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The death of Fallen Frontier and Moonshot's mobile resurrection


Downloadable console games were all the rage in 2009, the year that Damián Isla, Rob Stokes and Michel Bastien left Bungie and founded Moonshot Games. Stepping away from the AAA development halo, the trio envisioned a digital game for XBLA and PSN, and in 2010 they received two publishing deals for Fallen Frontier, a co-op platforming shooter with a wicked split-screen mechanic.

By 2011, both of these publishing deals were dead.

"Here's the problem with that situation: When your game gets funded, you start spending a lot of time doing stuff that helps you make the game – lots of infrastructural stuff on the engineering side, lots of tool-building, lots of deep story and design work on the design side – but doesn't necessarily do a lot to help you sell the game," Isla told Joystiq. "So each time a development deal fell apart, it was a whole lot of time lost."

Moonshot took Fallen Frontier to PAX East 2011 without a publisher, and players were "really receptive," Isla said. The money, however, had moved on.

"I would say that our main mistake was one of timing," Isla said. "We arrived at the XBLA/PSN space a year or two too late. If we had been showing the game at PAX 2009 rather than 2011, we would be telling a different story right now. But by 2011 the publishers' appetite for development funding in the console downloadable space had evaporated – probably for pretty good reason – and the only deals we were hearing them sign were distribution deals."

After PAX East 2011, Fallen Frontier never picked up another publishing deal. Kickstarter, today's default funding option for otherwise hopeless projects, wasn't a viable option when the Fallen Frontier founders needed support, in a time before Tim Schafer's Double Fine Adventure broke through that ceiling. Moonshot paused development at a third of the way done to shop the game around, and it simply never started up again.

In January 2013, Moonshot announced the official cancellation of Fallen Frontier.

"Post-PAX we came to the grim realization that the market had shifted pretty substantially since we first started working on the game," Isla said. "The console downloadable platforms had plateaued somewhat, and publishers were less excited about investing there. A game that had sold itself easily the first two times all of a sudden became a much harder sell the third time. By that time, the real interest and the accompanying dollars seemed to had moved on to mobile and social."

The death of Fallen Frontier and Moonshot's mobile resurrection
Moonshot could take a hint: the same day it announced Fallen Frontier's dissolution, it revealed Third Eye Crime, a top-down stealth game designed specifically for iPad and due out in the spring. Now, Moonshot is returning to PAX East with Third Eye Crime, as part of 2013's Indie Showcase.

"I like to think that with Third Eye Crime, we are actually returning to the type of game we always intended to make," Isla said. "And if early reactions are anything to go by, I think people are going to really respond to the game."

"The contents of their brains become a game mechanic – you react not just to what they do, but what they know. I don't think that's ever quite been done before." Damián Isla, Moonshot Games

Third Eye Crime is a stealth and puzzle game about a telepathic master art thief named Rothko who gets pulled into a city-wide criminal conspiracy, done up in noir, graphic novel-inspired art and topped off with a jazzy soundtrack. While Final Frontier's innovation lay in delivering modern, multiplayer action in a 2D platformer, Third Eye Crime's focus is on the AI.

"For Third Eye Crime, we are making the AI the central focus of the gameplay," Isla said. "For many years I was, and mostly still am, an AI guy, so the original concept behind Third Eye Crime was to show as much of what was going on inside the head of the AI as possible. Hence the notion of the telepathic protagonist; you can see what the AI are thinking because he can read their minds. And once you can see what they're thinking, the contents of their brains become a game mechanic – you react not just to what they do, but what they know. I don't think that's ever quite been done before."

Third Eye Crime doesn't have a publisher, but it doesn't need one, because Moonshot is funding the entire thing itself. Since Fallen Frontier's collapse, the Moonshot team have taken up jobs at mainstream studios, some for good. Isla helped Irrational Games with the AI in BioShock Infinite – "Infinite, I'm pretty sure, is going to be one for the history books," he said – Stokes worked at Blizzard and now Harmonix, and Bastien is a producer at Turn 10. The main Moonshot crew is now Isla, designer Christian Baekkelund and art director Michal Hlavac.

The death of Fallen Frontier and Moonshot's mobile resurrection
"I can honestly say that the past year working on Third Eye Crime has been the most fun and the most satisfying work I've ever done professionally. Period," Isla said. "A lot of it just comes from working with a small team and not having to find outside funding. It's not just that there's practically no politics or bureaucracy. It's that you're that much closer to the game. Everything you do matters, and nothing you do doesn't. When you don't have management or investors to keep happy, you're completely free to make decisions that are bold, or unique, or just personal, which makes the whole end product more personal as well."

Any trust that Isla may have lost in Fallen Frontier's cancellation, he hopes to regain with Third Eye Crime, starting at PAX East 2013.

"I'm certainly sorry if people were disappointed that Fallen Frontier did not happen," he said. "If it's any consolation no one was more devastated than we were. On the other hand, I think gamers understand that it's a tough landscape out there. How many major studios have closed down this year in the Boston area alone? It's been a rough time at every level of the industry. Hopefully despite the disappointment with Fallen Frontier, our audience will be psyched that we've returned for round two. And needless to say, we think Third Eye Crime is a fantastic, innovative game, so with any luck, if did lose anybody's trust, Third Eye Crime will win it right back again."

Luck, sure, and maybe some better timing.

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