Sunday, August 15, 2021

How Over-Ambition and Mismanagement Killed Mega Man Universe

Mega Man Universe was cancelled ten years ago on March 31st, 2011. The would-be "Mega Man maker" title was poised to launch on PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360 that same Spring. 

And curiously enough, Capcom never explicitly stated why production was discontinued. The initial announcement cited "various reasons". A statement so vague that many fans at the time wrote the whole thing off as an off-kilter April Fool's joke. Of course, we know now that wasn’t the case.

Look - I get that Mega Man Universe is often considered the lesser of the five cancelled 2010 Mega Man games. But something has always felt off about the whole thing. I mean, we were led to believe this was a title mere months away from release. If something was amiss, why not delay it? What was going on behind-the-scenes - with Keiji Inafune and his team - that led to... nothing?

Well, there's an 'ol saying: Like sands through the hourglass, so are the days of non disclosure agreements. Ten years after Mega Man Universe's demise, a few individuals related to the project are ready to tell the story. 

 

 

"When Mega Man Universe was first announced, there wasn't a solid plan about what the game was going to be," a source tells me under the condition of anonymity. "One day it was a Mega Man 2 remake. The next, he [Inafune] would talk about it as if it would be a 'platform' in itself. It went back and forth there for a little while."

It should come as no surprise that, from the get-go, Mega Man Universe's concept wasn't fully baked. Development only began in March/April 2010, according to producer Akiko Ito. The title was officially announced only a few months later on July 16th, 2010.

They continued, "Universe was, from New York Comic-Con 2010 on, envisioned to be less of a game-game and more of a storefront. It was to be a place where players could buy different Mega Man characters and objects to build their own Mega Man games. Inafune once hypothesized there wouldn't be a need for any more 'traditional' Mega Man games. Universe would just keep growing; sustained by the fans and content provided by Capcom. He saw it going on for years. A continuous stream of revenue. That was his vision."


Not only did Inafune hope Mega Man Universe would be a big hit with fans, he wanted it to push Capcom and the Japanese game industry toward a “digital” future. He wanted to show companies the value behind downloadable content. An admirable cause at the time, sure. However... 

"After NYCC and Tokyo Game Show [2010], Inafune was really taken aback by the negative reception. People just didn’t like the game,” recounted another source. "From the top of my head, Destructoid wasn't sold on it. IGN hated it. And the fans weren't keen on the art style.”

Towards the end of TGS 2010, Inafune was feeling bummed. But not deterred. If Mega Man Universe were to instigate industry-wide change, it had to be better.

So with less-than-stellar impressions in hand, Inafune brought the title back to the drawing board. The dev team dissected NYCC and TGS feedback to determine "troublesome" areas. They narrowed it down to two commonalities: graphics and controls.

“The art direction was a big turn-off for many players,” said source #1. “Pretty early on, it was decided that MMU’s target audience would be the West. So [they] looked at what kind of animation was popular at the time. You know, stuff from Cartoon Network.

“But it didn’t click with people,” added source #2. “Inafune and co. stuck to their guns, though. They believed the audience that would appreciate these designs weren’t the ones demoing the game. So it stayed put.” 

 

"It looks like Powerpuff Girls" - some fan in 2010.

Rather than revamping the art direction entirely, the dev team focused on refining Mega Man Universe’s visual fidelity. They spent several weeks polishing textures, enhancing special effects, and creating a sense of “dimension” that was sorely lacking from the demo build. However, all of these changes had to take the controls into account.

"The demo build ran at 30fps, which made precision platforming difficult," recounts source #2. "It was decided that the game NEEDED to run at 60fps. No compromises. That's the expectation for Mega Man games. But there was a problem--"

"--the 'shuffle animation'," interjected a third source who also wished to remain anonymous. "Boot up any NES Mega Man game and turn the blue guy around. Left to right/right to left. Mega Man 'shuffles' on a dime, right? Not in Mega Man Universe. Inafune wanted the game to evoke a sense of near-realistic character movement. That was a problem because it brought the framerate down. So all these additional frames of animation had to be cut way, way down. They tried to go from 6 or 5 frames to 3 to 2."

As the dev team culled extra frames, the scope of the Mega Man Universe grew... 

 


"Around fall 2010, it was decided that Universe would feature online two player co-op," said source #3. "The idea sounded great on paper. But at that point in production, the manpower needed to pull something like that off wasn't available. Internally, at least.”

To bring the online co-op to fruition, Inafune made the executive decision to hand Mega Man Universe over to an external party. After some deliberation, he inexplicably settled on a developer who had NO experience with home consoles and NO experience with online games/net code.

"It was very clear to me that Inafune wanted this game to be as cost effective as possible," said source #3. “There were other candidates more suited for the job. But that was his choice." (NOTE: for continued purposes of anonymity, the identity of this developer will not be disclosed. However, know that it was not Inti Creates.)

Source #2 added, "I do not want to speak for Inafune, but in a then-emerging era where you could push out patches for home console software, he may have presumed that, for any issues presented by this developer's inexperience, they could be patched post-release."

Outsourced development of Mega Man Universe limped onward. However, it wasn’t long before the consequences of choosing an inexperienced developer arose.

"The online multiplayer didn't work," bluntly stated source #3. "I'm not kidding. It didn't work."

Roughly around that same time, Inafune announced he was leaving Capcom. Left with no director, Mega Man Universe's dev team had no choice but to pause production.

"My memory isn't perfect here," said source #1, "but the directorial role was not filled by a single person. [Akiko] Ito called the shots here and there, but it was a disorganized scramble. Work continued nevertheless."

 


Faced with a major roadblock and the "Spring 2011" release window barreling down, the dev team opted to completely drop the troublesome multiplayer component. But it was too late. 

"Production completely floundered," said source #2. "The outsourced developer, even with multiplayer gone, continued to struggle. They weren't a bad crew by any means. But they lacked the technical know-how to fully realize this increasingly-ambitious game. It was simply too tall an order." 

Source #3 recalled seeing Mega Man Universe one final time before the end. He said, "I had a-go with an updated Xbox 360 build. Graphically, it was a bit more polished. You could tell the difference compared to the demo. Art style was the same. Performance-wise.... it was still very poor."

All three individuals I spoke to shared the same sentiment: Mega Man Universe was a great idea, but poorly executed. The scope of the project was too big for its allotted time and budget. The constraints brought on by poor project management did no favors, either.

 


“I’ll say this,” began source #1. “If the game had a more capable external team, Mega Man Universe would have been a thing. I cannot guarantee it would have lived up to Inafune's dream entirely, but I'm confident it would have happened.”

“Years later, I still think MMU had something great for a moment,” said source #2. “Mega Man is perfect for a ‘Mario Maker’ type game. It’s such a good idea. I really hope Capcom will jump on it some day.”

Now, you would think this is where the Mega Man Universe's story ends. But there's a little "post credits" twist here.


In February 2011, I had the opportunity to speak with members of the gaming press about, well, Mega Man Universe. It had been several months since we heard anything from the project. We began to wonder if it was delayed or, worse, cancelled.

Early into this little gathering, two reputable journalists confirmed that the game was still on track... but not for home consoles. After a “disastrous turn of events”, Capcom reportedly shifted development from PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360 to iPhone and iPad.

My notes from the gathering read: "Capcom are salvaging what remained of the project for a stripped down iOS version" and "title would forego 'stage builder' features; lean heavily into Mega Man 2 remake' aspect; basic character creator system intended to add value."

Now, this all sounded interesting, if not a little crazy. We weren’t shown any visual evidence to support these claims... just reputations to go on. So a few years later, I touched base with a fourth source to see if any of this was actually true.

According to source #4, the external developer Inafune chose was so technically challenged that an iOS version would not have been possible in their hands. However, an iOS port would likely have been handled in-house at Tokyo. To their knowledge, though, an iOS port wasn’t being worked on at the time. Mega Man Universe was pretty much dead...

 


And that, my friends, is all there is to say. I may have additional lost Mega Man Universe history to share in the future (and before you ask, nope; I still can't re-publish the OST+art). But for now, I hope you have some semblance of closure. Personally, I don't think I'm quite there yet. 

I cling to the hope that, one day, we'll find that NYCC/PAX demo code. For all its ups and downs, Mega Man Universe deserves to be preserved and studied just as much as Mega Man Legends 3. It's history.

One day. Maybe.

52 comments:

  1. Hm. So… much like with Mighty No. 9, this game was basically dead-in-the-water from the start because Inafune thought too hard and dreamed too big. Ya know, part of me is surprised, yet part of me isn't the least bit surprised. Still, it's very interesting to know that the game wasn't just canned because of the horrible weather and whatnot.

    Ya know, I bought a Sony PlayStation Portable exclusively for Mega Man Powered Up and Maverick Hunter X. I honestly would've bought an Xbox 360 for this game, despite never wanting a Microsoft console in my life. (I didn't know it was going to be on the PS3, back then.) It's a crying shame this game never came to fruition even just as a "Mega Man Powered Up 2" sort of title. Not… sure I would've liked what Inafune had planned. Feels like what happened with Rockstar Games' Grand Theft Auto series after Grand Theft Auto Online… I suppose there wouldn't be a Mega Man 11, had this come to be… but while Mega Man 11 was a fun return to form, if it was a choice between that and this, I think I would pick this. Probably.

    ReplyDelete
  2. I actually played the demo at NYCC... managed to beat the "hard" mode, which won me an inflatable lance. I still have that thing, fully wrapped.

    Every time I end up digging it out of storage, I feel a bit sad. Because personally, I thought MMU had serious potential.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. So what were your feelings regarding that demo? Were Destructoid and IGN being too harsh or undermining with their initial reports?

      Delete
    2. You had to "win" it? I received the lance in wrapping just for playing the game. I couldn't beat the Hard mode because there was a jump I just could not figure out how to make. Otherwise, all I remember about the demo is that the controls were terrible.

      Delete
  3. sentiment: Mega Man Universe was a great idea, but poorly executed

    Well and succinctly said

    still clinging to the hope that, one day, maybe, too

    ReplyDelete
  4. I remember reading about Universe in a 2010 issue of Official Xbox Magazine. I was looking forward to the game and was disappointed when it got canceled, but it is nice to learn a bit more about just why it was canned.

    ReplyDelete
  5. It does make me happy that they heard how much we hated that art style. Sad they didn't learn anything from it.
    The Japanese would do well to remember that western fans flock to their product BECAUSE it's the Japanese Style.
    Japanese style art, storytelling, drama, etc. The whole package.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I agree with you, but they were probably looking at marketing data and getting scared. Japanese-developed games dominated the home console market for several generations, and then in basically a single generation, the Gamecube was the worst-selling console of the generation and XBox came out of the gate and went head to head with the PS2. Meanwhile PS2 diversified its portfolio quite a bit and had a number of western games make it big. Then the Wii marked a severe course change for Nintendo (we had to fight tooth and nail to get any JRPGs on Wii, and there was a huge focus on 'blue ocean' titles like Wii Sports that appealed to more than just traditional gamers)

      In that kind of environment, I can see how a kneejerk reaction might be the era of Japanese games is over. They might have sold well in the past, but now western companies are dominating and Japanese companies profits were dwindling in the overseas market.

      The PS3 era also had a lot of other upheavals as well, such as the rise of DLC and games as a service, and the increased focus on HD graphics. Like, I feel JRPGs in particular really suffered in the PS3 era - so many games did away with world maps as a 'shorthand' for world traversal in favor of large expanses of nothing, and because the extra work on the graphics, the variety of graphics suffered. So many towns, dungeons, and building interiors lost their visual identity and looked the same as each other so they could reuse the same assets. Balance also suffered as they realized they could sell item/weapon packs for real money and stuff that used to be included in the base game (like alternative costumes you would earn thru sidequests) were instead sold as DLC.

      Delete
    2. Don't get me started on JRPG's in the PS3+ era... Final Fantasy is all messed up. Thanks alot, graphics and westernization! Way to kill the fun in that one.

      Delete
    3. Inafune was a product of his time. This was the era in which western "style" games, even japanese ones- were gaining a lot of steam. Stuff like Devil May Cry and Bayonetta are definitely distinctly japanese, but they have a very specific Western flavor. Western passed through a Japanese filter. They definitely aren't the kind of "too japanese" that some developers worried about.

      In general in the PS2 era there were more than a few "western" flavored games put out by Japanese developers, so it was simply the trend at the time.

      tbh, the style was weird, but not the worst thing I'd seen.

      Delete
  6. If Mega Man Universe ever WAS a thing at the time, I'm sure it would have been a great game! It's too bad they let such a title down. I would have loved its character customization and level making. But I guess that what happens when you hand a project over to some random developer who has NO knowledge or experience what so ever.

    ReplyDelete
  7. I remember someone telling me at the time that "Powered Up oozes charm, Universe is a lifeless shell that shouldn't exist". That may have been here, actually. No amount of "give it time, it's an early demo" would even slow the vitriol being tossed after only a single demo was out that largely only journalists got to play. "Vitriol", mind you, is a word I only use when necessary seeing as it's become abused to the point of irrelevance online.

    It's not fun to find out that the public perception being so needlessly poor was a contributing factor to the game's demise. Maybe not the biggest factor, but it goes to show that our words hold sway over a production's future when the project on the line isn't a guaranteed success like a Street Fighter, Resident Evil or Monster Hunte- Eh, I'll cut the crap - when it's a Mega Man game. Now I have to wonder if the very loud complaints on Barrett being the playable Prototype Edition character had any barring on Legends 3 going down in flames.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. "it goes to show that our words hold sway over a production's future"

      Not when you are Call of Duty, Pokemon, Zelda and the like where you get too big to care and fail. Only small or desperate series get effected by somewhat public outcry.

      Delete
    2. Capcom isn't exactly some rinky-dink up and comers Zidane. They're long-time industry titans, even if they do make us bang our heads against the wall in frustration sometimes.

      Delete
  8. Mighty No. 9 was the nail in Inafune's coffin as a producer.

    ReplyDelete
  9. Mighty No. 9 was the nail in Inafune's coffin as a producer.

    ReplyDelete
  10. I never cared about it anyways. I'm more concerned about the fact that an X9 was briefly in the works in 2005 and never saw fruition. Maybe their logic is that despite the virus living on, killing Sigma's consciousness in X8 means they won't continue the series despite the fact it can continue up to and even through Elf Wars if they wanted or just fight Wily's viral self + avatars. X8's Light's message of wanting robots and humans to live in peace did have a finality feeling to it though. They could have made it about Wily starting in X6 if they kept Sigma's mind dead or kept Zero dead, or just Zero without Sigma, though Wily can and did rebuild Zero in X6 like Light did to X in X5, and even though X5 was suppose to be the last game in the X series, the ending shows battles continue (infected mechaniloid) and infections continue with X running into battle holding the saber, so no true closure in X5's canon non-Legends branch ending (that 100 years between that and Zero's re-awakening could have many games in between with just X fighting an uncountable number of mavericks and probably Wily's viral self from time to time).

    Anyways, main point being that it is sad that Capcom can't see that most of us here just want continuations to the main timeline in the form of MM classic, X, ZX, and Legends, and sure, why not some new series in between ZX and Legends to bridge the gap. The time gap of many 1000s of years between ZX and even Elysium's and the Master system's creation leaves plenty of room for multiple new main timeline series.

    ReplyDelete
  11. Yeah, I really did hate the art style. But I do like the concept of a Maker style game, where Capcom occasionally releases official stories, and fans fill in the gaps. Maybe they'd make fan games Canon sometimes, who knows. Could've been neat.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Yeah...it's certainly not a good style.

      Delete
    2. Same. When I first heard about it, I hated the art style. I still do - it makes Mega look like someone he isn't.

      Delete
  12. I said this 10 years ago, and I still think the same. I'm very glad this game was cancelled. Inafune just wanted to fish easy money with DLC and without providing the kind of product fans wanted. Given that this series was never so popular, it was a doomed project because the fans are what keep this series alive because it is very niche.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Yes, and I'm also glad that MMX 1st person shooter was canned. The one where X's face looked like a faceless drone. Also glad MML3 was not released on a handheld. If they revive Legends, make it multiplatform, Steam too.

      Delete
  13. I said this back then and I say it now. I'm glad this thing was cancelled. Specially after knowing about Inafune's nefarious intentions.

    ReplyDelete
  14. Geez, all that and he didn't learn his lesson for MN9. I was looking forward to this back in the day, even if the review were poor. Hopefully a leaked demo will surface one day.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I mean, the mistakes made on MN9 were completely different. The controls for MN9 are great. The biggest problem with it was that he didn't get the entire kickstarter fund (so they were underfunded) and they tried to port it to like 9 different platforms, which ended up failing.

      Delete
    2. Did they ever offer an alternative to us suckers who paid for a portable option?

      Delete
  15. Mmm sometimes a vision just never comes to fruition, and gets put on the chopping block. Such is life.

    ReplyDelete
  16. I remember being one of this game's most staunch critics ten years ago, and thought it was absolute garbage. In fact, after actually taking a look at the trailer again post-cancellation, it actually looked worst than I remember. I had no qualms with saying "good riddance" after they pulled the plug on that piece of crap. As far as I'm concerned, nothing of any real value was lost.

    ReplyDelete
  17. Considering that Legends 3 looked to be incredibly basic in gameplay, had frame rate issues and was being led by the same producer as X7, and Universe not only ran at 30 FPS but also made to be a live service model, I cannot in good faith say that Capcom was doing anything but dodging a bullet.

    If BBA Mega Man in Street Fighter x Tekken was any hint of how 2010's Mega Man would've been received... This timeline dodged a bullet.

    ReplyDelete
  18. I can't say I'm "glad" that MM Universe got canned, if only because I still wish Capcom's Bridge-Burning Bonanza of 2011 hadn't happened, but goddamn--the heavy emphasis on DLC and it being a proto-"live service" is (woulda been?)...bad.

    ReplyDelete
  19. Universe may have been intriguing to the hardest of hardcore fans but I just never saw how the heck it was going to take off. Leaning into a stage builder and DLC to carry a freakishly alienating art style was basically the exact same mistake Inafune already made with Powered Up. I also played the NYCC demo myself, and yes, the controls were awful. The game was filled with single block platforms despite the fact that less than half-block movement was impossible; the level design demanded a level of precision that the controls simply didn't offer.

    Legends 3, it was not.

    ReplyDelete
  20. an another reminder that Inafune is a moron

    ReplyDelete
  21. So Capcom officially backed Street Fighter x Mega Man and now Mega Man X Dive. But there's still Mega Man Maker that could be repurposed into a fleshed-out, commercial release. Capcom doesn't have the brains to do it, nor do they have any interest in the Mega Man franchise in general.

    If they won't revive their own cancelled games or make new ones, they can follow SEGA's example with Sonic Mania and look to talented fans to provide them with a product. Mega Man is a golden goose that Capcom has relentlessly tried to kill off since it's inception.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. There is a new game coming in 2022, this was confirmed by Rockman Corner themselves.

      Delete
    2. Too bad they don't wise up and back stuff we actually want, like X9, ZX3, Legends 3, or even MM12, or some all new main timeline series. Plenty of series can take place between ZX and Legends considering the sheer amount of time between both.

      As for this new game, it probably isn't anything we want. If it is a big budget, it is probably some silly 3D game that isn't legit MM, like that canned 1st person MMX shooter. Funny how they went on saying that an X9 would depend on how well the X collections and MM11 sell. Well, they sold well, so why the hell not?

      People here like Shrap understand where I am coming from, and we both been around and were alive way back before Megaman even existed, though granted I was only 4 or 5 when the 1st one came out, and it was a hard game, especially Ice Man's stage combined with the NES often unresponsive controls where you can't turn in mid air and being around 5 playing it the first time, not knowing what it was until I accidentally stumbled upon it after owning MM4, then going back and playing 1, 2, and 3, thinking, oh, I played this game (MM1) before. Of course a friend of the family rented it when I was 5 or so and I didn't know what it was called or what it was at the time (just briefly played some levels and took it back), but then a few years later, beat it at the slightly older age of 9 years old around MM4's time. Of course I like the X and Zero series more (on a larger screen and gamepad), and if classic, newer classic games, like MM8 or MM11.

      Delete
    3. My first Mega Man game was Mega Man 3. So I am biased towards 3 in the great 2 vs 3 debate as greatest Mega Man game. But I love em both.
      My memory is fuzzy, but MM3 or Ninja Turtles 2 were the first games I EVER beat, I am not sure which came first.
      So while I missed the "beginning" I wasn't that far off. I did get MM1 shortly thereafter.

      Delete
    4. Gary, Capcom KNOWS the fans want sequels, and it WILL happen eventually, they ARE listening. Kazuhiro Tsuchiya, the SERIES PRODUCER himself said that no series is getting it's future denied, which means that each series will be revisited. Also, the MM11 team is always listening to fan feedback for future titles.

      Delete
    5. MM4 was the first MM game I owned and beat, then I back tracked only to find that MM1 stages were familiar and I played it before. But the first time I ever saw Dr Wily was MM4. Prior to that, I did recall in 3rd grade in 1990 a kid talking about MM3, or maybe a gameboy MM3. Only after MM4 did I go and play 1-3. Prior to that, I never knew of or touched MM2 or 3. Even though MM4 was the first one I played and beat, I have no bias to it. I do like X more, the gameplay, story, and darker nature. I like the art of the PSX and PS2 X games over the SNES older at style, just as I like MM8's art over the NES goofy looking art. Anime art from the 80s and even early 90s looks goofy in Megaman, I think.

      Delete
    6. Thank you for the head's up, Romy.

      Delete
    7. I don't trust talking points anymore. We shall see what Capcom will do.

      Delete
  22. There is a fan-made game called Mega Man Maker that is exactly what fans wished for in every aspect. It allows you to create levels and use weapons from every Robot Master up to 11.

    ReplyDelete
  23. Brave of Brett Elston to inform the masses of what happened so many years out; of not only the project, but at his residency at Capcom itself. I guess he could've been just as willing to share such information, but wanted to put alotta distance behind himself first before discussing such things.

    ReplyDelete
  24. One thing that I’ve not heard other people mention was some that that the Capcom Representative said to me at New York Comic Con. Not only was bad box art Mega Man playable, but characters from pop culture were also a possibility.

    ReplyDelete
  25. Strange. The art style looks somewhat similar to the art style of that recent Megaman cartoon from a year or two ago. Quite fugly, to say the least. But from the way it seems the gameplay would've been and the whole DLC nature of it? Yeah, Capcom dodged an entire cache of nukes in canceling Megaman Universe.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. At least Drill Man actually looked great in that cartoon, like he came straight out of the Pachislot Rockman Ability slot machine that came out a month after the cartoon premiered, same for Fire Man, Wave Man, Guts Man and every part of Rush that's not his face. That slot machine's version of Wily also sort of looks like the version in the Mega Man Fully Idiotic comic continuation. Also Hypno Woman had a good design aside from her head too.

      I still can't believe Kathleen Barr reprised her role as a robotized Mama Robotnik lol (seriously though, was Blasto Woman supposed to be Napalm Man? What is even her copy power anyway?).

      Delete
  26. This is why you keep a leash on the auteurs. I mean just look at what happened to Final Fantasy Versus XIII. You give the auteurs an inch and they take a PARSEC.

    ReplyDelete
  27. I'm finally getting around to fully reading this. Man, what a shame. I remember being really excited for this idea, too. Hopefully, one day we really do get an official Mega Man Maker-type game...

    ReplyDelete

Keep it friendly. Disparaging, belittling and derogatory comments are not permitted.