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Working on Six Days in Fallujah

by Nathan Cheever on 04/01/18 01:31:00 pm   Expert Blogs   Featured Blogs

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The following blog post, unless otherwise noted, was written by a member of Gamasutra’s community.
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.

 
*All ideas mentioned are from my memory and shouldn’t be considered official statements.

When I joined Destineer in 2007, the Minneapolis-based company had opened a sister studio in North Carolina.  The Raleigh team I joined was gearing up to work on a CIA game experience while Six Days in Fallujah (SDIF) had been active in Minneapolis for a couple years using in-house technology.

Developing a proprietary engine with a variety of new and veteran developers is never an easy thing.  A year later it was decided the bulk of development for SDIF would be moved to North Carolina merging both teams into one. 

Tactical shooters hadn't completely embraced modern battles yet, so the time period stood out. Plus, destruction hadn't been done to the heavy degree SDIF was working on at the time, offering another fresh approach to the tiresome Call of Duty formula. The game market was ready for a title like this.  The general public wasn't however.

The label of “Survival Horror” was a bit of a misnomer. It didn't mean the typical survival horror formula, which involves low firepower, surrounded by gore. It was the closest familiar term to convey isolation beyond your immediate Fire Team when surrounded by unknown assailants. A psychological trial as a stranger in a strange land.

While we didn't lock down the exact consequences of player death, it was going to be realistic. For awhile there was discussion on regenerating health. This wasn't to make it like Gears of War or arcade style. It was an attempt to focus more on the conflict, strategy, and emotional impact instead of trivializing the connection you build with your character. The flip-side was to replace him with a new marine every time death occurred (which is an issue by itself since we wanted to use real marines).

The original advantage Destineer had was self-publishing the game. Because of technology reasons, some inexperienced members, and “death by demo” schedules, the company slowly lost its chance to self-publish. It’s possible a larger publisher was always considered in regards to world-wide distribution with Destineer responsible for USA only.

Atomic Games wasn't part of the picture until 2009.  Atomic was a company brand under Destineer to separate AAA games from their budget and training simulator titles.

While courting Konami, other publishers were approached. EA was a strong candidate. Had it been with them, it would’ve been included under one of their existing franchises and called something like “Metal of Honor: Fallujah“. The project fast-tracked with Sony as well. Everyone in the US Sony division was 100% behind the game. Japan HQ felt differently though. They sold Sony products in the middle-east and didn't want this game to affect that consumer base.

 

Konami of course caved to backlash from a handful of loud voices against the idea it was going to disrespect the death of real Marines and make a flashy game out of the conflict. The previous idea about regenerating health fueled the belief SDIF would be a typical Call of Duty game.

That was far from the case. For several years the team was in direct communication with numerous Marines. Each one gave us presentations and recollections of their experiences. They were quick to correct any misinterpretations, as well as promoting what actual military personnel do, react to, and operate.

We recorded personal one-on-one interviews with them. These were to be presented in a bookend fashion before and after each chapter of the game. They would share their fears, strategy, and expectations at the time. Then they’d reflect on the experience, what went wrong, and what they learned. What other game out there puts a personal, real face to the conflict?

After Konami bailed, the studio survived for a few more months. Other publishers were approached, but none of them wanted to embrace the project. It was too hot in the media at the time. Everyone of the 75+ team except a dozen or so were laid off in August 2009. 

The remaining members started work on Breach as an intermediate project while efforts to find SDIF a new publisher continued. Despite rumors the project was complete and waiting for release, it was never completed. The technology, production pipeline, systems, and design were there for the most part. The game maps and scripting weren't complete however. Several levels were made throughout SDIF’s lifetime in a showcase-demo fashion. Most of those were removed during development because of technology or story changes.

When the team was laid off, we had four out of eight levels in development. One of them was almost complete, but removed because it took place in Resala Cemetery. The media backlash prompted its removal for fear destroying gravestones would be culturally disrespectful. Mosques were also off limits to destruction. In the bigger picture, I thought the restriction was too extreme considering the subject matter.

Also, we weren’t consulting with insurgents. It was a journalist hired to interview residents. Producer James Cowgill has more details on the Insurgent controversy.

The part about consulting with insurgents was highly confusing and somewhat ironic. The reality is this: months after the game was announced publically and the rumor of Atomic consulting with insurgents started, I personally hired (as the documentary producer) a journalist to go to Fallujah and interview / tape people there with experiences centered around the time period of the battle. This included people who had fled the city, mothers who had lost sons and men who claimed to be insurgents.

The goal was to use this footage in the documentary part of the game (along with about 100 hours of Marine interviews from the 8th and 3rd Divisions) and to help us generally understand the people of Fallujah better and create an authentic experience.

The interviews were incredible – even now some of them very much stick out in my mind; a mom crying on her son’s grave, an insurgent looking straight into the camera and saying he tried his best to kill Americans, a father who fled with his children before his house was taken over by insurgents.

It was real and it put a face on Fallujah that helped to give the project credibility as a historical document. We had enough footage (interviews and battlefield footage) to create an entire 2 hour documentary of the battle that put the Military Channel to shame.

I discovered later that people in Fallujah thought the journalist might be a CIA agent and his life was put in danger – so much so that he couldn’t return to Fallujah. One day, I hope this material is turned into a documentary – I strongly feel that the stories we collected from the Marines and people in Fallujah about this event are too important to be lost. This probably great tragedy of the project.

Other games have since approached similar modern topics and survived. SDIF would have risen above the typical shooter and given players more insight to what really happened. It was never intended to push a political agenda. It was about the men on the ground and their personal accounts during that week in November 2004. Six Days in Fallujah was going to be a game that presented history, knowledge, and tragedy during a serious world event. What a novel approach to the watered down and sensationalized gunplay games made these days.


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