Document Archive: Privateer 2 Post Mortem (August 11, 2013)

Bandit LOAF

Long Live the Confederation!
The Darkening is still a sore subject in some areas today, owing largely to the conflict between EA UK and Origin in Austin over the game's release. This post-mortem document was created in 1996 by the team in Origin responsible for supporting the game... and it's safe to say that no love was lost.









--
Original update published on August 11, 2013
 
Last edited by a moderator:

Mekt-Hakkikt

Mpanty's bane
Hmm, strange I don't remember the Priv2 AI being so incredibly dumb. I don't remember Priv2 to be hard but I don't remember as being ridiculously easy as well. And the Jincilla Skull sure was hard to hit. And I disagreee with "The more stuff the better"...I think Priva 2 had enough weapons and equipment (though it did have less cool modifiers than Priv1, like scanners, armour type and so on)...and it had too many ships that served no purpose.

But its graphics did not rival TIE fighter's, it was far more beautiful.
 

MasterWandu

1st Lieutenant
My anger at that game is justified! I was one of those "loyal" privateer fans that they hoped to capture by making use of the Privateer title. "Ultimately, the name Privateer 2 was applied to this game to attract the loyal customer base". Allow me to paraphrase: "We were concerned that our sales forecasts were not going to be met, so we decided to deceive the loyal fan base with the promise of a privateer sequel, in the hope they would purchase our sub-par product, be happy with it even though it had NOTHING to do with privateer or the wing commander universe whatsoever, and hopefully not ask for a refund due to our deceit". I half expected Wing Commander Prophecy to follow suit, but thank goodness Chris was back at the directive, creative and ethical helm for that one. Makes me wonder how Chris ever gave the go-ahead (if he had any input at all) for the Privateer name to be sullied in the way that it was with "The darkening".
 

Wedge009

Rogue Leader
No love lost indeed. Page 5 seems to summarise that sentiment most succinctly. I didn't consider that Origin's reputation was so tarnished by the game. Also, though it may be a one-sided statement, page 11 and 19 show Erin Roberts in a pretty poor light.

At least the team still had some sense of humour, which you can see on page 34!

And Master Wandu? Assuming you're referring to Chris Roberts, Chris had nothing to do with Prophecy. It was the first main WC game without any of his input since he had already left Origin at that point.
 

MasterWandu

1st Lieutenant
Thx Wedge, I stand corrected. The original draft of my post had mentioned WCIV, but then I realised it was released before the darkening... So a ninja edit with poor results!
 

Quarto

Unknown Enemy
No love lost indeed. Page 5 seems to summarise that sentiment most succinctly. I didn't consider that Origin's reputation was so tarnished by the game. Also, though it may be a one-sided statement, page 11 and 19 show Erin Roberts in a pretty poor light.
Well, if you think about it, Privateer 2 is pretty much the embodiment of what "tarnished reputation" means. Origin had a reputation for always putting out well-polished products. When one product is released that fails to meet this level of quality, that reputation is tarnished. Keep in mind, "tarnished" is not the same as "lost". The CS staff weren't worried about customers never buying an Origin game again - they were simply pointing out that where previously, the quality of an Origin title was a certainty for customers, it would no longer be so in the future because of Privateer 2. That table comparing customer support for P2 with other Origin titles speaks volumes. It's not that the user feedback is overwhelming (as it probably would be in the future with U8 and U9), actually it was probably on par with what many other companies were experiencing, because the mid-1990s were a time of very buggy releases - it's just that when you compare it to previous titles from Origin, those stats looks awful.

The Erin Roberts bit is definitely the most interesting part of the document. I already knew Privateer 2 was an awful game, and I already knew the UK team had failed to implement a lot of feedback from Origin, but I always thought it was just because they were pig-headed - as it turns out, the team never got the memo, because Erin Roberts seems to have kept the feedback away from them. However, as you say, it's one-sided (which is of course exactly how a document like this will always be, because the objective isn't to put out neutral conclusions, but to bring issues from the CS to the table), so this shouldn't be taken to mean that Erin Roberts was a terrible producer who messed up the game, though there is definitely an implication that he did not do the job as well as should be expected.

Based on my own experiences, let me say a few things in his defence. You know, I've been in similar situations, stuck in that middle ground between the team and the feedback from the head office. The key thing to keep in mind here is that the head office is never a monolith delivering one set of feedback. It's actually several separate streams of feedback from different people who make no attempt to coordinate their messages. It always comes down to the producer being expected to juggle multiple balls, and ultimately, for the producer, the question isn't even how to juggle all those balls at once, but simply - which ones he can afford to drop at any point.

The scenario I can imagine actually taking place here is as follows:
1. The team is making a game. They have their own vision, they presented their own estimates for how long everything will take, and EA has accepted these estimates as deadlines. Erin Roberts, as the guy who worked on Privateer, is making sure that the vision is sound, but he is not necessarily there from day one. He may have been sent in after a few months, when someone started getting concerned that the game was not heading in the right direction (see #2 below).

2. Things start going wrong. It's one thing to have a sound vision. It's another to put it together. Someone (Erin Roberts? EA? Origin is not in the picture yet at this stage) is taking things for granted. The team is getting frustrated, because Privateer was built upon several previous iterations of WC games, and most game subsystems only needed to be tweaked a bit, while here, everything needs to be implemented from scratch. The team had its deadlines, remember? But these deadlines were calculated based on the features that the team had planned. Now they're finding out that they are expected to add other features because they can't backtrack in comparison to Privateer, but no extra time is being given, because these features are supposedly small things. The line that they are probably hearing time and again is as follows: "Come on, guys, we had [comm videos/mouse control/whatever] in Privateer, how hard can it be to add that here?" But this is a new engine, and there's simply no time to implement everything.

3. As a consequence, people start making tradeoffs. The team scales back on some of the features they wanted to implement - perhaps limiting them, or simply implementing them in a shoddy fashion - in order to add into the schedule some of the features that EA or Erin Roberts wants them to implement. Time and again, (probably) Erin Roberts is asked to approve compromises along these lines: "Well, we can't implement an animated comm video system... but how about if we just put a small picture there? We'll hack together the pictures from dev team photos, and we'll write and record the taunts right here. It will be fun!"

4. Finally, the game is complete enough to send to the QA team at Origin. The team looks at it, and is horrified - it's a mess. Dozens of features have literally been compromised. They send their feedback to Erin Roberts. He is shocked - he'd been in this trench for so long, he's so used to these compromises, that he simply hadn't realised how unacceptable they might be for others. He's also angry, in the team's name - so they had put all this extra effort in order to implement at least a vestigial comm system, and now the guys from Origin are whining that there's no proper animations? I'm picking on the comm system here, by the way, because it's an easy example to imagine, not because it's so crucial to the game. It's not that Erin doesn't like the feedback, he may well agree with it - but he knows it cannot all be done, and he knows that ultimately, he's responsible to the execs who approved the budget and schedule, not to the QA guys. There will be real consequences for his team if they fail to meet their deadlines - but if they get the game out with a few unpolished features, only the QA guys will complain. It may also be that the Erin and the team are so caught up in the game, that they genuinely think it's a great title that the QA team is just picking on. Remember, it's the team's first title of this kind, and they have much to be proud of. Unfortunately, developers often get too caught up in their work to realise that just because you can be proud of doing something for the first time doesn't mean that it's actually good work. It's like a five-year-old proud of his wonky drawing, and expecting that everyone else compare it to the Mona Lisa simply because it's the best that he can do. I'm not saying this is Erin's attitude - he may well realise that the game is not as good as he wanted, but with the deadline fast approaching, he does not want to demoralise the team by bursting their bubble. If you've got someone working twelve hours a day six days a week to get the game done on time, the last thing you want is to tell him that actually, unless he works sixteen hours a day seven days a week, the game will ultimately

5. To conceal what is going on, Erin Roberts time and again tells the QA guys at Origin that this or that cannot be done. What he actually means is that it cannot be done without compromising the release schedule or pulling someone off other tasks - in other words, he does not mean it cannot be done, but that he does not want to do it. It's a reasonable approach that all producers use sometimes, but it will have consequences later on - not the least of which is the fact that when the QA team later starts dealing with Paul Hughes, they will wind up thinking that Erin Roberts had simply fobbed them off with lies. He said this and that cannot be done, but Paul Hughes says it's no problem! He's a terrible liar! Well, no, that's not true. He simply did not explain to them the reasons why he didn't want to do something - he should have, but it probably would not have changed anything. For Paul Hughes, after the game's release, priorities are different - instead of EA breathing down his neck to meet the deadline, he's got EA breathing down his neck to address the problems that QA and now Customer Support are reporting: obviously he'll appear to be more cooperative.

6. On top of all that, add in the usual communications issues: when Erin Roberts tells them that something cannot be done, while Paul Hughes didn't even know the issue existed, that doesn't mean Erin didn't really talk to anyone about it. He was there on location, so he probably figured - I'll talk to the programmer first, ask him how much time he needs, and then if it's reasonable, I'll discuss it with Paul. Since the answer he got from the programmer made it seem like the issue is not worth bothering with, Paul Hughes never found out about it. These issues exist on the other end, as well - if Erin Roberts did reply to the QA feedback that the game's schedule does not allow him to fix this or that problem, this could well have been garbled locally at Origin into "Erin just said they can't do it".

All of the above is just guesswork - I'm digging into my own experiences to show the various ways these things can go wrong, but I obviously am not claiming that this is what happened in the case of Privateer 2. There are doubtless many other possibilities. The point is - while obviously the QA team at Origin was justifiably bitter because they had put in lots of work in testing the game and providing feedback only to find themselves ignored, it is impossible to pin the blame on just one person. The reality on the ground would have been too complex for that.
 

MasterWandu

1st Lieutenant
@Quarto, nice insight based on your own experiences, was an interesting read. To be fair on Erin, where did I read somewhere that the game was never intended to be called Privateer 2 in the first place, but was a decision taken by a 3rd party (EA?) at the last moment? I'm sure LOAF or someone else with a library-type catalogue system in their head will be able to provide a link... my googling didn't turn up much. I have a feeling the decision was taken to try and mitigate the poor sales they thought would arise due to the poor implementation and lack of certain features... I can see (if artistic integrity or just plain integrity wasn't a factor), why they would make this decision, as I don't think the game would have had a fraction of it's popularity and therefore sales, had it not borne the "Privateer" name.
 

Dondragmer

Rear Admiral
To be fair on Erin, where did I read somewhere that the game was never intended to be called Privateer 2 in the first place, but was a decision taken by a 3rd party (EA?) at the last moment?

My copy of the WC4 Playguide ends with a page advertising:

COMING SOON:
Chart your own course to the seamy side of the universe in The Darkening, starring Clive Owen, Christopher Walken and John Hurt. On Crius, there's a fine line between your enemies and your business partners. But when you have no past how can you know what the future holds?

THE DARKENING
An Erin Roberts Game

The WCPedia scan of the WC4 Playguide ends just before this point. Does it appear in other people's copies?

Being in the WC4 documentation, the advertisement should probably have mentioned that "The Darkening" was a space sim. (There are no screenshots - just a moody logo of a planet.) However, it also clearly does not use the word "Privateer", or make any claim to be like any game in the Wing Commander series.

So yes, the game was not originally titled "Privateer 2". I'm sure I saw similar advertisements for the title, but I don't have any to hand. Neither can I answer the second part of your question: who made the decision to change the title?
 

Wedge009

Rogue Leader
The Erin Roberts bit is definitely the most interesting part of the document. I already knew Privateer 2 was an awful game, and I already knew the UK team had failed to implement a lot of feedback from Origin, but I always thought it was just because they were pig-headed - as it turns out, the team never got the memo, because Erin Roberts seems to have kept the feedback away from them. However, as you say, it's one-sided (which is of course exactly how a document like this will always be, because the objective isn't to put out neutral conclusions, but to bring issues from the CS to the table), so this shouldn't be taken to mean that Erin Roberts was a terrible producer who messed up the game, though there is definitely an implication that he did not do the job as well as should be expected.
That's why I was taking the middle-ground - realising that there were legitimate concerns raised by the support team, but I can also imagine there would be more to consider if we heard Erin's side of the story.
 

Ijuin

Admiral
"The Darkening" was entertaining enough to play, and I enjoyed that some of the non-plot missions had fun cinematic scenes, but it was no Privateer.
 

Quarto

Unknown Enemy
@Quarto, nice insight based on your own experiences, was an interesting read. To be fair on Erin, where did I read somewhere that the game was never intended to be called Privateer 2 in the first place, but was a decision taken by a 3rd party (EA?) at the last moment? I'm sure LOAF or someone else with a library-type catalogue system in their head will be able to provide a link... my googling didn't turn up much. I have a feeling the decision was taken to try and mitigate the poor sales they thought would arise due to the poor implementation and lack of certain features... I can see (if artistic integrity or just plain integrity wasn't a factor), why they would make this decision, as I don't think the game would have had a fraction of it's popularity and therefore sales, had it not borne the "Privateer" name.
Yes, this is correct - Privateer 2 started off as The Darkening... and let's face it, it ended as The Darkening as well, the "Privateer 2" bit nonwithstanding.

We have to make a distinction between two things, though - the brand, and the gameplay. As far as the brand is concerned, The Darkening became a part of the Privateer brand at the very last moment. It may have been modified in some ways as a result, though it's hard to see any trace of such changes (I don't for a moment believe the Talon easter egg is any indication here, any more than the Bloodfang in U7 was an indication of U7 joining the Wing Commander universe).

Gameplay-wise, on the other hand, The Darkening had always been intended to be a take on the Privateer concept. As far as I know, Erin Roberts was involved with the project from an early stage; he wasn't sent there to help EA Manchester turn a non-Privateer game into a Privateer game, but to help them make a Privateer game in the first place (even when it wasn't intended to be called Privateer 2). Did the rebranding have any impact on the gameplay? Presumably so - I think it may have been one of the reasons Origin's QA team was testing the game and providing feedback in the first place.


That's why I was taking the middle-ground - realising that there were legitimate concerns raised by the support team, but I can also imagine there would be more to consider if we heard Erin's side of the story.

Yes. It certainly would be interesting to hear from him - maybe now that LOAF is working alongside Erin's brother, he can use his connections to get Erin Roberts' retrospective on Priv 2 for next year.
 
Top