All posts tagged games

  • Kotaku story: ‘What Went Wrong With Silicon Knights’ X-Men: Destiny?’, October 2012

    A 6,000 word feature story published on Kotaku in October; excerpt below. This is the result of 15 months’ investigative work.

    What Went Wrong With Silicon Knights’ X-Men: Destiny?
    by Andrew McMillen

    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.

    X-Men: Destiny — developed by Canadian studio Silicon Knights for Xbox 360, PS3 and Wii — could have gone either way. Sure, previous X-Men titles didn’t exactly set the world on fire: 2006?s X-Men: The Official Game, averaged a score of 52 out of 100 on Metacritic across seven platforms, while 2009?s character-focused X-Men Origins: Wolverine averaged a 65 across six platforms.

    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”?

    (1UP gave the X360 version a D+, concluding that the game is “is an absolute mess that isn’t worth your time.” IGN gave the PS3 version 5.5 points out of 10 — “mediocre” — and remarked that “even for an action brawler, this one is as mindless as they come.”GameSpot reviewed the same version and awarded the game 4 out of 10, noting that XMD “does the incredible: it makes being a genetic marvel a generic bore.”)

    “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.

    To read the full story, visit Kotaku.

  • 1UP story: “Rumour: “Massive Layoffs” at Canadian Studio Silicon Knights, October 2011

    A story for gaming website 1UP; my first for them. Excerpt below.

    Rumor: “Massive Layoffs” at Canadian Studio Silicon Knights

    Sources tell us the team has shrunk from 97 to 25 employees.

    All but 25 staff at the Canadian video game development studio Silicon Knights have been laid off, according to sources close to the company.

    Silicon Knights has not officially confirmed the cuts, but two credible independent sources contacted us with the information over the weekend. One wrote that “Silicon Knights has had massive layoffs. They are now down to a core staff of 25 people.” The other said, “It may interest you to note that SK laid off all but 25 employees today.”

    This outcome follows the St. Catharines, Ontario-based studio receiving three recent funding grants, totaling CDN $8 million: $1 million in 2008, invested by the Ontario Media Development Corporation, $4 million in 2010 via the federal government, and most recently, $3 million in July 2011 via the Ontario government.

    Silicon Knights president Denis Dyack stated in July 2011 that the CDN $3 million investment would allow the company to improve its technology, hire 80 new people while keeping 97 current jobs and allow the company to become “self sustaining.” We do not know at this stage what went wrong, nor how the studio’s payroll has shrunk from 97 to 25 in three months. A source says, “I heard they laid off all of HR including Denis’ wife,” in reference to Joanne Dyack, SK’s director of human resources.

    On October 26, another source told 1UP that “you might want to keep an eye on SK in the next few days. If you were connected to many of SK’s directors and producers on LinkedIn, you would be noticing a very disproportionate amount of CV updating and connection-making activity. And yes, I have heard that the worst is happening. Stay tuned.” Silicon Knights’ publicist responded that same day, saying “Silicon Knights is not shutting down and no layoffs have happened at this time.”

    For the full story, visit 1UP. Expect more stories concerning Silicon Knights in the near future.

  • GameSpy story: ‘The Health of the PC Gaming Industry’, October 2011

    A story for GameSpy.com; my first for them. It’s a feature split into two parts: one to discuss the retail side of PC gaming, and one for digital.

    Excerpts from both halves included below.


    The Health of the PC Gaming Industry Part 1: Retail

    Dying or developing – just how is the PC doing?

    If you want to make a hardcore gamer roll their eyes in exasperation, tell them that the PC gaming industry is dead and/or dying. Variations on this well-worn statement have been circulating for years, and it’s never been particularly true. In 2011, it’s less true than ever: thanks to digital distribution, more people are buying and playing PC games, so it’s no surprise that developers and publishers continue to invest heavily in the space. Their efforts don’t necessarily have the goal of extracting gamers’ wallets from pockets, either: the burgeoning ‘free to play’ model is being taken seriously by publishers like EA and Activision. And though the hardcore among you might be loath to admit it, those who choose to while away their hours playing Facebook games are technically PC gamers, too.

    All told, PC game sales accounted for $16 billion in revenue worldwide last year, according to research conducted by DFC Intelligence on behalf of Nvidia. If DFC’s forecasts are to be believed, PC games will eclipse console game sales in 2014, and incur a sense of deja vu among those gamers old enough to remember a pre-console period where the PC ruled the emerging market for home video games.

    In this two-part feature, GameSpy will examine the health of the PC gaming industry across two fronts – retail and digital – in an effort to dispel those pesky death rumours once and for all.

    Bricks and Mortar
    When compared to the reams of laudatory material that have been dedicated to praising the virtues of digital distribution platforms, it’s easy to overlook the roots of PC gaming: the humble bricks-and-mortar retailer, a place where chunky, colourful cardboard boxes containing CD-ROMs once received pride of place on shelves a few short years ago. Though the cardboard boxes have been downsized and the CD-ROM technologically superseded, Steve Nix counters that there’s still a significant market for over-the-counter sales of PC titles.

    As general manager of digital distribution at GameStop, the world’s largest video game retailer – who employ some 17,000 full-time staff, and whose annual earnings in 2010 were $9.47 billion – Nix is well-placed to survey the PC gaming landscape. It also helps that he spent four and a half years at id Software, as director of business development and later, director of digital platforms. He’s been with GameStop since February 2011. “Many years ago, PC games were the largest category for GameStop,” he says. “But PC retail sales didn’t look good over the last ten years. There’s been a steady decline. As a PC gamer first and foremost, that always was very concerning. In the early 2000s, I was wondering, ‘What’s going to happen to the PC? Is it going to become completely extinct at some point, as a gaming platform?’”

    We now know that the answer to this question is a firm ‘no’. At the time, Nix reflects, “my strong belief was that we were seeing a user experience problem with PC games in a retail box, versus console games. Really, if you think about the fastest, easiest way for people to get a game and start enjoying it, it’s the consoles. They offer a really nice experience: you get your game disc, you pop it in, and you’re playing in under a minute. Whereas, by the mid-2000s, for PC gamers, games had gotten quite a bit larger. Before the DVD, you’d have nine CDs for some games. And then you might have to search the web for the latest patches. If you’d done everything correctly, maybe a couple of hours later, you’d actually be playing the game after all this work. Really, I think that a lot of customers who were PC gamers started transferring to the consoles just because the user experience on the PC was poorer at that point,” he reflects.

    According to Nix, all GameStop saw at that point was “the decline of the physical PC box sales, so they decided to focus on the console business. But fortunately, in the last few years, some of the leaders in the PC digital space have been more public about going out with their numbers. They’re seeing amazing growth. That information started to get back to GameStop, who did some extensive research and said, ‘the PC market is thriving, but it’s just shifted online. It makes sense for us to be a major player in the PC digital space’.” The company will invest $100 million in digital initiatives in 2011, according to a report in March. We’ll return to Nix and GameStop’s recent forays into the online marketplace in the second part of this feature, which focuses on the digital market.

    To read the rest of part 1, visit GameSpy. An excerpt from part 2 follows.

    The Health Of The PC Gaming Industry Part 2: Digital
    There’s money to be made in them thar online hills.

    In part one of this feature, we examined the boxed-retail past that many gamers have abandoned. Now we take a microscope to the digital-driven future of PC game distribution, which many gamers have already embraced. Like downloading music, downloading games for your PC makes a shitload of sense: it’s fast, convenient, better for the environment, and you can do it in your underwear and no-one will ever know. Sneaky and classy.

    Where did all the money go?
    Half to 70% of the $4 billion market for downloaded PC games are purchased through a platform named Steam [pictured below right], according to an article published by Forbes earlier in 2011. (Steam operator Valve refused to comment on the accuracy of this claim.) Though Steam was a right royal pain in the ass when it launched in 2002 during the beta period of Counter-Strike 1.6 – any gamer who recalls that frustrating time will no doubt concur – using the software is now as akin to the average PC gamer as breathing and circle-strafing. It’s the gaming equivalent of iTunes. Both are clear market leaders; both maintain an enormous brand loyalty worldwide.

    That same Forbes article quotes North American market research firm NPD Group as stating that, in 2010, “sales of PC games via download outstripped sales of boxed games in stores for the first time”. When I question Valve VP of marketing Doug Lombardi on the significance of this outcome – was this always a goal on the agenda, or happy coincidence? – he cryptically replies, “Our goal has always been to deliver a higher quality of service to the customer, regardless of where or how they purchase the product.” Perhaps enormous consumer uptake and financial success was always going to be a consequence of aiming to develop the market’s best digital distribution platform.

    Lombardi makes it clear that Valve still values traditional retail and healthy competition in the digital distribution market. “We don’t advise folks to skip retail, or other digital outlets,” he says. “Every publisher and developer should consider the widest possible distribution possible.” I’m curious as to how he pitches the service to prospective Steam clients – from indie developers, to the world’s biggest publishers. “We start with the 30 million-plus gamers connected to the service, the instant access to data on their Steam sales, and the increasing number of Steamworks features we offer free of charge such as matchmaking, anti-piracy, support for in-game DLC, and more.” Also of note is Lombardi’s eyebrow-raising claim that “Steam has grown over 100% year-over-year for the past six years.” A userbase of 30 million is a fairly compelling reasoning for both developers and publishers to do a deal with Steam, I’d imagine.

    Game developers such as Tripwire Interactive are among the legions of Steam supporters. The Roswell, Georgia-based studio – creators of Red Orchestra 2 and Killing Floor – have been fans since they signed up in 2005. “And we still are”, says vice president Alan Wilson. “They still have that Valve sense for what the people buying the games actually want, will give it to them at a good price, good customer service – and they treat the developers/publishers right as well. They’re always easy to work with. There are other good services out there – D2D, GamersGate and so on. But until Steam either starts getting it all wrong, or the others find some miracle formula, Steam will stay king of the pile.”

    To read the rest of part 2, visit GameSpy.

  • Talk: “Team Bondi, L.A. Noire and The Truth: The Perils of Online News”, October 2011

    This is the transcript of a presentation I gave at the Brisbane Emerging Writers Festival on Saturday 15 October 2011, as part of a panel discussion around the topic of “Writing online – How different is writing for an online audience, how can you do it creatively, and what are the challenges and opportunities for writers working in this field?”

    Footage of my presentation is embedded below.

    ++

    Team Bondi, L.A. Noire and The Truth: The Perils of Online News

    by Andrew McMillen

    This is a cautionary tale about online journalism. It’s about learning first-hand how the internet can be a beautiful and terrible place to break news. It’s about choosing what kind of writer you want to be.

    In June, the biggest story of my career was published. It was the result of four months of investigation, based on my interviews with 11 former employees of a company named Team Bondi, who made the biggest, most expensive video game ever made in Australia, called L.A. Noire. These 11 sources all spoke to me on the condition of anonymity. Between them, they’d spent a combined 24 years at Team Bondi. They each alleged that their experiences working there were uniformly terrible: long hours, no overtime pay, a praise-free workplace led by a guy who treated them like crap. As a result of these factors and high staff turnover, the game took seven years to make, which is an incredibly long time in the games industry. I put these allegations to the Team Bondi founder, who did not deny what his former employees had told me, and made no apologies for his style of management.

    My story encapsulated all of this, and was published on the gaming website IGN. Within 24 hours it received over 120,000 hits, and was being reported and analysed by the gaming media around the world. My four months of patient work – including building trust with my sources, and many conversations with IGN’s editors about the story’s final shape – were reduced to a handful of quotes and rushed summaries rewritten by other gaming journalists. To my knowledge, nobody tried to track down my 11 sources and verify what they were saying, nor did anyone seek additional comment from Team Bondi.

    Soon after the story was published, two other former employees emailed me, and provided some more information, including company emails they’d saved from their time at Team Bondi. This new information shed more light on the fact that the company had been stringing their employees along for years, consistently saying that the game was close to being finished, even though it clearly wasn’t. I combined this new information into a supplementary feature that was published on the gaming website, GamesIndustry.biz.

    One of the more interesting comments made by one of my sources in this second story related to the breakdown of the relationship between Team Bondi and Rockstar Games, who published L.A. Noire. You might know them as the guys behind games like Grand Theft Auto and Red Dead Redemption. My source said, and I quote:

    “I’ve heard a lot about Rockstar’s disdain for Team Bondi, and it has been made quite clear that they will not publish Team Bondi’s next game. Team Bondi are trying to find another publisher for their next title, but the relationship with Rockstar has been badly damaged.”

    Now, keep in mind that these are informed comments made by a person who worked at this company for a few years. Still, these are some pretty strong allegations to make, about some high-profile businesses. My source has inside knowledge, for sure, but it’s very easy to start these kinds of rumours – namely, that one of the world’s best-known videogame companies has decided to cut ties with the Australian studio that they’d sunk millions of dollars into. In the eyes of every sane and rational person in the world, though, allegations and rumours stay just that until they’re either confirmed or denied by those in the know.

    Over the next couple of days, I was surprised to find that many websites were not exercising caution when publishing these additional rumours. Some sites didn’t even acknowledge the source of these allegations, instead simply saying that, quote “Rockstar have decided not to publish Team Bondi’s next game”. Full stop. It was alarming and disappointing to see my work skewed beyond its original form, purely because other writers didn’t care enough to provide full context.

    To complicate the situation, neither Rockstar nor Team Bondi made any public comments on any of these matters. I learned during this process that their silence bred a kind of quiet acceptance of ‘the facts’ of my stories – which is a really shitty thing. To this day neither company has publicly commented on what I reported.

    This whole experience was simultaneously exhilarating and depressing for me. Exhilarating because it was the first real newsworthy story I’d worked on, and I got a kick out of watching it being passed around the world. Depressing because I also watched commenters misinterpret my findings, and fellow journalists misrepresent my work in their editorials. It made me wonder what would’ve happened if I was less restrained with my own analysis and storytelling. Arguably, my stories would never have been published if they didn’t meet editorial standards, but the manner in which other online publications were loose with the facts made me wonder how far I could’ve stretched the truth and gotten away with it.

    This is an interesting thought to entertain. And I should point out that my two published stories on this topic did not stretch the truth in any way. But hypothetically, let’s say that I’d fabricated a few quotes that were supposedly made by my anonymous sources. The reader wouldn’t know any better, and it’s doubtful that I’d even get found out. The story was re-reported with such breathless enthusiasm, often containing only the most inflammatory and controversial quotes, that it would barely have mattered. The success of the stories, and the additional opportunities that have since been offered to me, might have led me down an entirely different path. I might have become addicted to seeking easy controversy in my journalism, had I made that choice.

    I didn’t, and I haven’t. I’m glad I was thorough and responsible in my reporting, but the alternative is still fun to think about occasionally.

    This experience taught me a valuable lesson, about how quickly people tend to believe what they read online as the truth, especially in the absence of denial from the parties in question. The more the story was reported around the internet, the more true these allegations became to most readers. This is reflected in the comments sections of these articles. I watched the tide turn from acute doubt, to utter contempt for Team Bondi and Rockstar, in a very short period.

    This experience taught me that no matter how thorough and careful I am with my own work, once a story is published online, it’s completely out of my hands. I think that, in the rush to ‘first’, some web publishers are a little loose with their words. This is troublesome, because whoever reads their articles may not have the time or inclination to read the initial source material, and if a website has their facts wrong when re-reporting a story, then the reader’s understanding of a situation may be compromised. It’s hard to shift facts in people’s minds once they’ve come to a conclusion, and I think web journalists, editors and publishers have a more pronounced responsibility than their print counterparts to check the facts and exercise caution before hitting ‘publish’.

    It’s tough, though, because on the internet, there is little incentive for this kind of cautionary, responsible journalism. Inflammatory and controversial stories spread much faster than their circumspect alternatives. This has always been the case, with any kind of news, but the trouble with the web is that the publishers of these kinds of stories are rewarded with traffic, which in turn directly benefits them, as advertisers are more willing to pay them to run ads on their sites.

    A few thoughts to close. Writing for the web, it’s very easy to become swept up in instantaneous, inflammatory, controversial reporting. But I urge you not to go down this road. To do so is to toss away your integrity, to swallow your pride and sense of self-worth in favour of short-term gratification. It is a fucking shame that online journalism appears to be built on this principle, and that it is so ingrained in our day-to-day web browsing that you probably don’t even notice.

    Like I said, there’s little consequence for following the path of ‘publish first, fact-check second’. But if you have even a shred of integrity, again I urge you: do not take the path of least resistance. Always err on the side of caution before pressing ‘publish’. You owe it to your readers, your sources, your fellow journalists and yourself.

    Andrew McMillen (@NiteShok) is a freelance journalist based in Brisbane, Australia. http://andrewmcmillen.com/

  • GameSpot story: ‘The State of the Aussie Game Development Industry in 2012′, September 2011

    A feature story for GameSpot. Excerpt below.

    The State of the Aussie Game Development Industry in 2012

    In the wake of THQ’s studio closures in Brisbane and Melbourne, GameSpot AU investigates the path forward for the Australian game development industry.


    The State of the Industry

    Fortitude Valley, Queensland. Four years ago, this suburb functioned as the central nervous system of the tight-knit Australian game development industry. Employees of the five big studios–THQ, Krome, Pandemic, Auran, and The Creative Assembly–all worked within walking distance of one another. It was an extraordinary period of growth, wherein contracts to build licensed games for overseas publishers were relatively easy for development houses to secure, and to profit from. Studio executives, developers, and the Queensland government’s “Smart State” flag wavers toasted each other’s success.

    One by one, these companies were faced with insurmountable difficulties: new IP failing to attract adequate market attention; cost reductions by overseas headquarters; and licensed game contracts drying up, due to a rising Australian dollar. In early August 2011, another death knell sounded across the community: THQ’s sudden “right-sizing” saw the shuttering of its Brisbane and Melbourne studios, resulting in the loss of around 200 jobs. Less than a year ago, Krome Studios–once the country’s largest independent game development company, home to more than 400 employees across three cities–ground to a halt.

    Around 40 of Krome’s best talent were kept on and quietly folded under the banner of KMM Brisbane, a local arm of Kennedy Miller Mitchell’s Sydney-based animation and development studio. Yet, recent online rumours suggest that once KMM Brisbane’s current project, Happy Feet 2, is completed, the studio’s lights will be switched off. (GameSpot AU contacted a KMM Brisbane producer for comment, but they would not respond; an anonymous source said that four artists were laid off in the first week of August, that “most” would be laid off at the end of the month, and that “a core few” would stay until October, when the game ships.) Once again, some of this country’s most experienced and talented developers will return to an ever-contracting job market.

    On the first floor of an unremarkable office building, on Warner Street in Fortitude Valley, sits Sega Studios Australia, an 80-strong outfit that was known as The Creative Assembly until June 2011. They’re deep into the development of London 2012, an Olympic Games tie-in for the Xbox 360, PlayStation 3, and PC. The walls are adorned with interesting artwork and materials that can’t be described, due to the nondisclosure agreement signed upon entry.

    “We’re now the biggest developer in Brisbane, and probably Australia,” says Gareth Gower, director of studio marketing. “We’ve got a bit of a responsibility to nurture as much talent as possible, and help the industry that way.” They’ve got only two vacancies at the moment, both high-level positions: studio art director and senior engine programmer.

    “It’s brutal. Absolutely brutal,” says studio director Marcus Fielding of the job market. He held the same role at Krome at the time of its closure in late 2010. “I’m seeing people at the local gym who can’t believe it’s happened again. They’re asking the question of me, ‘Is Sega secure?’ All I can do is work really hard to ensure that we are secure.”

    Of the studio’s 80 employees, 60 are full time; the other 20 are contractors, mostly animators. Fielding introduced GameSpot AU to several staff from a range of disciplines. Senior environment artist Chris Conte began his career with online gambling developer Eyecon in 2004 and then spent nearly five years with Krome and, later, KMM Brisbane. Senior animator Adam Dowley started with Ratbag Games, an Adelaide-based outfit that was acquired by Midway Games in 2005. After being closed by Midway, Krome rehired many of Ratbag’s staff and established Krome Studios Adelaide before eventually closing the doors in August 2010.

    “It throws your entire life into disarray,” recalls Dowley of the closure. “When Krome went down, I’d just bought a house in Adelaide.”

    “I’d just bought a house here in Brisbane, too,” says Conte. “It’s scary. It puts you in a mind-set where you don’t know what’s going to happen. I think we’re pretty good here at Sega, but there’s always that thought at the back of my mind now: ‘What happens at the end of this game?’ It’ll be there probably for the rest of my career, now; once we get to wrap-up time, what’s going to happen? Are we going to be able to do another project?”

    “It’s a fear that’s in the back of every developer’s mind,” says technical director Mark Rowley. “As an industry, it’s far more fragile than most.”

    “The problem is that people are very specialised in this industry,” adds Dowley. “They don’t have skill sets that are applicable to other industries. Game designers; where can they go? I can animate; how do I use that outside of games or film?”

    “You’ve specialised yourself for the love of the job,” replies Rowley.

    “You love it so much that you’ve kind of doomed yourself!” concludes the senior animator. He and his colleagues laugh knowingly.

    For the full story, visit GameSpot.

    Further reading: A Matter Of Size: The State of Triple-A Game Development in Australia

  • GameSpot story: ‘Game Developers’ Quality of Life: Why Should Gamers Care?’, August 2011

    A feature story for GameSpot; my first for the site. Excerpt below.

    Game Developers’ Quality of Life: Why Should Gamers Care?

    In this feature, we ask if quality of life at development studios should affect how gamers think about the industry.


    Blowing the Whistle on Working Conditions

    A video game is composed of millions of tiny achievements made by hundreds of people. When combined, their work results in innovative, genre-defining artistic statements like World of Warcraft, Half-Life, Super Mario 64, or Tetris. The fruits of their collective labour are savoured around the world by gamers, a once-exclusive tag that is now, thanks to the burgeoning market of Web-based casual games, embraced by more people than ever before.

    Despite the impact that generations of video game developers have had on the medium of interactive entertainment, though, it’s easy to forget those millions of tiny achievements when you’re embedded deep within virtual worlds like Azeroth, the Black Mesa Research Facility, the Mushroom Kingdom, or a 10-block-wide screen of endlessly descending shapes. Logically, our brains know that none of these worlds can exist without the imagination, artistry, and programming skills of human beings. Yet for many gamers, those who work in the gaming industry are, essentially, faceless purveyors of joy. There are a handful of household names like Shigeru Miyamoto, John Romero, Hideo Kojima, and Will Wright; as for the rest of the names listed in the closing credits and the instruction manual…well, who?

    This apparent cognitive failure of gamers to acknowledge the contribution of game developers to our overall well-being is only brought to the fore on rare occasions, when the people behind our gaming pleasure see no option but to go public with their sentiment of systemic discontent. The enduring example of the entire discussion surrounding game developers’ quality of life arose in November 2004, when an anonymous blog post by the partner of an EA Games developer working on The Lord of the Rings, The Battle for Middle-earth detailed a studio-wide, 85-hour work week.

    “The stress is taking its toll,” the blogger wrote. “After a certain number of hours spent working, the eyes start to lose focus; after a certain number of weeks with only one day off, fatigue starts to accrue and accumulate exponentially. There is a reason why there are two days in a weekend–bad things happen to one’s physical, emotional, and mental health if these days are cut short. The team is rapidly beginning to introduce as many flaws as they are removing.”

    The blog post gained widespread media attention and, later, saw EA settle over US$30 million in overtime to staff at its California studio following three class-action lawsuits. The “EA Spouse” saga, led by blogger Erin Hoffman, shone a spotlight into the dark corners of game development. For the first time, it seemed, gamers were made aware that making video games for a living isn’t necessarily as fun as it sounds.

    A similar incident in early 2010, ahead of the release of Red Dead Redemption, saw the “Determined Devoted Wives of Rockstar San Diego employees” publish a scathing attack against that studio’s management on industry website Gamasutra and threaten legal action if their partners’ working conditions were not improved. It is unclear whether that situation was resolved, although it appears that no lawsuits were filed against Rockstar Games. More recently, Team Bondi, the Sydney-based developer of the Rockstar Games-published L.A. Noire, was revealed to have dictated what former employees referred to as an “ominous crunch” (the intensive period before a deadline) that lasted for years, and a revolving-door staff policy that saw over a hundred employees leaving throughout the game’s seven-year development.

    Those three games–Battle for Middle-earth, Red Dead Redemption, and L.A. Noire–achieved Metacritic ratings of 82, 95, and 89, respectively. Collectively, they were enjoyed by an audience of millions across the PC, Xbox 360, and PlayStation 3 platforms. In the grand scheme of things, it’s all too easy to sweep a few months–or, in the case of L.A. Noire, years–of long working hours under the rug and bask in the shining glory of the final products. But to do so would be a mistake, argues Kenneth Yeast, who was the engineering development director at Electronic Arts during the Battle for Middle-earth project.

    For the full story, visit GameSpot.

    Further reading: Why Did L.A. Noire Take Seven Years To Make?

  • GamesIndustry.biz story: ‘Revealed: The emails behind the whistle blowing at Team Bondi’, July 2011

    A feature story for GamesIndustry.biz; excerpt below.

    This a follow-up to my feature on the development of the videogame L.A. Noire for IGN, published last month.

    Revealed: The emails behind the whistle blowing at Team Bondi


    Last month a story on IGN called “Why Did L.A. Noire Take Seven Years To Make?” detailed the lengthy process wherein Sydney-based developer Team Bondi worked on the biggest, most expensive video game ever made in Australia. Published by Rockstar Games, L.A. Noire - released worldwide in May – was expansive in scope and revolutionary in concept.

    At the story heart’s were eleven testimonials – delivered by former Team Bondi employees interviewed under the condition of anonymity – which detailed the oppressive work conditions that hundreds of staff endured throughout those seven years. Among their complaints were an “ominous crunch” period of development which continually shifted year to year; a studio-wide expectation that staff would work overtime and weekends; a praise-free working environment; and a boss named Brendan McNamara, who one of the sources called “the angriest person I’ve ever met”.

    In the last few weeks, the story has been read and reported around the globe. Both fans and the game development community have reacted with contempt for Team Bondi, and for Rockstar Games, who seemingly condoned the Sydney-based studio’s incessant whip-cracking. The International Game Developer’s Association (IGDA) has declared that they are seeking comments from former Bondi staff as they investigate what they deem to be “absolutely unacceptable” working conditions.

    As the original author of the report I’ve been contacted by developers who have worked under Brendan McNamara at other studios over the years. All have concurred with the assertions made by the Bondi Eleven. “When Brendan came on board, it became clear that he was a huge bully with no talent, vision or management skill. But he really knew how to intimidate,” wrote one. “Fits with my experience of McNamara,” tweeted another.

    Several more ex-Team Bondi employees have also contacted me to express their gratitude. “On the day the article was posted, I had been linked it by a dozen or so other Team Bondi ex-employees in the first few hours, and then it was re-linked on Facebook for the rest of the day,” one source told me. “Everyone I’ve spoken to is really grateful that it’s ‘out there’, and completely shocked that Brendan agreed to the interview.”

    Two former Bondi staffers, in particular, have supplied evidence which refutes comments made by Brendan McNamara in my original story, and strengthens the validity of claims made by the Bondi Eleven. Between them, this pair spent several years labouring under the Team Bondi banner. As with the original Bondi Eleven, the pair have supplied information under the condition of anonymity. Their rebuttals to their former boss follow; their evidence includes time-stamped internal emails and staff employment contracts.

    Deterioration of relationship with Rockstar

    Source: “It’s pretty well reported now that the working conditions were bad. What hasn’t been discussed yet (from what I’ve seen) is the relationship between Team Bondi and Rockstar. I’ve heard a lot about Rockstar’s disdain for Team Bondi, and it has been made quite clear that they will not publish Team Bondi’s next game. Team Bondi are trying to find another publisher for their next title, but the relationship with Rockstar has been badly damaged – Brendan treats L.A. Noire like a success due to his vision but I think Rockstar are the ones who saved the project. They continued to sink money into LA Noire, and their marketing was fantastic. Without their continued support, Team Bondi would have gone under several years ago.”

    “Rockstar also made a huge contribution to the development; their producers were increasingly influential over the last two years of the game’s development, and overruled many of the insane decisions made by Team Bondi management. At a lower level, Rockstar also pitched in with programmers, animators, artists, QA, etc. Part of the conflict between Team Bondi and Rockstar was due to Rockstar’s frustration with Team Bondi’s direction, and eventually Team Bondi’s management in turn resented Rockstar for taking lots of creative control. It’s also worth pointing out that Rockstar used to be very keen on making Team Bondi something like ‘Rockstar Sydney’ – the more they worked with Team Bondi management, the more they came to understand that this was a terrible idea. I have a few logs that show the relationship souring – see below.”

    Date: Tuesday, April 06, 2010.

    From: Brendan McNamara [Team Bondi founder]

    To: Everybody List [everyone who worked for Team Bondi]

    Hi Everyone

    I found out this morning that Rockstar have pulled out of the E3 show. I’m trying to find out more information as to why. I don’t agree with this decision as I think the case we were going to show is looking great and that we could do some real damage there. Jeronimo [Barrera, Rockstar VP] is talking to the Marketing Team to ascertain what the Marketing Plan is going forward. Once I know what is happening and why I will get back to you.

    Brendan

    Source: “The context on this second one is that our Production Designer (Simon Wood) posted an email with links to a new L.A. Noire logo designed by Rockstar (which Brendan hated). The announcement apparently had a Rockstar logo, but no Team Bondi logo alongside it. Brendan’s reply was only supposed to be to Simon, but he replied to everybody at Team Bondi by mistake. He claimed he was only talking about commenters on news articles, but it was pretty clear to everyone that this wasn’t true.”

    Date: Monday, October 11, 2010

    From: Brendan McNamara [Team Bondi founder]

    To: Everybody List [everyone who worked for Team Bondi]

    Every dog has its day and there’s going to be hell to pay for this one. I’ll never forget being treated like an absolute c**t by these people.

    To read the full story, visit GamesIndustry.biz. You’ll have to register a free account with them to do so.

    UPDATE July 7: This story has been syndicated to GI.biz’s sister site, Eurogamer, where you can read the full story without registering an account. Click here to read it on Eurogamer.

  • IGN Australia story: ‘Why Did L.A. Noire Take Seven Years To Make?’, June 2011

    A feature story for IGN Australia. Excerpt below.

    Why Did L.A. Noire Take Seven Years to Make?
    Examining the troubled development of Team Bondi’s opus.
    by Andrew McMillen


    Team Bondi’s film noir-inspired detective thriller L.A. Noire was released last month to critical and commercial success. Set in a lavish recreation of 1947 Los Angeles, the game eschewed a familiar open-world design for case-by-case detective gameplay that revolved around examining crime scenes and interrogating suspects. Featuring a vast city, cases that adjusted depending on the player’s actions and choices, and sophisticated motion capture technology that had never been used in a video game before, it was a mammoth project.

    So mammoth, in fact, that it took over seven years to complete, with a publisher switch – from Sony to Rockstar – midway through. That’s not the whole story, however. The development of L.A. Noire was anything but smooth.

    Much has been written about the long development cycles on games such as Duke Nukem Forever, Too Human, or Prey, but the story behind L.A. Noire’s rocky road to release stands out within Australia’s small, tightly-knit development community. Team Bondi’s crime drama is not just the biggest game development project ever undertaken in Australia, it also served as the first-ever project for many of the creative forces behind L.A. Noire. It’s perhaps the combination of all these factors that has resulted in surprisingly open testimonials from former Team Bondi members about their experience working on the game.

    Recently, a group of former Team Bondi employees launched a public website with an amended staff roll for L.A. Noire that includes 100 developers omitted from the official game credits. But the look behind the curtain started much earlier. On January 23 2010, an anonymous source on Twitter began leaking stories heard through the grapevine regarding the Sydney-based studio. The account wasn’t run by an ex-employee; it was anonymously dishing the dirt on Bondi as heard through unnamed sources, Wikileaks-style.

    The tweets alleged that studio founder Brendan McNamara had mismanaged Team Bondi and development of L.A. Noire, and had spent “tens of millions” on proprietary technology in just a year. Despite then-publisher Sony Computer Entertainment America’s faith in McNamara based on his PS2 hit The Getaway, Sony dropped the project in 2005, when the studio “had far exceeded SCEA’s expected price tag for the game.”

    According to the tweets, this situation “threw the studio into disarray. Strangely, McNamara quickly found hospice in his former rivals–the Houser brothers–and L.A. Noire was picked up by Rockstar [Games] in spring 2006… Since then, the game has been revamped, ported, and delayed four times. Rockstar spent more [than] Sony in their efforts to make it not suck.”

    Locally, when the tweets were reported by the Australian gaming industry hub Tsumea, several anonymous commenters stepped in to back up the reports: “I can certainly attest to the appalling working conditions, the angry and abusive boss and the ineffective leads who were completely unwilling to do anything to protect their team members,” wrote one. “It’s abhorrent that these young kids are being thrown into a 24/7 corpse grinder with perpetual crunch and weekend overtime,” wrote another.

    The comments on Tsumea recall events that took place in 2004, when an anonymous LiveJournal post by a user named ‘EA_spouse‘ expressed frustration at the fact that she rarely saw her fiancé, an employee of Electronic Arts, due to the long hours he was forced to work while attempting to meet deadlines for the title The Lord of the Rings: The Battle For Middle-Earth. The blog received wide press attention and eventually led to three class action lawsuits against EA for unpaid overtime.

    After the initial tweets and short-lived online discussions that followed, the situation returned to all-quiet-on-the-Bondi-front. In the meantime, there was finally light at the end of the tunnel: L.A. Noire’s worldwide release date had been set for mid-May 2011. The game would finally see the light of day, but many questions remained. Are the allegations true? Why did it take seven years to bring L.A. Noire to market?

    IGN Australia reached out to dozens of former Team Bondi employees to help get a deeper look and tell the story. Eleven agreed to speak on the record, under the condition of anonymity; many feared reprisal from current and future employers if they were to be tagged as whistleblowers. The combined experience of these former staff is extensive: between them, they represent 24 years of service. Their individual tenures range from a few months, to four years, and they include artists, programmers, animators, and software engineers. We also spoke extensively with Team Bondi studio head Brendan McNamara for his perspective.

    For the full story, visit IGN Australia.

    This story runs to 4,500 words. It’s the biggest story of my career thus far, in terms of length, readership, and impact. As is hopefully apparent, a lot of work went into this story.

    I first pitched it to my editor at IGN on February 14, 2011. My initial email, entitled ‘Story pitch: What was it like to work on L.A. Noire?‘, is below.

    Hi mate,

    Just catching up on some industry news via Tsumea and elsewhere. Am loving the allegations by (seemingly) dozens of anonymous ex-Team Bondi employees about the horrible working conditions behind L.A. Noire.

    Favourite comment? “It’s abhorrent that these young kids are being thrown into a 24/7 corpse grinder with their perpetual crunch and weekend overtime.”

    I’d like to investigate these allegations and find out how much truth there is to it. Like my Krome story, could be the case of ex-employees agreeing to speak anonymously. As long as we can verify that they were employed by the company and they know what they’re talking about, we should be good to go. Right?

    Interested?

    Andrew

    It wasn’t until I got the nod from my editor and began reaching out to former Team Bondi employees that I realised the Tsumea story was published in 2010, not this year. Those allegations had existed for over a year, and no-one had checked them out. Curious.

    As mentioned in the story, I contacted dozens of former Bondi employees. Some were silent; some told me to leave the story alone, as they didn’t want their former colleagues to suffer in the event of the allegations being found to be true. Over the months, I rounded up eleven ex-Bondi workers who were happy to speak to me, anonymously, about their experiences working for the studio.

    Rockstar Games found out quite early on that I was investigating this story – via an overzealous source contacting an existing Rockstar employee, I think. They weren’t particularly happy. In an attempt to ensure balanced coverage, they eventually offered me access to Team Bondi CEO Brendan McNamara – though speaking with him was necessary if the story was ever going to be published, as it would be rather slanderous to publish the ex-employees’ comments without juxtaposing them against the responses of their former boss. Yet, as picked up by many of those who commented on IGN and the article’s resultant media coverage, McNamara did little to deny what I’d been told by his former staff.

    With a gestation time of over four months, this is by far the longest amount of time I’ve spent pursuing a single story. It was worth it, though, because I feel that it’s a story that needed to be told. I hope you agree.

    A final note: I’m interested in pursuing this story – and stories like it – on an ongoing basis. If you’d like to share your experience of working for Team Bondi and/or Rockstar Games, you can email me here.

  • IGN Australia story: ‘Blockbuster or Bust: The New Face of Development?’, April 2011

    A feature story for IGN Australia. Excerpt below.

    Blockbuster or Bust: The New Face of Development?

    Triple A or the highway?

    In February, IGN Australia took a magnifying glass to the state of the Australian game development industry. We found that locally, trends pointed toward bigger development studios – whose bread and butter was console game development, often for overseas publishers – closing down. In their absence, smaller businesses – who focus on developing games for mobile and social platforms – are where the real growth is happening. However, one of our interviewees suggested that it’s a “distraction” to talk in terms of geographically-specific industries. “It isn’t helpful to talk in local terms,” he said. “It’s a global industry.”

    With that in mind, we substituted our magnifying glass for a telescope, and peered across the Pacific Ocean toward the United States of America, where many of the world’s largest video game publishers reside. With the inferences from Activision’s most recent earnings call – that, increasingly, console game development is becoming “blockbuster or bust” – rattling around our brains, we asked a couple of triple-A-scale publishers for their take on this topic, as well as questions like: is basing your business exclusively around triple-A level development a sustainable approach? Is it riskier than ever to be debuting new IPs [intellectual property; ie, new games] in a crowded marketplace, where a handful of household names earn the lion’s share of revenue? And finally, does it take a huge set of balls to launch new shooters that directly compete with Call of Duty’s current market dominance?

    Bethesda Knows Best

    We’ll deal with that last question first, since it’s the most provocative. The company best-positioned to answer it is named Bethesda Softworks, whose headquarters – and its in-house game studios – are located in Rockville, Maryland. Bethesda also has offices in London, Paris, Frankfurt, Benelux and Tokyo. We can’t be sure, since they’re a privately held company – “we don’t ever release sales figures, annual reports, or employee numbers,” says Pete Hines, VP PR & Marketing – but we believe they’re among the biggest privately-held publishers in the world. Hines responds cautiously when asked about the size of Bethesda’s balls in relation to its propensity for launching new IPs.

    “The size of the balls it takes probably varies from [game to game],” he says “You could do a new IP that isn’t a big $30-50 million project. Look at Tiny Wings on the iPhone; that’s new IP. But if you’re going to try and put out a brand new shooter on the [Xbox] 360 and go head to head with Brink, Rage, CoD, Battlefield and the others, then certainly, it’s a bigger risk, and it takes some guts to say, ‘Yeah, we know what we’re up against, but we believe in this project and feel strongly enough about it that we’re going to do it.’”

    As avid IGN readers would know, the first two titles Hines mentioned are Bethesda releases. Brink is being developed by British studio Splash Damage, and will be released in May 2011; while Rage is the new shooter from the legendary id Software, the team behind Doom, Quake and Wolfenstein. It’s due in September. Bethesda is publishing both games, and they also have another IP – a third-person action game for PS3, 360 and PC – called Hunted: The Demon’s Forge due in June. While Hines won’t discuss development budgets – “I wouldn’t want to give you ballpark [figures]; big games and big ideas cost a lot of money to make,” he responds – it’s clear that there’s a lot riding on these three titles.

    To read the full story, visit IGN Australia.

  • Finalist for Microsoft IT Journalism Awards of 2010

    I’m a finalist at the ninth annual Microsoft IT Journalism Awards of 2010 – also known as the ‘Lizzies’ – under the category of ‘Best New Journalist’. Details below:

    2010 Lizzies finalists announced

    MediaConnect is proud to present the finalists in the individual categories for the Microsoft IT Journalism Awards for 2010. The winners will be anno unced on Friday April 8th at the Awards ceremony held at Doltone House, Sydney.

    More than two hundred entries were received for the 9th Annual Awards, which will recognise excellence in technology media and journalism for the year of 2010.

    Best New Journalist

    Andrew McMillen
    Ben Grubb
    James Hutchinson
    Josh Taylor
    Lisa Banks
    Luke Hopewell
    Spandas Lui

    For the full list of nominees, visit the Lizzies website.

    This nomination is a result of my coverage of the Australian games industry for IGN Australia. Key stories include:

    Krome Studios: Things Fall Apart, November 2010

    It’s the question that’s been reverberating around the corridors of the Australian game industry for three weeks: what causes Australia’s largest video game development studio to close its doors? Andrew McMillen investigates, and discovers that Krome’s current situation isn’t as clear-cut as first reported.

    Australian Games Education: A 2010 Report Card, December 2010

    Do you want to work in the games industry? The good news is that over two dozen education institutions across Australia offer games-related degrees. But how valuable is having a degree? Are they keeping up with the changing face of development in Australia? And with so many studio closures how many jobs are there anyway? IGN AU finds out…

    A Matter Of Size: The State of Triple-A Game Development in Australia, February 2011

    IGN AU looks at whether the Aussie scene can still support big studios… and whether it should even want to.