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How to make great vapourware

No release, no surrender.

Bad news: if you want to become a fossil when you die, you should know right now that it's probably not going to happen. Most of us don't end up as fossils. Most of us just end up plain old dead - vanilla dead, if you will. Turning into a fossil requires dying in the right sort of place, in the right sort of conditions, often at the right sort of time. Even then, there's no guarantee that anyone's going to bother digging you up. Man, being a fossil is surprisingly tough!

Here's another thing that's tough: good vapourware. Great vapourware, the triple-A stuff, which has only the very best development teams not working on it. It's been an ideal week for thinking about this sort of thing, what with Sony fighting back against terminally unreleased games with its E3 conference. How the mighty have fallen - or should that be risen? The Last Guardian: thought that was mega-dead. Shenmue 3: thought that was an urban myth. Final Fantasy 7 remake: couldn't even dare to dream.

There's plenty to consider here, but what I've been ruminating on the most is this: How come some no-show games become legendary vapourware and others just get forgotten? It's the fossil problem all over again, perhaps, and it makes me wonder. If you're an unreleased game and you're getting to be long overdue, can you tilt the odds of becoming classic vapourware in your favour?

Plucking an example out of the air, let's think, for a second, about what would happen if the new Need for Speed reboot never came out. Now: I hope, of course, that it does. Lovely people are no doubt working on it, and I like shiny cars as much as the next man, unless the next man is Martin Robinson, who has ascended to an entirely remote plateau of auto-worship. (On a clear night, you can hear him whispering lullabies to a collection of old camshafts.) But if the new Need for Speed game never came out, I don't think it would become really top-tier vapourware. Instead, you'd find yourself thinking one day: Oh, did that Need for Speed reboot ever come out? Then you'd forget about it. Then you might have a biscuit of some kind.

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But if Nier 2 didn't come out? That would be vapourware - the classy kind, too. That game's never going to sell more than a tiny fraction of Need for Speed's numbers, I suspect, but it doesn't matter. There is longing involved. Intricate, difficult, personal longing. And longing is the first wrench in the developer's toolkit when they're looking to make memorable vapourware.

Vapourware can't just have fans, in other words. The very best vapourware, the urban legend stuff, must have super-fans. People will do insane things to get a glimpse of Half-Life 3, or even receive an indication that it has ever existed. As I type this, children are probably flying high over Bellevue, about to do a formation parachute jump past Valve's offices, spelling out a single word WHEN, and even adding a question mark, which is high-stakes formation parachute territory, particularly for the poor nubbin who has to stand in for the dot.

Parachuting children! That's devotion, and that's a huge part of why Valve's game is the king of vapourware, so powerful, even, that not even Shawn Layden could topple it on Monday night.

Another huge part, though, is that we've seen something of it - something very brief. I'm pretty sure there was an early piece of concept art for Episode 3, anyway, and there have been assets trickling out for that over time, too. The Episode 3 connection will just about do. It's not enough that a game is announced and then never materialises, you see. A part of it, even if it's just a teeny part - even if it's just an email directory listing - has to actually materialise as well. A chunk of the legendary game has to cross over into our world. (This vapourware business has a lot in common with the way that the best scientists currently believe ghosts work.)

I'm tempted to say that great vapourware frequently has to be somewhat unlikely. Beyond Good & Evil 2 is a case in point. Everyone now loves the original, but at the time I imagine it died like a dog in the street at retail. The longing for a sequel, the pain at the acknowledgement that it has probably been canned, is all the stronger because punters can feel that they barely even earned its existence in the first place, that it was almost their fault - or rather everyone else's fault - that this unexpected treat has been snatched away from them.

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The defining element of vapourware, though, is that the game has to have obvious challenges. Its development has to be the kind that people who have never made a game or gathered in a breakout group can still look at, hands on hips, and affect an appraising wince while saying, "Sheesh! You're trying to make that?" This, I think, is because part of us is hard-wired to believe against all odds that the Quixotic projects are the ones that must eventually succeed, because they're the ones that the makers have to want the most. If they die, then what does that say about human passion? What does it say about our lonely place in a universe that doesn't even know we exist?

Think about it. Beyond Good & Evil 2: the early footage, for the time, looked insanely ambitious, and then there's the suspicion of internal strife, of Michel Ancel banging on Yves Guillemot's desk, rattling crockery like that bit in The Prisoner, and saying: "No, Yves Guillemot! This must happen! Don't take this away from me! From us!" Take Half-Life 3: a game that must not only be brilliant fun to play, but must also provide an obvious revolution to the expectations people have about games. It must find a new gravity gun, a new soda can to pluck from the ground and throw in the trash, a new Alyx to walk backwards, staring us in the face, while continuing to deliver her dialogue regardless of the fact that we are hitting a selection of entirely convincing magnifying glasses with a crowbar as she does so.

Take Duke Nukem: the challenge there was the pressure of expectation, and the effect that had on the development team. The slippage! The endless dance on the very brink of irrelevance! The hours of work that had already been put in, and the sense of direction that was sapped with each wiping of the slate!

Duke Nukem is the dark angel of vapourware of course, not least because we actually got it, and we then got to play through a campaign that ultimately felt like a post-mortem. Maybe this is the true lesson of vapourware. I genuinely have high hopes for Shenmue 3 - and The Last Guardian, Beyond Good and Evil 2 and even Half-Life 3 if I'm being honest. I can't wait to play them someday, and I can't stop believing that day will come. I can also see why many of the truly great examples of vapourware choose to stay missing, however, neither alive nor dead, mysteries and ambitions intact, and definitely not leaving you with a corpse to pick over.

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