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After Aliens: Colonial Marines, can Gearbox be trusted with Homeworld?

23 Apr 2013  by   Peter Parrish
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Yesterday, the saga of one of THQ’s much-beloved and underused licenses came to its conclusion. Homeworld, the groundbreaking 3D real-time strategy title, was purchased for $1.35 million USD at bankruptcy auction by Gearbox Software. Gearbox quickly announced that their immediate intent for the license was getting the original two games onto digital distribution platforms.

Under normal circumstances, the news that Homeworld and Homeworld 2 might soon be available to buy on Steam or GoG or similar would’ve been met with merriment and joy. But Gearbox being revealed as the mystery license-buyer produced a mixed bunch of responses, ranging from “Great news! Thanks Gearbox!” to “I want to die.”

Gearbox Logo

Why? Because Aliens: Colonial Marines, that’s why.

The last game released with Gearbox’s name on it wasn’t just a stinker, it was a title shrouded in development woes, enigmatic denials and counter-denials about who exactly was to blame, and one piece of outright deception.

Among games writers, the E3 2011 demo of Aliens: Colonial Marines is now infamous for the extent to which it differed from the final release version. Lighting effects, alien AI behaviour and general atmosphere all took a nosedive before the actual release, and certain scenes shown in the demo didn’t appear in the game at all. ‘Hands off’ demo events are already near-farcical in how useless they are for writing accurate previews, but the egregious misrepresentation of A:CM was something else entirely.

That E3 demo footage, and the previews based around it, were all worthless in terms of helping to inform the public about the game. During the event, Gearbox’s Randy Pitchford described the footage as “real live gameplay.” In retrospect, it was clear that his studio had misled public and press alike.

Aliens: Colonial Marines

It’s one thing for a studio to release a bad game. By most rational indications it’s rarely intentional, and it can be forgiven. But in an industry that’s now pathetically dependant upon pre-order sales, A:CM was a serious breech of trust between developer and customer. One which should not easily be forgotten.

To the public’s credit, it seems as if it hasn’t been. People are also recalling that the last wayward IP Gearbox pulled from the burning wreckage resulted in the dreadful Duke Nukem Forever. Hence the reticence and scepticism that has accompanied this announcement.

That’s healthy to see, because too often past company behaviour drifts out of the collective memory. The rapid videogame news cycle is partly to blame for this, as is the broader lack of information available to those outside the bubble of specialist game sites, forums and social media. How many people outside of this ‘insider’ core would know that the same developer was responsible for Borderlands 2 and A:CM? Or even knew half the scandal behind A:CM’s seven year development?

That’s why it’s vital for the games press and word of mouth to keep these details in the public domain as best they can. Informed people can make informed purchasing choices.

Homeworld

Gearbox’s first stated move with the Homeworld IP will be to “… preserve and assemble the purest form of the original acclaimed and beloved games, Homeworld and Homeworld 2, with the intent of making them accessible on today’s leading digital platforms.”

That, at least, sounds pretty safe. It’ll be handled by Brian Martel, Gearbox’s Chief Creative Officer, and a self-proclaimed fan of the series. There were a few confused criticisms about the inclusion of the word “accessible” in that statement yesterday, but it seems pretty clear that it just refers to making the games available for purchase again. Not messing about with the gameplay mechanics.

Whatever else happens with the license, Gearbox making the first two games available in their “purest form” will be a welcome service. And, no doubt, a fairly lucrative one.

Homeworld 2

However, it seems unlikely that the studio paid $1.35 million USD just to re-issue some lost classics. What the team plans to do with the IP in future is what’s causing added concern.

Gearbox has not released an RTS title and (as far as can be ascertained) does not have vast expertise in this area. It’s quite possible that individual members of staff working there have RTS development experience, but as a collective studio there is no RTS pedigree. If you’re feeling super optimistic, this means the company is a blank slate when it comes to the genre.

If you’re allowing your mind to wander to terrible places, you might now be arriving at the concept of Homeworld 3 being something else entirely. Maybe an FPS. Or an MMO. Or whatever other nightmarish construct you can create inside your brain. Don’t dwell on such speculation for too long, you may go mad.

Here’s what we know for sure: Gearbox will be bringing the original pair of Homeworld games to digital platforms, giving many people their first chance to play this fine series. That can only be a good thing; though it would be understandable if those burned by Duke Nukem Forever or A:CM pre-orders felt reticent about giving the same company more money.

Duke Nukem Forever

Beyond that, we can only guess that the price paid for the IP means Gearbox has further plans of some sort for the Homeworld license. They’re a studio who in recent years have been responsible for one critically acclaimed series (Borderlands,) one terrible FPS (Duke Nukem Forever) and one other terrible FPS (A:CM) whose marketing was actively misleading. That’s a somewhat hit-and-miss record (with a dash of duplicity) which suggests that, if nothing else, fans should be wary of any potential Homeworld 3 trailers and steer clear of pre-ordering it.

Oh, and it might be worth keeping an eye on Hardware, a free-to-play game that’s being made by former Homeworld developers at Blackbird Interactive.

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  1. Elwyn

    Hey Gearbox, can you finish Aliens: Colonial Marines first?

    If you outsource Homeworld 3, choose a company that cares and don’t ruin it by interfering too much.

    April 24, 2013 at 6:05 am
  2. Avatar of
    nasarius

    I hope this might inspire at least one other developer to go make something that’s like Homeworld, but not Homeworld. Was there really anything special about that IP? It had a nice story, but everything in the actual game was fairly standard sci-fi. We’re not talking about Star Wars here, where each ship is still a cultural icon.

    There’s nothing stopping Relic from developing a new IP to make a spiritual sequel, just as we’ve seen recently with Planescape -> Numenera. Hell, they might even be able to use the WH40K license and make a spacefaring game in the spirit of Rogue Trader. That could be fantastic.

    April 24, 2013 at 6:29 am
  3. Avatar of
    Tim McDonald

    A Rogue Trader game would be wonderful.

    I’m with Nasarius, to an extent, in that I don’t have a huge amount of love for Homeworld’s IP, though I know a fair few people do. That’s not to knock it – I seem to remember it being a really well-written game with a good story, a good plot, and solid voice acting tying it together – but I don’t really miss the Kushan, or anything. Hell, I had to look up the name of that race.

    What worries me is that Homeworld was a game that got modded up the wazoo (I seem to recall seeing Star Trek, Star Wars, and Babylon 5 ships drifting around after a few downloads) and that really extended its life and its appeal. Any sequel really needs decent mod support, and I just can’t see Gearbox supporting that, unfortunately.

    April 24, 2013 at 6:47 am

  4. DavidTheSlayer

    I’m with Tim and Nasarius as well, didn’t really play Homeworld but I did play Freelancer. I know Gearbox Software is behind Borderlands and they did a cracking good job on that, but my guess is as good as anyones about how Homeworld will turn out.

    April 24, 2013 at 5:19 pm

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