In the rubble of Phantom Dust’s cancellation or whatever is going on with it, anonymous employees from the former Darkside Studios have spoken out about the handling of the situation through Kotaku. They claim that it was under-budgeted and that the reveal trailer shown at E3 didn’t come from them.
The story is quite upsetting, seeing how a small studio had a chance at the big times with a cult-classic franchise but came up just short. Darkside got to the point where it produced a prototype that Microsoft reportedly enjoyed, but negotiations for a higher budget fell short when Darkside’s leadership asked for more. Originally, the team was granted $5 million for a multiplayer only reboot of the franchise, but Microsoft changed the deal to add a 6 hour campaign on top of it… with the same budget.
Darkside needed to hire more programmers and artists while still paying its existing employees from the shoestring budget. $2 million of that had been spent before Microsoft canned it and the the studio closed.
Darkside’s issue wasn’t with the budget alone. They had been creating the game for some time before Microsoft sat them down to show off the E3 reveal trailer, but some of the developers watched in shock as they realized that no assets or really anything from the studio appeared in the pre-rendered CG trailer.
“We didn’t even know if they were going to show it. We were basically told, ‘Hey check out the E3 presentation.’ The whole studio’s in the living room, we have a TV going with an Xbox watching the presentation, and then all of a sudden there’s that two-minute CG trailer. And we were like, ‘That’s amazing.’
But at the same time, they didn’t use any of our assets, they didn’t use any of our card packs, nothing. Basically what they showed had nothing to do with the game whatsoever. We had no idea that was even happening… It was like, ‘Holy crap, now fans are expecting characters to look like that, and that’s not what we’re making.’”
Not surprising in the least. Does anybody trust E3 trailers anymore?
A gag-order also forced the company to remain silent about its involvement, so the little recognition that the game actually got didn’t come from the developers. Now that the studio has closed down and the fate of the game remains a mystery, what really happened is starting to become a little obvious. Microsoft piled on the demands but forgot to pile on the money. The campaign jumped from 6 hours to 30 hours, more features were needed for eSport integration, scheduling became tighter, Microsoft demanded art for a mobile spin-off it was planning outside of the original deal…
…all with that original $5 million budget.
“This kind of focus change happened on a nearly monthly basis. They asked for things pretty quickly. We kept telling them, ‘We cannot make this game for the budget you want.’”
Seems a little underhanded, or maybe it was Microsoft’s way of squeezing out of a deal with a studio that just couldn’t handle the pressure of AAA development. We only have one side of the story, remember. Microsoft gave the same PR response to Kotaku’s inquiries that it gave when news of Darkside’s closure broke out.
And yet, Microsoft still got what it needed from the announcement. Phantom Dust was one of the games it announced to lure in people with a quirky tastes. The people who tend to deviate away from the AAA releases. Phantom Dust brought a little niche credibility to the Xbox One, and that announcement trailer alone probably pulled in the gamers Microsoft was looking for.
Just another reason to take every trailer you see at E3 with a huge spoon of salt, gamers. We see graphics that are far shinier than could possibly appear in the game, and we have more than enough examples of games changing or simply disappearing before our very eyes. It’s a shame too, because the original Phantom Dust is an excellent game, one that deserves a second opportunity to thrive in today’s market.
You just never know anymore.