Good question. And one I've been meaning to answer for a long time. I'd been working on a sort of postmortem for a while. For your answer, I cleaned that up, added some details, and here you have it...
Let's start off with a BDLA review by Dan Adams over at IGN:http://pc.ign.com/articles/733/733326p1.htmlSeptember 18, 2006 - A sect of the gaming community has been waiting for a game that's fun but also makes some sort of artistic social commentary. American McGee's Bad Day LA was among the hopefuls to do so when it was first announced. Using a unique art style and humor, the game was intended to put the spotlight on the ridiculous amount of fear in the United States regarding just about everything disaster, disease, or terrorist related. The premise was strong. The actual result is a disaster scarier than most of those found in the game.
Reading the article you'll see Dan does his best to remain even-handed in his evaluation of the final product. It's clear that he, like many others, wanted to like this game but ultimately could find no reason. Well, I'm here to say - I don't blame him.
First, I'm not here to duck responsibility for what happened on the project. Still, it amazes me how when something goes wrong how it's 100% “on me”, whereas when something goes right it's “0% me.” I'm also amazed by the vitriolic nature of the comments that are made regarding the game and me personally. I guess the saying, “Failure is an orphan, success has many parents” is only this obvious in cases of extreme failure or success. If BDLA is an orphan, I'm happy to claim it as mine. Let's talk about how it ended up like that.
The BDLA saga began when I was contacted by Trevor Chan, founder of publisher/developer Enlight. Trevor asked me to design an original game for his development team in Hong Kong. The company was known for building B & C quality games, with concepts usually “borrowed” from existing, successful titles. Their in-house tech was up to its 4th generation, having been used in a wide variety of genres from top-down management games like “Zoo Empire” and 3rd person RPGs like “Joan of Arc”. The core team consisted of a few programmers and a long-time producer. Most of the company's artists were located in mainland China, in a sort of in-house outsourcing setup.
My initial design proposal took into account the technology and team’s abilities and weaknesses. It was essentially a comedic physics sandbox, where players would compete against one another using “vehicles” to inflict damage upon characters and environments. Old ladies in shopping carts flying through construction zones, that sort of thing. The point was to keep it simple – a sort of amped up “Truck Dismount” (http://jet.ro/dismount/
The proposal was rejected. Trevor didn't want to spend money on a physics engine and he wanted a more story-driven product. I felt Trevor was demanding the team bite off more than it could chew. My warnings about the in-house tech and talent being insufficient to guarantee success in the 3rd person action/adventure genre were brushed aside. At this point, and more to come, I knew I should have walked away from the project... but I felt this huge desire to make the best of a bad situation and keep food on my table.
So, I went back to the drawing board. At the time I thought, “A simple, story-driven game - something akin to a large-scale casual game.” I knew it wouldn’t be AAA quality. I figured I’d not want to be directly associated with the marketing of it. But hey - Trevor assured me that his team could get their technical issues together in time to start the project. With that in mind...
A story was needed. Eventually I hit upon the idea of lambasting “fear culture”. You can read the full story of the origin of BDLA in numerous articles. Suffice to say, Trevor accepted the concept. What we ended up with was:
*Mass market appeal
*Ease of use/play, i.e. low frustration game play
*Comedy mixed with social commentary
*Build for less than US$1mil
*Design geared towards team's capabilities
Always believing that good art is the first step in visualizing good games, I engaged art duo Kozyndan to provide a style target. They were hired to do concept images for every area of the game, but their increasingly hectic schedule resulted in only a few images being completed. Still, the artwork that they did finish was critical in establishing the visual style for the game.
Ken Wong (Art Director) and I traveled around Los Angeles, taking thousands of photos of buildings, people, and vehicles. Disasters were outlined, design elements were fleshed out, level layouts were sketched, and scripts were written. On the game design front, the idea was to emulate the play style of games like Medal of Honor, but to inject comedy and nonsense violence into the mix. (Of course we knew from the start we’d never achieve the visual (or other) quality of the MoH series.)
Our combined design and art materials were sent to Hong Kong for implementation by the development team. They were tasked to deliver a “vertical slice” within a few months – to prove they could in fact build the game as specified in the design materials. Builds were delivered every few weeks to show progress towards that goal.
Between build deliveries very little progress was being made. During several months of pre-production, while I was writing the game design document, dialog, securing our music, SFX, and VO deals, and working with Kozyndan/Ken to scout the city for interesting locations, the development team in Hong Kong was to complete all the technical requirements for AI, physics, game play, and interface. The progress I saw was not promising.
Ken spent a tremendous amount of time trying to get the art direction communicated to the team. The China team was struggling to master the “simple” art style. They were bent on making everything look photo-real. Turns out making things look simple is harder than making things look real. We both learned a valuable lesson on that note.
The technical team wasn’t able to show more than the most basic rendering of assets and world. And problems with physics, collision, vehicle dynamics, NPC interaction … basically everything – plagued the builds we reviewed.
At this point, with all the problems we were encountering – you might ask, “Why’d you keep going?” And the truth is we never took the possibility of catastrophic failure very seriously. We understood from the moment we saw the first builds that expecting BDLA to be anything more than a B or C quality game was foolish. We understood that it was going to be a “bad” game, but that there might be something redeeming in the campy, low quality, B-grade-ness of it all. Ken and I started to look at BDLA like one might view a low quality slasher film – and we saw something we thought was appealing in that.
Still, we knew the project needed more direct attention if it even hoped to be called “bad”.
So, I went to Hong Kong to work directly with the team for a few weeks. During this time a tremendous amount of progress was made. I saw firsthand the sort of “Chinese mentality” that I previously described (and defended by description of) on my blog. Chinese teams think and work differently. This isn't meant to be criticism; it's an observation of the truth. But with direct intervention, quality oversight, and guidance, substantial gains were made. Ultimately, I knew as soon as I returned to LA, things in HK would go back to the previous non-functional state.
At this point I felt we had two choices: Either move to Hong Kong and manage the team directly, with the risk that things still might go badly, or stay in LA and be guaranteed a failure – translated to “kill the project”. Again, a desire for making it work and food made the second option unrealistic.
A NEW LIFE
I knew before I returned to LA that I'd be moving to HK. Within 2 months I had given away all my stuff, allowed my car to be “voluntarily repossessed” and was on a flight to HK. I arrived in the city with a laptop, 2 bags of clothes, and my cat. This transition to Asia was as big a reason for the continued development of BDLA as anything else. I should not understate the life change that I underwent during this period of time. I’d been living in Los Angeles for several years, chasing the “Hollywood dream”, taking meetings, hob-nobbing with celebrities, eating lots of good sushi – but knowing all along that it was an empty, unfulfilling existence. I disliked so many aspects of what my life had become – the idea of “me as celebrity” being sold to executives in Hollywood – knowing all along that every day I spent not actively engaged in developing games was another moment lost. I desperately wanted to being doing something again – even if that something was making what I knew could turn out to be a very bad game. This, coupled with an intense desire to throw myself into the mystery, allure, and action of Hong Kong led me to “just do it”. And do it I did…
It was, and will likely remain, one of the best decisions I’ve ever made in life – even though it is linked to one of the worst games I’ve ever made.
It wasn't until I'd arrived in Hong Kong that the true nature of the challenge began to reveal itself to me. Not only did I suffer massive shock at the realization of everything I’d abandoned in my former life, it finally dawned on me just how painful this development was going to be and how bad the final product was likely to turn out.
Well, I’d thrown it all away to get here – might as well make the best of it. In many very real ways, there was no going back. I’d left nothing behind, burned all bridges, and broken all commitments. I was shipping BDLA, making a home of Hong Kong, and starting a new life - for better or worse.
And we did it. The development team, Ken, and I poured energy, creativity, and guidance into every aspect of the game. So many things went right and wrong – like many post mortems I could write a book on the subject. Instead, a brief collection of highlights:
WHAT WENT RIGHT
A lot of things actually went right on BDLA. Even though this isn’t easy to see in the whole of the final product.
On the art front, Ken made a valiant effort in trying to produce something visually unique. Despite their lack of exposure to Western art styles and production processes, the asset production team in Guangzhou put real heart and soul into their work. A tremendous amount was learned about how to manage remote art teams, get assets produced to quality standards, and communicate difficult art style concepts through language and cultural barriers. Along the way Ken and his team produced some good art – unfortunately, it had to live inside a bad game.
Quality music was provided, at a massive discount, by New York based “The Lodge” – adding at least some polish to an otherwise dodgy product.
Cut-scenes, more than anything, probably the thing that sold the game to the press in early days - were produced by an in-house animation team under the guidance of Trevor’s wife, Ada. Again, these proved that a motivated and creative team could do a lot with very little.
Silly humor and a “political” narrative. For all its faults, the game did deliver on two major promises – to lambast the then sensitive topic of US “fear culture”, and deliver toilet humor in the process. I’m amazed, after all this time, the topic of US fear culture, the fallout from 9/11, and the general state of US foreign policy, internal security policy, etc haven’t resulted in a broader tide of interactive entertainment commentary. As a medium, despite our visual and technological creativity – we’re a sad bunch when it comes to social and political content. I’m certain there are others out there better able to express some of the concepts I attempted in BDLA – I for one wish some brave publisher would give them the chance. Hmmm… “brave publisher”… oh, right. Which reminds me, you have to hand it to Trevor and Enlight for being brave enough to publish something so “out there”.
WHAT WENT WRONG
Wow. So many things.
Game play, AI, physics, and integration of these elements. Lack of mini-games, broken functionality of support characters, missing chaos management game play. Almost any major design feature or technology element you might expect to find in a basic game design was either missing or badly implemented. This was not for lack of trying. The design existed, but ultimately, the technology, and the tech team were unable to deliver on the promise. I estimate the final product contained perhaps 10% of the originally designed features and mechanics. And remember, that design was already geared towards lowered expectations of team and tech ability. Aim low, hit even lower.
Mismanaged expectations. It should have been stated, loud and clear, from the start of the project that this was a budget title. It wasn’t a sequel to “Alice”. It wasn’t even trying to be an “A” title – but to read the reviews of it, you’d think nothing different. This was my fault. On moving to Hong Kong I allowed my “name brand” to be locked into the equation. And from that point forward, BDLA – despite all signals and indicators to the contrary – was doomed to be the deformed, despised “sequel to Alice”.
My inability to judge and then manage the team’s abilities. I knew the team needed help – but I assumed help was wanted and could be offered openly. Looking back, I realize that my “help” was probably more of a hindrance, perhaps even an insult. I stepped into a team with a poisoned culture, “big man from the States”, carrying the expectation that we were going to “build something great” – when the team was, in fact, more than happy to build things that were mediocre. Had we simply pushed for mediocre, instead of struggling to get “best quality and practices” then… who knows, we might have just made something “OK” and not “terrible”. Another way of looking at it: The team previously created a title that ranked a 6.9 on IGN. Under my direction, a 2.7 on IGN! (Then again, maybe IGN was just pissed my name was associated with the thing?)
And there was more: Cultural barriers, communication barriers, work style differences, difficult company management (Chinese “super top down style”), management’s lack of respect for team (no air conditioning on sweltering summer nights), my inability to fire people I knew were poisoning the team, constantly vanishing resources (people secretly shifted between projects), etc, etc, etc.
It’s all the things that went wrong that give me pause when attempting to write about the “bad” of Bad Day LA. It’s not for want of explaining or excusing what happened – but in expressing all the lessons learned. I doubt I’ll ever go through such a bad development again, but mostly because I learned so many lessons going through this bad development. In that way, when I look at BDLA from the right perspective (the one I prefer anyway) it was the most educationally valuable development I’ve ever had the pleasure of guiding to disaster.
These days, Ken and I look back with a tremendous amount of fondness for the team at Enlight, the development of BDLA, and all the great times we had in Hong Kong. Now both in Shanghai, we see what a valuable stepping stone the BDLA development was for us as game creators and individuals.
I’d do the whole thing all over again. But I’d warn all of you beforehand so you knew what to expect.