There was a time during the development of this week's new PlayStation 3 dragon-fighting game "Lair" when its director, Julian Eggebrecht, thought it was cursed. That time began two years ago and — hopefully for him — ended this summer.
"I am not a believer in ghosts, but this one was haunted," Eggebrecht told GameFile over the course of an e-mail interview conducted from his native Germany, where the developer was on vacation. The first sign of supernatural interference emerged on the eve of Sony's PS3 unveiling in May 2005. Eggebrecht's team at development studio Factor 5 was delivering the first trailer of "Lair" to Sony's then-head of global PlayStation business, Ken Kutaragi, just in the nick of time. Then came trouble.
"Our trailer was very dark, and we delivered the trailer with a different black level for the frames than Sony was expecting, making them even darker," Eggebrecht said. "They showed the material at the last minute to Kutaragi-san, who didn't see a thing and bounced us off the [PS3's demo] reel. That's why the first tech-trailer was shown at the PlayStation meeting a few months later. That was the start of one catastrophe after the other — deaths in the family at the worst time [and] sudden surgeries for key members, which bounced the technology off-track. And just in general, every single time there was a crucial delivery, something bizarre went wrong — all the way to power outages when writing the master disks."
In the commentary for the game — yes, this is one of the few games that includes a level-by-level DVD-style commentary, unlockable upon completion — Eggebrecht and the game's producer, Brian Krueger, joke from the very start about a "dragon-game curse." Had the commentary not been recorded on the game's Blu-ray disc before the reviews of "Lair" hit, they might have seemed like a defense from the scorching it has received.
Instead, the curse complaint sounds like an honest reaction to an arduous project, an uncommonly frank statement in a game that presents itself not as the end to something, but the beginning of a conversation. It is the rare game with explanatory audio tracks by its creators and a menu-screen link to forums where people can discuss which parts of this first-year PS3 game work or fail.
"Lair" puts the player on the back of a dragon in the midst of an epic war. The gamer makes their beast spit fireballs with a tap of the square button and steers with the tilt of the motion-sensitive PS3 Sixaxis controller. The dragon turns a 180 when the player yanks back that Sixaxis, a motion misinterpreted often enough by the game as an attempt to zoom straight forward that one reviewer at Electronic Gaming Monthly said, "Don't buy it if you want a dragon that does what it's damn well told." This is a game that has received high fours — out of 10 — from GameSpot and IGN. This is, in fact, one of the most harshly reviewed games from a developer used to strong scores (Factor 5's four previous titles, all in the "Rogue Squadron" Star Wars series, cumulatively averaged an 83 percent review score, according to Metacritic).
What haven't received many complaints are the game's Hollywood-level production values, standard-setting detailed visuals and epic score. Nor has it been accused of holding back, of skimping on scale or variety. One level late in the game includes a detailed fortress, several thousand individual troops, two warring fleets of ships and dozens of dragons in the sky. All of this is available for the player to engage, spitting fireballs, ramming enemy dragons, fighting the larger beasts in one-on-one midair "Punch-Out"-style tussles, landing on the battlefield to burn and chew soldiers, ripping apart turrets with hind claws — and more. The complaint is that this stuff doesn't come together and that the elements don't congeal into something fun enough to cost $60.
Would less have been more? " 'Lair' was the wrong game for holding back," Eggebrecht said. He wanted something epic and involved, something that wouldn't be accused of being, in his words, a "predictable 'Rogue Squadron' clone."
Of Factor 5's last three games, "Lair" is its second title released in a console's first year, the other being its GameCube-launch "Rogue Leader" title. A console's first year sometimes produces classics such as "Super Mario 64" and "Halo" but generally is filled with games overshadowed by those made when the inner workings of the hardware is better understood. Creating an early title can be like creating a rough draft.
"That is exactly the kick of creating a first-year game: exploring the not-yet-finished hardware and growing the technology while the hardware is coming together," Eggebrecht said. "I think both 'Rogue Leader' and 'Lair' gave a good stab at poking into the depths of the systems for such early titles, and from that you have a second-generation growth opportunity that surpasses most developers that jump onto the bandwagon later."
What Eggebrecht is weathering now are the limitations that poking into the PS3's depths may have revealed about his game's concept, its platform, its controller, Factor 5 or perhaps some combination. The matter circles back to that question of motion-controlling the dragon's flight. When asked by GameFile how often that yank-back-to-do-a-180 move works for him, Eggebrecht replied: "About eight out of 10, which is the same ratio that I get in 'Wii Sports' tennis when I try to do a backspin."
Yes, indeed, that poke into the PS3 has made a developer admit that his game's controls don't work every time. Eggebrecht said that is the nature of motion-control systems, which won't always be able to recognize the player's ever-varied gestures.
What's more, Eggebrecht said that's OK: "The Sixaxis motion control itself feels a lot more organic and free-form than the rigid controls of other flight games and does much better for casual players, as we saw in focus tests. It does seem to alienate some reviewers who are at the top of the hard-core crowd and seem to have a passionate hate for all things motion, be it 'Wii Sports' with sometimes absurdly low scores for what might become the defining game of this generation, or 'Lair' as their newest poster child of evil. It's an unfortunate development that, if the players themselves listen too much to the motion-hatred message, will divide the gaming community. Our potential for growth as an art form for the mainstream is in the easier-to-access control schemes that might be less precise but a lot of fun."
Perhaps the game's jagged edge needn't be smoothed? Or perhaps it is a rough draft worthy of revision? As early first-stab games go, this is the rare one that doesn't hide from its flaws and even suggests that reaching far — maybe too far — is an experience gamers and cursed developers may agree is worth paying for.
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Julian Eggebrecht and "Lair" have been in recent game headlines — and the last two GameFiles — but not just because of reviews. The game designer commented last month at the Leipzig Games Convention about the effects of ratings boards on censoring/ cleaning up the content of his team's PS3 game. Asked by GameFile about speculation that the Entertainment Software Rating Board required his Factor 5 team to alter the game's camerawork in order to achieve a T rating instead of an M, Eggebrecht replied, "No, we had to tone down reactions of enemies, amounts of blood, and angles and style of carnage. There also was a lot of debate about the tone of red of the blood. Contrary to what you might think, the harshest cuts were in the dragon-to-dragon melee fighting, something that hurt the impact of the combos somewhat." ...
At Leipzig, Eggebrecht revealed that he wanted to include a cheat called "Hot Coffee" in the game, a joke reference to the hidden sex scene that got "Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas" pulled from store shelves two years ago. The code would have revealed a video of a coffee maker. Eggebrecht clarified to GameFile that the cheat code was pulled "jointly between Sony and us. Of course I don't want to put my publisher into a political mess. I am very concerned about an atmosphere of fear having the potential for self-censorship by game makers, and I truly hope we will move past the ratings." And to help have some fun with that, he revealed to GameFile the replacement cheat code that leads to the coffee maker. "Lair" owners, input this: 686F7420636F66666565. ...
In non-"Lair" news, September 25 may be the biggest gaming day of the year. Or it may just be the biggest first-person gaming day of the year. Already the release day for "Halo 3," the fourth Tuesday of September will also host the launch of a demo for the PC first-person-shooter "Crysis." The FPS is among the most-hyped computer games of the year and also one of the most daunting products coming to market. The game's creators haven't been shy about suggesting that only the highest-end computers will run the game. The September 25 demo should provide players with a free way to test whether their PC rig can handle it. (Watch the game's Web site for details.) As for that other game, Microsoft announced that "Halo 3" went gold last week, meaning that the discs of Master Chief's adventure are now being manufactured. The game is complete. ...
The red-hot "Guitar Hero" franchise has been played on the PS2 and the Xbox 360, but won't make a debut on a Nintendo system until this fall's "Guitar Hero III: Legends of Rock" comes to the Wii (and every other major gaming console). What exactly can the Wii remote add to the series? The Nintendo reporters at IGN tried the Wii version's guitar and reported last week that it adds two exclusive features: rumble and the use of the remote's speaker to emit the squelching sounds of mistimed notes. About the rumble, IGN's Craig Harris wrote: "Believe it or not, in our hands-on, you really could feel the guitar shake to the beat when you rocked out with Star Power, as well as 'buzz' when crazy effects are going on in the game." For more, check this out.
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