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Tuesday, March 5, 2019

What Could Have Been: Agent

One of the video game industry’s biggest names and powerhouses is without a doubt Rockstar Games. The creators of Grand Theft Auto and the Red Dead series are like very few in the industry, weaving together engaging gameplay, expansive and detailed worlds, and some of the most enrapturing stories. However, they’re also extremely secretive with their projects; seldom does anything get out about them. One of the best cases of this is with Agent.

Agent began life back in 2003 as a project intended for the PlayStation 2 and Xbox. The developer at the time was Rockstar San Diego. We know this as a former artist for Rockstar went to Cairo with three coworkers and took over 10,000 reference photographs of the city. In the end, the project was put on hold for reasons that aren't known.

Four years later in 2007 at the Electronic Entertainment Expo (E3), Sony formally announced Agent—though at the time, it hadn’t been named, nor had anything about the game itself been made public. Instead, all that was given was that Rockstar, “was working on a new franchise for the Playstation 3”. Speculation grew that it was another certain upcoming, and extremely troubled, Rockstar game, but those rumors were shot down. That’s a story for another day though.

Meanwhile, the director of third-party relations for Sony Computer Entertainment of America, Michael Shorrock expressed extreme enthusiasm for the game, writing on the official U.S. PlayStation blog:

“As part of our long standing relationship with Rockstar, and the incredible success for both companies with the cultural icon that is Grand Theft Auto we've agreed to the PlayStation exclusive rights of the next great franchise from the Rockstar studios.”

Not wanting to keep the enthusiasm from dying, Shorrock would later state that, “Rockstar really wanted to make a game that you can truly only do on PS3.” He also stated that Sony desired to have an exclusive intellectual property that could “set the bar for the rest of the industry”.

Shorrock wasn’t the only one on board the hype train. Rockstar’s parent company, Take-Two Interactive, saw its former president, Ben Feder, express immense excitement for the game. He stated that the game would be “genre-defining” and would be “a whole new way of experiencing video games that we haven’t really seen before.”

All of this drove both fans of Rockstar and video games in general into a frenzy; many clamoring to see what this game was and what it would offer that would be so “genre-defining”. Speculation ran rampant, some wondering if it’d be spin-off to Grand Theft Auto in a way that may be futuristic while others wondered if it’d Rockstar’s take on a dystopian future; cyberpunk or steampunk.

However, it would take another two years before anything would be learned about the game. In 2009, Agent would finally be name dropped at Sony's E3 press conference. Rockstar co-founder Sam Houser took to the stage to and gave the crowd and world at large details on the game and Rockstar’s ambitions, stating that the company had desired to make the game for a while and wished to make a unique experience—a motto that Rockstar has stuck to ever since its inception.

It was revealed that Rockstar North would be developing it and intended to be a PlayStation 3 exclusive. Agent was described as taking place during the Cold War, specifically in the late 1970s, and would “take players on a paranoid journey” and was filled with “counter-intelligence, espionage, and political assassination”. As a game, Agent was said to be a Spy game with stealth and shooter elements.

A game centered on Cold War, and handling the grittier and more volatile elements of it, has seldom been tackled. This, along with a developer like Rockstar, triggered a large amount of excitement and curiosity.

Meanwhile, Feder continued to power the hype train with enough energy to power the world for the next ten thousand years. He was quoted as saying that the game could be, “yet another great Rockstar North franchise title” and that it could be as successful as the company’s flagship series, Grand Theft Auto. As for his reasoning, he cited that the game was being overseen by Sam Houser and his brother, Dan—who also founded Rockstar. Feder went on to later state in an interview with GameSpot  that the choice to make Agent a PlayStation 3 exclusive was due to extra support that Sony gave. Some however speculate that Sony wanted a game that would attract gamers to their console given that the Xbox 360 at the time was the console of choice for many. Meanwhile, the Wii existed.

Two months after E3 had ended, gamers were still salivating at the mouth for details on Agent. Lucky for those, Rockstar gave some more details in a Question and Answer section on their blog. It was here that they revealed that the came could be released “as early as 2010.” Anyone who’s a fan of Rockstar nowadays know that their release dates are almost never consist: Grand Theft Auto IV was pushed back several times, Grand Theft Auto V was scheduled for release in 2012 and was later pushed back to March of 2013 where it was set to go up against Bioshock: Infinite until it was finally released September 23, 2013. I remember that date by heart as it was the day that World of Warcraft: Mists of Pandaria’s final content patch was released.

Meanwhile, after the Q&A, news on Agent’s development went dead silent, and it wasn’t until March of 2010 that Two-Take acknowledged the game’s existence by saying it was “still in development”. This was repeated in May of 2011 when Take-Two once again stated that Agent was still in development,

Rewind to June of 2010 and Take-Two confirmed that the game was still planned to be a PlayStation 3 exclusive. This was a necessary statement given that there had been no trailers, teasers, or anything of that sort to indicate this game even existed. However, at E3 2011, Jack Tretton, the CEO of Sony Computer Entertainment of America, contradicted the statement by Take-Two by saying that he was “unsure” that Agent was going to be an exclusive. He claimed that it was up to Rockstar to make it an exclusive, or if it would be released on the Xbox 360 and that other console.

A few months later, in August of 2011, former Rockstar North environmental artist Leigh Donoghue posted the first images of Agent in his online resume. Donoghue went on to claim that the images were made in 2009.

Fast forward a year to August of 2012. During Take-Two’s fiscal report for the first quarter of 2013, chairman and CEO Strauss Zelnick was asked about Agent. He replied by saying that, “We haven’t announced anything about that title.” Whether or not he meant that literally or if he meant that they hadn’t shared anything about it is unknown, though this was but one of many warning signs that Agent’s life was in jeopardy.

The rest of 2012 saw no new information about Agent come to surface, which begs the question if the Mayans were predicting the end of Agent. In February of 2013, the PlayStation 4 was announced. This led to some speculation that Agent would become an exclusive to Sony’s shiny new console, much like Ubisoft’s Rainbow 6: Patriots. That’s yet another story for another day though.

After the PlayStation 4 was unveiled to the gaming world, which was still reeling from the catastrophe that was Microsoft’s Xbox One reveal, a round table was held with Sony Worldwide Studios boss Shuhei Yoshida. When asked about the possibility that Agent would be an exclusive to their new console, Yoshida replied, “You are asking the wrong person. I have some knowledge, but I’m not in a position to talk about it.” It wouldn’t be until July of 2013 that the world would hear anything about Agent, when Take-Two renewed the trademark for Agent. This sparked a glimmer of hope that the game wasn’t dead.

That glimmer died as once more, Rockstar proved to be tight lipped on news surrounding the state of Agent. It wasn’t until December of 2015 that some sort of news came to be on the game, this time with a few screenshots supposedly from between 2009 and 2010. These screenshots came from former Rockstar North Darren Charles Hatton, who posted them to his online portfolio. Hatton revealed that the art team for Agent was taken off of it and reassigned to Grand Theft Auto V. He went on to say that he’s “not sure if this project will ever be published.”

From there, there was once more silence until December of 2016 when Take-Two yet again renewed the trademark for Agent. More silence followed, as was per the norm, until August of 2017 when concept art and character sketches were leaked online.

The most recent update on Agent came in November of 2018, and it wasn’t good news. Take-Two apparently opted to not renew the trademark for Agent expired and as such, the United States Patent and Trademark Office released a statement stating that the trademark had been, “Abandoned because no Statement of Use or Extension Request timely filed after Notice of Allowance was issued.”

Despite this, the game’s official website remains up and for unknown reasons, the PlayStation 3, even though it's been obsolete for years.

Interestingly, the website Cultured Vultures states that someone’s been moderating the website as there’s code from Google Tag Manager, which was introduced in 2012, three years after the project was named in 2009.

Agent is one of many games that you'll see this month that simply didn't come together. It's a sad case given its unique premise and remarkable developer behind it. Whether or not it one day returns remains to be seen, but given the absurd profitability of both Grand Theft Auto Online and Red Dead Online, that's highly unlikely unless the gameplay is heavily tweaked to work with an online community, though casual multiplayer has been fitted into many games that rightfully don’t deserve it (one of which we’ll discuss at the very end of this month).

Even then, exactly what went wrong for so many years—given that this game started out back on the PlayStation 2 and Xbox—is leaps and bounds more mystifying in my eyes. Rockstar’s known for its quality and the idea that something somehow escaped their reach in the way of being great is baffling. Especially something related to espionage, which is a topic they’ve tackled a few times in the Grand Theft Auto series. One could apply a bit of tinfoil and suspect that there were government spooks who didn’t wish for them to tackle the Cold War, but that’s silly when you consider that Tom Clancy was alive and kicking for decades writing books centered on war, espionage, and other topics akin to those.

Alas, that’s the tale of Agent: a game where nothing is known beyond a brief synopsis. One can only piece together what the game may have been like from the few screenshots and concept art that’s been leaked. Perhaps more will be leaked in the future. Until that day, it's likely Agent is unlikely to ever be made. If it is however, Ben Feder’s words about it having the potential to be as successful as Grand Theft Auto are even more difficult than when it was first announced. Four years after Agent was finally named, Grand Theft Auto V was released and as of the time of this writing has sold over 100 million copies. It’s the third game to have ever done so.

1 comment:

  1. Tyler "Bio" RodriguezMarch 5, 2019 at 9:11 PM

    A crying shame. There is no open word spy game to my knowledge. Destroy All Humans 2 had spy aspects but it wasnt about that. No One Lives Forever is not open world. What a loss.