I’m sure you’ve all been aware that publisher THQ was going under and had to sell off individual studios and intellectual properties (IP) after a complete sale was blocked by creditors. By now, you’ve probably seen where all the studios and IPs went (if not, check out Oliver’s excellent article on the breaking up of THQ).
And, by now you’ve probably found out that Darksiders creator Vigil received no bids and is being forced to close down, and are wondering how nobody wanted to pick up the developer of two fantastic and critically acclaimed games. The thing is, if you look at it a bit harder, it actually makes more sense than you’d think. Here’s how I see it:
I loved the first Darksiders, it came out of left field and offered a compelling mix of hack and slash action and Metroidvania style exploration, with a badass protagonist and a cool take on a post-apocalyptic setting – no puny man-made nuclear apocalypse here, a full-blown fire-and-brimstone end of all mankind. I don’t think the graphics would have strained the original Xbox, and the combat mechanics weren’t at the level of Ninja Gaiden’s or God of War’s, but the game just worked very well as a whole.
The fantastic art direction by renowned comic book artist Joe Madureira easily offset any lack of polygons or textures, and even though the game could easily be described as a combination of many other title’s game styles, it never came across as derivative. It felt very much like a game made with love by people who wanted to make a game like this, rather than one made as the result of ruthless focus testing, and that is the heart and soul of a successful mid-tier title.
Darksiders was critically well received and sold well. It was a sleeper hit of 2010, and definitely set the stage for a successful franchise. Darksiders II was no doubt green-lit without delay, and many people were looking forward to the next game, starring a different horseman of the apocalypse.
Darksiders II came out in August 2012. I haven’t played it, although the basic impressions I got were that I didn’t like Death as much as War, and that they had tried to add a dungeon crawling, loot collecting mechanic into it, which I didn’t like the sound of. The first Darksiders was already a big game, it didn’t need a time-consuming mechanic like that tacked onto it in my opinion, it actually gave me the impression that the game would be too long. The game was well received, though, the Xbox 360 version has a Metascore of 83 and Oliver loved it in his review of the game.
Sadly, the quality of the game was never the issue. The issue was that the game lost money. THQ revealed that even though Darksiders II had sold better than the original game did, it needed to move two million copies (a huge amount for what would still be considered a mid-tier, non triple-A title) to be a success. Simply put, the game just cost way too much money to make. There may be any number of reasons for this.
If I were to be uncharitable, I might suggest that, flush from the unexpected level of success with the first game, Vigil started to see themselves as one of the rockstars of the gaming world, which could have led them to up their own salaries and perhaps also decrease their productivity with all the high living, but that isn’t really the impression I got from Vigil. I think it may be more likely that they used the success of the first game to spur themselves on to try and make the sequel absolutely everything they wanted from it.
Scope control is an important part of game design, and there is no way every feature and level developers want to include can make it to the release version. Whatever the reason, Vigil spent more money developing Darksiders II than it could make back, and it was therefore a commercial failure, even if a critical success. Vigil can’t take all the blame for this, THQ as the publisher should have kept better control over the production cost.
During the development of Darksiders II, however, THQ was still set on its determination to join the big boys of EA, Activision and Ubisoft and so would not have been inclined to try and pare back one of its flagship titles. I don’t think you can accuse THQ of under-marketing the game because it had lots of ads on game sites, regular trailer releases and even a live-action TV ad, which you don’t see that often in mid-tier games.
Finally, Joe Madureira parted ways with Vigil a few months after Darksiders II was released, so any further Darksiders games being made would have to do without his stellar art direction, one of the major drawpoints of the game.
So, in the auction of THQ’s studios, nobody put in a bid for Vigil. Since then, Atsushi Inaba, head of Platinum Games, has indicated that he would like the Darksiders franchise, but notably, he didn’t say that he wanted Vigil. The IP is established and popular, but with Vigil having demonstrated that they couldn’t make their last game profitable, some other studios may be betting that they could.
I don’t for a moment think that we’ve seen the last of the Darksiders series. Game publishers seem to hate taking risks on new IP, and Darksiders is now an established IP to work off of. No doubt key people, like lead designer Hadyn Dalton, will go with the series if someone does pick it up after Vigil’s demise. EA seems like it could make good use of the IP and Visceral isn’t going to make another Dante’s Inferno game, so they have a team that could work on it. A Platinum-developed Darksiders would be awesome, provided they just work on the action and stay well away from the plot and storytelling.
It is without a doubt a very sad day for gamers around the world when we lose a studio of the calibre of Vigil. It does provide a tough lesson to publishers and developers, however, which will hopefully make the mid-tier of the industry, which is so critical for fresh ideas and IP, more resilient going forward.