Aug
03

Working on Six Days

4 years, 11 months ago 10

Obligatory Disclaimer: This is how I remembered my time on the project.

Atomic Games wasn’t part of Six Days in Fallujah until 2009. Destineer was the developer when it began in 2005. Atomic is only a company brand under Destineer to separate AAA games from their budget and training simulator titles.

It was the best time and the worst time to try and release Six Days in Fallujah (SDIF). Tactical shooters hadn’t completely embraced modern battles yet, so it stood out. Plus, destruction hadn’t been done to that degree at the time, offering another fresh approach to the tiresome Call of Duty formula.

The label of “Survival Horror” was a bit of a misnomer. It didn’t mean the typical survival horror formula, which involves low firepower, surrounded by gore. It was the closest familiar term to convey isolation beyond your immediate Fire Team when surrounded by unknown assailants. A psychological trial as a stranger in a strange land.

While we didn’t lock down the exact consequences of player death, it was going to be realistic. For awhile there was discussion on regenerating health. This wasn’t to make it like Gears of War or arcade style. It was an attempt to focus more on the conflict, strategy, and emotional impact instead of trivializing the connection you build with your character. The flip-side was to replace him with a new marine every time death occurred (which is an issue by itself since we wanted to use real marines).

The original advantage Destineer had was self-publishing the game. Because of technology reasons, some inexperienced members, and “death-by-demo” schedules, Destineer slowly lost its chance to self-publish. It’s possible a larger publisher was always considered in regards to world-wide distribution with Destineer responsible only for USA.

While courting Konami, other publishers were approached. EA was a strong candidate. Had it been with them, it would’ve been included under one of their existing franchises and called “Metal of Honor: Fallujah”. The project fast-tracked with Sony as well. Everyone in the US Sony division was 100% behind the game. Japan HQ felt otherwise, however. They sold Sony products in the middle-east and didn’t want this game to affect that consumer base.

Konami of course caved to backlash from a handful of loud voices against the idea it was going to disrespect the death of real Marines and make a flashy game out of the conflict. The previous idea about regenerating health fueled the belief SDIF would be a typical Call of Duty game.

That was far from the case, however. For several years the team was in direct communication with numerous Marines. Each one gave us presentations and recollections of their experiences. They were quick to correct any misinterpretations, as well as promoting what actual military personnel do, react to, and operate.

We recorded personal one-on-one interviews with them. These were to be presented in a bookend fashion before and after each chapter of the game. They would share their fears, strategy, and expectations at the time. Then they’d reflect on the experience, what went wrong, and what they learned. What other game out there puts a personal, real face to the conflict?

After Konami bailed, the studio survived for a few more months. Other publishers were approached, but none of them wanted to embrace the project. It was too hot in the media at the time. Everyone of the 75+ team except a dozen or so were laid off in August 2009. For me, it happened two days before I was leaving town to get married; not the best time to enjoy a new chapter in one’s life.

The remaining members started work on Breach as an intermediate project while efforts to find SDIF a new publisher continued. Despite the rumors SDIF was complete and waiting for release, it was never completed. The technology, production pipeline, systems, and design were for the most part complete. The physical game wasn’t, however. Several levels were made throughout SDIF’s lifetime in a showcase-and-demo fashion. Most of those were removed during development because of technology or story changes.

When the team was laid off, we had four out of the eight levels in development. One of them was almost complete, but removed because it took place in Resala Cemetery. The media backlash prompted its removal for fear destroying gravestones would be culturally disrespectful. Mosques were also off limits to destruction. In the bigger picture, I thought it was an absurd restriction considering the subject matter.

Also, we weren’t consulting with insurgents. It was a journalist hired to interview residents. [see UPDATE]

Other games have since approached similar modern topics and survived. SDIF would have risen above the typical shooter and given players more insight to what really happened. It was never intended to push a political agenda. It was about the men on the ground and their personal accounts during that week in November 2004. Six Days in Fallujah was going to be a game that presented history, knowledge, and tragedy during a serious world event. What a novel approach to the watered-down or sensationalized gunplay games made these days.

Update

James Cowgill (Producer) has more details on the Insurgent controversy.

The part about consulting with insurgents was highly confusing and somewhat ironic. The reality is this: months after the game was announced publically and the rumor of Atomic consulting with insurgents started, I personally hired (as the documentary producer) a journalist to go to Fallujah and interview / tape people there with experiences centered around the time period of the battle. This included people who had fled the city, mothers who had lost sons and men who claimed to be insurgents.

The goal was to use this footage in the documentary part of the game (along with about 100 hours of Marine interviews from the 8th and 3rd Divisions) and to help us generally understand the people of Fallujah better and create an authentic experience.

The interviews were incredible – even now some of them very much stick out in my mind; a mom crying on her son’s grave, an insurgent looking straight into the camera and saying he tried his best to kill Americans, a father who fled with his children before his house was taken over by insurgents.

It was real and it put a face on Fallujah that helped to give the project credibility as a historical document. We had enough footage (interviews and battlefield footage) to create an entire 2 hour documentary of the battle that put the Military Channel to shame.

I discovered later that people in Fallujah thought the journalist might be a CIA agent and his life was put in danger – so much so that he couldn’t return to Fallujah. One day, I hope this material is turned into a documentary – I strongly feel that the stories we collected from the Marines and people in Fallujah about this event are too important to be lost. This probably great tragedy of the project.

 

10 Responses

  1. Will have to read this when I am done with drawing the comic page I am working on.

  2. I remember you and I talking about this game a couple years ago, and all the BS controversy.

  3. Yup, that all sounds about right. I was actually talking the other day about how I’m surprise there aren’t more video game industry veteran memoirs. Of course there are retrospectives and blog posts and stuff, but a whole book full of someone’s experiences over like 15 years would be really interesting and also perhaps wipe some of glitz off the perception of what it is that we actually do.

  4. Rob Howard says:

    Great article Nathan! It is so unfortunate that what got out there in the gaming media was so disconnected to the reality of what you guys were trying to attempt. It was ironic that I was in Raleigh at the same time, reading about this on the internet like everyone else, not knowing that I’d be working with you in the future.

  5. Thanks James — I knew there was more about the Insurgent controversy. I added it to the original post as an update. I really wish we had at least had a chance to post an example of the interviews being done. I never had a chance to watch the ones you edited.

  6. Hey James — did the rumor start about using an Insurgent for information before the Journalist was sent out (and that in turn perpetuated the idea)?

  7. I thought it started because of something Peter said in an interview.

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