Maintaining the Vigil
David Adams and Joe Madureira on building a studio, Darksiders, THQ and Warhammer 40K
Vigil Games was founded in 2005 by David Adams and Joe Madureira, and acquired by THQ in 2006. Earlier this year the team released the critically-acclaimed Darksiders as their first full internal project - a game in the works on and off for five years.
Additionally, the studio is working on an MMO based around the Warhammer 40,000 universe, while also going into production on a Darksiders sequel. At the recent DICE Summit we caught up with David, general manager, and Joe, creative director, to look back on the studio's history, talk about the reinvention of THQ, ponder the Darksiders development process and look ahead to Warhammer 40K.
Q: What made you want to get involved with the DICE Summit?
David Adams: It's a good opportunity to come down and meet some fellow industry members - we don't get together enough and talk about stuff.
Joe Madureira: It turns out making games is hard work, so we're usually nose-down. We get kinda reclusive, in our caves, tinkering away... it's good to occasionally step back, meet other people who are doing the same thing and facing the same challenges. There are a lot of good stories and knowledge to share, and I wish it happened more often... but after this we'll probably all go back to our caves, and get on with it.
Q: So Darksiders was released at the beginning of this year - how pleased were you with the way that turned out?
David Adams: Yeah, definitely. We worked a long time on the game, and there's always that fear when you finish is and put it out there, that no one will like it. But most people did, which is a nice validation of all the hard work you put into it.
Joe Madureira: It's also cool too having people know who we are for a change... guys that we respect, like Ted Price, and people from BioWare, or others we really admire - for them to tell us they checked out our game and liked it, it's a really good feeling. There's acceptance from your fans, but then from your peers - they're both really cool in their own way, so it's very nice.
David Adams: Yeah, there was definitely a long spell there that was like: "Where you from? Vigil Games? What's that?"
Q: So how long was the development process for Darksiders?
David Adams: Well, it's got a weird sort of history, because we started the company about five years ago - and technically we started on Darksiders then. It was our initial reason for the company. We made a demo and showed it to THQ - but then we had to take a step back from it for a while, because just getting a game through a publisher, to the point where they're approving it, takes a while.
So we did a lot of contract work, and then picked it back up - we weren't really in true, true development... it was about three and a half years or so, but even then that was starting with eight guys, and building a new studio, building the project.
Joe Madureira: It's a lot different when an established developer makes a game in 24 months, because they've already got a team and they hit the ground running. 24 months, when for half of that you only had nine people - it just doesn't count as a full year of development.
Q: So what kind of lessons did you learn in the process? Was building up the company in the first place a big challenge?
David Adams: Yeah - we learned a million things, but we took it one step at a time. We had a cool idea, but we had to build technology, the team... The biggest thing I learned personally is that the interesting thing about game development, if you have a lot of experience making games - if you're making a game you've never made before, a lot of that experience is useless. It's useful in a way, but you can be the best FPS developer on the face of the Earth - but if somebody comes to you and asks you to make an RPG, you've got to learn everything all over again.
You don't intrinsically know what makes an RPG great - and that's definitely hard to do when everything else is variable, when you're also trying to build the team and the technology. We just had a situation where we had to figure out a lot of different variables that were primordial and we had to grow into something useful. Doing them all at the same time was definitely fun...
Joe Madureira: I think, because of the situation we were in, I'm sure you can go into something with a little more planning and structure than we had, but we had so few people. It just felt like a boat that you're constantly plugging holes in, and dealing with stuff as it arose.
It was like: "This week, our main focus is that we need to hire a certain number of artists," while the next week it was that the engine needed some tools we hadn't thought of... the focus kept changing - it wasn't like we had this huge map laid out before us and we knew when the hurdles would come, it was more about which fire we were putting out that week.
But eventually we did get a lot better at it, and we had the right people in the right position. Things got smoother, and now we've announced a sequel - we have the team in place, and the experience of the first game, so it'll be nice to spend more time on the development and less on the fire-fighting.
Q: And now, with the Warhammer 40,000 MMO in the pipeline as well, running two projects in parallel - does that create more challenges?
David Adams: Yes, and add to the fact that we started that other project before we finished the first game... But we're at the point now where we know how to make Darksiders, we're making the sequel, which is cool - so a lot of that mental energy (in addition to making Darksiders 2 as cool as ever) has shifted to finishing the MMO.
We do have a leg up in that regard, because we did actually work on MMOs before Darksiders - unlike action-adventure console games, which we came into with almost zero knowledge...
But it's still such a huge undertaking - there's just a lot of moving parts, we've still got to build up a lot of the team. Trying to do that while at the same time trying to make a double-kick-ass sequel that exceeds the first in every way - that's a lot of work.
Q: It seems to be the fashion for lots of people to talk about a business model that revolves around building teams in new ways - whether it's a Hollywood production model, or outsourcing, or whatever. Are those thing you looked into, or do you prefer the benefits of having people in-house?
David Adams: The quality of the people is huge. My whole philosophy with production methods is that the best one is the last one that worked for you. If there was some magical philosophy that just worked, someone would have trade-marked it and everybody would do it.
But the fact that almost every single studio has a different development process is indicative of the fact that there's no true solution. It's a combination of the people you have, how they work together and how you best utilise them - that's the best development philosophy for any particular development studio.
Joe Madureira: I think for us as a studio, we are more heavily invested in our internal people. We've done some outsourcing and there are some things that work really well - but there are a lot of things that we like to iterate on, and it's not easy with somebody that's not in the studio and privy to the daily back-and-forth.
I've worked contract for most of my career, so it's something I'm pretty familiar with - but I know that when you're internal and involved with the people on a day-to-day basis, you just take a different approach to what you're working on.
It's not like we'd rule it out - I think it's pretty valuable for certain things, certain types of games, or just asset creation when you have a tonne of stuff to do. But for us, so far, the best experience that's working is to build a strong internal team and that's probably what we'll keep trying to do.
Q: I guess because of the timing of the Darksiders cycle you didn't suffer too much from the economic dip - did it affect you at all?
David Adams: We were pretty lucky, just because our publisher had this weird, insane faith in us that I don't necessarily think any other publisher would have had. They signed us when there were about six or eight of us, and pretty much every other publisher just said: "You guys are lame..." But our take was that if we just did really cool stuff, people would see that - they'd want to jump on the bandwagon and support us, and THQ did.
So we luckily avoided a lot of that stuff. THQ went through a lot of pain and restructuring - they took a lot of bullets so we could continue to make our game, and that's a good indication of their faith in us, and their drive to make great-quality products.
Hopefully it's a reflection on us - we are very iterative on everything we do, and that's not just related to the actual games that we make. It's also the processes, trying to be more efficient, do stuff quicker, using less money - it's something we're constantly working on.
Q: We often hear the negatives with respect to develop-publisher relationships, so it's nice to hear a positive story for a change...
Joe Madureira: [smiles] Publishers are evil by nature, but THQ just happens to be better than most...
Q: On those changes that THQ has gone through - what sort of differences do you notice from your side of things?
David Adams: You always hear the strained relations, because it's a pretty stressful thing. There's a lot of money involved, a lot of people involved. The one thing I've been impressed with at THQ, since we've been there... it's funny, because when we signed with THQ we didn't think they'd want to publish us, but since then they've put out Saints Row, Company of Heroes, Red Faction, UFC...
I read an article that Brian Farrell wrote the other day, and it's actually true - a lot of their recent releases have been 80-plus rated, and not a lot of publishers have that consistent level of quality. There's definitely this pall over THQ, where people have this impression they they just make kids games...
Q: They had a lot of success with licenses and WWE, to be fair.
David Adams: Yeah, wrestling and kids...
Q: But impressions of companies can be odd. I heard [Activision CEO] Bobby Kotick say that at Activision he thought he was flying the Millenium Falcon, but one day he woke up and realised he was actually piloting the Death Star... those perceptions can be hard to change. But you feel that THQ has reinvented itself?
David Adams: I think so. It's going to take some time, though - you can't change the perception of something overnight. They just gotta keep doing what they're doing, and we'll keep making cool games. Eventually people will get it.
Q: So how did the Warhammer MMO come about for you guys? THQ obviously already publish the Dawn of War titles...
David Adams: I don't actually know the details. They had the license, and Relic made a lot of 40K games which Games Workshop really liked because they actually took the IP seriously. At some point in the process THQ got the rights to the online game.
From my point of view, I really love 40K, so it was thrown out there casually at one point and I said: "Hey, we'll make it!" It was literally that simple...
Q: You have MMO experience - but that market's changed a lot in the past five years, and a bunch of people have learned a bunch of hard lessons. So what do you take from that?
Joe Madureira: I don't think it's changed that much if you really think about it. Before World of Warcraft, Everquest was the most successful. Then WoW came along and built on it in the past five years. A lot of people have entered the fray and failed miserably, but I don't think that core of the way MMOs play, or the business model in general - for the most successful ones - it really hasn't changed that much. At least not in the US.
There are a lot of different payment plans and things that people are testing out, and just social gaming in general is becoming really huge now, but I think for that core MMO audience - the guys that played EQ and are now playing WoW - will be playing the next big game, whatever that is... probably 40K [smiles]
It's a pretty steady pattern - it hasn't changed that much.
Q: There are a lot of fans of the table top game, so what are the sacred elements from there that you know you can't mess up?
Joe Madureira: Well, we're making female space marines, which is quite cool... just kidding.
David Adams: What's cool about the IP for me is that a) it's been around for a long time, and b) one of the things that Games Workshop has always done a good job of is... it's a table top war game, but if you look at all the expansions and rule books they've put out, they've done a good job of building up the fiction and IP. They'll put little fluff boxes in there and give you information about the universe.
Q: Does that legacy of lore make it easier, or does the lack of clean slate make it harder?
David Adams: It's plus or minus. On the good side Games Workshop has a really good pulse on what's cool, so there are buckets of raw, cool content. If you just flick through the books and read random content, or look at the pictures, there's definitely a lot of inspiration to be had there.
Overall I think it's a huge benefit - you can't escape the fact that it's got 25 years of history - all the different races, the way the Empire works... and it's interesting. It's great fodder for games.
David Adams is general manager and Joe Madureira is creative director at Vigil Games. Interview by Phil Elliott.