A Broken Industry: An Interview with Xander Davis, Darksiders 2 UI Designer
I spoke at length with Xander Davis on his time at Vigil Games and how he wasn't credited for his work on their latest game, Darksiders 2.
by Ian Miles Cheong on 15th Aug, 2012
Xander Davis—a former developer on Darksiders 2—shared his discovery through Twitter that credit for his work was omitted from the aforementioned game's credits.
Being uncredited for your work is never fair, and it's never good to discover that you were hired to finish a project only to be unceremoniously let go.
I spoke to Xander Davis about the situation and got his unadulterated take on what went down at the company.
[Update: THQ has shared their side of the story, which you can read here.]
Ian Miles Cheong: From what I understand, you were brought on to finish up the UI for Darksiders 2 in the final months towards the game's release, as it had been broken up until you came onboard. What was your position at THQ (or Vigil?) before you were brought onto the team?
Xander Davis: I was Senior Game Designer / Screenwriter / and Senior UI Designer at a stealth start-up in the Atlanta area working on a CryEngine 3 title with major multi-million dollar funding. I started just as UI but was promoted into the broader creative direction roles once they saw my other skills, talents, and experience. I was in charge of leading game design, world-building, intellectual property development, screenwriting, narrative design and organization, writing and maintaining the living GDD, in charge of all User Interface Design and development, creative development with concept team, and leading projects between cross departmental production.
But any start-up has its problems, and so I and many others there started looking elsewhere. I looked to Vigil... thinking, surely Vigil has their shit together, right? Nope. Turned out to be the worst nightmare of my entire life.
IMC: What were your responsibilities at Vigil for the development of Darksiders 2?
XD: I was put in the leadership role 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 leads of the project, taking through the plans I had developed for the team and the project going forward. 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 (maybe not under mismanagement and dis-coordination sweeping an entire studio though). We had to wait for some logistics, so we only had 60 days. Within those 30, 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 Artist got to focus solely on the skin over the design, where you really solve all of the problems of building a logical UI first, and my UI Developer helped us rapidly prototype and build it with dynamic functionality.
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, during those months. 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.
IMC: To your knowledge—do you know why the UI was as bad, or incomplete as it is so close to the game's release?
XD: I certainly don't blame the one UI Artist (mind you, not a Designer or a Developer, an Artist) they put in charge of all of it with no support or direction. I've heard so many horror stories of life as a UI Artist BEFORE I even arrived at Vigil. Wish I knew, right? You just have to ask yourself, in any production, do you look more critically at the guys on the factory floor or the management that let the UI get that bad so close to ship to begin with? Triple-A game development is incredibly complicated and challenging. The simplest things can be unbelievably entangled in production logistics or technical issues that can cripple the creative effort everyone shares. I actually liked and still like everyone I met at Vigil, but feel mighty abused and exploited by a few. And hey, in the end, maybe the right man in the wrong place can make all the difference in the world.
IMC: Moving across the country and transplanting to a new location is never easy. Am I correct to assume you were given good reason to believe that you'd be kept on the team for the long haul?
XD: Absolutely. Since I broke into the triple-A game industry, I've lived in six states in three years. I've given up at least two potential fiancees who couldn't follow, and I wouldn't put them in such a volatile position anyway. Fucks sake, how anyone has a wife or a family in this industry is beyond me.
With Vigil, I was assured several times they wanted me for the long haul, and I brought up my concern to them in my interview and a few times directly while working there. I've learned a few lessons lately that have helped me politically and one of them is to only ever say I can only try my best. I can't fix your broken organization, even though a lot of it seems obvious. That's actually on you, pal.
There are zero assurances in the game industry. I've been told personally by a game director: congratulations on shipping our game, that I'm on the next game, go have a month off, you deserve it, we're proud of you. Good thing I didn't get married or buy a house thinking I had three more years of stability, because as I was brought on mid-project there, I come back from break without a desk, laid off. Y'know, that was pretty fucking awesome, since the UI in that game was also largely art directed and designed by me. But it's not always up to the studio. I'm just glad Bobby Kotick got to use some layoff savings to pay for a scene opposite Brad Pitt in Money Ball. Good on him. Business is business. My life gets ruined, and I have to job hunt in this economy, in this market, and change states. At any given time there are only ever maybe, what, twelve UI positions open on the entire planet? That means, I have to tear down and box up my life, say goodbye to everyone, and go. I once had a girlfriend who couldn't just drop her whole life too and follow an unemployed menu guy, break down in tears and say "I was going to marry you, and now it's like you just died. You're just... gone." That was especially rewarding. Sure hope it makes those consecutive 9/10's worth it.
IMC: Did the management at Vigil or THQ give you any indication that the position was temporary once you settled in?
XD: Nope. Repeated assurances I was there for good. But even I knew those were empty words. Nobody has a safe job in triple-A. Several hundred game developers in Austin alone have lost their jobs since January. After I was let go, a month later the rest of the entire UI team was given pink slips too.
It didn't matter what anyone said. Everyone was given false hope, when the writing was all over the wall. We all knew it was a death march. That's why on the exact day I was at my on-site interview for my next job, mass layoffs hit everyone else in March and I don't think anyone was surprised. I definitely wasn't: I actually started talking to recruiters as early as December, but had every intention of shipping Darksiders 2. The proactive job hunt was simply for my protection. And I'm glad I did it. That is no way to have a career, much less a stable life.
IMC: This seems like an obvious question, but how'd you find out that you weren't given credit for your work on Darksiders 2?
XD: I simply checked an online video that rolled the credits. Because yeah, I haven't fucking bought the game yet. Maybe when it goes on sale. As I watched the credits roll, waiting for UI to come up, I knew. I knew the whole time what was going to happen. And then I saw it: totally not surprised. But when I saw that someone who had only taken control of the UI a few weeks before he and everyone else were apparently let go, it's just too ridiculous. And he doesn't deserve to take credit for my work, obviously. Let's not forget that very obvious fact. As the lead, the UI in Darksiders II is mine, because it was ultimately my responsibility, warts and all, done under those crazy circumstances, and I have mostly my original UI Artist and UI Developer to thank for making it a reality. It was totally a team effort, but it was totally my responsibility. None of this is a surprise to them either, by the way.
IMC: Besides you, were other employees let go from the team, with their credits removed?
XD: Yes, I'm Facebook friends with a lot of Vigil people (a lot of ex-Vigil people), and saw recently a lot of this is going on. Several people affected, several titles and credits completely misplaced. I don't want to name names, as speaking out isn't easy. The press is making themselves available for others who want to come forward and I encourage them to do so. Most people in the games industry are just too afraid to speak out. We already have enough job insecurity.
IMC: Have you plans to pursue any sort of action against THQ? Well, besides speaking up about this whole mess.
XD: I honestly am not interested at all in escalating this beyond simply getting the facts out. I don't care about money. It's just, I put my heart and soul into this. I gave them everything I had and they shipped it. I will not have someone take credit for the work I've done under hellish conditions when that person has no business claiming it or deserving it.
Look, I'm glad Darksiders 2 shipped-- for awhile there I was really worried it wouldn't have even done that! I need games I and others slave away on and sacrifice our entire personal lives for to fucking ship. So today was a good day in that regard. The 9.0 reviews were great. I'm very happy for the entire team at Vigil for this accomplishment. Shipping any game is a miracle, and getting a 9.0 is another one. But when it comes to THQ or Vigil, look-- I'm doing just fine without them, working as a Lead on UI and running my own game studio start-up Astrogun.com (just now a month old but a year in the works) with an international team and a fully working prototype.
But people need to know this stuff happens. I have so many young kids about to enter college reach out to me on Twitter and ask whether or not it's worth it, after hearing all the horror stories. My answer is no: go download UDK and gather no shortage of eager free volunteers from around the planet and start making a game. Heck, many of those volunteers may be recently unemployed triple-A talent! You don't need to suffer and sacrifice and enslave yourself to an industry that has zero loyalty to you. If those truths start getting out more, that's more than I could ever hope for at this point. 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 as my first industry job.
IMC: Being let go must have been difficult. Happily, you appear to have sprung back on your feet at Astrogun. Could you tell me about how the new studio came about?
XD: It kicked the shit out of me, especially because I gave them everything I possibly could, and so it really made me stop and re-evaluate what matters. What are my personal goals in all of this insane industry? Is it to ship triple-A games for corporate conglomerates? Not really. Is it to make awesome games? Absolutely. My own games? Even better. And suddenly I realized this is all pointless, even though everybody needs a paycheck. And others in the industry are realizing this all the time.
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-rocking 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.
So it just seemed like the timing was more right than ever. In fact, I filed Astrogun Studios LLC on July 5th, 2012, the first business day after Independence Day (apt, right?), and then not a week later Ouya comes out of nowhere and takes over the attention of the entire game industry. And I invest in it early 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, establishing our working relationship. Compare the Vigil experience to what Julie's offering! Night and fucking day.
Astrogun's unannounced debut game will be multiplatform, 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. Even though we're just a month old, I've got a Film Composer in Montreal (who is awesome), a Unity Developer in Thailand (who is awesome), I'm in talks now with an art outsourcing house in India (who are awesome and used by triple-A), and have received a lot of great advice from a fulltime independent art outsourcing manager and former Vigilante. 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. :)
IMC: Moving forward, could you shed some light about the new game you're working on?
XD: Oh just you wait. We're making it sure it's all nice and awesome for you. Details soon... ;)
IMC: Finally, in your opinion, is there anything those of us in the industry (on either side—developers or journalists) can do to improve the situation and hiring policies for other developers?
XD: 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 as 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. To 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? 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?
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 not, is Gabe Newell and Valve. Not to put one key people in the industry that seems to solve a lot of problems really well on the spot or anything. But yeah.