Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Factor 5: An Inconvenient Truth

Factor 5 had some troubled years in recent history. How did it come to that point when everything looked quite promising in 2002?
Let us start in 2001, Factor 5 and LucasArts released Star Wars Rogue Squadron II: Rogue Leader, which was both a critical and commercial success. LucasArts and Factor 5 had established a long-term partnership with several Indiana Jones and Star Wars games. Factor 5 described their collaboration as having “
changed the lives of the Factor 5 team forever”.
At E3 2003, Nintendo revealed the game's successor, Star Wars Rogue Squadron III: Rebel Strike, during its press conference. Satoru Iwata went even further: He announced another exclusive GameCube title from the Californian-based studio:

"And the same talented people at Factor 5 who design this game are also at work on another exclusive for GameCube. You will be hearing more about this soon."

Iwata announcing another Factor 5 game for GameCube

We never heard of it, at least not officially. It is an open secret that Iwata was talking about a new Pilotwings game. Factor 5 had been involved in the development of the GameCube platform and the MusyX tools – now they were going to expand their partnership with working on a classic Nintendo franchise.

However, not everything worked out as planned. Sales of the GameCube platform were in decline and Nintendo was not entirely satisfied with Factor 5’s performance. It was decided to put the game on Nintendo’s next generation console, then known as ‘Revolution’, which somehow never happened in reality. As Julian Eggebrecht admits, Factor 5 expected Nintendo to move in the same direction as Sony and Microsoft:

"It was 2004 and I think, quite frankly, it came down to us wanting and needing to move on to the next-generation consoles. Nintendo at that point in time hadn't made up their mind, and I don't blame them, what the next-generation for them meant. We, of course, assumed that it was going to be something in the same vein of Microsoft and Sony, so we were kind of prodding and pushing them a little bit. We were saying, 'Come on guys. The road is pretty obvious. Why don't we get going on developing something in that vein because we all know where it's going to lead?' And they -- now in hindsight, of course, I know why -- but they always told us, 'No, why don't you keep it down? Don't think about 10 million polygons more. We're trying to figure something out here.' It was very mysterious throughout the year. Quite frankly, simple business matters happened. We had to run a studio, we had to pay people. And we had to jump onto something. That something at the time was basically the other upcoming consoles. Those guys were very aggressive as partners and at the time we didn't want to lay off anybody, and we needed the cash. So we happily went along with that also expected that sooner or later we could translate it back to whatever Nintendo came up with. Of course, we were blown away when they said, 'This is it, by the way,' which happened way later."

Around late 2003 and early 2004, Factor 5 resumed work on another game: Star Wars Rogue Squadron: Trilogy for Xbox (never officially announced). When IGN reported about the trilogy, they named declining sales of GameCube games and hardware as reasons for LucasArts’ decision for porting the Star Wars games. Although a release was expected for late 2004, it remains unknown why the trilogy was not published.

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UI concept for unpublished LucasArts project

In March 2004, it became clear that Factor 5 would probably not stay Nintendo-exclusive when Julian Eggebrecht praised Microsofts’ XNA initiative:

"Havok, as the leading supplier of physics middleware for the game industry, believes that only through increasingly sophisticated software components and tools that integrate seamlessly with each other can the power of the next generation of entertainment platform be leveraged by game developers. The XNA initiative is important for the industry in that it represents a commitment to providing the software infrastructure to make this happen. We are looking forward to leveraging XNA technology and participating in its success."

Around that time, Factor 5 had terminated work on (by then) current generation platforms including GameCube and Xbox. In fact, they were both researching development for next-generation platforms and pitching game ideas to different publishers.

At E3 2004, Sony even revealed that Factor 5 would be developing titles for their PSP handheld. Still, this announcement never materialized into any retail project and we do not know whether any project left the prototype stage.

It was only a few months later that Factor 5 were contracted by Sony for a PlayStation 3 exclusive game, soon to be unveiled as Lair. Sony - in comparison with Microsoft - offered a more convincing contract and package. Factor 5 wanted to create their own game worlds and move away from producing franchise games. SCEA made it possible.

Nevertheless, Lair confronted Factor 5 with severe problems during development. Staff departures, quality issues and missing out on deadlines did not only make the game’s development troublesome, but also led to an aggrieved relationship with Sony itself. The partnership was later terminated when Lair was a critical as well as a commercial failure. Therefore a further project, which entered pre-production, was put on hold.

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Concept art for cancelled PS3 project

Beside this PS3 retail game, some PSN projects were cancelled. Asked by Gamasutra Julian Eggebrecht revealed in late 2006:

"Actually I'm really looking forward to 2007, because we're going to finish Lair, which is my biggest concern right now, but also, I'm really looking forward to working on a couple of smaller projects [for PlayStation 3], with the so-called EDI [E-Distribution Initiative] from Sony […] ."

Sadly not much is known about those projects or even reasons for their cancellation. At least we know of one game idea: an arcade shooter called ‘Virus’.

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Mock-up for arcade shooter 'Virus'

In early 2008, Factor 5 officially announced to work on Nintendo platforms again. Even though they ported Star Wars Rogue Squadron: Rebel Strike to Wii, they still decided to put a little bit more effort into an entirely new project. For that reason the team recreated parts of the Lair engine on Wii.

Lighting and Terrain Generation Lair Engine (Wii)

A few weeks later, IGN indicated that Factor 5 was working on an all new Kid Icarus adventure. While not naming sources, Kombo found some pieces of concept art relating to the game. These assets were created for a pitch which was send to Nintendo: Factor 5 really wanted to get the permission to create a Kid Icarus for Wii.

Animation demo of an early pitch

In March 2008, the company announced an agreement with Brash Entertainment to develop a movie tie-in for a release in 2010. The project was an untitled Superman game for Xbox 360, PS3 and Wii. However, in November 2008 Brash Entertainment had to file bankrupty. Eggebrecht was still kind of confident on the project’s status:

"Things are obviously in flux and we hope that the game proves to be as indestructible as our hero…"

Since a new publisher could not be found in December 2008, the game did not prove to be as indestructible. Factor 5 were forced to lay half of their staff – around 35 people; they could neither fund development of such a high-budget game on their own nor assign all developers to their other projects.

Superman - snippet of a target trailer

So what are these other projects? We can only say that those are two Wii games and a technology project and that work is still going on. One of their Wii titles is even planned for a release this year. But it is evident that Factor 5's 2005 announcement of moving away from producing franchise kind of failed when Sony terminated their contract. So could the project be Kid Icarus? Pilotwings? Who knows...

While we cannot go into detail, we may reveal that you will be able to fly to London, to Athens, to Lisbon or even to the Netherlands in one of the new titles. Expect to see more in the coming months.

all images or videos posted are (C) 2003-2009 Factor 5 LLC, SCEA, LucasArts and Lucasfilm LTD and/or their other respective owners.

1 comment:

greendiggs said...
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