What happens to developers when their game is cancelled?

How do game developers handle having a project axed?

If every game that ever entered a conceptual phase was guaranteed a release, everyone on the planet would probably have the niche game of their dreams – and a sequel to boot. Unfortunately – for plenty of reasons – that’s simply not feasible for game development.

It’s a rough process, and one that seems to be the norm in the gaming industry. To help learn more about the rough process of game development, we spoke to members of Atomhawk, which has worked on big-name projects such as Mortal Kombat 11, XCOM: Chimera Squad, Sniper Elite 4 and heaps more.

The first step for any game, as we learn from Atomhawk’s Managing Director Tim Wilson, is to start off in concept development. This is where developers try to come up with a loose shape for the game, although according to Wilson, “it’s very rare that a company develops the first idea that they come up with” during this stage. While “lots of ideas” are thrown about during this stage, a couple of lucky ones are evolved further as they get “refined, iterated on or tested”.

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Even for ideas that seem to get far in concept development, it’s no guarantee that anything will come to fruition, as Wilson explains:

“Sometimes an idea that seemed good on paper doesn’t translate to a game that’s fun to play. Equally, different art styles appeal to different gamers, so finding a look that resonates and fits a game tends to require some experimentation to get right.”

If a game survives this obstacle course of development, things are far more promising: the next stop is to enter full development, assuming the green light has been given. This involves “polishing and fleshing out” the final concept “to give it the best chance of fully realising the vision that got people excited at concept stage”, and as development progresses, it’s less likely that the project will be cancelled due to the amount of work and money that has already been committed to the process.

Although Wilson is comfortable with the fact that not all ideas will survive to this stage and feels it can be “a lot of fun” to experiment during the early stages, Atomhawk UK Studio Director Darren Yeomans describes feeling “varying scales of insecurity” when his past projects – some far beyond the concept stage – have been given the axe.

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While Wilson describes a process of learning and evolution that naturally leaves certain projects behind, Yeomans points out that sometimes developers can have no say in a cancellation.

This is often down to whether or not a development studio is signed to a publisher. If so, Yeomans explains, studios have “little to no control over the final decision” and instead must plan ahead to roll with the punches. This means keeping “two or three game proposals you are working on in the background” even during later stages of development, to minimize downtime in case of cancellation. Unfortunately for Yeomans, this is a process that he knows well.

“Back in 1993-1994, I was part of a team that was working on a title featuring a well-known character of the time. The game was a “compendium” featuring three separate titles as part of the package,”

“In those days, you could turn around a game like this in twelve months or less. We were a few weeks away from completion when the publisher suddenly pulled out. All funding for the studio stopped, and the game would never be released.”

He still doesn’t know why the project was scrapped, but the project taught Yeomans the importance of planning ahead, regardless of how close to a finished project you are. In this case, his team had “a few months of trying to find another partner to work with” and they were luckily able to find one. The grim alternative would have been “the end of that studio”.

Similarly, adaptability is crucial to keep projects alive. Yeomans tells of working on a game “for over a year” that was based on a Tom Clancy title. The foundations – and a good deal more – were built, with “several levels completed and well-established gameplay”.

It was going great, until a “massive curveball” was thrown by the publishers. They had secured the rights to use a famous personality in their games, “so to maximise on their investment” a complete pivot was necessary. While the project was eventually completed “after throwing away several levels, months of work and re-writing the script”, it looked nothing like the initial project. In fact, PS2 fans might just recognize the finished project. Instead of a Tom Clancy title, the released game in question was 50 Cent: Blood On The Sand.

For Atomhawk Art Director Drew Whitmore, his experience with cancellation taught him that – in his case – many studios handle the short-term insecurity of this reality poorly. Long before his career at Atomhawk, Whitmore’s old team was hit with a major project cancellation. Instead of having multiple pitches ready to go, he “organized the then-dissociated team into smaller Game Jam teams” to try and get “ideas flowing and getting people excited again”. While he wasn’t around to see the studio’s next major project release, he did notice that much of the work that was birthed during those Game Jam sessions ended up appearing in it.

Yeomans also has good things to say about the Game Jam process, claiming that they’re a great source of projects that eventually make it over the finish line. Out of one to four weeks of rough development, a studio aims to get “two or three rough ideas” that don’t need to be particularly far along development – each one just “has to be fun”.

Despite promising early signs, there’s still no guarantee that a publisher won’t cancel the project. Both Yeomans and Whitmore agree, the cancellation of a project can cause a lot of pain. Yeomans explains that a dead project “can be devastating”, and while the atmosphere of development must be “like a family” for it to work well, stating “I’ve seen titles being pulled that broke people; I’d equate it to a break up in a relationship.”

Drew adds that he’s “been through a fair few large – and infamous – project cancellations, and it’s never fun”. Like Yeomans, part of what hurt so badly is because the development process leads you to “inevitably get attached both to the project and to the people around you.”

He goes on to say that “a project cancellation is something that causes the studio to go through a mourning period”, and describes the post-project stage as almost wake-like in the “sharing of frustrations as well as a celebration and remembrances of good times.”

It can be an incredibly emotional time, and with so much money on the line, it’s surprising that project cancellations are a very real part of the gaming industry. Yeomans explains that there are “so many reasons” that a game can be cancelled.

“Has the market changed? Has another title similar to the one you’re working on been released, and it’s better than you were planning? Is the funding still there from the backers? Did focus testing prove it wasn’t as great an idea as you thought? Did you realise your tech wasn’t up to scratch, or the cost to complete was way above first estimation?”

With seemingly infinite – and often unpredictable – causes for cancellation, it makes a lot of sense to – as Yeomans mentioned previously – keep multiple projects on the backburners, ready to pitch. To avoid that situation entirely, he adds that the best bet to get a project across the finish line comes with “experience and planning”.

“You need to have the right people, in the right positions, with the right experience, in order to have the best chance of seeing an idea brought to life.”

Clearly, there’s a lot of pain behind the decision to cancel a project, whether or not the developing studio even gets to make the decision. With so much money and personal investment on the line, it comes as some surprise to hear that there are – as Wilson mentioned – positives to scrapped projects. As Managing Director, Wilson is comfortable with the reality of the practice, as he feels that “Many ideas must die so one great idea might live!”

Whitmore shares that cancelled projects have taught him first-hand “how well people come together in that moment of shared hardship”. Furthermore, while cancelled games and work-in-progress titles are scrapped all the time, the games industry often acts as a safety net for the individuals affected by these decisions:

“If it involves a studio closure, people are very quick and happy to share jobs and help people get back on their feet. Even years or decades after these projects are closed or studios evaporated, these groups are still around and active.”

Yeomans also tries to see the positive, and agrees with Wilson that they can be learning experiences. “Not every project you work on will be a hit, so take it as a learning opportunity and move forward a wiser person.”

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