It's a great time for RPGs at the moment, with just about every name, flavour and celebrity from the old days finding a new lease of life through Kickstarter and a freshly hungry audience. Most series and creators though have had at least one game fall prey to development hell - sometimes with their ideas resurfacing in later titles, sometimes with everything simply lost to time. Their levels of completion vary dramatically, but here are some of the games we never got to play...
Baldur's Gate III: The Black Hound (Jefferson)
While we finally have Pillars of Eternity as an unofficial Baldur's Gate III, it's a real shame the original never got off the ground. The Black Hound was to be a story of cause and effect, completely unrelated to the previous games' Child of Bhaal, focusing on a more open world than the previous games and a potentially fascinating mechanic. The Black Hound was to be a manifestation of guilt, bound to the player, who becomes something of an arbiter for the characters encountered.
Quests would have offered repercussions for both actions and inaction - not saving a town from evil invaders for instance could have ended up with it being conquered during the course of the adventure, instead of its fate being saved for a card after the final boss. It being the start of a new trilogy (the expansion Throne of Bhaal being a chapter), those could also have bled through into the two planned sequels.
Sadly the game got axed late in development, and Interplay lost the Dungeons and Dragons license. Josh Sawyer would subsequently begin a plan to make the game in Neverwinter Nights, before realising that it was just too big a project for spare-time work. There was also some murmuring from Overhaul Games about creating an official Baldur's Gate III project that for a while looked like it might be The Black Hound, though it's since been announced that if one happens, it'll be its own thing. As for the team, they moved on to a brand new project - Fallout 3. Unfortunately, no, not that one.
Fallout 3 (Van Buren)
Van Buren has little to do with the Fallout 3 we finally got, though Obsidian's New Vegas would pick up quite a few of its plot ideas and locations in variably changed forms. Caesar's Legion was in it for instance, albeit in a much less prominent or developed form, along with locations like the NCR controlled Hoover Dam. Van Buren, though, was primarily going to be Fallout in a 3D engine, with the player awakening in a prison cell and then being pursued through the southwest by robots on an ultimate mission to prevent a mad scientist creating a second holocaust... as if that had worked out particularly well for the guys who tried it in the previous games. It would have featured turn-based and realtime combat, though with turn-based the focus, and most of the game had been designed by the time Bethesda bought the license and work on the game stopped.
Most of the design documents have subsequently been made available, right here, along with a tech demo of what was going to be the tutorial. It's extremely shaky, and don't expect much in the way of actual game, but still interesting. Whatever your feelings toward Bethesda's completely different take on the license, it's hard to imagine Van Buren having gotten half as much traction as the full-3D version, although Bethesda's release did mean old-school Fallout fans had to wait for Wasteland 2 to get back to what they liked.
The only thing original creators Interplay were left with after the Bethesda sale was the right to make a Fallout Online... and even then, only in theory. There was immediate trouble with Bethesda over who owned the actual IP, which at least led to some memorable quotes like these:
Bethesda wants you to say, look it is only the word Fallout and that is all they get to do and they get to slap it on some game. What game do we slap that mark on? Do we slap it on a game where people are losing their hair and as hair falls out we say, okay it is a Fallout game? Do we put that on a game that says that there are people falling out of windows and when they hit the ground we kill them and we say that is a Fallout and they are falling out of cars or do we put it on some car racing game set in a time that is not an apocalyptic time like a Fallout game?
In the end, neither company ended up making a Fallout Online, with Zenimax turning its Bethesda-licensed MMO interests to a disappointment called The Elder Scrolls Online, and the well-chewed carcass of Interplay launching one of the least compelling crowd-sourcing campaigns in history - a 'return of Black Isle' involving none of the actual people who were part of the company, to create a Not-Fallout game called Project V13. Unlike most crowdfunded projects, it wasn't even to make the game, but to create a proof of concept for the game, with donators not even promised a copy of the finished game if it happened. Spoiler alert: It didn't even get close.
Ultima X: Odyssey
Few beloved series have ended on quite such a staggering low as Ultima IX: Ascension. Its crimes and disappointments are well enough chronicled, we need not linger on them here. What made Ultima X such an odd prospect though wasn't simply seeing EA trying to follow up one of the biggest bombs since Fat Man and Little Boy, but that Ultima IX had ended with both the death of its main character and the series villain. Not exactly sequel bait.
Ultima X never sounded like a particularly great idea to me, and I suspect it would have been a tough sell. It took place in a dreamworld, the land of Alucinor, set in the post-ascended Avatar's head, with his arch-rival and evil self the Guardian battling his mind for dominance. It was to be something of a single-player and multiplayer hybrid (not a million miles from series creator Richard Garriott's own Shroud of the Avatar, really), in which players would join with friends to try and advance by following the Eight Virtues in a world of choice and consequence. The stock example went like this:
A hooded guy asks you to get his gold medallion back that has been in his family for centuries. He tells you who stole it and where that person could be found. Once you find the thief, he tells you that he only stole the medallion so he could sell it and buy bread to eat. From here you can either be Compassionate by giving him some bread, letting him live, but taking the medallion back; or practice Justice and kill him, taking the medallion to its rightful owner. When you return to the hooded guy who gave you the job, you find out the medallion isn't his, but another person's who got robbed by the foodless guy, and now you can either Honor the agreement and leave with your payment, or be Honest and take the medallion to its real owner, killing the person who gave you the job.
Not included there is the more likely option, biffing everyone over the head and taking all their shit, as Ultima Online demonstrated players were endlessly more likely to do. (A similar idea was of course planned for Garriott's Tabula Rasa, though never really came to pass. Hopefully Shroud will handle it better.) Players who did max out their virtues though would become extra-powerful, and come to represent the spirit of the Avatar himself. We can but hope they were thinking of Steve.
Odyssey was at least going to look pretty and run a hell of a lot better than Ascension, being based on the Unreal engine. Being a 2004 game though, it feels unlikely it would have been able to offer the depth required to be more than just bashy-smashy MMO stuff - though it was looking to do actual combat instead of auto-attacks - or to have stood more of a chance than the rest against the all-powerful Warcraft juggernaut. We were not to find out though, when EA decided "Nah" and moved the team back to working on Ultima Online. And speaking of Ultima Online...
On page two...Ultima Online! Plus The Witcher, Torn and Project Titan.
Ultima Online 2
Technically, it was going to be called "Ultima Worlds Online: Origin", but we all know what it was. This was announced way, way back in 1999, only to be cancelled in 2001. It was to be very different from the original Ultima Online, not least in terms of setting. Ultima has always been the poster-child for medieval style fantasy, up to and including being the only series that's allowed to do 'thou' and 'dost' stuff without being given a slap. (Looking at you, Two Worlds.) Ultima Online 2 however was pretty much steampunk, with worlds of magic and a technology clashing courtesy of a magical time compression cataclysm apparently imported from Final Fantasy VIII.
Looking back, it's probably most interesting for how much it tried to duck away from things that had made Ultima Online interesting in the first place, from cutting out player combat except in designated arenas, to greatly reducing how much characters could learn and thus how powerful they could get. It was also to be far more focused on group play, supporting up to 30 players. Its 3D also allowed for a, for-the-time, pretty good looking world, albeit a very glum one in most of the available shots. It's a little reductive, but it's not hard to see that if UO was a game designed around classical MUD concepts, Ultima Online 2 was set to take on the growing success of Everquest. And, to judge from this video, Dance Dance Revolution. Seriously. There must be something in the water...
There were other cancelled Ultima related games too of course, though generally too early in development for anything of note to remain. Here for instance are the scraps of an Ultima Underworld 3 design bible. There were also plans for a third Worlds of Ultima type game, finally using a better engine than the Ultima VI one that powered Savage Empire and Martian Dreams, and dubbed "Arthurian Legends". Not sure what it would have been about. Robin Hood, probably. Its connection to Ultima proper is casual at best, and only a few scraps remain, mostly in this interview.
Torn had a pretty short life, really, going just a few months from world premiere to cancellation back in 2001. It had something of a Planescape Torment vibe to it, focusing on a wandering character cursed to bring bad luck wherever they went, though in an ever so slightly cheerier world. In terms of systems, it was going to use the Fallout SPECIAL system in a fantasy setting - the world of Torn - only in a semi-real time form rather than pure turn-based. Beyond that and a bit of lore, fairly stock "Order vs. Chaos" stuff really, not too much is known. Officially, the game was axed because it wasn't going well and wasn't going to be done fast enough to pull Interplay's financial chestnuts off the fire in time. While that has been contested, it's tough to get too excited about the only footage floating around.
SPECIAL did ultimately get its fantasy debut in a game published by Black Isle, the deservedly forgotten Lionheart: Legacy of the Crusader. It was an alternate history affair combining medieval history with demons, in what can best be summed up as "Great idea, weak game." But since it came out, there's no need to dwell on that here. Onwards, to a somewhat familiar face!
Nope, not that one - CD Projekt's rocket-powered rise from RPG rags to riches - but a whole other more action/adventure focused take on the same world from the mid 90s. Eurogamer has the full scoop, so I won't go on about this one too much, but it was to be a far more action/adventure focused version of the story with just a few basic RPG elements. It may still have had a significant impact on both the series' international success and the later CD Projekt version though - creator Adrian Chmielarz claims to have coined the translation of 'The Witcher' from Wiedźmin. "I don't want to sound like 'heyyyy, I'm that guy'. All I know is that at least he claimed that I was the one who proposed the title."