Xbox's incoming Perfect Dark reboot is still getting off the ground, according to IGN, with the chief among them being a real idea of what it is. The upcoming game from The Initiative has reportedly not been able to lock down a clear vision of itself, and that's said to have severely hurt development.
While the game plans to draw influence from spy thriller films like Mission: Impossible and James Bond, translating that to gameplay has been an issue for The Initiative. According to IGN, ideas have been pitched, prototyped, and scrapped several times since the project started in 2018.
One ex-developer claimed the studio "kept making things that weren’t what we wanted. We'd do it over and over again. [...] People kept starting over.”
Another former staffer alleged that the Santa Monica developer "chose not to hold anyone accountable to the vision, and we just let people keep trying things. [...] It was a giant game of telephone."
Part of the issue reportedly stemmed from the fact that Certain Affinity was first brought on to co-develop the project in 2019. The Halo Infinite support studio had a different development style, which led to clashes: where Certain Affinity made games as instructed, the latter studio apparently wanted to treat development as a dialogue.
As a result of that friction, and failure to make much progress on Perfect Dark, there was a reported "talent exodus" of Initiative staff in early 2021. IGN states there were 35 departures in 2021, and a dozen more in early 2022.
Certain Affinity departed the project in 2021, and was replaced by Crystal Dynamics. The Tomb Raider studio was previously headed up by The Initiative founder Darrell Gallagher, but the partnership between the two developers wasn't quite as perfect as that would seem.
The Initiative and Perfect Dark are getting to the finish line
In 2022, after Crystal Dynamics came was onboarded onto Perfect Dark, the game was effectively rebooted from scratch in Unreal Engine 5. The studio had considerably more staff than The Initiative did, and had its members step into positions that were vacant after the aforementioned Initiative exodus.
That again led to leadership clashes between the two studios, not helped by further (albeit lesser) departures. Even so, progress on the project has been made, and not even Crystal Dynamics being acquired by Embracer (or half its staff working on a new Tomb Raider game) has apparently impacted things that much.
During all of this, staff from The Initiative, Crystal Dynamics, and Certain Affinity told IGN that Microsoft has been "remarkably hands off" with the project. A similar claim was made in early June regarding Arkane's Redfall, with one developer claiming Microsoft "[gives] us money, letting us decide how to move forward and requesting milestone updates.”
When asked, Xbox Game Studios' Matt Booty pushed back on those claims, saying he'd spent a good amount of time talking to Gallagher. Even so, he admitted things didn't work out as planned between The Initiative and Certain Affinity, and things weren't helped by the pandemic and starting a brand new internal studio.
"One of the things we learned on Perfect Dark is there is a difference between studios that have that creative DNA versus studios that have done more traditionally outsourcing," said Booty, "no matter how complex, and we just had to find the right rhythm there.”
Both The Initiative and Crystal Dynamics have now "hit their rhythm" on the project, Booty claimed. Additional work is being done to build out leadership for the former studio and get its staff numbers back up. Checking LinkedIn, there are nearly 50 employees listed at time of writing.
Interestingly, several sources told IGN that at this point, Perfect Dark may be more of a Crystal Dynamics game than an Initiative one. Though Booty was evasive on how true that claim was, he did stress his hopes for The Initiative to be an important internal studio for Xbox.
"We can't lose the ability to start a new studio," he said. "It's really important."
IGN's full report gets into more of the woes with Perfect Dark, including deeper insight into The Initiative's time with Certain Affinity and its evolving relationship with Crystal Dynamics.