Game designers come up with ideas every day. Lots of ideas. Sometimes those ideas get pitched. Sometimes those pitches go into pre-production. Sometimes they become full-fledged projects. And sometimes those projects ship. But what most gamers don’t realize is that some games get canceled. And every great developer can tell you the story of a project that never saw the light of day.
This is the story of one such phantom title: David Jaffe‘s Heartland.
“You can just tell when a game you’re working on -” Jaffe pauses. He gives the analogy of an airplane, heavily loaded, racing down the runway. “As it gets towards the end of the runway, it’s either going to take off, or it’s going to go over the cliff or crash into the wall or whatever’s at the end of that runway.” On certain games, Jaffe says, even with a rough beginning, there’s a sense that the plane will take off, even if it ends up needing a bit more runway.
The Last PlayStation
When God of War shipped, it was the most advanced title ever made for the PlayStation 2. As sales rose, so did creator David Jaffe’s prominence within the industry. Always outspoken, he now had an audience that followed his every word. He was asked to speak at the DICE Summit. He appeared on an MTV roundtable with legends Will Wright, Harvey Smith and Cliff Bleszinski.
Jaffe received accolades for the game’s story and presentation. He recalls a sense of “That’s what I do now, so let me keep doing that.” But even as production on God of War 2 began, Jaffe knew he didn’t want to continue with internal development, something he says was “exhausting and intense.”
“I was hoping for a more balanced lifestyle,” Jaffe says. “The idea of jumping back into doing the sequel to God of War and living my life at the studio 24/7 just was not a doable thing for me.”
That’s when it occurred to Jaffe to work with an external development team, in the form of Salt Lake City-based Incognito, with whom Jaffe previously worked to create Twisted Metal: Black.
“It was a different kind of work,” he says. “It was a mechanics-driven studio.” They used to make military simulators. “They had a different kind of work ethic, in the sense that these guys were – and remain – incredibly focused, diligent workers.”
There certainly was crunch time, Jaffe admits, but he sees subtle differences between external development – which is more about the design sense – and internal development, which is about waiting for code to compile at 3:00 a.m., just to see if the game will work.
“Looking back, I think what should have happened – and one of the biggest lessons for me,” says Jaffe, “was that you really have to marry the design with the sensibilities of the team.”
Playing to Strengths
Jaffe presented Heartland to the Incognito team, and they agreed to make it. “I still think it’s a pretty decent design,” he says today. “But I don’t think it should have ever been attempted by that team.”
Not that they lacked the skill to pull it off, Jaffe is quick to point out. “They certainly were more than capable of executing it. But I think it really didn’t play to what they were passionate about, in terms of a lot of them don’t go home and play story games. A lot of them aren’t all that interested in the merging of narrative and interactivity. They’re more straight-up gamers. They like mechanics. They like multiplayer. They like the arcade stuff.
“That was something from the beginning, knowing what I know now, would have been ‘This is a good design, but a good design for a different team.'”
Early reports said Heartland would be a game that could make you cry – the Holy Grail of game developers from EA’s early days to Steven Spielberg today. “On one hand, it was supposed to be emotional,” says Jaffe. “We wanted players who are sensitive types like myself – that cry at Hallmark commercials – we were hoping that those types would actually cry, and that other players would still feel something that came close to an emotional response.”
The game was to have a strong and timely political message, too. Says Jaffe: “It wasn’t supposed to make you hate the Bush Administration so much as, as a layperson political junkie, it was supposed to put into light – using games as a medium – all the things I didn’t like about the Bush Administration.”
Videogames that tackle politics are relatively new territory, and Jaffe notes that “the further away you get from the literal representation, the fewer people along for the ride will get what you’re saying.”
He cites a Flash game called September 12th, which lets players bomb an Arab marketplace with terrorists and civilians. The more civilians are killed by stray bombs, the more of the remaining civilians become terrorists. That game was the literal representation of a political statement. Jaffe had Heartland‘s producer contact the group that made the game. “I wanted them to work with us, to consult with us, find ways to make the gameplay in Heartland really political through the means of interactivity.”
The Brass Tacks
“If you strip away all of the political ambitions and story ambitions of the game, what we really wanted to do was create the definitive shooter for the PlayStation Portable,” Jaffe says.
It was to have multiple acts, characters with unique story arcs and take place over the course of three or four weeks. Heartland was to support single- and multiplayer modes. The art style was meant to be as realistic as possible on the PSP.
The level design was conceived as big open spaces. “It wasn’t sandbox at all – I’m not a big sandbox fan.” It was more like the open world of Deus Ex. Players would have several goals, and creative, pre-planned ways to explore the map to achieve them.
One level was set at a theme park occupied by invading troops as they moved through the Midwest. Jaffe talks about the effect of having multiple solutions, which take on the illusion of being limitless combinations. “There’s a sense of immersion that comes with that, that I was really attracted to, that we wanted to have in Heartland, too. I was really excited about creating this almost homage to Deus Ex.”
Besides simply trying to make the game work really well and look really pretty on the PSP, the plan was to introduce quick time events like those in God of War, something Jaffe hadn’t seen in the first-person shooter genre.
Originally, the story was about China invading America. Fans on forums protested such a possibility, though strategic analysts told the Heartland developers there were indeed ways such a scenario could play out. Still, Jaffe found it a plausible fiction. “I never watched Red Dawn and was like, ‘Ah, that could never happen.'”
But there was another problem. “The one thing Sony seemed uncomfortable about was naming the enemy,” says Jaffe. “We were going to do some pretty intense stuff.”
Jaffe describes a real-time sequence where the player and squad enter a suburban house after the Chinese invasion has turned the neighborhood into a war zone. It’s the home of a Chinese-American family. The squad rounds up the family, having them kneel in the living room.
The player chases after the teenage son, beating him and dragging him down the stairs, and throwing him into the living room. The commanding officer orders the player to douse the family and the house with gasoline, and set it on fire. “It was meant to be, ‘Oh, my God, this is the worst thing in the world,'” says Jaffe.
“Obviously, it would have been up to the player to make a decision: Do I do that, or do I say, ‘Fuck this, this is wrong, I’m not doing it’?”
Another moment Jaffe discusses is a video camera the player comes across. If the player watches the tape, they see an American beheading a captive Chinese soldier. If the player rewinds further, there’s footage of the American solider before the war, recording a family vacation at Disneyland. Jaffe was looking to explore the question “How would we react if we were occupied?”
“I don’t claim to be a political analyst who has all the answers and knows every nuance. I’m just a guy who’s responding to what I’m seeing on the news and reading on the net.”
Jaffe mentions Imagination is the Only Escape, the Holocaust game for the Nintendo DS. It’s something he would want to play. He was raised Jewish, and though he no longer practices, he thinks it could be an important title – and unfortunate if it isn’t released for political reasons.
“A lot of people stand around and talk about games as art. But when it really comes down to it, there’s still a resistance to really let it all hang out and say, ‘Look, we’re going to tackle subjects that are just as potentially – not intentionally offensive – but potentially offensive and worrisome as film, TV, literature.'”
While Sony had no problem with Heartland‘s ambitions, Jaffe eventually agreed he wouldn’t explicitly name an enemy. This meant Incognito had to substitute generic enemies, something Jaffe says had a good design effect. “It was really something you could project your own thoughts and fears and politics onto.”
End of Days
Heartland was to be a two-year project, but was only in development for eight months. Jaffe says that it all goes back to the design not being a good marriage with the team, who didn’t play that many first-person shooters. “They weren’t really impressed with A) my politics, and B) story-based games to begin with.”
The team was slowly making progress. They were hard-working and meticulous, but it was clear their motivation was professional, not personal. “Also, the team was spread very thin because we had to keep offloading people from Heartland onto Warhawk.”
Heatland‘s producer would call every day, to report that another team member had been “Warhawked.” When you throw intra-office poaching into the mix with a game that the team never wanted to make, you’ve got a surefire way to “keep that plane from taking off.”
“By the end, we were running on fumes anyway,” concludes Jaffe. When the team was down to nine or 10 people, producer Scott Campbell and Jaffe discussed how they were going to complete the project. It went from making the game, to whittling it down, to getting rid of multiplayer and finally realizing “the ambition is just too great for the resources that we have.”
The decision to cancel Heartland was easy, says Jaffe, because the game never achieved a level of polish such that anyone fell in love with it.
Campbell and Jaffe then began to work on the PlayStation Network title Calling All Cars. They realized they liked working with a team small enough to know everyone on it, and rallying around a central design. It also led them to consider making smaller semi-casual, semi-hardcore games. “It really was the thing that pushed us out into starting our own company.” Today, Jaffe and Campbell run Eat Sleep Play, a studio made up of former Incognito talent with an exclusive three-game deal with Sony.
Speaking personally about Heartland, Jaffe says that he finally got the need to do something more than entertain people out of his system. “For me, it allowed me to see and embrace that – at least now in my career – I’m not only OK, but thrilled to be working towards a Michael Bay version of a videogame maker. I just want to make people happy and entertain people. I don’t need to push the medium forward, I don’t need to say anything. I really just want people to play the stuff we work on and have smiles on their faces.”
N. Evan Van Zelfden expects great things for the future of games. Games are the greatest art form to date, he asserts. This is why he plays games, writes about them, and continues to work in the industry of games.