Red Faction: Death Of A PlayStation Series
‘Death Of A PlayStation Series’ was originally published in issue 211 of Play.
Red Faction: Armageddon was a failure.
It didn’t strike with critics, earning an unimpressive 62% in Play 207 – and sales were underwhelming at best. Not only did it signal a fall from grace for a cult classic PlayStation series: it was the death knell. Red Faction is over. What went wrong?
The original was a game-changer for console FPS games, and Guerrilla has a place in the heart of just about everyone who ever played it. How could things have changed so much in such a short period of time?
Wayne Adams, environment artist on Red Faction: Guerrilla, tells us his thoughts: “The last game had one flaw and that was interference. What people play, when they play Red Faction: Armageddon, is not what it started out to be. A lot was changed on the story side of things. Elements were introduced and things had to either be scrapped or re-purposed to keep up with the game. In the end hard decisions had to be made and what could have been was restructured into what the team could do with the amount of time they had. I can’t say whether or not the original ideas would have been better but I think consistency was lost in all of the turmoil of change.”
Matt Kresge, weapon artist on Red Faction and Red Faction 2, throws his hat in the ring: “I think Armageddon is just one of the latest casualties of the seismic shift occurring in the videogame marketplace today… There are also some wildcard factors like shooter fans possibly being more difficult to reach in the era of $150+ million marketing campaigns or the rise of triple-A titles that have sky-high production values. High quality is almost a given for console games today and being great does not mean as much as it used to back in the PS2/Xbox days.”
Josh Nizzi, artist on the first two games, has another theory: “I feel like the world of Red Faction has become indistinguishable. If I look at a screenshot from Armageddon I wouldn’t be able to tell what game it’s from. Personally I would have gone back to the space suits and industrial gear of the original that felt more like being on Mars and more unique.”
Volition On Red Faction: Armageddon
But what about Volition itself? How does it feel? It’s unsurprising to see that Jim Boone, producer at the developer, is more reserved in his post-mortem, and it’s unsurprising that money comes into it: “The way I look at it is this – gamers don’t really care how much money a developer spends to make a game, for them it costs $60 either way. From a development standpoint, we need to create games that really offer something special for gamers. This often boils down to needing a budget that will help create an experience that appeals to enough gamers to make your game profitable.”
He goes on: “It really is hard for me to tell what, if anything, went wrong. With Guerrilla as an example, we had a game that reviewed well and people really seemed to enjoy, but it just didn’t sell the types of numbers we needed. With Armageddon we tried to go in a different direction hoping that gamers would be more interested, but that did not work either. At the end of the day I suspect that Red Faction was just a great series that has run its course. Being able to create four games within a single franchise is pretty fantastic, and it’s pretty rare to see games endlessly making sequels, so perhaps it was just Red Faction’s time.”
The Original Red Faction
Let’s take a few steps back to the heady days of The Past: the original Red Faction, released in 2001, was a different beast and Volition was a much smaller entity. So it was easier, right?
“Aside from losing our original publisher, dropping the idea that it would be a continuation of the Descent franchise and having to invent an entirely new game from scratch, it was smooth sailing,” says Geoffrey Smith, modelling and texture artist on the first two titles, who has clearly mastered the art of the understatement.
Safe to say, it was never ‘smooth sailing’ on Volition’s FPS trailblazer.
“Red Faction actually started its life as part of a completely different franchise. Originally it was developed as Descent 4,” says Boone. “In the early stages of Descent 4, there were a couple of key decisions made that helped turn it into a whole new franchise. First was the development of the Geo-Mod technology, allowing you to blow a hole in nearly any part of the world. We thought that would be great in a world full of mining operations, which was a core part of the Descent fiction.
“The other interesting change that was discussed was getting the player out of the vehicle from time to time. Players would pilot the Pyro flying vehicle and then get out and explore on foot. Ultimately we realised the on-foot portion was even more fun than our standard formula of constant flying, so we decided to concentrate on that.”
Rights changed hands, the Descent name was lost and Red Faction was born. Originally with players taking the role of a headband-sporting 12-year-old boy, at least until “it became pretty clear that 12-year-olds with rocket launchers seemed like a congressional hearing waiting to happen,” according to Kresge.
The Birth Of Geo-Mod
The biggest change the Red Faction series brought to the world of gaming was Geo-Mod – the tech that allowed players to blast through walls and floors in order to create new routes, bypass doors or find new ways to get at enemies. It was, simply, the cornerstone of every title. So obviously, it wasn’t easy.
John Slagel, creator of the Geo-Mod engine, is frank about his baby: “The less obvious big challenge was we had this design mantra of ‘we’re doing Geo-Mod, period. It needs to drive gameplay, period. It needs to be fun’. That was very hard to do. In my opinion, at the end of the project and with hindsight, I think that Geo-Mod is a great effect, games that do not have it seem flat and I think trying to make it drive gameplay was a noble goal. But in the end had we done it over and said ‘we’re doing Geo-Mod as an awesome effect. It does not need to drive gameplay’ we would have had a much better game, series, engine.”
None of this is to say Geo-Mod was anything other than impressive – and fun – throughout the series’ life span. In fact, it was always a surprise that no other title outside of Red Faction used the tech. Slagel had a reason for this – his development of Geo-Mod wasn’t optimised for still-fledgling 3D accelerator technology.
“At the core, the engine’s low-level code was outdated by the time it was released. No one would want to use it as is for a commercial project.”
He’s not down on his creation, though: “Making Geo-Mod an integral part of gameplay is like trying to make doors be an integral part of gameplay. Kind of boring and seems contrived in most cases. However, as an effect, I think every game should have it, same as shadows, blast marks, bullet marks, volumetric fog, dynamic lighting.”
Slagel continues: “It is a cool effect, but it has a high cost. It impacts everything: rendering speed, memory, AI, physics, multiplayer… I can see why people don’t bother.”
Freedom Of Destruction
There were other concerns to address, too, according to Kresge: “By opening up the world to be truly destructible it gave players the freedom to circumvent entire sections of the game or bypass puzzles or challenges altogether by digging holes around locked doors or tunneling under walls. This freedom of destruction also allowed players to easily get stuck in a hole if they were not careful. After a lot of play-testing a decision was made to restrict explosive weapon ammunition in order to keep these kinds of game-breaking issues to a minimum.”
Ultimately it wasn’t a perfect system, but it offered a glimpse of the future of gaming that everyone could enjoy. The original Red Faction was one of the first wave of console FPS titles that really felt at home on PS2. Did Boone think it was this important? “Honestly I really do. This was a time when FPS games were still pretty geared for the PC. When Red Faction first came out, developers were asking questions like whether we could ever get a controller to do what the mouse and keyboard have always allowed FPS games to do on the PC. With games like Red Faction, I think we helped show you could have a really compelling FPS experience on consoles. It was neither superior nor inferior to PC, just a different flavour of the genre we all loved.”
Nizzi agrees: “The Red Faction series was a pioneer of the FPS genre on consoles,” but over time, “I think competition has overtaken it. It’s hard to compete with Gears Of War, Modern Warfare and Halo.”
Red Faction 2 – ‘Kind Of A Train Wreck’
The sequel, which arrived in 2002, wasn’t as well received as the first game – Nizzi, again, is happy to tell us why: “Red Faction 2 had very limited Geo-Mod and was much more story driven, which is one of the big reasons why I think the original is a better game. Actually, the development of Red Faction 2 was kind of a train wreck. It took a long time to come up with a direction for the game and then it was basically crunch till the end. There was some annoying drama within the team as well that mostly stemmed from mismanagement and lack of direction – growing a company is hard.”
The drama didn’t stop there, as Nizzi goes on: “After Red Faction 2 we started on Red Faction 3 and I was the lead artist on the project – before THQ decided that sci-fidoesn’t sell and the market needed more Grand Theft Auto-type games. So Red Faction 3 got put on indefinite hold.”
He explains how this decision ended his attachment to the series: “That project was going to restore a lot of the things from the original that I felt made the series unique. I certainly don’t fault THQ or anybody for that decision, after all it is their money paying for everything.”
Red Faction: Guerilla – ‘Wild West On Mars’
It took seven years for Red Faction 3 (now named Guerrilla) to hit, in 2009 – an open-world, third-person hammer-’em-up and a cult classic in every respect. As Boone tells us: “The goal was to create a game with Guerrilla that was so compelling that even people that had never played any of the previous Red Faction games would still be interested in what Guerrilla had to offer.”
The setting took things back to Mars but out of the mines of the first game, onto the terraformed surface. As Adams explains: “I think the overall feeling was a Wild West on Mars, it was what I took from the project and what I tried to push in my work. The barren landscapes dotted with settlements, with roving Marauders everywhere. To me that was my favourite part.”
And was this a realistic representation of the Red Planet? “I don’t think it was the goal. The terraformed sky, people walking around without space suits… Mars, in the game, has evolved to this whole new thing: it’s a breathing, working world now, which allowed us to push ideas that may contradict with other Mars fiction because, really, Mars isn’t Mars any more in Guerrilla.”
The third game was a success from a critical perspective, but its status as something of a cult hit held it back from being a real mainstream darling. And Volition was all too aware of this, as Boone points out: “With Guerrilla we had a game that reviewed well and people really seemed to enjoy, but it just didn’t sell the types of numbers we needed.”
Even before sales figures came back, though, there were plans in motion for what would eventually become Armageddon. “Armageddon was planned and pre-development started long before we knew how Guerrilla would do in the market,” Adams says. “I think that’s a testament to how much faith we had in Guerrilla. We knew it would deserve a sequel.”
Armageddon And The End Of Red Faction
It looked like the series was back for a strong run. Then Armageddon hit, in more than one sense of the word. Suddenly, Red Faction was over, and we’re back to the opening paragraphs of this feature again.
It was surprising, but maybe not to Volition itself, as Boone says: “Anyone that was expecting Guerrilla 2 would have been pretty surprised to see Armageddon. For those that have been with the series from the beginning, they may have been used to seeing the types of changes we’ve taken throughout the series, but I think Armageddon just didn’t give people what they expected.”
It’s ten years of history at one of the most interesting developers out there and the theme is clear – the feeling cannot be doubted: there was a lot of love for Red Faction.
But love alone can’t keep the wolves from the door, and this is a series very much consigned to the scrapheap it helped keep teeming with debris for so many years.
And what better way to leave it than with this little snippet from Nizzi, speaking about the time just after the original game’s release: “I remember an email from Mike Kulas [Volition founder] to the team saying something like, ‘For all of you guys that are new to game development: it’s not normally this great.’ And that was true, unfortunately.”