When we look into the future through the medium of videogames, what do we see? It’s often a pretty grim vision, driven by base survival instincts – the post-nuclear wastelands of Fallout and Metro, the ruthless corporate domination of Syndicate and Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare, the heartless prisons of Chronicles of Riddick and Portal. Even future sports titles, sci-fi games that explore the notion of what people might do for fun and entertainment in the future, generally reach the same pessimistic conclusion: we will mercilessly compete to win, maiming or killing the competition in the process.
In the metallic colosseum of Speedball 2, for example, a player might be injured badly enough to require medical evacuation, but an unmoved ice-cream vendor will continue selling his wares to spectators. The hypersonic speed of the anti-gravity ships in Wipeout, meanwhile, is the greatest challenge to a player’s race to finish first, though the competition can also intervene with mines and missiles. Even in the flippant neo-soccer of Rocket League, players can be temporarily eliminated if they are struck by an opposition car at full boost, eliciting a roar of delight from the crowd.
A particularly brutal vision of the future, as viewed through a sporting lens, was the 2002 Xbox exclusive title Deathrow. Developed by now-defunct Swedish studio Southend Interactive, Deathrow imagined a televised 23rd century sporting competition, the Blitz Disc Association, whereby two teams of four players faced off in a closed arena, scoring goals by throwing an electronic disc through a hoop. Players would violently tackle each other to gain possession of the disc, and could outright engage in hand-to-hand combat while the game played on around them – in fact, beating everyone unconscious was a legitimate route to victory. The disc itself also served as a weapon, as it could be charged up to inflict damage when thrown at the opposition.
Deathrow gave impressive attention to its dystopian future broadcast presentation style, including advertisements for AI slaves, teleportation services, and “Lifelike Robotic Pets.” The roster of teams, meanwhile, also leaned heavily into the game’s bleak setting, and ranged from mercenaries, to religious fanatics, to combat drones. My personal favourite was the Sea Cats, an all-female team of “amphibian mutants” with hammy Russian accents. “The cybernetic, genetic, and chemical modifications made to the participants promise levels of violence never before seen on TV,” the game manual explained.
Deathrow was an excellent sports title, albeit one with reasonably straightforward gameplay mechanics – fight for the disc, score a goal, change your team’s strategy from aggression to defence if required. Deathrow really nailed these mechanics, however – the combat system included a range of attacks and defensive measures, while throwing the disc felt intuitive and accurate, and could be curved for trick shots (As the game emerged at the peak of post-Matrix bullet-time infatuation, passing the disc to a teammate in midair would result in a brief slow motion effect for a spectacular “one-timer” goal). The inter-game team management aspects were also pretty basic, but again included some nice touches – you could accept offers of mysterious performance enhancing drugs, for example.
At a technical level, Deathrow was also very impressive for its time – even moreso given the fact the engine was developed in-house by Southend Interactive with a very modest number of employees. It was a damn good looking game, with bump-mapped, high-poly count characters and settings, and copious amounts of dynamic lighting and reflective effects. It also had great sound design, with the heavy thuds of combat and the ominous siren of a conceded goal all thundering through in Dolby 5.1 surround. In short, it was the perfect technical showcase for the very capable Xbox, which was still struggling to find traction in a console market dominated by the PlayStation 2.
Unfortunately for Deathrow and its creators, the console’s reduced market share may have gone a long way to seeing the game slip between the cracks. There’s all kinds of cliché tags you could apply to Deathrow – hidden gem, forgotten classic, sleeper hit – but whatever you want to call it, the game was simply not a commercial success at the time of its release. It’s also been speculated that the game’s publisher, Ubisoft, dedicated most of its marketing resources in that period to games like Splinter Cell, leaving Deathrow to languish unloved on store shelves.
Underwhelming commercial performance was, of course, always going to have an impact on any plans for a Deathrow sequel. I asked Southend Interactive’s founder and former CEO, Anders Jeppsson, whether Deathrow 2 was ever a real possibility: “It was and we did have a lot of awesome things planned,” he told me on Twitter. “Unfortunately the game didn’t sell enough for Ubisoft to fund a sequel.” This is a real shame – Deathrow not only deserved a bigger audience in the first place, but there were aspects that could have been refined or added in a sequel (online multiplayer most crucially) to help flesh out the IP’s strong potential. Southend Interactive, for its part, eventually went on to develop a string of mobile and Xbox Live Arcade titles. In 2013, a dispute with publisher Deep Silver saw the entire Southend team migrate to Massive Entertainment where – somewhat ironically – they are working on The Division under the auspices of Ubisoft.
It’s great to know this talented team has been put to work on such a high-profile, big-budget title for Ubisoft. But at the same time, it strikes me as a slightly bittersweet outcome. Given the right resources and marketing clout, would Deathrow have had enough commercial impact to warrant a sequel, even a new series for Ubisoft to push? It’s possible, I think, but also impossible to say for sure. Such is the merciless nature of the videogame industry, of course, particularly when it comes to the big publishers. The tooth-and-nail fight for survival that dystopian games like Deathrow depict is the very same calculated logic that governs whether a game – even its creators – will live or die. Only the strongest contenders in quarterly reports will survive. In this age of crowdfunding, however, we’ve seen the resurrection of passion projects that didn’t initially resonate in commercial terms, DoubleFine’s Psychonauts being a prominent example. And Deathrow has certainly gained a cult following in the 14 years since its release, with forums and online petitions calling for its return. So if its creators were so inclined (and if any IP issues with Ubisoft could be resolved), perhaps the gaming masses could offer the belated lifeline that Deathrow so deserves.