Tameem’s Edge Diary – Part One

It’s March 2003 and I’m sat with some colleagues ready to hear Bungie talk Halo at GDC. Ed Fries, head of Microsoft Games Studios, comes up to us. “We’ve just had our first week sales for Kung Fu Chaos. It’s done 10,000 units.” 10,000 units sounds shit to me. Ed sensing our disdain continues, “That’s good for a week”.

I look at my colleagues. They all have a 10,000-units-sounds-shit expression on their faces.

Rewind to January 2003. We’ve just wrapped up Kung Fu Chaos, our first game at JAM. It was a smooth ride. The best development experience I’ve ever had. Nina, Mike and I founded JAM, scaling up from 3 people working from Mike’s bedroom to 22 people, delivering the game on time and on budget while exceeding all of the quality benchmarks set out by Microsoft. We didn’t even have a crunch period. Contrary to popular opinion everyone we worked with at MS were passionate gamers who really knew what they were doing. The same couldn’t be said for their marketing and PR people who were a bunch of…well, you get the idea.

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It started when they first showed an early build of Kung Fu Chaos to the most influential magazines and websites in the US without our knowledge. The game was untextured, had placeholder sound, no effects and the combat was only a rough implementation. From there it just got worse but I’m not going to go through the list of fuck-ups because it drives me nuts just thinking about them. However, as the first reviews come in, things are looking up: 92%; 4 out of 5; 9 out of 10; “One of the best games I’ve ever played” said Penny Arcade; then the US’s biggest print magazine score it 50%. Scratch record. “I want to punch this game in the throat”, they say as they take turns to bash it for being racist. Subsequent reviews also decide to take the moral high ground.

A bunch of gaming magazines, newspapers and radio stations send us mails to offer support and defend the game. The PR guys respond with: “Our goal is to make sure no one talks about this. If we stop them from writing about the game we win”. So only those who think the game is racist are given a voice and the game is left to rot on the shelves with no marketing or PR support. Yet the message we get from MS is that they are interested in a sequel. Ever since we gave them a concept trailer for Kung Fu Chaos, MS have wanted developers to give them trailers to pre-visualise the games they are publishing. We start creating a design doc and a concept trailer for the sequel called Kung Fu Story.

Forward to GDC 2003 again. After hearing the sales figures we know that a sequel isn’t going to happen even though MS is saying otherwise. Our options are looking grim. With no sequel in sight, we have two choices: create a brand new IP or do a work-for-hire gig. Our Kung Fu Chaos engine was really only suited for Kung Fu Chaos and the cost of re-engineering it for a license would mean that we wouldn’t be able to compete with those who specialise in low-cost licenses.

Creating a new IP is looking grim too: our market research shows that sequels and licenses dominate the end of a console cycle. Even if we pull off a new IP, the investment we would have to make on an updated engine would probably only last the one game in the current console lifecycle.

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What our research does show is that 3rd person action adventures are big but the first generation games in this genre are always shit. Nina, Mike and I originally came from Sony Cambridge, a studio that specialised in 3rd person action games and so we would be treading familiar ground. If we start now, a full year or two before most developers even think about next-gen development, we would have the time to craft a great game and release it early in the next-gen console cycle. Perhaps we could pull off a Halo.

As expected, several weeks after our presentation to MS, they say no to Kung Fu Story but we are already busy designing a next generation original IP codenamed Heavenly Sword. And so begins this diary of the dreams and nightmares that define next-gen development…

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