In this installment of Crash Course, you’ll learn how a movie tie-in game influenced and created the control scheme we all use today when we play our favorite First Person Shooters.

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Aliens: Resurrection and Argonaut Games

In the 90s, 20th Century Fox was looking into making a new entry into the Aliens Franchise. Most movie companies during this period also had video game tie-ins made by their in-house developers or well-known makers such as Capcom. Fox Interactive reached out to Argonaut Games and inked a deal to develop the upcoming yet-to-be-released Aliens title.

Development began on a rocky start when Argonaut Games, the developer, wasn’t provided clarification on what “Aliens” franchise they would be working on. So, trying to get a head start, they began working on an Alien vs Predator game since all they had to go on was rumors. The game they took inspiration from, LOADED, was a top-down shooter in cramped corridors with heavy levels of blood and gore. This meshed nicely with the then-revealed franchise, Alien: Resurrection, aka Aliens IV, and work began properly on three versions of the game in early 1996 (Home Computer, Sega Saturn, and Sony Playstation) when the game was expected to release before 1997 premiere of the movie.

Right out of the gate during the development timeline, Fox Interactive made the development team’s life very difficult by asking them to make a video game featured in the Aliens’ universe, since Joss Whedon wrote that into the movie.They had to immediately try to push out “Atom Zone” in time for the movie’s shooting schedule, which meant they needed it NOW. Argonauts were able to whip something up in THREE DAYS (That’s impressive there!) that met their needs. It was a fully playable game initially, but the movie needed specifically reproducible things to happen on screen, so the team made a demo that hit all of the beats that the director wanted. That said, the team at Argonaut Games did not get paid for “Atom Zone.” Instead, the team was promised a screen credit for all of the hard work, according to Jez San, the boss of Argonaut Games. Also, there were some soft plans for “Atom Zone” to possibly be included as an in-game easter egg or as a playable game alongside the release of Aliens: Resurrection. These plans fell through for reasons that will become obvious.

Fox Interactive gave copies of all the daily shooting footage to Argonaut Games to help them with the development and give them something to reference. This would be fine, but… Fox Interactive didn’t trim any footage that wasn’t being used or anything when they handed it over. This means the development team could likely refer to something in the footage just for it never to end up in the movie. That’s a big problem. Also, sifting through all that footage bogged development and slowed it to a crawl. Mike Wilson, the Lead Artist from Argonauts Games, said, “There was a cabinet full of VHS tapes which, to be honest, were too boring to sit through.” Another issue the movie had which impacted the game’s development is that the tone and structure changed, with scenes being shuffled, added, or cut on a whim during the movie’s shooting schedule. Trying to develop for a “moving target” is impossible, which Argonaut Games found out pretty quickly.

The Unexpected Influence of Tomb Raider

The industry was in the midst of change, and one of the games to showcase this change was Tomb Raider. The game stole the spotlight from prettty much every other game, ariving around the same time the Alien: Resurrection movie made its big screen debut, The staff at Argonaut had a tough decision to make. Argonaut Games’ boss Jez San said, “What they originally asked us to do, we did. And then we decided to throw it all away and start again from scratch.”

The old version of the game they have been working on, 60% complete, did not compare well to the fluid game mechanics of Tombraider, and would have to be thrown out. Tomb Raider made whatever they had been working on look antiquated in comparison. They couldn’t release a game in this state. That being said, they went back to the drawing board and began anew using the engine from Croc, one of the most successful games to date and the engine they were most familiar with.

Tim Moss, Programmer from Argonaut Games, said, “I was hoping we could reuse a lot of the work we did, but that just wasn’t possible. That’s why so many people started to get cheesed off with it and went to do something else. It was just redoing stuff. Once you’ve already done something, you don’t want to do it again.” Around 30% of the team would opt to no longer work on this project, probably because they saw the writing on the wall and this game was heading for trouble and fast.

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Atom Zone appeared in Aliens: Resurrection for about 8 seconds.

Fox Interactive invited the team for a private screening of the complete movie. The team saw that the movie wasn’t fairing much better than the game, and that’s not a good sign. Remember that game “Atom Zone” they had to crunch and complete and didn’t get paid for? It was featured in the movie for 8 seconds. Yes, 8 seconds for three days’ worth of slaving and crunch. This truly dishearted the team, but development carried on. It’s hard to get your staff excited about a game that’s had so many issues and a movie that’s already been released. Fox Interactive, getting nervous about their investment into the tie-in game, began to put more pressure on Argonaut Games by doubling their marketing efforts, trying to hype the game up. Fox Interactive was using old builds and CGI to help promote the game. At this point, the only work done had been for the Sony Playstation.

The devs had to deal with a litany of issues, such as the following:

  • Everything was remade into 3D skinned models, which tanked the game’s framerate.
  • The AI of the Xenomorphs was too simple and would waltz in and swipe at the player and not do much else.
  • The draw distance and pop-in of textures of the game were so bad that if they didn’t keep it to its bare minimum, then the game wouldn’t be playable at all.
  • Last but not least, the game wasn’t “scary.” Aliens are supposed to be scary. It just wasn’t.

A breakthrough happened during development when someone suggested swapping the game to the first-person format used when crawling through tunnels and vents. This helped immensely and added to the fear factor of having a limited field of view, and relying on your radar. What’s funny is that Argonaut Games have never made a First-Person Shooter before this one. They had done Loaded, which this project’s original design was based on, but that was never an FPS.

Jez San, Boss at Argonaut Games, says, “Technically, the new perspective wasn’t a huge change, as we have a general purpose 3D engine, so the changes were mostly in the level designs. I think the main decision to move it to first-person was so that you have stuff jump out at you.” The team had to remove many of the assets again, but now that they could see a finish line. They pulled it together to make all the assets needed to make the game cohesive. Entire levels, voice acting, and all were discarded in an attempt to streamline development and get it over the finish line.

During the final months of development, programmers and QA testers put their heads together and worked on a unique control scheme for the Dual Shock controller for the Playstation. They created a control scheme where the left thumbstick was used for strafing and lateral movement, and the right thumbstick controlled your point of view. They even took the time to include a control scheme for those people who had a mouse at the time. How thoughtful!

The testers became so adept with the new “Dual Analog” control scheme that they could clear the game easily with the pistol and nothing else. This led the developers to think that the game might have been “too easy.” they tweaked the difficulty, and the game was released to… widespread moaning and groaning about the difficulty level, the new control scheme, the lack of health placement, and the xenomorphs ability to kill you in a heartbeat.

Halo: Combat Evolved generally gets the credit for the control system they copied from Aliens: Insurrection.

Gamespot famously said the following about the game, “The game’s control setup is its most terrifying element.” and “almost unplayably difficult to control and unreasonably hard to enjoy.” They went on to award the game a 4.7 out of 10. The game, to this day, has a 61 on Metacritic, and it certainly wasn’t helped by the fact that another Aliens franchise game was released a year prior in the form of Rebellion’s Aliens versus Predator.

What is interesting about all of this is that Halo: Combat Evolved for the Microsoft Xbox and would more or less take the credit not a year later for this “new and revolutionary” control scheme, which would go on to become the de facto control schemes for FPS games using a controller.

Fox eventually sold its video game studio to Vivendi Universal in 2003. Argonaut Games’ last game was in 2005; unfortunately, that game, Catwoman, was critically panned. Due to the terrible market performance of the game, the studio had to lay off all its staff. Most of those who were let go ended up joining Rocksteady and helped make Batman Arkham Asylum the smash success it was.

Seemingly simple things like game controllers can shape the industry and change the course of gaming history and my next story about Russia, and the 80s will show you exactly why that is. Make sure to tune in every Thursday from Noon to 2 pm (3 to 5 pm EST) for your weekly Crash Course.

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James G. Kennedy
James G. Kennedy