Thought Bubble: A Eulogy for Silicon Knights

January 30, 2013

Silicon KnightsA eulogy, according to my computer’s dictionary, is “a speech or piece of writing that praises someone or something highly, typically someone who has just died.” Now that St. Catharines, Ontario-based developer Silicon Knights has removed Too Human from Xbox Live Marketplace, the funeral approach is painfully appropriate.

The move, for those not following at home, is most likely in keeping with the court-ordered destruction of all existing code for Too Human and several other titles that infringed on Epic’s Unreal copyright. For Silicon Knights, that’s probably the end. If rumours are to be believed, the company has already been reduced to a half-dozen employees and I don’t see how it can possibly hope to recover (or come up with the $9 million payout currently owed to Epic) without any product on the market.

If this were a conventional eulogy, I’d focus on the positive. I’d commemorate the good games (Eternal Darkness, Metal Gear Solid: The Twin Snakes), gloss over the bad (X-Men: Destiny), and maybe lament the way in which Epic Games conspired with the US District Court to bully a smaller developer into submission while erasing the work of hundreds of individual developers.

But I can’t write that eulogy because I don’t believe that version of events. As much as I hate to pile on the departed, Silicon Knights brought this on itself.

I didn’t come to that conclusion lightly. As an Ontario resident, I’d love to stand up for one of the largest provincial developers, particularly when it’s received millions of dollars in government grants. There’s brave nobility in being the plucky underdog that takes chances, even if those chances never translate to economic success.

But that narrative doesn’t apply to Silicon Knights, either.

Rumours circulate through the proverbial Toronto grapevine, and there have been grumblings about internal troubles at the Denis Dyack-led Silicon Knights for years. The damning Kotaku report on X-Men Destiny and the making of a bad video game was only surprising due to the sheer scope of the investigation. Based on what I’ve seen, heard, and read, there’s more evidence of mismanagement and general arrogance at SK than of any deliberate wrongdoing by Epic.

As it relates to the company’s recent litigious woes, SK’s primary allegation – namely, that Epic offered a sub-standard Unreal product to make its own games look better by comparison – never made a damn lick of financial sense. Making a video game costs time and money, and Epic – like any studio – is only able to produce a handful triple-A titles in a given year. With Unreal, a game engine licensed to other studios, however, Epic is able to (legally) tap into the revenue streams of countless other studios, exponentially increasing its potential profit on an annual basis.

And yeah, that’s kind of relevant, because Cliffy B doesn’t stockpile Lamborghinis based solely on the returns from Marcus Fenix action figures. According to the standard Unreal licensing contract, Epic doesn’t start collecting its 25% royalty fee until a game reaches the $50,000 sales threshold. The company therefore wants its licensing partners to succeed because Epic makes more money when other studios sell more games, and that included Silicon Knights and Too Human. Epic wouldn’t jeopardize its sterling reputation with other developers just to screw over a relatively minor Canadian competitor.

For me, that’s where Silicon Knights’ claims of breach of contract and etc. have always broken down, and it seems integral to an understanding of the studio’s ongoing demise. SK remains utterly convinced that Epic is running an anti-Silicon conspiracy, and that paranoia is indicative of a studio unwilling to confront its own shortcomings. Too Human underperformed both critically and commercially, but countless other studios have survived bad video games. They learn from their mistakes and they move on.

Like an alcoholic, SK couldn’t admit it had a problem. The studio arrogantly sought to blame Epic for its floundering flagship, initiating legal action to absolve itself of shoddy game design that instead exposed a litany of transgressions — including the misappropriation of trade secrets the deliberate theft of “significant portions of Epic Games’ code.

Presumably, Silicon Knights knew it had misappropriated Unreal before firing that first salvo. It dragged Epic to the courthouse anyway. It’s an act of incredible hubris worthy of Lance Armstrong, made all the more ironic by the fact that none of SK’s sins may have come to light had it simply refrained from litigation.

What’s worse is that Silicon Knights seemed to forget it was in the business of making video games. Out-of-the-box licensed engines like Unreal lower the barriers for triple-A development and allow for more diverse creative products. Titles as varied as Enslaved, Alice: Madness Returns, the 2011 Mortal Kombat reboot, and Spec Ops: The Line all used Unreal as a functional gameplay template to free up design resources for narrative, gore, concept art, and other aesthetic concerns.

Too Human could have been a similarly compelling title had ego not intervened. The same Unreal that was supposedly too broken for Too Human was still good enough to strip down for the spare parts that Silicon Knights used to make Too Human, which only makes you wonder: Why didn’t SK just make the damn game that way in the first place and save itself a world of legal trouble?

Perhaps it’s unfair to ask that question. Maybe there was something defective about the Unreal product that Epic shipped to St. Catharines? The longer the two sides are in court, the less likely that new evidence will appear. Somewhere along the line, SK started caring more about “winning” than it did about making video games, and that’s when the studio’s creative soul disappeared.

I take absolutely no pleasure in witnessing the downfall of what was once a shining jewel of the local industry. I feel miserable on behalf of all of the skilled employees searching for new jobs and all the fans who will never get to play Eternal Darkness 2.

For the past few years, Silicon Knights has been more active as a plaintiff than a developer, and that shift is unfortunately reflected in its output.

That’s a tragically absurd way to remember a game developer. The SK legacy is written in court transcripts and legal documents rather than lines of code. We’ll ultimately remember the studio as a case study in catastrophic mismanagement and as legal precedent for disputes with licensed software.

Rest in peace, Silicon Knights, and best of luck to everyone moving forward.

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