Split Screen: Crowd-funding controversy

You would be hard-pressed to invent an underdog tale with more classic elements than the true story of Stainless Games.

An independent studio on the Isle of Wight (a little island off the southern coast of England) Stainless once created a cult classic. But the rights to their game stayed with their publisher, SCi. While Stainless got to make one sequel, development of the second sequel was farmed out to another studio, and Stainless lost their baby. The outsourced sequel sold poorly and the franchise appeared to be dead for over a decade, until Stainless negotiated with the licence-holder to buy back the IP and produce their own new entry in the series on their own terms, funded via a successful Kickstarter campaign.

It would almost be perfect fodder for a feel-good Disney film if the game in question were not one of the most controversial ever made, the hyper-violent vehicular manslaughter simulator Carmageddon.

Originally intended to be a simple destruction derby game, the original untitled game went through a series of potential licences. At first it was to be a Mad Max game, but when that deal fell through there was a plan to shift it over to a Death Race 2000 licence instead. When that plan was also cancelled, SCi agreed to let Stainless develop their own original title, and Carmageddon was born.

Combining the destruction racing of the original prototype, the vehicular combat of the aborted Mad Max licence, and the pedestrian carnage of the cancelled Death Race 2000 licence, Carmageddon was like nothing seen before or since. The world of video games in 1997 didn't know what hit it.

Controversy accompanied Carmageddon wherever it was played. The UK's game classification body BBFC insisted on replacing the human pedestrians with zombies, changing the lurid red blood into an equally lurid green. Germany wouldn't even allow zombies, insisting that the local version could only have robots that spilled black oil when destroyed. Brazil banned the game entirely.

One amusing footnote: Australia's Office for Film and Literature Classification passed the game uncut with an MA15+ rating. Coming immediately after the Duke Nukem 3D scandal, which saw copies of the offending game being pulled from shelves, it was a surprising but welcome decision. Australian fans who had enjoyed the demo breathed a sigh of relief.

Things didn't improve with the release of Carmageddon II: Carpocalypse Now, which replaced the 2D sprite pedestrians with extremely boxy 3D people that could be completely dismembered into their various blocky parts. The UK once again got zombies, while Germany got aliens, and Brazil banned it like its predecessor.

Amid all the controversy over both games, what was often forgotten was just how good they were, both in gameplay and in technological advancement. The series' signature vehicle destruction was the first of its kind in a video game. Every vehicle consisted of a solid chassis covered with deformable panels. Cars would get bent out of shape, lose bumpers and mudguards, and eventually get wrecked completely.

Another gaming first was the open world. Rather than a set racing track, Carmageddon offered open plan maps that allowed free roaming. Races took place through checkpoints, but players could travel through them via whatever route they wished. Of course, most players chose not to race at all, but simply roamed around trashing opponents and squashing pedestrians. If you had the stomach for it, the gameplay was addictive as hell and a huge amount of fun, especially networked multiplayer. It even had an in-built replay editor, allowing players to relive their favourite moments.

Gamers responded to the anarchic mayhem, with the entire series selling over two million units. Even so, it must have been a difficult sell for its owners, and the sequels dried up. The franchise ended up changing owners more often than it got sequels, going through SCi, several incarnations of Eidos, and finally ending up Square Enix Europe, with whom Stainless negotiated their buy-back of the rights. You have to wonder if Squenix was happy to get it off their hands.

When Stainless unveiled their upcoming title, PC-exclusive Carmageddon: Reincarnation - fan-favourite levels and vehicles mixed with new content, all in a shiny new engine - and announced that it would be financed via Kickstarter, I was dubious. While I am a fan of the series, I was unsure how viable a revived franchise would be. With public outcry over video game violence arguably even more intense than in 1997, the new game will no doubt attract criticism, especially with that violence happening in a shiny new high resolution engine. Even more, though, how many people these days want to play a game like that? (Apart from me, obviously.)

The answer was delivered a couple of days ago, when Carmageddon: Reincarnation reached its $400,000 funding target with 10 days to spare. Clearly I am not the only depraved sicko out there who can't wait to get back behind the wheel of a gleaming death machine and fire up the pedestrian electrocution ray. Stainless have also promised Mac and Linux versions if they can reach $600,000 in funding, a goal that seemed impossible two weeks ago, but now looks like it could actually happen.

Even so, part of me worries whether I have been blinded by nostalgia. Will a revived Carmageddon still hold the appeal it once did? Will the gameplay hold up fifteen years after the original release? I suppose we will all find out in early 2013 when it goes on sale via Steam.

Or at least, those of us in countries where it doesn't get banned will find out. (The rest will have to wait for the promised DRM-free version later in 2013!)

- James "DexX" Dominguez

twitterIf you want more DexX, you can listen to the GameTaco podcast or follow him on Twitter: @jamesjdominguez

The story Split Screen: Crowd-funding controversy first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.

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