It's hard to think of a more hostile environment for a game's launch than the one Free Radical's Haze faces. On one hand, it's viewed as a flag-bearer for the PlayStation 3, a console whose vocal detractors aren't afraid to come out in force online to criticise any weakness. It's also got the misfortune of being billed (although not by its developers) as a Halo-killer (well, it's a first person shooter where some of the characters wear funny looking helmets, what did they expect?) and it's launching at a time when the world's FPS gamers are still in the midst of a torrid love affair with Call of Duty 4.
In other words, Haze had better be bloody good, or it's going to be crucified - perhaps not in the press, and perhaps not even in stores, but its developers certainly need to be worried about a bloody sacrifice on the altar of public opinion. Don't they?
"Yeah, I can see where you're going with that," sighs Haze's creative director, Derek Littlewood. "I mean... I think you can worry unnecessarily about that kind of thing. At the end of the day, any game you make is going to end up getting judged on a lot of different criteria after launch. To a large degree you just have to say, let's just let it go - let's let the gamers judge for themselves."
"I think there's a lot of talk in the media about titles becoming flag-bearers and stuff," he continues, rather presciently we think, "but when you get down to the level of individual gamers, they just have titles that they love. That's the sort of feedback that I'm looking for, and that's the thing we were looking to deliver, which is a great game that gamers can enjoy. I think all of the other stuff about being a flag-bearer for PlayStation 3, or whatever, that's for somebody else to judge."
Make Haze while the sun shines
Of course, there is one way in which Haze could have faced an even tougher time - and that would have been to launch before Christmas, which was originally Free Radical's plan, before a delay pushed it back to 2008. "It was a very crowded market before Christmas, and I'm not going to pretend like I'm not glad to have a slightly more quiet window to release into," Littlewood tells us. "Releasing up against games like Halo 3, Call of Duty 4 - that's always going to be brutal. But I don't think it's a case of us looking at those games and thinking that we're going to have to make Haze better."
He pauses for a second, then continues. "I'm glad those games came out and were very strong titles, very good games. We're always looking at other titles to try and improve what we do, but I don't think it was a case of us panicking about the quality of Haze at all."
So, given that Free Radical has had almost six months more to work on Haze, what have it done with the time? According to Littlewood, it's mostly been a case of polishing the game - taking on board mounds of feedback from playtesters, and using it to inform a process that has seen them tweaking everything from the balance of the sides through to the actual design and flow of the levels themselves. "It's not that we've added stuff," he explains. "What you're seeing is the delivery of the game we always wanted to make - it's more robust and more polished. The feature set is identical to what we've always been talking about."
In fact, Littlewood is quite enthusiastic about the delay to the game. "Normally, as a developer, you just don't get the opportunity to do that," he says. "Every game that goes out the door, you always feel like you could have made some things better in it, or that here are things that you could have improved. To get the opportunity to spend three or four months fixing a load of those issues, that was a fantastic chance - and I'm really glad that we got to do it."