Seven months after the publication of an article about the troubled development cycle of his studio’s last video game, Denis Dyack is finally sharing his views on the article. Naturally, we have some thoughts about his reply.
Dyack’s response appeared online on Sunday in the form of a 33-minute video, which you can watch above. In the video, Dyack makes his first public statements about our October 26, 2012 article entitled What Went Wrong With Silicon Knights’ X-Men Destiny? The article was reported and written by freelancer Andrew McMillen and edited by me over the course of several weeks in the latter half of last year.
Dyack had refused to comment about the article while it was being reported. He is doing so now, he says, out of a concern that the article is negatively impacting the Kickstarter campaign for Precursor Games’ Shadow of the Eternals and gamers’ willingness to help make Precursor’s planned spiritual successor to Dyack and Silicon Knights’ excellent 2002 game Eternal Darkness a reality.
It’s probably worth reading the article before watching the video.
I’d long hoped Dyack would comment before the article’s publication. He had been made aware of the contents of the article well before we ran it, but chose not to lend his insights and voice. He says now that he declined out of fear of giving McMillen’s eight anonymous sources, all former Silicon Knights employees, credibility.
“When I first saw this article, I [didn't] believe—because there was not a single credible source where nothing could be verified—that anyone would actually believe this,” Dyack says in his video. “I knew that what they were saying and accusations about me embezzling money from Activision and being terrible to people were not true. I never really thought that people would believe it.”
The above statement exhibits one of the more puzzling aspects of Dyack’s video: that it disputes things that weren’t actually in the article. McMillen’s report includes no mention of embezzling money, but multiple mentions, by former employees, that people who were supposed to be working on X-Men Destiny were at times pulled away to work on other company projects. It is just one detail of many describing Silicon Knights' development priorities. The embezzlement charge is more severe, of course, and was something McMillen had heard rumored during his reporting. Reporters hear many rumors and try to deduce whether they're true. This rumor doesn’t appear in the article, which should show how much credibility McMillen and Kotaku were ultimately able to give it. (Dyack says that SK actually put $2 million more into the development of X-Men Destiny than they were paid to.)
It is similarly baffling that Dyack quotes a forum member named “mappster” who claims “The quotes in the article say that Silicon Knights split from Nintendo due to the name of the console and the Wii's limited graphics.”
Dyack responds to that by saying:“None of that is true whatsoever.”
I can add that none of that is in McMillen’s article, so it’s a non-issue.
These references to things that weren't in our article are distractions. They are extreme claims, both presented and rejected by Dyack, and they pull attention away from the issues of effort, management, creative vision, communication, morale that McMillen's sources describe when chronicling the tough development cycle for the X-Men game.
The idea, presented in our article, that people were pulled off of the X-Men game to work on other Silicon Knights projects is in dispute. Our article describes that as occurring during the early part of Destiny’s development. Here, it’s the word of Dyack and his current colleagues that this did not happen vs. those of the former studio workers interviewed for our story. Dyack says “At no time ever did Silicon Knights divert anyone from X-Men Destiny… to another project.” Yet McMillen’s sources say they saw it happen. From the article:
"SK didn't take the development of XMD seriously the entire time I was there," a source says. "They were working on an Eternal Darkness 2 demo that they could take to publishers. While I was there, they were even siphoning off staff from my [XMD] team to work on it." Sources allege that many of SK's programmers, artists and designers were not contributing to the final quality of XMD at all—at least, not in the first year of the game's development
McMillen’s story, as published by Kotaku, was always intended to present a behind-the-scenes look at the making of a bad game. It explored the culture of Dyack’s studio, described personalities and recounted meetings of the game’s creators. It described the studio’s approach to working on the game and an increasingly-troubled relationship with the game’s publisher Activision.
In his video Dyack says, “We are really sorry how that game turned out. I would think that there were some mistakes made. But all I can tell you is that we put nothing but our best efforts into this project.” He does not explain what those mistakes were. McMillen strived to. The creation of any game is messy; the intent of this article was to show why this particular game didn’t come together into a game the caliber of which Silicon Knights used to be known for.
Much is now being made by Dyack and those following the story that McMillen’s piece for Kotaku consisted of comments from eight anonymous sources. The assertion is that, because these people did not come forward and identify themselves, they may be making things up. They may simply be disgruntled employees trying to hurt Dyack. This does not track with the correspondence we've had with these sources.
McMillen’s story was not a quickly-written opinion piece or a breaking news report, and so he and I put a considerable effort into scrutinizing his sources and their claims. Because the sources were anonymous, I required that I needed to know who they were and eventually spoke to some of them. I did my own reporting, not included in McMillen’s piece, to also satisfy my curiosity about whether what we ultimately published seemed right and reasonable. Other outlets, including Wired, had considered publishing McMillen’s piece and had chosen not to. I can’t speak to why they did or did not but only to the thoroughness with which this story was further reported after Wired passed on it as well as vetted by McMillen, by me and by our company’s lawyers. Given the amount of work that was done on McMillen's piece for Kotaku, it's safe to say that the piece Wired declined is not the piece Kotaku published.
Stories based on anonymous sources can be problematic. This is true now as it was in October, when Andrew’s story ran with full disclosure that it was based on anonymous ex-SK employees. Readers were given the opportunity to judge the story on those merits. This is but “one side of the story,” McMillen had written:
Management at Silicon Knights refused to be interviewed on the record for this story, despite repeated requests over many months. A spokesperson for the game's publisher, Activision, also declined requests for comment. Accordingly, keep in mind that what follows is but one side of a very complex story.
When sources decline to be identified, we have to ask ourselves why. We have to be watchful of agendas, of blindspots, and of overstatement. We do this. Anonymous sources aren’t a new thing for Kotaku and we have a lot of experience separating nonsense from truth. Our wariness of anonymous sources greatly influenced what did or didn’t make it into the piece and how what was included was characterized.
This is just as important: when companies and the subjects of stories refuse to comment, we must also ask ourselves why. There are myriad reasons, but one common one is that they may believe that silence can kill a story. It's true that a subject’s refusal to engage may reflect that the allegations in question aren’t worth responding to, but it also may reflect the idea that those allegations are relevant and that not talking about them might scare a reporter from posting a one-sided story. This is an element of reporting that can present a publication with the sometimes-difficult conundrum: to publish a one-sided story or nothing at all.
“I don’t want to leave anyone with the impression that I have come here today to say I haven’t made any mistakes,” Dyack says in his video. “I have made a lot of mistakes. I have said a lot of things that I shouldn’t have said. I have done some things that I regret. And all I can say is that I have learned from them, that I have changed the way that I think about things and I really want to move forward in a positive way and focus on what I do best—which I think is focusing on creative.”
I’ve interviewed Dyack numerous times. The conversations we had about the game Too Human were among the most thoughtful I’ve ever had with a game developer. His new project at Precursor, where he serves as chief creative officer, could well be his comeback. And if it is, many who loved Dyack’s older games will cheer. None of this changes that X-Men Destiny’s development was troubled and that those involved have divergent impressions of what went wrong.
Given that Dyack is ready to move on, I’ll encourage our readers to look to Dyack’s future. Check out Precursor’s Kickstarter. And if you like what you see—if you’re excited about what they’re promising—give them some money and help make their new project a reality.