The latest issue of Gamasutra sister publication Game Developer magazine includes a creator-written postmortem on the making of Secret Level's Golden Axe: Beast Rider, a modern reimagining of the arcade classic.
These extracts reveal how the San Francisco-based internal Sega studio behind the game kept itself together -- and even grew stronger -- despite myriad challenges, and an eventual product that was roundly panned by critics.
Secret Level producer Michael Boccieri crafted the postmortem of the Sega-published game, which was introduced in Game Developer as follows:
"In one of the most honest postmortems in recent memory, Secret Level producer Michael Bocciere takes us through the troubled development of a $15 million game with an aggregate review rating of under 50 percent. Boccieri explains how the studio ultimately turned this frown upside-down, strengthening the team along the way."
Losing Focus On The Property's Core
As is frequently the case in game development, the original design spec for Beast Rider was much more ambitious than was reflected in the shipping game -- and along the road of paring the game down to its essentials, the team lost sight of what elements struck at the core of the Golden Axe property:
"At the project's outset Golden Axe was designed to be a cooperative experience. However, the depth to which a cooperative experience was scoped and scheduled was far short of what was necessary to turn planning into reality.
"As the early years of development dragged on, little work was done to focus co-op efforts. While some development occurred in this area, a series of unfortunate events ultimately led to the feature's demise. A poorly envisioned multiplayer design, key losses on the network technology front, and a lack of animation staff and support led to a general freeze on its implementation.
"Rather than re-scope other areas of development to save this important feature, the team continued to focus elsewhere: on disparate elements of the single-player experience, on complicated beast mechanics, and even on other game designs that came across the team's desks.
"When experienced personnel finally took hold of the reins around early 2007, it seemed clear that the inclusion of multiplayer was completely untenable for an early 2008 release. Work was done to prototype a multiplayer battle arena in mid-2007, but the decision was made at the parent level to cut the feature when assessment proved there would be additional Q/A costs to support it.
"In hindsight, had the team been able to anticipate the our late term productivity gains, as well as the schedule extension that was granted to complete the project and increase quality, then cooperative multiplayer would not have been cut as a core feature.
"While the team made a valiant effort to retain other aspects of the classic franchise within Beast Rider—classic locales, a decidedly retro-flavored combat system, and the return of the beasts and gnomes from the original series—these elements proved ineffectual in piquing interest from the press and the hardcore consumer base, jaded by news of co-op's omission."
If You Can't Make One Game, Don't Make Two
During development, Secret Level found itself assigned another licensed game. While this allowed the studio to benefit from some synergy in tech implementation, it also spread the already-strained development bandwidth even more thin, damaging both games in the end:
"By 2006, Golden Axe was digging itself into an increasingly deeper hole. While slow progress was being made on the engine front, gameplay prototypes remained woefully inadequate on delivering expected quality. The studio was also grossly over budget. Secret Level -- and ultimately SEGA -- looked around for a hero to save the studio from itself.
"That hero turned out to be Iron Man. A deal for the studio to create movie tie-in games for Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 platforms worked out, allowing the studio to spread early engine development between two cost centers. While this helped put the studio on better financial footing, it remained to be seen whether Secret Level would be able to deliver two games within the allotted timeframe.
"That the studio was able to accomplish this feat—shipping two next-gen titles within one year of each other—is no small accomplishment, and is a testament to the level of experience and professionalism the studio was able to attract.
"However, the history books will also show that neither Beast Rider nor Iron Man delivered on general consumer expectation, and both were critically panned. Iron Man suffered from early personnel neglect when studio resources were still scarce, and Golden Axe was all but abandoned by the engine team in the months leading up to Iron Man's ship date. While neither game suffered complete paralysis during these times, they did not benefit either.
"In a sense Iron Man and Golden Axe were conjoined twins. One could not have survived without the other, yet neither was able to fully blossom into its own element with the other one attached."
Performing Under Pressure
By the time Secret Level found its footing, the game had already spent too long going down the wrong track -- but that didn't keep the team from buckling down and doing its best to make up for lost time, to great effect:
"I cannot stress enough how much was accomplished in the last 12 to 14 months of development on Golden Axe: Beast Rider. The team made monumental strides in development under a very tight schedule, even as code and content were being developed simultaneously, a situation that very rarely leads to efficiency in product development.
"And while several man months were lost in that period due to revision and scope fluctuation, an equal amount of time was saved due to an efficient nightly build system, build monitors, and a branched code base. For the size and scope of changes being made per day on Golden Axe, there was a surprising amount of build stability across disciplines, which kept teams working hard through the months leading up to ship.
"While good practices lead to a modicum of sanity, it was the team's dedication to delivering the final product that ultimately won the day. Some amount of crunch was a reality for almost a full year prior to release.
"A six-month extension allowed the team to finish strong and deliver a much higher quality product than originally anticipated, but the extension would have been worthless if the team rested on its laurels. Instead, they crunched even harder in the final six months to bring more bonus content, features, and polish to the final product. It was a harrowing experience, to be sure.
"Nevertheless, few developers can say that they developed a title of the scope of Golden Axe in the time the game was truly in development with a full team — roughly 18 months, similar to some of the larger downloadable titles on the market today!"
The full postmortem, including a great deal more insight into Golden Axe: Beast Rider's development, with "What Went Right" and "What Went Wrong" reasoning, is now available in the February 2009 issue of Game Developer magazine.
The issue also includes Gamasutra and Game Developer staff picks of upcoming Game Developers Conference 2009 session highlights, David Hawes' primer on getting Stackless Python working in-engine on consoles, an interview with LocoRoco creator Tsutomu Kuono, and Bronwen Grimes' treatise on introducing artists to new tools.
As usual, there is Matthew Wasteland's humor column, as well as development columns from Power of Two's Noel Llopis, Bungie's Steve Theodore, LucasArts' Jesse Harlin, and BioWare's Damion Schubert.