GoldenEye being an appropriate example) and the average game price is about £30, you’re paying £1.50 per hour for that entertainment. This is a bargain in relation to other forms of entertainment – for example, going to the cinema to watch a 2 hour film is likely to cost about £6, or double the amount per hour. It can also be argued that you get more enjoyment from a game in one hour than by watching half of a film, though this is somewhat subjective.
Going back to the original question, I believe the main reason for Free Radical’s demise is Haze.
Haze was an over-hyped, run-of-the-mill first person shooter in a sea of other average shooters. Actually, it was worse than average. 10 years ago, this may not have made much of a difference, but as first person shooters have slowly edged their way into being possibly the most abundant genre of game today, you cannot get away with making one that is sub-par.
The problem was that the concept was good – introduce a ‘drug’ called Nectar that gives you special abilities when you’re high, but hits you when the effect wears off. Free Radical then made the mistake of over promoting the game. This meant that the whole industry was eagerly watching and awaiting the game’s release.
The game’s release date was pushed back many times – which creates a problem. When release dates are pushed back dramatically, consumers get understandably frustrated – especially when a game has been hyped and promoted constantly for so long. They also expect something in return for the delay – improvements to the game, for example. The last thing you want to hear are negatives about the game, which happened when people found out that the game ran at a resolution of 576p (often called ‘extended-definition’) – unacceptable on today’s high-definition consoles capable of 720p and 1080p.
When the game finally was released to an overwhelmingly bad reception due to average graphics and worse than average gameplay and storylines, it had a huge impact on Free Radical. Being a small firm who don’t work on a lot of projects at once, they didn’t have much else to offset their losses.
Apart from the announced TimeSplitters 4, the only other project they had in the pipeline was Star Wars: Battlefront III, and they lost the contract to this recently.
This combined with the economic climate was probably the final straw in a chain of unfortunate events that led to the demise of Free Radical Design.
Although it is possible that Free Radical could yet live to fight another day, masterminds David Doak and Steve Ellis have already left to form Pumpkin Beach. Hopefully, they can make this into what Free Radical became after they left Rare, but this remains to be seen.
The question concerning myself and millions of gamers is: what will happen to TimeSplitters 4?
The game has already begun development, and it would cause huge disappointment if it never saw the light of day. If Free Radical cannot recover, it is possible that Pumpkin Beach could buy out the contract and produce it themselves. However, Ellis and Doak may decide to wash their hands of the legacy altogether and focus on something else. It is thus entirely possible that the game is never completed (or possibly worse, that EA buys it and makes it themselves).
I just hope that we see a familiar monkey on our shelves in the future: