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David Adams, studio general manager, and Joe Madureira, creative director, founded Vigil Games with a purpose -- to create the Darksiders franchise, and reinvigorate the action/adventure genre on consoles.
For THQ-owned Vigil, this attempt at reinvigorating a genre relied on intuition. Yes, the studio ran user tests, but as Adams and Madureira illustrate, the two have a sense for what works, from control to character abilities to level design.
How do you keep morale up? How do you ensure that you cut the right things? And when is feature creep a good thing? In this interview, the two speak frankly about their creative process. Darksiders II is currently in development and is slated to be released this June for Xbox 360, PC, and PlayStation 3, with a Wii U version later on in the year.
You've said that you're making a "different kind of experience" than other triple-A games. What do you mean by that?
David Adams: At its core, Darksiders is an adventure game. That's kind of what our inspiration was. It was definitely hard for us to resist the temptation to just turn into a super action game -- with crazy set pieces and animated sequences -- but we very deliberately made sure that those adventuring aspects were still in the game, and you don't see a lot of those. The only one I can think of is Batman.
I don't know if I can think of any other type of game where you get that [formula of] "vehicle, gadgets, you explore, you do all those kind of different things." It's definitely not as widespread as it used to be, back with like Metroids, and Castlevanias, and games like that.
Well, there's Zelda.
DA: Well, I mean, there are the original franchises that are still making sequels, but there are not a lot of new entries into that market. It's usually like, "Hey, here's another Metroid." "Here's another Zelda." "Here's another Castlevania."
How do you restrain yourself? How do you maintain your scope and your vision for the project? There's often feature creep, for one.
Joe Madureira: I think we embrace feature creep for a while -- until the end, until it's just obvious that we can't possibly pull off anything else. We always start off crazy, and then just enjoy the ride until it's not possible anymore. Then it's like, "Okay, these last few things aren't going to happen."
DA: Yeah, at a certain point you're just like, "Alright. We've got to cut something".
JM: We like feature creep.
DA: And we start with enough things that we can cut a lot of stuff and still have a shitload of stuff in the game.
JM: I think some of the best stuff in our games is feature creep. Like they just kind of crop up in mid-development, and we get excited about ideas or whatever, and we think, "It's cool!" We have a lot more people in place now to convince us that an idea is way too ambitious, or expensive, or stupid, or whatever, but otherwise we just go for it. [laughs]
DA: Yeah, it's true.
Do you cut more things at the idea phase, or do you put things in production, see if they work, then cut them?
DA: We cut a crapload of stuff at the idea phase. We'll prototype stuff, get halfway through and go, "Ah, that's dumb; that's not going to work," or we can't make it work. Sometimes something gets near finished and you're like, "Eh, we just don't have time to make that as good as it needs to be".
JM: I think we had a more clear idea at the start of this one what we could possibly achieve and what we couldn't; on the first game we had no idea.
DA: Yeah, the game we ended up with is probably, in Darksiders II, 80 percent of what we designed; the game we ended up with in Darksiders 1 was probably like 1 percent of what we started out with. [laughs] So our ability to predict what we can get done increased drastically with the second game.
JM: Yeah, you just have no idea. We had no rules, no nothing. But that helped us, too, because we weren't scared of stuff that maybe we should have been, and we got a lot of stuff in, actually.
I want to ask you about cutting things that are very far into the production process -- like you said, something that's almost done. How do you do that?
DA: Very painfully.
What about the morale hit?
DA: I think usually we sit them down and go, "Look, we're going to cut this." And the reaction's like, "What?! It's almost done!" And you're like, "Well, do you have too much stuff to do?" and they're like, "Yeah." [laughs] "Is there still stuff left to do in this area of the game?" "Yeah." "So that's less work to do if we cut it, right?", and they're like, "...Yeah."
You've just got to break it down for them. I mean, you just get in that situation where you have 100 things to do, and you have time to do 90, and even though you have 10 things that are almost done, you don't have time to finish them.
JM: Yeah, that's the thing. It's like, if you're weighing fixing something that's almost done but it isn't that great, or spending that time working on something else that could be great.
DA: And that's thing. You do it smart; you pick the stuff that's just not working. It's like, "Eh, this part of the game's just not fun anyway," and everybody kind of knows it. So even though they're sad to see all that work get wasted, deep down they're like, "Yeah, that kind of sucked anyway." So it probably made the game better, and it's less work to do.