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Double Fine COO Recalls 'Demoralizing'  Brutal Legend  Challenges
Double Fine COO Recalls 'Demoralizing' Brutal Legend Challenges
March 25, 2010 | By Staff

March 25, 2010 | By Staff
More: Console/PC

Double Fine's Brutal Legend is an epic tale of big hair and heavy metal, but perhaps the true epic was the creation and challenging launch of the game, which was hindered by a change of publishers and a subsequent lawsuit.

Vivendi Games was Brutal Legend's original publisher, but when Activision and Vivendi announced their merger in 2007, the game didn't fit into Activision's publishing plans. Double Fine learned about the uncertain future of Brutal Legend the same way that most gamers found out.

"We learned Activision was not going to be publishing Brutal Legend through an official press announcement issued by Activision that listed the games they would be shipping, with ours conspicuously absent," said Caroline Esmurdoc in a major Game Developer magazine postmortem now available on Gamasutra.

"The team was abuzz with anxiety -- and the official hunt for a new publisher began, distracting Tim [Schafer, Double Fine founder], myself, and various team leads during an already intense development period."

That official Activision/Vivendi press announcement only confirmed what Double Fine had feared during the prior few months. "The merger announcement and subsequent diminution in publisher contact with Vivendi personnel, especially after such a previously harmonious relationship, caused internal unrest and morale dips among the team," said Esmurdoc.

"Company meetings often included frustrating discussions about what little we knew about the current situation at our publisher, and what the various possible outcomes would mean for Double Fine," she said.

"This demoralizing uncertainty lingered for months, during which time the leads continued to motivate the team to hit their scheduled milestones while watching our coffers run dry in the absence of any publisher payments," the COO added.

In December 2008, however, publisher Electronic Arts announced that it had picked up Brutal Legend and would be releasing the game via its EA Partners third-party distribution division. But that good news would be tainted by a lawsuit that Activision later filed against Double Fine in an attempt to block the game's release. Activision claimed it still owned the rights to the game, despite Double Fine's deal with EA.

"Most of the team was shielded from the drama that unfolded between December 2008 when Electronic Arts announced that they had picked up the game for publication and July 2009 when the lawsuit settled," said Esmurdoc. "But Double Fine's leadership was not, and the distraction and stress took its toll on individuals and on our deliverables."

She added, "The lawsuit was filed just as the game went Alpha, with a stipulation that it be heard prior to Gold Master being submitted -- relegating Tim and myself and a cadre of team leaders to the unenviable job of information gathering, declaration writing, lawsuit reading, witness interviewing and all around non-game-making during the crunchiest, most critical time of development. The lawsuit took its toll on the team, on the company, on our product and on our optimism."

This highlight section is extracted from the full postmortem of Double Fine's Brutal Legend, which originally appeared in Game Developer magazine late last year, and is now available to read on Gamasutra.

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Jesse Curry
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Wow, I totally misinterpreted the title. I was thinking that the was a story in which the COO talked about how they wanted to recall(as in automobile recall) the demoralizing challenges in the second part of the game.

I liked the game overall, but it really did start to drag on in the later half.

Rob Bergstrom
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With all that goes on with Activision, I've just now decided I absolutely will not by another product they publish.

Anouk Bachman
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haha same here Jesse. The title can be interpreted in multiple ways.

Rodney Brett
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I don't recall Activision to be so evil when I worked for them. In recent months, they have completely tarnished their reputation. I bought 2 brand new copies of Brutal Legend when it was released(X360, PS3) and many of my friends did as well. I was so worried about the company and the game's release was around the same time as Uncharted 2 which might not have been the best release window. With Bottle Rocket, Pandemic, and Shaba shut down, I don't know if I can take another great studio closing it's doors.

Hang in there, DoubleFine! :)

Ryan Jones
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google wanted "not to be evil", activision is picking up the slack for them, all of the studios they closed and pretty much the rest of the industry.

Too many good companies with competing product to support ACTIVISION GREED. Protest thier lawsuit happy ways buy NOT BUYING ANY ACTIVISION PRODUCT!!!!

ken sato
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Well I don't know if they're being 'evil' or were just dealing with the settling out of the merger. You have to remember that Vivendi and Activision were both separate companies that merged with staff from both being thrown together.

What usually happens is that some people and projects are determined to be 'redundant' or that you have two people now that have the same job or a title that resembles another, and even more so is that some positions and projects get re-evaluated now that resources are theoretically available. (i.e. no one merges to LOSE money.) During the merger, a lot of things are in flux so some will, of course, see opportunity when others just hunker down.

For example, and this is PURELY SPECULATION, I can see where Brutal Legend becomes problematic as an IP on where it fits in the pantheon of titles to be released. Then there is the publisher-side production team who basically maintains oversight over the title development. Where does the title fit in the current release schedule. (Evaluation based upon consumer and market trends versus cost to produce and risk assessment.) As key relationships need to be re-established, there can be a lot of confusion, or just lack-of-clarity in course.

In any case, it should be mostly or completely settled out by now. Products released this calender year should be more consistent. (Better is of course in the eye of the consumer.)

I am seeing more independent studios, more positional offerings so hopefully last year's horrible effects are past. Double Fine is just in a good position since it was able to produce a quality title under this duress and the state of the market. It doesn't mean that DF has it easy, no independent studio has that, but it does mean that they can adapt, persevere, and most importantly, deliver to market / publisher a quality title. Hat's off to you DF!

Henrick Stankenheim
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This argument (Activision is evil) would hold a lot more water if Brutal Legend had turned out to be a good game... (it was not).

...or made money... (it did not).

Brutal Legend the game was almost completely devoid of fun outside of the first few levels, which felt tacked on (and may well have been added at EA's request to "trick" people into thinking they were buying a character-driven action adventure instead of a dull pseudo RTS). Playing the main RTS game was like trying to maintain consciousness through self-lobotomization. Ill-advised.

Brutal Legend the product has yet to break 1M units worldwide across both platforms, despite a mountain of marketing support (advertising dollars and celebrity endorsements including high profile appearances on mainstream television) and a dramatic price cut to $19.99.

All of which vindicates Activision's decision not to invest further in a product with limited potential for success. EA for their part saved some cash on development but no doubt still came out a financial loser. You can argue that Activision were dicks for insisting that EA pay them back for development before releasing the product in which they had invested millions, but that's a pretty tough argument to make (akin to saying, "I should be able to freely assume ownership of land and partially complete dwelling if another construction company ceases work on a project before completion").

Doublefine was able to release Tim's vision to the world only to be rebuffed at the till. Which I guess is a victory on some level?

Jonathan Gilmore
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@Henrick I agree with your points about the game's quality and reception, but I totally disagree with you analogy. If someone partially builds a house, then abandons it, they have no claim when someone else assumes control of the property.

If Activision retained some property rights in "Brutal Legend" than they would be entitled to what those rights entitle them to. If not, then it's their problem that someone else took a partially completed game that Vivendi/Activision had bakrolled for some length of time.

Daniel Galarza
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@Henrick Brutal Legend was an outstanding game. Yes, even the RTS parts. Why can I figure out the controls and you can't? They basically invented a new genre.

It's half action, half RTS. An indirect sequel to Sacrifice, where you make and army and *gasp* get to fight alongside it. It has all the intensity of an action game with the strategy and unit scale of a full blown RTS. Metacritic holds at 82, and it has in fact sold over a million already (580k 360 and 430k on Ps3.) The 360 BL is selling at a rate very similar to Mirror's Edge (or is that a bad game too? Because it's getting a sequel). Word of mouth held (and continues to hold) in Double Fine's favor. The deep multiplayer has attracted a lot of players online as well. I see players of every experience level online all the time.

Tim Schafer said it right. They play tested those so called "horrible" RTS segments and they were found to be a lot of fun. Everyone who complains are reviewing it based on expectations from the demo and are incapable of looking at the RTS segments in a fresh way. That demo is EA's fault, not Double Fine's.

I personally didnt' want Brutal Legend until the multiplayer videos came out. I was immeidately exited.

The enthusiasts go "Wow, it's like they combined Action and RTS," while the complainers go "This is a Console RTS and therefore is bad." Some dropped the game immediately before even experimenting with multiplayer.

I find it utterly innovative and exciting and I hope to see more Action/RTS hybrids similar to Brutal Legend. I wish Halo Wars went in that direction. Toy Soldiers for example, is very similar. It's a Tower Defense game where you can pick a unit and control it directly.

Ask yourself this. Would Brutal Legend been better if it were like Nintey Nine Nights?

Henrick Stankenheim
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@ Daniel

Hey, to each their own. If you enjoyed the game, that's great. Puts you in a the minority opinion of gamers and critics, but glad to hear that you are having fun. My problem is not wrestling with the controls (yes my thumbs and brain both work fine, thanks), it's the fact that the game is dull and boring after the first two hours. BTW, this is the most common complaint about the game so I am not alone in recognizing this.

However, if you think that barely scraping through 1M units (sounds like you have one additional week of sales included in your numbers) in the five and a half months since release should be considered a success despite all of the marketing dollars, hype and a drastic price drop to value pricing levels ($19.99)... well I guess you don't understand the Business of Making Games (just the Art).

That's a dismal failure. Maybe not a Psychonauts level of failure (though Psychonauts didn't have anywhere near the level of support), but it's a tragic missed opportunity nonetheless.

@ Jonathan

The lawsuit from Activision was simply asserting their rights to the work that they had bankrolled - I imagine the eventual settlement involved EA paying them a reasonable amount for the prior development investment. If you don't like my analogy, then try this on for size:

A development company (Activision) purchases the rights to land and begins building a house, using DoubleFine Architecture and Construction to design and build the structure. DoubleFine provides the plans and the workforce, while Activision funds the materials, and salaried wages to proceed with the project. After considering the real estate market and chances of selling the house at a profit, Activision decides to stop funding the construction and shops the property at a huge discount. DoubleFine meanwhile sources another development company (EA) to continue funding development and together they claim to owe Activision nothing. Activision sues to prevent them from profiting from sale of the property and development that Activision funded.

Yup, clearly Activision is the villain here. Long live Tim Schafer!

Henrick Stankenheim
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BTW, let me add that there are PLENTY of other reasons to consider Activision evil. I just can't abide people turning on them in this particular case for a business position that is infinitely reasonable.

Andrew Goulding
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I just had a project cancel in March for 'business reasons', just before GDC. I know the massive stresses you can feel when you start losing confidence that the publisher is going to go ahead with your title. Your thoughts are always with your team, and keeping awesome people doing awesome work. We were drawn out 6 weeks without really knowing if the game was going ahead or not, then wham, cancelled! I was on a considerably smaller scale than Double Fine, but this article actually goes some way to making me feel a little better for my loss. If an awesome studio like Double Fine can be treated like dirt by a publisher, I don't feel so bad being similar.

Daniel Galarza
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Minority? Check Metacritic.