Galen Davis was searching for something that will never exist. In April 2011, he posted some images on the Polycount forum, a website where video game artists go to display and critique each other’s work. The images were early, 3D renditions of 2D promotional screenshots from a project cancelled less than a year before. They were practice for Davis’ career as an environment artist. They were the last glimpse of a game that public will ever see.
A month later, Disney Interactive Studios, the media giant’s game division, released LEGO Pirates of the Caribbean. The game, based on the Disneyland ride that turned into a multi-million dollar film franchise, combined with the popular plastic building blocks, carried with it a remnant from the game Davis was recreating. Slipped into LEGO Pirates of the Caribbean was the soundtrack of another game: Pirates of the Caribbean: Armada of the Damned.
Armada of the Damned was Propaganda Games’ big bet on the proven franchise. But the ambitious, open-world action game was never shipped. It was cancelled in 2010. Today, it remains on the internet in archived articles, images, and a 2-year-old post on a forum.
This is the story of that game. All that is publicly available, that is. We tried to contact some Propaganda members that worked on the game, but haven’t heard back as of press time.
In April 2005, a group of former Electronic Arts employees started a studio in Vancouver, British Columbia called Propaganda Games. Buena Vista Games (now Disney Interactive Studios) purchased the developer 5 months later.
For the next 3 years, the studio resurrected a dead franchise. It shipped the rebooted, first-person shooter Turok in 2008, in the wake of Infinity Ward’s first entry into what would become one of the highest-selling game franchises to date: Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare. Turok, however, received mixed responses from critics, and was quickly forgotten.
Propaganda went silent for the rest of the year while it started working on a sequel to the game. Turok 2 was never properly announced, and was only made public as it was cancelled, taking 70 employees with it as part of a series of layoffs to other Disney subsidiaries in January 2009.
“As you can imagine,” former President of the Walt Disney Internet Group told Kotaku at the time, “given economic conditions, every industry has been impacted on a global scale. In response to this challenging business environment, we have examined ways in which we might be able to work more efficiently.”
But Propaganda was still kicking; it was working on another game.
A pirate’s life
“Armada of the Damned is a dynamic action role-playing game that captures all of the franchise’s excitement, unpredictability and action while delving into narrative elements never before explored within this unique universe,” former Propaganda Vice President and General Manager Dan Tudge explained in the press release that announced the game in May 2009.
Armada of the Damned wasn’t shown to the public for another year. It was originally scheduled to release in the fall of 2010, but it was later pushed to early 2011. It would never make that date.
Armada of the Damned would explore the parts of the Pirates of the Caribbean fiction we don’t see in the movies. It would be open-world with locations from the films and new, unexplored areas of Propaganda’s creation. Players would fight against the most ruthless and mystical creatures of Disney’s universe. Unlike so many other games that simply capitalize on the name recognition of popular film franchises, Armada of the Damned sounded like an ambitious project that would stand on its own. And Propaganda still hadn’t shown its entire hand.
In Lionhead Studios’ Fable series, when players make what the game sees as bad choices, the main character would, visibly, grow evil. By the time the player had killed and cheated their way through the game, his face would be darkened, sinister, and devilish horns would pierce his forehead. Other players would be able to catch a glimpse of a halo above their head should they make good choices throughout the game.
Everything in Armada of the Damned would be defined by a similar concept of morality and player choice. As the game’s protagonist, Captain James Sterling, made decisions in the game, he would become either Legendary (good) or Dreaded (bad), and it would affect the state of the world.
To demonstrate this, Propaganda provided a playable demo to the press in May and June 2010. The demo took place on a cursed island where its inhabitants were mutating into crab-like people. These innocent, brain-washed people fought Sterling to protect the root of the island’s torment: a figurehead.
The combat, according to the slew of previews for the game, was also comparable to Fable. Third-person hack-and-slash, with a pistol and magic. Sterling’s magic abilities and skill tree would reflect his morality. For example: dreaded Sterling would beat foes with a giant anchor during combat–not exactly a clean, or practical, way of murdering people, which fit the villainy of the dreaded pirate. Each attack would build a meter that would allow players to activate special abilities, like a move where Sterling smashes down on the ground causing enemies nearby to shoot up in a geyser of water.
Upon reaching the figurehead, Sterling would have a choice between taking the idol to place on his ship, or to carve it in his image. If Sterling chose to carve it and return to the island later in the game, the denizens would worship him like a god. If Sterling decided to keep it, the island would crumble apart.
Then Propaganda went silent to finish the game. Typically, the final months leading up to release are considered a “crunch” period for most game developers. The crunch usually consists of long work days for the team as they finish the game. It’s a stressful period that most big-budget games go through. It’s not clear if Propaganda ever began crunch, but we do know it never finished it if it did.
In October, just four months after showing the game to the public, Armada of the Damned was cancelled.
At the time of the announcement, Disney released a public statement to Joystiq.
“Disney Interactive Studios confirms the cancellation of the Pirates of the Caribbean: Armada of the Damned video game which was scheduled to be released in 2011. As a result of this decision, Disney Interactive Studios completed a restructuring of Propaganda Games, its Vancouver, BC internal studio, affecting one of the studio’s two development teams.”
The entire Armada of the Damned team was laid off in the restructuring, including some of the members of the team working on the 2012 movie-tie-in game Tron: Evolution. A total of 100 people, Kotaku reported, went home that day jobless. Tron was still in active development, and Armada of the Damned was cut.
Propaganda shipped Tron: Evolution in November, and the movie, Tron: Legacy, opened the following month.
A month later, Disney shutdown Propaganda, leaving the studio with two completed games to its name.
The mystery remains
Nobody knows why Armada of the Damned was cut or why Propaganda was shuttered except for the people who were involved. From the outside, the game, unlike so many others based on film franchises, went in its own direction. It was based in the Disney’s fiction, but it was Propaganda’s story. To cancel a game so close to its release date could mean several different things; the speculation is endless. There’s only so much we can derive from the game’s public presence. It could have been in disparate pieces, far too broken to ever ship, or Disney could have decided it was no longer worth the investment. Unfortunately, we may never learn why.
It’s been 3 years since we last heard about Armada of the Damned, the ambitious project that never saw the light of day. Since then, games like Mass Effect have taken the idea of morality, with its Paragon and Renegade system, into an expansive universe of its own, and others have dropped a good or bad meter for something more subtle. Games based on film franchises still exist, but tend to be mobile games, much smaller bets with big returns. Maybe Armada of the Damned was the last of its kind.
Today, the game’s director, Alex Peters, is the vice president of production at Activision. Dan Tudge is president of N-Space, a game developer who is responsible for Nintendo 3DS ports of console games, like Call of Duty and Skylanders. Other Propaganda members went on to create games like Halo 4, FarmVille 2, and Guild Wars 2. The fate of the rest of the team is unknown. Galen Davis, the fan that tried to bring some part of the game back, stopped posting on the forum two years ago. Like Disney and the employees at Propaganda, it seems he too, has moved on.