How Pandemic’s Dark Knight Turned Into A Nightmare

How Pandemic’s Dark Knight Turned Into A Nightmare

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Pandemic’s Brisbane studio is no more, the result of ongoing cost and headcount reductions throughout Electronic Arts. To put it kindly, EA restored the studio’s independence; in effect, they washed their hands of several years of aborted projects and management decisions. In the aftermath, we have heard from several inside sources who have each shared their thoughts on how it all went wrong.

NOTE: While our sources generally agree on the series of events that led to the studio’s closure, they have each placed varying emphasis on the significance of certain factors. This is understandable, as their different roles at the company afforded them unique perspectives on the situation, and shouldn’t detract from the core reasons why the studio eventually closed. We have noted these differences where they arise.

When Pandemic Brisbane wrapped up Destroy All Humans 2 in late 2006, they didn’t want to work on another iteration of the series. THQ wanted them to do another sequel, this time on Xbox 360 and PS3, but Pandemic eventually declined the offer. Instead, their focus shifted to a couple of new IPs.

At this point, the studio was split into two small teams – Alpha and Bravo. Alpha began pre-production on a concept that would eventually become a project known internally as “The Next Big Thing”. It was to be an open world game for the Wii. (Our sources did not reveal any more details than this about the actual game design, except to say it still looks impressive today.)

The Bravo team were pitching a few ideas to Pandemic’s LA office, but they were all rejected in favour of an LA concept billed as Destroy All Humans except with Crypto replaced with the son of Satan and tormented souls as collectibles. Enthusiasm for this project was low and within a few months it was canned, to Brisbane’s relief. (Despite some thematic similarities to Dante’s Inferno, in development at EA Redwood Shores, one source assures us there is no connection between these two games.)

Bravo’s new project came as a result of Pandemic’s negotiations with Time Warner and DC Comics, which in turn lead to a contract with EA to make a Batman game. The only hitch was that EA’s rights to the Batman IP were set to expire in 18 months. EA needed the Batman game released within that timeframe. Pandemic felt this meant EA would do anything they could to ensure that timeframe would be met and they could recoup their investment.

Pre-production commenced with the Brisbane team excited by the idea of turning such a revered franchise into the as-yet-untitled game. It seems that it took several months before the team was informed that the Batman game they were making had to be based on the upcoming Dark Knight film. This not only meant they were tied to a very specific vision of Batman – and that several months worth of planning had to be scrapped – but they were now tied to an even tighter deadline: the theatrical release of the movie.

With the Batman game now officially a Dark Knight game, Pandemic decided to make an open world Gotham City despite none of the senior members of the team having experience in making open world games. (Mercenaries was made in LA, not Brisbane.)

Compounding this problem was the choice of technology: the internal engine being used at the LA office for Saboteur. It soon proved unsuitable for the type of huge open world it needed to handle. One source notes that they never got the streaming to work properly and that instead of scrapping the engine, they kept modding it in directions it was originally never intended to go. Another mistake.

(None of this should not be taken as a criticism of Saboteur, still very much in development at Pandemic LA. Our sources believe that title is well on track to deliver a quality game. What’s important is that the Saboteur tech was built for that type of game, not the streaming open world environments of the Dark Knight game.)

The tech issues were exacerbated by introducing an HDR lighting “solution” which not only took seven months to implement, but needed more valuable time whenever environmental changes were made. Our sources do disagree on this point: one claims that it would take an entire weekend to re-bake the lighting information into the building meshes; another claims this is an exaggeration.

While our sources agree the results were visually impressive, the game would bring the studio’s dev kits to their knees, typically crashing within minutes of being loaded and rarely capable of running at more than 5 frames per second. One source claims this is what happens when management prioritises art beyond the capabilities of the game’s technology.

On the design side, the design team didn’t receive level design tools until six months into the project. Meanwhile, management was making design decisions above the Lead Designer, many of which had to be reversed once the tools were in place.

As for the quality of the design, our sources disagree. One says many of the game’s mechanics were brilliant and potentially revolutionary, while the batmobile and batbike were loads of fun once you looked past the streaming problems. Another says the missions were mostly borrowed from other open world games and the core gameplay was dull and boring. The work on the sound design, however, was reportedly magnificent and beautifully responsive to the in-game action.

Either way, for the Dark Knight to become a title worthy of the Batman name, it needed more resources to sort out its host of design and technical problems. More and more people were brought onto the team, mostly as external contractors. At one point, our source says, there were 130 people working on the game. The human resources were there, but a more important resource was missing.


The real killer was having to hit the same release date as the movie. Eventually it became clear this would be impossible and the decision was made to focus on launching to coincide with the Dark Knight DVD release in December 2008. This would be the absolute deadline, as EA’s rights to the Batman IP expired in December.

By September, the Dark Knight game was supposed to be in alpha. However, there were still massive problems with the game: huge glitches with the missions, the graphics, the technology. These were all issues that potentially could have been fixed, but essentially the quality just wasn’t at a level it should have been at that time in the production schedule. The game had to ship just a few months later, but everyone knew it was in no state to do so.

The Dark Knight was canned.

Pandemic Brisbane lost about 20 people at this point, not an unusual move when a major project like that goes under. The remainder of the Bravo team stayed on, unsure of what would happen next. Then when in December EA made moves to reduce its workforce, Pandemic’s Brisbane studio was always a prime candidate to feel those cuts.

One source claims that EA’s new label structure is setup to make this type of cut easy to administer. On the one hand, EA promotes the likes of Bioware, DICE, Maxis and Pandemic and forges high profile deals with the likes of Valve and Grasshopper because, to gamers, those names are more valuable than EA.

On the other hand, our source claims, EA affords these teams a degree of autonomy that makes it easier to pull the plug when things don’t go according to plan. Pandemic’s inability to produce a hit title in recent years meant that something had to give. One source suggests that Brisbane was amputated in order to save the rest of the patient in LA.

The end result is that Pandemic Brisbane was let go by EA. The Alpha team is apparently still together in some form and retains the rights to “The Next Big Thing”. They may be in a position to pitch this Wii title to other publishers. The Bravo team is gone. And so is the Dark Knight game.


  • Hey dude, this is a really good article. Nice to see you were able to get a few of those insider sources to spill the beans.

  • Sounds like a real debacle. At least by having EA cut them loose rather than stepping in and firing random people, they have a chance to pitch their other game to another publisher and stay in business. Plus I’m sure some of the Dark Knight game’s work could be salvaged and put into their Wii game? If they had some revolutionary ideas and both games were open-world then it might be possible at least.

  • I’ve been involved in some project management but nothing on this scale of course, and it always astounds me how often everyone expects all three angles of the Fast-Cheap-Good triangle.

    It always ends in tears and heartache and it’s usually the people at the bottom that take the hit instead of the guy with completely unrealistic expectations.

    Great article.

  • hey Pandemite: I Would like to know who you are. Maybe your one of those people who didn’t really contribute that much to the Dark knight game but were still more than happy to take a large share of the budget

  • Pandemite – you sound like a bitter little person. Where you burned by this? I think Nicollo really hit what kind of person you are on the head. Dick.

  • @: Our sources believe that title is well on track to deliver a quality game.

    Not nearly as good as Mercs, but a whole hell of a lot better then Dark Knight.

    The Next Big Thing was the best thing Pandemic had going. Hopefully this one finds a nice home.

  • I’m just echoing what has already been said; great article, Wildgoose. While I’ve read stories of studios closing before, this was the first that gave a matter of depth and solid reasoning.

  • Pandemic is and has always been over-rated. This is a classic case of lunatics running the asylum. Where was the senior management at EA greenlighting these poor decisions. Open world = open ended development issues for inexperienced teams. Anyone who knows the details of the EA buyout of Pandemic knows that very few people outside the two owners were happy with the deal. EA should shut down 60% of Pandemic and admit they blew it. EA should also fire the execs who gave that game to Brisbane. They give up Bond right before it gets cool again and then blow chunks on the biggest movie of the year that they actually had the rights to.

  • A great read, but a very sad story. Nicely done Mr. Wildgoose, it’s a shame we’ll never see this potentially great game. Seems to be the current theme, what with Battlefront 3 and all…

  • We seem to have a few people commenting who have experience with this particular situation. I think this is a fairly accurate although not perfect view of the events I witnessed. I would like to hear more from Pandemite so we can determine whether they witnessed something completely different which we missed, or whether Nicollo is correct with their assessment of you.

  • Wow didn’t the same thing happen with EA Tiburon and Superman Returns? Wouldn’t that studio have been the better choice since they already did an open world superhero game? Is EA leadership so focused on the fiscal quarter that they are incapable of learning from past mistakes, or making any serious long term plans?

  • I agree with pandemite, I dunno who these sources are but the article is full of factual errors. Just sounds like a bunch of disgruntled ex-employees playing the blame game.

    Here’s a few corrections:

    Pandemic was up for doing another DAH! game, however THQ decided one of their studios could do it for cheaper. No-one was too upset though.

    Bravo’s game was never going to be released with a movie or based on a movie, it was a separate story line and originally planned for the movie DVD release.

  • I’m still not convinced pandemite/ex-pandemite, you say it is “full of factual errors” but then you only state 2 minor ones.

    From what I understand the DAH! comment is correct with regard to THQ giving the project to the lowest bidder.

    I understood Batman was to be released around the same time as the movie, but it was more likely it would not be released until the DVD. Although the story was not to be the same as the movie, it did have to be in the same Chris Nolan universe with the same characters, and it could not do anything which contradicted the movie in any way. So in that way the games story was loosely tied to the movie.

  • I’m keen to know how many people were let go, as I am trying to keep track of the number of job losses in the games industry in 2009. Anyone know any hard facts?

  • Let go? Like the author states, around 20 let go in September/October when the Dark Knight Project fell through. Bravo was given 6 weeks to pitch another idea which was called “Edge.” Apparently, Frankie and Johnnie didn’t like it, so the AU studio was a major cost center, especially since they just moved to new digs which were rumored to be much more lavish than the LA headquarters which has some big wigs in LA more than a little pissed.

    Once Edge got rejected, it was academic. The Wii title, although promising simply didn’t look like a Pandemic product. In short, this wasn’t a game that EA bought Pandemic for.

    So for numbers, the studio employed just over 100 full time staffers. I’d say that as of now, maybe the Business Director is there along with the Accounting person and maybe one IT guy to keep track of the inventory for potential suiters.

  • I worked at Pandemic for a number of years, first time ive posted on here… for what its worth ive got to say that article doesnt represent what happened there correctly.. i think someone’s in need of some mummy love!

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