Joe Madureira has done a lot of things. He’s worked as a comic book artist for Marvel Comics, and even created his own comic series under the Wildstorm label called Battle Chasers. However, his experience with video games goes back to his time with Realm Interactive, which was later acquired by NCSoft, when he worked on the game that would later become known as Dungeon Runners. Madureira (Joe Mad to his friends) and David Adams eventually left NCSoft and founded Vigil Games in 2005. Since then, Vigil Games has been acquired by THQ, and is currently shepherding the post-apocalyptic franchise Darksiders. At a recent preview event for Darksiders 2 I sat down with Joe Mad, Creative Director on Darksiders 2, to talk about his transition from comics to video games, the core tenets of the Darksiders franchise and even secret Nintendo assassins.
So you started out as a comic book artist. As a comic book artist did you find the switch to games a jarring experience, or did you feel right at home with how to handle the creative development of a video game?
It was pretty gradual actually. It can be pretty jarring because its a very, very, very different job, but early on I was just doing a lot of concept art. Then I was working remotely for a studio in Arizona called Realm Interactive. They actually got bought out by NCSoft which is the reason I ended up moving to Texas and meeting a lot of these guys in Austin where we started Vigil together. As the games got bigger and our team got bigger it got more and more complex, and that’s where the jarring nature of it comes in. But it was pretty gradual for me. I had already been working in games for like six or seven years before we founded Vigil. So it was a little more gradual.
What would you say has been the biggest challenge with the entirety of the Darksiders franchise up to this point as far as a creative standpoint is concerned ?
I think for us we’re always super ambitious as a developer. We bite off more than we can chew constantly and it’s too fun not too. So it’s just managing our crazy ambition.
Can you give me a specific example?
We got a lot better at it, because in the second game about 80% of the game got in that we wanted to, but with the first game we only did about 10% of what we thought we were going to do. The scope of the first game was so insane. Including, at one point, four player co-op for all the Four Horsemen. We actually thought we were going to do that. So we were just nuts, and we had no rules, no limits, we’re just like ‘let’s do it’.
Are these things that are still on the table?
Everything’s always on the table, we just move it. But I will say the more experience we get, and the more seasoned the team gets, the more that can become a reality. That’s why the new traversal, the loot system, a lot of the new realms that we’re showing now, because the first game took place just on Earth, all of this stuff was actually meant to be in the first game. We’re just getting better about planning a little better and more realistic about how long stuff takes us to get done.
Was the development time on Darksiders 2 the same as Darksiders 1, or did you begin ‘concepting’ Darksiders 1 long before the game began to take shape?
Darksiders 2 was a lot quicker to get done because we already had an established team, they were experienced and we had already made one game. When we first did the first Darksiders we had four people at the beginning. We didn’t even have a decent sized team for over a year. We didn’t have an engine. We were still building the technology and the tools. We didn’t have designers…we didn’t have anything. So it’s hard to count the first year and a half, or so, of the first game. But we did get Darksiders 2 done in half the time, because we already had a team ready. Building a good team, literally, takes years.
So as far as the story in Darksiders 2, will players had to have played Darksiders 1 in order to be able to play this, or can they just pick up this and run straight in?
No, not at all. If you have played the first one its kinda cool, because we reference some of the moments in the first game, and there are some cameo appearances from some old favorites that you see again. It’s definitely cool if you’ve played the first one before, but its not necessary.
I’ve been told four characters, exactly four, from the first game will be in this game.
Just four, huh?
Yes, of the apparent seven.
That sounds fairly accurate.
For those players that played the first game, is there any kind of save import for this since that seems to be all the rage these days?
That does sound really cool! As of right this minute there isn’t, but that’s not to say that that wouldn’t happen.
There are games like Dark Souls and Demon Souls that have a very specific design aesthetic, and the developers say this is our art, this is how we’re going to craft the game, and the player will just have to adapt to those constraints. Do you feel that there’s anything between Darksiders 1 and Darksiders 2 that you, as a developer, have tried to preserve in the interest of that same sort of mentality?
I think for us it was always about having combat that felt tight enough to stand alone with the best hack ‘n’ slash, straight up combat games, but with the depth, cool story, and NPCs of an adventure-RPG game. We tried to preserve that balance. It’s not all combat, it’s not all puzzle solving, but its a nice balance of both. And I think, that we hit that balance a lot better on the sequel. In the first one, it was maybe more of a straight action game than we had intended it to be, but in the sequel we got a lot more of the adventure. Which is what we set out to make was an adventure game. But we do want it to be accessible. We want people to pick it up and have a good time with it without it getting to Dark Souls level of insane difficulty.
You don’t want people leaving notes behind tricking people?
That is really cool, but accessibility is pretty important for us.
The first game was critically acclaimed for its whole-cloth way in which it took the Zelda puzzle solving and combat mechanics, and applied them in a more mature themed game. I’m assuming that we can expect more Zelda homages in this game, and do you think that that has become one of your core tenets and influences as far as this series is concerned?
You know its funny, because I can definitely see the comparisons to Zelda, but I think its mainly because its one of the most well known adventure games. But that structure, that your talking about, is really common in adventure games as a genre and as a whole. There are other games like Metroid or Castlevania that have a very similar structure. And I think, now that we’ve gone down that path and established ourselves in the adventure genre, we get more comparisons now to just the first game. It’s nice because people are asking us about how we’re building onto our existing game and not comparing us to other stuff. But obviously, because of the loot drops and the new traversal the game just feels bigger in every way and more blown out in every department. I think it feels less like Zelda, and you’ll get less comparisons now.
What would you say has been the biggest reason for the success of this franchise?
That’s a good question. You never know what’s going to resonate with people. Probably the biggest secret to success is to be super, super picky. We’re just really hard on ourselves. It seems like common sense, but I think that a lot of people fall in love with what they make, and just aren’t critical enough. We tear each other a new one constantly! Even before any reviewer can say anything bad about it, we’re already aware of it. We will redo something over and over again until its cool.
It’s nice to see that you have that kind of passion to be very self-critical. But does that become a burden at times?
I mean during like major pushes…
Yeah, or, like, 18 people just spent 2 months on this level and we’re going to cut it, because its horrible or we don’t have the time. It’s better to cut it now than to spend another 2 months fixing it. Stuff like that is heart-breaking, but its part of game development, and if you’re really striving for quality you just have to do stuff like that.
There’s been a lot of hullabaloo surrounding endings to games, and I wanted to get your take on this. So about the whole Mass Effect controversy…
I’ll be honest, I haven’t started playing it yet. So I’m trying not to hear anything about it.
But you are aware that there is a controversy?
Yes, I am aware that there is a controversy.
So has that caused your team to go back and reexamine the plot of Darksiders in any way?
No. We always take risks. We ended the first game on a cliffhanger which is kinda ballsy, because who knows if were going to make another one or not. And then in the sequel, we changed the character without resolving the story of the first character. If it excites us we do it whether its going to piss people off or not. I think that people will understand why we did it once they play the game, and they’ll enjoy Death and his journey just as much. You still end up learning way, way, way more about the Darksiders universe whether it progresses the story in a linear way or not. It doesn’t really matter as much…I hope.
Was the loot drop system something that you had planned for Darksiders 1?
Yeah we always wanted to have loot, but that was one of the things that we had to cut early on when we were doing the first game. Not only creating all the assets but the way they affect the character just visually, stats and everything. There weren’t game systems in place to support it the first time around, but in the sequel we knew from the beginning that Death is going to be able to equip tons of weapons and armor. We have stats now and that pushes customization to a new level. There’s skill trees and with the mix-and-match of all the items you can really customize your experience way, way more than the first one.
So you mentioned that if something excites you and the team that you’ll put a lot of time and passion into it. Are there any core tenets to Darksiders that you focus on a lot in terms of the design of game and this franchise?
We try to not have anything be mundane. Even the opening a chest or door needs to have some flair to it. Rip it off its hinges or use ghostly arms to smash it open. Even War used to ram the chest. We always laughed that War punched the chest in the face, because there was a little skull in the front he would just pound his fist into.
Along those lines, I am a bit upset that the Beholder keys from Darksiders 1 have been replaced with Skeleton keys this time around.
Oh the ones where you would stab them in the eye?
Yeah, I am a little upset about that. I guess it fits War’s aesthetic more than Death’s…
Yeah, but we always try to make everything cooler than it really probably needs to be.
Does that embellishment come from your comic book background like having to exaggerate the movements of characters on a page?
Not necessarily. It’s just that we’re gamers too and get tired of conventions, and try to either change them or try to make them different than what you’ve seen before. We’re always just trying to push stuff a little.
What were the biggest pieces of feedback that you got from the first game that you tried to implement here?
People really enjoyed some of the characters in the first game, and really wanted more interaction. Usually when you ran into an NPC it was before it triggered a cutscene, and that was about it. People have thought man it would have been so cool to learn more about Samael or interact with these characters a little bit more. So in the sequel, because the world is so much bigger it supports entire towns of NPCs. You learn a lot more about the story through interacting with characters versus just watching cutscenes. Many were bugged by the amount of cutscenes in the first game. Also War didn’t really have a lot of personality. He’s just like a justice and honor guy which is maybe the least interesting character. Death is more of a dick. He’s way more cynical and sarcastic, and disrespectful of laws. So its a lot more fun to watch him and play as him.
We will get to see Fury and Strife in this game?
You do learn more about the Horsemen in general, and their race the Nephilim which is what the Horsemen are. I can’t really say if they’re in it or not. But I can say that they aren’t playable. So you’ll just have to wait and see!
So I was talking to the community manager, and he said that there was a 50/50 split between the community regarding the Apocalyptic difficulty with half saying it was way too easy and the other half saying it was way too hard. How do you deal with moments like that, where your community is split right down the middle?
Well I think that we haven’t ever really let the community or feedback influence us beyond what we believed was the right course of action. It’s always good to hear everyone’s take on any given thing, but then at the end of the day we have to decide what we think is right. I think when we’ve got the difficulty to where we feel it’s right, that’s what were going to roll with. Regardless of what current debate is going on or whatever. Difficulty it’s just a hard one. I mean, what are you supposed to do with it? Everyone has different gameplay abilities, there’s good gamers and terrible gamers. We want even a terrible gamer to eventually be able to make their way through the whole game, and there’s stuff in there to support that. You can go and level up. You can run around in the same area and collect tons of loot, sell it, upgrade your items, and upgrade your skills. Eventually you’ll beat the boss or whatever your stuck on…unless you really are terrible.
Do the enemies scale with Death’s character level?
They don’t. You’ll encounter tougher versions of enemies, but in general you’re locked out of areas until you are powerful enough to be there anyway.
When Darksiders 1 was finished and had shipped what was going through your mind as it was the first game out of the gate for Vigil Games? What was the general atmosphere at the office and how were the reviews perceived?
We were just really excited to be done. Everyone had a month off. We were emailing each other all the reviews and links. It’s an exciting time and I’m really excited for that to happen again in a few months. Because when you work on something for years of your life you’re anxious to hear what people thought of it. It’s a fun, exciting time. I personally have trouble reading reviews. Even good ones. I feel weird and don’t like to read reviews. I’ll skim a little and look at the Metacritic and be like ‘Damn we went down a whole point!’ I just get really stressed reading reviews. I don’t know what it is. It’s always been that way with me. I’ll talk to other people at the studio and get the general vibe.
Was Darksiders 2 greenlit immediately after the first one had wrapped?
We had already submitted Darksiders 2 for the gate process, where we get stuff greenlit, and we had already been cleared to start on the second game before we even shipped the first one.
Was the budget for Darksiders 2 larger, smaller, or the same?
I believe it was larger. Quite a bit larger. The thing is time is money and even though we had a larger team and more money we spent so much less time making the game. I think the first game was more expensive because of how much longer we spent on it. That’s actually a good question. I kinda stay out of the money stuff. I don’t even want to know! We had to make it bigger and better, and in half the time. So that was our thing.
When the original game was released it was a new IP. Could you give us a bit more backstory as to how it fomented into the idea that was Darksiders 1?
We set out to make a console adventure game. That’s all we knew, and we felt like ‘Why aren’t there adventure games anymore?’ The only games coming out now in the adventure genre are the eighth or tenth installment of an old ass, game series. No one was really making adventures anymore. So we knew that we wanted to do that and then it became a matter of picking a theme and setting that we got excited about. We had this kid with a bionic arm. We had this dude with animal powers. We had all kinds of stupid ideas that went nowhere, and we’d have these meetings about what the game was going to be. Meanwhile, Dave was working on the engine and we had all these bad ass graphics capabilities. So then one day I was driving home and I just thought ‘Hey, what about this?’ So I gave them the pitch about the Four Horsemen. It was a little different at that time. These college kids on Earth develop these powers and they find out that they’re the Horsemen, and that they’re going to eventually destroy the Earth. So they choose not to do it and it causes this cosmic conflict to rain down on the Earth and hunt them. We felt like that sounds like a WB series and that can’t be a game. So we just streamlined it and said fuck all that. What if it’s just the Four Horsemen fighting angels and demons on earth, there’s demons throwing buses off of buildings on Earth and there’s people screaming. Once we went down that path we were all super excited about it and the publishers we were talking to got excited by that pitch, and we were just like ‘Alright Four Horsemen..that’s it!’ I feel like when it clicked we all knew it.
Well I guess that’s it for me, so can you give the folks at home the general info? Date and systems?
Darksiders 2 will be out June 26th for the PS3, Xbox 360, PC, and then the Wii U.
Do you have a window for the Wii U yet?
There’s a team of assassins hidden right here. See this red dot on the back of my neck?
Alright, well thank you very much!