11 August 2020

FWS Broken Promises: StarCraft GHOST

There are time when we must ask ourselves when we witness what could have been: how can this not exist? That is how I and many other gamers felt during the recent leak of a Xbox development kit for the Blizzard cancelled StarCraft: GHOST 3rd person action/stealth game for the 6th generation. For many of us, GHOST was going to be first day buy for our OG Xbox consoles...and then there were delay after delay until GHOST was placed on DNR status in 2006 by Blizzard after nearly six years of development that span two studios. In this installment of Broken Promises, we will be exploring the reasons why GHOST was cancelled and explaining why that is a massive broken promise to not only the gaming industry, but also to the genre of Military Science Fiction. 

What is StarCraft: Ghost?
This was going to be a home console entry into the extremely successful Blizzard Entertainment StarCraft  series via a new experience within that beloved universe that Blizzard had founded in 1998 with the release of the first StarCraft RTS PC game. Back at the turn of the century, Blizzard and Nihilistic Software had envisioned a home console game for the 6th generation where the players took control of November Annabella ("Nova") Terra, an elite Terran Dominion “Ghost” psionic Agent/Assassin X41822N) [4] via a 3rd person perspective. She would use her special skills, like cloaking, and her Gauss-based weaponry to complete her missions either by means of stealth or shooting.
While the StarCraft computer games are a military science fiction Real Time Strategy series, GHOST was intended to be a more personal story that focused on stealth and well-placed violence using all manner of weapons and psionic abilities to be a terror in the darkness to her enemies. She would use her special skills, like cloaking, and her Gauss-based weaponry to complete her missions either by means of stealth or shooting. While the hotly anticipated game remains unfinished and unreleased to this day, we know that Nova would have had levels involving the Zerg and Protoss alien species of the StarCraft universe along hostile human enemies, including those outfitting in the iconic marine powered armor. As with concurrent games like HALO, GHOST would have had both a single-player campaign and a multiplayer mode. While the game was in development for the PS2 and GameCube, it was believed at the time (and now) that the original Xbox would have been the preferred home machine to run the adventures of Nova. It was confirmed in 2004 by an interview that GHOST would be same across all three home console systems, unlike other games at the time.  If the game had been published around 2004/2005, it is likely that a PC version would have been developed at some point. It was predicted by many in the gaming press that GHOST would have been a massive seller and an award winner.

The Historical Context of StarCraft: GHOST
When StarCraft GHOST was announced on September 20, 2002 in a press release in conjunction with Nihilistic Software, it came during the 6th Generation of home video game consoles with such machines as the PlayStation 2 and the OG Xbox that had been touched off by the tragic SEGA Dreamcast. Today, many video game historians and writers often speak of 2002 as one of the pivotal years in modern video game history. In an article for VICE, writer Ed Smith states that 2002 “was a defining year”. Why? In 2002, we saw the release of games like Vice City, SOCOM, Spliter Cell, Metal Gear Solid 2, Kingdom Hearts, and Medal of Honor: Allied Assault. Along with these iconic games on consoles, was the rise of online gaming that span both the home consoles, with games like HALO, and the PC with the original StarCraft. One of the trends in video games at the time was having the gameplay mechanics based on stealth, rather than all-guns-blazing-while-blasting-Slayer-and-Metallica as seen in DOOM and the legions of DOOMClones. Sleath gaming mechanics was seen in Metal Gear Solid, Tenchu, and Thief and it made sense for Blizzard Entertainment to capitalize on this popular trend while using the awesome mind-ninjas, the Terran GHOST Operators.     

The Broken Promises of StarCraft: GHOST
When GHOST was put on hiatus and then  into cold storage, there was sadness across the industry and the gaming community that such a promising title was cancelled. For many, Blizzard had broken the many promises of GHOST. So, what were the promises of the title? To start off simply, it would have been a good solid military science fiction video game that would NOT have been a DOOM or HALO clone, but some originality to it, but yet familiar given it was set in StarCraft universe. Isn't that the fundamental level of what a broken promise is...the losd of something that was going to be great? oro many of us gamers and the gaming industry GHOST was an incoming solid title with both the promise of an enjoyable game, but also a successful game in terms of profit and exposure. One of the most important broken promises for me with regards to GHOST was that this title would have allowed people that did not play the StarCraft real-time strategy game, to access the amazing military science fiction universe of StarCraft in a popular format. For some, including myself, I could not use our only home computer back at the time StarCraft was released for a game. This is one of the reasons I went back to home video game consoles. In addition, there are those that dislike like the RTS genre and were not interested in playing one. For them, GHOST could have been their access point to the StarcCraft universe via another perspective. This is similar to HALO and HALO Wars. For some, the world HALO is compelling, but they are not fans of first-person shooters. When the RTS for the HALO universe was released, these fans could experience the universe of HALO via HALO Wars. Then there fans of HALO, like me, that are not going to play HALO Wars due to their lack of interest in RTS games. This also the case with the non-RTS WH40K games like Space Hulk and Space Marine. Lastly, it is nearly a given that GHOST would have been a massive success on the home console market and this could have been the launching pad for a new series in the wider franchise of StarCraft. 
In an alternative universe were GHOST was released for the 6th generation of home consoles, we could today in 2020 be discussing a remastered edition of GHOST or another title in the series of GHOST games for the 9th next console generation. All of that promise and possibility of GHOST was taken from us and the video game community by Blizzard when the game was released in 2004 or 2005 or 2006 or even today. In the wider scope of the military sci-fi genre, GHOST could have been a game that forged new fans and new ideas for the genre that could have been incorporated into the wider genre across all media forms, just as HALO had done a few years earlier. That would have been increased greatly if GHOST had become a series of Military SF games that span several generations of home video game consoles. Imagine...we could be discussing all manner of GHOST games and associated products and works if GHOST had been released all those years ago...pity.    

Just What the Hell Happened to GHOST?!

Pt. 1: The Nihilistic Software Phase (2000-2004)
Often, the best ideas start with the central question of “what if?”. That is what happened at Nihilistic Software offices when they asked “what if you were in the middle of a StarCraft battle?” That “what if” led to the idea of having a console-based game set in the StarCraft universe that was not from the perspective of the general directing the action, but you, the player, being in the shit of those battles and blood. But, who was Nihilistic Software and how did they lay the foundation for the game? Nihilistic was formed by those who cut their digital teeth at the famed LucasArts in the 1990's: Robert Huebner, Ray Gresko, and Steve Tietze. There first title had been 2000's Vampire: The Masquerade. The new studio had taken the world developed by White Wolf and transformed it into a successful video game that used first and third person views. This made Blizzard take notice of the new studio and when Nihilistic asked for a meeting to discuss how their studio could help Blizzard go from PC to home console with a StarCraft game.
Blizzard did indeed want get some of the market stare of the booming home console market, bu they needed help. The studio had ported SarCtaft to the Nintendo 64 machine in 2000 and it didn't go so well. With Nihilistic success with the White Wolf property, Blizzard was open to their pitch: a console game set in the successful StarCraft universe from the more personal on-the-ground perspective. It should be noted that some sources claim that Blizzard approached Nihilistic about a console game involving the Ghost Special Operators and others say that Nihilistic approached Blizzard with the basic concept. I was able to confirm via an 2004 interview with Blizzard's Rob Pardo that Nihilistic game to Blizzard with  test material that blew Blizzard away, There are other disagreements about how much Stealth was involved in the gameplay mechanics at this early stage in 2000.
At this time, Blizzard was not able to take on the project themselves due to work on Diablo 2, and it was clear from the meeting that the people at Nihilistic were passionate and knowledgeable about the world of StarCraft. The deal was inked and it was odd how much trust Blizzard placed into the hands of Nihilistic. There was no specific deadline and the money was there to have Nihilistic completely devoted to the development of GHOST and the newly minted female Ghost Operator, Nova. Besides the monthly payments to Nihilistic from Blizzard along with feedback, Blizzard was also to supply the CGI cinematic cut scenes. During this time, between 2000 and 2002 would encompass the bulk of the foundational work on GHOST, but it seems the central plot was not one of them. Both companies wanted Nova to be a badass futuristic neon ninja warrior and that all three factions in the StarCraft universe needed to be present, the game was built in blocks and they didn't always fit together. Then came 2002 and Splinter Cell.
To me, after researching what happened to GHOST, this is the major nail in the coffin. When the original Splinter Cell was released in November of 2002, it caused ripples in the water of the video game industry and Blizzard took notice. Given the role of the Ghost in the StarCraft universe, it was a natural fit for stealth to be organic part of the game and its central character, but soon Nihilistic was getting notes and meetings with Blizzard about incorporating Splinter Cell elements into GHOST. However, the messaging coming out of Blizzard was not spoken in a unified voice or conducted in a timely manner. Several people involved on both sides of the project spoke of weeks without input or feedback. Then there came the tug-of-war between GHOST being primarily a "stealth" or "action" game. At first, the stealth take on the game was fine, but as people at Blizzard played the demos of the game, there were voices wanting more action. Nihilistic would change things, issue another new demo and wait the feedback from Blizzard. Then it would swing back to more stealth, then back to action. It was a bipolar mess and the overall cohesion of the game was cracking. Making matters worse, GHOST still did not have a overall story or plot, During the final year that Nihilistic was on the project, Blizzard took issue with some details of the game. In the brilliant Polygon article about GHOST, the author gives an example that Huebner gave to him about Blizzard being upset over the design of the Marine power armor boot!
Looking back, 2002 was the high point for many involved with the project, citing the Tokyo Game Show of 2002 as that apex. Here is where the game was first shown publicly, there were playable demos and the excitement for GHOST was massive both by the audience and gaming press. Gaming magazines devoted pages to the incoming titles with GHOST being placed on "most anticipated" lists. During the next two years, the release date for GHOST was pushed again and again with the fans seeing that Nova and her game may be in trouble. Behind the scenes at Nihilistic, elements of the game were starting coming slowly together despite the many alterations that were a contentiously factor due to the wishes of their Blizzard masters. What was not coming together was the plot of the game itself...still. Many involved with the project on both ends stated that the narrative of the plot did not exist and it seemed that the planned levels were not joined by a common story.
As 2004 dawned and GHOST was slated for E3, the lack of development and the gap that needed to be covered for a shipable game loomed heavily over Blizzard and Nihilistic.This was reflected in gaming press articles about the continued delays. When researching gaming magazine articles from 2004, there was much made of the delay, but Blizzard attempted to pull their best Han Solo with the journalist and keep the fire and excitement going. What was holding Nihilistic back? It was mostly the gatekeepers of the license: Blizzard themselves. One of the major issues mentioned within Blizzard is that they did not have a unified vision of GHOST among themselves, but they were very protective over their million dollar baby franchise. In the spring of 2004 issue of SURGE magazine, Blizzard's Rob Pardo reinforced this when saying: "we're the worst kind of overprotective parents...we're zealous in protecting GHOST in particular". Blizzard would change their minds, change producers, and Nihilistic would continue to change and re-change the game after each Blizzard Strike Team meeting. Some have said that Nihilistic was too good at delivering changes to the game for their Blizzard masters and this enabled Blizzard to change their minds repeatedly,
In short, GHOST had a identity crisis. By summer of 2004, the writing was on the wall for GHOST and Nihilistic to the point that Nihilistic had signed a contract for work on an EA game to prevent any loss of income when the hammer fell. This was Nihilistic preemptive strike to their assumption that Blizzard would halt production on GHOST.  The end for the partnership between Nihilistic and Blizzard during the weekend of E3 in May of 2004. While the latest build of GHOST was shown along with that badass trailer, there meetings going to determine the fate of the game. According to some sources, it was actually Nihilistic that decided to finally put down GHOST themselves when asked by Blizzard due to the upcoming contract with EA and the amount of work that still needed to be done on GHOST. The studio was exhausted by their years of development on GHOST, but it was tough for the people involved. In the final analysis, Huebner said this to Polygon: "I don't [think Blizzard] ever quite knew what they wanted."

Pt. 2: The Swingin’ Ape Phase (2004-2006)
In July of 2004, another player came into the tragic tale of StarCraft: GHOST: Swingin' Ape Studios. This studio was formed in the summer of 2000 and only had one game under their studio label, Metal Arms: Glitch in the System, before Blizzard came calling. Blizzard had been impressed with Metal Arms and tapped the small studio to take over GHOST just after E3 2004. The fact that Blizzard continued to develop GHOST after Nihilistic left came as a shock to those formerly involved. However, Swingin’ Ape Studios was not going to merely to pick up where Nihilistic left off, Blizzard wanted an action reboot to the Adventures of Nova. Blizzard was impressed enough at the level and rate of process on GHOST by Swingin’ Ape that Blizzard bought the studio in May of 2005. From the information that Polygon found, Swingin’ Ape was hired by Blizzard to develop the multiplayer aspect of GHOST, which the team handling GHOST on the Blizzard end felt was critically important.
Nihilistic had felt that the main focus of GHOST was the single-player campaign, not multiplayer and there was push back from Nihilistic. There was none of that from Swingin’ Ape and from the employees at Swingin’ Ape, Blizzard was nothing but welcoming to them. When it came time for BlizzCon in 2005, there was much to show the audience including the iconic cinematic trailer. For Swinging’ Ape BlizzCon was their apex for their involvement for GHOST. With the team of Swingin' Ape Studios firmly in the loving embrace of Blizzard with the move of the team to their California HQ, work was being done on GHOST, but Blizzard themselves was deeply involved in fixing and upgrading their World of Warcraft cash machine and GHOST was very much NOT on Blizzard's radar by that point in 2005. All hands were needed on deck for WoW and its one million subscribers in 2005. During this time, Blizzard gave less and less feedback to the GHOST project and in November of 2005, it was decided to cut the Nintendo GameCube version of GHOST. The reason was explained by a  source at Blizzard at the time on Battle.Net: “Unfortunately the GameCube has no online service and since so much work is going in to the online portion, it would be additional work to release only part of the intended game.
It was not just attention to the garish WoW that ended the tale of Nova in her own game, it was timing. The development of GHOST had taken up the entire life-cycle of the PS2 and OG Xbox and now the 7th generation of home consoles was incoming. While there was still some of a market for the 6th generation machines, it be considerably beneath Blizzard's standards and the game itself that fans that waited on for years. This was the decision point for Blizzard, do they release GHOST on the PS2 and the OG Xbox, spend the time and cash to upgrade the game to the current standards or pull the plug? In March of 2006, the decision was made by Blizzard to halt development on GHOST and diffuse the Swingin’ Ape staff into the rest of Blizzard. For some reason, Blizzard did not outright cancel GHOST, leaving on “halted” for nearly a decade. This teased and haunted fans for years...

Pt. 3: This is the End…Maybe? (2005-2014)
After five years of development and two gaming studios that
both were broken by the GHOST, Blizzard officially placed StarCraft: GHOST on “postponed” status on March 24th, 2006. Despite, her game being postponed, it was not the end for Nova. In November of 2006, the tie-in book called StarCraft: Ghost: Nova by Keith R. A. DeCandido was released after several months of delay. The original aim of the book was coincided with the April of 2006 release of GHOST to explain the background of the character of Nova. Oddly, the book was not cancelled after GHOST was placed on hold by Blizzard. After the book, Nova would be seen in the expansion packs for StarCraft II and this would be the reality for Nova for years. While Blizzard would never say for many years that GHOST was not officially canceled and even stated that it could be resurrected, nothing came of the game and this pissed off fans that waited for the game. From 2006, Nova has appeared in no less than six games, has a massive statue in the lobby of Blizzard’s HQ, has been the main character of several books and comics, and there is a ton of merchandise associated with Nova. For a character that had her game cancelled back in 2006, she’s done pretty well for herself. There had been statements by Blizzard that caused a despite belief that  one sweet day, Blizzard would dust off GHOST, finish it, and release it. That dream officially ended on September 13th, 2016 when the President of Blizzard, Mike Morhaime, confirmed in an interview that the game was indeed, cancelled for good.

Pt. 4: The Leak and the Tears (2020)
Since its postponement and assumed cancellation, GHOST has been the subject of articles lamenting its death and the broken promise of what could have been. Then, after years of nothing, GHOST came back in an unexpected way. As if 2020 had not been kicking us collectively in the nuts enough, it had to drag up an Xbox playable demo from the Nihilistic phase to torture us. In January of 2020, images and videos of StarCraft: GHOST, began to surface on light that had no ever been seen before and in 720p! By February, the story broke wide across the internet and for the first time in a long time, GHOST was trending. The video was from an Xbox developer kit from the Nihilistic days, running on an modified Xbox 360. This was the first clear look we’d seen of GHOST as a game and it prompted a number of us to mourn the loss of GHOST. I am more sure now than I used to be, that the gaming community missed out when this was not released.

Who Came Up with the Character of Nova?
There is little doubt, especially when review the entire history of this stillborn video game, that the real star element of GHOST was the blonde bombshell Nova. Despite not being a player of the StarCraft RTS PC games, I was still keenly aware of Nova, but not her development. I had always wondered where the concept of the Ghost Nova character came from originally, especially when researching this vaporware game. The answer to my query could not be found after much research... that was not until I dove into some scanned gaming magazines of the time that I finally discovered an answer that wasn't on any StarCraft wiki site. In the spring 2004 issue of SURGE gaming magazine, Blizzard's John Lagrave did indeed shed some like on our favorite blonde Ghost Operator's origins. In the original 2000 pitch to Blizzard, Nihilistic had the player on the ground and in the middle of the bloody slaughter of those iconic StarCraft battles. However, that did not seem right to Blizzard and after rejecting the player inhabiting the famous powered armor of the Terran Marines, due to it being done to death, Blizzard hit upon the Ghost units, which were popular among fans. "we agreed to make this badass chick that you can feel empowered by in playing her." We have to remember at the time, the gaming industry was still in the grip of the "Lara Croft Effect" and I firmly believe that Nova was a female badass neon-ninja character due to this trend in the gaming industry and that beautiful female characters have a way of capturing the "imagination" of the male gamer...

The Impact and the Legacy of Starcraft: GHOST
After the 1998 release of the original StarCraft RTS game for PC, it became a sales success in the domestic and international market and forged diehard fans of the world that Blizzard had created. Within this rich soil, the seed of GHOST was planted. At the time of the 2002 announcement of the game, there was much excitement of this different perspective on StarCraft. Despite the hellish four years of development, slick trailers, and continued promises; it was clear that fans wanted this game, even if they were not players of the PC StarCraft RTS (like myself). This desire for the game was also reflected in countless articles in both print and online magazines chronicling the tragic story of the rise and fall of GHOST. All these elements gave GHOST a wide impact within and outside of the gaming community. This made the news of the GHOST being basically cancelled in 2006 so bitter. It would have also been a sales success for both Blizzard and the studios involved with development. For many that worked on the game, it was a hard to swallow that it was indeed over for GHOST. StarCraft games, books, comics, and even merchandise ventures, like figures and clothing. However, the true legacy of this cancelled game came just this year when gameplay videos that were culled from the Xbox development kit files were uploaded that appeared to show what we missed with GHOST not being released.
It was surprising the amount of heat and buzz generated for a game over 14 years old by this point and not to mention, the lamenting statements in the comment sections. This is only one part of the legacy, the other being the failure of Blizzard to bring this game to market. This game should have been a reality and it was close. That fact is maddening, and it will remain a stain on Blizzard that GHOST is not one of the most celebrated titles of the 6th generation. From that point to 2020, GHOST has maintained a hold on the imaginations of the unfulfilled players. This has caused GHOST to be one of the most celebrated vaperwares and a popular topic in gaming circles. Due to the promise and popularity of the character of Nova, Blizzard sought to incorporate her into the fabric of future Blizzard projects and products.

Next Time on FWS...
Memory is an amazing and maddening thing. For years, I could half-remember this robot-centered, very anime-styled American Saturday morning cartoon that I watched just before my older brother's Saturday morning soccer practice. I decided back in 2012 to finally research if this show did indeed exist and the name of the show. After days of digging, I had my answer: 1984's The Mighty Orbots. In the next installment of Military Sci-Fi Oddities, we will be diving into this short-lived American/Japanese hybrid cartoon! 


  1. Ah, Starcraft: Ghost, we hardly knew ye. I remember watching the "Wha Happun" video by Matt McMuscles a few months back that featured this game. I also recall at one time owning Starcraft on the N64 and actually completing both the original and brood wars expansion portions of the cart. Still, the idea of actually going down to the ground where some of my favorite units fought was intriguing, and something that I greatly anticipated.

    The whole thing reminded me too much of what happened with StarCraft 2. I can clearly recall going to the electronics department of the local BX and asking when the game was going to be shipped, only to be told that it was cancelled.

    Eventually, the world finally got Starcraft 2 (legally) but Starcraft: Ghost will be a promise broken. Something that the company doesn't need atop of all the controversy both it and it's parent company Activision are struggling against as of late. If they need something to improve their image, making and polishing this game to market would be a good step in the right direction.

    Just keep the microtransactions and similar anti-consumer predator tactics away from it.

  2. Nova actually lives on as a playable character in Blizzard's MOBA "Heroes of the Storm"! https://heroesofthestorm.gamepedia.com/Nova