*Update* Since posting this article, we’ve been contacted directly by THQ and Vigil concerning the sensitive subject of employee treatment. You can read their statement below. I would like to thank David Adams for reaching out to us about the issue and would like to stress that we in no way intend to diminish or slander the hard work of the people at THQ or Vigil Games. There are always multiple sides to stories of this nature, and our highest priority is making sure there is an open and honest dialogue that can be used towards improving this industry we all love so much.
“After ending yesterday with the successful launch of Darksiders II, we at Vigil Games woke up to get word of a former employee’s statements regarding how his contributions were not being accounted for in the credits of the game. What was most disheartening about the statements was how misleading they were, and how they fly in the face of how Vigil, culturally, feels about and treats our teams.
While employment and privacy laws preclude us from discussing the circumstances surrounding the departure of any individual no longer with the company, we can confirm that the employee in question worked for us a total of 90 days, whereas Darksiders II was more than 2 ½ years in development.
When we were forced to reduce staff due to the cancellation of a project, we worked hard to ensure every single person effected by the layoff received their credit in the game. We did not include individuals whose employment terminated for any other reason, for example, being let go for documented poor performance.
We believe we treat both current and former positive contributors to our studio like family, and any statements otherwise are highly inaccurate and can be verified as same. We would ask any press who wish to report on this former employee’s statements to check the accuracy of these erroneous claims, before printing them as factual.
To reiterate, Vigil’s primary concern while doing Darksiders II credits was that we credited team members that were affected by the recent downsizing. We were not focused on the issue of employees that voluntarily left or were fired from the company. We find it alarming that a former employee would personally attack and lie about other team members while falsely inflating his contribution to the game.
We thank, once again, all those who positively contributed to Darksiders II.”
General Manager, Vigil Games
At NotEnoughShaders.com, we would like to thank Xander Davis for giving us the time to interview him. Xander Davis would like to voice his concerns regarding employees who did not receive any credit on “Darksiders 2” for their hard work. He says the contributions from these employees made it into the full shipped game. Xander Davis is currently the CEO/COO of a new independent studio called Astrogun. You can view Astrogun’s official website here.
What was your position at THQ/Vigil while you worked on Darksiders 2 and how long did you work there? Can you tell us what kind of work you did for that title?
I was a Senior UI Designer. In my interview, I noticed that what they were asking for was really a lead. I was later told it’s THQ policy not to just give people lead roles, that they have to basically jump through hoops to earn it. Even if being a lead is exactly the job.
So the job was: I was put in the lead UI role, with those expectations, to take ownership over the entire User Interface and direct a team of what began as two other people and ended up being at least six others with ancillaries. I was working directly with the other leads from other departments in the project, taking them through the plans I had developed for the team every step of the way. The expectation was to take a UI that wasn’t shippable and fix it, in a few months before ship. I knew it was something I could handle (and did). We had to wait for some logistics, so we actually had a lot less time than the time I was there. Within 30 days, I led the effort to revamp and implement 27 screens of totally re-designed UI, had developed a production pipeline that enabled my team to achieve this at such a rapid pace, created the schedules, drove the production coordination, art directed the UI and the UI Artist, wrote design docs, and actually did the UI design and Flash work. My UI Developer helped us rapidly prototype and build it with dynamic functionality.
My UI Artist got to focus solely on the art skin over the design. But the design is where you really solve all of the problems of building a logical UI first. If it’s broken, it doesn’t matter how pretty it is. UI has to work and it has to accomodate for everything needed simultaneously and in perfect harmony. The goal is no one notices the UI, or as a bonus, they only notice how awesome it looks.
Somewhere I don’t think it was in the job description that I would be working until 2am every night, that I would routinely be the last one in the building at the time… with just two months left? But I knew that’s part of the mission I took on. I was prepared to do it. I actually wanted to do it, to ship as best a UI as possible for a game I would love. And I did.
The whole time, everyone knew it was a death march. Surprise! Just to protect my own livelihood, I proactively started talking to recruiters around Christmas or early January. I fully wanted to stick with it right to the very end and see Darksiders 2 shipped, but it’s not always up to me. The very day I was at my on-site interview for my next job, which I got, everyone else lost their jobs, including the entire UI team, under Vigil’s mass layoffs in March.
Having worked at Vigil Games, you have a unique perspective on the inner mechanics over at THQ. In your opinion, what’s the root cause behind THQ’s current struggles as a publisher?
I actually have no intimiate knowledge of how THQ corporate conducts its business on the inside, apart from it being poorly done. Catastrophe, is a word that comes to mind. Remember that fable about the desert landfill of Atari E.T. cartridges that crashed the industry? Same thing, except now it’s filled with uDraw tablets that crashed a publisher. That might have something to do with everything else.
Most of my direct experience was with dealing with the management at Vigil. Needless to say, I’m not impressed. All the other people that lost their jobs are not impressed. The person I most directly had to answer to seemed to have no investment at all in the UI. Not part of one meeting for it. But sure, I’ll take the blame, even though I solved his emergency problem and he ultimately used my work.
You have said that THQ/Vigil is refusing to credit you and some of your co-workers for their hard work on Darksiders 2. Can you list the names of any co-workers who were left out of the credits for Darksiders 2 and what they did for the game? How is THQ or Vigil legally permitted to leave the names of former employees off the credits if they’ve contributed work that made it into the final shipped game?
Several people affected, several titles and credits completely misplaced or missing. Out of respect for their privacy, I wouldn’t want to name them. They can come forward if they’re inclined. Most people in the games industry are just too afraid to speak out, and rightly so. We already have enough job insecurity.
Did developing a game for four different platforms cause any problems in the development process? Can you give a detailed description of any of the management, staff, or development problems that you saw while working as a developer at Vigil?
Y’know, developing a triple-A game at large scale, especially under mis-management, is incredibly complex and chaotic anywhere. Even with the best ideas or intentions, that can all be completely ruined by logistics or technical issues that impact everyone as a whole. Not to mention organizational issues, structuring, office politics. But I actually like virtually everyone I met there, and I’m happy for everyone that Darksiders II even shipped, let alone got good reviews. I can’t go into specifics on problems at Vigil too much at all. But I can say, I’ve seen this a lot, almost every time, where major studios are just now starting to understand UI is a department equal parts art, design, and code, and it’s probably really, really fucking stupid to save how players interact with everything else in the game to the very end, under incompetent stewardship. If gamers can’t even operate the main game menu because it’s completely broken, that just might be a problem. So maybe, the right man in the wrong place can make all the difference in the world. That goes for anyone, for any department.
How many teams were involved on Darksiders 2 and how many people did THQ lay off from Vigil during development? Did you receive any explanation of why you or others were laid off from Vigil?
I can’t get into the specifics too much, but the number of team members laid off is public. I’ve heard from people on the ground floor, directly effected, it was about 60%-75% of the staff. I’m guessing they would know. After I was long out of Texas and onto the next job at the next studio, I have heard from former Vigil employees that after the mass layoffs, the general morale was predictably abysmal. To clarify, more abysmal that it already was. People were taking three hour lunches. It was policy that you could be job-hunting. People were given extended severance and told to let Vigil know when they found a job, and of course didn’t. Abandon ship. This was the studio shipping Darksiders 2 after the mass layoffs, and, from what I’ve heard, includes Herb Ellwood, who was credited as Lead UI Designer despite only having worked on it in a general capacity for three or four weeks or so before everyone lost their jobs. He’s a chatty, popular guy who wears a cowboy hat to work every day because it represents ‘respect’, as he told me, but threatened to quit when they merged my UI team with his from DMO to finish out Darksiders 2 in something insane, like a month and a half. I was made aware that he had a contract that expired in the spring (the general ship target), so once they pinned all of DS2 responsibilities on him, he wasn’t having it. And I kinda don’t blame him. Immediately, Herb tried to quit, then negotiated a fulltime job and salary. The only problem was, it was mine. It’s not like THQ was hiring or had money to spare, right?
After I told producers what they were asking for was impossible to make ship with just weeks left, despite having delivered an implemented revamp across the board in a month, they fired me and handed it to him. You could say this reveals an interesting management tactic: don’t listen to the guy fixing your problems, listen to the guy promising you the moon with zero rocket fuel. This is after I handled the direction for the entire revamp of the UI that you see in the game now. Now maybe Herb’s a great guy or maybe there’s more to it. Who knows. I don’t. But it looks pretty bad to me. I had no idea how much Herb was going to change my designs, to the point that I actually didn’t want to be credited to protect myself. But I was floored when I saw the first videos showing gameplay and finally UI… nothing had changed in any material way. So it all flipped: they shipped my work after all, which just made all of it even more absurd.
When I was there, after I spoke frankly about solving the UI problems realistically with the time we had left to a certain person in authority, the response was not to actually face reality and start cutting features (which is what you do in this situation), but was to turn against me in a split second and go to the guy who would say anything if it meant turning an expiring contract into a fulltime salaried position. But, while making that transition in secret, they sure had no problem keeping me working until 2am every night. And then they ship with what I made anyway. You’re welcome, pal. The reason listed is ‘Performance’. Did anyone do better on the UI at Vigil before or after I worked there? I was as diplomatic and professional as I possibly could’ve been under all that pressure, relentless crunch, and organizational chaos that no one deserves to endure. A three or four year game development cycle, nobody handles it in that time, and they use what I did in 30 days. They’re right. That is Performance.
After having worked so hard only to see many of your co-workers not get credit for their contributions, what are your personal hopes for Darksiders 2 in terms of financial success?
Well not only do I need games that I and others slave over to actually ship, but having them do well doesn’t hurt either. Look, I’ve always wanted Darksiders 2 to ship and be successful. That has not changed. For awhile there, I was really worried it would go under with THQ and all of it would’ve been for nothing. The gamers would’ve missed out on all the cool stuff we had for them. But after all of this? Well, I personally haven’t raced out to buy a copy yet. Kind of low on my priority list now. And if you would’ve told my six year old self that one day you’ll make a major blockbuster console game and you won’t even care to buy it because you were so abused and exploited, that’s absolutely baffling to me. I just feel numb. It’s just absurd. I felt a lot worse as it was happening and immediately after. I felt so depressed afterwards, maybe the worst I’ve ever been, where you start thinking you’ve devoted your whole life to working in this industry and it’s a nightmare. Time to rethink your life? Yes, I’m ashamed to admit it, but even thoughts like, time to rethink living? You invest yourself 1000% into something, you do your job and achieve results under insane circumstances, and you get screwed for it. I got no severance, had no friends outside of Vigil, no support. My family is in Ohio. I was alone. I had just gotten my Texas driver’s license that Sunday and Monday I was looking at immediate relocation as fast as possible. Afterwards, in the silence of your apartment you suddenly can’t afford, as you wait for recruiters to call, you start asking nihilistic questions, like, what’s the goddamned point. To any of this. But you keep going. You keep surviving. Onto the next project, maybe the next clusterfuck– you have no way of knowing until you completely relocate your entire life and start all over alone in a brand new alien city. I’m used to it by now. Business as usual. But I don’t have to like it. Beyond that, things are looking up again. So yeah, I’m glad Darksiders 2 is doing well. Then it’s at least marginally worth it.
There are many people who want to work in game development but they don’t see the dark side of how publishers run studios. Can you give some advice to future game developers concerning the realities of working in the video game industry? Is there a future for people looking to break into the gaming industry in Austin, Texas? What should they be worried about most?
You need to really stop and think about what you want to get out of it. If you go triple-A, expect zero job security, super-high expectations, generally horrible to no documentation, a lot of crunch, and an assembly-line factory style of production, where no matter how creative and talented and ambitious and competent you may be, you’re put in a little box to do a little job and that’s all anyone is interested in from you. You’ve really got to think outside the box to get outside the box. Participate in the industry. Make your own games on the side, even if your contracts say whatever you might literally think is property of your employer, which is of course absurd. Is that worth having your name in the credits of a blockbuster that no one will ever read but everyone will play? Yeah, it is. I guess. But you are in for one helluva lifestyle during the eight years it’ll take you to ship two games if you get in on the dev cycle at the beginning.
As my first industry job, I lived on an air-mattress and could only afford to rent rooms from stranger to stranger month to month on Craigslist for an entire year while designing UI for a multi-million dollar grossing console game. Then I was laid off. Thanks for all the fish. I haven’t owned a couch in three years, and I finally just bought one again because I was fed up.
Signing a lease feels like renting a hotel. You wake up at Seatac, SFO, LAX. You wake up at O’Hare, Dallas-Fort Worth, BWI. Pacific, mountain, central. Lose an hour, gain an hour. This is your life, and it’s ending one minute at a time. You wake up at Air Harbor International. The people I meet, they’re single serving friends. Between offer letter and layoff, we have our time together, but that’s all we get. If you wake up at a different time, in a different place, could you wake up as a different person? Let me tell you from experience, you do. You box up, ship out, fly off, and start all over again. You learn to be alone.
But if you’re going to go for it, like a kind of insane career bootcamp of terror, I recommend getting on mid-project to gain fast experience, exposure, make an impact, ship titles faster, and prove yourself under a realistic time frame for your career. Hold off on having that family. Or buying a house. You’ll drive your wife insane. You’ll sell fast under market at a huge loss. The frequent relocation will definitely not be fair to your children. You’re married to the game industry, but there’s no prenup and you’ll have zero representation and zero protection when it goes bad. Ask the hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of people who lost their jobs in Austin in less than six months if they feel the same.
But good news! If you want to make a game, HELL YEAH, just go fucking make a game! Right now! Viva la Revolution! Unity. Unreal Engine 3. CryEngine 3. These are all available for free. Commercial licenses aren’t that bad if you get serious. There are more digital distribution platforms at your fingertips than ever. More digital content devices to play your indie games on than ever. Worldwide. More post-geographical Cloud-based collaboration systems than ever. Just three years ago, when I worked on my first triple-A after a decade of interface design experience, none of what’s possible today was at all as possible then. Hell, there wasn’t even an iPad back then. Seems like forever ago, right?! In just three years, you don’t need triple-A to make a triple-A game. And THAT is what everyone has been waiting for.
Others in triple-A are realizing this all the time, more frequently, and doing something about it. In fact, just within the last month, you get the formation of Bitmonster from former Epic talent with an amazing demo for an iOS game with Unreal Engine 3. You get the formation of Iocaine working on a very promising looking indie title that got covered on Kotaku as recently as last week, after the founders were laid off from Obsidian. FEZ was made largely by two people. Super Meat Boy: two people. Braid: two people. Bastion: eight. Hawken started with about eight too. If multi-million dollar corporate conglomerates will pay you to make their games, why don’t you just cut out the middle man and make your own yourself? Can they offer you any better a deal? They don’t. As the industry is becoming increasingly volatile and unsustainable with sky-rocketing budgets, as Will Wright recently put it: “The console guys are running scared.” There have never been more easily available triple-A game engines, super accessible global digital distribution platforms, and eager gamers ready to support and play independent games.
You get the formation of my own games studio start-up, Astrogun, within the last month too, and things are going very well. It’s why I firmly believe the next gen will be about the realities of the economics of triple-A game development against the proliferation of game development democratization. Why wait for Modern Battle Medal 18 when there is a new FEZ, a new Bastion, a new Spelunky, a new Hawken coming out over on Steam and Ouya every month, not every few years. The indie scene will outpace triple-A and deliver better content. There will always be the blockbusters from the last few publishers that can afford to do them, and they will be hopefully amazing. But all the regular excitement will be over where triple-A talent is going indie en masse.
The Wii U version of Darksiders 2 comes out later this year. Did THQ and Vigil give the Wii U version any kind of priority or was it treated as a quick and dirty port? What was the general consensus about working on the new platform and what was it like developing a premier title for Nintendo?
I’ve not worked on any Wii U version of anything (luckily). But, y’know, I very early on raised my major concern about this. Anybody buying any Wii U game that’s a port is probably buying it almost exclusively and specifically for how it can play differently through the Wii U’s alleged innovated UI. I’m already a known skeptic on whether the interface paradigm is at all anything but idiotic. But if you’re gonna do it? Fine. Then, you HAVE to do it right. You HAVE to innovate on the UI. You HAVE to enhance game mechanics and gameplay in a MATERIAL way that justifies all the hassle and a $400 Xbox 360 seven years late. I can’t comment on THQ / Vigil specifically. However, just in general, I doubt any studio or publisher is truly giving it the kind of proper UI design and thinking it deserves. Hell, apparently this is a huge leap for regular triple-A console releases. From what I’m hearing from people who have actually played a Wii U as recently as a month ago, the games pretty much suck and the tablet is pretty much a complete gimmick. Still tethered, not wireless. Maybe publishers can pull off something clever. But won’t it just kind of be clever for a little bit, then not really worth your $60 dollars and just annoying afterwards? Kinect comes to mind. PlayStation Move comes to mind. Motherfucking Wii comes to mind. But, sure, we’ll have to wait and see… I can’t comment on specifics. I can only speculate, but as a UI Designer applying experienced critical thinking to game mechanics UI and the Wii U tablet, none of it makes sense to me to truly add value to gamers, even if you try.
Based on your experiences working with Darksiders 2, what are the biggest problems with AAA game development? With next gen systems coming out soon, do you see things getting better or worse?
I honestly think we need to take a page from the Hollywood system on this one. And why not? As an industry, we generate more revenue than Hollywood. And the lines are already blurring between the two anyway. We’re just too young and dumb an industry to realize this yet: There’s a reason those that work in the Hollywood system have Agents and Guilds. Anyone from the star actors to the electricians. The guy that holds the fucking boom mic has more representation and protection than anyone else does in triple-A games.
We need agents. We need guilds. After the whole Activision / Infinity Ward debacle over Modern Warfare 2, Jason West and Vince Zampella are now represented by CAA, one of the top agencies in Hollywood. You think they’re going to get a better contract next time? Especially if maybe their goofy video game ideas earn $2 billion dollars in revenue and themselves around $250 million in royalties? And THEY got screwed? So how far fetched do you think it is a lowly Lead UI Designer got screwed. Or the hundreds of people that lost their jobs in Austin alone since only January. Hundreds of people, hundreds of families. Budgets are only going up for next-gen. You’ll need the budget of Avatar, but not every game will do Avatar business. You think a few people are gonna get screwed in that process too? Hello?
The team behind Hawken started out under ten people and now they have a major feature film in development. So a few dudes that leave their jobs and come up with a cool idea and make it happen, suddenly CAA might be interested in them too, right? Well then why isn’t CAA interested in all of us. Don’t we earn billions of dollars annually? For the record, I want an agent, if anyone of them are paying attention.
It’s time for this industry to finally grow up. Here’s how it works now: little wide-eyed Timmy fresh outta college with $75,000 dollars in student loans is just dying, dying, dying to work in video games. It’s his passion! It’s his life! He even studied hard, passed all the tests, got on polycount, and has all the skills to back it up! The studio’s response: exploit that motherfucker as hard as you can and then throw him aside. Deny him his credit. Deny him his royalties. Deny him his stock payments. All of these things are used to negotiate down little Timmy’s salary in a city with the most expensive cost-of-living in the country. Now little Timmy is homeless. Literally homeless and has to find a job immediately or he is going to end up living in a cardboard box unless some recruiter swoops him up and throws him somewhere else to do it all over again.
I was literally homeless once laid off after shipping Transformers: War for Cybertron. Literally fucking homeless in San Diego, with my family 2,700 miles across the country back in Ohio. Meanwhile, the game has some of my favorite graphic design and interface design work of my career. A neon-orange stick on the box that says ‘9/10 IGN’. Praised by fans. I’m homeless. At least I was smart about the student loans.
How many layoffs and studio closures and gross mismanagement and SEC investigations and class action lawsuits have we seen in the news, on the reg, all the goddamned time lately?
Guilds and agents. I don’t know how this starts, but it has to start. I think the only one in the game industry with enough visibility, trust, clout and independence to help solve this problem, whether it’s the establishment of agencies and guilds to represent triple-A talent or something else, is Gabe Newell and Valve. Not to put one key person in the industry that seems to solve a lot of problems really well on the spot or anything. We have any takers on this, otherwise, feel free to please stand up.
Are you in regular contact with any of the people currently working at Vigil or THQ and are any of them worried about the safety of their jobs? Have they told you whether conditions have improved at all since you left Vigil/THQ?
I’m Facebook friends with a lot of people at Vigil. Fast friends with several. But I’ve had to move to the next gig, the next city, so we keep in touch just generally. However, I just met up with one here in Vegas very recently. As far as being worried about their jobs, I’m gonna go out on a limb and guess: all of them are. THQ’s reverse stock split by a factor of 10, after an imploding market value. Studio closure after studio closure. SEC violation investigations and class action lawsuits. Having now, um, what, two announced titles in the pipeline? I hope THQ comes back under the right leadership. I hope no one else loses their jobs. I hope every game they ship from now on is 9.0+. I do know that one of my former UI team members is now at Zynga Austin, as they were literally one of the last “game” studios left that were hiring, and I worry about him now too. It’s like THQ all over again with all the controversy, imploding stock, SEC investigations. He walked from one burning house to another, right across the proverbial street. And he just had a baby. I tried to get him a job elsewhere, but he can’t relocate because of how hard that would be on his new family. I guess if you ask the industry about family, they’d tell him his mistake was having one. From what I’ve heard about life at Vigil post-layoffs / pre-ship, morale was bottomed out and drive was very lax, the skeleton crew abandoning ship, dropping out left and right. And now post-ship, I’ve heard it’s just the founders and maybe a few others. But that’s what I’m hearing. I’m gonna probably go ahead and believe it.
You have started an indie studio called Astrogun. How many people have joined Astrogun and what projects are you currently working on? Are you recruiting any staff that were laid off at Vigil/THQ?
Yeah– time to break the cycle, right? Looking forward to what’s next! To the now!! With all the available tools, platforms, devices, there are so many ways to create, sell, and play games. So it just seemed like the timing was more right than ever! In fact, after a year in the works before joining Vigil even, I recently just filed Astrogun Studios LLC on July 5th, 2012, the first business day after Independence Day, and then not a week later Ouya comes out of nowhere and takes over the attention of the entire game industry as the living room champion for indies. I invested immediately in Ouya as a Founding Developer, which means we’re among a few uniquely poised to offer an Ouya launch title identified as a Founder, with Ouya’s support and their promotion for an entire year. I’ve already been personally in touch with Julie Uhrman, CEO of Ouya, beginning to establish our working relationship. Compare the Vigil experience to what Julie’s offering! Night and fucking day.
Astrogun’s unannounced debut game is already multiplatform in development, likely first debuting on iOS, and is currently intended to be free-to-play. We already have a working prototype of the game up and running and we’re targeting the core gamer. Meanwhile, I love the studio I’m at and am very excited to do great things for the UI of its project too. Life is good, dreams are coming true, and I can’t wait to finally ship my own game and get it into the hands of gamers worldwide, and especially the salivating audience of a brand new, uniquely next-gen console. 🙂
For this question, would you like a a chance to say anything that you feel I haven’t covered with the previous questions?
I need to get better sleep. 😉