Work began on a hugely ambitious tie-in videogame to Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight – but here’s why the project ended up collapsing.
The Dark Knight is a movie that needs little introduction (but we’ll do a quick one anyway, just in case): the central part of Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy, it was arguably the most acclaimed, and remains regarded by many as a modern classic (there you go: that quick).
It also seemed ripe for a videogame take on the film, not least given how successful previous Batman gaming ventures had been. And yet The Dark Knight never got one. As it happened, that wasn’t for the want of trying though as we’re about to talk about, but it still became the first Warner Bros live action Batman film to get a cinema release but no game tie-in.
The story behind the game’s ultimate cancellation though – after a huge amount of work was done on it – has a scattering of well-known stars and the collapse of a development studio. While a small The Dark Knight mobile game – with Batman leaping over platforms and fighting foes – was released, it doesn’t compare with the scale of the games created for other films..
The release of The Dark Knight film itself in July 2008 will forever be overshadowed of course by the premature and sudden death of Australian actor Heath Ledger. His electric performance as the Joker won him a posthumous Oscar. There was an Australian connection to the cancelled videogame too, in the form of development house Pandemic Australia.
A concept still from the cancelled The Dark Knight game
Licensing a movie to turn it into a videogame can be a complex process, even more so now that Hollywood and its stars understand the earning potential (it was all much easier in the 1980s!). A separate fee for a character’s image rights or a recording session for voiceovers can be lucrative. Indeed, Christian Bale and Gary Oldman were among the actors lending their voices to Eurocom’s Batman Begins game.
Moving onto this one though, equity firm Elevation Partners had invested in developers Bioware and Pandemic, and saw an opportunity in licensing The Dark Knight movie. A contract was signed with developer Pandemic Australia, based in Brisbane, to create a new Batman game. Electronic Arts was to be its publisher. Crucially though, the license negotiated to use the Batman character would expire in December 2008. It meant a very big project was immediately up against a very firm deadline.
When Pandemic Australia started work on its Batman game, it split its staff into two small teams. Team Alpha worked on a different project, a Nintendo Wii title codenamed ‘The Next Big Thing’ (this was to be an open-world racing game similar to Burnout Paradise, which would also go unpublished). Team Bravo tackled The Dark Knight.
The initial prototypes for the latter were created for the PlayStation 2 console, including models of Batman and sections of a moodily-lit Gotham City. Taking a cue from the previously-published Batman Begins game, the initial plans were for linear levels mixing Batman moving through the city on foot and driving the Batmobile (aka the Tumbler).
A VIP from Elevation Partners – singer Bono, in Australia for a U2 concert – visited Brisbane and was reportedly pleased with the progress of the game. As development progressed, Electronic Arts bought out Elevation’s stake in Pandemic and Bioware, and set a new release target for the game. It also rechristened the game Batman: The Dark Knight. The plan was now for a July 2008 release, in line with the movie.
Management however also came up with ambitious new plans for a large open-world game filled with characters and side-quests (think Grand Theft Auto set in Gotham). Pandemic Australia had no experience of working on that sort of title – its previous works included the light-hearted Destroy All Humans and the PlayStation 2 version of Star Wars: Battlefront. Six months of work was either scrapped or if it could be saved had to be moved over to a new game engine.
The first critical decision then was to use a game engine – nicknamed Odin, after the Norse god – that was being developed in the USA for Pandemic’s World War II spy title, The Saboteur. The new target hardware for The Dark Knight was now the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 consoles. An initial lack of tools for creating the levels for the game slowed progress. And when the existing prototypes were added to a new HDR lighting system, the game ran terribly at just five frames per second – or crashed the development system completely.
Pandemic Australia had to admit to Electronic Arts that in its current state it was unplayable and not ready. Electronic Arts therefore held off on formally announcing the game to the press. However Gary Oldman let the cat out of the bag in an interview promoting the film’s cinema launch in July 2008. He’d been shown a segment of the game, with Batman flying over Gotham and Commissioner Gordon standing by the Bat-signal.
Now there was real pressure on Pandemic Australia to complete the game before its revised launch date, December 2008, to coincide with the DVD launch and before the license to make it expired. The developer recruited heavily, with up to 130 staff and contractors working alongside its Bravo team. But its continued to struggle with the game engine. ‘Odin’ was apparently not up to the task of ‘streaming’ large open-world levels. There was progress though, as the Tumbler and Batpod could be driven around Gotham. An early mission based on the film’s opening bank heist was almost complete, but bugs continued to plague the missions and the frame rate continued to drop thanks to the complex lighting system being used.
Art from the ultimately cancelled videogame.
The game was in trouble. Deep trouble. It became clear that the deadline couldn’t be hit. Even if it’d been working well on the development engine, it would have been near-impossible to realise the project in time (Grand Theft Auto V had taken over 1000 people more than three years to complete, and Pandemic had neither that much time or that many people). Perhaps EA could have paid to extend the Batman license, but even if that was possible, it was going to cost a lot of money with no prospect of a good, working game on the horizon. Furthermore, The Dark Knight‘s cinema release would have been long gone by the time its tie-in game ultimately arrived.
Thus, in September 2008, Electronic Arts completely cancelled development of The Dark Knight game and Pandemic Australia was forced to let staff go in November of that year. And then, on Christmas Day came the sad news that the Brisbane office was to close completely by February 2009. Some staff accepted an offer to move to Los Angeles, helping Pandemic finish work on The Saboteur. With an estimated $100 million in revenue lost from not releasing the game, along with nearly two years of development costs and the global financial crisis taking hold, Electronic Arts ultimately axed 1500 jobs from across its many studios in November 2009 – including the remaining 228 Pandemic staff.
How Heath Ledger’s Joker would have looked.
Electronic Arts and Elevation Partners thus lost the Batman license. That said, it set the videogame Batman on an interesting course when the license landed elsewhere.
Firstly there were the hilarious and fun LEGO Batman games from UK developer Travellers’ Tales, which ultimately helped pave the way to a LEGO Batman movie (the game LEGO Batman 3: Beyond Gotham then had an expansion pack with levels based on The Dark Knight.)
Warner Bros then recruited developer Rocksteady to come up with a new take on Batman. The end result was the critically acclaimed Arkham Asylum game, mixing detective work and side-quests with plenty of brawling. Sequel Arkham Knight’s extra content would include the Batsuit and Tumbler from The Dark Knight, as well as two race-tracks based on locations from the film. Other downloadable content included Batmobiles and suits from earlier Batman movies. The later Arkham games made the shift to an open-world structure, that Pandemic Australia had tried to get to first.
But a full The Dark Knight game? That was never to see the light of day. And in fact, few have even attempted a direct movie tie-in of that scale ever since…
Much of the work revealing the story behind the cancelled Dark Knight game was then revealed at the excellent Unseen64, a site specialising in unreleased and unfinished videogames, and news site Kotaku Australia. Images included here are based on screen grabs from the Unseen64 video available here.
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