What Next Generation Looked Like Back in 2004

Years ago, Digital Extremes gave us a glimpse into what might be possible on new hardware.

Patrick Klepek on Google+
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Closing Digital Extreme's Psychic Wound

The industry rejected Digital Extremes' vision for Dark Sector in 2004. Years later, it finally dusted off that old design document.

Our first glimpse at the last generation of consoles--Xbox 360, PlayStation 3--came in a very unexpected way, thanks to a roll of the dice by Canadian developer Digital Extremes.

Fast forward to February 2013, and we know the next generation is coming, even if the major players are pretending nothing is amiss. This is not new. The video games industry is irrationally secretive about the unannounced, but that’s not always the case. When someone breaks the rules, it’s refreshing. It’s what made our original look at Dark Sector--yes, Dark Sector--back in April 2004 so exciting.

There wasn’t much of a game there (quite literally, it would turn out), but it looked amazing, and ignited our collective imagination.

That was nine years ago. Wasn’t Dark Sector eventually released for the Xbox 360, PlayStation 3, and PCs in 2008? Yeah, but it wasn’t the Dark Sector originally envisioned by an ambitious--too ambitious, it would turn out--team at Digital Extremes. With Sony set to debut a new console this week, this is timely because Digital Extremes' new game, Warframe...is actually Dark Sector. The original Dark Sector. (Sort of.)

This all started when a Giant Bomb user noted 2004’s Dark Sector hadn’t been forgotten by Digital Extremes, and original plans for the game’s characters, environments, and overall mythology had been secretly resurrected in Warframe. Warframe is a free-to-play online shooter, currently in a rapidly evolving beta, with an emphasis on cooperation between players. Jeff and I recently took a look at it on the site.

The likeness was intentional, and not because there were graphics files just sitting around the office.

“Without sounding melodramatic, it is a psychic wound that we are healing,” said creative director Steve Sinclair.

“Without sounding melodramatic, it is a psychic wound that we are healing."

Digital Extremes was founded in 1993 by James Schmalz, who was creating his own games at 12-years-old. Epic MegaGames, which would later rename itself Epic Games, published his first major game, the Star Control 2-inspired Solar Winds. Thus began a lengthy, decades-spanning collaboration between Digital Extremes and Epic MegaGames, including Epic’s often forgotten flirtation with pinball games and the studio transformation that occurred when Unreal debuted.

The two companies were attached at the hip for the Unreal Tournament games, including one of the first major online shooters for Xbox Live with Unreal Championship. (It had nothing to do with the stranger, underrated Unreal Championship 2: The Liandri Conflict.) Around this time, the studio hoped to go independent, and create its own franchises. Dark Sector was supposed to be that breakthrough moment, and the game was formally announced on Digital Extreme's website way back in 2000. The full press release is still here, too. The plan called for Dark Sector to be a multiplayer-oriented online shooter, building off Digital Extreme's success with Unreal Tournament, but much larger in scope, with players having the ability to fly ships, earn bounties on their heads, and have lasting consequences for death.

An excerpt from an interview with Canadian gaming website GG8 from 2000:

GG8: A dark universe full of competitive Bounty Hunters and Assassins. When I first read about Dark Sector I had this immediate vision of a universe of players, each with a bounty on their heads, some more then others, and a select few having survived against the odds for so long that they've acquired astronomical bounties. These hunters would be dream targets for every hot shot in the lower ranks looking for a big pay out. Is that the kind of Bounty Hunter system we can expect?

James Schmalz: It will be somewhat like that except that the guys with massive bounties on their heads will still probably get killed and their bounty will reset to 0, but since they have a large track record of previous criminal activity, once they start doing evil deeds, the bounty will ramp up very quickly to where it once was and beyond.

GG8: Successful first-person shooters like Unreal Tournament have found their appeal by reducing itself to a purified form: Hunt or be Hunted. Dark Sector sounds like it will be a strong contrast from that with it's expanding universe of characters, plots, and alternate game modes. Will there be a loss of intensity? Will it matter?

Schmalz: There will be even more intensity because you will fear dying more. In UT, if you die, you respawn and it's no big deal. Dying in DS will have consequences such as having your body looted. Thus it will be more intense. We will also have areas with arena matches where you can challenge someone to a deathmatch or CTF or other new games where you respawn over and over with no lasting consequences. So we get the best of both worlds.

The logo Digital Extremes revealed for Dark Sector's first unveiling way back in 2000.

That version of the game was scrapped, and the game went dark for a few years--until April 2, 2004.

We all have humble beginnings, and the next generation of hardware provided a fresh start for Digital Extremes. Its pitch was yet another take on Dark Sector, now a moody and futuristic stealth action game with a stylish protagonist.

“A big single player console game that was super, ultra, hardcore sci-fi, Canadian manga-style,” said Sinclair, “with energy tentacles coming out of people’s heads and giant robots that had organic limbs and Metal Gear Solid-esque stealth suits and telekinesis and crazy, crazy stuff like that, all sort of riffing off of a Dune [and] Metal Gear vibe.”

Developers often keep early work under wraps, but Digital Extremes was going to try something new to make its case. We had seen precious little about what games would be like with an Xbox 360 or PlayStation 3, and Digital Extremes was about to drop a huge tease. Once the video was out there, Digital Extremes would take Dark Sector around to publishers, hoping to ride a wave of early interest.

“We did that purposely to get that buzz going,” said Digital Extremes director of PR and marketing Meredith Braun, “to further convince the publishers that we needed to do this game, and it still didn't work. [laughs] [...] It was our opportunity at the time because it wasn't signed, so that we could actually say something about it without getting our hands slapped.”

There was definitely buzz. Remember, we didn't even know the next Xbox was even going to be called Xbox 360 at this time. The video dropped, and the response was huge. It even showed up on CNN. But as Braun pointed out, it didn’t work. Sinclair was on the road for almost a year pitching Digital Extreme’s vision for Dark Sector, and the resulting feedback was scattered.

Concept art from the 2004 version of Dark Sector, which Digital Extremes spent a year pitching to publishers.

“Can you set in present day?” said Sinclair, who claimed these were more-or-less direct quotes from executives. “Can you give the guy an eye patch? Can you make his cod piece larger?”

Uh, cod piece?

“An executive at a publisher that will remain nameless called out the cod piece, and also suggested that he look more grizzled and that he be torn up and, perhaps, an eye patch and some stubble would help,” he said. “Actually, our art director, who's the same art director on Warframe, Mike Brennan, drew a picture of a guy screaming with large bullet holes in his ears in response to that feedback, which we didn't send. [laughs]”

“I remember pitching to one publisher,” said Sinclair. “God, that guy was such fucking asshole. He said ‘Oh, I've seen better, we got better, we got better in-house. How do you compile your shaders, by the way? How do you store your texture formats?’ It was like this [notion of] ’Yeah I'm not impressed, but tell me how it was made.’ It was bizarre.”

Sinclair distinctly remembered a meeting with Sony. The company thought the game looked cool, but asked the studio if it would consider dropping sci-fi and setting it during the Civil War.

Frustrated, Sinclar returned to Digital Extremes and tried to reshape the pitch, based on what he’s been hearing from publishing executives. Briefly, Dark Sector became about superheroes set in the modern day. It retained some of what Digital Extremes had dreamed up, but not much.

“It was heartbreaking,” said Braun.

“I was in charge, so I had to be a champion, but it was crushing,” he said. “It was fucking devastating. I remember we kept having team jams where I would have a single sheet of paper, and I would hand it around and say ‘here are the top points now of what we think we can get a deal with,’ and I would pass it around and I would move my hands and I would try to drum up support for it.”

The most consistent feedback? Change the setting, as sci-fi was a non-starter. World War II was a popular suggestion, despite the popularity of other sci-fi shooters, like Bungie’s Halo.

“This is not me pointing the blame for what happened or saying that had we done that original vision, it would have turned out great,” he said. “I actually don't think it would have because we created a lot of excitement amongst gamers from what was essentially an animation and some rendering code.”

Key developers who worked on Dark Sector's big push in 2004 are still at the company, and are developing Warframe.

And that was a huge problem. There wasn’t much of a game--or any game, really. It was a canned demo to show off Dark Sector’s potential, and there was literally nothing driving it underneath.

“When it came to solving the tough problems--A.I., animation, collision, physics, performance, scalability, loading, streaming, all this other nonsense--we had no idea what little we had done when we were pitching it,” he said. “The game that became Dark Sector suffered from trying to build new IP, at the same time as building an engine from scratch. That was a monumental effort.”

While it licked its wounds over Dark Sector, Digital Extremes went back to more familiar shooter territory. You might remember 2005’s Pariah and 2006’s Warpath for the Xbox, but...probably not. (And did you know Warpath was once a sequel to Pariah? Okay, probably not.)

Part of the issue was that Dark Sector was to be created with a new engine developed internally--the Evolution Engine--rather than relying on the Unreal Engine, which the company was intimately familiar with. To build a new world, franchise, and engine on new hardware was driven by “hubris and naivety,” and contributed to the less-than-stellar game Dark Sector became when released in 2008.

"Dark Sector feels OK for the first two chapters, but there are eight more to slog through after that, and if I wasn't working on a review of the game, that's probably where I would have stopped," wrote Jeff, in our review of Dark Sector, which he ultimately assigned a middling two stars. "The occasional variety of a boss battle or vehicle sequence doesn't break things up enough to make the campaign an interesting one, either. Between the dreary action, the sluggish movement speed, and the seemingly tacked-on multiplayer, you'll probably want to pass on the whole thing."

The Dark Sector of 2008 reflects market changes--less sci-fi, more modern--suggested by publishers back in 2004.

For the next few years, Digital Extremes was low key, and was responsible for bringing BioShock to PS3, handling the multiplayer portion of BioShock 2, and porting Homefront onto PC. Its relationship with 2K Games lead to creating The Darkness II, an unexpected sequel to the celebrated Starbreeze game that turned out much better than most would have anticipated.

The old Dark Sector was not forgotten, though. Over the years, Digital Extremes would return to the hardcore science fiction game the industry had rejected, and tried to find a way to bring it back. Several months were spent, at one point, reimagining it as an Xbox Live Arcade game.

“That is the game that got away, and we keep trying to fucking get it--and now we are,” he said.

The opportunity Digital Extremes had been waiting for arrived in-between projects. As one big game winds down, some resources are shifted to other games still in development (the studio is busy with Star Trek), while others are free to start prototyping The Next Big Thing. Early in 2012, Sinclar and still-CEO James Schmalz were looking at free-to-play games, and wondering if there just might be something to all of it.

As Sinclar gathered his team, the idea to bring 2004's Dark Sector out of retirement came up again. The company's psychic wound became Warframe, a free-to-play online shooter. Members of the team that worked on that original video are still at the company, and involved with Warframe.

The inspiration from Digital Extreme’s 2004 pitch is far more than just aesthetics, too. It’s design.

“It's really, really close,” said Sinclair. “The timeframe, the enemies. [...] It is very much that [ game], but the major difference is it is not a single player, linear, narrative experience. That's the major difference, but in terms of lore, in terms of the enemies, in terms of the abilities, the powers, how the power suits that we call warframes work--that is all from those original ideas.”

“It is the same people whose dreams have been crushed are back, and they got something to prove. So the intensity of effort and how personal the project is for them is unlike anything we've done.”

In Warframe, players are an ancient warrior from a race called the Tenno. The main character in 2008’s Dark Sector was not coincidentally named Hayden Tenno in tribute.

Development on Warframe started in earnest in March 2012, and a closed beta launched in October. It’s still in closed beta, but an open beta is planned for the future. Since our Quick Look was recorded, the game has added several new features, including the ability for players run along walls.

Even in its early state, Warframe has sailed passed the original design document that formed the foundation of Dark Sector in 2004. It’s still very much that game, though, and making sure it’s a success is hugely important to the development team.

“It is the same people whose dreams have been crushed are back, and they got something to prove,” said Sinclair. “So the intensity of effort and how personal the project is for them is unlike anything we've done.”

Patrick Klepek on Google+
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Edited by Jack_Lafayette

An article with a video header? When will the madness end.

It's crazy how fast the publishers' paradigm of "popular gaming trends" has shifted. Set it during World War II? Fuck, man.

I mean, with the multi-million seller that is Mass Effect, how fast would a pitch like that (graphical aging aside) get green-lit for a next-gen launch title today? At this point, the aesthetic may even be working against Digital Extremes. Jeff seemed pretty fatigued by the sci-fi visual elements in the quick look.

Posted by Little_Socrates

It is madness that we're getting a fully detailed Dark Sector article in 2013. I never played the original, and I never realized how long the game was in development.

What a story, Mark.

Posted by Winternet

Dark Sector, the first next gen game. I still remember that initial teaser.

Posted by ikabubu

I remember some original screenshots from print magazines way back then. It didn't have that "Guyver"-esque character design (that I've come to really love, and love their persistence on reusing it for Dark Sector and Warframe.)

Now I just want better Guyver knock-offs for them to show off to tease this new generation.

Posted by I_smell

Just watched that video and I dunno, Dark Sector seems PRETTY badass!

Posted by Tan

Wow, really cool article. Thanks Patrick.

Posted by Jackel2072

And WarFrame is awesome. I play it offten.

Posted by spiketail

Woah, this is mind blowing. I rather like how Warframe plays, even if I don't put enough time into it.

Thank yous to @kato for pointing this out! Props to Digital Extreme for finally making their dream alive!

Posted by Nonentity

Oh wow, that is awesome. I'm a big fan of Warframe, and seeing that it has roots all the way back to 2000 is crazy.

Posted by Enigma777

Oh wow, I didn't realize how similar those two games looked.

Edited by GateKeeper

Fuckin' eh amazing work Patrick! Keep it up.

Posted by OriginalYellow

Glad im not the only fan of Warframe here from the comments, in case there are any doubters, its a great game! First free to play game that I've ever put money into just because they earned every penny in what isn't even a finished game.

Posted by evanbower

I have an irrational hatred of pull quotes..

Posted by machinerebel

Really interesting - it's cool to read about these smaller companies that never seem to make a splash, but are still regularly producing games. Shame about Dark Sector though; the glaive was cool.

Posted by Cold_Wolven

That was an insightful article on a game I genuinely cared about and now I have understanding why Dark Sector turned out the way it did.

Posted by geirr

Warframe -as is- is just too repetitive for me, and the characters look strangely low-rez and (to me) weird and the different 'frames' even in beta are hidden away behind microtransactions; and not cheap ones either. I play it for about an hour after every update though so I'm still hoping it'll get more interesting!

Posted by Reisz

One of the things I loved about Warframe going into it completely blind was the heritage that came through in the design. Everything about those characters felt old, in the best possible way. Like a successful evolution, as though it was based on more than what looked good. It makes perfect sense that they've been thinking about this world for over a decade. I am way more into Warframe now for this knowledge. Great article Patrick.

Posted by ucankurbaga

I loved Dark Sector. It was the most unappreciated game in its time. I wish they made sequel to it instead of Warframe.

Posted by fisk0

Interesting stuff. I still have my sealed copy of Dark Sector I kinda want to play some day. Didn't know Pariah and Warpath also was them, and I definitely check Warframe out when it becomes an open beta.

I think a similar retrospective on Alan Wake could be interesting, perhaps even Syndicate, considering how long that was in development.

Posted by Humanity

Woah, this is mind blowing. I rather like how Warframe plays, even if I don't put enough time into it.

Thank yous to @kato for pointing this out! Props to Digital Extreme for finally making their dream alive!

I actually posted about this before the Beta became playable to the public but back then no one cared about the game. I even made the Wiki page for Warframe which has since been actually filled with useful information! I don't blame @patrickklepek for not knowing since my thread was way older, and as I said, no one paid it much attention back then since people don't hold Dark Sector in very high regard. (unwisely since it's actually a pretty good game despite what the negative feelings the Bombcrew have towards it)

Edited by BaconGames

Great stuff Patrick! Also, I'm just going to leave this right here:

Posted by klinkcow

This is rad!

Edited by Aniawn

Man, I remember when that video was released back in 2004; I fell in love with what I saw. I was so disappointed when Dark Sector took its radical change from that early concept video. Fast forward to today, and I have been enjoying my time in the Warframe beta. Not just because of the return of the concepts and art styles that I fell in love with back in 2004, but because of its focus on cooperative multiplayer like Mass Effect 3's multiplayer.

I'm glad that you wrote this article, Patrick. It's answered questions I've had about Dark Sector for years and how Warframe came about.

Posted by RudeCubes

That Dark Sector video doesn't actually look that bad! I mean, you can tell it was from early in the generation, but still looks nice!

Posted by mrcraggle

Now I can see why Patrick had uploaded pics of Warframe a few days ago. I'm glad Jeff and Patrick played it as I sort out the beta soon after and got in. I haven't played it as much as I would have liked to but I'm enjoying it and I'm excited for the future of the game and once the site stops producing 500 errors for creating objects, I'm going to crank away on the wiki.

Edited by Sammo21

I've really been enjoying Warframe. I am even going to kick them a few shekels come next paycheck. Some great ideas in that game, even this early into the beta.

I find it a little odd Jeff gave Dark Sector 2 stars...I mean...what the fuck? Everyone has an opinion but the game is not below average at all. Then again , Jeff's reviews have been all over the place.

Posted by GalacticPunt

This is an excellent story. I'm apparently just late enough to the video-game-blog party that I had no idea about the hype around Dark Sector in 2004. I can totally see how that video would have be an exciting glimpse into Next Gen around then.

The way publishers desperately try to predict trends is amazing. In 2005 nobody wanted to publish sci-fi games, even though the Halo series was already huge? Everybody wanted Digital Extremes to throw out their setting. The industry was convinced shooters had to be modern day or WWII then. Now futuristic space shooters are everywhere, and I'm sure there are many frustrated developers pitching WWII games and getting shot down.

It's going to be interesting to see what dumb trends the industry gets hung up on in this new generation. "Interesting project. But can you Tweet from inside the game about the micro-transactions that you're buying? No? Then FUCK YOU. Get out of my office."

Posted by Hunter5024

I've always been strangely enamored with Dark Sector's history, so this article was awesome to me. Good work Patrick.

Posted by MeatSim

Still looks way more fascinating then what Dark Sector actually became.

Edited by pnevares

I'm trying to understand what the byline means by "Jun. 1 2:33pm". Is that just when Tricky began writing this story?

Edited by Cretaceous_Bob

Fuck, Giant Bomb's been around since Dark Sector came out? That's really weirding my shit out. I've been following Jeff since Gamespot and it sure doesn't feel like it's been that long. Guess time flies when you're having fun.

Posted by darkjester74

Wow, uncanny how much this looks like Warframe. Very cool story Patrick, thanks! :-)

Posted by Jedted

I just remember how i was psyched for this game because Mike Rosenbaum was in it and it turned out to be a low point for his career. :(

I'll have to try out this Warframe once it goes into open beta. That game looks fun from what i saw in that QL.

Posted by Baal_Sagoth

What an excellent read. Digital Extremes were always in the back of my mind due to my appreciation for the various Unreal Tournament iterations. And I actually do remember Dark Sector as well as Pariah and Warpath. Technically I had been aware of their history all along but seeing the chronology of the developer put together like this kind of boggles the mind. Fascinating stuff.

Posted by Milkman

Man, articles on the new site are sexy as hell.

Posted by cikame

I hate side quote things, pulled from the article... horrible, i just end up reading the same bit twice.

I have a weird love for Pariah and i actually really liked Dark Sector, I'll definately try Warframe at some point, but the companies strange obsession with Rhino horn helmets is odd.

Posted by AmethystRush

I still love that original dark sector video to this day. So much damned style. Warframe is super fun too, and has a ton of potential.

Posted by NoelVeiga

Oh, wow, if you have sticky videos turned on this thing becomes next to unreadable on a PC. Easy fix is to unsticky, of course, but for a while I was very confused.

Posted by MistaSparkle

Wow, really really awesome article Patrick! More cool stuff like this, please! :P

It's crazy seeing that early Dark Sector trailer(animation), and comparing it to the Warframe we all know. So awesome to see Schmalz and his team keep their dream alive and be able to use all the assets they saved for Warframe. I'm probably gonna go look into Warframe a bit more now, especially if it has the potential to be what they wanted Dark Sector to be. Also, the glave was a really cool thing, and I hope it's in Warframe somewhere...

Thanks, @patrickklepek! This was a really interesting read :D

Posted by jvalenti57

Great article Patrick! A fantastic read.

Posted by Bladefire

I've been playing Warframe for a couple of months now and the basic action feels really good. The only real gripe I have with the game right now is the lack of variety in the environments. As long as that comes along i could see myself playing Warframe for quite a while.

Posted by OfficeGamer

I lost my intrigue and stopped reading when you said it's an online shooter..

It's an online shooter. How can it be interesting beyond the fact that it's fun because it's an online shooter?

Posted by Phatmac

@patrickklepek Noticed a typo in the article

"Since our Quick Look was recorded, the game has added several new features, including the ability for players run run along walls."

Edited by andmm
Posted by AssInAss

Awesome article, I've watched that original trailer every year until Warframe was announced and I noticed the similarities. I'm a huge fan of DE after Darkness 2, such an excellent game gameplay and storytelling-wise, and really enjoying Warframe. Need to get back into it.

“An executive at a publisher that will remain nameless called out the cod piece, and also suggested that he look more grizzled and that he be torn up and, perhaps, an eye patch and some stubble would help,” he said. “Actually, our art director, who's the same art director on Warframe, Mike Brennan, drew a picture of a guy screaming with large bullet holes in his ears in response to that feedback, which we didn't send. [laughs]”

I NEED to see this.

@patrickklepek there's a typo in your article. "Since our Quick Look was recorded, the game has added several new features, including the ability for players run run along walls."

Edited by revizion

I remember checking out Dark Sector back when the 3rd gen launched. I almost bought a 360 because of it, tbh. All that said: Its great to see a dev get the opportunity to work on something they truly care about - and believe me, it shows in the game.

I first heard about Warframe right here on the QL Jeff & Patrick I'd been playing ME3 multiplayer (460+ hours worth ._.) ) and as a lover of co-op/third-person/shooter games, I figured I'd check it out. Yea.... 70 hours and 50 bucks later, I still stay up all damn night playing what is only BETA. This game gets updated about every 10 days or so, and the updates are always awesome. Sure its a beta and the seams come apart sometimes, but its worth it. I can't wait until the finished version comes out.

I highly recommend this labor of love to ANYONE who likes shooters..

Myin-game name is the same as here for anyone who wants to farm some rubedo or allow plates lol

Posted by DjDonFrancisco

I played Dark Sector and i'm alive to tell it. Guess what? It wasn't the worst game ever.

Posted by cooljammer00

In the words of @Jeff Gerstmann, "gross". All those men in suits saying "Your game sucks, but tell us all your secrets" is just gross.

Posted by ThePhilatron

Excellent story Patrick! Whenever I've thought of next-gen the past couple years I've made sure to temper my expectations by reminding myself of when I saw this video. Feels real nice to learn the true history of what happened here.

Posted by Ghost_Cat

Great article! It's really amazing to hear how long Digital Extremes has pushed for this game to happen, and the crap they experienced on that promotion tour was unreal. I love the design of the warframe suit, so I'm hoping I can give the game a shot soon enough.

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