Denis Dyack Interview Part 1 – Yellow Journalism and What Really Happened with X-Men Destiny

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I had the chance to sit down and chat with Denis Dyack, a legendary and veteran game developer that many of you have probably heard of. Our talk runs the gamut of the state of the gaming industry, #GamerGate, gaming journalism, and more. It came out to be so long that we broke it up into two parts, the first of which you can enjoy below. [Editor’s note: if you’re looking for part two, you can find that here]

First, a message from Denis himself:

Brandon: Ok, so to begin, I guess things have been rather quiet. You guys have been working behind the scenes with Quantum Entanglement Entertainment. Could you please talk about that, and for those who might not know who you are, could you introduce yourself to our fans?

Denis Dyack: Sure, I’ve been in the video game industry for very close to 30 years now. I founded a company called Silicon Knights in 1992. We’ve done many titles that people may have heard of before, like Legacy of Kain, Eternal Darkness, Metal Gear Solid Twin Snakes, Too Human; A number of other PC games. Our first PC game, Cyber Empires, kind of funny, actually won multiplayer game of the year from computer gaming world before the days of internet gaming so it was a hot seat swapping game. It’s a game I’m still proud of today.

I’ve made a lot of games, I’ve worked in the industry for a very long time. I’ve worked on the Amiga, the Atari, almost all of the consoles….worked with most major publishers – Nintendo, Konami, Sony, Microsoft, Sega to name a few. I’m a big believer in the games industry and the positivity it can bring to people and society.

I have certainly seen my ups and downs as well, after Silicon Knights closing down and the failed Precursor KickStarter, I decided to take a break for a while. I decided that if I wanted things to change it was going to have to start with myself, so I spent a lot of time on health – I worked to lose about 135 pounds, started working out and made a complete lifestyle change. I try to work out and exercise regularly; it’s really great as a stress reliever, too. Especially in our industry, it’s so sedentary. You tend to neglect your body. It’s so easy just to sit around 24/7 and get consumed with your job. One of the things I’ve been doing a lot is just walking, getting outside and going for a walk. I recommend this for everyone.

Another thing I’ve been doing as well is consulting with Laurier University. We just successfully launched a games program that starts in September focused on indie game development. I’ve consulted for several other post-secondary institutions in the past like MIT, Brock, McMaster, Waterloo and many others. I’m a huge believer in academia and creating really good educational programs for game creators. I feel that the gaming industry needs academia as a foundational base for making better games.

And then of course after this, we started Quantum Entanglement Entertainment several months ago, on October 31, 2014. We picked that day because it was around the time I launched Legacy of Kain back in 1996. It’s been really, really exciting and I have never been happier. We’re taking IPs and we’re creating film, television and video games in a coordinated manner. We’re looking at something that’s truly cross-medium. It’s really exciting.

For me personally, I’ve been in the industry quite a long time, but I’m very new to the film and television industry. Whereas Jonathan [Soon-Shiong] and Paul [Rapovski] have been in those industries for a while but new to games, so we are all learning and exchanging ideas on how to entangle the different media in innovative ways. I’m getting introduced to many talented directors and writers. It’s invigorating as these industries are so similar yet we really don’t share or communicate much at all. We plan to change that. Often, when there’s a translation from a game to a movie or vice-versa, communication is almost non-existent. This whole idea is we are bringing everyone together to create these new properties…I’ve never been happier. It’s really, really great.

Back when we started talking about this in September, Jonathan said to me “We should really look at this in the following manner: We can always start a video game company, but lets do something more, much more. This is something truly new.” And I couldn’t agree more. I think from a standpoint of really trying to change things up is something that’s invigorating, exciting… we’ve been working a LOT behind the scenes. That will probably continue for a while, and hopefully when we start announcing things, our audience will be excited and receptive towards it.

So yeah, I think that’s sort of a summary of what’s going on and where we’ve been at. Of course, until recently when everyone started pinging me about #Gamergate!

Brandon: So, I guess piggybacking off of that, Shadow of the Eternals looked incredibly exciting and interesting. I feel like that’ll be a really good point to bridge between this and what people are waiting for (#Gamergate talk). I think the game looks really impressive, just from what we’ve seen years ago. Could you talk about the game and the current status of it?

Denis: Thank you! Sure, when Precursor went dormant after the KickStarter didn’t move forward, I and a couple of others really assessed our options, then I met Jonathan and Paul and we started Quantum, we looked at the IP and still felt really positive about it and so we acquired it from Precursor. The game itself is the spiritual successor to Eternal Darkness. And it’s a very, very different property and is very exciting.

Looking back, the work that you saw there we did with about really 10 people, after a few months, it dropped to 7. Everyone worked on their own pocket at the time. It took about a year to create that demo and was done in the Crytek Engine (see link), which is a great engine. Then we launched the KickStarter.

Unfortunately, with Precursor there was just so much noise. We found several problems, but one of the biggest was that we just couldn’t get the press to talk about the game. Most of the mainstream press were more interested talking about previous allegations and controversy rather than reporting on the game itself. To be clear there were several groups that really did care about the game and gave it coverage, like IGN, Operation Rainfall and a few other independent sites [Editor’s note: our website wasn’t live at the time], but we found that a lot of press were just more interested in sensationalism and didn’t want to talk about the game.

I believe the game itself is really interesting and unique. It’s something that we fully support and are moving forward with, there’s not a lot of games out there like Shadows and we think something like it needs to be made. It’s very story based, and it works toward our strengths. And now we’re viewing it not just from a game perspective, but also from a television and a movie perspective. We’ve been working on it with that perspective for a while now, and we’re super excited for it and the potential in the future.

I guess that’s the background on Shadows. Does that make sense? I hope it does. [Laughs]

Brandon: It does. I think one of the biggest questions and what’s been on a lot of people’s minds – How is the funding and stuff going with Shadows and Quantum? Are you guys fully funded, or do you have like individual investors?

Denis: Well, we can’t talk about that right now. But there will be announcements in the future. The bottom line is we’re really excited on where we’re going, things are very quiet, and probably will continue to be quiet but they’re going well. Please stay tuned, and we’ll update everyone as soon as we can. I wish I could say more, but you know the drill with the industry, right?

Brandon: Last bit then – I’ll see if I can get a tease out of you for Shadows. Can we expect a potential re-reveal? Or like a resurfacing of the game soon…?

Denis: Well, it all depends on what your definition of soon is. [laughs]

Rather than tease, I would just say that we believe in the project and we’re doing everything we can to see this project – and other projects – some of which are really great as well, get out there. We’ve got some big plans for the future, and we’re being very aggressive on some things, and we’re really looking forward to see how things roll out.

Brandon: It seems like the press outlets either just overlooked Shadows or they didn’t give it a fair shake, and I think this is kind of tied into this recent focus of yellow journalism and gaming.

Do you think that it’s become a major problem in the industry where it’s this chasing of sensationalist headlines and really just trying to dig for controversy behind games, instead of the games themselves?

Denis: Yes, I think it is a significant problem, and let me throw some caveats before we get into the details of that question. So first of all, there are good press out there. And I think there are groups that are doing really well – IGN, Operation Rainfall, Niche Gamer (you guys) and others. I think they do solid coverage and focus on the games. Very rarely do you see something come out from them that’s talking about gossip – they’re more just focused on the games and what the game is like, and if they like it or not. Where a lot of other sites are all interested is dirty laundry and anonymous sources. So that being said, there’s a lot of good and it’s not fair to overgeneralize the problem and group in all press outlets with this problem.

I think there are a few very bad sites that bring down the rest in general, and that’s really too bad. So, I think one of the reasons I attracted so much attention in the past is that I started questioning the ethicacy of previews in games back in 2006 at E3. I said “Why are we reviewing games at E3 when they’re not even finished?” And that was essentially back in the day when people started doing the best of E3. It was just nonsensical to me. I understand that people need to cover games – but isn’t this bad for everybody? Bad for the consumer, bad for the developers…I caught a lot of heat for that, and I really walked into something that I guess they didn’t truly understand. I wasn’t even trying to attack the press, I was just trying to say ‘Maybe we shouldn’t do this…’

I think that’s how it all started. Many of the press really like criticism but unfortunately maybe I hit too close to home or I just didn’t get it? There were a lot of visceral attacks sent my way and a lot of ad hominems and it was really surprising to me.

Like, when you look at Shadows, many people look at the game and comment back to us that they don’t understand why this didn’t get funded and comment that the demo looks so good. And the answer is because many sites refused to talk about the game and put too many doubts in peoples minds. They were making these accusations of ‘I wouldn’t trust Denis’ or ‘I’d be really careful about where this money is going’ etc…. Ironically, those accusations could not be further from the truth as the group had been working without money for a year out of their own pockets on something they really believed in. Some people from Precursor sadly left the industry because of this. They were good experienced people, but they were so stunned by the behavior of the press that they just didn’t want to carry on in the industry anymore.

I’m certainly not going to blame the press entirely, because some other things happened that were very, very unfortunate and we could never have predicted. During the Kickstarter campaign, so many supporters told us we can’t get funded because the press were saying ‘Don’t trust Denis Dyack’. Much of it, of course, comes from that Kotaku article which was really just awful. [Editor’s note: find that here]

Brandon: I think that’s a really key point there, about the Kotaku article. And I even saw a bit of this coming up in the speculation threads up on 8chan and things like that, with people saying ‘Oh, you know, it might be Denis Dyack, but they had a pedophile on the team’ and I mean…me personally, I think that’s unfair to the entire team.

Denis: Well, that had nothing to do with anything whatsoever and obviously I and the rest of the team were just as shocked if not more than anyone else that found out. This shouldn’t be something that speaks to the quality of the game, the company or the rest of the team. These kinds of things are criminal offenses and they have nothing to do with the games that we’re working on. You know, it’s not the first time this has happened in the industry, but I did notice that a lot of these sites continue to link us to that stuff often with inaccurate information, where they didn’t with previous companies. And it’s just poison. It’s awful to even talk about that stuff. Who is that good for?

A lot of these sites made really off-the-cuff remarks about that particular issue. And that can happen to any group in any industry. It’s just not fair and to condemn a group for that is what is really unreasonable. It had nothing to do with anything that anyone at the company was working on.

So yeah, that was not good at all.

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Brandon: I think that ties into the just focus of coverage like, say, the Kotaku article, and I think it really brings up the question of journalistic ethics. Do you think that there could be like a higher standard of ethics, whether it be with Kotaku or just in general?

Denis: Yes, absolutely, and don’t mistake this for me wanting ‘positive press’, we just want fair coverage about the games rather than rumor about scandal(s). I’ve just been reading the internet recently about whether I’m pro-GamerGate and I’ve already seen accusations on Twitter already, and found that somewhat surprising and puzzling.

So here’s thing I think with #GamerGate in general, there are some things I agree with, and some people would put me in the “pro” camp, but there’s some things I also don’t agree with. But let’s start with journalistic integrity.

I absolutely believe that journalistic integrity is important. And I want to put a caveat in that I do not think that all the websites are bad. I’ve seen some of the commentary out there, and I think it’s unfair to a lot of the really good journalists out there and the groups that are working really hard, and it’s really tough on them, and it makes it harder for them to do a good job. It’s demoralizing when they see that, and all the emotional criticism that’s being leveled at all of the press in general. I’m just very wary with generalizations. I mentioned IGN as a good group, there are many others as well. I think there are definitely good groups out there.

However, there are also bad groups like Kotaku, in my opinion, they stand as a prime example of a group that partakes in yellow journalism. That hit-piece that they wrote about me where I was forced to create a video about it to respond and defend myself. Everyone I worked with at the time was disappointed and felt it was unfair what they did. I never answered that initially because we didn’t think anyone would give it any credence, because it was so far from the truth. At the same time, we were so busy working away on the demo for Shadows we didn’t bring our heads up for air.

So when we decided we’re going to have to address it, the first thing I did was do a google search on journalistic ethics, particularly on anonymous sources in order to address the accusations made in the article. One of the first things that came up, which I think was from the University of Iowa, it had just the basic standards for when you’re talking to anonymous sources, the first standard they outlined was to not put in any degree of personal opinion of someone because that forces the person who’s being accused to respond – it’s a no-win situation for them. And that whole article was almost entirely personal attacks against me. You can see results of the google searches and video in my response here.

Brandon: And this is the, just to clarify, the X-Men Destiny thing, right?

Denis: Yes. It was just astounding and particularly telling that initial google search, showed that essentially every basic-level journalistic rule for ethics on anonymous sources was broken by them in that article. I remember thinking, ”They can’t do this – why are they doing this? – how can they do this?” But they did it. They accused me of defrauding Activision while also the saying the sources were anonymous to protect themselves knowing there was no evidence for this what-so-ever, except the word of disgruntled ex-employees. The lack of facts did not matter once the article was published and most of the press just picked up the article and ran with it.

I do want to say a couple things about the press that I do admire on the subject of the article. Many press outlets initially refused to publish that article. Andrew McMillen, the guy who wrote the article tried to get this picked up for a long time. He kept threatening us that he was going to write some article, but wouldn’t tell us exactly what, so we couldn’t respond to it. We even had a few sites warn us and say “Be careful, this guy’s really out to get you.” But I just couldn’t determine what he was going to write about. Kotaku eventually picked up the article after many other sites refused to run it.

So a lot of press did say, “Let’s not do this” and here is one example: We received an email from supposedly one of the anonymous sources. Direct evidence that the author only had word of mouth from anonymous sources and nothing else to back up the claims.

Brandon: Yeah, I was going to point that out. Like, not only was the initial source anonymous, but it was supposedly former employees, but no names are mentioned in the entire article. Ever. Except for you – you were the only one named…

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Denis: Correct, clearly a hit piece in my opinion. Please allow me to tell you things about the project that I have never talked about before. It’s been enough time now and I feel this needs to be fully addressed so we can move forward with Quantum. So, I already mentioned how far from the truth the article was, but just let me show you how far it really was.

The article accused us of taking money (or staff) from the Activision project (X-Men Destiny) and putting it toward another project. That’s basically the accusation. So, to me, and I think to others in the industry who run development companies, it’s pretty obvious what happened as it’s not that uncommon, but to regular gamers who aren’t normally aware of the business side, I’d like to explain the background on what happened here.

X-Men Destiny had its genesis from an executive producer from Activision, he really liked Too Human, and he wanted to do a game in the X-Men universe like Too Human, as an original title. After some initial talks we started working on this project together.

Financially and in project management terms, the plan was that we were going to work on this project and increase the budget as we go. They wanted to make it a major AAA project. And that was the plan – and one of the reasons Silicon Knights actually put more money into the project than we got paid, because we were ramping up for a bigger budget.

Anyway, something happened in the middle of the project that no one saw coming. What’s really funny, even to this day, is that I’ve never seen anyone comment on it, but it’s the most obvious thing to me and it changed everything. During the middle of this project, Marvel was sold to Disney, and suddenly, Activision was now working for a competitor – Disney. Disney made video games, and Activision made games, but Marvel never did on their own. And everything changed at that point.

And at the time, I don’t know if anyone remembers, but there were quite a few layoffs there, and our budget was substantially cut. And anyone who’s makes games knows that having your budget cut is tough, especially when you’re expecting it to ramp up. It’s really tough to deal with, even worse in the middle of the project. It has huge impact on the scope and the potential for the end product to even be shipped.

Now, while all this was going on, as you can imagine it was a very emotional time both for Silicon Knights, Activision, Marvel, and even for Disney. Now imagine suddenly all four of these companies are involved. Here’s where it gets really, really, complicated. We didn’t want the budget to get cut down of course, and there’s always disagreements about money. Contracts take time to be agreed by all parties.

During that time, we actually did not get paid for X-Men Destiny for about three months or so.

So, from that point, Silicon Knights started funding 100% of that title on our own with our own money. We were basically balancing it but we could only do it for so long. But we didn’t want the project to die, and we hoped the negotiations would go through and the project would continue, but it was in extreme danger of being canceled. This wreaks havok for development and forces huge unexpected changes. At this point, there were only a few people within Silicon Knights that were aware of the situation which would be normal of any software development.

I remember we were having company meetings and some people in the company were bringing up questions like “Why are we spending any of our time and money on this other project when Activision’s paying us?” Ironically and unaware to them actually the opposite was true. We weren’t getting any money from Activision at the time and Silicon Knights was paying for both projects on it’s own. But you can’t say that to people. You don’t want to say that ‘Hey this revenue stream is in jeopardy’. You, know, it’s just not something you share with the development staff for a variety of reasons. You have to keep the morale high which isn’t possible if people are working in the fear that all their hard work could get cancelled. In reality, maybe 3 or 4 people within Silicon Knights actually knew the facts about what was happening. And I can understand employees getting all upset and making things up in their head because they didn’t have the facts.

In order to solve try to solve the problem, we approached Disney and started talks with them, asking what we could do to fix the problem and have them become the publisher. We talked about the game, and they really liked its potential. And finally some conversations started going on between all the companies involved. Again, none of the regular staff knew about this.

My recollection was that all parties involved wanted to make the switch but the deal that Activision had with Marvel and later with Disney was so complicated and detailed to unravel, and it could not be done, and it couldn’t be fixed. So everyone had to deal with the project as it was. Finally, on top of all that, the person who was the champion of this project left Activision and many of the staff that started with the project were laid off.

Everyone involved did try to do their best, but it was one of those situations where it just hit all of these roadblocks and no matter what we tried to do it just didn’t turn out well. I apologized for the problems on the project, I had higher hopes for the game and I hope everyone understands that you can only do so much under situations like that.

With all this in mind, I hope that people can understand that what occurred could not be further from the allegations Kotaku published in that article and why accusations like this should never be made without documentation or other evidence beyond word of mouth. We were putting more money in than we were being paid, we risked everything to keep that project alive. It didn’t turn out how we expected but we did everything possible to make this game the best we could given the constraints.

The X-Men: Destiny article that Kotaku published is an excellent example of why ethics in journalism is important and why yellow journalism should be unacceptable. It’s also an excellent example of how much damage this kind of journalism can do in the future.

Brandon: So one important question I wanted to bring up because of the Kotaku piece. Did they contact you before they ran the story at all? Did they ask for clarification, or anything like that before they ran the story?

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Denis: They did but would not show me the piece or all that it was going to say. When they asked me questions about things, I adamantly denied certain things. However, in my opinion, rather than try to get things factually accurate, the only changes they made were to reduce their liability on the matter. At one point, Stephen Totillo said “the report includes no mention of embezzling money.” I remember thinking ‘what else do you get out of this article?’ At the time, I was deep in litigation already and was not excited to start another.

I personally think it was really wrong and it was awful what they did to not only me but everyone at Silicon Knights. #GamerGate has brought a lot of karma for Kotaku. Kotaku is no longer highly regarded at all anymore and I believe they fully deserve the criticism they have gotten. I think it’s their own doing. They continue to write articles like this. They continue to publish articles that are not well researched, fact checked, and are completely inaccurate and inflammatory. I would hope after all the feedback from #GamerGate that they’ll consider cleaning their house and striving for better journalism. I think that will be better for them and their readers in the long term.

I’d like to thank Denis Dyack for being so kind as to conduct this interview with myself, and for allowing me to tease all of our fans leading up to the reveal. Part two of our interview, where most of the #GamerGate talk happens, will go live on Monday, May 25th!

Niche Gamer regularly interviews developers on a variety of subjects—if you’re a developer and want to chat with us, please contact us!

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Owner and Publisher at Niche Gamer and Nicchiban. Outlaw fighting for a better game industry.

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