Following Your Instincts: Developing Darksiders II

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, Vigil Games general manager David Adams and creative director Joe Madureira discuss building Darksiders II.

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.

Do you just identify that at your level? You say everybody knows it, but doesn't want to face it. But how do you determine? Some companies will use a lot of playtesting. Do you just eyeball it?

DA: We do usability tests, but at the end of the day, you've just got to use your judgment. With usability tests, you get a lot of information that's only partially useful, because people... they'll get mad at one thing, even though it's something else that's screwing them up.

Funny story in Darksiders 1 is, we did a usability test and they hated everything about the game -- they hated the story, they hated the character, they hated the art, they hated it all. And then you look at the play time, and they were spending an hour in an area that's supposed to be 10 minutes.

So we fixed that, so they got through there quicker, and suddenly they loved everything else. Changed nothing else -- "The story's great, I love the main character, the art looks awesome!" [laughs]

JM: I don't think anyone is harder on our stuff than we are internally, especially Dave. I don't know, we have our own quality bar and... before it even gets to anyone else, we get it to a point where if we're happy with it, it's probably pretty good, because we are really picky and hard on each other.

We have a relationship now, with each other at the studio, where we can be really honest and just be like, "Hey, this sucks." "Yeah, I know. It's pretty terrible. Let's just redo it."

The experience, too, of our team has helped, because I don't think we've cut as much stuff in this one. In the first one, we threw out stuff that we spent like a year on. There was a dungeon we redid twice and still threw it all away. We don't do stuff like that anymore.

How do you not get too precious about the stuff you're making? How do you maintain that sort of distance?

DA: You do. You totally get attached to stuff... It usually comes to a series of painful realizations, where you try to fix it, and it's still not good, and you try to fix it, and it's still not good. And on your third or fourth time trying to fix it, you're like, "It's just something we can't do". For whatever reason, we don't have the time to commit to it, or we don't have the right people... But yeah, I don't think it's possible to not get attached to stuff; we're human beings.

JM: You just have to be honest about it, too, and play other games, and see how you measure up. And if something's not good, we all know it; you can see it. Even if you worked on it for two months, it doesn't really change the fact that it's just not very good.

Sometimes you do get really attached to something, and you're sad to see it change, but... And there's morale hits -- there's all that stuff that you mentioned -- but it's just part of working in games. I think the longer you work in games, the more you're just cool with it.

I think people that just are fresh out of school, and super excited, sometimes get crushed by how hard it actually is. And once you've been doing it for a while, you just expect that stuff's going to change at any given moment, even after we've worked on it for a long, long time.

You talked about how you come with a ton of ideas at the beginning. Is this all kinds of ideas? Do you set the scope for the story and the character, and that's sort of set in stone, or is that something that can change as it feeds into the game and the direction the actual game is heading?

DA: Pretty much everything changes. I mean, the story and stuff is a little more solid, because you've got to write a script. There are certain things that there are so many steps that come after it that you definitely have to plan in advance, but...

Even the gear items in Darksiders II, like the different equipment you get, I think we prototype two or three times as many as we actually used in the game. Sometimes you've just got to try something that sounds cool in your head, and then you play it, and it's stupid. [laughs] Not everything you come up with is a gem; you've just got to try it out, and if it sucks, you move on.

JM: We actually had a wall run in the first game; War was able to do it. And then just the levels we were building just weren't really supporting that mechanic, and it was just a mess, and we took it out. But in this game, we knew we were going to start with it and the designers just built the levels from the ground up to support that stuff a lot more.

I just think it's a more solid game overall. Like, we introduced the horse late in the first game, too, so a lot of the levels leading up to it were designed to be running around on foot. And this time it was like right off the bat -- you start with a horse, there's way more exploration. It's just structured a little better, I think, or closer to what we envisioned the first time around.

You alluded to contingencies in development: things having to come in a certain order. I'm interested in how you manage the process of working on these prototypes and content while knowing these contingencies, and the fact that you try not to be precious about cutting things that aren't working.

DA: I think the only thing you can do to prevent it is just try to prototype fast and make decisions quick. Like, you've got to be able to call something as being not working without going too far down. Because let's say you keep a mechanic that's kind of lame, or it's not working right -- you know, like, "We'll fix it later."

Then you design like 10 levels that use that mechanic in various ways, and then finally you come back and you're like, "Alright, let's finish that mechanic up." And you finish it up and you're like, "Wait, we can't. It's actually kind of stupid." And you're screwed. [laughs]

A lot of times -- especially core game mechanics -- we try to take them really far in the beginning because, personally, I think you can't just prototype game mechanics. You've got to take game mechanics to near final, because you're going to start producing a bunch of content that's dependent upon those mechanics. And if you don't nail them right in the first place, all that, it's like fruit of the poison tree. You start making content for something that doesn't work. Then you're screwed.

How early in the process do you take those mechanics near final?

DA: The base traversal and gear mechanics for Death, we took them pretty far in the first couple months of the project.

When you are working with the early versions of the mechanics, do you do that in complete gray-box scenarios? Or do you actually start to build out stuff?

DA: Yeah, we just do it in prototype rooms.

As the creative director, is your creative vision more about the aesthetics? Is it all-encompassing? Do you touch everything?

JM: I mean, the gameplay always comes first, right? It influences the visuals. People have asked why Death looks the way he does. Regardless of how cool something is that you draw, it doesn't really matter if it doesn't fit into the game. For instance, I couldn't put a ton of armor on him, because that was War's deal. We knew Death would be a lot quicker, and more lightly armored, and more like an assassin.

And it just starts to create little limiters that you stay inside of, and it's actually pretty helpful to have that stuff in place -- otherwise you can just go nuts. I think our concept department does a lot more successful concepts when the design is really solid, and then they stay within a certain threshold.

But when the design isn't there, and they can just brainstorm, they just go nuts, and we can't even use most of the stuff. I think it's working within the confines of what we need for that level, and for the game as a whole.

Even like the Maker area [the first area in Darksiders II] I think happened because, yes, we do want to talk about that part of the fiction, and their role in the universe, but also we didn't want to have every area in the game be dark, and destroyed, and whatever.

You can have a nice lush, foresty area, just to balance things out a little, just visually. Your emotional state while you're running through that area feels different than being in a lava cave, you know? Sometimes it's like, "Hey, we do want visual flavor." Sometimes it's driven by the story or game design, whatever. It's pretty interesting; it's very different.

Since you're working on a sequel, did this add a certain layer of "Now I can really do what I want"? Or was it actually more pressure, based on the idea "We're following up a successful game; we better not screw it up this time"? Or neither?

DA: We definitely had the opportunity to add stuff in we wanted to get in the first one. I actually think in development, limits are good, so it was good to have a game that had an established gameplay style. Like when we didn't have that in Darksiders 1, we were just reaching all the time.

It even took us awhile to get a firm grasp on how exactly the game would play out. We knew what the kind of game we wanted to play, but it's really hard to take a high-level concept and imagine the moment-to-moment gameplay. You have the comfort of not having to think about that with a sequel. Once you have some rules in place, it makes everything way easier.

JM: Yeah, I think everyone was a lot more confident, if anything. I think the first one was more nerve-wracking because if it stunk, you know, there's no new IP; it's just one standalone game.

Is IP creation a creative drive? This idea of creating something that becomes a franchise? Is that a creative impetus, or is it a business impetus, or both?

JM: I think it was creative, for us. We didn't want to just make one standalone game. For whatever reason, in our heads, it was a series, and we always thought of it that way. We even ended the game with a cliffhanger. We were pretty confident we were going to do another one. I don't know -- we just always saw it that way, I guess.

DA: It's true.

Games are such a sequel-based medium that it at least pays to be thinking that way, anyway.

DA: It was so much work to make the first one; it'd be criminal to not make some sort of sequel. You do all the hard work and you don't get to do everything you wanted in the first one. [laughs] If you then moved on to a whole other new game, you'd have to do it all over again every single time.

It's funny that we see that so much in film. Sure, there are franchises, and there are sequels, and there are also reboots, but we still do see more new films come than new games; I'm not sure why. Is it because of technology, and the advantage of problems that don't have to be solved again?

DA: Well, I think on a macro level, a movie's way more likely to make money than a game. So if you make money on a game it's like, "Yeah, make a sequel. We want to make money again!" You have to make sure lightning strikes twice. Basically you're rolling a giant dice every time you make a game, whether it's going to make money or not. Whereas a movie? I mean, you can make a fairly crappy movie, and still make money; it's way easier to risk. It's true! [laughs]

Yeah, it's a shame, though. That's what's happened with this generation in particular.

DA: Yeah. I don't think most people realize, but most games don't make money.

JM: I have noticed that. A movie that's like a Metacritic in the 70s can still be like a huge box office hit, but in like a 70 Metacritic game rarely is a huge commercial success. The commercial success games are in the 90s, in almost every case, so you're just not going to see a 68 percent Metacritic score game sell. Whereas like any Twilight movie will make a bazillion dollars, and be terrible.

DA: Well, again, games are just a bigger commitment than movies, right? I'll even find myself much more likely to play a game I've enjoyed in the past, because I know it's a bigger time commitment, and a different monetary commitment. It's like, a movie's two hours. I don't care. If you go to a movie... Never even heard of it? I don't give a crap; it's two hours. If it sucks, oh well, it cost me 10 bucks, and I'll go see another movie.

I think just the commitment nature of a game makes it so that you're definitely going to gravitate more to stuff that you know is going to be good, and you'll be less likely to take risks. And that's why lower-cost games, people take a ton of risks on, right? It's like a dollar App Store game -- who gives a crap? Buy a thousand of those. [laughs] You don't even think about it; it's like not even a second thought; "Sure, buy. I'll try it -- that sucked. Buy, try. That sucked. Oh wait -- that one's good!"

But since you know that someone spent 60 bucks on your game, they're going to give you more time of day before they give up on you, right? With a cheap game, or a free-to-play game, people will just quit if they don't like it. Whereas console developers can rely on the fact that someone who spent 60 dollars on something is going to not quit in 15 minutes, probably.

DA: I think it swings both ways, though. They spend more money; they're more likely to give it a good shot, and really like it. Or they're also more likely to hate it with extreme prejudice. Because again, no one's going to hate a one dollar game with extreme prejudice; it's not even worth extreme prejudice. [laughs]

JM: I personally, if I don't get hooked in the first hour -- if I don't turn it off and all throughout dinner I'm thinking about getting back to playing it, if that phenomenon doesn't happen, then I probably won't play it much more than that. Even if I spend 60 bucks on it, it's got to hook you pretty early on, at least for me.

With that in mind, do you work really hard to craft the beginning of your game? In social games, they're trying to turn it into a science. People will drop these games really fast, and they call it FTUE -- the first time user experience. I doubt you're quantifying it that analytically.

DA: No, we're not very analytical. I mean, we try to make the beginning not suck. [laughs] But I don't think we get that [analytical].

JM: I mean, we've made a conscious effort to have a really cool opening sequence, and that draws you in right away. But it's not like a science. I know what you're talking about; it's like "Within five clicks, this has to happen; within 10 clicks, this has to happen."

But on the same token, if you look at screenplay writing -- if you read books about writing screenplays -- there's all this stuff about starting in medias res. There are very established theories about how to start movies in Hollywood that are followed very routinely. This is the other side of the coin. Do you ever put any thought into that, or is it really just instinct?

DA: Yeah, we definitely do.

JM: Maybe a little of both.

DA: Yeah. [laughs]

Do you turn over control fast? You talk about how if a game doesn't hook you right away, it's not satisfying. So from your perspective, a game you're making, what elements do you drop in to get the player engrossed?

DA: Well, you've just got to try to engage them in the gameplay, give them some interesting stuff to work with. And there's definitely got to be a promise that there will be even more cool stuff if they just played five minutes longer, especially towards the beginning of the game.

And then at some point you get them hooked and, you know, it's not as important -- at least, for our game. As far as getting new abilities, make sure those rewards are coming fast and strong at the beginning of the game so that they're like, "Oh wow, this is awesome! I'm totally getting rewarded every five minutes!" And then you don't -- but you plant that seed in their head in the beginning so that they keep playing.

JM: I do think one thing that turns me off right at the beginning of a game is not [something you] put emphasis at the start of the game, per se, but it's just the overall feel. Like as soon as I hit the jump or the attack button... There are games that just feel good right away.

And you can just tell a bad game -- especially action games. Like if the attacks feel a little sluggish, or there's a certain timing that feels nice, and if it's not there, you know that game's going to be terrible. It doesn't really matter how good the story is, or whatever, if the combat just doesn't feel good, it's over, you know? It's kind of like picking up a book and you just hate the writing style. Like, there might be a good story in there, but it's like, "I can't stand this writer's descriptions and stuff." [Makes gagging noise.]

Is that why you spend so much time prototyping the core mechanics? You spoke previously about doing it so you can build content that isn't based on failed core mechanics. But also it must be for the feel, right?

JM: Yeah, and there is kind of a science to that, too. There is a specific amount of frames of animation that feels good when you jump -- how soon your feet hit the ground again. Like when you hit the button -- you know, that delay between when you hit, and when the weapon strikes the guy. If you're off by a frame, you can feel it; it just feels weird.

I think getting that stuff feeling good at the very early stages, before you put a ton of art on top of it, is critical. And we spent a lot of time on that on the first one, and then on the second one we kind of already knew the sweet spots for a lot of that stuff, so.

Did you use other games as a guide, or did you just feel it out like as you're prototyping it?

JM: Both. [laughs]

DA: And a lot of it is just feel -- like we literally sit around the controller going, "This feels kind of sluggish; tune this number." "It's still a little sluggish. Tune." "Ah! That's cool; that's awesome." So it's just having it set up so you can iterate stuff really fast through data; it comes in really handy. But yeah, it's just like you've played so many games in your life that you just get an instinctual sense for what feels good and what doesn't feel good.

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