I was sold on the concept from the start, and as luck would have it, my instincts were justified, as Metal Arms turned out to be a rather fantastic little game. Witty, brutal and damn challenging, Metal Arms was and is one of my favorite third-person shooters of all time.
There's a decent chance that you actually don't know what I'm talking about, and that's understandable. Metal Arms, unfortunately, was not a major success. The game released with very little fanfare, sold poorly, and was never seen again. This ran contrary to the plans of its creators, of course, who had poured their love into the game, only to have the work wasted, snatched away, and locked up for good.
The story of Metal Arms is a melancholy one, but it's a story that deserves to be told.
Boba Fett versus Planet Robot
Metal Arms was devised by Swingin' Ape Studios, a company that formed in 2000 under the leadership of Scott Goffman, Mike Starich and Steve Ranck. While doing contract work for other developers, Swingin' Ape was working on its own game, a title that was never be finished but eventually went on to inspire the concept of Metal Arms.
"The game put the player in control of a Boba Fett-like intergalactic bounty hunter where each level took place on a different planet," explained Ranck. "One of the planets was called Iron Star and was occupied by a variety of sentient and deadly robots. It was by far our favorite planet in the game. When our contracting job unexpectedly ended, we decided to put our full efforts into the bounty hunter game.
"But within a few weeks, another intergalactic bounty hunter game was announced and we decided it would be difficult finding a publisher interested in funding our game."
A Glitch in Time
With no income and only a few months of survival cash in the bank, the founders met with the team to discuss the grim possibility that after less than a year, Swingin' Ape might be out of business shortly.
Faced with premature death, the team had a meeting to figure out what it should do with whatever time it had remaining. In that meeting, the concept for Metal Arms was born. Taking Iron Star and its robotic inhabitants as a starting point, Swingin' Ape decided it could make a shooter with an extreme level of violence that would retain its all-important "Teen" rating, due to the fact that the characters were not made of flesh and juicy, censor-baiting blood.
"With just a few weeks until 2001 E3, we worked hard on developing a concept movie that demonstrated the look and feel of the game," recalled Ranck. "We ended up including this movie in the final game -- it can be viewed once all 42 levels in the campaign have been completed.
"When E3 arrived, Scott, Mike, and I were equipped with a laptop with the movie, a stack of colorful presentations, and a fairly polished pitch. For two days, we literally ran from meeting to meeting and pitched Metal Arms to over 15 publishers. Some were interested and at least appeared to be enthusiastic. Others yawned through the presentation and glanced at their watches. Nice. When we returned from E3, we really didn't feel any closer. Everything was still up in the air, and Swingin' Ape was almost out of time."
At the very last minute, however, the studio got a call from Mike Ryder, then-president of Sierra. While no commitments were made, Ryder was shown the full concept for Metal Arms and expressed a hopeful amount of enthusiasm. Nothing was set in stone, but Sierra was now Swingin' Ape's best chance at succcess.
The seven-person studio set itself the daunting task of creating a fully playable demo level within six weeks, armed only with an unfinished proprietary engine and limited design ideas. Amazingly -- and thanks to the sacrifice of all free time and sleep -- Swingin' Ape built its demo. In Ranck's own words, the end result was, "Fun. Very fun."
Sierra loved the demo, and Ryder was personally championing the game. Yet despite the excitement, the project was never officially greenlit and the studio was still facing closure. As luck would have it, Ranck was able to license out the technology used in the creation of Metal Arms' demo, which allowed Swingin' Ape to survive just long enough to sign a contract with Sierra in December 2001. Against all probability, Metal Arms was now officially a game, and development could begin.
"Developing Metal Arms was incredibly fun, though the game itself wasn't. Not in the beginning. The demo was just that -- a slice of fun that demonstrated the game. When you focus on a slice of gameplay, it's much easier to find the right formula to make it fun. But developing general, full-featured levels is another thing altogether," Ranck told me.
"It's not that we didn't know how to make the game fun, but that we had a huge amount of foundation code to write initially. I very much respect the people running Sierra at the time, because they fundamentally understood that for Metal Arms to be a good game, we needed the time to invest in our technology foundation. Once we had the core foundation done, we were then able to focus on the game's physics & destruction system, arguably the key component to the gratifying gameplay feel. Once the destruction system was complete, the fun level skyrocketed, and Metal Arms began to feel like a game. We were definitely hopeful for its chances of success."
Sierra was compliant and development was going smoothly, but an ominous figure loomed over the horizon, threatening to strike Metal Arms down with an unjust fury. That shadowy malevolence was Vivendi, Sierra's parent company. Unlike Sierra, Vivendi had no clue what was so appealing about Metal Arms. It could not understand why the publisher had greenlit the project, and as such, often pretended the game didn't exist and would regularly omit it from project reviews.
"Then, the week before 2003 E3, Vivendi held their pre-E3 press event, where they showed off their games lineup to the press," revealed Ranck. "At the end of the event, the members of the press were invited to fill out a card where they ranked the games Vivendi showed to them.
"Metal Arms ranked #1, which caught Vivendi off-guard. To be honest, it caught all of us off-guard. Unfortunately, Vivendi had disappointingly dedicated only a single kiosk of their massive E3 booth to Metal Arms, which is a good indicator of how they considered the game, but after the press event, they scrambled to find more space and ultimately got the game on a 2nd kiosk as well as into Microsoft's Xbox booth. The E3 press on the game was strong, and it won several awards."
Life's a Glitch, and then you die
From then on, Vivendi bucked its ideas up and decided to lend some marketing weight to the game. A TV spot was aired and web banners were published on top-ranking sites. However, Ranck believes it was a case of too little, too late. Vivendi's marketing only came just prior to release, and most sales were generated through pure word of mouth -- at least as far as Swingin' Ape's anecdotal knowledge is concerned.
The gaming press was generally supportive of the title, although Ranck noticed several reviews from authors that "clearly have played only the first level or two, and yet feel they've played enough to form an opinion of the game and then publish a score."
Armed with press coverage and late-but-welcome publisher backing, Swingin' Ape had high hopes for Metal Arms' retail performance. Due to grassroots hype and critical acclaim, Vivendi was confident enough to commission a sequel, which the studio began to work on. Three months after development began, though, the game was axed. Things had not gone according to plan.
"It was cancelled because despite Metal Arms' success in the press, it wasn't selling well. In general, the people who played Metal Arms really liked the game. But there just weren't enough people who were aware that the game existed."
Just like that, Metal Arms: Glitch in the System was done. The game eventually made its way to Xbox Live as an Xbox Classic, but Ranck has no idea how well it performed. He's not even entirely sure where the IP currently rests, although www.metalarms.com now redirects to Activision's site, which would make sense, since Activision swallowed Vivendi in 2007. That Metal Arms would eventually drown in Activision's sea of lost souls, however, is through no lack of Ranck's attempts to rescue it.
"I did try to acquire the IP but Vivendi wouldn't part with it," confessed Ranck. "Metal Arms was originally written as a trilogy which is why the game's story has a few unanswered questions. I'll take this opportunity to, for the first time ever, share some with your readers. I suppose you could consider this a SPOILER ALERT in a way, but since MA2 seems highly unlikely, maybe it's a risk worth taking for some."
Metal Arms 2
The following section details what would have become of Metal Arms' story had the two sequels been made. As Ranck pointed out, they are spoilers, but for games that will likely never be made -- so feel free to read and imagine what could have been.
"Okay, so although we never came out and said it, Glitch was indeed created by the Morbots. That symbol on Glitch's head matches the glyphs in the Morbot region. The Morbots then intentionally planted Glitch for the Droids to find. The big reveal in Metal Arms 2 was that General Corrosive (the main villain of Metal Arms) was also created by the Morbots. He's Glitch's brother. Exavolt thinks that he created Corrosive, but he was just a tool in the Morbot's [sic] master plan. I won't go into detail as to what the Morbots were doing here, but will say that the whole thing was a grand experiment.
"You never see a Morbot in Metal Arms. We know they live under the planet's surface. In fact, the name 'Morbot' spawned from the 'Morlocks' from H.G. Wells' The Time Machine. The Morbots generate and control the massive power consumed by the bots on the surface. Exavolt wants that power at his fingertips so he can win the war and rule the planet, but there are only a few gateways that lead down to the Morbot region, and the gateways appear to have no doors. You can see one of these Morbot gateways in the game when Glitch takes the massive lift up and out of the Morbot region. The next level is the first of the Mil City levels. When that level starts, the structure behind Glitch is a Morbot gateway. The markings match that on Glitch's head.
"Exavolt never could figure out how to open the gateway. So, he came up with the plan of drilling through the planet's surface to gain access to the Morbot region. If you remember the giant drill level in the R&D facility, that's what that was all about. It's the Mil way of doing things -- sloppy, brute force. The Mils flooded into the Morbot region and occupied it, but the Morbots were nowhere to be found. They would reemerge in MA2. When Glitch discovers he was a pawn and killed his brother, he is motivated to settle the score with the powerful Morbots."
That is where Metal Arms 2 would have taken us, but alas, it was not to be. Perhaps one day, Activision will remember that it's sitting on a critically acclaimed property that could have been a surprise hit if only it had been supported, and will greenlight another Metal Arms. Given Activision's tendency to not do such things, perhaps that's an incredible level of wishful thinking.
There are those of us that do remember Metal Arms, however, and are glad we got to play at least one game in what was a promising, original, heartfelt series. Metal Arms: Glitch in the System is available on Xbox Live Classics, and you can find the PlayStation 2, Xbox or GameCube versions for peanuts.
Should you ever feel the need to play a violent, funny, brutally tough shooter, don't forget Metal Arms. That's the very least it deserves.
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