During the previous console generation one of my favorite underdog franchises was TimeSplitters. One of my greatest disappointments with the current console generation is how franchises like it and companies like developer Free Radical were simply squeezed out of it. Some new revelations from Eurogamer have shed light on that particular studio’s problem.
First of all let’s get past the obvious issue of Haze. A lot of people don’t even know of Free Radical at all outside of Haze. In my experience TimeSplitters was really only noticed by people who didn’t have access to an Xbox and thus Halo. Their other last-gen game, Second Sight, was really only noticed by people who didn’t have access to Psi-Ops — so basically Nintendo fans for the most part. Even their previous works: GoldenEye and Perfect Dark, were pretty much erased in people’s memories by Halo. Free Radical was pretty much doomed to obscurity, which was definitely a survivable situation last generation, but it doesn’t count for much in today’s hit-driven market. The only current-gen thing they have to show for themselves is Haze.
I didn’t play Haze outside of the initial public demo and I never read reviews on why the game was so terrible. I know that there has been a lot written on exactly what went wrong with the project from publisher troubles to last-minute platform switches. Whatever the case, it’s exemplary of how great companies have been instantly sunk by hopeless big gambles.
Haze is the first reason why Free Radical says they weren’t able to find a publisher for TimeSplitters 4. “You’re only as good as your last game,” is an unfortunate truth in the eyes of marketers these days, and too many great developers recently have messed up once — just enough times to kill you in today’s market.
The second reason brings up another problem in the shooter market today — trying to sell basically anything that isn’t Call of Duty. “Secondly, their marketing person would say something along the lines of, ‘I don’t know how to sell this.’ The unanimous opinion among all publishers that we pitched TimeSplitters 4 to is that you can’t market a game that is based around a diverse set of characters and environments.” Basically, the game’s pitch lacked a clear marketing message.
In its day, TimeSplitters was a lighthearted but well-designed shooter that got its variety from taking place in various time periods. Mechanically people loved it because of the myriad multiplayer options along with the map editor. A lot of the visual and narrative appeal was based on parody. TimeSplitters: Future Perfect was in many ways a parody of Halo 2. The fourth game’s initial marketing material positioned it to basically give the same treatment to Halo 3. It was all just good fun.
Contrast this with our current world of dark, grey war shooters that the marketers were probably comparing Free Radical’s pitches to. I’d just about say we need something like TimeSplitters now more than ever.
I can think of two games in the action genre that currently present themselves similarly to how TimeSplitters did: Saints Row and Borderlands. Borderlands has been a breakout franchise with cel-shaded graphics no less, and only slightly takes itself seriously at times. The sequel is laced with parodies and pop culture references of well… everything. Saints Row: The Third feels like a Grand Theft Auto game, but actually fun It’s able to be this precisely because it just doesn’t care about the same things all the big budget action games care about.
I think TimeSplitters 4 could definitely have occupied that same space today. Perhaps it could show off what the CryEngine looks like with a cartoon-like art style and overall just become the Saints Row of first person shooters — become the game that’s just about fun above all else. Now there are action game franchises ripe for parody in a game about time traveling, from Red Dead Redemption to Call of Duty to even Crysis — the flagship franchise of the TimeSplitters property’s new owner Crytek.
We haven’t even gotten to the level editor, which is still almost entirely unique to TimeSplitters among console shooters. If you wanted to script your own levels or multiplayer maps but didn’t know how to mod PC games, TimeSplitters was basically it. Imagine being able to distribute maps on Xbox Live and PSN. I’d even be fine with Crytek selling creation tools as DLC.
Another thing to consider is Crytek’s pledge to go free-to-play after they ship Crysis 3. I think TimeSplitters is compatible with that model as long as it maintains the spirit that made its multiplayer so fun. Again, selling creation tools as DLC, or even letting players sell maps like how Valve let’s Team Fortress players sell hats, would be a great idea.
At this point though I don’t know how they’d get over the hump of marketing an already infamous title in today’s console retail space. Perhaps if Homefront 2 turns out really well it might redeem the developer after Haze. I still don’t see why they can’t release a TimeSplitters HD collection if for no other reason than to gauge interest in the franchise.