We’re not exaggerating: many people have left the Xbox Game Studios team that was once hyped as an elite group…
VGC has a very rough summary from The Initiative, who (with the help of Crystal Dynamics) are working on Perfect Dark, which has seen at least half of its core development team leave the studio in the last year. Roughly 36 devs have left, judging by LinkedIn profiles. We know about some of them – Dan Neuburger (former director), Drew Murray (design director), Chris O’Neill (lead level designer), Jolyon Myers (principal world builder), two senior systems designers, three former God of War designers… but two senior writers have also left, along with the technical director, the tech art director, the lead gameplay engineer, the lead animator, the head of quality assurance.
The Initiative currently has less than 50 people and only three job vacancies on their website. Analysis shows that about 12 people have joined in the last year. The announcement last September (Crystal Dynamics is also helping with development) coincides with a large number of departures, which could be a suspicious sign that the studio responsible for the Tomb Raider reboot trilogy may be taking over development from Microsoft’s in-house studio.
Departing senior developers have cited a lack of creative freedom and slow development as the reasons for leaving The Initiative. The departures are happening at a “fast and furious” pace, which is why the momentum is being hit hard. However, studio executives tell VGC they are confident in the team and, in addition to the new entrants, highlighted that the games industry is more affected in recruiting new staff due to the crown virus pandemic…
“It’s no small task to build a studio and reinvent a beloved franchise. In creating The Initiative, we leverage co-development partnerships to achieve our ambitions. We’re excited about all the progress we see with our relationship with Crystal Dynamics. In this journey, it’s not uncommon for staffing changes, especially during a time of global upheaval over the last two years, and there’s plenty more work in front of us to deliver a fantastic Perfect Dark experience to our players. We wish all our former colleagues the very best, and I’m confident in the team we have in place, the new talent joining, and we can’t wait to share more with the fans,” studio head Darrell Gallagher told VGC.
The Initiative is based in California, so those who leave can quickly relocate elsewhere, as the West Coast of America is also a popular area for the gaming industry. However, the games industry faces a crisis: it is a challenge to attract or retain senior team members. By the way, those who left told VGC that the direction Gallagher and Neuburger were taking was causing frustration for senior staff members and contributing to the departures. Despite what their website says about striving for a collaborative creative environment, the studio has a very old-fashioned hierarchy, according to former employees, with Gallagher and Neuburger having a hand in everything. They feel that their voices were not heard on development priorities, planning and the proper staff structure. The duo came over from Crystal Dynamics and wanted to continue the ‘top-down’ approach, whereas the studio wished for a ‘bottom-up’ mindset.
As a result, development was painfully slow, and a solid company culture was not established. The interviewees were surprised at how Microsoft was not strict about the lack of progress. One interviewee said, “Making games is hard enough, let alone when you feel like you can’t get through to people making the decisions that affect everyone.” The lack of culture was partly to blame for bringing in Crystal Dynamics. Gallagher and the now-departed Neuburger hoped that the entry of a studio with the methodologies they represented would help to improve the situation and solve the people problem.
According to VGC sources, it wouldn’t be surprising if Perfect Dark underwent a soft reboot, meaning we’ll have to wait years for its release. The Xbox management is being patient with its in-house studios (Playground Games: Fable, Rare: Everwild…), as the focus is now on getting games like the critically acclaimed PlayStation games to come regularly under the Microsoft banner.