The Failure of ‘Damnation’ with Lead Designer Jacob Minkoff

Damnation met with unanimous derision upon its release in 2009 and then disappeared, its only achievement it being one of the worst critically received games for a decade. The product of first time developer Blue Omega, Damnation was to be a revolutionary combination of fast and hard gun-play, vehicular combat and traversal and sprawling, organic level design. Its story would sidestep cliché by reimagining the American civil war as a conflict driven by steam and not gunpowder, where airships, mechs and giant tanks were common sights. History and fantasy would collide in a maelstrom of bullets, acrobatics and heroism resulting in a game quite unlike anything that had come before it. Almost everything the team set out to achieve with Damnation was realised, though often in only the most tenuous of ways. The game was universally criticised for being awkward and stilted, visually bland, incoherent and half-finished. I spoke to Lead Designer Jacob Minkoff in an attempt to discover why Damnation showed so much promise, yet failed to deliver on all but the most basic of levels.

“Games are, I firmly believe, the hardest possible type of media one can work in” Jacob told me on a cold November morning. “There’s a formula to making a good story, and every time you watch a film it plays out the same way – but there is no formula to making ‘fun’.” Indeed, even the most linear of games is a collection of systems that all play important roles, where the failures of one often conspicuously hinder the others. Damnation was not to be a simple linear game though; Jacob’s design documents peg it as the ‘next step in the evolution of the shooter’. Damnation was intended to be something very special.

Damnation germinated from a hybrid first/third person action game entered into the first Make Something Unreal competition in 2004. While it did not win, production was continued with a full retail release as the ultimate goal. Aspirations were high within the team and their plans for the game were suitably lofty. Its ace up the sleeve was to be its gigantic levels. Rather than follow generally accepted design conventions and create locales from smaller, more self-contained segments, the team wanted Damnation’s locations to be huge and open, so the player could clearly see where they had come from and where they were headed. Ambitious claims that the player would be able to see ‘3 hours of game play stretching out before and behind them’ are astounding in their audacity; especially at a time when shooters were still dragging players through courtyards connected by hallways and corridors.

Before and behind didn’t just mean horizontally, either, as many of Damnation’s locations would also open up vertical space to the player. Buildings and terrain were to be more than window dressing; they were important tactical tools that could be utilised by the innovative player to their advantage. A rooftop could provide the perfect vantage point until the player is spotted and the advanced enemy AI begins flanking manoeuvres. Suddenly this advantage becomes nothing more than a place of momentary respite until the player is forced to flee for their lives, leaping through gunfire to an adjacent window, across the fifth floor of a building and then down to the street via a flagpole. Blue Omega was aiming high with Damnation; they wanted to create huge battlefields that player and adversary alike could traverse any way they saw fit. They were seeking to create both organic locations and enemies, throw the player into the mix and watch the emergent game play spiral out of control in the most fantastic of ways. Things did eventually spiral, though no one, especially the player, benefited in the least.

“When we started we just didn’t consider the possibility that we could fail” explained Jacob, rationalising his team’s high expectations. “Please note that I say that with a certain amount of pride. There is no room for self doubt in the creation of any great work.” He does, though, concede that “Damnation was a product of a green team that didn’t really know what they were doing. It was my first professional game development project; the same was true of many members of the core team.” It seems that Blue Omega’s hefty aspirations, some which bordered on the ridiculous at times, were borne out of their inexperience rather than any tested and proven experience. With this in mind, sound bites like ‘hundreds of animation per character’ and ‘the most detailed AI routines yet seen’ cease sounding like possibly attainable goals, and become hyperbolic and fantastical.

The eagerness of the team also led them to overlook the huge challenge set by the new console hardware they were developing for. “We were on the cusp of a new generation and we learned lessons that have since become common knowledge in game development.” In trying to expand upon Damnation so dramatically whilst working with new hardware Blue Omega tried to accomplish too much too soon. “Making a sprawling (theoretically) AAA game on console and PC was simply too much for us to handle”, Jacob told me regretfully. This problem was only exacerbated by the decision to outsource large portions of the game and maintaining an uncommonly small in-house team. The strategy was originally intended to afford this core team the greatest level of flexibility and allow them to adapt throughout development, though as Jacob revealed to me, this simply was not the case in practice. “Outsourcing was a problem, you need the time, experience and budget to turn on a dime – to throw out what you’ve made and try something else quickly, and within constraints. We did not have the resources or knowledge to do that at Blue Omega.”

This ironic inflexibility, borne out of inexperience and outsourcing, led to the game’s woefully protracted development cycle. Few games command four years to make and when they do finally see release this time is usually justified by high levels of polish and production value. This was the opposite case for Damnation. The longer it stayed in development the more out of touch and less impressive it became. Level architecture, AI, textures, animations, movement, physics, audio mixing, sound effects, dialogue, cut scenes, acting, weapons and general common sense all had their merits eroded over the years it took Damnation to gestate. ‘The most detailed AI routines yet seen’ devolved into enemies standing in place until the player came within twenty feet and activated them; considering levels were hundreds of feet long, wide and often high, this left a huge margin for error. Entire enemy encounters could be circumvented with only a sniper rifle and steady aim as foes were picked off one at a time, all elements of challenge, tension or believability falling away to reveal Damnation’s hollow interior. This is not simply me being cruel and using the most egregious errors; every mechanic, design decision and art asset suffers the same terrible, crushing, worst-case-scenario fate, nothing holds up as it should.

While the game showed so much promise and its team so much enthusiasm, its ultimate downfall was to be sealed by entities that care little for either. “In the end, you usually run out of time or money. With Damnation, we ran out of both. One of the primary reasons why you see so much architectural re-use is because it was cheaper to pay for a re-texture than all new geometry. It also took less time to do so, giving us more hope of us meeting our release date.”

I find it terribly sad that Damnation was a failure. The aspirations of the team were noble, and can still be seen peeking through the murk at times. While far from the organic lived-in locations they were intended to be, the levels are still undeniably impressive. Towering cliffs, precarious buildings and death-defying leaps all do exist, they are simply not particularly attractive, inspiring or mechanically fluid enough to be awe inspiring. The AI is rather terrible, though sometimes shows hints of how good the game could have been had the enemies been more intelligent. The aforementioned architecture reuse really hurts what could have been strikingly diverse locations, though the game is still varied enough to be bearable. That is what I find so frustrating with Damnation; it could have been a great game had the team been more experienced, focused and time-efficient. Jacob sees the silver lining; however, “Many games never ship at all because the investment to make the game simply pass console certification would be prohibitive. That it shipped at all is a triumph for Damnation’s team.”

His positivity likely emanates from where Damnation took him next and where he was able to take its fundamental concepts. After the game’s completion Jacob moved to Naughty Dog and designed some of the most memorable sections of the Uncharted sequels. There he was finally able to realise his ambitions for Damnation thanks to an experienced team and appropriate resources. That the similar, yet vastly superior, first Uncharted game was in development at the same time as Damnation, and saw release two years earlier to critical acclaim, is an irony that is not lost on Jacob. Instead of wallowing in the past, however, he is looking toward the future and still building upon his first game’s auspicious past. “Everyone has to learn somewhere. I learned on Damnation.”

Posted by awesomeusername

I remember this game. I think I wanted it when I first heard about it, forgot about it, and then it came out. I saw reviews and said noooooo. Good read though. It's nice to see the guy take responsibility instead of saying "Those reviewers don't know what they were talking about. It was great!" like some other devs. Since he's worked on Uncharted, hopefully he takes that great experience and tries his hands on another game and succeeds. It's always good to have new games to look forward to by a dev with experience.

Posted by MordeaniisChaos

It was a really cool concept. The reviews were a huge bummer. I wish games like that were pulled off better more often. Imagine if games like this, and NeverDead were the games that were done really well, not Call of Duty and Battlefield...

Posted by Sideburnt

I worked on this game as a QA Tester and Level Designer, it was one of the best experiences of my life. The team was very talented and we all had a love for games and creating something great, it just got messed up somewhere along the lines. I still don't think its the worst game I have ever played, but its certainty not the best.

Edited by MMMman


Oh wow, glad to hear you had a good time working on it. I enjoyed my time playing it and was regularly saddened by how most aspects of the game were almost there, but nothing worked as well as it should have. I was really grateful when Jacob agreed to talk to me about its development and am still really interested in exploring games that don't quite hit the mark and the reasons behind that happening.

I expected the game to be a complete crock given the terrible reviews, so I was really surprised to find that it's actually an inspired game that simply didn't realise its full potential. Nearly every mechanic and design choice from Damnation has been replicated after the fact - usually with better results, granted - and I find it rather sad that it isn't given any consideration at all.

Are you still working in the industry, just out of interest? Tell me where to go if that's a bit of a rude question!

Posted by konig_kei

You after klepek's job or something? Good read though, I remember thinking this game was gonna be awesome, then the reviews and no thanks.

Posted by MMMman

@konig_kei: Haha, not quite yet. It's still worth picking up if you have a spare couple of hours, even if just as a curiosity piece. Even though it's only a few years ago, development for consoles has changed so much. The budget they had, from what I've gathered, was going to make it difficult to make a well-polished 10-15 hour game. If, however, it had been a more common practice to develop for download - remember, they started working on it in 2006 - I think their vision could have been well realised in a smaller form. I find this sort of thing fascinating, I really do. Strange that the piece has resurfaced after nearly nine months, too, especially with Patrick focusing on this sort of thing a bit more closely these days.

Edited by Humanity

You after klepek's job or something? Good read though, I remember thinking this game was gonna be awesome, then the reviews and no thanks.

No this isn't an 8bit retro platformer or a game with strong gender issues!

I kid~

Damnation looked pretty "generic" from the very first trailer. In another time it would have been amazing - but somehow these elements of cyberpunk, wild west and weird future didn't mesh well to provide a worthwhile experience.

Posted by razkazz

Wow, that was a great read and answered a lot of questions I'd had concerning Damnation for a while. I actually finally beat the game a couple days ago and as an Unreal mod enthusiast, I found it to be an interesting exercise in level design. Everything else was poorly underdeveloped and that focus on huge levels killed any hope of pacing, but I had some fun moments for the maybe 30% of it I wasn't completely bored and annoyed. Like you, TC, I kind of found myself rooting for this game for some strange reason too, so it's good to hear some of those involved found success afterward. Thanks for the great article!

Posted by mrfluke

@marino this should get a place on the community spotlight. this user did some real killer work. this is the type of stuff i think klepek should be putting his time and energy into.

Edited by MMMman

@razkazz: It's good to know I'm not the only person to have played it in the last couple of years! I found the (kind of) non-linearity of most of the levels to be really interesting, especially the HUGE area inside the mountain where you can look back at where to were an hour or more ago. Granted though, they do remove any feeling of structured authorship over the experience, beyond the start here/get to here traipse through the massive environments. Here is the design doc I mentioned in the article, you might find it interesting as a bit of bedtime reading.

@mrfluke: Thanks or the shout-out. It might have been spotlit when I originally posted it, though it's been a while since then, so maybe it wouldn't hurt!

I don't know why I haven't tried another of these articles, it was super interesting doing all the groundwork for it. Could be time to start bothering developers about games they made 5+ years ago again!
Thank you both for the encouragement.

Edited by CoinMatze

I'm glad this got bumped. Awesome read. I remember when it came out I was in my hometown visiting relatives. There's this mom and pop game store run by the shadiest of guys and he was praising Damnation to high hell, trying to get me to buy it. Luckily, I had just read the reviews earlier that day.

Posted by Veektarius

This article could probably serve as a good barometer for a lot of Kickstarter projects. The whole "inexperienced dev team doesn't consider the possibility of failure" theme seems pervasive there.

Edited by MMMman

@coinmatze: Haha, never trust a businessman, ey? Unless he genuinely did LOVE it, though I think that's pretty unlikely.
I'm happy it got bumped too, though I have no idea how @sideburnt managed to find it, and I'm pretty sure I haven't paid anyone to boost my internet visibility this month. I'll just put it down to good luck I suppose!

Posted by MMMman

@veektarius: I think that's pretty true, though as Jacob said it isn't the not considering failure that is the bad part, it's not being able to adapt when failure, or the threat of it, comes into view. I don't fund 'the kickstarter' projects for pretty much that reason. I pitched in a fiver or something small on Haunts before that fell off, though I reckon the 'kickstarter guarantees a solid return on your pledge' line of thought is truly over. That is sad in a way because I think people are a lot more cautious when it comes to backing tiny games now, but people need to understand the risks associated with their investment because it is just that; an investment and not a pre-order.

Edited by Jeust

Great article! :)

It made me desire to play Damnation.

Posted by MMMman

@jeust: DO IT, seriously, you'll find it interesting if nothing else. Having just had a look though, it seems to have become somewhat of a collectors item; twenty whole dollars on amazon US, FIFTY Great British pounds on the UK site. I truly didn't expect that.

Posted by bybeach

Well written.

Yeah, I remember this game now.

Edited by Vod_Crack

I played through this game a while back. Not awful. Definitely some really cool ideas there and I think the game's sense of scale was really well done. Shame about the shooting...

Posted by MMMman

@vod_crack: I nearly stopped playing right at the beginning because of the weird aiming, it took a while for me to get used to it. It almost feels as if you have to adjust your cross-hair a single axis at a time rather than smoothly aiming at something. The weapons are also pretty inaccurate with a lot of muzzle rise, which seems a little strange in an action-heavy title. Still, once I'd become used to it all I found it a bit more comfortable, though never quite enough. Pretty much the bottom line on most of the game's mechanics really.

Posted by fisk0

Great read, I'm surprised this didn't get more attention back when you posted it in January!

@mmmman said:
[i] am still really interested in exploring games that don't quite hit the mark and the reasons behind that happening.

These kinds of games are kinda what I'm the most interested in, especially when looking back at the early days of some genres, and seeing some very different and interesting (if not always particularly successful) ways to achieve things, back before the genre conventions had been entirely set in stone.

Posted by Korolev

Glad to see that there was life after critical death for this designer.

Posted by SpaceRunaway

I still want to play this someday, mainly because I remember Vinny saying on the Bombcast that it was his least favorite game of all time.

Posted by jakob187

I rented this game one time...when Blockbuster was still in business, funny enough.

It was fucking painful. The first couple of hours, I was like "I'm going to give this game a solid chance, because I see what they are trying to do and maybe it starts to pay off." Unfortunately, it just became thoroughly fucking bland.

It's sad, too. It's a visual aesthetic and world that I wouldn't mind seeing realized in a much better fashion within a game. = /