Every so often I get a little spoiled with too much classic retrogaming goodness, and begin to take for granted the great storylines, coding and sheer fun that most of my game collection contains. It’s at that point that I find it helpful to look back on a game that is best played while under the influence of mood-altering substances. Such a game is the pile of stinking defecation brought to us in 2000 called Daikatana.
What hopes everyone had for this game. After all, the lead designer was John Romero, he who was quoted to say, “Design is Law”, was one of the co-founders of id Software, and was one of the co-creators of the industry-changing Doom. This was a person who gamers could count on to bring his “A” game to the design process. Or so we thought.
Much has been said about the incredible excesses of Romero’s studio while working on Daikatana. Around $40 million was spent on this game, which was a result of both Romero’s desire to be surrounded by luxury (complete with a multi-million dollar office at the very top of a skyscraper in Dallas), and his inability to keep the game on schedule. Critical errors were made from the start of the project, as Romero estimated a seven-month development cycle using the Quake engine. But id Software beat him to the market with Quake II, which meant retooling Daikatana with the Quake II engine to avoid looking like a tired old retread. If that wasn’t enough, Romero saw his entire development team quit, which meant further delays. Add these factors together and it’s easy to see how Daikatana quickly became a money pit.
Perhaps if Romero didn’t project himself as such a larger-than-life personality, gamers would have been more willing to forgive him for such a catastrophe. But even the advertising campaign was offensive to the buying public. “John Romero’s about to make you his bitch. Suck it down.” Seriously, how does an ad copy like that make its way all the way from a brainstorming session to publication? Simultaneously insulting, crude, and a challenge to all gamers, everywhere, this ad campaign created an expectation that anything short of a coding love child between Sid Meier and John Carmack would be marked a failure.
Once the game was released, the sheer mediocrity of the product became evident. The game mechanic was wonky, with the player getting the “benefit” of two sidekicks that you needed to keep alive to help solve various puzzles during the game. Of course, they had the AI equivalent of a gnat, so you tended to see them die. A lot. And did I mention that if the sidekicks died you lost the level? That’s just bad design, which is unforgivable from someone who believes, “Design is Law.” The good news for the sidekicks is that the AI for the enemies is just as bad, perhaps worse. If a solid object is between you and your enemy, fret not, as they’ll keep trying to walk straight toward you rather than go around it. You could even go out for a smoke break and come back in to see them still trying to become an irresistible force. But you can’t take that break, as your stupid sidekicks will take the opportunity to walk directly into the line of fire while you’re gone.
In the end, Daikatana sold 200,000 copies, probably to people who wanted to create a drinking game based on how bad it was. The stark reality was after $40 million in development expenses and only 200K of boxes sold, Daikatana was an epic failure on a scale reserved for such amazing debacles such as E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial (for the Atari 2600).
So, game designers, study well the example that John Romero has left you and take note of what happens when ego and extravagance trumps hard work and diligence. Let’s not have another Daikatana happen to us again, shall we?