You may have heard of Digital Extremes. Founded by James Schmalz in 1993, it was jointly responsible for the Unreal Tournament series (one of the most successful and influential FPS franchises of all time, if you didn't know), and its 2008 release Dark Sector - which was originally announced via an extensively covered tech-demo in 2004 – was one of the most hotly-anticipated tiles of this generation.
The Dark Sector we played, however, was a completely different game with few similarities to the demo that had aroused the gaming community so intensely, and one that seemed to be playing it safer with more familiar conventions and designs. What had caused this shift? Had Digital Extremes simply struggled with artistic choices and the development process in general, or was there more to it?
Meridith Braun has been director of PR and Marketing for DE since 2001. She and the rest of the DE team have lived and loved, feared and fought, and somehow made it through trials and tribulations that could have left them melancholy and mourning for the one that got away, but instead fired them with a passion that's more akin to a newly found love.
Meridith explains what went wrong with their original pitch to studios, and why its now returning to those early designs for their current PC title Warframe:
“Upon completion of the first Unreal Tournament around the end of 1999, early 2000, DE began formulating a new game idea. A very ambitious FPS set in a persistent sci-fi world with customizable gear that they called Dark Sector. Before getting too far with the idea though, a sequel to UT was in order so Dark Sector was shelved for the time being. Not until 2003 did DE have the chance/time to think about Dark Sector again.
"Feeling confident after working for years on a very successful franchise, DE went back to the idea of Dark Sector. In addition to building a brand new IP from scratch, they also made a very risky business decision to design their own engine technology. The original idea evolved based on trends in the industry at that time toward more single-player story-driven experiences and the 2004 tech demo trailer of Dark Sector was the result.
"Pitching to publishers is always a daunting experience. In an effort to build some momentum going into pitch meetings as well as some confirmation that the game idea was solid, DE bucked the traditional system of never talking about games early and released the Dark Sector tech demo trailer to the media. It was picked up everywhere, as no one at that time had even breathed a word about the next-gen systems and here was DE claiming this was a next-gen game. Sadly, the coverage didn't seem to make much difference with publishers. Even though Halo had been hugely successful by that time already, consensus across the board was that sci-fi shooters didn't sell. They were blown away by our technology but meeting after meeting, they asked us if we were open to changing the concept of the game back to Earth, something more 'relatable', WWII or Civil War even.
"After nearly a year of fighting the inevitable and at the end of their financial rope, DE had to make the heartbreaking decision of foregoing their creative concept for Dark Sector and alter the game in a way that could solidify a publishing deal and keep them in business. The result was Dark Sector that shipped in 2008, a few ideas from the original remained, such as the Tenno suit and enemy designs but overall a pretty different game from the sci-fi original.
"Work for different publishers continued over the next several years, when DE noticed the emerging f2p market within the industry. The similarities to their roots in shareware was very attractive. After all, DE had found it's highest success when it was directly connected to its customer (Epic Pinball, the mod/fan community of the Unreal franchise). Ideas started flowing that inevitably came around to the idea that got away, Dark Sector.
"With a very small team (many from the original game) branched off from the rest of the publisher-funded studio, a very small budget, plus a lot of original ideas and concept art from Dark Sector circa 2003, the world of Warframe started to take shape. After only working on it for 3 months, Warframe was announced to the world and to DE's surprise a lot of gamers remembered that original sci-fi tech demo of Dark Sector from 2004. Since then, Warframe has been thriving in its Closed Beta since October 2012 and found a loyal, passionate gamer base that is helping build the game alongside the developer.”
Publishers are first and foremost a business. Their primary concern is return, and the successful ones are surely educated in market trends and we can assume they’re pretty good at guessing what’s going to sell. However, that’s not saying much when creativity becomes homogenised, when playing it too safe results in mediocre output. With franchises burning though sequel after sequel, watering down once innovative or unique IPs into money spinning commercial juggernauts, or even distorting original designs beyond recognition to suit current trends or emulate past successes, perhaps it’s left to developers like DE to prove that invention can make just as much impact as imitation, and that unique IPs are something to be put belief in more often?
It’s clear from their response here, and our recent interview with DE creative Director Steve Sinclair, that the development of Warframe is a personal one. It seems as though Digital Extremes have something to prove to an industry that shunned their original designs almost a decade ago. Instead of embittered by the experience, they’re somehow enamoured, reinvigorated, and that passion could very well produce something worth taking note of.
Warframe’s development so far has been aided greatly by its Kickstarter-style founders packages, a scheme which encourages gamers to invest in the development of the game for certain exclusive rewards. Judging from community feedback so far, the rewards are secondary to the belief they have in DE’s obvious amount of love for its game.
Whether this love will blossom into a fruitful relationship between developer and gamer free from the meddling of publishers in the know, or dash itself on the rocks of broken promises and heartache as many community founded projects have is another story, and one that’ll be told in time.