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Origin System's unmade games and rejected ideas

Pitch imperfect.

There's a dichotomy in the games industry. Major releases measure their development time in years and their budgets run to the millions, but designers can be prone to new ideas every day.

So, what do you if you're working on one game and have an idea for another?

If you worked at Origin Systems - developer of Ultima and Wing Commander and publisher of System Shock - then you submitted those ideas to management, who would later put them in an archive, where some of them would stay until Origin's closure in 2004, at which point...

Well, here are the games Origin never got around to making.

Death & Destruction

Originally pitched by Warren Spector as a Sega Genesis title, Death & Destruction is a grim name for a lighthearted idea - one best illuminated by the subtitle, 'Mad Scientist Simulator'.

"I wanted to do something cartoony and Rube Goldberg-like where you got to be a bad guy," says Spector, who maintains that Death & Destruction is one of his favourite game concepts. "You were an evil mad scientist exploring Things Man Was Not Meant to Know."

Pitched as a 'constructive game of destruction', Death & Destruction may evoke Elixir Studios' Evil Genius in tone, but the pitch Spector wrote in 1990 makes it clear he had a very different set of mechanics in mind than Elixir's 70's Dungeon Keeper-alike.

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Nobody at Origin was interested in funny games, says Warren Spector.

"[In Death & Destruction you can] play two ways - solve puzzles or go on a killing rampage," explains the pitch. "Take the former approach and you have something along the lines of The Incredible Machine with an appealing storyline. Take the rampage route and the game will feel like the old arcade game, Robotron."

Reading on, the pitch makes it clear The Incredible Machine is a touchstone the game rests on heavily. Start up Death & Destruction's levels and you'd be presented with a range of components which could combine to defeat the heroes in dozens of different but entirely logical ways.

"[In each level] a team of good guys - a scientist, a teenage boy and girl, a heroic guy, etc. - were trying to infiltrate your fortress of solitude," says Spector. "The good guys would all be driven by logical desires, such as the boy and girl gravitating to areas where they could be alone together, the scientist to gadgets, etc."

While creative expression and trap-building were familiar fare to Origin, Death & Destruction never got approval from Origin's greenlight team. The risks were too high, with the pitch estimating a $300,000 budget in 1990s money and pointing out the lack of team and experience.

More importantly, says Spector, nobody at Origin was interested in making funny games - something the Epic Mickey designer came up against on more than one occasion.

Gladiator 3000

"Xak wiped the sweat off his palms. He was nervous and he didn't like the fact that the Battlemaster knew it. He could hear the roar of the crowd above him. The walls of the cell would shake when the crowd got really excited. The crowd really loved the death blow. The Battlemaster nodded his bronzed bald head. It was time to go. The arena, and the crowd, were waiting..."

So begins Brian Adams' pitch for Gladiator 3000 - a sci-fi spin on the Roman coliseum with 'infinitely variable levels'. Taking place on a planet so inhospitable that life is ultimately unsustainable, you're cast as a slave who must fight to freedom. Your opponents? The most dangerous aliens, robots and animals the universe has to offer.

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Origin founder Richard Garriott is focused on different space races nowadays.

"Xak selected the H'Rachi scimitar as his primary weapon and the Pashdur Electronet as his secondary weapon," says Adams' next burst of interstitial narrative. "Fighting with these weapons wasn't considered very smart...he hoped his opponents didn't know he was ambidextrous."

Planned for the IBM PC, Adams' pitch goes into great detail on the variability Gladiator would summon from it's simple concept. Levels include the full gamut of 90s FPS tropes - ice, fire, pits, mazes and more.

All of these elements would have required time to build however, hence Adams' plan to speed up development by repurposing technology from other projects within Origin's studios. This included Looking Glass Studios' engine for 'the Citadel project' - which former Looking Glass designer Harvey Smith confirmed was eventually renamed System Shock.

According to Adams' leveraging the Citadel engine would enable Gladiator 3000 to offer upgradeable weapons and RPG elements, as well as location-based damage. Multiplayer was also suggested as a key feature, with automatic match recording planned for head-to-head battles. Adams, who was later credited on the first Call of Duty, apparently hoped Gladiator would make compelling viewing outside of the game too - an idea not as laughable now as it may have been then.

Ultimately however, Gladiator 3000 never got the greenlight - though nobody seems sure why.

"Why didn't it fly? I don't know," says Warren Spector, who invited Adams to make the pitch and directed his team. "I thought - and still think - it would have been a great idea."

Frontier

Despite bearing the name of Elite's sequel, Origin's Frontier is actually about as far from a David Braben space trading game as it's possible to get. Instead, it's a semi-educational pioneer simulation set in the wild west, and it was envisioned as a way for Origin to enter new markets such as schools.

"It's the late 18th century, you're a pioneer and you've got a nation to explore and settle...are you a caravan of homesteaders? Forty-niners? Are you the one guy who's going out west to ranch?"

So begins Frontier's high concept, broadening from there to include a much greater scope than anything The Oregon Trail ever had in mind. Frontier would offer a level of freedom that had only rarely been seen before, says the pitch, encompassing the entire US and giving you a multitude of tools and approaches to choose from.

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Origin artist Bill Narum formed his own studio to release Metal Morph for SNES

"Your initial goal is to attract people and set up a prosperous town or mining company...ultimately you want to attract the county seat and then the state capital (because you want to vie for statehood)."

"At the same time, [you can] strive for personal goals - wealth, political power and so on. Just like the real world, you can choose to be a public minded citizen more interested in the common good."

In other words, Frontier would be part SimCity, part Railroad Tycoon and one big risk for a studio which had never tried anything like it before.

"[The risks are] Medium to High," admits the anonymous pitch. "First, there's no team in place. Second, no one at Origin has ever done a system simulation of any kind...the technology is fairly straightforward, [but] the details of implementation are completely unknown."

Those risks, especially when set against a proposed 1994 budget of $350,000, ultimately led to a veto from Origin's management. According to Warren Spector, it wasn't the only such game to suffer such a fate:

"I pitched Westerns on an annoyingly frequent basis. Sadly, I was always told there was no market for Western-themed games and I always pointed out [they wouldn't] sell until someone made one that does. I now point toward Red Dead Redemption as evidence I was right."

Space Race

Another pitch for the Sega Genesis, Space Race is as antithetical to Frontier as it's possible to get - albeit one sold (or not) on a similarly simple concept.

"Imagine Road Rash or Super Monaco Grand Prix; now imagine that same kind of intense action in outer space, with you at the helm of a futuristic space-racing ship. That's Space Race."

Unsurprisingly for a high-concept racer, Space Race's pitch document is barebones on the creative side. The product overview especially is perfunctory, describing ships as nothing more than "fast and manoeuvrable" and the setting only as "the far future". The courses are the only exception and would have been designed to take full advantage of a 3D setting...

"Some tracks have road surfaces while others are wide open, with no vertical or horizontal constraints...others are tightly enclosed, twisting snake-like tunnels with walls made of energy...some are demo derbies requiring combat while others ban any contact."

What the Space Race pitch lacks in creative flair it makes up for in business acumen and bluntness, however. Origin's pitch template asks designers to answer a simple question; Why is this an Origin product?

Space Race sums it up quickly: "This idea fits in well with out current line-up (we are known for first-person space games), while putting a new spin on the idea. Licensing opportunities abound...the ships offer the possibility of model kits."

The risk analysis is similarly straightforward, pointing out that the technological barriers are extremely low and twisting the lack of ambition into a positive.

"I don't think there's anything challenging in here," says the anonymous author. "The design would be a piece of cake, one of the simplest we've ever done."

Carl's Crazy Carnival

Finally, the most bizarre and out of place concept in Origin's vault of rejection; a children's action game about evil clowns and bearded ladies.

"This is a game made up of several small games that, together, allow the player to free 'Carny' Carl, owner of Carl's Carnival. He's been captured by a cartel of crazy clowns who have conspired to convert Carl's Carnival into complete chaos."

Armed only with a water pistol but with the ability to upgrade to better weapons through arcade-machine tickets, Carl's Crazy Carnival would have you defeat legions of amusing enemies in order to reach the Cosmic Comet Roller Coaster. There, you'd free Carl and save the day.

Reading the pitch, it's oddly unclear what sort of game Carl's Crazy Carnival would have been. There's mention of minigames, action and overhead maps, but nowhere does it specify a perspective or specific genre. Even Warren Spector seems unsure now, describing it only as a 'console-style game' pitched by one of the artists on his team, the late ZZ-Top and Ultima artist, Bill Narum.

"I liked the idea of a funny game and pitched it to the exec team," says Spector. "It was rejected."

In retrospect it's likely Carl's rejection may have been because of it's lack of focus, as much as for it being a funny game. The pitch describes Carl as an opportunity to open up new markets - "the vast legions of kids in the 7-12 age group who live for Super Mario Brothers and Sonic the Hedgehog" - but Origin was famously a publisher that catered to the hardcore.

Ultima, Abuse, Cybermage and System Shock were Origin's standard fare; not Ecco the Dolphin or Robocod.

"For what it's worth, there were lots more game ideas that came out of my group at Origin," offers Spector. "Arthurian Legends, Transland, PassTimes, Operator..."

"They never went anywhere... [but] we were all coming up with ideas left and right."

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