THQ's much-vaunted foray into new IP for the current generation has yielded mixed results, but Darksiders from Vigil has been one of the brighter moments.
THQ bought Vigil back in 2006, just as it was gearing up for the PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360 markets. Although Darksiders was due to be launched back in ‘08, its arrival at the end of last year was warmly greeted by press and consumers alike. The action-adventure notched up a Metacritic of 83% and has performed well enough to warrant a sequel.
Vigil was formed by comic artist Joe Madureira and David Adams, who are still at the helm, and are working on an MMO based on Games Workshop's 40000 sci-fi combat franchise.
What have been the big lessons for you guys over the past five years?
David Adams: The biggest thing for us was the challenge of starting small and scaling up. We were dead-set on making this game, for consoles that weren't even out yet. But we found that trying to make a AAA action adventure game on a new set of hardware and building a team around the new technology, was literally a thousand times more work than we ever imagined.
Everything individually seems so simple - hiring people, that's easy enough; building tech, we've done that before - but doing all those things together presents an exponential level of difficulty.
Did you have to make compromises along the way?
David Adams: We were really crazy in the beginning. We wanted four-player co-op and lots of other nuts stuff, but the nugget of the game, the fact that it's an action adventure with strong characters and Zelda-like puzzles, awesome combat, is something we've maintained from the very beginning. And now there's a sequel, which makes it a franchise...
David Adams: Yes. Nothing specific other than that we're working on it.
Joe, you're from a background of comic book art, while David is more of a mainstream technological game creator. How have you found working together?
Joe Madureira: From the onset we knew the designation that David would focus on tech and I would focus on the creative side, but David is a pretty creative dude and he gets involved in design and art and everything and it's always has a positive effect. We just complement each other.
When you started out together, did you always plan to find a sugar daddy like THQ?
David Adams: At first we were looking for a publishing partner relationship, but we decided to go this route for the security it provided. The fact is we really, really, really wanted to make the game. I guess we took the safe route to make sure the game came out. THQ supported us in ways that they wouldn’t with a third party studio. They gave us a lot of leeway, they were prepared to increase the budget as we started to prove what we could do. That definitely wouldn't have been possible if we'd gone ahead alone, so it worked out.
This was a new studio working on new IP. Did THQ have a few wobbles along the way?
David Adams: When they first acquired us there were like eight of us and at first the budget, the scope and the timeline fit around that. As we got further in and we produced really cool stuff they started to believe in us more and more. There was a lot of learning about the consoles, including the amount of money and effort it takes to make a next gen game. There was a lot to learn for everyone, not just for us and THQ but for the whole industry. And when you're also launching new IP with a new team, the learning curve just gets steeper.
Joe Madureira: There were also a lot of games shipping during that period so we had to have those conversations when each game turned up. Are we too much like this game, or is the fact that we're coming to similar conclusions really a good thing? The broadness of the game, the fact that it can't be pigeon-holed, mean't that we had to think and talk about everything that we saw. We struggled all through development to make everyone understand the game's individuality, but at the end of the process everyone saw that we had created something unique.
That brings us neatly to your next project, the Warhammer 40000 MMO. It's a very long project. Are you finding yourself adjusting course as you see other MMOs arrive on the market?
David Adams: The fact that MMOs have such long production cycles means that they evolve really slowly. If you look at the basic gameplay of the MMO it hasn't really changed that much. You don't have such a rapid turnover of iterations, so the evolution slows down. Probably the biggest thing that changes is the business model - not so much in the US but elsewhere in the world - and that can make life more interesting.
Does working on a license present new challenges for you?
David Adams: I love 40K but it definitely has its challenges. We're used to working on our own IP so we have to make adjustments. On Darksiders if we think of something we like, we just put it in the game. We're just like 'this is awesome let's put it in the game'. But with 40K we have to make sure it makes sense in the world, and even then, we still have to get it approved.
Joe Madureira: I never thought I'd work on a licensed product. It's not really what I enjoy. But I've loved 40K since I was a kid. There's so much love and respect for it at the studio. Regardless of just making Games Workshop happy, we want to make a game that's faithful to the world. We want fans to love and respect what we're doing. Games Workshop's guidance is valuable to get to that end. We don't see it as interference. But it helps that we love 40K. Otherwise it might be a nightmare.
Presumably you keep a close eye on other MMOs.
David Adams: The one everyone comes back to is WoW. We do play a lot of the smaller ones. They do innovate a lot. They know they can't compete straight on with WoW so they come up with something different and occassionaly they come up with something cool. In the end WoW is the one everyone us gunning for whether they admit it or not. We hear developers say they aren't going after the WoW market, but were going after it. Why wouldn't we? It's huge.