First we had Obsidian's Stormlands, which was cancelled after seven months of development, leaving Obsidian in a state of near ruin, at which point they had to lay off 30 people, go to Kickstarter, start work on a f2p game, and turn the remnants of that game into Tyranny.
Then we have the infamous Phantom Dust debacle. I'll just leave some choice quotes here:
After some heavy-duty conversations in the spring of 2014, the two companies walked away with a deal: Darkside would get a $5 million budget to build a multiplayer-only reboot of Phantom Dust, complete with a spectator mode, tournaments, and a complicated replay system allowing players to share files, according to one person familiar with the original pitch. The initial plan was to make it a competitive online sport, along the lines of Hearthstone and League of Legends. They gave it the codename Babel.
No more than a week after they’d signed the contract, according to several ex-Darkside employees, Microsoft’s team came back to the studio with a new request: they wanted a single-player campaign. “They decided that fans were gonna want a single-player game,” said a person who worked on the project. “But they weren’t going to change the budget or the timeframe.”
Suddenly, what was once a $5 million multiplayer reboot of Phantom Dust had become a $5 million multiplayer reboot of Phantom Dust with a six-hour single-player story mode attached. That meant Darkside would need more designers, more artists, and more programmers, all of which equated to extra time and money that they didn’t have. Still, employees say they were committed to pulling it off. This was their first solo project. They wanted to prove they were good enough to do it. According to one Darkside source, their tentative plan was to build a fun vertical slice—a playable and demonstrable chunk of the game—and use it to persuade Microsoft into giving them more money.
Darkside was in the very early stages of development when E3 came around in June of last year, and some at the studio say they were shocked to see Microsoft announce Phantom Dust there. They were even more shocked to see the game announced through a pre-rendered trailer that nobody at Darkside had worked on, according to studio sources. Perhaps most frustratingly for people at the studio, Microsoft wouldn’t tell anyone that Darkside was developing the game. Darkside was put on a gag order; though the game had been announced, they still couldn’t tell people they were making it. “It was very sad,” said one person on the project. “It showed a lack of confidence in us.”
Microsoft wanted a longer single-player campaign; they wanted various features added and changed; they wanted Darkside to help contribute card art to the accompanying mobile game Microsoft had planned. “This kind of focus change happened on a nearly monthly basis,” said a person who worked on the game.
“They asked for things pretty quickly,” said a second person close to the studio. “We kept telling them, ‘We cannot make this game for the budget you want.’”
In the fall of last year, another obstacle popped up: one of Microsoft’s creative directors, who Darkside sources described as integral to Phantom Dust’s success, left the company. His role was never re-filled, which hurt Darkside a lot—producers at the studio had to communicate with Microsoft’s creative team on a daily basis, and he had been one of their most important connections in Redmond.
The end result is that Darkside went out of business.
One particularly strange moment for Darkside happened around then, when Microsoft’s Ken Lobb said on a podcast that Phantom Dust would be “about a 30-hour JRPG.” The developers were baffled. That was never part of their plan. “Nobody knew he was gonna say that,” said one Darkside staffer. “We were told by people at Microsoft that Ken just does things like that.”
Then we have Scalebound, which according to several sources involved Microsoft setting very high milestones and withholding pay
And as a result a significant portion of Platinum workers are without a task, Kamiya on mental health leave, and the studio bereft of payment for a month of work.
We also have Fable Legends, though that was a first party game so not sure how that fits in here.
So, overall, if this were just one developer and one set of rumors, maybe it would be some bad apples and conjecture. But this same pattern has happened several times with them, which begs the question, is it all bad third party relations, or perhaps some sort of mismanagement from Microsoft? I don't wanna be all "doom and gloom" but can this be really attributed to a series of coincidences and bad partnerships? Even then, isn't it still on them making those partnerships?
My presumption is that Microsoft perhaps underestimated the effort it would take to get games with as-a-service multiplayer (which seems to be their big push with all the full priced titles with pay2win microtransactions) that also has a AAA grade campaign out of smaller studios with newer IPs. They tried their luck at getting these projects at a low cost, but then as management and goals changed (a lot of these projects must have started during Mattrick and Ballmer's era and shifted to Spencer and Nadella) they no longer were interested in that kind of investment for that kind of project. Presumably not wanting to back out of contracts, they just used increasingly high demands on developers to burn them out and make them drop the contracts instead, taking the damage with them. Is this an unfair characterization of the situation?
Given an attitude like this towards new AAA IP, it seems it would be difficult for them to grow new IPs in this climate without investing significantly. Perhaps this signals a change in philosophy in Microsoft?
I'd like to discuss these subjects without being bogged down by the specifics of the individual games, as there's threads for those. This seeming strategy change and possibility of mismanagement (or arguments against it) are the specific points I'd like to speculate on.