Even today, Outcast is one of the most adored PC games ever made. There are fans so enamoured with it that they’re rebuilding it in new engines – a years-long undertaking reserved only for franchises such as Half-Life.
Yet, while many remember the otherworldly adventures of Cutter Slade fondly, the original design was much more terrestrial and rote by games industry standards.
“We had this idea for a 3D game set in a fictional South American country,” says Franck Sauer, Outcast’s Art Director and Appeal studio co-founder. “[Players] would infiltrate a drug cartel in first person to free abducted tourists from a local drug baron.”
This version didn’t progress far, Franck admits. Driven by technological curiosity, Appeal moved the concept to a more fantastical setting at the first opportunity.
“Yves [Grolet, studio co-founder] had this idea about a team travelling through multiple universes,” says Frank, who took the prototype out to publishers in search of a deal. Ubisoft turned down the opportunity, but Infogrames stepped in and immediately wrote a €150,000 cheque to fund further development.
The prototype Appeal demonstrated was substantially different from the finished game, however. Elements such as rideable Twon-Ha and Talan soldiers had their final designs cemented early on, but others changed dramatically.
“In the early version, Outcast featured a hero called Stan Blaskowitz, who had a bird-like helmet,” says Franck. “Eventually [Infogrames] decided the design was too odd and a new version was produced… their marketing department came up with the name Cutter Slade for the new main character.”
Tweaks to the protagonist weren’t the only changes, but as the scope grew the release date was repeatedly pushed back. What Appeal originally estimated would take only two years ended up taking twice that, swelling the budget to a €1.5 million. When Outcast did finally hit shelves, sales weren’t even close to strong enough to recoup that much.
“We sold about 400k copies…way below the million Infogrames expected,” admits Franck, pinning the blame partly on Outcast’s unusual system requirements and partly on internal strife at Infogrames.
“Outcast came out when Infogrames had just bought Accolade to become their US arm and management there didn’t like being bossed around by a European company. They boycotted distribution by only releasing 50k units.”
“You work four years on a game and then some suit decides it’s not good for his image to sell it. That’s how it works sometimes.”
For the team, Infogrames’ self-sabotage immediately impacted plans for the future. A previously announced Dreamcast version was cancelled and, while Infogrames’ claimed it was due to porting difficulties; the reality was that poor sales had crushed publisher confidence.
Despite this, work on a sequel continued. Outcast 2: The Lost Paradise would have involved Cutter Slade returning to Adelpha to save it from human corporations – and it got quite far into pre-production even despite Appeal’s shaky situation.
“The story was that years after you return to earth, a world trade federation sends troops to Adelpha to exploit its resources,” says Franck. “The Talan essence is part of the planet, so Talans are dying as a result. You infiltrate a human vessel, go back and help your Adelphan friends.”
“Yes,” he admits, “it was basically Avatar.”
Outcast 2 would have featured several new ideas for the would-be franchise, including the ability to forage for plants and wildlife that could enhance Cutter’s arsenal. One plant would have acted like a magnifier for some weapons, for example – and Cutter would have harnessed Ventilopes to fly long distances too.
Production wasn’t smooth sailing, however. Using poor sales of the original as justification, Infogrames insisted on a PlayStation 2 launch and pressured Appeal for a more action-orientated game. This friction led to the departure of founding members such as Yves Grolet.
“We weren’t comfortable with the choices, but we wanted to make the game so badly that we went ahead with it,” says Franck. “We focused on the action elements and it showed in the prototype. There’s no interaction with the locals and the game lost its originality as a result. A lot of early designs involved sneaking into military camps.”
Despite Appeal’s rapid progress – which Franck says was not helped by terrible PS2 developer kits – Outcast 2 was eventually cancelled and Infogrames’ €3 million investment was written off shortly before the publisher closed for good. Attempts to rekindle interest since have all ended unsuccessfully and all that remains of Outcast 2 now are traces; leaked screenshots and mysteries hidden in the original – carvings of human faces and a broken daoka.
“Those are hints we put in to give players a sense of what would come later in the sequel, but I can’t tell you exactly what it’s about or I’d spoil future projects.”
“Let’s just say they are meaningful. There are a lot of mysteries in Outcast still waiting to be discovered.”
More in this series…
Images and video courtesy of Franck Sauer