Bad video games are released all the time. A raft of factors conspire to influence the quality of the outcome. Maybe tight deadlines are to blame. Or maybe the problems include inexperienced developers, incompetent project management, impossible publisher requests, funding concerns. It’s a seemingly unavoidable fact that not every game can be great, or good, or even average.
So how does a game, one made by a celebrated studio and backed by one of the richest game publishers in the world, turn out to be a bad video game? This is a story about exactly that. It’s about Silicon Knights the studio behind the great Eternal Darkness, the miserable X-Men: Destiny. It’s about a proud leader, frustrated ex-employees, many internal clashes and a secret sequel everyone hoped would be great.
To an extent, it’s the role of the gaming media to warn potential buyers away from these inferior gaming experiences, and encourage them to spend time with well-designed games developed by skilled teams, led by sound project management, and unhurried by unrealistic demands. The conventional wisdom is that life’s too short to play every game — or read every book, or listen to every album, or see every film — and as a result, we tend to only want to invest our time and money into the very best.
But X-Men: Destiny (XMD), released September 27, 2011, underperformed them both with a dramatically low Metacritic score of just 41 across four platforms. (The DS version, developed by Canadian studio Other Ocean Interactive, registered a 33 on the site, making it the single worst-reviewed X-Men title in Metacritic’s records.)
There are plenty of possible explanations for the poor result. Maybe the game’s publisher, Activision, rushed the release in an attempt to hit a quarterly revenue goal. Maybe it was just dragged down by the weight of a crappy, overdone superhero licence, as so many games before it. Maybe the title just didn’t come together in the end, or simply failed to resonate with reviewers.
These are all possible, but discussions with former employees of XMD developer Silicon Knights suggest that the game’s fate was sealed long before Activision gave the project a green light back in 2009. The following story excerpts extensive interviews with former Silicon Knights employees who describe their experiences at what they say was a disorganized, unfocused company that squandered ample time and resources before being forced to release a game it was far from proud of.
Management at Silicon Knights refused to be interviewed on the record for this story, despite repeated requests over many months. A spokesperson for the game’s publisher, Activision, also declined requests for comment. Accordingly, keep in mind that what follows is but one side of a very complex story. When first confronted with wide-ranging allegations of XMD‘s tumultuous development in mid-January 2012, company president Denis Dyack gave the following statement:
“Silicon Knights is obligated to its partners (in the case of X-Men: Destiny — Activision and Marvel) to not disclose the development process of any project they work on. These obligations also apply to all the people who worked on X-Men: Destiny. Silicon Knights appreciated the opportunity to work on the game and we hope to get an opportunity to work together with Activision and Marvel again.”
This statement remains the only comment that Kotaku can attribute to the man behind the biggest failure in the studio’s 20-year history.
Enter: “SK Whistleblower”
It’s not as if Silicon Knights was some untested, fly-by-night developer brought on to quickly crank out just another licensed title. Founded in 1992 by current company president Denis Dyack, the St. Catharines, Ontario-based company is best known for their 2002 GameCube hit Eternal Darkness: Sanity’s Requiem, which scored a “universal acclaim” score of 92 on Metacritic, based on 41 reviews. The company’s 2004 Metal Gear Solid remake, The Twin Snakes, scored 85 across 54 reviews. And while Silicon Knights’ 2008 Xbox 360 release Too Human averaged a sub-par score of 65, the company’s history still suggested it could produce good games.
But X-Men: Destiny stands alone as the worst game that Silicon Knights has released since it was founded. How did a company that was once known for compelling, original, quality video games come to release a title best described as “mediocre,” “mindless,” “generic” and “an absolute mess”?
“I am writing to you in regards to Silicon Knights’ upcoming title X-Men: Destiny,” read the July 21, 2011 email from a mysterious, throwaway Hotmail account with the handle SK Whistleblower. “Silicon Knights’ executive team has just recently implemented a new policy to discredit all employees who have recently resigned. This includes employees who have worked on it for between six months and three years. Between 35 to 45 former employees will fail to have their credits appear in the game.”
I knew firsthand how to deal with such serious allegations. At the time, IGN had recently published my 4,500 word feature story based on interviews with 11 anonymous former employees of the Australian studio Team Bondi, in which those developers detailed seven troubled years of work on L.A. Noire; years that culminated with many of those employees failing to receive the credit they believed they deserved for their work. Now, someone was suggesting that Silicon Knights was having similar problems with its latest title.
“Much of what was written about Team Bondi’s situation can be said about Silicon Knights as well,” SK Whistleblower continued. “I am certain that if you contacted former and current Silicon Knights employees and offered them anonymity, you would receive evidence of an appalling antipathy from management towards the employees, publishers, and the quality of their games.”
Anonymous allegations are easy to make; verifying them is much tougher. I spent the next couple of months reaching out to dozens of former Silicon Knights employees, including a list of 32 allegedly omitted names supplied by SK Whistleblower. Many of those who responded confirmed that they, too, had heard the rumours of their names being removed from the credits of XMD. Some refused to speculate (“I can’t confirm who made it into the credits or not until the game is released, so I’m unable to comment”); some expressed concern for their former colleagues (“I feel that any information I give you will only hurt the current employees at SK”); others feared the ramifications of their involvement in this investigation (“any other information possibly leaking would not look good towards my professionalism and possible future opportunities”).
Ultimately, I secured interviews with eight former SK employees who worked on XMD, including the initial whistleblower. Between them, these former staffers represented over 45 years of service to the Canadian game development studio. All of them spoke to me on the condition of anonymity, for obvious reasons. Interviewees suggest that the company has been plagued by a complex set of internal problems for years. It soon became clear that this story was about much more than a minor grievance with SK’s crediting standards.
A Benevolent Dictatorship
“Silicon Knights operates as a guild, an organisation of individuals working together toward common goals. Guilds share internal resources collectively but also guard inside knowledge against the outside world.” This is a quote from the first paragraph on the company’s website. Immediately underneath is a quote from SK president Denis Dyack: “What they used to do in guilds was teach about things that nobody else knew how to create. And they also did things differently than anybody else out there. It was a very open environment with knowledge inside the guild, but that knowledge could never be let outside.”
Under the heading ‘Our Philosophy’ is this quote: “A guild works best when you have trust in those around you to carry out tasks and when you show loyalty by performing your best at all times. A guild can only be successful if every member works together and performs as a team to accomplish the goals of the guild.”
But the former employees I spoke with painted a very different picture: an environment in which one man wields absolute power over everything that went on within the studio’s four walls. One source described SK president Denis Dyack as a man who has “repeatedly stated to the company that artists are ‘a dime a dozen’ and can be replaced.” The same source described Dyack as a man who “proudly smiles in staff meetings and describes his role as a ‘benevolent dictatorship.’… Dyack is SK; SK is Dyack. They are one and the same — a single unchanging entity.”
Former employees also described Dyack as aloof and disconnected from the development process. Some posit that he refused to read the game’s design documents, its script, or play any builds of the game himself, yet this seems a little far-fetched considering the game’s two-and-a-half year gestation.
“I distinctly remember a theatre review of the ‘Chinatown’ level, which was so broken that it was completely unnavigable, even by the lead designer playing it,” a source says. “Dyack’s only note was that the ‘lights should be more red.’ In another instance, he thought the final boss fight should be interrupted by ‘a challenge room’ — his favourite thing from Too Human.”
Another source recounts an anecdote from a different theatre review. “The game was an unplayable disaster [in the review], but he got fixated on a static mesh of a non-interactive grey truck in the background. He gave the company a 20 minute lecture on the fact that he’d never buy a grey truck; he wanted it painted red.” Accordingly, some SK employees sniggered behind their backs at Dyack: “We jokingly coined the phrase ‘paint the truck!’ for other ridiculous, off-the-hip ‘executive orders’ that sprang forth from Denis’ mouth,” says the same source. “Incidentally, I played the game after release… the truck is still grey.”
Throughout the game’s development, Dyack was said to be an “absentee” project director by the former employees I talked to. But, problematically, they also described him as hard to deal with, calling for changes after long absences. “He’d abandon the project for three months at a time, say ‘everything is good’ when it’s obviously completely broken, then come back again in a month and yell at everybody.” Considering the encompassing nature of the lawsuit that SK brought against Epic Games and the high stakes involved for both parties, though, it’s unsurprising that the company president’s attention was elsewhere, at least on occasion.
An “Essentially Parasitic” Relationship With Publishers
This command structure wasn’t always such a fatal flaw, former employees said. Before Silicon Knights cut ties with Japanese powerhouse Nintendo following the 2004 release of Twin Snakes, the studio had crucial outside help for game quality, design and process. “This is the reason for the extremely high quality games that SK built a reputation on,” says one source. “Nintendo was going to put their name on the game, so it had to be ‘Nintendo quality.'”
Silicon Knights’ post-Nintendo releases certainly took a dive in quality, based on the low Metacritic scores for Too Human and X-Men: Destiny, so this theory seems plausible. “Once [Nintendo] were out of the picture, SK could do whatever they wanted,” a source says. “Denis believed that SK was finally out from under the oppressive nature of Nintendo as a publisher. Once Denis was given more freedom, things started to fall apart.”
“At SK, publishers are viewed with an extremely adversarial perception,” a former employee said. “Instead of a symbiotic relationship, it was essentially parasitic. The less Activision knew about the goings-on at SK, the easier it was for Denis to spin his web of warped reality with them.
Another source expands on what they saw as “SK management’s fundamental belief of how the industry works.” This belief revolves around the principle of “getting the initial contract signed for a fairly low amount. They want to get the contractual and financial hooks into the publisher. This is accomplished by promising massive worlds, epic player-controlled stories, and an overall ‘fantastical’ experience. They leverage this by talking about Eternal Darkness endlessly.” The GameCube game’s critical acclaim and respectable sales fostered trust and faith among publishers, the source said. This approach had has earned SK projects at least three times: with Sega, Microsoft, and Activision.
Once a publisher signed the main contract, SK delivered assets for “months and months”, according to several sources. “Characters, rooms, FX, concepts. This gives [the publisher] the impression that progress on the game is occurring when, really, they were just getting a totally disorganised mess of assets. Eventually, questions were raised about the actual overall game, and when things would start to come together into something resembling a gaming experience.” Another source tells me that “the technical challenges of trying to create and play any asset with the SK engine was impossible enough, especially with ever-changing direction from Denis. Often, documents and concepts were the only thing we could consistently deliver [to the publisher].”
At this point, the heavy stalling and major excuses from SK management would begin, former employees say. “Feedback to the publisher was delayed; often, this was a two-month feedback loop with mostly ignored comments or vague promises to look at something. These issues were then totally dropped by SK.”
Next, according to sources, comes the request from SK that it requires additional time to complete the project. “We aren’t talking a couple of months of full production here,” the same source says. “We are talking six to 12 months; almost always 12 months. This basically blows out the budget for the game by an additional 35 per cent or so. You can imagine the reaction this got from the financial guys doing projections over at Activision.”
“After seeing one project I worked on for two years get cancelled, I stayed in the hope that X-Men would be better,” this source told me. “Instead, we seemed to intentionally tank the game. The design and production were extremely poor, and after a two-and-a-half year period we still didn’t have a single level even roughed in. In August 2010, Activision sent us a list of issues they had with the game.” According to a source, this list requested SK’s plans to complete the game, and how they would, in the source’s words, “attempt to make it fun at all.” Activision’s list also noted that they were “unsatisfied with Silicon Knights’ failures to ever address their notes over the course of development,” recalls the same source.
“The tone was unmistakably negative, and we were obviously worried that the game would be cancelled. A few reasonable people and I read this document, then came to a boardroom meeting with Denis Dyack, prepared proposals to address Activision’s comments in-hand,” says another source. “Instead of us making a plan together, Denis stated that he wished no one had seen that list, because he didn’t want to address it at all.” (This was, unfortunately, one of many specifics voiced by multiple sources that Dyack declined to comment on.)
Perhaps Dyack wanted to maintain his own creative vision for XMD, rather than taking notes from non-creative Activision producers. One source, who was present in that boardroom meeting, recalls being “extremely disappointed, since we were already in bad shape and many of us had come off another cancelled game to work on XMD. His failure to work with us or Activision destined the game to either be cancelled or fall well below anyone’s quality standards. To not address the notes at all was absurd, as we were within a year of the completion date and didn’t have a single working level.
Some staff pushed hard to improve the game’s quality anyway, despite the setbacks — after all, who wants their name attached to a bad game? — and as a result, the team avoided another cancelled project.
“A Whole Fucking Herd Of Pink Elephants”
It wasn’t just Silicon Knights’ internal dysfunctions that led to XMD‘s failure, though. According to one source, the relationship between SK and publisher Activision made it clear the game was going to be a disappointment from “the green light, way back before production started.”
This source, who was present at the beginning of XMD‘s development, says that SK originally talked to Activision about developing an action RPG game, yet the initial, greenlit build was “a massive sandbox area with navigation puzzles and next to no combat powers or abilities. We built a proof-of-concept for a platform brawler, at best, and Activision green-lit the project. This is when I knew that not only was SK going to continue its tradition of pushing total crap to the publisher, but that Activision was just going to keep accepting our submissions on faith that things would get better.”
According to some sources, it was “total complacency on both sides” that led to SK management submitting loads of unimpressive assets and unplayable XMD builds — and to Activision’s project directors allowing this habit to fly for so long. “No one wanted to talk about the pink elephants,” one source says. “You’ll notice that’s plural. There would have been a whole fucking herd camped out at SK for close to three years.”
I’m told that, at one point, SK experienced 25 resignations within a six-month period. “Only after the Activision producers started hearing bits and pieces about people leaving did they start inquiring about employee turnover,” says one of the sources. In some cases, sources believe that Activision only found out via former SK employees updating their LinkedIn accounts. According to multiple sources, the publisher then “insisted that they be notified of departures of staff members, especially more senior members such as leads and directors.” Startlingly, XMD chewed through four design directors during the course of development.
For some former employees, it became “a bit of a sick game” to come into work each Monday and see how many more people had resigned. “At one point there was a collection of name plates in the art department that were taped to a drawing of a tree,” recalls one. “It was growing with every resignation. Denis was extremely pissed when he saw it after a few weeks, but most people saw it as a remembrance of colleagues who had moved on and would be missed. We were losing people like crazy. The first people to go were some of the strongest, longest-standing employees at SK.” These are people with “lead” and “director” in their titles.
According to sources, the relationship between Activision and Silicon Knights was “completely dysfunctional” in the final year of the game’s development. “It became obvious that Activision producers knew what was going on behind their backs and just couldn’t say anything,” one former employee told me. “Eventually you poison a working relationship so badly that people end up jumping ship. And that’s what happened on both sides, which left pink elephants grazing in the meeting room.”
The ‘New Project’ And SK’s Split Attention
All eight interviewees that I spoke with for this story say Silicon Knights was splitting its team between work on XMD, and work on a development demo. Without being privy to the contract between Activision and SK, of course, it’s impossible to say for sure whether SK really did assign staff who were supposed to be working on the X-Men game onto the demo instead.
Ah, Silicon Knights’ ever-elusive new project. What could it be? Too Human 2, perhaps, which Dyack has repeatedly promised that the studio intends to complete as a trilogy? Or perhaps the same Sega-funded project which was cancelled in 2009; a game code-named The Box, and later, The Ritualyst?
This situation isn’t so strange in the game development industry, especially for licensed titles. In this case, a studio is hired by a publisher to deliver a game, hopefully on-time, on-budget and to a high standard. What the studio does in its own time is essentially none of the publisher’s business — so long as its own project is being given adequate attention and respect. Sources allege that this simply wasn’t the case at Silicon Knights during the development of X-Men: Destiny. Put plainly, the Activision game needed help.
“SK didn’t take the development of XMD seriously the entire time I was there,” a source says. “They were working on an Eternal Darkness 2 demo that they could take to publishers. While I was there, they were even siphoning off staff from my [XMD] team to work on it.” Sources allege that many of SK’s programmers, artists and designers were not contributing to the final quality of XMD at all — at least, not in the first year of the game’s development. “I was always complaining to the producers about this, as the numbers never worked out,” the same source says. “Denis is not an X-Men fan either, so he didn’t care much for the licence. To him, it seemed more like a job to get us by, until ED2 could be developed and sold to a publisher — which never happened.”
Another source said that “SK had about 60 per cent of the development team working on XMD and the other 40% working on ED2. This was brought up several times; that some of the individuals on the other project were major contributors, and should be brought onto XMD to shore up the team and help them get back on track.” (This 60 per cent/40 per cent staffing estimate was backed up by multiple sources.)
Yet despite this reportedly split effort, the ED2 demo also failed to come together in a satisfying way, sources said. “The farthest they got with it when I left SK was, literally, one two-level church interior,” says one former employee. “It was really bad, as I recall. It took the side-team a long time to even get that far. Bad tech, combined with a team composed of people who had not shipped a title since Metal Gear really hurt that demo. Other than that, I can’t explain why things went so poorly for them [except that] a lot of key people responsible for the original Eternal Darkness are long gone.”
“Holding Their Feet To The Fire”
To further complicate matters, the under-staffed and over-stressed team working on XMD had to struggle with technical difficulties. A source who was there at the beginning of development says that when staff began work on the project, “the tech was really in its infancy. We didn’t have a good level editor, as we started a new one from scratch, in a language that none of the programmers had any experience with: C#. The editor and exporter were terrible to work with. It took hours to make a change and see it in the game. It did improve over time, but it was never really good, or on par with modern editors and engines.”
Former employees say Dyack was confident that history would repeat itself, and that yet another publisher would cave to his demands for extensions and further funding injections. He was wrong. “SK kept getting stonewalled by Activision regarding extensions for the game and pushing back the launch,” says a source. “However, SK management was convinced they would have to delay; as a result, they started shifting a few more resources very quietly to ED2.” The idea was to slow down production more than ever before, to try to apply pressure for an extension.
It didn’t work. Instead of offering an extension, Activision turned up the pressure by publicly announcing the game, and attaching Silicon Knights’ name to it prominently.
The October 7, 2010 release of the game’s first trailer, about a year before the eventual launch date, essentially put Silicon Knights on the hook to turn out a sellable product in a realistic time frame.
“I believe that’s the video that Denis did not want released,” said one source. “By putting the SK logo on the project for the first time publicly, Activision forced SK to start taking it seriously. But by then, it was pretty much too late.”
“This was the first time that a publisher basically said, ‘No, finish the project and get it out the door’,” the source said. “Keep in mind that during this time, SK continued to have some pretty senior people staffing [Eternal Darkness 2], and had no intention of moving them back over to XMD to help out the title.”
Impossibly tight deadlines and publisher-pushed rush releases are two of the most commonly-cited factors when poor-quality games appear on shelves. Yet none of my eight sources believe that Activision was putting undue pressure on Silicon Knights. “They gave SK enough time; SK just didn’t use it wisely at all,” says another source. “SK over-promises to get a contract, and then always under-deliver. Activision was just the first publisher to hold their feet to the fire, so to speak.”
A Lack Of Answers
After the trailer was released, fans started a thread on Activision and Marvel’s HeroHQ.com forum, entitled “Questions for Silicon Knights. Developers of X-Men Destiny. Initially, the questions ranged from broad (“Is this an MMO?”; “Can we play as the X-Men?”; “What are you goals for this game?”) to super-specific (“Do canon mutants ever fight along-side your character?”; “Will it pull things from recent X-Men arcs or from past X-Men arcs?”; “will deadpool be in this game beacause hes awesome!” [sic]). We speak of an internationally-adored comic book, film, cartoon and video game franchise, after all. Understandably, X-Men fans were ravenous for more information than the bare-bones, 55 second-long trailer could possibly deliver.
Soon enough, the penny dropped. On October 11, the user ‘SuperHipesi’ asked, “1. Are Silicon Knights replying to these Qs? 2. When?” The fans’ questions remained unanswered for several more pages, until on December 14, user ‘Emma Frost fan 89’ asked, “Does anyone think we will actually get any answers for the questions here?” By April 23, 2011, another ventured, “Dear Silicon Knights. Are you just messing with our minds?” On September 14, two weeks out from the game’s release, user ‘Optimus prime12’ sniggered, “People are STILL posting questions in this thread? SK wasn’t kidding about their lack of hyping their games policy.” As of January 2012, the thread contained over 12,000 views and 165 replies, not one of which was written by anyone employed at the game’s development studio. (In March 2012, the HeroHQ forums were started afresh. All old threads and posts were deleted, but the first eight pages of that particular thread can be viewed on archive.org.)
Behind the scenes at Silicon Knights, things changed drastically after the trailer was released. Once Activision had made it clear that they would ship whatever the developer supplied them, on time, with SK’s name on it, management reportedly put all hands on deck. “The entire company was refocused to work on X-Men,” a source says. “At this point, they also started instituting a mandatory six-day-a-week, 10-hour-a-day minimum crunch. That lasted, and got worse, until they shipped.” Another source remembers “the feeling of panic from the [SK] ‘executives’ when Activision made it clear the game was hitting store shelves, finished or not.”
During my initial interviews with former employees, one of them told me, “Leaving the staff’s name off credits is consistent with Denis’ attitude towards former SK employees. If you leave SK, you are a ‘traitor,’ and he will do whatever he can to fuck you by denying you the validation of a finished game credit. This includes bad-mouthing employees with upwards of 10 years’ experience the day they are out the door.” Another source points out, “Having your wife head up HR is completely contrary to the purpose of an HR department. You couldn’t talk to Joanne [confidentially] without it going straight back to Denis.”
Not everyone at the company saw the rumoured plans to remove names from the credits as a bad thing, though. “For myself, I am not all that upset about it, as while I did work very hard on the game, in the end, I am not at all proud of the game in the least,” said one veteran developer before the game’s release, when it appeared that former employees wouldn’t be credited. “On the flip side, since SK is not actually in the business of releasing games on what would be considered a regular schedule, those who have worked at SK for four-plus years are left without a valuable credit that may end up being the deciding factor for a potential employer. I certainly grieve for them.”
The crediting situation was eventually resolved, albeit in a seemingly roundabout way. On September 14 2011, two weeks before the game was released, a source inside SK told me that the company had decided to add the uncredited developers back into the game’s credits, but under the ‘special thanks’ section. Another source suggested that “Activision caught wind of Denis Dyack’s plan to leave everyone off the credits and forced him to put everyone on.” (SK and Activision wouldn’t comment on any of this for this story, though Silicon Knights has previously said that the names were intended to be included in the game in some way all along.)
Whatever happened, the result is a credit roll that’s fascinating to watch: 124 names are listed under ‘Special Thanks To,’ far more than the number of Silicon Knights employees credited under their proper job titles. It takes 47 seconds for those “special thanks” names to scroll down the screen. One source noted that the “special thanks” placement means that “my contribution and that of so many others is now generalized and listed with company administrative staff and Denis Dyack’s distant relatives” and that “90 per cent of the names on the list are individuals that were laid off or resigned.”
In the end, insiders paint a picture of a studio that was forced to release a subpar game when it could neither justify a delay nor secure a paid extension for the project. “Activision basically forced SK to take the project seriously by putting SK’s reputation on the line,” a source says. “For SK, this meant no backing out. If they failed to produce, it would be another public failure. If Activision hadn’t gone public with the project, SK could procrastinate, and keep sucking money from Activision to keep people employed. If they failed to produce, or had the project cancelled, there would be no negative consequences or impact on SK’s reputation.”
As release day approached in late September 2011, marketing for the title was nearly non-existent. Review copies were only sent to major gaming publications the day before release , in an apparent attempt to smother the chilling effects of negative press. Sales were woeful: as one of my sources notes, “An X-Men game that sells only 55,000 copies during its first week of release? That is embarrassing beyond words.” (The source is most likely referencing this estimate from VGChartz for first-week sales.)
Given the poor quality and sales performance of XMD across all platforms, it now seems less likely than ever that Silicon Knights can resurrect their once-proud history of producing quality games. Several sources report that the company today exists as a shell of its former self, employing less than five staff — including Denis Dyack. (Ironically, this means that the company is closer than ever to the description that one of my sources gave when asked of his former employer: “Dyack is SK; SK is Dyack. They are one and the same — a single unchanging entity.”)
“St. Catharines as of today is completely devoid of experienced [game] developer talent,” notes one former employee who, like many, left the city after finding work elsewhere. “SK left a smoking crater as its game development legacy in St. Catherines, not unlike what happened with their reputation. Scorched-earth policies, all-round.”
Two games in eight years is a poor outcome by the standards of any studio. Too Human was a disappointment to many, yet now Silicon Knights is still dealing with the fall-out from its biggest public failure to date: X-Men: Destiny, a game best described as “mediocre”, “mindless”, “generic” and “an absolute mess”.