MAJOR UPDATE: Vigil Games have responded to Xander’s claims with their side of the story, which you can read here:
Just yesterday the review embargo for THQ and Vigil’s massive new game Darksiders II was lifted. The reviews flooded in and so far Death has been extremely well received, garnering high scores from all corners of the gaming media and meeting with plenty of gamer praise as well. For many, myself included, it was a relief to see the game released to the public after fears that it might go down along with THQ, never to be seen again and depriving gamers of a series with a butt-load of potential.
But the launch of Darksiders II has been somewhat marred by a reminder of how horrible the modern gaming industry can be, a fact that many people like to ignore or simply won’t talk about. On Tuesday evening a man called Xander Davis took to Twitter and had this to say:
“Oh delightful. Just found out I’m not even credited on Darksiders II when the UI is 99% from my direction & hard work, done in record time”
The Tweet caused an instant and understandable reaction, with the initial thoughts from many being, “wait, who is this guy?”. Such a reaction is hardly surprising and by no means a slight on Xander Davis himself: though many of us claim a deep passion for gaming, how many of us actually do bother to read the credits for games? Or learn about the actual people who make our games apart from figureheads like Cliffy B and Peter Molyneux? The answer is very few, and so at first people were a little unsure, but quickly Xander took to Twitter once again to clarify who he was, what his position at Vigil was and what had happened.
Attempting to follow this story via Twitter can be a little confusing, so I’ve attempted to clear it all up and give you an idea of the story by going through Twitter and taking parts of his interview with Not EnoughShaders.
As it transpires Xander was previously responsible for doing all of the UI work, which stands for User Interface, on Transformers: War for Cybertron, having been with High Moon Studios for a few years. Shortly after finishing his work he was laid off and found himself struggling. In an interview with NotEnoughShaders Xander talks about how working on Triple-A titles isn’t the dream job that people think it is:
“As my first industry job, I lived on an air-mattress and could only afford to rent rooms from stranger to stranger month to month on Craigslist for an entire year while designing UI for a multi-million dollar grossing console game. Then I was laid off. Thanks for all the fish. I haven’t owned a couch in three years, and I finally just bought one again because I was fed up.”
Xander thought his luck improving when he interviewed with Vigil Games in Austin: “In October, I interviewed at Vigil. They wanted to get someone out there as fast as possible because their UI was in a state of emergency,” Davis said. “I thought this was great! ‘They really like me’ But, no, they were just desperate to solve their problem and anyone would do.”
“I led the revamp effort, created the pipeline, redesigned & rebuilt every screen, worked till 2AM every night, worked w/ leads every step.” He said via his Twitter account. “Was whisked to Austin and tasked to fix it, with months to ship. And I did. My team worked as hard as we could. Then, we all lost our jobs.”
Again in his interview with NotEnoughShaders, he provides more detail:
“So the job was: I was put in the lead UI role, with those expectations, to take ownership over the entire User Interface and direct a team of what began as two other people and ended up being at least six others with ancillaries. I was working directly with the other leads from other departments in the project, taking them through the plans I had developed for the team every step of the way. The expectation was to take a UI that wasn’t shippable and fix it, in a few months before ship. I knew it was something I could handle (and did). We had to wait for some logistics, so we actually had a lot less time than the time I was there. Within 30 days, I led the effort to revamp and implement 27 screens of totally re-designed UI, had developed a production pipeline that enabled my team to achieve this at such a rapid pace, created the schedules, drove the production coordination, art directed the UI and the UI Artist, wrote design docs, and actually did the UI design and Flash work.”
According to Xander, they weren’t happy with just a complete redesigned, either. Having had just 30-days to overhaul the old UI, there was barely any time to test it properly, and yet Vigil wanted more added to it. Speaking via Twitter he said: “even after the 30 days, they wanted new stuff! it’s like— how the fuck are you going to QA that & ensure it’s good!”
Xander then went on to explain that after all of this hard work, poor management at Vigil and problems all over the place he was fired and his job taken by someone else: “I was let go a month after DMO changed, they merged the other UI team, & Herb Ellwood swooped in & stole my job. After all my hard work”. Xander continued, ” Herb Ellwood only had a contract with THQ. He used the team merging (which we needed to make ship) to secure a salary. Mine.”.
Sadly this sort of thing is hardly unusual in the games industry, especially in triple-A developement, a face confirmed again by Xander as he Tweeted: “In triple-A this happens all the time. A lot, the rule is you have to be employed when the game ships.”
In the interview with NotEnoughShaders, Xander talks more about Herb:
“He’s a chatty, popular guy who wears a cowboy hat to work every day because it represents ‘respect’, as he told me, but threatened to quit when they merged my UI team with his from DMO to finish out Darksiders 2 in something insane, like a month and a half. I was made aware that he had a contract that expired in the spring (the general ship target), so once they pinned all of DS2 responsibilities on him, he wasn’t having it. And I kinda don’t blame him. Immediately, Herb tried to quit, then negotiated a fulltime job and salary. The only problem was, it was mine. It’s not like THQ was hiring or had money to spare, right?”
“After I told producers what they were asking for was impossible to make ship with just weeks left, despite having delivered an implemented revamp across the board in a month, they fired me and handed it to him. You could say this reveals an interesting management tactic: don’t listen to the guy fixing your problems, listen to the guy promising you the moon with zero rocket fuel. This is after I handled the direction for the entire revamp of the UI that you see in the game now. Now maybe Herb’s a great guy or maybe there’s more to it. Who knows. I don’t. But it looks pretty bad to me. I had no idea how much Herb was going to change my designs, to the point that I actually didn’t want to be credited to protect myself. But I was floored when I saw the first videos showing gameplay and finally UI… nothing had changed in any material way. So it all flipped: they shipped my work after all, which just made all of it even more absurd.”
Xander said via his Twitter: “I had just gotten my Texas driver’s license in the mail that Sunday. By Monday, I was given the boot after rebuilding all of their UI.”
“I said goodbye to all of my friends, completely transplanted my entire life, lived in Austin for 4 months, did my job, & got screwed. Thanks”
But Xander isn’t just trying to bring all of this attention to himself as he’s keen to point out and remind people that hundreds of people lost their jobs back in March when Vigil went lay-off mad. He also wanted to stress that other Vigil employees also didn’t get credited properly for their work.
So, what does he thing should be done about the current industry? In the interview with NotEnoughShaders he reckons that it’s time gaming grew up and followed the Hollywood path:
“There’s a reason those that work in the Hollywood system have Agents and Guilds. Anyone from the star actors to the electricians. The guy that holds the fucking boom mic has more representation and protection than anyone else does in triple-A games.
We need agents. We need guilds. After the whole Activision / Infinity Ward debacle over Modern Warfare 2, Jason West and Vince Zampella are now represented by CAA, one of the top agencies in Hollywood. You think they’re going to get a better contract next time? Especially if maybe their goofy video game ideas earn $2 billion dollars in revenue and themselves around $250 million in royalties? And THEY got screwed? So how far fetched do you think it is a lowly Lead UI Designer got screwed. Or the hundreds of people that lost their jobs in Austin alone since only January. Hundreds of people, hundreds of families. Budgets are only going up for next-gen. You’ll need the budget of Avatar, but not every game will do Avatar business. You think a few people are gonna get screwed in that process too? Hello?”
Xander continued with passion:
“Here’s how it works now: little wide-eyed Timmy fresh outta college with $75,000 dollars in student loans is just dying, dying, dying to work in video games. It’s his passion! It’s his life! He even studied hard, passed all the tests, got on polycount, and has all the skills to back it up! The studio’s response: exploit that motherfucker as hard as you can and then throw him aside. Deny him his credit. Deny him his royalties. Deny him his stock payments. All of these things are used to negotiate downlittle Timmy’s salary in a city with the most expensive cost-of-living in the country. Now little Timmy is homeless. Literally homeless and has to find a job immediately or he is going to end up living in a cardboard box unless some recruiter swoops him up and throws him somewhere else to do it all over again.
I was literally homeless once laid off after shipping Transformers: War for Cybertron. Literally fucking homeless in San Diego, with my family 2,700 miles across the country back in Ohio. Meanwhile, the game has some of my favorite graphic design and interface design work of my career. A neon-orange stick on the box that says ’9/10 IGN’. Praised by fans. I’m homeless. At least I was smart about the student loans.”
Despite all of this, Xander still intends to place Darksiders II in his portfolio: “Darksiders II is going in my portfolio. Exactly my roles, expectations, & what was accomplished are going in my portfolio. Believe it.”
It’s nice to see that after all this, Xander at least remains proud of his work on the game.
Obviously at this point we only have one side of the argument: Xander Davis’. Perhaps THQ and Vigil have their own completely different tale to tell. Yet, Xander’s story is a at least a vaguely believable one, because the gaming industry isn’t the world of fluffy bunnies and rainbows that a lot of kids think, kids that want to grow up and make games. It’s a harsh, often unfair place to work where jobs can be lost in a flash, but then in todays world that’s something which can be said of almost any career you may choose.
But as said, there’s always two or more sides to every story.
A big thank you to NotEnoughShaders for their interview which provides a lot of detail on the situation. Please do go and read it in full, especially to find out about Xander’s indie game company he’s started that will be developing games for the new Ouya console due out next year: