Microsoft was reportedly hands-off with Xbox dud ‘Redfall’

The game’s production was allegedly hampered by staffing issues, unclear direction and magical thinking.

Arkane Austin

By now, it’s well-known that Xbox-exclusive Redfall was a colossal commercial and critical dud when it launched last month. Its somewhat intriguing concept — vampires inhabiting a well-to-do Massachusetts island — was held back by bugs and an overall lack of polish. (The description “not fit for public consumption” summarized Jessica Conditt’s impressions in Engadget’s review.) Now, Bloomberg’s Jason Schreier has pulled back the curtain on alleged behind-the-scenes turmoil that led to Xbox’s latest setback in its mission to catch up with Sony’s and Nintendo’s first-party console sellers.

The story shows Arkane Studios’ development lacking direction long before Microsoft acquired Zenimax, the studio’s parent company, in 2020. Hoping to capture some of the lucrative juice propelling mainstream “games as a service” titles like Fortnite and Overwatch, Arkane (known for critically acclaimed single-player titles like Dishonored 2 and Prey) looked to incorporate microtransactions into Redfall early on. In-game monetization was eventually scrapped, but the alleged rough start apparently set the tone for a sloppy and scattered design process.

Developers speaking off the record to Bloomberg described the leadership of co-directors Harvey Smith and Ricardo Bare as unfocused. “Developers under Smith and Bare said the two leads were outwardly excited but as the project progressed failed to provide clear direction,” Bloomberg wrote. “Staff members said that, over time, they grew frustrated with management’s frequently shifting references to other games, such as Far Cry and Borderlands, that left each department with varying ideas of what exactly they were making.” In addition, the sources describe a “fundamental tension” between single-player and multiplayer emphasis, with devs reportedly feeling like the game was trying to accomplish two things and succeeding at neither.

A character with a purple glowing umbrella in the foreground looks on as sentries patrol terrain in the game ‘Redfall.’
Arkane Austin

Hiring and maintaining existing staff posed another challenge. Developers typically joined Arkane wanting to work on the solo / simulation types of affairs the studio was known for; many employees reportedly left after they found themselves working on what felt like an unfocused multiplayer fiasco. Additionally, the studio’s Austin, TX headquarters meant hiring also had to contend with the state’s regressive social policies under Governor Greg Abbott and the far-right Texas Legislature. “Since Redfall wasn’t yet announced, the studio couldn’t describe its details to prospective employees — a predicament that exacerbated the staffing issues,” Bloomberg added. This was all compounded by the fact that Arkane was trying to make a multiplayer game with a head count built for single-player titles; even outsourcing to other studios reportedly didn’t provide enough help.

After Microsoft acquired ZeniMax, Arkane’s new parent company took a mostly hands-off approach. “Aside from canceling a version of Redfall that had been planned for rival Sony Corp.’s PlayStation, Microsoft allowed ZeniMax to continue operating as it had before, with great autonomy,” said Schreier. As a result, the story details an unsurprising “final frantic months” of development, including multiple delays. It probably didn’t help that Smith and other studio leaders allegedly engaged in magical thinking (or at least magical speaking), promising “Arkane magic” would serve as a last-second fix for the troubled production. That didn’t happen, and several of Bloomberg’s sources said they were surprised to ultimately find the game’s public release essentially unchanged since last playing it in 2021.

Although Microsoft inherited (what sounds like) a titanic mess, the company deserves blame for not recognizing the title’s flaws before launch and either shelving it entirely or perhaps reworking it as a single-player title. We may see how quickly Microsoft can rebound and learn from its mistakes as we approach Starfield’s highly anticipated September arrival. In the meantime, I recommend checking out Bloomberg’s story for much more detail about making the Xbox-exclusive stinker.