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How the Ship 2 project became a ghost at sea

CVG discovers why The Ship sequel vanished, and how it has surfaced again

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Ship happens

In 2008, such crowdfunding opportunities were not available to Outerlight. The studio was locked into a contractual obligation to Ubisoft that it could not abscond from.

"We signed a deal with Ubisoft for a sequel to The Ship in 2008, but Ubisoft were more interested in the games mechanics than a Ship 2 game," Ailsa Bates claims.

"Quite early on it became apparent we wouldn't be calling the product 'The Ship 2'."

Instead, Bates and her team were told the project would be called Bloody Good Time, an XBLA title that took many ideas from The Ship but was recalibrated as a more arcade-style experience.

"I remember at the time that Team Fortress 2 had just come out, and everyone was very excited about it and the production team at Ubisoft loved it so we moved in that direction. There was also a feeling that The Ship 2 would be too complex for the console audience. We had worries this would lose our core audience who were a small but ardent group of Ship fans, but it was seen as more important to bring in new players."

Then, weeks after Ubisoft had given full production the green light, something terrible happened.

"When we got the go-ahead, we were told that the project scope had changed which meant we had to deliver a similar product but in less time for less money."

The studio's budget was cut, down from £2.8 million to £1.2 million.

The problem switched to crisis when it dawned on the developers that Ubisoft would only fund production if its project milestones were met in full - a common clause in publishing contracts, now suddenly an overwhelming challenge in light of the tougher deadlines.

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Chris Peck

Studio director Chris Peck recalls: "Ubisoft had an ever-increasing feature-list of what we were supposed to deliver, and endlessly nit-picked over milestones".

He alleges that, as certain milestones slipped through the studio's fingers, Ubisoft withheld its cash accordingly. (Ubisoft has declined to comment on any claims made in this article).

Survival for the studio was becoming unlikely, says Bates.

"From my point of view, it became a battle to keep the studio going. We had no back-up finance, our investors had already put money in and there was no room to manoeuvre when payments were delayed. As developers, we were thinking 'oh my gosh', but we took it on the chin and wanted to make the most of it. We felt that, by hook or by crook we could hit the milestones and get the game out."

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The iceberg moment

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Ship 2 concept art

By May 2009 the situation had become desperate. Bates had become the latest departure at Outerlight, a studio that at its peak had around thirty development staff but had dwindled to a handful.

"By that point, as the finance person, I knew it was going to be near impossible to finish the game on the money that was agreed," she says.

"We were so close to finishing it, so I took myself off payroll and left the company."

Weeks earlier, Peck had met with Ubisoft at GDC to provide an update on the project. Most of his team had gone by this point, he says. Ubisoft "could have just waited for a few months and we would have gone out of business".

"But they didn't know we had lost our team. When we met them at GDC, we pretended all was good with Outerlight, it's what you have to do."

As each member of staff departed, Peck appeared more determined to finish the project. He would continually find ways to reduce costs - just enough to hold out. At its darkest hour, Outerlight was living off drip-fed payments of the original Ship game that was still selling on Steam.

Peck's stubbornness had carried him to the final days. When the project was completed and handed to Ubisoft, the code was transferred to a production studio in Pune, India, and tested for bugs.

Ubisoft did not release it for another year, meaning that Outerlight had to remain open for another long stretch in order to receive its royalties.

"But no, we didn't get any royalties," Bates says.

"Ubisoft sold Bloody Good Time at a very low price. I think it was about £3 or £4 per unit. To put that in perspective, The Ship still sells for £14.99 and Valve told us a number of times not to drop the price, and they were right."

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Ship 2 concept work

Earlier this year, Outerlight finally began to wind up, ten years after it was formed under the hope that a handful of developers from Edinburgh could be the next big thing to shake up the games industry.

"Ultimately, we didn't make any money in the end at Outerlight," Bates says.

"The Ship did really well for us, but over the entire life of the business, we didn't come out on top."

After the Ubisoft deal, Peck went on to become a consultant for other studios. Eventually he heard of this new studio in Edinburgh called Blazing Griffin - a group co-founded by some young guy from Texas.

"Outerlight was about to go out of business, at which point nobody would have owned The Ship, so it seemed better to have someone benefit from it," he said.

"It seemed fitting to pass it to a start-up company in Scotland."

Bates joined Realtime Worlds in June 2009, and again found herself running out of luck. She no longer works in games. But, she says, there's something about the business that is tempting her back.

Return journey

Few industries are quite as cyclical as games. As one studio closes, another rises. New hardware and ideas come and go. When a disillusioned project manager quits the industry, a young graduate with big ideas joins. Advice in this sector is circled around like business cards. Developers convene at annual events to warn each other about business partners, before they look in search for new ones.

"After our experience I'd warn every up-and-coming developer to avoid working with publishers at all costs," Peck says, in what is likely a direct message to Fountain and his studio.

"Unless they can dictate the terms to the publisher, and even then, don't do it."

The young team at Blazing Griffin, the next Edinburgh studio that is handing out promises to investors and fantasising over a successful future, has heard everything Beck has to say. They know the whole story.

Armed with that on board, I asked Phil Harris at Blazing Griffin whether The Ship 2 would be released on consoles - whether it would consider a major deal with a big publisher. Whether they would take the same risk that Outerlight had taken before it collapsed.

"The console market is always incredibly hard to crack. There's many negotiations you have to go through, there's many requirements you need fulfil," he said.

"But if a company came to us with plans to bring the Ship 2 to consoles?

"Yeah I think we'd take it."

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