<< Portico: Games That Never Were: Twilyt Productions

6/05/2005

Games That Never Were: Twilyt Productions

How many games never get made because of where the developer is based? How many silicon dreams are dashed on the shoals of local interest?

One such story is the tale of Twilyt Productions, a South African company that sought to bring the violence of the colonial African period to your desktop. It announced two titles in its short life, Zulu War andAnglo-Boer War. Screenshots for both are still available at Gamespot.

Founded in 1999, Twilyt was well aware of the challenges presented by its location. In the interview with Gamespot, Managing Director Travis Bulford stated:

"Being in South Africa is a blessing and a curse for a young development studio. Costs are low here so financing our developments is not as expensive. On the other hand, we are isolated from the heart of the industry and need to make quite a few trips each year overseas to keep the ball rolling with international contacts both in publication and in technology."

The screens of the two games show similar artwork. Very polygonal soldiers shoot at each other, looking a little ridiculous. Even the 2D art of Shogun: Total War, released in 2000, is more attractive. But these are early development shots and should not be assumed to be representative of what the final games would have looked like.

The Imperial period of European expansion is certainly underexplored. There have been a couple of small wargames released that dealt with moments in the Scramble for Africa. The battles of Isandlwhana and Rorke's Drift have been fertile soil for wargamers. Independent wargame maker Incredible Simulations has had a Zulu War game since 1996. But the content matter is pretty foreign to both American and European gamers at large. The two Twilyt games were clearly not going to be huge hits and would only find success by targetting the strong and loud niche of wargamers.

Plus, for a developer with only 13 employees they had a lot of irons in the fire. They developed an Xbox game called Toxic Bunny 2 that never saw the light of day as well as the two ambitious strategy/wargames based on their local history.

Then, all of a sudden, Twilyt Productions closed down. It was reported that there was a lack of funds. This probably means that it couldn't find a publisher for its strategy games and wasn't making enough headway on Toxic Bunny to keep its doors open. Despite public confidence that it could find capital investment for its projects, there have no reports of new development.

Zulu War was to be a quite limited game, judging by the description. Despite the promise of multiplayer ladders, having a game with only two battles - and thos battles divided into 25 distinct chapters - does not sound especially appealing on its face. And, planning for an expansion before even finishing the first game is a bit of hubris. So it could not have been an easy sell to investors.

Undoubtedly, the fears expressed in the original Gamespot interview came home to roost in some respects. South Africa was still recovering from a popular peaceful revolution and years of sanctions, so any long term investment would have had to come from overseas. Face time is still precious and partially explains why, even here in America, there is a distinct regionalism to most computer game development and production. For all its beauty, South Africa is an ocean away.

The theme of the games probably played a role, as well. European Imperialism in Africa is both interesting and important. The battles - the focus of Twilyt's games - are only part of the story. But the story of a heavily armed European aggressor wiping out autonomous African kingdoms is not a pretty one, and considering that the target market of these games, would be a bit of a downer. Sure, the Zulus win at Isandlwhana. But a savvy player who knows why the British lost could turn Natal into a killing field. There is a reason why The Battle of Bull Run is not a popular subject in computer games.

When Shogun came out in 2000, marrying a fair strategy game to amazing battles, pure wargames with no strategy element must have seemed a little antiquated. Add in the fact that you have redcoats with rifles shooting at waves of spearmen and the game is a hard sell. Anglo-Boer War might have been a better place to start, but that conflict is likely even more obscure to potential investors than the Zulu War.

We don't know enough about Zulu War or Anglo-Boer War to assess whether they would have been truly interesting or not. They were a small development house, and there are hundreds just like them around the world. Were their eyes bigger than their stomachs? Did they overestimate the appeal of their local history to potential overseas investors? Their end did mean that we gamers were deprived of another look at an underexplored area of history.

8 Comments:

Anonymous Paul "Gamegeek" Stephanouk said...

Rambling stream-of-thought comments brought on by your post. Hit CTRL-W now and save yourself!

Thought provoking but ultimately a simple cause and effect - if you want to sell a vertical product horizontally you're going to be fighting an uphill battle. That's not something specific to video games or even games as a whole. Rule #1 of any commercial enterprise is "know thy market". Of course that's easy to say and not always as easy to do but you can usually spot the 800-pound problems. Are there lots of folks who aren't self-identified hardcore military history simulationists who would enjoy these games? Sure. In a cosmic coincidence I'll wager that it's the same percentage of people that would actually enjoy eating honey-fried bull's testicles, which is to say a lot more than you'd think. The trick is getting people to take the first bite. And sometimes even then the effort isn't worth the reward. I mean, those HFBT's are fine and all but you have to order them overseas, put up with uneven quality, and sometimes they are a little stale. I'm sure the person with a strict diet is willing to go the extra mile but it's a return-on-investment thing. If the local grocery store carried them I might pick up a 6-pack every so often but as it is I'll just eat Chicken McNuggets - they are only slightly more disgusting but far more convenient. They're less expensive besides.

Historical strategy games always have been a niche - a vertical market. Unless some paradigm shift occurs in the perceived entertainment value of simulating historical battles it's not likely that the market will change all that much in the future. We all know that's the case but sometimes the fan inside us refuses to admit it. Every now and then, just enough to feed our irrational hopes, a game we like comes along and fools us by being successful. It makes us think "Hey, I bet if I made REALLY GOOD honey-fried bull's testacies that I could convince enough people to get critical mass on a business". This sort of thing is almost always based on a misperception of why the first product was successful. It wasn't the historical simulation that made it popular, or it had a unique marketing approach, or it was accessible in a unique way (of course we call that "watered down" because we're hardc0re grognards), or probably all of those things.


Don't get me wrong. I'm now down on those guys for trying. I'm just saying that it seems a risky way to go if you're playing with the rent money. Besides, we history gamers haven't been nearly as shortchanged as we like to think. Quite the opposite in fact. We've been the beneficiary of many a misguided genius with a sense of game design, a love of history, and woefully bad business judgment. It's ironic that a person who can compute in his head the hit probability at range 15 for a T-34, hull down, behind smoke, and without the targeting retrofit but can't perform even the most crude sales projections. Even MORE ironic is that from a simulation perspective the business plan is often the more robust system. Or perhaps the problem is in the design. Not having made all that many historical games (and some detractors would say none) I don't know for sure, but I imagine most of them being made by looking at historical results and using that as a context. Now that I come to this it suddenly snaps into focus why many a historical gaming business entrepreneur is doomed before he starts - he's working in the wrong direction.

There are many places I'd like to explore with my simulation gaming (my wife would say far too many) but it's no big surprise that the product volume, technology, and quality is what it is. On the contrary, the situation is better than it might otherwise have been if not for selfless publishers, talented designers, and dedicated consumers. And there is a great deal of hope for the future. The trend of software shifting the power from craft to knowledge, from process to the creative, is working in our favor. It used to be only the very few could publish a book, create a movie, write a column, host a radio show, and so on. Not so today. Games are moving beyond being single-purpose systems. Today we're calling them "mods". Tomorrow they'll just be "games". The bar for creating a game experience is getting lower and lower. Today it still requires a diverse set of skills but that set of skills can be owned by an individual or small team. Soon that bar will drop to the point where the craft required is accessible to almost anybody with an idea. That means piles of crap games but it also means the design and the will to execute will then be the only thing standing between an individual and his/her dream scenario. Somebody might even get lucky and make a couple that are fun. It's a lot harder than it looks even when you have the tools.

Just wait. It'll get better. It's already getting better. I refer to you to your own post about modding Total War. And it'll be even easier six months and a year from now. And so on. I feel like we're already past the event horizon on modding. It only remains for a few talented people to light the way. Probably the big sticking point for most people today is the art, but that's not a huge concern long-term. Computers have shown us again and again and again how they can enable those of us with limited art skills to make perfectly mediocre visuals. We history gamers have always been willing to accept a lower visual quality in order to get our experience. I'm sure if I spent a few hours hacking on that spare marine model I could make it look like an ancient warrior with a shield. Sort of. Good enough for my game to work anyway - and probably good enough to convince more visually talented friend to give me a hand.

If you don't want to wait bust out some Rome or Unreal and have at it. If you're smart enough to want to simulate the Boer War you're certainly tall enough to ride this ride. However, if you're like me you might think that lines suck and you'll just wait for the review to get posted. For those of you in my camp may I recommend Forza. It's a hella cool racing game with more great game design in its left front tire than most games have overall. Who would have guessed that console racing was a haven for top-shelf game design? (It is actually, but that's a different page of insane ramblings)

- Gamegeek

6/05/2005 05:54:00 PM  
Blogger Troy Goodfellow said...

Wow. Great comment and as long as my post.

I think you are right that this is simple cause and effect - almost all cancelled games are. Either there is no obvious profitable market, like here, or the game is not a high enough priority to survive corporate mergers, like Harpoon 4.

I too am not down on these guys for trying, and I don't think we've lost a real gem, like I think we did with Pantheon or Harpoon IV. Very likely these games would have been also rans in any case.

There has been a sea change, though, since the late 90s. Not only are mods easier to make and better than they have ever been, the wargame community has come to terms with its niche nature and found comfort in the arms of Matrix Games and Shrapnel.

Wargames were once at the center of the industry. So were adventure games. Those days are gone. I obviously think that Twilyt's failure was more than just a genre issue.

Anyway, time to finish digesting that comment.

6/05/2005 06:33:00 PM  
Blogger roboczar said...

A lot of the problem with the supposed 'niche' nature of the wargaming industry is that the people who make them are 'hobbyists', and not 'designers'. You may think otherwise, but there is quite a lot to be desired in many wargames when it comes to ease of use and trying to flatten the learning curve. The Operational Art of War, and especially Shrapnel Games' series of Armored Task Force scenarios are completely and utter incomprehensible to less dedicated gamers, even those in Shrapnel's (or anyone else's) target market.

Part of the lack of design talent may just be a funding issue, and I think that those companies with more money can afford to hire a design team to iron out all the extras that would serve to confuse new users and reduce the market penetration of a title.

That said, South Africa is not a good place to do business, unless your business is offshore finances and tourism. Not surprised that people in a country where more than half of the population is illiterate and unemployed (non of them white, mind you) would have trouble with entreprenurial businesses.

6/05/2005 07:55:00 PM  
Anonymous Erin said...

You bring up an interesting point about certain wars being ignored in video games. I'm no strategy game expert, but I often wonder why there are so many first-person shooter and action games about WWII and virtually none about World War I.

Granted, WWI was a far uglier war based on political posturing rather than the actions of one clear-cut villain, remembered for things like mustard gas, soldiers being mowed down in the mud by artillery, etc.

But it had its heroes too...

6/05/2005 10:25:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I don't understand why small developers still try to get publishers for their niche games. Why not self-publish? There's a huge online community for strategy/wargames, and most of them are comfortable buying products online (who hasn't, nowadays?).

Oh, and add me to the list of folks who'd like to see a historically accurate first-person WWI game (although it would probably be quite depressing).

--Sparky

6/05/2005 11:31:00 PM  
Anonymous Paul "Gamegeek" Stephanouk said...

"I often wonder why there are so many first-person shooter and action games about WWII and virtually none about World War I"

It turns out there ARE a lot of games about WWI. I've been playing them for over two decades. They mostly involve words like "Fokker" and "Immelman".

I'll give the Xbox Live-enabled trench warefare simulator a pass, thanks.

6/06/2005 12:08:00 PM  
Blogger Jim9137 said...

Paul is such an Red Baron.

Most of the WWI games focus on the air, probably because the land was so confused mess but those planes in the air, exploring a totally new dimension like they did when they found America or India, are so beautiful and romantic! But sadly, I can't name a single recent WWI airplane simulator.

On the other news, IL-2 is the rules.

P.S: No, I had nothing useful to contribute. Just to keep Goodfellow happy.

6/06/2005 02:37:00 PM  
Blogger Troy Goodfellow said...

You want to keep me happy, stop beating me at UFO2000.

I don't see why a WWI shooter would have to be any more realistic than Medal of Honor, which has you winning D-Day all on your lonesome. You could run across no-man's land, hide in shell craters, toss grenades. Be Sgt. York.

Otherwise it would just be Nethack with a gun - waiting for the inevitable stupid death.

6/06/2005 02:56:00 PM  

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