Sunday, October 25, 2009

Update on Factor 5 and WhiteHarvest LLC

Things have changed since our last Factor 5 feature.

In May 2009, Achim Moller, CEO of the German Factor 5 GmbH, officially announced the closure of the San Rafael branch of Factor 5. "The continuation of operations" proved to be impossible, citing "the sudden bankruptcy of Brash Entertainment" as a reason. Debts of the San Rafael based studio had increased due to outstanding payments by Brash. Still Factor 5 did have other investors; they did not only work on Superman, which was internally known as "Blue Steel".

Nintendo and LucasArts were their other two major partners. Both publishers were afraid that Factor 5 could use their money for paying off debts instead of using it for game development. There was the danger of Factor 5 shutting down without delivering any of titles.
The heads of Factor 5 had to find a solution, they did not want to lay off their remaining employees and lose their contracts with Nintendo and LucasArts or any of their own assets.

That is where the German branch came to help. Assets of Factor 5 Inc. (US branch) including Turrican, Katakis and Denaris were all transferred to Factor 5 GmbH in Germany. Factor 5 GmbH was founded by Achim Moller, who was part of the original Factor 5 but did not relocate when the team moved from Germany to the US in 1995. In 2002, however, decreasing costs of fast internet connections and a high data volume allowed him to work for his former studio again. His first project was a port of the DivX player for the Nintendo GameCube, after that the studio in Cologne worked on the VFX in Star Wars Rogue Squadron III.

"Although we are saddened by Factor 5 Inc.'s situation, our corporation will remain unaffected by these developments." One could get the impression that Factor 5 GmbH was entirely independent and that they had always owned Turrican and other Factor 5 properties. Anyhow, this is not the case. Factor 5 GmbH had never developed a game on their own as they consisted of only a handful of employees until now.

Having resolved issues related to Factor 5 Inc.-owned assets, there still was the problem of losing support of Nintendo or LucasArts. Factor 5 GmbH did not have the capacities to develop their titles unless some US employees would have relocated back to Germany (which they certainly did not want to). But they also found a solution for this issue. The remaining US employees moved to a new studio: BlueHarvest LLC, soon to be renamed as WhiteHarvest LLC. Nintendo and LucasArts gave the permission to work on Factor 5 Inc. titles to Factor 5 GmbH which licensed development of both of their Wii titles to WhiteHarvest LLC, which was founded immediately after Factor 5 Inc.'s closure in December 2008. One of their games was a new entry in the Rogue Squadron series, internally codenamed as Blue Harvest, the other one was a new Pilotwings title for Nintendo. In February 2009, WhiteHarvest LLC and Factor 5 GmbH pulled another coup: Electronic Arts contracted them for a third Wii title. Despite other reports, this was not a conversion of their cancelled PS3/Xbox 360 title Superman. It was a Wii conversion of Double Fine Productions' Brütal Legend. WhiteHarvest LLC rehired several former Factor 5 employees to manage work on all three projects.

Double Fine's Brütal Legend

Bad news did not arrive until a lawsuit hit the company. Laid off Factor 5 staff and debtors noticed that the studio transferred assets to their German branch before filing bankruptcy to avoid paying any debts.

James Smith, a San Francisco lawyer representing the employees, put it in a nutshell:
"We believe and have alleged in the complaint that Factor 5 and White Harvest are essentially the same company, being run by the same people, being represented by the same sets of lawyers, with all the same management and ownership and control, performing all the same work that they were doing at Factor 5, just now with a new name and a new address."

Smith also stated that work on the new Rogue Squadron title and Pilotwings, which was done at Factor 5 Inc., was transferred to WhiteHarvest LLC. It must be noted that this was not unlawful. Work done on both projects had been property of LucasArts and Nintendo. Both companies could have transferred the work done at Factor 5 to any studio they may have wanted to. In this case it was WhiteHarvest LLC as their employees already knew the games.

At the end of June, Brütal Legend for Wii was cancelled. Technical and quality concerns were part of the decision, as Destructoid reported. These resulted from EA's desire to release Brütal Legend for Wii around the same time as the Double Fine version hit the shelves. Meeting these requirements was all but possible for WhiteHarvest LLC.

As a result of the failure of their EA project, WhiteHarvest LLC had to lay off most - if not all - of their employees in July. However, Achim Moller of Factor 5 GmbH recently assured that both of their other Wii titles could have been released in 2009, indicating that Rogue Squadron and Pilotwings have been finished. Moller admits, nonetheless, that Factor 5 is unsure whether both of these titles will see a release, suggesting that either Nintendo or LucasArts are not confident on publishing their Factor 5-developed game.

The future of Factor 5 may not look bright. But Moller is actively trying to find new projects for his studio. He wants to establish the recently founded Factor 5 Media Productions GmbH as a new German development studio which is no longer dependent on an US branch. Best of luck!

We would like to thank all former and current Factor 5 and WhiteHarvest LLC employees who helped creating this article.

Friday, May 1, 2009

Free Radical Design, Star Wars and ZinkyZonk

StarWars Battlefront III - a large scale first/third person shooter which was in development at Free Radical Design. Late last year, LucasArts pulled the plug and FRD had to file for bankruptcy. In the meantime the remains of Free Radical Design were bought by Crytek UK.

First of all, let us talk about StarWars Battlefront III. Originally, the game was intended for a 2008 release on Xbox 360, PlayStation 3 and also on the PC platform. Just like it was the case with TimeSplitters 4, FRD was also working on a "downport" for the Wii platform. Still, some delays and quality issues made LucasArts decide to make FRD redundant. Really? There was more to it.

PS2 and PSP versions were and are in development at Rebellion - the studio which made Star Wars Battlefront: Renegade Squadron for PSP. These versions are going to be released later this year if everything works out as planned. Rebellion did know that Free Radical Design had been working on the next-gen versions of the game since 2006. Nevertheless, they tried to get their own deal for SW Battlefront III on Xbox 360 and PS3, promising lower costs and a faster development. They pitched different PS3/Xbox 360 prototypes using their PS2 version as a foundation while using FRD's assets which were provided by LucasArts.

It is not a nice way - but so did Rebellion. In late 2008, they struck the deal. Free Radical Design was not informed by any party about these negotiations right until Rebellion and LucasArts had signed everything.

Still, we might not even get Star Wars Battlefront 3 for Xbox 360 and PS3 from Rebellion. Although they promised low production costs and a tight deadline, the targets set by Rebellion's management were impossible to fulfil. It was intended that the developers who were already working on the (not that great) PSP and PS2 versions would also start development on next-gen versions. Problem was that there were not enough "human resources" and not even Rebellion's developers are able to work 24 hours a day in order to meet agreements made with LucasArts.

So what will happen now? You will get a PS2 and PSP version later this year developed by Rebellion. Next-gen versions are in limbo. Will Rebellion be able to deliver them or will LucasArts look out for a new developer? Or might they even take the Indiana Jones route? It would not make me wonder if they asked for a cheap Wii port of Rebellion's PSP version.

With regard to Free Radical Design, it is interesting to note that they were already working on pre-production tasks for StarWars Battlefront IV - also intended for Xbox 360, PS3 and PC. In future, we may provide some artwork on that.

On a further note, there are also some news oncerning Pumpkin Beach, which was only a branch of Free Radical Design. The team, lead by Steve Ellis and David Doak, started in June 2006 and wanted to make child-oriented games (11 years and younger). As a result, Pumpkin Beach went into solvency together with FRD. However, when the team was absorbed into Crytek UK, some of the team members were not quite happy. Steve Ellis is said to have felt as if he was doing nothing useful or interesting. A new company was formed in March:
ZinkyZonk Limited.
Please do not expect news concerning this studio in the near future. All we know is that Steve Ellis is director of the new company. May they resume work on what Pumpkin Beach had stopped?

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.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Indiana Jones and the Staff of Kings

At E3 2006 LucasArts showed a glipmse of a new Indiana Jones game for next generation consoles. Since then, we have not heard much of it. Nevertheless, LucasArts representatives repeatedly confirmed that it was not cancelled (despite massive troubles during various development stages...).

While LucasArts and also the Indiana Jones staff saw massive layoffs this June, "Indiana Jones and the Staff of Kings" (PS3/Xbox 360) was delayed to 2009. Why not cancel or outsource it like every other LucasArts game (right, I am looking at that PS3/Xbox 360/PC game called "Star Wars Battlefront 3" from that Nottingham-based developer.)?

Additionally, there was or is a still unreleased PSP pendant titled "Staff of Moses". Amaze Entertainment finished it sometime in 2007. The studio also did several internal demos for Indiana Jones Wii (never turned into something real, I guess). However, the PSP title might stay unpublished since A2M started development of Indiana Jones games (at least for Nintendo DS, PS2 and Wii) in June 2007, right when Amaze Entertainment was more or less giving "Staff of Moses" the final touches. So is A2M also responsible for a new PSP version which was accidently revealed by the rating organization PEGI?

Expect all Indiana Jones related games to be presented next year.

A brief look at some assets of Indiana Jones for Xbox 360 and PS3: (all rights, copyrights and trademarks belong to Lucas Arts and/or their respective artist and so on...)

And here is an animation demo from the PS2 version:

Saturday, October 11, 2008

Halo MMO (2)

As some might remember, there was a post about Ensemble Studios' Halo MMO on this blog.
Nevertheless, I would like to add some information.
For one thing, the MMO has never left the pre-production status. Only a small team of not more than 8 people developed working prototypes and concepts with a big reliance on traditional RPG gameplay.
For another thing, what most people do not know, Ensemble Studios had several smaller teams for building prototypes during the final year of AoE3 development. One of the prototypes established the basis for Halo Wars. Another still mysterious prototype was a first person shooter for PC platform. It might have been the "major project"(cancelled in late 2007) Bruce Shelley talked about on the studio's own blog. Or was it that prototype which was later known under the title "Wrench"? Time might shed some light on these things.

However, here is an early animation demo from some ES prototype which evolved into Halo Wars.

Additionally, here you see some inspirational pieces of concept art for the MMO(RPG).

Saturday, October 4, 2008

Rogue Squadron: Trilogy for Xbox

In fall 2003 rumors said that Factor 5 plans to release a compilation of its three Rogue Squadron games on Xbox. While part 2 and 3 stayed mostly untouched, the first one (originally released on N64) saw a graphical overhaul.
Reasons for porting the trilogy included declining sales of GameCube hard/software and strong sales of Star Wars titles on Xbox.

While initial plans projected a late 2004 release, the game never made it to the shelves. Therefore MusyX is the only published project on Xbox, only for developers. However, Rogue Squadron: Trilogy (codename: Rebel X) was not the only Factor 5 title that was cancelled during that time.

Sunday, September 28, 2008

James Bond: GoldenEye 007 (N64) - All Bonds

Who did not play GoldenEye 007 for the Nintendo 64? Sadly, not all features made it into the final game. As many know, there was an "All Bonds" option for the multiplayer part of the Rare classic. During multiplayer sessions one could choose between Pierce Brosan, Sean Connery, Timothy Dalton and Roger Moore.

But why was this feature removed? It is as simple as this: Not all the actors agreed to appear in the game. As a compensation Rare got the permission to add four villains from James Bond movies: May Day, Jaws, Oddjob and Baron Samedi.

Another mystery solved.