The Last X-Men Game

X-Men: Destiny has the wonkiest legacy of any Marvel licensed video game. A legacy of dashed expectations, for its developers and X-Men fans alike, shrouded by a cloud of infamy generated by a Kotaku article alleging corporate mismanagement and potentially fraud. It has been a year and a half of convincing people familiar with its development of my intentions, scheduling Skype interviews at all hours of the night, and running into a lot of brick walls. I now feel confident that public opinion of this game has been skewed by misinformation.

You can’t discuss X-Men: Destiny’s development history without mentioning that Kotaku article. I have tried and it is unavoidable.

Written by Australian freelance writer Andrew McMillen, the same reporter who broke the story of the mismanagement behind LA Noire’s Team Bondi, “What Went Wrong With Silicon Knights’ X-Men: Destiny?” was a development hell article ran by Kotaku in the Fall of 2012. It was edited by (still) Editor-in-Chief Stephen Totillo and by his admission required weeks of revisions and had been previously rejected at other outlets (Wired, etc.) because it was based on eight anonymous sources. No hard facts.

Here’s a short-list of the most explosive claims in the article, although I encourage you to read it in its entirety for yourself:

  1. Silicon Knights had a toxic “benevolent leadership” culture;
  2. The studio head, Denis Dyack, was absent during X-Men Destiny’s development;
  3. There was a “parasitic” relationship with publishers, purposely delaying games to funnel money to other projects;
  4. After a 2.5 year period there hadn’t been a single game level roughed-in;
  5. Activision was uninvolved as a publisher and didn’t pay attention to milestones;
  6. Staff were being shoved off to other internal projects under Activision’s noses;
  7. Activision released an announcement trailer to force the development along;
  8. To push the game out by release the studio instituted a mandatory 6-day a week, 10 hour a day crunch;
  9. The executive team implemented a policy to discredit the workers on the game who had left the studio by time of launch, removing them from credits;

We are going to tackle all nine of these claims, I promise. They each require some scrutiny to understand what happened behind the scenes. 

Totillo claimed the article had been thoroughly vetted by himself and the legal team at Gawker (RIP), but most allegations either do not hold water or are misinterpretations. I can say this with certainty after speaking to two former publishing agents for Marvel and Activision, as well as a dozen former Silicon Knights staff including both a project director and the design lead. I can’t share everyone’s names, in part due to still-active NDAs, but we will dedicate a fair amount of time to examining what X-Men: Destiny was and what it was not. 

Artwork from the Xbox 360 & PS3 Intro Movie

A quick viewing of the game’s now infamous announcement trailer gives you a good taste of the pitch, if not the reality. 

Three new mutants (and one on the DS) would be propelled by the player into having their, uh, destiny either with or against the Children of the Atom. Aimi Yoshida (Sunfire’s daughter!), Grant Alexander, and Adrian Luca were the protagonists of the console versions, and Samuel Kamerhe was the sole protagonist of the terrible DS port developed by Other Ocean. All were technically denizens of Earth-TRN064, but they had also been part of Marvel canon. I use the words “had been” because Marvel discretely killed them off in Marvel Avengers Alliance, a Facebook game, in 2012.

X-Men: Destiny is cameo-laden, but short on playable X-Men. It’s actually the only X-Men game to be released where you can’t play as Wolverine. A lot of reviewers took umbrage at this along with the absence of co-operative multiplayer. I remember Angry Joe in particular feeling burnt by the promise of this game being spoiled by a muted single-player experience. These criticisms aren’t unwarranted, but this wasn’t always the case.

Zac Alcampo, X-Men: Destiny’s gameplay designer, told me the team had created a playable build not dissimilar to the classic X-Men Arcade game. “That was my dream,” he told me of the arcade prototype. “You could pick stuff up and throw it, another person could catch it. We had all that going between four characters. There was an entire juggling system that I had spent about 60% of my time working on. Each character had their own unique strings of combos and powers that could meld with other characters for fusion movies.” 

They had LAN 8-player co-op working cohesively at one point. One guy would be jumping on a building while others would be flying around on ice slides. Waves of enemies would charge you and your teleporting teammate might start a pop-up combo for the other X-Men members to join in on. It isn’t clear to me or the people I spoke to whether the switch from co-op to single player was pushed by Activision or Silicon Knights.

According to Assistant Project Director and then PD Julian Spillane, X-Men: Destiny’s potential was likely influenced by the studio’s reputation. “I think Silicon Knights, especially that era, suffered from a curse. Say another third-party developer had worked on that game, like the guys who did Ghostbusters for Wii (Red Fly Studios), some of these guys known for licensed third-party games — if they had made the exact same game I think it would have eaten a lot less s***. I still don’t think it would be a hit, but it wouldn’t have been as reviled as it was at the time.”

These comments were echoed by other SK staff members. “If you could unlock the X-Men after collecting all the X-Genes, which was something we talked about, I think there would have been way fewer complaints.” Said another staffer of the early mock ups, “There were once areas where you’d need certain X-Men team skills to do environmental puzzles, which also never made it in the game.”

As with any in-development title, there had been various iterations along the way. At one point it was dystopian, based on what Zac shared about early character designs. “Originally all of [the X-Men] looked post-apocalyptic. Nightcrawler and Caliban were the only ones that were built already [and made it as such into the game]. Somewhere along the line we were told they have to look like the comics. It was supposed to be this whole Mad Max-ish thing.”

He said losing some of the pre-production designs and multiplayer were disappointments, but the pitch Denis Dyack gave him when he started the project was still accurate. “We’re going to take the loot and the classes of Too Human but more digestible and apply it to X-Men. With the X-Genes (the game’s skill-equip/ability augment system) they were essentially a mix of armour, abilities, stat boosters and buffs.” RPG classic archetypes were also implemented for the three main characters. Density control was your tank class, energy projection was your ranged, and shadow matter your assassin.

“At the end of the day what both SK and Activision wanted to make was the Mass Effect of X-Men,” said Julian. “I think the prototype Zac had worked on with the team would have been the better direction to take it. But I know SK was known for its narrative experiences, and I think there was a big push, whether external or internal, and I think that’s where the game went off the rails a little bit.” 

Silicon Knights was tapped to develop this game because of its storytelling reputation, while Mike Carey was tapped by Marvel to pen the plot. I had reached out to him through a mutual acquaintance but he wasn’t interested in reminiscing on this project. The people I spoke to said they were really happy with his story and other staff filled out the stuff that could change with gameplay. “Mike really laid out, ‘here are the plot points we need to hit’ but a lot of the writing and the minutiae itself was written by the in-house team,” said Julian. They worked on the “Destiny” moments of gameplay choices, which Zac told me some people wanted to cut altogether.

The game’s emphasis on player decision making created a few branching paths where you can side either with the X-Men and Brotherhood of Mutants but the plot remained the same. San Francisco, perhaps the most liberal city in America, is divided into human and mutant territories after a peace rally is attacked by an anti-mutant extremist group called the Purifiers. Purifiers typically kill mutants but now they are kidnapping them. I won’t spoil the plot because it actually isn’t bad at all. It’s pretty decent for what it is. It would have been better with custom new mutants instead of three randos though, and it seems SK-ers knew that:

“They were trying really hard early on to do a create-your-own mutant system internally but a combination of time, resources, technology — it just wasn’t going to happen.”

It’s a shame too as that might have softened the critical response a bit.

Havok suit DCL pre-order bonus for the three main characters

Outside of the missing cooperative multiplayer and playable X-Men the biggest issues reviewers had were mindless combat and lack of polish. And there’s a pretty big reason for both, but I don’t want to bury the lead. You’re here for the drama and if I’m going to explain the game’s history I may as well kill two birds and also tackle that Kotaku article.

Let’s jump into the allegations. I’m going to give you my verdict on their veracity based on the perspectives I’ve collected. 

(1) Silicon Knights had a toxic “benevolent leadership” culture

Verdict: Disputable

When people talk about SK in this capacity it’s generally as an indictment of former studio head Denis Dyack, who (full disclosure) did not respond to my requests for an interview. SK definitely had a unique culture and its description as a guild is apt based on how it operated when it was smaller, but suggesting that the X-Men: Destiny team was anything other than a group of hard workers trying to get a game released on time is reductive. 

Still, there was one line that kept coming up on SK’s culture when I was talking to people. 

“‘You’re either on the bus or you’re off the bus,’ was an expression Denis used a lot.” said Julian when I asked him about the culture. “Don’t rock the boat, this is what we’ve decided to do. You’re either with us or you’re against us.” Other people reiterated feelings of either being on the ins or being on the outs with Denis at times. He was definitely a polarizing figure. Still, I think it’s fair to suggest the eight sources (from the list of dozens of recently departed employees) interviewed as part of the Kotaku piece probably didn’t have the best vibes for Denis at the time.

(2) The studio head, Denis Dyack, was absent during X-Men Destiny’s development

Verdict: Accurate 

X-Men: Destiny wasn’t Dyack’s dream project. He was busy with a much smaller team working on Eternal Darkness 2, which would eventually morph into Shadow of the Eternals after SK’s collapse. It was a point of contention for the team on X-Men: Destiny, which Julian had to deal with while trying to ship the less attractive game.  

“Denis’ complete lack of involvement in the project contributed to it not feeling like not a SK game. Ken and Denis (the leads on most SK projects) just weren’t a part of the production. So as a result it was the rest of us working on it, which was awesome, but at some point it didn’t feel like a SK game. It felt like an X-Men brawler that could’ve been developed by anybody.” 

(3) There was a “parasitic” relationship with publishers, purposely delaying games to funnel money to other projects

Verdict: Misconstrual

Denis has addressed this himself, reiterating that SK didn’t funnel money from projects to other work and had in fact contributed $2 million of its own funds to complete the game, but this one is a bit more complicated. The allegation this stems from is an anonymous Redditor who doesn’t seem to know how funding in the game development business works.

X-Men: Destiny was not funding other projects so much as it’s margins were contributing to the studio’s overall funds, thereby allowing them to grow and use their resources in different ways. The project director explained to me that while Activision gave (he believes) $30 million to SK for X-Men: Destiny when studios give a number to a publisher they bake-in a margin. This is a business, after all. No company is going to make a video game at cost and take a back-end percentage. “Both parties know when you say it costs $10,000 per person, per month what you’re actually saying is that it likely costs $6-7,000 and that’s understood, accepted business practice.”

I’m sure Activision knew that SK was using their resources for other work, but the bigger point was that all parties were in agreement with the costs. It wasn’t as though every dime needed to be in X-Men: Destiny and there was no specific staff-member allotment requirement. They just had to deliver on milestones and by all accounts I’ve encountered they did. 

(4) After a 2.5 year period there hadn’t been a single game level roughed-in

Verdict: Pants on Fire

X-Men: Destiny released in Fall 2011. By every account I have development started in 2009. Based on what Julian told me, 2.5 years is a wild exaggeration. “I think they kicked off the game mid-to-late in 2009. They had been working on the Chinatown prototype in one way or another while also developing some prototypes for other titles. Maybe a year and a half by the time I joined.”

Those familiar with game design would tell you that this allegation is particularly insidious because it suggests that games are built in a progressive way, with late game assets created towards the end of development. Generally, games start with a proof of concept before building out the rest of the elements.

“[The development team] had been focusing on Chinatown for quite a while.” said Julian. “It’s funny because a lot of people use that to say ‘here’s how the project was so fucked up,’ but in games there’s often what is called a vertical slice where you try to get one aspect of something as close to shippable as possible to act as a template for everything else you’re working on. To solve all the problems and figure out all the process issues. So, I don’t think there was anything particularly wrong with them focusing on Chinatown, it just took way too long to get to that point.” 

(5) Activision was uninvolved as a publisher and didn’t pay attention to milestones

Verdict: Pants on Fire 

As mentioned, there were no milestones missed to my knowledge. Activision definitely had a change in view on the Marvel license deal, but that isn’t to say they were hands-off. Suggesting otherwise is a disservice to the people who worked in Activision’s publishing group for the game.

“We were in constant communication with Activision,” said Julian of their team. “I was in daily communication, generally. The problem was that SK had a culture of extreme secrecy. Denis is probably the least transparent person I’ve ever worked with. A lot of it was, ‘don’t tell the staff X, don’t tell the staff Y — they don’t need to worry about it.’ So, we were constantly connecting with Activision, especially during the QA phase. It just didn’t trickle down to the staff.”

Activision also offered SK staff members the opportunity to participate in PR events like Comic Con panels with Stan Lee. They provided development opportunities you may not expect of a publisher. Zac, in particular, had nothing but glowing things to say. “Activision was really great to me. They flew me down to Santa Monica to direct the motion capture. I worked with Ho-Sung Pak, the original Liu Kang, for the shadow-matter animations. T.J. Storm, who went on to be Godzilla (in the recent major motion pictures) provided mo cap for the density characters. Aimi was Tess Kielhammer, a ballet dancer who is now an MMA fighter.” The way Zac talked about this time period, to me, felt genuinely positive specifically due to Activision’s involvement.

“Activision was in a weird position at the time,” said Julian. “The producers were really awesome people. They were working as hard as possible to make this as good as it could be.”

(6) Staff were being shoved off to other internal projects under Activision’s noses

Verdict: Disputable

Julian told me there had been instances he wasn’t sure how many animators he had that day because of the needs of the Eternal Darkness team, but he thinks the idea Activision would have been surprised or upset about it is wrongheaded. Moreover, Activision didn’t have a say over which staff worked on which projects. This allegation can likely be tied back to the culture that had fostered at SK because of the multiple projects. 

“I think there were a lot of morale issues and a lot of resentment to the Eternal Darkness team from mid- and entry-level staff, the people who were working on the day-to-day aspects of X-Men: Destiny. They were incredibly frustrated; they had to crunch all the time and the Eternal Darkness team didn’t. They were working on a project where things went from being an exciting project to ‘how do we even ship it,’ while looking at the green fields of Eternal Darkness.”

(7) Activision released an announcement trailer to force the development along

Verdict: Pants on Fire 

“I was in that meeting,” said Julian. “It wasn’t Activision’s decision to include the SK logo, it was ours. We were going back and forth with Activision’s PR people and we were the ones to pull the trigger.” In hindsight, it might have been smart to have held off on the announcement given the state of the game but the team wasn’t going to shy away from their commitments.

“I didn’t want to pull the wool over the eyes of the gaming public. The biggest critics of Denis were already going to know it was an SK game because they said it from day one. If the SK logo was nowhere to be seen the first question people would ask would be, ‘wow, is the game that bad?’ It’s hard to Alan Smithee a game.”

Another problem was the nature of the trailer’s pitch and how it informed public opinion on what the game would be at launch. Julian doesn’t look back on it fondly. “If you look at the original announcement trailer for X-Men Destiny, everyone immediately jumped to ‘Oh my god I’m going to get to make my own mutant like I would a Fallout character. I think just because it was so nebulously announced it was built up way too much.”

 (8) To push the game out by release the studio instituted a mandatory 6-day a week, 10 hour a day crunch

Verdict: Accurate*

I asked the project director point-blank how bad the crunch was before release and he didn’t mince words. “It was pretty bad. Not atypical of AAA at the time. On the scale of one to Rockstar I’d put us at a five. We were doing late nights, six day weeks at one point. I don’t think we ever got to seven. People work until 10 or 11 o’clock every night. I think at the time we weren’t having the discussion around crunch we are today. And the deadlines always felt so unrealistic and they were immutable so we had to do what we had to do.”

*The real question when we talk crunch is “why?”

Why did this multi-million dollar project need that much crunch to finish on time? The answer that no one could legally talk about at the time was Disney’s acquisition of Marvel and how that resulted in a slashed budget.

“Part-way through development our budget was slashed in half by Activision because of the acquisition. The Marvel deal wasn’t seen as profitable [by Activision]. They paid an exorbitant amount of money up front for something that wasn’t worth that much at the time. Every year budgets are getting bigger and bigger. They looked at Call of Duty and it was like a bright, green field and they looked at Marvel and it was a swamp. If I can put $100 million into a product I wanna put it into the one thing I completely own.” Julian Spillane, Wii Project Director said to Lazertime in a podcast interview in 2017.

I caught up with Julian right at the beginning of this pandemic and it was illuminating seeing the production from his perspective. “The budget was slashed and all [QA] production moved out to the Minneapolis office of Activision where they moved all their licensing. We’d have Disney wanting to meet with us saying, ‘we want out of the contract but we still wanna work with you guys and add more time and rethink things,’ and then we had Activision like, ‘we want out of this deal because we got into it with Marvel, not Disney.’ It definitely affected the development quite a bit.”

Essentially, the lack of time to polish and the high crunch to ship a working product might have had something to do with the Marvel licensing deal being so precarious at the time. Activision knew that if the game was cancelled they would owe Disney a penalty but if they fulfilled their obligations the deal would go away.

(9) The executive team implemented a policy to discredit the workers on the game who had left the studio by time of launch, removing them from credits

Verdict: Accurate, but moot by release

“Yes, it was being considered. There were a few of us on staff who were very adamant that this not be the case.” Julian told me. When I asked what the motivation for not crediting staff was he suggested it might have been petulance. “Denis’s thought was that anyone who had quit was a traitor, essentially. You didn’t stick it out then you don’t get to celebrate this with us. Denis eventually capitulated. There was a mea culpa in there as Denis refused to credit multiple leads on multiple versions of the game.” So, everyone did make it into the game but the leads, who worked on all three major SKUs, were only credited in one SKU each.

And that’s it, or is it? 

The Kotaku article didn’t exist in a bubble. It not only informed the opinions of X-Men fans and prospective buyers, turning the game and SK into an industry joke, but also it impacted worklife at SK. 

“It was the thing that was mumbled about,” said Julian. “Denis was so mad about this article. He’s had a resentment of games journalism since the Too Human era and [the Kotaku article] really cemented his loathing of games journalism. It was a morale hit internally. There were a lot of people who thought that this article and the claims that were made in the article made them unhirable. I have incredibly talented colleagues who were really emotionally impacted by it. They thought they’d be seen as parasitic developers who leaned on Nintendo and Konami for everything.”

People had already felt beat down by the time of release. Shipping this game with a reduced budget and hard timelines was exhausting, but the team was still proud to do it. It was the first game SK had shipped in three years and they had worked incredibly hard, overcoming huge odds to do so. X-Men: Destiny’s development was indeed miered by issues. Staff viewing Eternal Darkness 2 as the important project and X-Men as paying the bills was small potatoes compared to struggles on the technical side.

“I remember the Wii version was crashing consistently at level three only two months before we submitted it to Nintendo,” said Julian. In fact, the Wii port seemed to be one of the harder nuts to crack in such a short period. “The Wii engine we were using was the SK Engine but a lot of the Wii-specific code was resuscitated Gamecube code previously used on Metal Gear Solid: Twin Snakes and Eternal Darkness. Cool stuff that we were leveraging that worked just fine. But then there were things like disk-eject issues where on the Wii there was no operating system. Every time you hit that home button and it would pop up that consistent menu in all games — every developer had to implement that themselves. Each time. Nintendo released guidelines saying, ‘If you eject the disk mid-game this needs to happen.’ Every developer had to find a way to make that work.”

“We had one problem in particular with the Wii version which was a crash that occurred only on the disk version of the Wii game. You compile and build your game down to an executable that can be run on an RBTH, which was a Nintendo Wii dev kit that had a hard drive. You only really do the disk burn as a sanity check. We did the sanity check and found a 100% reproducible bug that only happened on disk. So every time we wanted to figure out what it was we had to burn a new disk.” When I asked Julian how many disks they burned he laughed, “A few hundred.”

Other X-Men Destiny SKUs weren’t any easier. “The PS3 was always the bane of everyone’s existence. Almost everything is multi-threaded nowadays when you’re talking about code but in 2009 that was more theoretical than anything else and no one really knew how to code around that. So it was very difficult. Also, we had engine issues.”

The X-Men Destiny team used the SK engine — which was legally decided to be a splinter of the Unreal engine. The is something several staff said they are still very much on the fence with. “It was a frustrating tool, with not a lot of artist friendly tools and there was a lot of antagonism towards making those tools friendly for artists in house, and a lot of that came from our CTO.”

I asked Julian if there had been resentment over having to use the SK engine because of the Epic suit and he said, “Yes, unequivocally yes. The tech directors and art directors were always just like, ‘why can’t I just X, why can’t I just Y. Unreal [Engine] let’s me do this.’ I think there were a lot of wasted back-and-forths because a programmer had to intervene to get something done so an artist could see if an asset they were working on was working. It was just so cumbersome compared to other technologies at the time.” 

There were so many factors that contributed to it not being the dream game. The thing consuming SK at the time was the litigation. It hung over their heads like the sword of damocles.

Silicon Knights folded due to loss of a legal suit with Epic Games. They had alleged a lack of support from Epic in the use of Unreal Engine, which forced SK to use their own engine. Epic countersued. They had the chance to settle at one point but decided to take a NC company (Epic Games) to an NC court with an NC jury. SK lost and the judge demanded all unsold copies of both X-Men: Destiny and Too Human be destroyed for supposedly containing Unreal source code.

Did the XMD team see the destruction of physical copies of X-Men: Destiny as a loss?

“I do,” said Julian. “I’m hard on the game mostly because of what it could have possibly been. I was overjoyed to have the opportunity to put my mark on X-Men. Probably the most important comic brand to me is and always has been the X-Men. So having that opportunity was amazing but what we were able to do wasn’t great,” he sighed. “We have the distinction of being the last X-Men game ever made.”

X-Men: Destiny may be the last X-Men game but more than one person made a point of telling me that they don’t look back on the experience sourly. Several said they were nostalgic not for the era or the Kotaku drama but for the team they worked with. Friends they still have in 2020. That’s the real story inside of X-Men: Destiny — a team of people who pushed through a worsening work environment, long nights, technological issues, financial strains, and poor publicity to release a game. It’s not perfect, but it — and they — deserved better.