Silicon Knights' Denis Dyack still wary of game previews, hints at studio's self-publishing goal

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Silicon Knights' Denis Dyack still wary of game previews, hints at studio's self-publishing goal
During GDC this past March, I met with Silicon Knights head honcho Denis Dyack under the condition that he wouldn't be discussing the studio's upcoming action-RPG, X-Men Destiny (pictured above). The game is slated for release this year, yet we know relatively little about it -– and we've seen even less. Save for OXM UK, no outlet has published a preview (nor been offered one, as far as I know).

I asked Dyack about his outspoken views against the preview process. "In my view, the ultimate model requires our industry to not show games until they are ready," he told me, echoing his past sentiments. "I'm not saying get rid of previews, because previews are a good thing," he clarified. "What I am suggesting is that our industry should not do previews until the game's completed."

It's hard not to imagine the specter of E3 2006 looming over Dyack as he talks about previews. Five years ago his studio was preparing to show the first playable demo of Too Human. The team had a lot riding on the game.

Too Human (pictured above) had premiered seven years prior -- in a trailer shown during E3 1999 – as a PlayStation 1 game. It then traveled to GameCube when Silicon Knights entered into an exclusive partnership with Nintnedo. While Too Human's development stalled, the studio's reputation soared following the releases of Eternal Darkness (2002) and Metal Gear Solid: Twin Snakes (2004).

"When the time comes for us to publish our own games we will work toward models that show games when they are ready."- Denis Dyack, president of Silicon Knights

In May 2005, Silicon Knights announced a highly publicized partnership with Microsoft, which would see Too Human developed into a trilogy for Xbox 360. The first game was scheduled for the 2006 holiday season, and E3 that year was to be its coming out party. The demo bombed with critics.

Soon after, Dyack infamously launched into an argument with EGM during an episode of the site's "Live" podcast over the outlet's scathing preview. And then he took Silicon Knights and Too Human underground, writing in a January 2007 blog post that the project had to "go dark."

Too Human was finally released in August 2008 and, by most accounts, it was a critical and commercial failure -- both points that Dyack disputes. While he did insist during our meeting that Silicon Knights plans to finish the trilogy, it's clear that the original plan has been derailed and that the early demo is partly to blame for that.

"In the future, we are going to try to hold back the urge to show something and try not to show it until it's time," Dyack said, making a veiled reference to the E3 2006 fiasco. "When the time comes for us to publish our own games," he continued, hinting at his ultimate goal for the studio, "we will work toward models that show games when they are ready." But Silicon Knights' latest project is hardly an independent undertaking. X-Men Destiny is the property of the largest video game publisher in the world -- Activision. Still, given how under the radar this game's been flying, it would seem the publisher is open to Silicon Knights' new way of doing things.

Dyack believes that the traditional marketing model, which relies heavily on previews of unfinished games, "does not work" anymore. He characterizes it as a holdover from a bygone era. "Our industry started very much like the toy industry, where they put things out as experiments," he observed, noting that games were far less expensive to develop in those days, not to mention demand "far exceeded supply."

"Showing games early in their development cycle during the infancy of the industry had very little downside," he suggested, "since everyone was just excited to see something new."

Today, game development is far more complex, and, as Dyack now preaches, previewing unfinished games can have grave consequences. "How many times as a previewer have you heard, 'When the game is finished, it will have XX, XX and XX'?" Dyack wondered rhetorically. "The previewer then goes off and gives the game a decent preview, based in some part of those features being in place, only to have the game release several months later, and those features that were promised that made the game stand out were not in the game." Dyack's point is that the media and consumers alike are susceptible to setting misguided expectations when game makers preview their titles and publicize design goals too early. If those expectations aren't met in the final product, it can set off a negative reaction that ultimately hurts everyone involved.

Citing Blizzard and Rockstar, Dyack recognized that there are some studios that have avoided this outcome by tightly controlling access to their games while in development. Playing Diablo 3 at GamesCom last year (pictured right), he noted that "it seemed done" -- the requisite for previewing under Dyack's manifesto, as it were.

With X-Men: Destiny due in the back half of the year, Activision must be itching for Silicon Knights to show off something. It seems likely, then, that Dyack will have to face his demons next month at E3. If that's the case, he's sure to come prepared this time.
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