In the summer of 2006, I picked up TimeSplitters: Future Perfect on the cheap (last copy at Future Shop!) on a recommendation from some dude on an Internet forum, of all places. The game turned out to be exactly what I was looking for at the time: a first-person shooter that wasn’t as slow and supa-serious as Halo. I mean, the AI and hit detection are both laughably bad for a game released late into the GameCube/Xbox/PS2 generation, but a close friend and I ended up playing through the game’s co-op campaign probably over ten times, and I’ve probably played through it another ten times solo. As part of a pre-exam ritual, another friend and I co-op’d the game in a marathon 10 hour session fueled by pizza and caffeine. On the multiplayer side, team battles on Training Ground, free-for-alls on Disco, and Flare Gun matches on Mexican Mission were the order of the day. Rest assured, I got my money’s worth out of this game, and it still gets some play time whenever I’ve got four GameCube controllers and an equal number of willing participants.
TimeSplitters 4 was announced at the height of our obsession with the series, so needless to say, my friends and I were thrilled. Moreover, TimeSplitters 4 appeared to promise something that no other game since has really dared to consider since: heavy parodies of other games. The series has always been wacky, and with the expanded story mode in Future Perfect it became legitimately funny and well-written to boot, but when the TimeSplitters 4 hype was at its highest in 2008, I felt like the industry was truly ready for a game that poked fun at other games. By 2008, our hobby had become a legitimate cultural phenomenon, and I felt like there was a lot of tongue-in-cheek crossover appeal in roasting Halo and Gears of War. If you tried doing that even three years earlier, I’d argue that there wasn’t enough source material to draw inspiration from, and not enough people would even understand the references or care about the jokes in the first place.
Then Haze sold like shit, Free Radical went into administration in late 2008, and TimeSplitters 4 was shuttered.
2008, and the economic woes that it wrought upon the world, was a difficult time for smaller developers. A trend originated around this time whereby one poorly received game could effectively kill a smaller studio, regardless of their pedigree, and it’s a trend that sadly continues to this day. Haze was a bland, clunky shooter that no one wanted and failed to make a splash in an increasingly crowded FPS market, and its poor retail performance combined with a Battlefront III deal with LucasArts gone sour was enough to destroy Free Radical. It didn’t matter that Free Radical once made GoldenEye 007 and Perfect Dark, and had a new installment in the critically-acclaimed TimeSplitters series on the way; enough resources were wasted on Haze and Battlefront III that the company had no hope of survival. Compare Free Radical’s story to that of Factor 5, who produced a bunch of brilliant Rogue Squadron games for LucasArts but went under in 2009 after the poor reception of Lair (which admittedly wasn’t competing for market share in a crowded Sixaxis-controlled dragon flight sim market, but it was still crap and sold like such). Compare it to GRIN, who developed the well-received Ghost Recon: Advanced Warfighter games but also went bankrupt in 2009 after releasing the horrible Bionic Commando remake and having another project abruptly cancelled by Square Enix. And the list goes on.
What kills me is that had Free Radical survived, they likely wouldn’t have had any problems finding a publisher (unlike Crytek UK’s situation today, but more on that later). In 2008, Electronics Arts was in the middle of a unique time in company history: for the first time in ten years, gamers actually liked them. Activision, with their genuinely unlikeable CEO and yearly exploitation of Guitar Hero and Call Of Duty, had suddenly displaced EA as the Big Bad of the gaming industry, and EA took their new “underdog” role and ran with it. They acquired the then-much-loved Bioware in 2007, shortly after the release of their critical darling Mass Effect, and they published cult hits Mirror’s Edge and Brutal Legend in 2008 and 2009, respectively. Both of those games were highly experimental from a design standpoint and difficult to market (and both received mixed reviews and didn’t end up selling that well, which is probably why EA returned to their old ways by 2010), but they were games the hardcore community claimed to be very interested in, so EA picked them up. Had Free Radical finished TimeSplitters 4 by the end of 2009, I’m willing to bet EA would’ve published it, given that they also published Future Perfect in 2005.
Fast forward to late 2012, where the majority of Free Radical has been absorbed into Crytek UK and the studio’s top designers (Steve Ellis, Dr. David Doak) have long since left. After three years of torturous hints, rumours, and speculation, Crytek CEO Cevat Yerli confirmed earlier this year what I’ve assumed for a long time: TimeSplitters is not a franchise that will make Crytek money, and no publishers are interested in picking up a fourth game. It’s sad but true; I would love a new TimeSplitters game, but I realize I’m one of the very few who would unquestionably pay $60 for it. Of course, Yerli probably understands that TimeSplitters has a sort of cult status among the community, and he’s realized that he can pacify them and remain looking like the good guy whose hands are tied by engaging them in a eternal struggle for attention. He’s repeatedly asked fans to leave comments on his Twitter and blog (the latter of which, obviously, no one cares about), then claims that, based on his little social media experiment, there’s not enough interest. I’m willing to give him the benefit of the doubt on this one, though.
I belong to a sad, desperate Facebook group that has the ultimate goal of forcing Crytek to make either TimeSplitters 4 or an HD collection of the three existing games. They seem to be operating under the delusion that if they somehow recruit 100,000 members, Crytek will be forced to take notice (in reality, I seriously doubt Crytek would make a game with the expectation of selling it to only 100,000 people). It’s been hovering at around 30,000 members for the better part of a year now, and their campaign has recently picked up since Yerli apparently pinpointed a specific Internet petition that would have to succeed for Crytek to “reconsider” TimeSplitters (one requiring ten times the current membership of the Facebook group). They’ve resorted to spamming Reddit and the Facebook pages of gaming personalities like Tobuscus, which is…incredibly difficult to watch, since they’ve had almost no success. I want TimeSplitters 4 as much as the next guy, but I think I’ve accepted that I’m never going to hold that game in my hands. Not with the way the industry is these days. There’s a need for a lighthearted, cheeky, arcadey shooter like TimeSplitters now more than ever, but experimentation among AAA developers like Crytek is at an all-time low, simply because you cannot afford to make any missteps in today’s market. No one wants to be the next Free Radical, for better or for worse.