What’s up, Doc? The way the greatest games
Game design is an art, not a science. It’s haphazard, with forking paths that take developers down dead ends, that for indies is a day’s lost work and beans for dinner, for an AAA studio can mean months, millions of dollars, and a hundred lay-offs at project’s end. Very few games look the same from start to finish.
And the stage at which everything is most fluid is that initial pitch. It’s amazing how many of our favourite games changed completely in their first few months. I’ve collected together a few of my old interviews and dug up design documents to look at a few of the biggest games that could have been completely different.
I’m indebted in this article to PC Gamer, for whom I did several of the interviews quoted here, to Joe Martin, who has analysed many of the older design documents together in his Deleted Scenes blog series, and to Game Pitches.com, who’ve collected many of them. You should go and listen to his award-winning podcast, Unlimited Hyperbole. (The award-winning bit might be hyperbole on my part.)
Command & Conquer = Warcraft
Westwood released the first modern RTS, Dune II, in 1992. The follow-up, 1995’s Command & Conquer, has since been established as the father of realtime strategy, starting a series that continues to the modern day. But when I interviewed one of the designers, Joe Bostic, back in 2012, he revealed it was due to have a very different bent from the final high camp science fiction game.
“The original pitch I proposed for C&C was for a fantasy-based world,” said Bostic, “where there were three factions – the humans with traditional medieval technology, the wizards with magic, and the monster faction with access to dragons and other extraordinary fantasy beasts… We went with contemporary military style with near future technology because of the first Gulf war which was in the news at the time. It was felt that familiar military would be more approachable to a wider audience than fantasy would. At the time, fantasy was dominated by Dungeons & Dragons and it was believed didn’t have a wide enough market appeal. We didn’t want to be constrained by contemporary technology and the idea of a parallel timeline allowed us freedom to create.”
His colleague Joseph. B Hewitt IV remembered it slightly differently. “Believe it or not, the original proposal was a fantasy based game where you have the human race, the undead race and this insectoid race which probably sounds very familiar if you’ve played Warcraft or Starcraft. Tiberium was actually going to be Manna that rained out of the sky.” All that carried over to the final game was the asymmetry of the sides. “We definitely wanted to incorporate that idea that the sides aren’t equal. It’s much easier to develop any video game, even if you’re doing a first person shooter, where the two factions are equal. The mazes are mirrors so that no one really has an advantage. But you really want to do something different so the two sides, they have their own unique feel, play style, abilities. It’s just much more difficult but Brett (Sperry, Westwood’s founder) was very adamant that we would do that.”
Grand Theft Auto = Elite
Before GTA went 3D, it was a highly-enjoyable and chaotic top-down anarchy simulator, which really was mostly about stealing cars. As you can see from the documents collected by one of its designers, Mike Dailly, the game was originally called Race n Chase, and was intended to be ‘Elite in a city’, according to DMA design director Gary Penn , with a lot of influence from Syndicate and Mercenary. It was intended for release on the Ultra 64 and Sega Saturn.
Outcast = Boiling Point
Outcast (not the band) is the 57th best PC game of all time. You controlled the protagonist, a former US Navy Seal Cutter Slade, as he explored the alien open world of Adelpha, using only the mouse. Your task was to find out who’d created the black hole threatening Earth and how to remove it.
“We had this idea for a 3D game set in a fictional South American country,” Outcast’s Art Director Franck Sauer told Joe Martin, “[Players] would infiltrate a drug cartel in first person to free abducted tourists from a local drug baron.”
Even Cutter himself wasn’t the first choice of hero. “”In the early version, Outcast featured a hero called Stan Blaskowitz, who had a bird-like helmet,” Sauer told Martin. “Eventually [Infogrames] decided the design was too odd and a new version was produced… their marketing department came up with the name Cutter Slade for the new main character.”
Shogun: Total War = Enslaved: Odyssey to the West
Everyone assumes that Shogun: Total War was copied off the very similar Shogun board game. Yet as Creative Assembly’s Mike Simpson told me, it was actually originally a cheap 2D C&C clone – and before that, it was meant to be a retelling of the Monkey God Chinese story, called Journey to the West:
Simpson said; “Originally, we were going to do a role-playing game based on Monkey, the TV series, in Singapore, as there were huge government tax breaks. But they turned out to not be quite as attractive as they looked on paper, so we stayed where we were and ended up not doing Monkey at all but ended up doing Shogun.”
“The main reason for that was that Command & Conquer had spawned a whole bunch of clones while we were working on our RPG, like Kill, Crush and Destroy, which sold really well. We looked at that and thought that’s so easy to write, we can really do that. So we set off with the intention of making a B-grade C&C clone.”
“As time went on, firstly the 3DFX card came out, which made 3D graphics possible on a PC in anything other than straight lines. Maybe instead of a traditional RTS top-down view, we can have a spline-based landscape, put the camera lower down and surprisingly that would work. It wasn’t designed to be Shogun right from the start; it kind of evolved into it.”
Half-Life 2 = Cryostasis
Half-Life 2 felt like a revelation at the time. A slick hi-tech ride into a dystopian future, full of smart monsters and only-slightly dumber allies. It was only dragged down by that dull-as-ditchwater hovercraft sequence. Yet a large chunk of content was cut from the game, including the water- monster and the entire sequence shown off at E3. Oh, and a huge boat, the Borealis, which was supposed to open the game, but ended up getting dropped completely. The drydock for the Borealis, bizarrely, cropped up in Portal 2 many years later, without the boat. You can explore it though, thanks to the Missing Information Mod , though that’s not all that much to see, save a lot of zombies.
Finally, sadly, Robin Williams was meant to voice the Vortigaunts, as Valve’s Marc Laidlaw told me the other day:
Bioshock: The Island of Dr Moreau
Continuing the theme started in System Shock 2 with the many, the original pitch for Bioshock had you taking the role of Carlos Cuello, a down and out ‘cult deprogrammer’ in the present day. You would be tasked with sneaking into infiltrate a religious cult to rescue a rich heiress.
The pitch document reveals what the game would have been is very different from what we knew. “BioShock is a modern day nightmare of the terrifying nexus between religious fanaticism and unbounded science. The player must come to grips with the remnants of a dangerous cult and the technological and biological horrors they’ve created in their giant underground and undersea complex that lies beneath the sands of a seemingly deserted island.”
Thief = Call of Duty: Black Ops II: Zombies
Thief’s remake may have left the hardcore public colder than an ice arrow in a fridge, but not as cold as the original design for the game would have. According to Marc LeBlanc, Thief’s principal programmer, it was originally intended to be an over-the-top zombie game set in the Cold War called ‘Better Red than Undead’. Ken Levine’s concept for it had you as an a US agent wiping out the zombies that had taken over Russia.
LeBlanc told Joe Martin: “The premise [of Red] was that zombies were basically immune to bullets, so you had to hack them up with swords, [but] the executive team decided Red was too quirky an idea. They had no idea how to market it and they wanted something where the sword-fighting made more intrinsic sense, rather than a fictional contrivance.”
From this sword-fighting beginning, the game evolved into Dark Camelot, a dystopian world where King Arthur was a tyrant and Merlin a psychopath. Yet this also fell by the wayside, mainly existing as a series of tech demos, because (as Thief illustrates) swordfighting wasn’t much fun.
Planescape Torment = Last Rites
Yes, even the most wonderfully overwritten game yet to be made had a genesis. The Planetscape Torment design document doesn’t differ that much from the game, save in a few regards. The main difference is the characters. Dak’kon, Annah, and Fall-From-Grace are unrecognisable. “The githzerai in your party will foam at the mouth and go berserk on the mind flayer as soon as he sees him, your cowardly thief may skip the scene as soon as first blood is drawn, the fickle traitoress in your party may wait till you are at 25% hit points and everybody else has fallen unconscious before stabbing you in the back.”
Even Morte, your companionable floating skull, has a few changes. “…he comes armed with a selection of over a hundred insults he can spout off at any time (as the player enters new stages of the game, the insult menu grows with each new location).” And the design doc is worth reading for proto-Morte’s endless snide asides. “The best part about Ultima 7 was that you’re guys were always hungry. There’s nothing like spoon- feeding your companions to make you feel like a hero. Hellloooo fun!”
Indeed, the entire document is worth a read for lovers of the game. “Explore Sigil,” it says, “a city of magic and industry, barnacled within the polluted interior of a hollow doughnut where the mightiest angels and the worst horrors vomited from the Pit will invite you to tender your views on how mortality affects the physical and emotional relations between the sexes.”
Deus Ex = Tom Clancy’s X-Files
This is entirely Joe Martin’s work, as he managed to persuade Warren Spector to part with the design document for Deus Ex, then known as Majestic Revelations, mixing “near future science fiction with elements of conspiracy theory and X-Files weirdness.”
The plot, or at least the enemy’s plots, were considerably different too. Majestic 12’s plot shifted from “get the Mexicans to invade Texas and kill the US government” that somehow involved space stations to the much simpler “take over the internet” which ended up in the game.
Doom = Left4Dead
The historical Doom, the Doom of fast, flow-state bloodshed and giant weapons, is mostly John Carmack’s and John Romero’s, if we can ever ascribe games to individuals rather than teams. But the original Doom, as conceived by Tom Hall, was a much richer game. Whilst the rest of the id team were finishing up Spear of Destiny, Hall was working on the Doom Bible, their design document for their next game. It was a story-driven co-op game, where a team of heroes battle their way to hell and back. As the press release in the design doc says, “The game takes up to four players through a futuristic world, where they may cooperate or compete to beat the invading creatures.”
To be honest, this game differs more from Doom than it’s similar. By Episode Four, the team is in jail for destroying a planet. But much of id’s future games is there – the cyber-demon, the trip to hell, the level names, the BFG, even the trick for killing the General Demon that sounds suspiciously like how you kill Shub Niggurath in Quake. Even the plot of Doom II is included. But where this design includes justifications for all its objects and plot elements… Doom didn’t. Whisper it, quietly; despite its ambition, despite Carmack’s unique engine, despite Romero’s superlative-defying level design, this may have been a better game than Doom ever was.