Gaming’s Most Notorious Vaporware Titles

Gaming’s Most Notorious Vaporware Titles

Gaming’s Most Notorious Vaporware Titles

Posted by Lawrence Rennie

24 Feb, 2021


The gaming industry’s rumor mill is one of its most exciting parts. The buzz that comes with a newly announced, ambitious-looking game and the excitement toward its release is part of why we love this industry.

But sometimes, we get all excited only to never see a long-awaited game ever again —cough, Half-Life 3,cough. These games that seemingly go missing after some initial grand announcements are what we call “vaporware,” since they appear to suddenly dissipate into nothingness (you know, like vapor). The games industry is utterly littered with these abandoned titles.

We’ve seen some high-profile vaporware examples, too—games by huge studios that seem promised to change the space entirely before they go missing in action. Some of the most intriguing vaporware titles remain today a jumbled and confusing mystery. Fans are still asking for someone to piece together just what happened in these games’ development, pondering whether Star Citizen was ever even a real game in the first place.

Then, there are those few games that manage to claw their way out of the vaporware curse. Some of these titles are actually finally released after years of lingering under a cloud. The likes of Duke Nukem Forever and Daikatana are in this group that, at the very least, do finally come out. But these comeback-kid games do pose an interesting question: Once a game has become vaporware, should it perhaps stay as vaporware?

With so much mystery surrounding these star-crossed titles, let’s dig into the gaming industry’s most notorious vaporware stories.

Agent – Rockstar Games

First teased in 2007 and then officially announced in 2009, Agent was supposed to be a PS3 exclusive set in the espionage era of the Cold War’s late stages, toward the end of the 1970s. Rockstar and their holding company, Take-Two Interactive, were hyping Agent right out of the gate, making all sorts of brash and bold claims about how this game was “going to push the edge” as the “genre-defining” and “ultimate action game”, according to Rockstar co-founder Sam Houser. Then-CEO of Take-Two Interactive even claimed that Agentwould “be a whole new way of experiencing videogames that we haven’t really seen before.”

But since those headline-making words in 2009, the public never saw or heard anything else about Agent. The supposed story of the game’s development is messy, and many potential reasons have been suggested for the game’s fading into legend.

Allegedly, Agent began as a sort of trial-by-fire test for new Rockstar Games family member Rockstar San Diego—formerly Angel Studios. Polygon ran a story explaining that Rockstar co-founders Dan and Sam Houser were looking for a new British spy thriller in the vein of some of their favorite films and TV shows. James Bond and UK crime drama The Professionals were offered up as enticing examples. The concept for this project came to the San Diego team as a sort of “show us what you’ve got” challenge. With Agent, the recently bought studio was expected to prove its worth.

The Housers, known already for being difficult and openly demanding, wanted the project to impress them—and they wanted to see some progress fast. Reportedly, the culture at the Rockstar San Diego office was tough. Staff members were expected to crunch for many extra hours so that they put together a tech demo worthy of the Houser brothers’ expectations.

What the studio delivered was apparently exceptional. Their action-heavy demo was said to include helicopter sequences, exploding buildings, and a para-drop onto the White House. The Housers gave the go-ahead for Agent to move on to full production. So where did the project go wrong?

Much of the issues plaguing the game’s subsequent development seems to have boiled down to scale, expectations, and mounting pressure from other Rockstar executives. Agent was set to feature an ambitious, open world—but that wasn’t exactly in the San Diego team’s wheelhouse. Previously, the studio had only worked on much more condensed titles like Midnight Club. On top of this pressure to master such unfamiliar territory, execs also kept pushing for the game’s story to be completed. As if those tall orders weren’t enough, the Housers kept asking for rapid changes to the game’s development at a much faster pace than the team could keep up with. Before long, the project’s wheels were starting to fall off.

A new lead team eventually came in to take the reins on the struggling Agent project. But it seems that even they couldn’t handle the Housers’ demands. Eventually, perhaps having had enough frustratingly cyclical conversations, the Housers put a stop to Agent and focused their attention on their new Western project, Red Dead Redemption.

The strangest part about Agent’s ill-fated development is that all of this work took place around the mid-to-late 2000s, well before the E3 Sony conference where Agent was first announced. When then–Sony CEO Jack Tretton first walked out onto the E3 stage, he announced the game specifically as a Rockstar North project—not Rockstar San Diego’s domain. Presumably, then, Agent had been handed off to the Scotland-based Rockstar North team following the troubles in San Diego. But even now, we know very little about what happened after the project crossed the pond.

Rockstar Games had gone on to suggest that the game would be ready by early 2010. But, year after year, the public got no further news about Agent’s development. By 2018, the trademark for Agent was officially abandoned without so much as a squeak from anyone at Rockstar, Sony, or Take-Two.

Although gamers may never see Agent in action, we have managed to see much of the game’s technical design and engine—though you might not have realized. That’s because much of the San Diego team’s work was ported right into Red Dead’s development.

Beyond Good and Evil 2 – Ubisoft

Billed as a prequel to the initial Beyond Good and Evil game, despite the sequel-evoking “2” in its title, the story of Beyond Good and Evil 2 has been a bizarre saga from its earliest days.

Despite a hardcore fan base, the first installment in the Beyond Good and Evil series was a commercial failure. That lackluster track record meant that the prospects for a sequel always seemed like a pipe dream for these fans. Nevertheless, in 2008, five years after the original game’s release, Ubisoft teased a short trailer featuring the franchise’s two main characters, Pey’j and Jade.

Over the next decade, Ubisoft and the game’s director, Michel Ancel, repeated a few times another Beyond Good and Evil game was in the works. Despite this insistence, though, their other projects seemed to keep taking priority, such as Rayman Legends, which Ancel also oversaw. Then, in 2016, Ubisoft officially announced the new Beyond Good and Evil project with Ancel at the helm. By E3 2017, fans had seen the game’s first official trailer, following some changes to the development plans since the 2008 teaser.

Unfortunately, that’s when the kiss-of-death vaporware narrative began to seize the game’s development. Much like Agent, Beyond Good and Evil 2 was hailed as a hugely ambitious project. Plans were made for the game to feature a complex combination of “online worlds, early-access releases, role-playing games, and procedural generation,” The Verge noted back in 2017.

If this sounds like naïve thinking, well, that’s because it was. In 2017, Ancel described the game as being very early in its development—despite the 2008 teaser. For a long time, he suggested, the technology needed for his ambitious plans simply did not exist. Ancel described a “SimCity-like simulation” that would feature multiple procedurally generated worlds—not unlike No Man’s Sky—that could also organically grow over time, thanks to the developers’ highly anticipated inherent logic system.

But it wasn’t just technical complexity that might have gotten the project lost in the weeds. Ancel didn’t even seem to want the story to be straightforward. The narrative, the public learned, was to be fully informed by systemic events—the places players went and the characters (maybe even the other players) they interacted with along the way.

Sharing his plans for the game in 2018, Ancel made Beyond Good and Evil 2 sound like a lot of pioneering concepts without a concrete idea for how these moving parts would actually fit together. These grand plans for Ubisoft’s revolutionary new title also seemed to require a new game classification entirely. Enter the “AAAA” game—because three A’s just wasn’t enough for the esteemed developer. According to a few Ubisoft developers’ LinkedIn pages, the ”AAAA” label was used internally to describe Beyond Good and Evil 2 and other games under development.

Of course, “AAA” itself doesn’t technically mean anything. It just signifies games with bigger budgets and wider scales. So, the meaning of the “AAAA” label was anybody’s guess. Despite the new tier’s ambiguity, the term does confirm that Beyond Good and Evil 2 was still conceived at the time as a truly groundbreaking project.

Perhaps unable to live up to its massive promise, the revolutionary project has yet to be released. Possibly, it never will come out. In the fall of 2020, Ancel announced via Instagram that he would be leaving the games industry altogether. But Ubisoft quickly jumped in to confirm that work still forged ahead on Beyond Good and Evil 2 despite the director’s departure, as it had been doing for some time.

In a statement released the same day, Ubisoft stated that development had reached a milestone, with a playable product that fit the initial E3 demos. The company also noted that recruitment was open at its Paris and Montpellier studios. Unfortunately, with no further news since then, those jobs might be the only way to ever play Beyond Good and Evil 2.

Star Citizen – Cloud Imperium Games

Star Citizen was doing overblown space exploration before No Man’s Sky made it cool, and then uncool, and then cool again. Initially an exciting crowdfunded project, Star Citizen is now the gaming industry’s most prolific unreleased game.

In 2012, a Kickstarter campaign announced Star Citizen as the new title by Cloud Imperium Games and its founder, Chris Roberts. As the project’s director, Roberts had been working on pre-production for the alleged magnum opus since 2010. Star Citizen was intended as a follow-up to his Starlancer and Freelancer games, released in 1999 and 2003, respectively.

The game was slated as an ambitious space simulator. Gamers were told the title would incorporate myriad genres, with FPS, MMO, RPG, and even flight simulator elements. Like Agent and Beyond Good and Evil 2, Star Citizen it was to have it all—and the game’s concept art made it look seriously impressive.

Following the game’s official announcement at GDC 2012, the crowdfunding campaign was set up, and it easily blew past its initial goal of $6.2 million for the game’s development. The cash didn’t stop there, though. By mid-2013, Star Citizen had raked in $15 million in funding, making it the biggest crowdfunded project ever at the time.

During its initial development, the game was said to be releasing in 2014. But, as more and more ludicrous amounts of money came in over the years, the bloated project strayed father from an actual release date. Despite only releasing small “modules” of the game, bit by bit, Star Citizen had received around $40 million in crowdfunding by 2014. And the project went on to break even more records. By 2015, it had received over $50 million; by 2017, $150 million; and most recently, in 2020, the project is alleged to have surpassed $300 million in crowdfunding—on top of a further $46 million investment from a British billionaire record label owner.

But despite this jaw-dropping funding, Roberts and Cloud Imperium Games have repeatedly underdelivered, leaving a trail of missed deadlines, broken promises, and overly ambitious projections in the project’s wake. Currently, Star Citizen remains in alpha, though some demo components are available for backers to try. An actual-money ship market even allows prospective players to purchase in-game spaceships—despite no actual release.

So, have Roberts and the company pulled off the greatest money-making scheme in history? With no actual product available, Cloud Imperium Games is said to be worth an estimated $460 million. The game’s alpha is, apparently, exceptionally good—but it’s obviously far from a finished product. Clearly, though, the project’s promises and glimpses of progress have kept fans buying in despite significant backlash and complaints about refunds not granted.

At the very least, unlike Agent and Beyond Good and Evil 2 and Agent, Star Citizen can still boast continuing development. Plus, Star Citizen keeps sharing glimpses of a truly tantalizing product. Squadron 42, announced as the game’s separate single-player campaign, is alleged to include such esteemed acting talent as Mark Hamill, Sigourney Weaver, Gary Oldman, Liam Cunningham, and Andy Serkis. But, though regular announcements and company updates might keep some fans hopeful, more cynical gamers might suspect an attempt to just keep the money coming in. Squadron 42 is itself another failed promise, with its latest beta missing its planned 2020 release.

The story of Star Citizen’s missing release is familiar at this point, marred by over-ambition and grandiose promises, perhaps mixed with the unprecedented income that Star Citizen could rake in without even a full release. The hype train for the game would be hard to imagine if the game had just come out like a conventional title. Star Citizen’s development might continue to drag on because that development has become a story in itself. By keeping that train going just a little bit longer, development might be able to coast. But eventually, that train could derail into vaporware obscurity.

Half-Life 2: Episode 3 – Valve Corporation

Before you get too excited, no—we’re not talking Half-Life 3 here. Not exactly, anyway. Technically, Half-Life 3 has never been officially announced or expected. But Half-Life 2: Episode 3 was announced, and a history of frustrated waiting and internet memes has conflated the two yearned-for titles more than ever. So, what is Episode 3, and what actually happened to the internet’s most sought-after vaporware game?

Half-Life 2 was first released in 2004 to great acclaim. Its newly built Source Engine was revolutionary, and protagonist Gordon Freeman’s antics were an exceptional vehicle for the title’s physics-based gameplay. The project was ambitious for its team at Valve. And, as Valve veteran Dario Casali explained to IGN, it was a huge drain for the studio to complete.

In developing Half-Life 2 alongside its game engine, Valve found that it had overextended, and the studio was reluctant to rush into anything so taxing again. The gap between Half-Life and Half-Life 2 had lasted six long years, Valve hoped to avoid that kind of gap before the franchise’s third installment. Now, however, we can see that the studio hoped in vain.

The studio planned for a three-episode trilogy within the Half-Life 2 wireframe. Each episode would release a smaller component of the full game so that development could avoid delays using this episodic approach. Episode One took about a year to make, releasing roughly a year and a half after Half-Life 2 in 2006. Episode Two was also developed alongside Episode One, and much of the Episode One team moved to Episode Twoafter the first release. But that approach caused a problem that Valve internally identified as “scope creep.”

Episode Two grew larger than initially planned as the team excitedly expanded the project. This expansion is hard to understand. After all, this type of scaling explicitly contradicted the episodic concept. What was the point of segmented development if the project kept growing with each episode? This change of plans also led to hesitation surrounding Episode Three’s development. Although Episode Two had ended on a now-infamous cliff-hanger, the Half-Life team was no longer sure how to proceed with the project. Episode Three had to be bigger than Episode Two, but this growth belied the decision to avoid a full sequel.

By 2008, when these delays arose, Valve was looking ahead to building the Source 2 engine. The team was more reluctant than ever to start work on another Half-Life title using tech that might immediately become outdated. And so, Valve pressed pause on any Half-Life “Three” game—whether Episode Three or a proper Half-Life 3 sequel.

Today, a full 13 years after this delay, fans are wondering why Half-Life: Alyx is out for VR but they’ve received no word on the studio completing the Half-Life 2 episodic trilogy. As Valve co-founder Gabe Newell explained, Half-Life has always intended to push the limits of technology. Alyx continues the revolutionary physics of the Source engine and Half-Life 2, bringing ambitious early tech to virtual reality. But Valve still hasn’t applied that same creative drive to Episode Three. As Casali explained, Valve has always been ruthless about its own internal expectations. If something doesn’t live up to the studio’s rigorous plans, then it’s scrapped pretty quickly. According to Valve, no concept for Half-Life: Episode Three—or even Half-Life 3—has ever met those demands.

So, while gamers remain hungry for any Half-Life 3 rumor, agonizing over every new conspiracy and alleged story leak, Valve itself seems in no rush to meet the public’s demands. If any work on Episode Three has been completed, it’s likely squirreled away now, never to be seen again.

As the most infamous vaporware of all, Half-Life 2: Episode 3 leaves us to ponder the fate of Gordon Freeman and his snide counterpart, G-Man. Accept that the ghost has been given up, internet. There’s nothing left to see here.


About Author

Lawrence Rennie

Lawrence is a Scottish-born writer with a love of games and films that he fortunately turned into a career grumbling about online. When not firing away the hours buried in a game or film he also co-writes 'Mechastopheles', an original comic series published by the UK’s leading comic magazine 2000AD as a naturally born-grumpy Scot; however, he asks that you don’t ask him too much about it though! Lawrence’s other musings include podcasts, fitness, his cat, and one day developing his own screenplay.

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