At first glance, Saber Interactive’s TimeShift looks vaguely familiar; the protagonist is a physicist in a special suit, close-in attacks splatter blood on your screen, art deco dominates the interior environments, there’s even a glowing grenade that sticks to enemies when you throw it at them. Look beyond the surface, however, and you’ll see something that’s never been done before, something Ben Serviss, TimeShift‘s Associate Producer, calls “true time control.”
TimeShift‘s plot revolves around a secret program aimed at designing two time shifting suits. One is stolen and you, wearing the other, must go find it. Following your quarry backward through time to the 1930s, you discover a past that never was and then all hell breaks loose.
From the beginning, TimeShift plays like a fairly ordinary shooter – that is, until you get your first taste of the awesome power of the suit. Need to get past that wall of flame? Stop time and walk right through it without getting so much as singed. Electrified water in your way? Again, stopping time allows you not only to avoid damage, but to walk on top of it. Wonder of wonders. Up against an army of enemy soldiers? Slow time, zip around behind them and use their own defense turrets against them. Blammo. Stuck with a grenade? No problem. Reverse time, then knock out the grenadier before he even throws it at you. The moments of game play awesomeness abound.
But the game’s protagonist isn’t the only one doing a little time shifting. The game was originally slated for a 2005 release, then pushed out to 2006 when the team decided to spin up an Xbox 360 version. According to Serviss, no one at Atari, the game’s original publisher, imagined Microsoft’s new console would fare so well. Perhaps this lack of imagination contributed to the company’s deeper problems.
When Atari encountered mounting financial problems later that year, Saber began looking for another publisher. Enter: Vivendi.
“They were definitely the optimal partner,” Says Serviss. Saber refined the game for their new masters and did a whole revision of the script, adding a more integrated storyline and voice overs by veteran actors Michael Ironsides and Dennis Quaid. It was like a whole new beginning for the one-time budget game publisher.
“We were still feeling out what it took to make an Xbox game,” says Serviss. Saber refined their original concept and “cut out anything that would seem remotely corny.” As their 2006 release date approached, they thought they had it in the bag,. They were wrong.
“Maybe a week before release,” says Serviss, “Vivendi took a hard look at TimeShift.” The muckymucks decided the game was ready to take the next step, and decided to position TimeShift as a AAA title, and release it in late 2007, opposite The Orange Box and Halo 3. Cue the time machine.
At this point, Saber had been working on the game for three years, and crunching for about 12 months. What lie ahead of them was another full year of crunch, bringing the total development time to just over four years.
“Which is,” says Serviss, “a hell of a long time.” It was, in a few words, a nightmare scenario.
“The initial shock was devastating,” says Serviss. Although they were confident in the core mechanics of the game, incorporating Vivendi’s suggestions left them only one real choice: scrapping everything and starting over, rebuilding “pretty much everything.”
“Besides [the time controls] it was a complete overhaul,” he says. Three years of art, sound, story, code and voice work hit the circular file and the team at Saber, faced with rebuilding an entire game – a AAA game, no less – in 12 months, must have wished for their own time shifting suits.
The team put a rush on scheduled engine upgrades and pulled out all the stops to get new technologies online, then set about rebuilding their game, one step a time. Serviss says the decision to scrap three years of work and start over was “a really hard decision” and calls the attention Saber received from Vivendi “tough love,” but you get the impression he’s still buzzing on the adrenaline of a two-year crunch. At one point in our interview he stops, and I can almost hear him shake his head.
“I still just can’t believe it,” he says. “We wanted everything to be as good as possible.” So they did what game companies all over the world would do in a similar situation: they worked the hours and delivered the game.
Serviss says it speaks to the strength of his team that they were able to make the changes in only a year’s time. “It was a tough year,” he says. “It’s not something I’d ask again.” He says the team at one point, to alleviate the stress and misery of canning three years work and starting all over, took to calling the game “TimeShift 2.” I ask him if it helped.
“In a way, it certainly helped,” he says, “just having that differentiation in mind, no matter how arbitrary, helped everyone concentrate on bringing the original version to the next level. Plus, it made it seem like we weren’t working on the same project for almost half a decade.”
Slipped release dates, total overhauls and “tough love” from publishers can wreak havoc on development teams. The tension created from developing a game for four years and crunching it for two will either break a team apart or bind them closer together. Time shifting TimeShift seems to have done the latter.
“I don’t think we’ve lost anybody as remarkable as that sounds,” says Serviss. “It was really worth it to see it through. I would definitely call it an adventure.”
Bumping the game another year and releasing it during the holiday season, between Halo, Half-Life and Call of Duty may sound like suicide for a low-profile, initially low-budget shooter. But Serviss thinks being out around the collection of franchise titles will actually help TimeShift. “Ultimately I think it was the right decision.”
He says he thinks TimeShift “will settle into more of a sleeper hit role.” Then, after word gets out, will start to gain ground. “You don’t have a lot of original titles with a mechanic that hasn’t been done before. We believe gamers can detect quality.” He says they can smell the difference between a game with a truly original feel and the same old shooter with the same old mechanics.
Asked if TimeShift will at some point become its own franchise, Serviss said: “That is the hope. We have a ton of ideas how to expand it.” Saying the four-year development cycle and the scrapped storylines generated “reams” of back story and exploration of the world. He says he’d love to see more games made within that world.
For now, Saber is focusing on realizing some of the benefits of having engineered a scheduled engine upgrade ion a fraction of the estimated time. They’ll be releasing a slew of new games, some as quickly as later this year.
As for what the future will hold for Saber and TimeShift, Serviss is coy. “As far as what will end up happening [with the IP],” he says, “is TBA at the moment.”
Russ Pitts is an Associate Editor for The Escapist. His blog can be found at www.falsegravity.com.