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Aliens: Colonial Marines and the Tragedy of Glitchy Games

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I’ve rarely encountered a video game so universally reviled and technically dysfunctional as Sega’s Aliens: Colonial Marines.

It’s been six months now, and the shock, dismay and horror of it all has finally begun to recede into the hazy, dimly lit halls of troubled memories. Now that emotions have begun to settle down, I think it’s safe to explore the root of what went wrong in more detail.  It also seems important for developers everywhere to take stock of how this highly anticipated, six-years-in-the-making, big-budget programming effort went so dramatically off the rails.

When the game was finally released into the wild last February, it took no time at all for die-hard fans of the Alien franchise, like myself, to realize that something was seriously amiss.  Most noticeably, the final graphics conveyed nothing of the eerie atmosphere, dynamic lighting and careful attention to detail seen in early work-in-progress demos.  The storyline and gameplay also left much to be desired.  But the most damning critiques hit at a deeper level.  As people began to sit down and play it, they simply couldn’t fathom how unbelievably buggy it was.

“There are serious glitches to be found,” one reviewer lamented, “often in the vein of weird debug code popping into random gameplay sequences and then just disappearing, environments simply not loading properly, or character and xenomorph animations flipping out into spazzy, bizarre flurries of movement. It’s ugly stuff…”

“And that doesn’t account for nonvisual bugs,” a Gamespot review added, “such as scripting errors, and the occasions when you spawn into the game in a nigh-unusable third-person view.”

“Spotty artificial intelligence, broken path finding, and terrible netcode are just a few of the problems,” Digital Trends observed.

And the question on everyone’s mind was: How could a game that spent so many years in production end up so thoroughly riddled with poorly vetted code?

But perhaps the question answers itself.  Since the release of Aliens, developers have come forward, often anonymously on gaming message boards or forums like Reddit, describing the project’s history as a “total train wreck,” a programming pileup in which the game suffered extended periods of neglect after the Aliens license was acquired by Sega, who then contracted Gearbox Software to produce it, who in turn outsourced the project’s completion to the less renowned TimeGate Studios, after Gearbox’s main dev teams grew preoccupied with work on their own title Borderlands 2.  Production deadlines kept getting pushed back, making Sega’s excited announcement of the game in 2006 seem increasingly absurd.  And some observers noted that some of the game’s code seemed to have been left relatively abandoned since the initial flurry of development first began on the project six years ago.  “It’s quite fascinating to study the .ini files,” one customer wrote in a Gearbox forum filled with enterprising, code-savvy gamers trying to salvage the game themselves.  “In PecanCompat.ini you can see all the graphics cards that qualify for a certain class. The most modern graphics card in that list is from 2007!”

The code-in-progress also repeatedly changed hands, after being developed to a certain extent by one dev team and then switched to another.  According to a programmer interviewed last spring by Kotaku, communication between Gearbox’s lead developers and TimeGate’s team was iffy at best:

“[T]oo many people gave feedback on both ends and it ultimately led to further delays…. In one case, working on a particular task took me a month to finalize, as there was inconsistent and delayed feedback.”

Moreover, many of the game’s developers didn’t slip through the corporate cracks and have had to personally face the consequences of their badly written lines of code.  Some suffered the fallout almost immediately, with TimeGate reportedly firing many of the key developers soon after the game’s dismal launch, only to lay off the majority of their staff a few weeks later when the company filed for bankruptcy.  And the reputations of Sega and Gearbox have been duly tarnished as well.  A class action suit has been filed (see PDF link) against both companies for failing to deliver a product resembling what was promised in the demos, with a disgruntled, litigious gamer claiming that Sega and Gearbox engaged in “a classic bait-and-switch” as well as false advertising, breach of warranties, fraud in the inducement, negligent misrepresentation, and other consumer law violations.  As of last month, the software firms were still defending their product, though rumor has it that Sega may be planning to turn around and sue Gearbox for financial damages as well.

After reading so many reports from devs inside Gearbox and TimeGate, with both sides confirming the same basic story but blaming each other, it’s clear to me that Aliens: Colonial Marines is a classic tale of too many cooks in the kitchen spoiling a great stew, while also leaving it simmering on a back burner for far too long.  But to the chagrin of fans everywhere—and, no doubt, the developers as well—it has also become clear that this sci-fi software nightmare could have been avoided if there’d simply been some decent project management between developers and, yes, better code review.

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Comments

  1. Excellent review! Good software is a kind of miracle of engineering and production management. The debacle you’ve described reminds us how much we take for granted.

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