An investigation by German outlet Game Two into what went wrong during the development of Lord of the Rings: Gollum has made claims that the publisher’s apology for the terrible state of the released game was written by AI ChatGPT. The claim appears alongside a laundry list of alleged issues behind the game’s development, including poorly paid crunch and unpleasant working conditions at developer Daedalic.
The German developer Daedalic cut its teeth on point-and-click adventures. Generally with aspirations above ability, these most often proved beautiful but cumbersome games, with a very dedicated European fanbase. However, when it came to developing Lord of the Rings: Gollum, goals were set far higher, with an intention to create a AAA game, except without a AAA budget or team. This, it is now being reported, seemingly led to unpleasant times, impossible goals, and a wave of job losses.
Described by Kotaku as “2023’s worst game,” Gollum did not exactly release to a fanfare. Currently sitting on an absolutely brutal Metascore of 34, it’s unquestionable that something went wrong. Game Two set out to find out what, speaking to 32 former and current Daedalic employees, and found grim times.
Following a string of expensive flops in the always-tiny adventure market, former employees told Game Two that a culture of crunch became the norm at the studio, causing a lot of burn-out, especially for younger workers. At least one person speaking to camera says that they were offered less than minimum wage when extending their contract. Extraordinarily, Game Two shows an email allegedly from COO Stephan Harms that states the company may no longer pay for overtime, and that it’s “a completely normal and common parameter in our industry,” adding, “crunch times are the norm.” Daedalic denied to Game Two that overtime wasn’t compensated.
The other large issue that was raised was the management style of CEO Carsten Fichtelmann and COO Stephan Harms. Daedalic refuted the claims that the work environment was unpleasant, saying it was a “friendly” place to work, but multiple sources—some on camera—stated that Fichtelmann especially was often angry and reduced employees to tears.
Read More: Review: 2023’s Worst Game, Gollum, Has Entered The Chat
Daedalic staff reported feeling much more positive when it came to be development of Gollum. There was a lot of internal enthusiasm for the world of Tolkien, and it was a huge scoop for a small German studio, giving the company aspirations of international success.
With worldwide attention from the gaming press, and a lot of promotional activity, the ambition was in place to develop a AAA game. Except, it seems from this report, it wasn’t matched by hiring a team large enough to achieve it. Current Daedalic owners Bastei Lübbe weren’t prepared to give the studio the extra funding they needed, the game eventually made on a tiny budget of €15 million.
Coming from a background of making story-led adventure games, sources told Game Two that the same approach was taken to Gollum, with the mechanics of how it would actually play coming too late. The team also met significant problems creating a main character that moved on all-fours, which led to a litany of issues. And with limited staff and money, and an internal sense that the game couldn’t be saved, the multiple delays to the game were described by some sources as “damage limitation.”
Terrible in-game trailers were released apparently without the development team’s knowledge, which even Daedalic acknowledged could have been better. However, the report states that staff continued to put in every effort they could—including crunch—to try to rescue the project. Which clearly didn’t work out.
Read More: Lord Of The Rings: Gollum Studio Apologizes For ‘Underwhelming Experience’
Shortly after release, Daedalic seemingly posted an apology to social media, describing Lord of the Rings: Gollum as an “underwhelming experience,” while promising patches. An apology that, rather concerningly, incorrectly spelt the name of the game, while packing in empty aphorisms. It later became clear that the apology wasn’t written by Daedalic, but rather their new owners, publisher Nacon, and published without Daedalic’s approval. But even more extraordinarily, two anonymous sources of Game Two told them that the apology was written by ChatGPT.
We’ve done our best to reach out to Nacon regarding this claim, although the company is very shy about sharing contact information on its website. We’ve also reached out Daedalic to ask for responses to specific claims made in the Game Two report.
Very sadly, the response by Daedalic to the situation was to entirely close down its development division, in order to focus purely on publishing other developers’ games. That saw 25 people lose their jobs.