Hey, remember in the entry for Agent how I mentioned that when Rockstar was working on a “new franchise for the PlayStation 3” that some speculated was “another certain upcoming, and extremely troubled, Rockstar game?” Yeah, the game I was hinting at there was L.A. Noire.
Games centered on detective work aren’t necessarily uncommon; they’ve existed since the dawn of text-based adventures computers of yore. However, nowadays, most quote unquote detective games exist more in the realm of police-based adventures where in you search for a killer and it turns into an all-out gun fight where you’re a one man SWAT team.
In 2011 however, there was a game that deviated from that norm—to a degree anyway. L.A. Noire was its name and its seven year journey from when it was announced to being released is one of the most arduous and ludicrous in the gaming industry.
Work on L.A. Noire began shortly after Australian-based developer Team Bondi was founded back in 2003. Originally, development of the was overseen Team Bondi alone, who at the time consisted a whopping six people, the project would be funded by Sony Computer Entertainment in Australia; the game being touted as a PlayStation 3 exclusive. This would eventually change after Team Bondie parted ways with Sony, the publishing rights would be picked up and handled by Rockstar Entertainment, the company behind Grand Theft Auto.
Formally revealed back in 2005 and described as a “detective thriller”, L.A. Noire heralded in the use of facial motion capture technology into the world of video games thanks to Depth Analysis’ MotionScan technology. Alongside capturing their movements and voices—which amounted to well over twenty hours of voice work—MotionScan used 32 cameras to capture the actors facial expressions at over a thousands frame per second, developers were able to capture actors facial expressions from all angles, and then used that to create the in-game characters faces. This allowed for players to read the facial expressions of the characters in game to determine if they were lying or telling the truth, giving a more authentic experience as though you were really a detective. The only thing missing was countless sleepless nights and alcoholism.
This technology however didn’t extend to the rest of the body, which was criticized as feeling “dead from the neck down”. Team Bondi founder and game director Brendan McNamara would later blame this on the players expectations of the games realism as being too great. “People expect to see clothes moving and the rest of the body moving in a way we can’t replicate in video games,” he stated. Adding to this was Oliver Bao, the head of Research and Development at Depth Analysis, who said, “We would have loved to have spent more time on fine-tuning that for L.A. Noire, but it wasn’t feasible due to the scope of the scripting and talent involved.”
As for those in the position of the motion capture: many of them starred on the show Mad Men, such as Aaron Staton (who plays Cole Phelps) and Michael McGrady as Rusty Galloway. Many others also lended their voices and talent to the game and all of them were collectively praised for their performances.
All told, L.A. Noire cost upwards of $50 million to make, which ranks it as one of the most expensive video games ever made.
All of this cutting edge technology came with a price though, the first of which was the game’s release date. Released on May 17, 2011 to highly positive reviews, L.A. Noire went through a ridiculous number of delay. Originally slated for release in Take-Two Interactive’s 2008 fiscal year in June of 2007, the game would be pushed back to their 2009 fiscal year a mere three months later. That release frame came and went, so let’s fast forward to when Game Informer released their March 2010 issue. In it, a new release date was announced: September of 2010. Unsurprisingly, that month came and went; the game still in development. Take-Two later stated that the game had been delayed to the “first half of 2011”. This was later narrowed down to March of 2011, but was later delayed once more to the aforementioned date of May 17, 2011. This time, it came out. For real.
Shortly prior to the release, it was confirmed that sixteen cases were removed, along with two desks (which drives the game’s narrative; the player being promoted to a new desk after a certain number of cases). Of these sixteen cases, five were added as downloadable content. In the way of the desks, there are five in the game as of now. They are:
The ones removed on the other hand were Burglary and Bunco (Fraud). Both of these desks, along with the aforementioned sixteen removed cases. When ask why these desks and cases were removed, McNamara stated:
“We had a Bunko and Burglary desk – bunko is fraud and burglary is just people robbing houses and stuff – we had eleven full cases for that, which we wrote and did the design for to a certain extent – we even did the art for them too, but it just got to a point where we were never going to fit it on one Blu-ray,”
There exists a bit of information as to the two desks in game. In the way of Burglary, a character by the name of Harold Caldwell acts friendly towards Phelps in the Vice mission “Manifest Destiny”. This has led many fans of the game to believe he would have been Phelps’ partner during that desk
In the way of Bunco, a character by the name of Albert Lynch is stated to be the captain of the division. This is peculiar given that in game, he’s also an investigator for the fire brigade. Within the Brunco division room, there are two detectives: one is the aforementioned Harold Caldwell and the other is a detective by the name of Mickey Cohen, who’s based off of the notorious mobster of the same name.
As for the downloadable cases, there are two Traffic cases: A Slip of the Tongue and The Consul's Car, two Vice cases: The Naked City and Reefer Madness, and an Arson case: Nicholson Electroplating. It’s unknown what the other eleven were, though it’s likely they were scattered across Burglary and Bunco.
That’s where the happy story of L.A. Noire ends and the downfall of Team Bondi begins. Not long after the release of the game, a website called “lanoirecredits.com” was launched, which listed the names of over one hundred employees who were either excluded or improperly listed in the game’s credits. Following in the wake of this website were numerous complaints about the working conditions at Team Bondi, including arduous work hours, poor company management, and other things. For a full rundown of the story, IGN posted an article that revealed this entitled “Why Did L.A. Noire Take Seven Years to Make?” For this blog however, I’ll be focusing on two aspects to what went wrong here: the working conditions and what happened while the game was in development hell. As for why I’m focusing on these two, it’s primarily because I don’t believe it could be put any better than in the article above, so I will simply parrot it.
The first thing that I’ll mention is the Team Bondi’s turnover rate. It’s a given that developers, coders, writers, and even higher ups leave game companies for greener pastures. That’s a fact of the industry and it happens more often than you may realize. That said, the anonymous source was that Team Bondie had a, “massive turnaround, especially in the coding department. Out of the 45 people that no longer worked at the studio, 11 were fired. Out of the 34 that actually decided to leave, 25 of those were coders; most of whom had no job to go to, since they decided that it was better to be unemployed than to be working there. I was one of those.”
Now as for why those who left did so, that can be summarized in what’s called a “crunch” or “crunch time”. This is when developers spend many hours catching up on certain development milestones; some examples being getting a working build of a game, implementing certain features, or rendering certain key scenes. In the case of Team Bondi however, an artist who worked for two years at the studio stated that they didn’t get the impression they’d be working anything other than a standard 9-5 job that would span five days of the week. That, however, couldn’t have been any farther from the truth as they’d later state that if you “weren’t working over time, you couldn’t progress any further.”
Another artist stated that “If you left at 7:30 P.M., you’d get evil eyes” due to those who were forced to stay due to the ongoing crunch that repeatedly shifted, and one that would never stop thanks to the abysmal management, who would say that the crunch would end when they met a certain deadline that kept getting pushed back “for a good year”.
The same artist revealed that he worked 60 hours a week on average, but when it came to the crunch, which he claimed was on average once a month, his hours were between 80 and 110 hours a week. This was, on average, between one and two weeks at a time.
Another source told the IGN reporter that he’d left the company back in 2008, the year the game was originally slated for release, and described it as the biggest disappointment of his life. To write this in my own words would be doing his testimony injustice though. So, here it is in its entirety.
“I left because of stress and working conditions, mainly. But the trigger was this: I received a reprimand for 'conduct and punctuality' for being 15 minutes late to work. I arrived at 9:15am – despite the fact I had only left work around 3:15am the same day, and paid for my own taxi home! I never would have thought you could put a sweat shop in the Sydney CBD.”
However, McNamara countered this claim by saying that everyone worked the same hours and “People don’t work any longer hours than I do.” He continued by saying that, “I don’t turn up at 9:00 A.M. and go home at 5:00 P.M. and go to the beach.” He once more asserted that he worked the exact same hours as every other Team Bondi employee and that they were “making stuff that’s never been made before.” He went on to tell the IGN reporter:
“We're making a type of game that's never been made before. We're making it with new people, and new technology. People who're committed to put in whatever hours they think they need to.”
Continuing, McNamara claimed he was “unsure” as to how often regular working hours were “exceeded” while the game was in development, but concluded by saying that his own “standard work week” was likely not a good representation of what was the norm and said, “If you wanted to do a nine-to-five job, you'd be in another business.” He went on to cite the routine hours of 9:00 A.M. to 8:00 P.M. and “whatever day it takes”, concluding that there was frequent travel and calls with Rockstar Games at four in the morning.
Topping things off for the horrendous working conditions was when one of the “Bondi Elevent”—an artist—told the IGN reporter that, “No overtime was officially paid in the three years and three months that I worked at Team Bondi.” This complaint was echoed by the other employees; the same artist going on to state that their contracts were cleverly worded in a way that they’d receive no overtime pay until three months after the game was completed. Anyone who left the company prior to this wasn’t entitled to any overtime pay, no matter how many hours they put in.
When the IGN reporter asked about this, McNamara stated that all overtime had been paid to all of Team Bondi’s current staff and went on to say:
“There was a bonus scheme for working evenings, and people got a month off for that. And people who worked weekends got paid for it. We brought in a weekend working scheme for that. But contractually, we don't have to do that. Part of the thing is that we pay over the odds, and it says in their contract that if they need to do extra time. I've done 20 years of not getting paid for doing that kind of stuff. I don't begrudge it. I get the opportunity to make these things.”
That’s where the IGN article’s portion on the working conditions ends. Now we move on to development hell. The short story to why it took so long can be attributed directly to McNamara’s horrible treatment of his employees and them constantly leaving. The longer version will now be parroted from the IGN article.
For starters: the PlayStation 3 didn’t exist when development began back in 2003. While L.A. Noire uses a few tricks to give the game a very noir-esque feel, like locking itself at 24 frames per second, starting out on the PlayStation 2—and I’m assuming it did—likely lead to development being restarted. Not that the game had any reason not to given that it took seven years and to believe otherwise is to ignore the statements straight from the mouths of the former employees, who went on to say that prior to the existence of the PlayStation 3, Team Bondi made numerous assumptions on it. Most of these were either wrong or had to be changed to accommodate for the power of the console.
Not helping matters was that many of the employees were “inexperienced”, both in the organization of the team and having them work together and with the power of PlayStation 3. To make those unhelpful matters even more unhelpful, the aforementioned problem of people leaving Team Bondi slowed down progress. Badly. According to the same employee, around 80 people had left by the time he did. This was three years before the game was released, so that number was likely well over 100 by the time it was released.
Another member of the Bondi Eleven, who left in 2008, told the IGN reporter that at the time he left, the game was in “a relatively good working state.” He added that it had a “decent framerate” and that the “art looked good.” Where things fell apart however was that it was extremely far from completion, stating that, “The light at the end of the tunnel was almost non-existent.” He ended by stating that it was “depressing to even contemplate” and that this was around the time the managers were aiming for a release in the middle of 2009. Exactly how “incomplete” the game was at the time isn’t stated, but given that it took another four years for the game end up on store shelves, one can only assume it was somewhere between Aliens: Colonial Marines and Goat Simulator levels of incomplete.
Moving on however, the next employee to speak to the IGN reporter was a gameplay programmer, who states that when he first joined Team Bondi, there was “less than 12 months to go.” Two and half years after that, he put in his resignation and they were still saying that there was “less than 12 months to go.” He ended by questioning whether the magenement at Team Bondi was either lying or merely naive.
Another programmer told the IGN reporter of his own experience that caused him to resign. He told them about how the developers were working on a demo they were told would be showcased to the press. He went on to tell that that, for three weeks, he worked 15 hours a day, every day. Although the hours were unrelenting, the programmer said that those times were “some of the most fun” he had there; the times when everyone was working really hard to just get things done. In the end however, the demo ended up being shown to the press in a twist of the knife, half the material that he spent three consecutive 100 hour work weeks on was completely reworked.
This is where I’ll end from the IGN article. I highly recommend reading it because, while I’ll go through all of it, I’d rather not sloppily reword things in the hope that I don’t look like I’m plagiarizing it. That and I’m exhausted. So, let’s move on.
Alongside the revelations from above came a series of confidential emails that detailed the ever deteriorating relationship between Rockstar and Team Bond, among other things. To read all of them, plus some more insight from the whistleblowers, click here . Otherwise, I’m going to mention only two. All credit also goes to gamesindustry.com, who I didn’t ask a lick of permission to copy and paste what their source[s] said. Yay!
The two emails in question involve the deteriorating relationship, as you may have guessed, were about the relationship between Team Bondi and Rockstar. The source—who naturally remained anonymous—had this to say:
“It's pretty well reported now that the working conditions were bad. What hasn't been discussed yet (from what I've seen) is the relationship between Team Bondi and Rockstar. I've heard a lot about Rockstar's disdain for Team Bondi, and it has been made quite clear that they will not publish Team Bondi's next game. Team Bondi are trying to find another publisher for their next title, but the relationship with Rockstar has been badly damaged - Brendan treats L.A. Noire like a success due to his vision but I think Rockstar are the ones who saved the project. They continued to sink money into LA Noire, and their marketing was fantastic. Without their continued support, Team Bondi would have gone under several years ago.”
They went on to say:
‘Rockstar also made a huge contribution to the development; their producers were increasingly influential over the last two years of the game's development, and overruled many of the insane decisions made by Team Bondi management. At a lower level, Rockstar also pitched in with programmers, animators, artists, QA, etc. Part of the conflict between Team Bondi and Rockstar was due to Rockstar's frustration with Team Bondi's direction, and eventually Team Bondi's management in turn resented Rockstar for taking lots of creative control. It's also worth pointing out that Rockstar used to be very keen on making Team Bondi something like 'Rockstar Sydney' - the more they worked with Team Bondi management, the more they came to understand that this was a terrible idea. I have a few logs that show the relationship souring – see below.”
As for what those “logs” said, they relate to two emails. The first of which is his:
Date: Tuesday, April 06, 2010.
From: Brendan McNamara [Team Bondi founder]
To: Everybody List [everyone who worked for Team Bondi]
I found out this morning that Rockstar have pulled out of the E3 show. I'm trying to find out more information as to why. I don't agree with this decision as I think the case we were going to show is looking great and that we could do some real damage there. Jeronimo [Barrera, Rockstar VP] is talking to the Marketing Team to ascertain what the Marketing Plan is going forward. Once I know what is happening and why I will get back to you.
The second email read as follows:
Date: Monday, October 11, 2010
From: Brendan McNamara [Team Bondi founder]
To: Everybody List [everyone who worked for Team Bondi]
Every dog has its day and there's going to be hell to pay for this one. I'll never forget being treated like an absolute **** by these people.
The source also added a bit of insight to this one.
“The context on this second one is that our Production Designer (Simon Wood) posted an email with links to a new L.A. Noire logo designed by Rockstar (which Brendan hated). The announcement apparently had a Rockstar logo, but no Team Bondi logo alongside it. Brendan's reply was only supposed to be to Simon, but he replied to everybody at Team Bondi by mistake. He claimed he was only talking about commenters on news articles, but it was pretty clear to everyone that this wasn't true.”
As for what they mean by the logo, they mean this:
Whether or not it was a deliberate slight of hand by Rockstar given any possible murmurs they heard about the working conditions at Team Bondi, I can’t say, but it’s possible they knew that there’d be many a whistles blown once the game came out, so they didn’t want to harm sales of the game. Whatever the game, it’d seem that McNamara was upset by the more simplistic logo that Rockstar desired. This also wasn’t the first time that Rockstar overruled a design choice Team Bondi made. This left McNamara upset as you may have guessed. I doubt anybody else cared.
Now, design choices being overruled are nothing new to the gaming industry; they happen for one reason or another. In the case of L.A. Noire, it’s likely that Rockstar saw the original logo as either inappropriate for the time period, unnecessarily stylish, or—more realistically—believed that the cursive font would have confused consumers. Let’s face it: cursive is seldom used when it comes to game logos and even then, it isn’t exactly the most pleasant thing to look at. Some see it as cleaner. Others see it as pretentious. Also, in my eyes, I think the current logo is better.
L.A. Noire is a good example of having your first project be too ambitious for its own good. A budding company tackling something as massive and unprecedented as this was a gigantic undertaking and proved to be the company’s downfall. It’s a sad story and one that I wish hadn’t happened given the talent at Team Bondi. Unfortunately, callous management and work hours that rival even sweat shops isn’t something that should be allowed. Yet, it’s not a rarity in the games industry. It just so happened that Team Bondi’s conditions were an exception to what appears to be the rule.