Thursday, 20 March 2014

Eisenhorn The Video Game - Thoughts and Warning Signs

Well, here's something no one ever thought would happen.

Someone is adaptation Dan Abnett's Eisenhorn trilogy to video game format. Reactions have been skeptical at best and extremely pessimistic at worst, mostly the latter, and there is good reason for this.

Often considered to be one of, if not the, greatest series set in any Warhammer universe, it has a solid plot and great characters. Following the story of Inquisitor Gregor Eisenhorn, the trilogy depicted his initial successes and later downfall. Becoming far less of the puritan warrior he had begun as and descending into a staunch radicalist who freely used daemonic servants to do his bidding.

Now, the video game industry has seen a good deal of highly acclaimed literature adaptations of late. The Walking Dead, The Wolf Among Us, and similar episodic games are all extremely well known. The reasons we might be concerned is that the big successes, those previously mentioned, have all come from Telltale Games. They have constantly followed the same style of gameplay, stuck to the same genres, and most importantly stuck to to comics to adapt. These had visuals to work from, a type of story which could be easily turned into a video game because of that. 
Eisenhorn is a novel, its worlds formed out of words and stylistic descriptions, but there's even bigger problems beyond this. Unlike either of the examples above, the world was presented in first person. You saw everything through the protagonist's eyes and knew his exact thoughts. 

This cannot be translated into a video game no matter how skilled the team behind it.

We could also talk about how the choices would impact upon the game or the problems there, but this isn't the case here. No, what we have isn't a graphic adventure title like the successes above. What we have here is an action adventure game being developed for mobile by a studio with little to no experience.

Oh God-Emperor help us.

The reason to start running screaming for the hills is due to a number of things. Firstly, following THQ's bankruptcy, Games Workshop has begun doing what they did best: Whoring out the licence to whoever could produce them a quick buck with the lowest quality. That may sound harsh, but bare in mind the last developer who brought us a Warhammer game was the same one who spawned Ride to Hell: Retribution. What they created is as bad and cheap as you'd expect.

The others have done very little to engender much faith and the same goes here. Many have yet to create any game of note or, in many cases, an actual retail game with any critical acclaim. The closest we have gotten is Cyanide Studios who, much as we may love them, do not have the best of track records when it comes to quality assurance.

Unfortunately the developers behind this adaptation are no better. Pixel Hero Games is barely known, have done little to truly prove themselves and, to date, have only produced one game. Actually no, they've only produced one episode of a game - Spiral Episode 1. One which was released for free on mobile. While the developers themselves state it was highly acclaimed, and indeed Metacritic showed some positive feedback, it was also barely played by anyone. Few to no truly big name websites like Giant Bomb, Eurogamer or anyone else covered this so it's a little hard to truly gauge how effective the title was.

Even accepting the idea that they could get this right there are a large number of problems.

Foremost among these are the limitations of the platform, as mobile games are hardly seen as the highest calibre of gaming. They are often very limited, short and suffer from a multitude of flaws such as lack of controls or poor responses. In fairness though, what was seen in their gameplay trailer looked pretty damn good, so this is only a minor concern.

What isn't such a minor issue is that their upcomming game is not promoted as Xenos Episode 1, instead it's simply Xenos. The book covered several years of Eisenhorn's life and several major plot threads, all of which look like they would be condensed to hell and back. Admittedly this could be for a much larger game than their last installment, but Xenos is apparently going to see release sometime next year. This is nowhere near the development time needed for a game of such massive scale.

The other problem is budget and tone. The book features massive conflicts with armies as much as it does investigative work, and multiple action scenes which make the finale from Avengers look like a playground scuffle. It also has an extremely dark tone, to the point where Eisenhorn is forced to leave a woman suffocating and freezing to death in order to capture a murderer, something which would give him nightmares for the rest of his life. Bare this in mind as you see this other trailer for Spiral.

Oh dear. It just screams "Abandon all hope ye fans of Abnett!" doesn't it.

These would all be bad enough were this just a common or garden Warhammer novel being adapted like Blood Gorgons or Wrath of Iron, but the Citizen Kane of 40K? Pixel Hero Games will need to hit the million dollar mark to satisfy fans and all of this points towards disappointment. What's here isn't quite enough reason to completely abandon all hope, but things certainly look grim at the moment. There are countless things which could all too easily go wrong here and, with so much at risk, it's honestly hard to see anything which can do the source material justice being produced.

Expect more on this as news develops.


  1. I was really excited when I read the title of this post and saw the initial image, and then my hopes sank, and sank, and sank, as I kept reading.

    There's so many things you could do with this, even on a mobile platform, make it another adventure game where you have to investigate, make it more about exploration in the galaxy and add on plenty of side stories, but making it a mobile action game? I just can't see that working at all, either the action is going to suffer, or the story behind it will, it's going to be nearly (if not entirely) impossible to do both on their budget.

    I do have to disagree with one thing though: "You saw everything through the protagonist's eyes and knew his exact thoughts.
    This cannot be translated into a video game no matter how skilled the team behind it."
    Max Payne did this fantastically though, but again, they way that game did it is not something that could really be done on a mobile device.

    1. Yeah, it really seems that this studio is being set up for failure more than anything else. They're being asked to create a game on a platform already criticised by core gamers, with multiple problems for these sorts of titles and they frequently suffer in terms of length and story.

      What's also sad is that a few of the big issues could have easily been avoided by attempting to adapt one of the Eisenhorn short stories first. Specifically the one which takes place between Xenos and Malleus which had the team investigating apparent cult killings. It was shorter, more condensed and still offered plenty of combat supported by a great story. Going after Xenos first seems tantamount to suicide.

      Unfortunately Max Payne isn't a game i'm too familiar with so i'll have to take your word for it on that. The closest i've gotten to experiencing anything is the GBA title and the first five minutes of the original. That said, if it's anything like the Legacy of Kain series in terms of showing character thoughts then i can understand where you are coming from. The problem is that often Eisenhorn's descriptions and details are used to quickly cover certain time periods to shorten the book, and give emotive punch to certain scenes. While there are certainly shades which could be translated well, the majority seem to be too problematic or reliant upon building images within the reader's head to be effective.

      That's just my opinion of course though.

    2. The original Max Payne was actually a little more in-depth and well done than the Legacy of Kain series, because it did what your description of the Eisenhorn series does.
      Essentially it felt more like a Noire style story, one that took place over a long period of time (I think it was several years but I might be misremembering) and one that you got almost all of the detail from the protagonists inner thoughts and monologue.

  2. Dear Mr. Bellarius of 'The good, the bad, and the insulting',

    It is such a shame to see so many words make so little sense, and much more unfortunate still that you have such a profound lack of knowledge and naivety about videogame development.

    Whilst even misguided people are allowed to have their opinions, it's very disconcerting to see these misinformed views presented as facts to general public...

    Sadly, it sounds like on this occasion you've allowed your love of the source material to blind, and distort your expectations in unrealistic ways.

    But it's cool! We'll show you the way come 2015 ;)

    Much love,

    Dev Person

    1. Well then Nader, if you claim an opinion is utterly misguided and wrong, it's generally best you give some actual backing proving just why this is the case. Saying something and proving something are entirely different things, and when you fail to back up an opinion or point with even the slightest bit of evidence or reasoning, it's less poignant or enlightening than it is laughable.

      For the time being, I will simply work with the facts I have on hand. Games Workshop's standards are so low that the company has been shown handing out its license to just about anyone and everyone. While it has given the go-ahead for the likes of Eternal Crusade and Armageddon, it has also shown that it has no problem allowing backwater companies best known for shovel-ware the right to produce utter dreck. After all, they did happily allow the developer who created Ride To Hell: Retribution to create Storm of Vengeance, backed Regicide and have shown no interest in ensuring any degree of quality among its titles.

      So far, as Pixel Hero Games meanwhile, has no proven track record to encourage any real faith in this project. So far your only prior release has been one episode of a title and what was shown does nothing to really suggest you have the time and budget to pull off something on Xenos’ scale. Given this is a book which features a full scale planetary invasion, gunship chases, a gladiatorial battle, a corrupted planet would make Cthulhu weep, not to mention the various Imperial planets the protagonist visits, it’s set on a scale which is far beyond anything seen in Spiral. This is also without getting into the other problems outlined in the above article such as how the novel presents itself to the reader. If you had started with one of the short stories of the series and proven your development team could do this series justice, I might be saying differently, but to be completely frank it looks as if you have bitten off far more than you can chew here.

      Please understand, I have no desire to see this game fail to meet the standards of its source material or fall short of accomplishing its full potential. If you can produce something great out of this then fantastic, it would be a major step towards using the better novels as source material for future games. I will be keeping an open mind about this and will give as much praise as you deserve upon Xenos’ release, but that does not mean I will so willingly ignore the information in front of me.

  3. Hi There!

    Well to be honest, I didn't really want to have to go into too much detail (for a variety of reasons), but if that's what you'd like I can oblige you.

    So first of all... Information. The truth of the matter is you actually have very little of it. All you actually have is one press release, an image, and a previous game. You don't have a release date, you don't know when we've started development, you have no idea of the scale of the project, and you don't know the budget. Also, I can tell you it will be on other platforms than mobile ;)

    I understand skeptecism, and for all your bashing of licensed GW games, there have been plenty of good ones, both in the past and recently, as well as not so good ones. However in the cold light of day all of that is completely irrelevant. When looking at this project what other developers have done doesn't really matter as we are not those other developers.

    Ultimately, all that matters is OUR track record, and unlike you imply we do have one... Even if it's only one game (as Pixel Hero!) a track record is a measure of anything done in the past, so I don't really see how you can argue we don't have a track record when we quite obviously do. Also, you've seem to infer the naive assumption that before Pixel Hero we have never made a game (or a general lack of experience). Developers leave big, well established studios for lots of reasons, otherwise there would only be a handful of games companies worldwide. For 99% of the industry starting a new studio goes hand in hand with building a brand up from scratch. To assume a new studio is only (some are) formed by new workers into the industry is hilariously short-sighted. I can tell you that between just 4 of the senior developers in the team we have over 50 years of combined industry experience... we've shipped a lot of games on a lot of platforms, and they've been both licensed and original intellectual property.

  4. As an example, take Rocksteady. They are now a much loved studio (where I know a lot of people), and they had the same problem. The initial few devs had to start a new studio with a new project people had never heard of, made one good game (Urban Chaos), and then got the Batman license (which I also know people expected nothing of at the time). I'm sure if they were developing this game now you wouldn't be half as down on it as you are about the fact we are doing it. But technically they've still only released a grand total of 3 games... not some sprawling massive back-catalog. You may argue that they are making games on console with a big budget, but mobile is just a platform (and one that is advancing techically much faster than consoles). Just because most mobile games have been lightweight, casual affairs, speaks more about the marketplace than any technical restriction. Big budgets do not equate to better experiences. Just keep making good games and let the quality speak for itself.

    Whether you like it or not we've historically proven that we've made a good game in the past as Pixel Hero. You say that no 'big' sites you like have reviewed it, but fail to understand that this is not our fault. We sent review copies of our game to a multitude of websites and magazines (as have hundreds and thousands of other developers), but you have to understand they have no obligation to review us. Most of them are in the business of making money, and put time into what they feel is going to drive clicks for them. It is exceptionally hard to get them to pay attention to a new independant I.P. with hundreds of developers mainling in daily. That said, of the 24 reviews of Spiral that we've had, 18 were an 8/10 or better, which I think says enough really. I love how you say it was barely played by anyone... How do you know this? Or is it simply because you've not heard of it before that you made this assumption? I think the stats I have showing the better part of 2 million people having played it means something.

    Again, I can understand your overall skepticism, but in general it really has been taken to another level in your article and presented with an almost entirely negative focus. Please, please understand we are developing a VIDEO GAME. You can't cite poor controls/responses/gameplay as a fear, then say our (combat) gameplay looked good, and then brush that under the carpet with all the other doom and gloom in the article. That's the most important point in the whole article!! If we couldn't make a game with good gameplay then you'd have a real reason to worry! Like I said earlier, you refer to making decisions on the project based on information you have, when you have actually have very little FACTUAL information about this project.

  5. Moving away from the lack of information and onto Spiral... I think I need to clarify what type of game Spiral is, as I'm pretty sure you haven't played it. Spiral is a NARRATIVE driven action and adventure game. In the style of film noire the character you play as is an undercover investigator trying to unravel a conspiracy (tell me if any of this sounds familiar). The plot is broken into chapters, and between chapters the main character is narrating from an unknown point in the future. Gameplay consists of exploring 3d environments (usual walk, run, platforming), interacting with people for information/clues, solving puzzles, going on stealth missions (or escaping in chase sequences), combat, and a variety of other set piece mechanics (such as a minigame shooting down a helicopter). Now obviously leaving aside the aesthetics, it's not hard to see a lot of overlap in structure and function between Spiral and Eisenhorn. Don't let the title confuse you... it's Episode 1 (much like Star Wars has an Episode 1). It's still a 5-7 hour, self contained, adventure experience, which when compared to games like Uncharted at the 10 hour mark, and costing only a few dollars by comparison, should be what you are focusing on.

    It's a bit silly (or a lot) to suggest that because we've made a game with the tone of Spiral (which you've gotten from one combat video from our arena mode, not the story, and one very intentionally toungue-in cheek video) that it will affect Eisenhorn. Good artists are able to adapt to the needs of the material. It's been proven in Books, Comics, Film, and Video games. Spiral had it's own style, and so will Eisenhorn, and it's being handled in a suitable way. Again, I can understand how you made that assumption, but it is a again a simplistic view about how games are developed.

  6. Moving onto Eisenhorn: XENOS, and your concerns there, I can tell you that your point of most concern is actually the easiest part of us to manage. There is really nothing hard or mystifying about how to treat the bulk of 1st person narrative. We can break down the text of the book (minus prologue) into three types:

    - Spoken Dialogue - Pretty simple!
    - Eisenhorn's inner monologue - This is specifically text about his reactions to events and thoughts on a situation
    - Eisenhorn's descriptions - All the text describing to reader what Eisenhorn is seeing.

    So, one of the great joys of Video Games as a medium is that it is Visual! That means we can automatically cut all the descriptive text out of the book, as we can actually show you the places and sights Eisenhorn is seeing. This leaves us with essentially just dialogue spoken by characters and the inner dialogue of Eisenhorn (the dichotomy between what Eisenhorn says and what he is thinking are one of my favourite aspects of the book and character). The inner thoughts will mechanically be handled as voice over playing during select portions of gameplay (where it makes sense and falls in line), or in cinematic sequences. As the other gentleman said in an earlier comment, Max Payne does an excellent job of this, particularly in making sure the gameplay is not being slowed down too much.

  7. I can see you are particularly worried about scale and locations. Ok firstly, let me say that a location in a videogame is just that, a location. A visual backdrop. A series of assets. Going from Processional 212 to a hotel room in Dorsay to a battlefield interrupting the Saruthi trade, isn't some kind of massive technical issue. Most of these things have been handled in games before, and a key element of this is the viewpoint of the game being that of Eisenhorn himself. Even in the book it's not presented as Eisenhorn VS an army, taking down 1000 troops singlehandedly. All hell breaks loose around him, but he has his specific tailored fights (RYSE was a good example of this). This is what I was referring to earlier when I said your love of the materials was affecting your expectations again. You've got a mental image of this epic war going on, but failing to realise that it's presented as Eisenhorn doing his bit with everything else happening around him. Also while Xenos takes place over a long period of time, it's not a minute by minute account, even the book jumps around where necessary, so what exactly is the problem?

    A lot of things that are challenging about this project are nothing to do with what you've outlined, but rather keeping the experience focused, taught and with the right pacing to suit it's new format as a videogame.

    I could go on and on, but I hoping this is enough to get my point accross. :)

    Sorry for having to split this into so many posts!