Mid-Aughts Meltdown #3: The End of Acclaim Entertainment

Hello and welcome back to the long-gestating Mid-Aughts Meltdown. This week we’re exploring the life and ultimate self-destruction of Acclaim Entertainment, through the prism of a return to my roots in bad 3D platforming in the 2003 game Vexx

Information on Vexx and Acclaim more broadly was not always easy to find. This article would not be possible without many sources, including Charles Platt’s article for Wired, a 2003 IGN Unplugged magazine interview, and two different New York Times articles. This series cites all sources for quotes and imagery used for factual, demonstrative, and transformative purposes, and these sources will be linked throughout.

Credit for the header image goes to MobyGames. Please consider supporting them, as their staff tirelessly catalogs key information and art assets for an often ephemeral medium. GiantBomb was also an intermittent image source this time around. 

This article doesn’t especially necessitate a Prologue, as Vexx was simply another one of those games that I would read about and see promotion for and be intrigued by, without ever touching it prior to purchasing and playing it this year. I will provide the brief clarification that I am dividing the History into two pieces, the first being a broader overview of Acclaim’s history, and the second being about the particular development of Vexx as a lead-in to further discussion of the game. The gameplay section was ultimately cut due both to scheduling issues and the feeling that it would be a distraction here, but I will do a follow-up focusing on that if there’s sufficient interest.

The History (I)

Acclaim Entertainment is still pretty widely remembered today, even if Vexx itself isn’t especially remembered outside a small yet dedicated community of fans and livestreamers. The particular reasons the company tends to be remembered won’t be discussed quite yet, but generally, most people with any awareness of the company could tell you that it always seemed like it had stumbled into its success, and that it was constantly on the precipice of falling apart long before it formally did.

When you trace back Acclaim’s lifespan through the coverage it was receiving during that time, you can always feel the shadow of its eventual demise hanging overhead. In 1995, Charles Platt opened his Wired Magazine piece on Acclaim with the line, “[He] investigates whether Acclaim has what it takes to move to the next level – or become the next Atari.” When the New York Times reported in March 2002 (the end of the 2001 fiscal year) on how Acclaim was beginning to recover from its financial struggles, it ended on the note that Vexx, the publisher’s “first game based entirely on employee input,” and my additional subject for today, would be fully revealed that September, with the implicit belief that it would contribute further to their recent profits. Vexx certainly didn’t singlehandedly kill Acclaim, but the sunk cost and underperformance of the game in early 2003 was a notable one of many contributing factors in the company’s end to soon be discussed in detail. 

Attorney Gregory Fischbach worked as an executive for Activision and then RCA Records in the 1980s, until departing in 1987 to co-found Acclaim Entertainment in New York state with Robert Holmes and Jim Scoroposki, former Activision co-workers. Acclaim’s name was chosen on the basis that they wanted to be listed alphabetically above Activision, a process used by Activision’s own founders after departing Atari. Fischbach served as Acclaim’s CEO for 16 years until resigning shortly before its closure. During his time at Acclaim, Fischbach co-founded the Entertainment Software Association and its corresponding Ratings Board, the ESRB, in the mid 1990s to manage the games industry’s self-regulation of content, after federal and public concerns about content in titles like Sega’s Night Trap and Acclaim’s own Mortal Kombat. Of notable interest to readers from the Avocado, among various other venturers after leaving Acclaim, Fischbach in 2013 founded the video chat and media sharing service known as Rabbit, which closed its doors earlier this year after similarly running out of funding. 

Acclaim quickly built itself into a multi-million dollar company throughout the late 80s and early 90s not by developing any original games, but by observing what was popular in the arcade market, purchasing the home console license for those games, and then hiring external developers to port these games to console. This arrangement was timed well for an era when many major Japanese companies were only just starting to establish their presence in the West, if they had started at all. Commenting about this emphasis on licensing established properties, co-founder Robert Holmes said, “You can do quality software like Sierra On-line, but retailers won’t judge it on quality. They’ll complain that it doesn’t churn quickly enough. Great software without distribution and marketing is Mystic Pizza, a good movie few people have seen.”

Acclaim had really committed to the adage of spending money to make money through this process, as well as buying the game licenses for multimedia properties like The Simpsons, Alien, RoboCop, various superheroes, as well as Bigfoot the monster truck and CBS’ Airwolf. Acclaim notoriously would abuse these licenses by releasing games for them past the saturation point whenever possible, as seen with the nine Simpsons games released between 1991 and 1994. I don’t need to tell you how questionable those games often were, as Singing Brakeman covered them quite well over in his Franchise Festival

Despite the series not remaining with Acclaim after this installment, Mortal Kombat II’s production and massive success consistently informed company policies for the rest of its existence. Credit: MobyGames

Some of Acclaim’s early prominent successes before Mortal Kombat exploded in ’93 and ’94 included Technos’ Double Dragon II and III, Taito’s Bust-a-Move, Smash TV under its WMS/Midway partnership, and the SNES port of Peter Molyneux’s early title Populous. The two Mortal Kombat titles, as we all know by now, saw absolutely massive sales in spite, or perhaps because, of the controversy surrounding them, each selling 2-3 million copies in their first weeks of release. This success enabled Acclaim to make further major investments in the same vein as their WMS/Midway contract, from what they boasted in mid-1995 as “the most sophisticated motion-capture studio in the world” to a now legendary purchase of a certain independent comic book company. The tight, 6-8 month production schedules for the Mortal Kombat ports were reportedly used as a model for some games’ development throughout the rest of the company’s history, perhaps informing the large licensed lineup’s relatively poor reputation. Even at its most massively profitable, the company loved to cut corners where it could, seen in how it was recruiting Quality Assurance testers off the street through ads in the New York Times.

At the same time as Acclaim was opening its primary studio with the aforementioned motion-capture department in Glen Cove, NY, it lost major earners when FOX gained exclusivity over Simpsons games, and its contract with Midway’s then-owners, WMS Industries, was not renewed, taking both Mortal Kombat and NBA Jam with them.1 Acclaim had been making arrangements in preparations for these losses, investing in properties that they themselves would exclusively own, most notably with the April 1994 purchase of Voyager Entertainment and Valiant Comics. In addition to publishing the comics themselves, they contracted the production of games based on Valiant’s comics, leading to the start of the Turok game series on Nintendo 64, as well as the less famous Shadowman games, among various other Valiant adaptations.

Credit: MobyGames

Turok was Acclaim’s new primary earner for the remainder of their existence, making them more than $200 million between 1994 and 2001. The company also acquired,  incorporated, and subsidized several small studios in the mid-90s to finally begin working towards in-house development for these new games and licenses they’d have complete control over. These studios included Jeff Spangenberg’s Iguana Entertainment, Sculptured Software in Salt Lake City, Probe Entertainment, Software Creations, and Optimus Software, the latter three all located in England. Sculptured, Iguana (and Optimus, which Iguana had bought first) and Probe were all bought in the same 94-95 period, and in 1999 respectively became Acclaim Salt Lake, Acclaim Austin, Acclaim Teesside, and Acclaim London, alongside the formation of Acclaim Stroud the same year, and Acclaim Cheltenham in 2000. Software Creations was bought in 2002 and became Acclaim Manchester. 

Acclaim also benefited heavily from their genuine role in the innovation (and trademarking) of motion capture technology as led by former employee Wes Trager, contracting it not only to other game studios, but to Warner Bros. for Batman Forever, among other blockbusters. In spite of these successes, Acclaim would regularly face financial difficulties throughout its last decade of existence, posting a $130 million loss in 2000, which was followed by the cutting of 200 employees and appointment of new president and COO Edmond Sanctis, formerly of NBC. The company struggled in the face of the rapid expansion of the game publishing market from emerging competitors with far more resources behind them from their electronics development, first Sony in 1995, and then Microsoft in 2001. It wasn’t the only smaller publisher struggling in that era, but it was probably the single most controversy-ridden.

Ad from Acclaim’s E3 2000 booth. Credit: GiantBomb

In the last several years of its lifespan, to put it bluntly, Acclaim got sued by a whole hell of a lot of people, in addition to the consequences it suffered from its various highly ill-conceived and controversial marketing stunts. When you take in all of the various lawsuits at once, it fully sinks in with a brutal apparentness that this was not simply a company with bad judgment, it was definitively corrupt and abusive. Acclaim was sued by several employees, including the guy that went on to found Retro Studios and then get kicked out of it by Nintendo. It was sued by its own investors. It was sued by Dave Mirra and the Olsen Twins! Acclaim couldn’t even have celebrity endorsements that it didn’t eventually piss off. 

After being fired on July 8th 1998, Iguana founder Jeff Spangenberg sued Acclaim, Greg Fischbach, and Iguana for fraud and breach of contract.2He alleged that he was personally coerced by Fischbach into purchasing large amounts Acclaim stock and holding onto it in the immediate lead-up to his firing, deliberately stripping him of the stock options that had been part of his contract and the terms for buying Iguana, as an act of not only vicious cost reduction for the struggling company, but punishment towards Spangenberg for his stated intentions to leave the company once his contract expired in 1999. He also claimed that other development leaders at other subsidiary studios were being similarly treated and summarily removed. Spangenberg went on to found Retro Studios, of Metroid Prime and Donkey Kong Country Returns fame, in October 1999, before in turn leaving Retro due to his own negligent behavior and going on to sigh lead the studio responsible for The Guy Game. 

Credit: Metroid Wiki

Employees from aforementioned acquired developer Sculptured Software sued the company, for abrupt firings and repeated alterations of subsequent severance packages, which violated Acclaim’s own contract terms. This fits the claims Spangenberg had made about Acclaim’s across the board treatment of their subsidies. In 2007, an entire decade after those sudden firings, one of Sculptured’s class-action lawsuits succeeded and earned some compensation for former employees. Acclaim’s investors sued the company in 2003 on the allegation of publishing deliberately misrepresentative financial reports. The investors’ lawsuit would be followed up on in September 2005, one year after the company’s ultimate bankruptcy. In 2004, the Olsen Twins also sued Acclaim, seeking unpaid royalties from games licensed off the women’s likenesses and media properties. The lawsuit reportedly also addressed Acclaim damaging their brand by producing these games at cheap and poor quality, and violating their contract through the 2003 cancellation of Mary Kate and Ashley in ACTION!

Several different games in the 2002-2003 period had publicity stunts of varying degrees of controversy that went down in infamy, further shaping its gradually declining immediate reputation. Almost twenty years later, one or more of these controversies tends to be what Acclaim is remembered, and brutally mocked, for, in press and public alike. The games were Shadowman: 2econd Coming, Turok: Evolution, Virtua Tennis 2 (or Sega Sports Tennis), and Burnout 2: Point of Impact.3 These incidents typically occurred through the company’s UK branch and targeted UK citizens specifically, but word of them quickly spread around the globe through the sheer absurdity and distastefulness of the schemes.

In 2003 Acclaim had a couple dozen pigeons spray-painted with Virtua Tennis logos, and trained them to fly through Wimbledon in order to “bring awareness of the game directly to tennis enthusiasts,” according to marketing VP Larry Sparks. On several separate occasions during the previous year, Acclaim announced offers to purchase advertising space on actual gravestones, to both provide a large cash prize ($10,000 or £6000) for parents to name their newborn children Turok and pay several adults for changing their names to Turok for a year, as well as to pay for all speeding tickets received by drivers on the game’s release date. That last one was on record as being likely illegal, or at the very least horrifically reckless and dangerous, and was affirmed as such by the British government’s swift condemnation of the ad, leading to it being retracted just as the others had. One of the headlines I found covering the Burnout incident at the time read “Acclaim’s at it again!” 

Dave Mirra, the celebrity endorsement for Acclaim’s several BMX titles, sued for slander and successfully prevented his name from being used in the title of Acclaim’s most infamous publicity stunt: BMX XXX. In a desperate bid to get attention on an ultimately mediocre entry in its previously quite successful motocross game series, Acclaim not only rendered the game’s female models as topless and incorporated juvenile sex comedy humor into the dialogue, but also included footage of real life strippers’ performances as rewards for progressing in the game. This only brought further poor reception onto the game, eventually most major American retailers of the time outright refused to carry BMX XXX, and the game sold extremely poorly. It, along with Turok: Evolution and Vexx, among others in the 02-04 era, were all highly expensive flops, and all the while Acclaim was also hemorrhaging developers it needed to hold onto, losing Burnout’s Criterion and BMX’s Z-Axis to Activision with little to no gains, bringing the company into its final financial tailspin from which it never recovered.

One of several provocative screenshots from the game’s official website. Credit: MobyGames

In 2004, Acclaim simultaneously failed to secure two different loans from financiers, one of which was for 65$ million. They had $100 million in debt. They filed for bankruptcy one week later, and canceled numerous games4 either permanently or until they were bought by new publishers. Douglass Perry’s contemporary report for IGN on Acclaim filing for bankruptcy in August 2004 features accounts from multiple unnamed (by choice) former employees, which in turn felt  immediately reminiscent of the reports and testimonies that came out after the collapse of Telltale Games last autumn. Shortly after midnight on Friday August 27th, a brief meeting was held in which employees were given fifteen minutes to collect their belongings and leave. Depending on whether their location was in the US or the UK, employees were not paid for anywhere between the last two weeks and the last month of their work, because there was no more money to give. These quotes in particular struck me: “We worked our asses off and we worked long hours and a lot of people have mortgages, they have bills, and they left us hanging.” “It’s a shame to see the company go out like this. There was a better way to handle this situation. But what can you do?” 

A year after the bankruptcy, Greg Fischbach, Jim Scoroposki, and various other executives, were charged with $150 million worth of damages for misrepresenting financial reports, embezzlement, destruction of evidence, among many other crimes, and overall “operating Acclaim as if it were a personal piggy bank.” The numbers cited in the allegation that their financial reports for the year 2000 had massively exaggerated the revenues and understated the losses are corroborated in the 2002 NYT report on the company’s brief comeback. Fischbach appears to not only have suffered little to no consequences for this behavior, but likely went on to do the exact same things during the operations of Rabbit over the past several years, while the games industry continues to be infested with people just like him in power.5 Now let’s delve deeper into Acclaim’s halcyon first and last game based entirely on employee input. 

The History (II) 

For this section, among other cited sources, I have multiple archived interviews with Thomas Coles, one from IGN Unplugged magazine in 2002, and one 6 from InsideXbox in February 2003, only a few days before the game’s US release.

After Iguana/Acclaim Austin had proven itself as a developer with the wide success of Turok: Dinosaur Hunter and Turok 2: Seeds of Evil on Nintendo 64, they were assigned a project that underwent multiple title changes during the production from late 1999 to its February 2003 release, on the order that Acclaim needed their own 3D mascot platformer for the upcoming generation of consoles, the Xbox, the PS2, and the Gamecube. The development was led by two men, creative director David Dienstbier and lead designer Thomas Coles, from the brainstorming phase to the start of asset-building in November 2000, with a team that continually shrank and grew throughout development, ranging between 22 and 34 people, along with additional contributions from other Acclaim studios’ employees. Early development was done exclusively through PC due to initially not having access to the devkits for any of the new consoles, and the engine and many resources were shared between Vexx and Turok: Evolution, as the games were being developed simultaneously by different teams at Acclaim Austin.

When development first began, submissions from all across the company, inside and outside of the dev team, were sent in to provide input on the protagonist’s concept and design. Thomas Coles said that avoiding both the character placing aesthetic ahead of gameplay, with a comparison of Mario and Crash as the example, and not wanting the character’s gameplay to be reducible to a single gimmick, were priorities for the character design. “Don’t make a mascot, you don’t make a brand that way…make a great game.” One comment from Coles that gets really funny with hindsight, is regarding when there was brief discussion over whether the game would be 2D or 3D: “I mean, who knows, maybe there’s going to be a renaissance in 2D gaming. As hardcore gamers we all enjoy 2D games, but in the mass market that’s not likely to be the case.” The high on 3D late 90s/early 2000s completely dismissed what would eventually be a huge reality of the current industry.

A very early design, when the character was still Clip and more closely resembled rival character Jak. Credit: Kynan Pearson and Subtractive Design

According to designer and artist Kynan Pearson7 in his blog posts on the making of Vexx and a 2016 interview with speedrunner Strategism, the game began as Clip and Mischief, featuring a player character duo of the repeatedly redesigned humanoid and his small reptilian sidekick named Mischief, but this was scrapped due to similarity to some of the competition, Naughty Dog’s upcoming Jak and Daxter. After Jak and Daxter began being previewed, out of a desire or order to differentiate the game, several major mid-development gameplay redesigns occurred, Mischief was removed entirely in order to focus on a single player character, and the lead began his redesigns, becoming Jinx and finally Vexx. Both names were inspired by the idea that the hero had tremendous bad luck, but could harness and wield that ‘curse’ against his foes. Vexx’s ultimate edgy aesthetic, including the infamous claw gauntlets, was partly inspired by the short-lived 1990s fantasy comic book series Battle Chasers. The final character name/title was announced by mid-January 2002 after already debuting with the final character model. That announcement apparently came rather abruptly as IGN had still reported on it as Jinx only one week earlier. According to Thomas Coles, that happened because there were legal issues over the name Jinx, a litigious trademark owner of possibly a board game or another platformer starring a Jester?

Character design from the Jinx phase of development, post-Mischief but pre-claws. Pearson specifically cited Final Fantasy 9‘s Vivi as a visual inspiration. Credit: Kynan Pearson, Gregg Hargrove, and Subtractive Design

The game was first unveiled at E3 2001 (still under the title of Jinx) with a vague, mysterious, uninformative cinematic trailer that proceeded to become a quiet talking point for those following the industry for the rest of that year. The narrative of this small game massively overshadowed at its debut event, presented by a publisher that had seen better days but was at the moment in a slight upswing, it attracted quiet but substantial intrigue until the game was finally more fully explained to the public in 2002. Consistently introduced as an action-platformer largely inspired by Super Mario 64 and Banjo-Kazooie, Vexx features a dense and tonally intense science fiction lore which I have condensed and passed the savings on to you lovely readers. There was an excess of details and names that I have trimmed out to keep the article moving apace.

The planet Astara was physically torn apart by an army of Shadowraiths led by Dark Yabu, after the planet’s interspecies populace, the Astani, had developed a system for interplanetary travel that allowed this army to pour in and attack. The Astani were then unilaterally enslaved by the army for centuries, laboring in mines to harvest resources that sustain the Shadows’ lives. One day in the village of Rockhaven,  the brutally abused Vexx lashes out at his oppressors and is forced to watch his grandfather die at their hands to protect him and allow his escape. Under the cover of darkness, Vexx finds the Astani war talons, inherits the collective knowledge of all their previous wearers, thus allowing him to finally be of equal strength with the wraiths and begin his journey across the shattered planet to liberate his people and defeat Yabu’s army.

So, that certainly is a lot to take in, and I promise you, I am exaggerating nothing. Any view of the game’s cutscenes, or even just a standard online plot summary, brings out the same emphases on things like a multigenerational enslavement and Vexx’s bottled up, abuse-borne rage finally exploding against his enemies. Straight from 2001 IGN: “Apparently the gloves will play a huge role in the game, as they morph into different shapes and take on various magical abilities. What’s the central theme of the game? Seek revenge. Jinx will embark on a most adventurous quest through desert temples, volcanic islands and other diverse lands to save the captured townsfolk from the hands of Yabu, and serve justice.”

Credit: IGN

Those talons are the core of Vexx‘s gameplay model, as part of combat, traversal, and also taking on different forms and magical abilities throughout, thus providing not only the basic moves, including swimming and flight, but all the power-ups to collect later on as well. The power-ups are modeled after traditional worldly elements of fire, water, wind, and earth. The combat system seems especially complex and varied in design, going beyond basic slashes with the Talons into ranged energy blast attacks, combos, and an “opponent juggling system” for multiple enemies almost in the vein of what would go on to much acclaim and popularity in the Batman Arkham series from Rocksteady.In the vein of the late 90s platformers cited as inspirations, Vexx has optional, hidden exploratory areas, minigames, and according rewards to pursue, but there’s no fucking timer like there was in Blinx, and there’s no endless list of different collectibles, just one, so they work as relatively intended. However, there was also a whole lot of this game that was planned and even fully built but never made it into the final draft.

Credit: MobyGames

In addition to the constant character redesigning, the game faced broader, significant development issues, owing in large part due to the dwindling funding available from Acclaim to support the development. By the spring of 2002, it was decided to delay Vexx from its initial October release date to February 2003, and in the same breath, an entire half of the game’s 18 levels, all already finished, were cut so that the team could focus on fully refining and polishing the remaining levels before release. Those levels were originally organized into six distinct worlds, that were each a piece of the broken planet with their own eventual designated boss fight each, and were directly connected together into a cohesive overworld with a central hub, but the developers chose instead to treat each of the remaining levels as its own self-contained sandbox experience, and cut some of the bosses along the way. Somewhat infamously, one of these boss fights was featured extensively and repeatedly throughout preview coverage, and the troll character model for said fight ultimately only appeared as an NPC.

Many gameplay elements were either cut entirely or substantially trimmed along the way, due to the developers’ ambition far outreaching the resources and schedule available to them. Several planned power-ups were among the casualties, including a suit that improved Vexx’s swimming. Previews and developer interviews alike describe a complex day and night cycle with real-time lighting, where “Nighttime changes the landscape and characters: enemies become more aggressive and the environments become more hostile”, which the game’s makers envisioned as a Link to the Past Dark World type of scenario, but in practice was far simpler and less compelling, it more-so resembled the shitty, plodding hack-and-slash Wolfhog sections from Sonic Unleashed.

There were open-world design elements accompanying the unified levels that would catch on years after this game’s failure, such as being able to observe and approach other levels’ environments and major landmarks in real time from anywhere in the map, a dynamic weather system interacting with these environments and the player alike, free-roaming AI enemies, and an accompanying free-climbing system that, appropriately enough, essentially foreshadowed one of Breath of the Wild‘s most innovative and essential elements. As described by GameSpot and can be seen in some trailers, three alternate means of transportation for Vexx were originally meant to be included. Two were living mounts, a larger, faster land-traversing beast and a giant flying insect, (“an organic Jet Ski of sorts,”) but the third, as far as I can tell, exists only as something alluded by both developers and GameSpot’s writer that was never seen or further clarified.

Towards very tail end of development, there were discussions had and ideas put together for what could be done with a sequel to this ultimately doomed game. In 2012, Kynan Pearson had said that “wanted to give Vexx summon-able spirit creatures that would function kind of like the stands in Jojo’s Bizarre Adventure.” Even up to the very end, as those underperformances and controversies were already beginning to pile up, these developers dared to dream of more.

Concept art from very late in development, conceived as the design Vexx would take in a potential sequel. Credit: Kynan Pearson and Substractive Design

The Wrap-Up

In my brief time playing the game and far longer time researching and studying it from afar, it was difficult not to get at least a little attached, not to mourn all the what could have beens. I’m ultimately pretty certain that this game could never have pulled together everything the developers were attempting with or without the negligent environment of Acclaim Entertainment. But that doesn’t mean I don’t deeply regret that they were stuck with such exploitative and corrupt corporate overlords. These developers did not deserve to be losing funds that should have gone into their production directly into the pocket of a few selfish and cruel executives. Just as much as those employees whose accounts from the time immediately post bankruptcy and firing were provided earlier, these developers, and almost everybody at Acclaim over its seventeen year history, wholly did not deserve the hand they were dealt by working for Acclaim. This, all of this, was not some tragically unavoidable destiny, even if it might feel a little like that, looking back. It was the conscious choices and actions and consequences of the few, the powerful, to disregard responsibility and embrace themselves over everybody else, to not treat their employees like equals, like people. Two different companies were both ran into the ground a decade apart by the same choices being made by the same one fucking guy. This wasn’t the first time something like this happened on Earth, it won’t be the last, and if absolutely nothing else, it ought to be remembered.

A whole lot of time and the occasional small financial expense goes into making this series possible. Please show your support however you can to help keep this going, whether that means sharing these articles wherever and to whomever there might be interest, or for those able to, donating to my Patreon dedicated specifically to these writings, which is linked here: https://www.patreon.com/lilytina

Thank you to Marcus TAC, Dramus18, Singing Brakeman, Ninjaneer, Prestidigitis, and others for your financial support of this project.