By: Patrick Morris
Video game developers of all sizes are forced to compete for audiences attention and in no genre is that competition more stiff First-Person Shooters. Dominated by titans like Activision's Call of Duty and EA's Battlefield, THQ's sole objective of taking a portion of that market share was seen as a daunting, nearly impossible task. A project born of ambition, Kaos studios and their parent company THQ would soon discover that same ambition from which Frontlines: Fuel of War was conceived would be its undoing. This is the history of Frontlines: Fuel of War.
Throughout the early 2000's the first-person shooter genre was popularized by World War II shooters. Every year new Medal of Honor, Call of Duty, and Battlefield games were consumed by a fanbase with seemingly unending demand. In 2002 EA's Sweden based subsidiary DICE released Battlefield 1942 the first in a series that would go on to attain enormous popularity. While Battlefield was embraced by both audiences and critics alike one group of players liked the game so much they felt obligated to expand on it in their own unique way.
Founded in 2003 Trauma Studios was comprised of a group of players sharing in a singular vision for modifying Battlefield to provide a new experience for like-minded fans. Thus the Battlefield 1942 Desert Combat mod was born. Trauma Studios utilized the tools and assets already existing in Battlefield 1942 along with some original creations of their own and shaped them into a new multiplayer experience that saw players colliding in a Gulf War setting rather than World War II. Fans of the original game loved and praised Traumas creation for its extraordinary levels of polish. But it wasn’t only Battlefield fans who had taken notice of Trauma; in September of 2004 Battlefield developer Dice acquired Trauma, who were quickly put to work on the upcoming sequel Battlefield 2.
After functioning as a support studio on Battlefield 2 working on concept and game development Trauma's Battlefield was nearing completion. But on June 7, 2005 just two weeks before Battlefield 2 would be released to overwhelming critical and commercial success Dice announced the closure of Trauma Studios. It was reported that Dice extended the offer to relocate Trauma to their Sweden office but Trauma declined.
Only months later in early 2006 Trauma was reborn as Kaos Studios, with a new parent company, publisher THQ. After their experience working on the Battlefield franchise the group formerly known as Trauma seemed to be the perfect fit for a publishing company looking to add a first-person shooter to their portfolio. THQ formed Kaos Studios with the intent of developing their own Battlefield and Call of Duty competitor, a game that would eventually be known as Frontlines: Fuel of War.
From their inception Kaos was determined to create something unique in a genre that was often criticized for lacking any distinguishable or defining features. As a result, the decision to tell their story not from the perspective of a soldier on the battlefield but instead a wartime correspondent, Wayne Andrews, was made relatively early in development. To Kaos Andrews was more storytelling device than character.
In an effort to make everything from weapons to global relations feel as grounded as possible the Kaos team employed what became known as "Kaos Theory" the active speculation of aging all elements in the game up twenty years. Kaos General Manager Frank DeLise described it as evaluating a weapon, alliance, or resource and imagining how that will develop over twenty years. And so the allied and enemy factions and resource driven conflict of the fictional world of Frontlines was born.
Conceptually Frontlines was extremely ambitious. While Kaos was focused on PC as their primary development platform they were able to utilize features unique to each console to tailor the experience. But despite their differences Kaos had plans to bring the most iconic and fundamental features to every version of the game. In an interview with GameSpot Senior Producer Joe Halper stressed the focus on dynamic gameplay creating unprecedented levels of replayability for the first person shooter genre. Halper emphasized the use of dynamically destructible environments to significantly change the battlefield as the player progressed throughout each level. By spreading objectives out across the levels then letting the player decide which order those objectives would be accomplished in and strategically placing weapons and drones near each objective, Kaos opened new avenues for player's to approach each situation.
With their sights set on a dynamic single player experience built for two consoles and needing to scale to a multitude of different PC hardware configurations Kaos was forced to make concessions. In the lead up to release Halper was forthcoming with media outlets about those concessions that had been made and why. When asked about terrain deformation Halper responded "we looked into it…but it's a bit more of an arcadey feel, and we decided to pass by that." Kaos also cited their chosen engine Unreal’s limited capability on the 360 and delayed development on the PS3 as a source of frustration. Executives at Kaos even went as far as to point to the limited RAM capacity of the PS3 having difficulty maintaining the sheer size and scope of the levels being developed stymieing their development team. Six months prior to the games release the signs of empty promises were beginning to surface.
With each passing day it became increasingly clear to THQ that the PS3 version of the game wasn’t coming along as quickly as its Xbox and PC counterparts. On January 18, 2008 just over a month before the game's scheduled release date Destructoid.com reported that the PS3 version of Frontlines had been cancelled. A leaked company wide email from popular retailer GameStop broke the news that PlayStation owners would not be on the Frontlines. Five days of silence passed and on January 23rd THQ confirmed the cancellation in a statement from CEO Brian Farrell. While no specific reason was given, many have speculated based on quotes from Frank DeLise and Design Director Dave Votypka it stemmed from difficulties with and a delayed development for Unreal Engine on Sony's seventh generation console. In the eleventh hour Frontlines: Fuel of War was facing major turmoil.
Ambition had gotten the better of Kaos on several different fronts but despite the PlayStation cancellation the studio pressed forward on the two platforms for which they were still developing. In the final month before release Votypka touted the game as "an evolution of the genre with a high level of intensity." And DeLise stated Kaos was in the process of "really pushing the envelope of the next-gen platforms." The team at Kaos was working hard toward delivering the best experience they could that would most closely represent what they had promised.
Frontlines: Fuel of War was finally released on the Xbox 360 and PC on February 25, 2008. While technically the first game from Kaos Studios the teams work on the Battlefield franchise during their time as Trauma Studios rightfully garnered respect from both players and critics alike. THQ had resurrected Trauma Studios to put their best foot forward in the war against EA and Activision. With a Frontlines sequel already conceptualized at Kaos it was only the awaiting of sales figures keeping THQ from giving the green light and turning Frontlines into a franchise. A new contender had entered the ring and the entire industry waited with bated breath to see if David could topple not one but two Goliath's.
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