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Warming the Bench: Treyarch August 29, 2008

Posted by Mike in Articles, Console, Games.
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Treyarch is the Diego Forlan of videogame developers. More on this later.

There’s something of a glass ceiling in the industry. For every developer creating the latest high-budget blockbuster, there are ten more working on quickly developed movie licenses or Wii minigame compendiums, many of them either folded into, or on long-term publishing deals with, the big publishers. The aim for these devs is to work their apprenticeship on the bread and butter games that allow them to make a living, and then emerge into the public consciousness, either by making their own breakout independent IP, or managing to do a really good job on a licensed release that sells bazillions. But there are many devs that never manage to approach the upper echelons of the industry.

Treyarch is interesting because it smashed this glass ceiling and then fell back down again, which is an intriguing conundrum simply because of the circumstances of the developer’s existence. A part of Activision since its acquisition in 2001, there is little danger of it going bust, and it has two highly critically acclaimed titles to its name: Spiderman and its cunningly titled sequel, Spiderman 2. Released in 2002 and 2004 respectively, they were not only big hits, but good games to boot. Surely, after years of working on minor sports games and licenses, Treyarch had broken through. Surely now the only way was up. With budget and a successful franchise, with word of more on the way, what could possibly go wrong?

But Treyarch never managed to hit the lofty heights of Spiderman 2 again. What made it widely regarded as a fair-to-middling developer, simply plodding along at the behest of a huge publisher was, ironically, something that should have launched it into the stratosphere. Another Activision developer, Grey Matter Interactive, was merged into Treyarch in 2005, and along with it came the Call of Duty spinoff – Big Red One – that GMI was working on at the time, having already released one successful COD expansion pack for PC. Big Red One went on to be released under the Treyarch name, and was a solid if unspectacular game. It appeared to be lucky timing, though, as Call of Duty was subsequently to become one of the biggest franchises in gaming with the release of the second “proper” game at the launch of Xbox 360. With Treyarch now assigned by Activision to provide sequels for the non-Infinity Ward years based on its work with Big Red One, it seemed that future success was assured.

The wheels were already starting to fall off the Treyarch wagon before this, however, as its rapid expansion and quick turnaround time for development affected its output. In short, projects weren’t turning out well. Ultimate Spiderman was widely seen as disappointing compared to its prequels, despite a patchily solid critical reception, and the subsequent Spiderman 3 for next generation consoles was panned by all and sundry. That particular videogame franchise is now pretty much dead in the water, with Web of Shadows, the new game due out in the next few months, not expected to make many waves. Another title, a survival horror called Dead Rush, was seen briefly at E3 in 2004, positively previewed by various websites, and subsequently quietly cancelled. And then, the biggie that solidified Treyarch’s fall from grace and saw it become known as the “substitute developer”: the much-anticipated Call of Duty 3 was seen as an inferior game to 2 because of its buggy and seemingly rushed singleplayer mode, despite an impressive multiplayer suite of options.

All of this contributed to the collective groan across the Internet when it was announced that Treyarch was making the forthcoming Call of Duty: World At War. This was compounded by the revelation that the game was to be set in the much-mined World War II as opposed to the extremely popular modern setting of the Infinity Ward developed best-selling (and highly acclaimed) Call of Duty 4. Treyarch had become the Diego Forlan of videogames: warming the bench until Infinity Ward got tired, at which time it would come onto the pitch, look pretty, and completely fail to score.

But, luckily for Treyarch, the story of Forlan doesn’t end with his ill-fated three seasons at Manchester United. After he transferred to Villareal in August 2004 he started banging in the goals, finishing as top scorer for the season – an almost unbelievable turnaround. Treyarch may be on the verge of something similarly spectacular, having been revitalised by the addition of two important things that weren’t present before: time, and a spirit of real defiance.

Activision has given it an extra year to work on Call of Duty: World At War than it had for 3, and the clear subtext of recent interviews is that the development team is tired of being compared unfavourably to Infinity Ward. They really want to show that they’re not just the guys who get assigned a project by Activision, rush it through, and make something that’s “okay”. This change of mindset is rather compelling. There’s a new confidence about them. Even bearing in mind the WWII factor, COD:WAW looks like it could be the first Treyarch game since Spiderman 2 that’s not just a stop-gap release while you wait for something better. And furthermore, having been shown faith by Activision in being handed the keys to the lucrative James Bond franchise, the resulting videogame – Quantum of Solace – also looks like it’s going to be well worth a look.

Diego Forlan ended up sharing the European Golden Boot award with Thierry Henry in 2005, and it’s not completely beyond the realms of possibility to think that Treyarch, the under-achievers of the development world in recent years, and the long-time boot-cleaners of Infinity Ward, could well be similarly feted come the end of 2008. It’s a funny old game.

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