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The Game Effect Editorial

Behind the Scenes: I Am Alive's Development Disaster

The story behind the seven year development of Ubisoft's disaster game

By Daniel Jones on 4/19/2012
Stan Mettra is wary of the media. The Creative Director of I Am Alive seems slightly uncomfortable as we walk around the Boston Convention Center at PAX East. Maybe it's because he's still jet-lagged after his flight from Shanghai or because English is his second language, but his apprehension is palpable. As the interview concludes at a small table on the side of the expo hall, it becomes clear why that is.

"You're not still recording are you?" His French accent stutters slightly as he looks at the voice recorder on the table. I reassure him that it's turned off and he explains that he was burned by a reporter months ago after making some off-color remarks when the interview was supposedly over.

The website IncGamers set off a firestorm among the PC gaming community when they quoted Mettra as saying, "We've heard loud and clear that PC gamers are bitching about there being no version for them. But are these people just making noise just because there's no version or because it's a game they actually want to play? Would they buy it if we made it?" Mettra had become PC gamer enemy number one and doesn't want to drudge up old wounds.

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His apprehension isn't from jet-lag, nor is it from any sort of language barrier. No, Mettra simply doesn't know whether or not to trust me. "I got in trouble for that one," He says, recalling that interview with IncGamers in November. Because of his guarded attitude, our interview ends up littered with PR speak and fluffy euphemisms.

With the recorder off, Mettra becomes much more relaxed. I can almost see the pressure this man has been under for the past few months rising off his shoulders like an apocalyptic dust cloud. I Am Alive ended up being the most expensive project in Ubisoft history, going through several iterations, two different developers and over six years in the making. Now, it's finally released to the public as a budget-priced downloadable title, at just $15. Not an ideal price for a game that had already cost Ubisoft $32 million before the Shanghai studio took over development in 2009.

Indeed, the very fact that we're sitting at PAX talking about I Am Alive seems like a small miracle. Calling the game's development tumultuous would be a terrible understatement. The game that wouldn't die was born with an uphill battle from the start.

A Disaster of Apocalyptic Proportions

 Note: Much of the following information was provided to The Game Effect by a former employee of a developer on the project who wishes to remain anonymous. 

French developer Darkworks had a strong working relationship with Ubisoft. The two companies were close in proximity to each other in Paris and had just collaborated on the survival horror title Cold Fear for the Xbox and PS2. Despite some mixed reviews, the game was considered a success for the two companies.

Months after the release of Cold Fear, Darkworks started planning out their next project, a game their General Manager, Guillaume Gouraud had high hopes for. Concept artists and writers went to work on an apocalyptic horror game. However, pre-production on what was then known only as Alive, was lengthy and itinerant. The team went through various iterations on the original concept. Says our source about the pre-production, "We went from a zombie survival game to a squad-based action game with rollercoaster rides to a single-avatar pseudo-stealth one (also with rollercoaster rides though)."

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Darkworks had a hard time selling Ubisoft on the project. They pitched executives several times on the various concepts, creating four different prototypes to help demo the game to the publisher. They failed to sell the concept multiple times before finally succeeding, in 2007, with the idea of a post-apocalyptic survival adventure, but oddly enough, still featuring rollercoasters.

The Darkworks leadership was tightly knit with the execs at Ubisoft and though the publisher would have normally cancelled the project after the first couple failed prototypes, Alive was allowed more leeway than it may have deserved. The concept was appealing to Ubisoft CCO Serge Hascoët who believed the game would join Assassin's Creed and Splinter Cell at the top of the publisher's ranks. He had to fight for the project to be green-lit against a vocal opposition from other executives.
Ubisoft CEO Yves Guillemot called for all hands on deck. If Ubisoft was going to pour money and resources into Alive, they would need to ensure that Darkworks remained on track. For Hascoët, this meant entrenching Ubisoft employees at Darkworks headquarters to work alongside the team. This approach ended up creating a stressful work environment for the Darkworks employees. "Ubisoft thought it would lead to a greater collaboration (and of course, greater control), Darkworks thought of it as a hostile takeover and proof that Ubisoft didn't want to let them hold the creative ownership," says the anonymous former Darkworks employee.

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It didn't take long for the friendly relationship to turn sour. Ubisoft didn't trust Darkworks and Darkworks didn't trust Ubisoft. For every Darkworks team member, there seemed to be a Ubisoft employee to back them up, or watch over their shoulder. Turnover at the studio was high as the pressure from Ubisoft and the management ate away at the team members. Our source describes the situation saying, "We had no less than two art directors (at the same time!), two creative directors, two lead game designers, three lead level designers, two audio directors and three producers over the course of the project."

Rumors soon swirled on the Internet that celebrated Producer Jade Raymond was assigned to oversee the project. Raymond, who had overseen development of the first two Assassin's Creed games, seemed like a perfect fit to lead the next big franchise for the publisher. Though Ubisoft soon denied the reports of Raymond's involvement, we now know that she was at least marginally involved. She visited Darkworks once in order to check up on the project and to train the team on more efficient development methodology. It didn't work.

Neither did frequent check-ups by other Ubisoft producers. The team members felt disrespected and patronized by the frequent visits. "Ubisoft would bring, every few weeks, its editorial goons just to make sure we were, 'actually using all the 360 cores,'" says our source of the situation. "You could feel the tension everyday."

The team was worn thin and it started to affect their productivity. On more than one occasion, team members would experience nervous breakdowns, arguments erupted frequently during meetings and it wasn't surprising for employees to quit on the spot. The team worked long overtime hours as is usual in the games industry, but the constant interruptions provided a distraction that Darkworks couldn't afford. The whole situation sounds like a season of The Office minus the humor.

The Big Debut

At E3 2008, the centerpiece of the Ubisoft press conference was the debut trailer for I Am Alive. The trailer featured a young protagonist named Adam struggling to survive in a ruined version of Chicago. The impressive CG trailer showed potential for a compelling story and promising gameplay.

The trailer hinted at an open world, cinematic storytelling, pre-calamity flashbacks, and open-ended combat scenarios. I Am Alive's public profile was suddenly off the charts. Though the illusion successfully fooled fans, back in France, things weren't going well. Perhaps foreshadowing the future of the project, Ubisoft didn't include the Darkworks logo in the E3 trailer.

Fans were excited about I Am Alive after the E3 debut, and they were ready to see more of the project but Ubisoft wasn't ready to show the game off beyond a CG trailer. A few previews popped up but screenshots of gameplay were scarce. A preview in the UK magazine GamesTM in January 2009 showed off some early concept art and CG screens that teased a game set before the apocalypse as well as after it. The preview also reported that I Am Alive was set to be a first person shooter.

In another story published around the same time, studio head Gouraud was quoted as saying, "We're very pleased with our growth. I think we are already one of the major European studios with 120 people." And ominously finishing with, "We think 2009 will be where we shine. We're set for a new stage."

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The truth was that Darkworks wasn't ready for the main stage at all. Back in France, the team, now led by Senior Producer Alexis Goddard was doubling their efforts to meet their new deadline of April 2009. The team members were now working hundred hour weeks, crunching until the end of the project. Through the chaos and obstacles, the game was starting to come together. Team members had a renewed faith in the project. They bonded over rounds of Call of Duty and Left 4 Dead on their lunch breaks, and blew off steam at the local pub at night. The team persevered until the project reached the de-bug phase. All that was left to do was test and polish.

Then disaster struck. The project was pulled from Darkworks in January 2009. The team's hard work left on the cutting room floor. "Ubisoft was fed up with Darkworks." Says our source of the situation. "To their credit, the game wasn't very good in its current state and it already cost them a lot of money." The team was devastated.

Ubisoft issued a statement explaining that "In order to respect the new launch date for this ambitious title, and Darkworks having other obligations, we have mutually decided to complete development of I Am Alive at Ubisoft Shanghai, as the two studios have collaborated on aspects of the title over the past year." Though mostly false (Shanghai had been working on the game, but the split wasn't amicable), the statement was issued as a favor to Darkworks to ensure that the I Am Alive debacle wouldn't be held as a black mark on their reputation.

Darkworks never released another game. The company was liquidated in 2011 and shut down. Guillaume Gouraud now runs TriOviz, a company which creates 3D technology for use in games such as Batman: Arkham City and Gears of War 3. Most of the team members either left the industry or found homes at other development studios.

A New Lease on Life

In 2009, Ubisoft Shanghai was coming off the licensed game Cloudy With A Chance of Meatballs when they took full reins on I Am Alive. The studio's first assignment was to use the foundation that Darkworks had laid to create a more linear version of the game. When that didn't work, the team decided to start over completely with new assets and levels, while still staying true to the original concept of an apocalyptic adventure. When again, this concept failed, Shanghai's creative leaders including Stan Mettra, had one last chance to finally bring I Am Alive to consumers. Their plan would require drastic changes and a leap of faith.

Back in Boston, Mettra brushes his blonde hair out of his eyes as he tells me about the day when I Am Alive came back to life. "We had to come up with a new plan to reassure the heads in the office...That's how we came up with the plan to release on XBLA and PSN. It really allowed us more freedom of design while of course limiting us on memory size and the size of the team because we had to stick to the smaller budget."

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The size of the team was cut drastically. The project went from a 130 person roster with Darkworks to 35 with Shanghai. The smaller team was now challenged to compress the game into a file size of 2 GB, compared to what had been upwards of 50 GB only months ago. "It was our battle to push the quality to the max despite the smaller scale within the time-frame that we had." Says Mettra.

Ubisoft was pleased. The publisher was ready to debut the game to the public. At GamesCom 2011, the new version of I Am Alive was debuted to the public. The reaction was mixed. Some fans loved the gritty look and focus on survival while others complained that it looked like a poor man's Uncharted. The team wasn't surprised by the mixed reaction.

"The fight to please everybody was given up the day we decided to go XBLA," says Mettra as crowds of gamers march past us on their way into the crowded PAX expo hall. "We knew we had to choose our battles and do something very specific but without compromise."

I Am Alive finally released on March 7, 2012, almost three years after the originally planned launch date. The first few reviews were positive with Game Informer saying the game, “Transports players to a world only experienced in harrowing novels like Cormac McCarthy’s The Road.” Soon though, negative reviews began to roll in from outlets like IGN whose review headline read: “Was it worth the six year wait? No, No it wasn’t.”

I Am Alive may be a very polarizing game and may not have recouped its massive production costs, but the mere fact that it is on digital shelves and available for purchase warrants praise for Mettra and his team. Through seven years in development, several different versions and millions of dollars, Ubisoft Shanghai completed a project that most people (including those who worked on the game) thought would never see the light of day. If there's anything I Am Alive has taught us, it lies somewhere in the irony of their accomplishment.
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quantifier on April 19, 2012
I have to admit, that when I first started reading this article, I really didn't plan on going through the entire thing. But I got hooked on the story, which was surprisingly sad for a video game development. I feel bad for DarkWorks from the outside looking in, but I'm sure this isn't the whole story. It is curious though that UbiSoft stuck with this game after so much time and money. I hope it does well enough for them.
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