Dead Again: The rise and fall of Friday the 13th: The Game

Earlier this week, developer Illfonic rolled out the long-awaited dedicated servers update for Friday the 13th: The Game. It was a bittersweet moment for fans of the asymmetrical horror title since the update brought much needed stability to the game’s online infrastructure and yet, due to an ongoing lawsuit involving the very first Friday the 13thfilm, it also marked the end of Illfonic’s and publisher Gun Media’s planned content additions for the game.

Now, Friday the 13th: The Game exists in a weird sort of limbo where it is still technically online and playable but it also won’t be receiving any new gameplay or content updates from here on out.

The launch of the dedicated servers update marks the inevitable wind-down for a promising game that was dogged by its fair share of controversies and, funnily enough, likely wouldn’t have had such a premature end if Gun Media had gone with its original multiplayer slasher concept.

Off to summer camp

Gun Media first shared its concept of an asymmetrical horror title way back in October of 2014. A spooky retro-style live-action trailer teased a game called Summer Camp, and Gun Media wasn’t shy about how much the Friday the 13th slasher film franchise had influenced its otherwise original hand-crafted pitch. Summer Camp would have been set at Camp Forest Green (a clever nod to the film Friday the 13th: Jason Lives) and Gun Media had even managed to hire several Friday the 13th film alums including FX artist Tom Savini and soundtrack composer Harry Manfredini to work on the game.

Indeed, the folks behind Gun Media openly expressed their true desire to make a fully fledged Friday the 13th game, but of course licensing issues prevented that dream from becoming a reality so they figured Summer Camp would be the next best thing.

However, in early 2015, Gun Media was approached by none other than Sean S. Cunningham, the director behind the original Friday the 13thfilm (and several of its sequels) who also happened to hold the series’ video game licensing rights.

When Cunningham saw how much passion Gun Media and Illfonic clearly had for both the Friday the 13th series and the slasher genre as a whole, he took the time to sit down with the Summer Camp team to hash out a new deal over the following months.

Roughly a year after first uploading the Summer Camp teaser, Gun Media managed to top that previous reveal with an even bigger one: Summer Camp was being turned into Friday the 13th: The Game and fans would be able to support its development directly via a Kickstarter crowdfunding campaign.

A killer reborn

Unsurprisingly, the Kickstarter and follow-up Backerkit campaigns for Friday the 13th: The Game both proved to be a massive success, bringing in roughly $1.25 million between the two of them (the original Kickstarter campaign goal had been a mere $700,000).

Hype for the upcoming game swelled up even more when Gun Media announced that Kane Hodder, the imposing stunt coordinator who had portrayed iconic Friday the 13th killer Jason Voorhees in many of the series’ film entries, would be doing motion capture for the game.

The main gameplay mode in Friday the 13th: The Game would be a competitive multiplayer format in which a group of players, controlling hapless camp counselors, would need to escape from the map while another player, controlling Jason, methodically hunted them down.

However, despite the fact that its specific Kickstarter stretch goal wasn’t reached, Illfonic said it also planned on developing a single-player experience in which players could stalk and kill NPC counselors in a variety of scenarios that would be based on the various Friday the 13th films.

The plan was to release the main competitive component first and then add in the single-player mode as a free post-launch update. Originally, the competitive aspect of Friday the 13th: The Game was supposed to release in the fall of 2016, but unforeseen technical difficulties forced Illfonic to delay it into summer 2017.

Finally, on May 26, 2017, the digital version of Friday the 13th: The Game launched for Xbox One, PlayStation 4, and PC (a physical release of the console versions would follow shortly after in October).

Sadly, when Friday the 13th: The Game was finally released to the public, its initial reception was, to put it plainly, an utter disaster.

Dead man walking

Right out of the gate, Friday the 13th: The Game suffered from crippling server and matchmaking issues which made finding even a single game to join a frustrating experience. Then, when a player was finally lucky enough to be placed into a match, they’d discover gameplay which was riddled with so many glitches, bugs, and exploits that it was a miracle if a match progressed all the way to the end without any major technical disruptions.

Unsurprisingly, the game’s player population quickly nosedived, and those dedicated few who stuck around were forced to put up with rampant team-killing (certain exploits allowed one counselor player to kill another, no help from Jason necessary) and a shallow, unsatisfying XP-based progression system.

By August, Illfonic had largely solved the team-killing problem, but it was going to take more than that to win back the good will which had been lost due to the game’s rough launch.

To Illfonic and Gun Media’s credit, they didn’t give up on Friday the 13th: The Game despite the fact that most critics and former fans already considered it to be dead in the water. August also saw the release of smaller maps which allowed for quicker matchmaking and shorter match times, and on August 11 Gun Media started teasing a new feature via social media which, in October, was finally revealed to be an entire new game mode called Paranoia.

Other than its name, details about Paranoia were kept close to the vest, but Illfonic made it up to fans by releasing both a large content update for the game and a content roadmap detailing what fans could look forward to over the coming months.

After the release of the October update and roadmap, fans were finally starting to give Friday the 13th: The Game a cautious second chance, and Illfonic capitalized on that goodwill by releasing one last 2017 update in December. The December 2017 update was lauded for two major reasons: the inclusion of AI bot counselors and a revamped ‘Virtual Cabin 2.0’ experience which functioned as a sort of interactive digital museum for the entire Friday the 13th franchise.

Players who unlocked all of the new Virtual Cabin’s secrets were even treated to a special teaser which confirmed that both a map and an Uber Jason variant from the film Jason X were coming to the game.

The beginning of the end

Friday the 13th: The Game fans likely entered 2018 with high spirits since they still had a lot to look forward to. There was the long-gestating Paranoia mode, the single-player scenarios, and the recently teased Jason X content, not to mention all of the upcoming features outlined on the content roadmap. Some fans grumbled over how frequently Illfonic said new features were coming “soon” without providing clear release windows, but those grumblings diminished when another content update, this one themed around the Part V film, arrived in January.

The excitement surrounding the January update was quickly tempered, however, when Illfonic announced on February 1 that the Paranoia game mode was being indefinitely delayed. Illfonic tried to be as transparent as possible, saying that the internal prototype for the mode wasn’t very fun and that additional tinkering would be required, but fans were still understandably upset considering they had already been waiting for the new mode since October of the previous year.

Things didn’t get much better after that since Illfonic had to temporarily halt new content additions as it worked on an engine upgrade that was vital for the eventual implementation of dedicated servers. This meant that several months would go by without any new content, once again causing fan opinions to sour.

Fortunately for Illfonic, the engine upgrade was completed just in time for the game’s one year anniversary, and to celebrate Illfonic released a large content update on May 24 which added in a new playable counselor and the long-awaited single-player scenarios.

Less than a month after the release of the one year anniversary update, everything came crashing down. Ever since 2016, an ongoing legal dispute between Sean S. Cunningham and original Friday the 13thwriter Victor Miller had barred any new Friday the 13th films from being made, and in June of 2018 it was determined that those same restrictions also applied to new content for Friday the 13th: The Game.

Whatever content that was already in the game was fine, but from that moment forward Illfonic couldn’t put any new assets in, not even wholly original assets (like playable counselors or maps) that weren’t directly connected to the films. 

All of the remaining content roadmap additions were cancelled. Uber Jason and the planned Jason X map would forever remain confined to the Virtual Cabin’s basement. Illfonic said that it would continue to support Friday the 13th: The Game with bug-fixing patches and the planned dedicated servers, but aside from that the game was basically in maintenance mode.

Some fans were hopeful that content development would resume if and when the lawsuit was settled, but Illfonic quickly quashed those hopes, saying that it would be bad business to keep working on content which might never see the light of day.

As it stands now, Friday the 13th: The Game is still technically playable, and it’s in a much better state than it was when it first launched. There’s a whole bunch of content in the game for fans of the film franchise to enjoy, and the implementation of bot support and the single-player scenarios means that even fans who don’t enjoy competitive multiplayer can still find reasons to play.

One wonders what the game would have looked like today had Gun Media stuck with its original Summer Camp vision, but at the very least it’s nice to know that, in the end, they got to create the game they wanted to make right from the start. Jason Voorhees may remain trapped in development hell for the time being, but his legacy lives on in a game that, much like many of the hapless victims he hunted, was unfortunately doomed from the start.