Why is it so hard to make a good Aliens game?

February 17th, 2013 in Thoughts

This week Aliens: Colonial Marines was finally released and, unfortunately, the reviews of it don’t seem to rate it very highly. Worse still: some review sites have gone so far as to post videos of glitches, which I think is the first time I’ve seen that happen. People on forums are saying pretty much the same things, and with all the disappointment questions get asked. Specifically: why is it so hard to make a good Aliens game?

It could be argued that I don’t know the answer to that, having being involved with Aliens Vs Predator: Requiem on PSP (49% average on metatcritic) and the lead designer of AVP2010 (64% on xbox360, 68% on PC). The first of those games was tied into the launch of the film, whereas the second was the flagship title for Rebellion that year, and we had a good sized team working on it for a decent amount of time. We knew Colonial Marines was in development – Gearbox had announced as such in December 2006, and it had been on the cover of Game Informer in February 2008. And we had a very broad overview of what the story would be, because we had been told not to go anywhere near LV-426, Space Jockeys or the Sulaco. The latter was a bit of a blow for me personally, as early story concepts had revolved around Predators using the Sulaco as bait to lure Marines in.

Instead, we set AvP about 30 years after the story events of the Aliens film. By this point it seemed reasonable to assume that word of the Xenomorphs had spread, and that Marines would have a rough idea how to go up against them.

Kane

This is the first difficulty faced with making an Aliens game: the audience knows what to expect, and it’s reached the point now where it’s pretty much impossible to create a storyline that would surprise players. We all know that Aliens burst out of chests, hide in shadows, crawl on walls and are devastating at close range.

This leads to the second problem: Aliens themselves are the complete opposite of the kind of enemy you need if you’re making a shooting game. They’re fast, they’re hard to hit, if you don’t kill it before it’s within 10 metres of you then you’re going to get doused in acid and die anyway, and if it does get close you’re instantly dead. A player would put up with them as an occasional boss fight, but as the main enemy it just gets annoying.

This wouldn’t be too bad, if not for the third problem: audiences expect a game with a lot of shooting. You’re playing a bad ass Marine and are have access to some of the most iconic weapons from cinema: you want the excuse let rock and use them.

Drake

Lots of shooting requires a lot of enemies though, which is the complete opposite of how you create tension. People also expect that an Aliens game is going to be scary, because the first film was terrifying (Aliens has its moments, but it’s more tense than downright horror). The Marine campaign in AvP’99 got this almost perfect, and regularly scared the day lights out of players. Since then, we’ve struggled to replicate that because of a belief that shooting games have to be fair, brightly lit and well sign posted.

Are there alternatives?

Yes, I think there are a few options available to whoever gets the next go at developing an Aliens game.

The first is to make it much more horror based – akin to the Alien title on Spectrum that Eurogamer did a retrospective on a few days ago. Having the player character be more fragile – more Ripley like – and only having a few enemies to, effectively, avoid, could make for an interesting game.

The second potential is to just make it plain hard. In 2010 I don’t think we could have gotten away with this, but since then the Indie scene has exploded and gamers have shown that they’re eager for games that present a big challenge (FTL springs to mind). Taking a cue from a game like Infinity Blade on iOS, the player could play a continual stream of Marines that are sent into a situation. The environment would be the same each time, but the Alien AI allows for random encounters, different spawn places and so on. The ultimate aim is to get through  to the Queen, and the first few times you do that you’d die horribly. Each Marine is plugged in to the other’s feeds, either via a video comm system or a dream machine like the one seen in Prometheus. When it’s their turn, they’ve got a good idea of what to expect.

Sending 4 people at a time in could tie nicely into the Left4Dead style multiplayer game, which we started to make a good version of in AVP2010 with Survival mode but could have benefited from larger environments to make your way through.

Either way, I think the world is ready for a game where the Xenomorphs aren’t dumbed down to make the game fairer, but instead are as lethal as they are in the films. It’s got to be worth a go, right?

Disclaimer: I don’t work for Rebellion any more, and don’t have any contact with anyone from Sega or Fox. This article is purely my take on how to potentially move forward with the licence.