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Superman Returns: What went wrong

What happened when the Madden team branched out to make a superhero game.

Three years after Grand Theft Auto 3 defined the modern open-world action game, EA Tiburon — better known as the team behind Madden NFL — set out to try its own take on the genre. The target: a free roaming superhero simulator based on Bryan Singer's blockbuster movie, "Superman Returns." Many had high hopes.


Tiburon's earliest work, in July of 2004, came in the form of a flying demo and concept art. "They had some really beautiful concept art and previs videos, all sorts of amazing cool stuff we looked at and went wow, that's a lot to live up to," says Anthony Marinello, one of the first software engineers Tiburon brought onto the project.

"I still remember watching that demo with Superman flying. It really captured that feeling of Superman … flying in games had never really been fun and this looked really great," says Dana Kurtin, responsible for the DC's brand strategy at the time.

DC then gave its approval. When presented the same demo and art, film director Bryan Singer (handling Australian preproduction at the time) signed off as well.

With plans to make the game for Microsoft's Xbox 360 and the console launch looming, Tiburon readied its team. In the years that followed, things got a little messy.

"Everyone was excited," says a Warner employee who asked to remain anonymous for contractual reasons. "'Oh, we finally signed with EA to make a high-quality [Superman] game.' I go, 'Yeah, but that's Tiburon. They made Madden.' That's like opening up a French restaurant and you're like, 'Oh my god, I got the best sushi chef!'"

"Superman was their first real nonsports game. I think they didn't really internalize how big of a difference that is," says tools lead Bob Nystrom. "They kinda ended up learning the hard way."

Superman Returns
Electronic Arts

The workload

Before problems started to mount, some of the staff at Tiburon became excited about expanding their creative output beyond yearly sports games. "Part of the seduction for me was hey, let's go build an action games division inside of Tiburon. All next-gen stuff, have the power of EA and the house Madden built and all that stuff to go along with it," says a team leader who asked to be anonymous due to a nondisclosure agreement.

Not only would Superman Returns introduce Tiburon to action games; it would bring a DC superhero to an open world for the first time. With the extensive workload required to bring that idea to interactive life, Tiburon formed two teams to work on the game. On one side, gameplay, and on the other, a cinematics crew.

In early 2004, Disney Feature Animation in Orlando closed (responsible for "Mulan" and "Lilo & Stich," among others), and Tiburon picked up many of the pieces of Disney's talent. Some of those new hires spread to Tiburon's sports division and others to Superman, adding to the game's Hollywood resume. But things didn't go as smoothly as some hoped.

"The cinematics became one of those things: 'OK, get those done so we can put them in the game and [meet] the contractual obligation to Warner Bros.'"

One new member of the cinematics division, who asked to remain anonymous due to signing a non-disclosure agreement, was surprised by what he found early in the process:

"They set some things up, but there wasn't any kind of cohesive plan to get these things finished and out the door. We didn't even have a render farm [a collection of PCs used to process animation] to render this stuff initially. ... It was definitely a talented team but not really right for the studio."

Sources remember the potential runtime differently, but as Tiburon's employee count and design for cinematics grew, the planned length of Superman Returns' cutscenes, spread over the course of the game, neared that of a feature-length animated film.

Cinematics struggled with the sheer number of artists. "We were constantly increasing the size of the team and not getting anywhere. And I said that was the problem. You can't work if you throw too many people at it," says the cinematics team member. A number of artists were let go in an early round of departmental restructuring, such as the animator for "Star Wars" comic relief, Jar Jar Binks.

"The cinematics became one of those things: 'OK, get those done so we can put them in the game and [meet] the contractual obligation to Warner Bros.,'" says the cinematics team member.

The final game only hosts 15 minutes of total prerendered animation.

Superman Returns
Superman Returns
Electronic Arts

The Warner problem

In the early phases, the lack of a working script also caused a dilemma. Warner's secrecy and fear of leaks meant neither the development team nor the cinematics department worked from a finished movie script. Only certain team members saw the storyline and then only in pieces.

"One guy from Warner Bros. would show up with a script. One script, one copy. We'd all climb into a conference room, and you had to be vetted. ... The pages would go around the table, and they'd be collected by the Warner Bros. guy at the end and he'd take it home with him. Key beats of the movie, key scenes in the ending, we were not allowed to read or know," says the anonymous team leader.

Scripting problems were first in a number of communication and approval problems with Warner. Problems arose with, of all things, Superman's groin size. "We sent them the box art for the game and [they came back and said], 'you need to make Superman's package smaller. That's a little too big. Superman wouldn't look like that,'" says Nystrom.

"We would send renderings of Superman, and we would get images back from Warner Bros. with his crotch area circled."

"We would send renderings of Superman, and we would get images back from Warner Bros. with his crotch area circled, 'Make this part bigger; make this part smaller.' This went on for months. Somebody trying to get the right balance of, 'Well, I can see he's got something but we don't want to make it too big,'" says the team leader.

For Kurtin, this was business as usual at DC. "I have entire stories of having to do with ... junk. It's just ridiculous."

For some, these problems came from the multitude of opinions on a project of this scale. "You've got movie people, you've got the actor looking at his likeness, you've got DC. Plus you've got the producers. So you've got four major points looking at that model. It's funny, but that's not uncommon to go back and forth," says the Warner employee.

In terms of Warner's film, the source material itself didn't lend itself to an action game. "Remember that time in the 'Superman Returns' movie when Superman had that epic fight? Or that time he punched someone out? No! There was no action in that movie," says Marinello.

"Even if it was a super action-packed movie, which this one wasn't, there's just not enough material to fill eight hours of constant gameplay. The idea is you bring in a DC writer to play off the tone of the movie and create a back scenario that would work with the movie, kind of extend the movie's story a little bit," says Kurtin.

In this case, veteran DC writer Marv Wolfman penned the game script, but most of his concepts ended up discarded for time, leaving the narrative incomplete.

Superman Returns
Superman Returns
Electronic Arts

Gentle God

In addition to story problems, this wasn't Superman from 2013's "Man of Steel" when the kinder golden age rules no longer applied. Bryan Singer's Superman — barrel chested, flawless, and pure — struggled when adapting to an open world's freedoms.

"You have to build scenarios where it's rewarding to be good. Most video games are about being rewarded for kicking the shit out of everything," says Kurtin.

"[Superman] can punch a hole in the sun or do all of this universe-sized stuff," says Marinello. But people relate to the human aspect of him and his relationship to Lois Lane, and he's going to tell kids to stay in school. You've got these huge opposite ends of the spectrum and both of them are what made Superman Superman."

With most of the narrative cut due to the loss in cinematics, in order to preserve Superman's purity and character, Tiburon's Superman wasn't allowed to kill or injure civilians. "[Warner] wanted to make sure pedestrians didn't get blown [away] with his super breath. And we're like, 'This is a physics engine. You can't separate the two,'" says the team leader.

"The desire to have everybody on one engine is a sound one and you're seeing a lot of that paying off today with the Frostbite engine — it just wasn't the right timing then."

Emergent gameplay showed up in a number of ways, not all exciting from Warner's perspective. "They had to do a bunch of work so that Superman wouldn't drop civilians," says Nystrom. "You could pick them up, right? Why not just throw them off the building? Now we have to add code to prevent that from happening even if the player wants to, because Warner Bros. doesn't want to see that happen."

From Warner's side, this wasn't just their control causing issues. "DC was the big stickler on that. That was the old DC president and brand people. They're no longer there, they're all gone. Back then, they were such purists that we couldn't do a lot of stuff," says the Warner employee.

In times like this, Dana Kurtin came up with some creative solutions. "We're just going to do a fictional dodge here on my end. ... He's so good at his vision powers, that he blinks it on and off when civilians are there, so it just doesn't affect them. You could go around and heat ray as many civilians as you want in this game and absolutely nothing will happen," says Kurtin. This came on top of Warner's reluctance to share the movie's design for heat vision, forcing the team to submit samples and continually get rejected without clarification.

EA's 2004 purchase of developer Criterion and its development engine, Renderware, happened alongside the early half of Superman Returns' development. Soon after the purchase, EA executives wanted each game to use Renderware, compounding Superman's development issues.

"Let's just say not enough game teams were consulted in that decision," states the team leader.

"The desire to have everybody on one engine is a sound one and you're seeing a lot of that paying off today with the Frostbite engine — it just wasn't the right timing then because the engine was developed in parallel," says Stephane Imbert, lead engineer for the PlayStation 2 and Xbox versions.

Superman Returns
Superman Returns
Electronic Arts

Ideas

Between those mounting problems with Warner's, DC's and EA's wishes, the lack of experience at Tiburon began to take hold. Developers designed assets and pitched ideas (as did EA executives), with limited progress toward making a finished product, creating a scattered design environment.

"You have a team of 75 artists cranking out stuff, and they can't put it in the game. They're literally just building stuff and saving it to a server. … The Daily Planet was like a 150MB building on its own. It had almost a million polygons, and they were going to render that [in] real time with 9,000 other buildings," says the team leader.

"Out of the production team, I think there was only one producer or designer who had ever shipped a title at EA before, and he actually left halfway through the project. You need a strong vision for the product. I don't think that there was that strong vision being communicated out, if there was one," Marinello says.

"We had the tough combination of new game/new engine/new team. Generally you want a maximum of one of these things for a project."

The visions were many. Plans to include multiplayer died quickly. The addition of an unlockable Supergirl fell to the wayside, both for time and because camera positions meant players would see under her skirt as she flew. At one stage, Superman fought a volcano on the west side of the city, a scenario dropped for time.

Early on, the cinematics team spent time designing a comic book panel idea that Warner shot down. EA President of Worldwide Studios, Paul Lee, asked for an altimeter, only to have the team take it out later after internal discussions. Significant work began on an auto factory brawl that revealed the origins of Metallo. That, too, fell away. "More things were cut than shipped," says Nystrom.

Despite the struggles, around August of 2005, EA made the decision to add versions of Superman Returns for PlayStation 2 and the original Xbox, in addition to the Xbox 360 version in progress. More team members came on to handle that load, and they eventually split into two teams for the respective versions. Imbert, initially lead engineer for these versions and later the PlayStation 2 alone, says it proved difficult. "Some of the things that were already challenging for Xbox 360 became even more challenging when you took into account the specs of the PS2, such as the CPU, GPU, memory, CD drive speed, etc.," Imbert says.

"The team working on these versions, myself excluded, was pretty much 100 percent new hires at the beginning," Imbert continues. "In retrospect, we had the tough combination of new game/new engine/new team. Generally you want a maximum of one of these things for a project. Two becomes difficult. Three is damn near impossible."

Superman Returns
Superman Returns
Electronic Arts

On demos, delays and E3

Superman Returns was to factor into Microsoft's X05 press event in October of 2005 but made it only as an unplayable demo. A Game Informer cover story on Superman Returns from November 2005, based on that same demo, closes by saying, "Most of what we saw was in a fledgling state. … A tremendous amount of work lies ahead for the developer."

Internal postmortem documents rate time spent creating that demo high on a list of things under "what hindered us most." Tiburon made the demo with metaphorical "duct tape and bailing wire," according to the team leader.

Days before E3 2006, on May 4, EA executive vice president Frank Gibeau told investors Superman Returns wouldn't make its release date scheduled for the following month. Instead, timing the game with the DVD launch of the film became the new goal. Speaking to Eurogamer at the time, Gibeau said, "… we're going to get a better game this fall than we would have with the movie release."

"That's the first thought, this overwhelming sort of, oh, thank you. We get a chance to do it right. And then you realize this means I'm going to be crunching for another four or five months."

Asked if the game was shippable at that moment, Marinello responded, "No."

"It's not that this game is going to be late; it's that it will never ship. It's not like you have a choice to delay the date," says the team leader.

"A lot of games are delayed because they're not up to quality. That's nothing too crazy," counters the Warner employee.

The team's X05 work spun off into the May 2006 E3 demo in which Superman battled a mega-sized villain Metallo, met with generally positive reception by games press. Just one month from the game's scheduled release, the Metallo fight hid an unfinished underside.

"I remember, when it went to E3, thinking we had a really cool demo, but not seeing how it was possible to complete the game to the scope. … All of the mechanics and systems were in place, but there wasn't content there," Marinello says.

The delay was unusual for Tiburon. Its reputation of never missing a launch date for one of its games suddenly took a hit. "There were a lot of people that were taken off the project while [we were] in the middle of it to go and support other teams because they had been allocated for a certain amount of time ... it started to have an impact on other projects at the studio," says the cinematics team member.

"No one was thrilled that it was delayed, but it was a huge relief there was absolutely no way it was going to ship on time. It just wasn't," Marinello says. "That's the first thought, this overwhelming sort of, oh, thank you. We get a chance to do it right. And then you realize this means I'm going to be crunching for another four or five months."

"There was nothing accomplished three weeks after E3. When you figure out how to push to the end, normally you're taking a sigh of relief, then back in June, we started 12-hour days again," the cinematics team member says.

Superman Returns
Superman Returns
Electronic Arts

Chopping block

Those extended overtime shifts diminished the ambitious plans. Instead of high-concept "metro events," like the volcano or auto factory, Superman tackled basic objectives, such as defending citizens from waves of enemies. According to postmortem documents, this was the most "helpful" decision in getting the game shipped. Nystrom says, "By the time we pushed back the ship date, there was this period where you could see the idealism went out."

Since the movie released during this additional development, the look of heat vision matched the film, but only because the team was able to attend a screening and see Bryan Singer's finished movie.

"Much of what ended up in the game was a combination of what can be salvaged from the designs that's actually buildable. We did find a game that could be shippable out of what was done," the team leader says.

"No one at EA, no designer was like, we're going to make Superman Returns and the final boss is going to be a fucking tornado and shit's going to be awesome."

"They only got a third of what they originally designed. There was a shit ton left to do," says the Warner employee.

Singer's Superman film ended with the hero picking up Lex Luthor's kryptonite city and throwing it into space. Since the movie's action left a finale not conducive to a video game, the team improvised, and Luthor's plot spawned a tornado on a path to destroy Metropolis.

Reaction to this decision varied, although some team members readily defend it, as was the case for the game as a whole. "At the time, we had 65 years of comics to pull from. There were lots of big beats of Superman fighting natural disasters and the big culmination of Richard Donner's Superman was, hey, he fights an earthquake, essentially. So the concept of Superman fighting a natural disaster is absolutely pulled from the comics," says the team leader.

"You want the final boss to be Lex Luthor? Like a wimpy human being Superman can kill with his pinky? No man, Mother Nature is your final boss," says Marinello.

Bob Nystrom didn't agree. "No one at EA, no designer was like, we're going to make Superman Returns and the final boss is going to be a fucking tornado and shit's going to be awesome. No one ever thought that."

Superman Returns
Superman Returns
Electronic Arts

Aftermath

Eventually, with millions in discarded assets, Superman Returns arrived to retail on November 20, 2006, eight days before the movie's DVD. "We couldn't fix the movie production. We couldn't fix the story problems. The fact that a game shipped is amazing to anyone that was on that team," says the team leader.

The technology created for Superman Returns never saw use again as Tiburon became a strict sports-only studio. "There were toolsets and physics systems and rendering systems. The expectation was, there will be another game that uses all of this technology. All of that tech just kind of went away," says Marinello.

"Bad games, in fact, are harder to make than good games."

From her position at DC, Kurtin says, "It was a difficult process and [Tiburon was] very pleasant. I really wouldn't have blamed them if they had been horrible to deal with, but they weren't. I'd work with those guys again."

"You sort of expected the Metacritic to be around 70. When the game came out, the first reviewer was right there. And then I think it was GameSpot, came out and dropped a four on it. Then it was open season for the game. After that, every review was 'Let's just see how nasty we can be about this product,'" remembers Marinello, disappointed by the critical response that put the Metacritic tally for the Xbox 360 version at 51.

"The thing is, there was so much talent on the team. There was so many great people brought together for this thing. I think that a lesser team would have turned out something that was a lot less compelling than it ended up being," says the cinematics team member.

"It was pretty interesting but, I mean, pretty miserable. The whole time I was going through it, I just found it was organizationally interesting how you get 150 people that are really smart and trying really hard to make something suck," says Nystrom.

But, as the team leader says, "Bad games, in fact, are harder to make than good games," as the turbulent development of Superman Returns taught some on the team at Tiburon.