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Postmortem Highlights: Behind The Scenes of Darksiders

Game Developer magazine's postmortem of Vigil Games' debut action-adventure game Darksiders reveals how the young studio overcame difficult challenges as it established its development practices.
The latest issue of Gamasutra sister publication Game Developer magazine, available for subscribers and for digital purchase now, includes a postmortem of Vigil Games' Darksiders, written by the studio's production director Timothy Bell. Darksiders, a third person action-adventure game about the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, was released by studio parent company THQ for Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 in January 2010, with a forthcoming PC release. These excerpts from the June/July 2010 issue of Game Developer magazine reveal various "What Went Right" and "What Went Wrong" highlights from throughout the creation of the game, revealing how the company faced early growing pains but eventually came out all the stronger: Strike Teams The concept of "strike teams" has become well-known in game production, and Vigil decided to make use of that tactic early on, but it took some time before it all came together: "We tried multiple variations on the strike team concept over the course of Darksiders' development. Our early strike team efforts would definitely belong on the “what went wrong” side of the ledger. Right after we first entered full production mode, we decided to divide up the work based on the major points of interest in the game. The “hub and spoke” nature of the game world made it easy to find division lines and break the world into what we believed to be manageable chunks. We then assigned members from each discipline to these strike teams and empowered them to work as a group to complete each game area. We tried to divide the experience and talent pool equally across each team to ensure no group would fall behind. The strike teams were full of developers waiting to unleash their creative talents. What could go wrong? Everything. The milestones for each team were several months apart, so we didn’t discover until too late that most teams had gone off into the weeds. They weren’t just a little off track—they were so far off the track that most of the work had to be completely redone. This situation infuriated the team as a whole and wreaked havoc with our dates. It would be a while before we tried using strike teams again. We revisited the strike team concept toward the end of production. This time around, we used significantly fewer people on each team, gave them extremely clear goals, and required daily updates on their progress toward those goals. Each week ended with a demonstration of their progress to senior management. We knew that the increased oversight would help keep asset production on track, but we were concerned that the removal of the creative aspect of the strike teams might adversely affect team morale. We were wrong. The strike teams were able to solve problems quickly and efficiently, and the demonstrable progress that they made each week provided a ton of positive reinforcement for everyone involved. As a studio, we plan to continue using strike teams in this way across all projects in the future." Scope Creep As Bell comments, some of the issues with scope creep in Darksiders add up to a tale that's as old as time: "The original design called for four-player co-op featuring all four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. The game was to be divided into “Overworld” and “Underworld” sections, and each of those sections was larger than the ultimate size of the final game. Clearly, our reach far exceeded our grasp. Some features, like four-player co-op, were abandoned early in the project. Others, like the Underworld, remained a part of the game design until late in the production cycle. Many of our scope problems can be traced back to the fact that we were a first-time studio that didn’t clearly understand both the amount of work involved and the rate at which we would be able to hire people onto the project. We should have adjusted our scope more aggressively during pre-production. We didn’t. Instead, we worked on multiple areas of the game at the same time trying to demonstrate our vision for each major section of the game. Much of that work was wasted when we ultimately had to abandon those areas of the game. The scope changes adversely affected the team in a number of ways. Many of our artists and designers were frustrated and demoralized by having spent so much time on areas of the game that would never be seen by players. Moreover, quite a few people on the team were left with the impression that we didn’t have a solid plan on how we were going to finish the game with the time and resources that we had remaining. The scope changes were necessary to complete the game on time and at the level of quality we wanted, but our management team learned a valuable lesson about making scope decisions as early in the process as possible." Constant Iteration Another common issue that was swiftly turned around was increasing the speed of iteration on level designs following usability tests - with iteration the catch-all game design remedy: "Absolutely nothing in Darksiders made it into the game on the first try. In the early days of development, much of that iteration was focused on trying to hit the desired art style for the first time or making the core game mechanics “feel right.” These iterations were extremely painful at times, particularly during the early production days when our milestones were several months long and we didn’t have weekly feedback sessions. As our production process matured, those iterations happened more frequently and were smaller in scope, resulting in the desired level of quality but with less frustration for the team. The Choking Grounds area in Darksiders is a good example of how the iterative process greatly improved the final result. In the original version of the Choking Grounds, the player used the Mask of Shadows to find Caster enemies that were scattered around the level. The Mask also revealed hidden geometry in the area that the player had to use to get to the Casters. The center of the Choking Grounds was made up of narrow paths and steep cliffs. Early on, the area was visually where we wanted it to be, but our usability tests revealed that players didn’t like it. In fact, they hated it. Riding Ruin (the main character’s horse) around the narrow passages was difficult at best, and killing the Casters to complete the Tortured Gate quest just wasn’t satisfying. We also noticed that players continued to ignore Focus Mode in combat, and that they didn’t have a good grasp of all the moves available in the game. Based on that feedback, we completely flattened the Choking Grounds and turned it into a giant graveyard. We then added several arenas to the area in place of the Caster quest. The arenas served as both a showcase for combat and as mini-tutorials to show players some of the depth of the combat system. Once those changes were made, we put the Choking Grounds back through usability testing. The Choking Grounds went from the worst-reviewed section of the game to the players’ favorite area." Additional Info The full postmortem of Darksiders explores more of "What Went Right" and "What Went Wrong" during the course of the game's development, and is now available in the June/July 2010 issue of Game Developer magazine. The issue also includes a feature on game design as it relates to art, advice on the creation of state-driven gameplay systems, and a roundup of 2009's top developers, as well as our regular monthly columns on design, art, music, programming, and humor. Worldwide paper-based subscriptions to Game Developer magazine are currently available at the official magazine website, and the Game Developer Digital version of the issue is also now available, with the site offering six months' and a year's subscriptions, alongside access to back issues and PDF downloads of all issues, all for a reduced price. There is now also an opportunity to buy the digital version of June/July 2010's magazine as a single issue.

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