This story was updated on March 16 and April 1 with additional departures (Ben Diamond, Lauren Garcia, Ryan Duffin)
As much as half of the core development team known to be working on the upcoming Perfect Dark reboot quit the company during the last year, or around 36 people, analysis of employee LinkedIn profiles has revealed.
That includes most of The Initiative’s senior design team, including game director Dan Neuburger, design director Drew Murray, lead level designer Chris O’Neill, principal world builder Jolyon Myers, two senior system designers, a group of three former God of War designers and more.
And the turnover of top talent doesn’t end in design. Perfect Dark’s two most senior writers also recently quit, analysis shows, along with the project’s technical director, tech art director, lead gameplay engineer, lead animator, QA lead and more.
According to LinkedIn, The Initiative is now less than 50 people (when duplicates, former employees and erroneous listings are removed) and currently has just three roles advertised on its website. Analysis suggests it hired around 12 people in the past 12 months.
The timing of the departures coincides with the September 2021 announcement that Crystal Dynamics had been signed to co-develop Perfect Dark.
This, combined with the few job roles currently advertised at The Initiative, suggests that the Tomb Raider developer is likely taking a much stronger lead than first thought on the project.
Interviews with multiple former senior developers cited a lack of creative autonomy and slow development progress as the reason for their departures, and described the wave of exits as “fast and furious” with project momentum said to be “heavily affected”.
The Initiative’s management told VGC it’s confident in the team it has in place, and new talent joining, and pointed to industry-wide staffing challenges during the Covid-19 pandemic.
“It’s no small task to build a studio and reinvent a beloved franchise,” studio head Darrell Gallagher told VGC. “In creating The Initiative, we set out to leverage co-development partnerships to achieve our ambitions, and we’re really excited about all the progress we’re seeing with our relationship with Crystal Dynamics.
“In this journey, it’s not uncommon for there to be staffing changes, especially during a time of global upheaval over the last two years, and there’s plenty more work in front of us to deliver a fantastic Perfect Dark experience to our players.
“We wish all our former colleagues the very best, and I’m confident in the team we have in place, the new talent joining, and we can’t wait to share more with the fans.”
In the games industry, competition for experienced talent is at an all-time high following a pandemic-fuelled gaming boom, and unhappy Initiative staff would likely have had plenty of alternative employment opportunities at the large number of neighbouring AAA studios in California.
Across the industry, many studios are currently facing a talent crisis, with the sheer level of expansion and investment in the sector making it challenging for even the biggest studios to retain and attract senior staff.
The former Initiative developers VGC spoke to attributed the wave of departures to frustration among senior talent over the direction of the project set down by Gallagher and game director Daniel Neuburger (who himself left the company last month).
Although The Initiative’s website claims that the company promotes a “collaborative” creative environment, former employees described the studio’s development hierarchy as very ‘top-down’, with Gallagher and Neuburger keeping a strong grasp on creative decisions.
According to the former employees, many senior team members were frustrated by this perceived lack of autonomy and didn’t feel heard on key issues such as development priorities, project planning and team staffing.
Gallagher and Neuburger, who were previously studio head and game director at Crystal Dynamics, wanted to make games the way they always had with top-down direction, the sources said, while many Initiative employees were expecting a more bottom-up approach.
As a result, it’s claimed that development has progressed “painfully” slowly and a solid company culture never formed. All former employees VGC spoke to said they were surprised at how lenient Microsoft had been over the lack of progress.
One person said: “Making games is hard enough, let alone when you feel like you can’t get through to people making the decisions that affect everyone”.
The culture issue was partly behind the decision to bring onboard Crystal Dynamics, it’s claimed, with Gallagher and Neuburger allegedly hoping that production would move more smoothly with the introduction of a second team familiar with their methods.
Crystal Dynamics’ introduction is also now likely to plug the gaps left by The Initiative’s staff turnover, VGC was told.
VGC’s sources agreed that they would be surprised if Crystal Dynamics’ introduction, combined with the significant departures of core staff, hadn’t triggered an effective soft reboot of Perfect Dark and that it was likely still years away from release.
It’s understood that Xbox’s leadership team are prepared to be patient with their new first-party teams (which includes those currently working on Playground‘s Fable and Rare‘s Everwild), as they prioritise assembling groups capable of regularly producing the kind of critically-acclaimed prestige projects that come from PlayStation studios like Naughty Dog and Insomniac.
Perfect Dark dev team
(departures marked by strikeout) / Former team/projects in brackets
- Darrell Gallagher, studio head (Activision, Square Enix)
- Lindsey McQueeney, HR manager (Google, Crystal Dynamics)
- Dickson Lee, director of finance and operations
- Daniel Neuburger, game director (Tomb Raider series) (left Feb 2022)
- Drew Murray, design director (Sunset Overdrive) (left Feb 2021)
- Christian Cantamessa, cinematics director (Red Dead Redemption)
- Chris O’Neill, lead level designer, associate design director (God of War + Metal Gear Online) (left Dec 2021)
- Richard Burns, UI/UX lead (Forza Horizon series)
- Robert Ryan, senior systems designer (Motive + Naughty Dog)
- Justin Perez, senior systems designer (Jedi: Fallen Order) (left Nov 2021)
- Kurt Loudy, senior systems designer (Id Software) (left Oct 2021)
- Ian Miller, senior designer (God of War) (left Mar 2022)
- Kai Zheng, principal level designer (God of War) (left Oct 2021)
- Ray Yeomans, senior designer (God of War & Tomb Raider series) (left Apr 2021)
- Jolyon Myers, principal world builder (Infinity Ward) (left Jan 2022)
- Nigel Loster, gameplay designer (The Coalition) (left Feb 2022)
- Sean Slayback, lead systems designer (Respawn, Infinity ward) (left Aug 2021)
- Daniel Steamer, lead technical designer (Crystal Dynamics)
- Cristian Guzman, associate technical designer
- Remi Lacoste, experiential director (Crystal Dynamics)
- Joey Tan, associate technical designer (Insomniac) (left Dec 2021)
- Branford Williams, principal production designer (Daybreak)
- Blake Fischer, director of narrative (Xbox) (left Jun 2021)
- Christine Thompson, narrative lead (Destiny 2) (left Jul 2021)
- Robert Shannon, narrative designer (The Coalition)
- Nicole Phillips, principal writer
- William Archbell, technical director (Riot Games, 343) (left Aug 2021)
- Francisco Aisa Garcia, technical lead (Naughty Dog)
- Ben Diamond, lead systems engineer (Respawn, God of War III) (left July 2021)
- Cesar Castro, senior software engineer (EA Sports UFC, FIFA) (left May 2021)
- Hawar Doghramachi, senior graphics engineer (Naughty Dog) (left Apr 2021)
- Robert Marr, lead gameplay engineer (Cryptic Studios) (left April 2021)
- Jon Lew, senior gameplay engineer (Sledgehammer)
- Anthony Silva, senior engineer
- Yuka Murata, software engineer (left Jul 2021)
- Lauren Garcia, senior shader engineer (left Mar 2021)
- Stephen Clayburn, principal lead online services engineer (left Jun 2021)
- Chris Panosian, cyber security engineer
- Brian Westergaard, director of production (God of War, Tomb Raider series)
- Maxwell Morrison, QA lead (left Feb 2022)
- Victoria Miller, senior producer (PlayStation)
- Johal Gow, senior producer (Treyarch) (left Oct 2021)
- Jonathan Chavez, associate producer (Treyarch)
- Nicole Plum, outsource manager (The Coalition)
- Ryan Duffin, gameplay animation director (BioWare, DICE) (left Feb 2022)
- Lee Davis, lead gameplay animator (Naughty Dog) (left Mar 2022)
- Jason Priest, lead artist (Insomniac)
- Erik Jakobsen, environment art director (God of War)
- Marcia Hunsicker, senior gameplay animator (343)
- Eric Persson, associate art director (left Aug 2021)
- Ryan Trowbridge, tech art director (Bend Studio) (left Jun 2021)
- Matt Corcoran, principal character artist (Jurassic World movie) (left Feb 2022)
- Sze Jones, principal character artist (Tomb Raider, Uncharted 4) (left Dec 2020)
- Tyler Thornock, principal technical animator (Naughty Dog)
- Giovanni Martinez, senior environment artist (Insomniac) Sep 2021
- Justin Walters, senior environment artist (Avalanche)
- Pasquale Scionti, senior environment/lighting artist (left Jun 2021)
- Sarah Swenson, environment artist (Naughty Dog) (left Mar 2021)
- Jaime Molina, environment artist (Infinity Ward)
- Patrick Ward, 3D environment artist (Nexon) (left May 2021)
- Fabian Elmers, senior tech artist
- Oliver Guiney, concept artist (Black Ops 4)
- Isaac Yeram Kim, concept artist (Naughty Dog) (left Jun 2021)
- Victor Chavez, senior animator (Amazon Game Studios)
- Carlos G, senior tech artist
- Arlington Cruz, animator (left Jan 2021)
- Sylvia Chambers, animator (Naughty Dog) (left Oct 2021)
Recent new hires
- Adam McDonald, senior level designer (The Coalition) Mar 2021
- Steven Ty, lead VFX artist (Infinity Ward) May 2021
- Larra Paolilli, franchise director Jun 2021
- James Zhang, junior VFX artist Jul 2021
- Will Poloski, support engineer Sep 2021
- Michel Bastien, studio general manager (Turn 10) Oct 2021
- Landon McDowneel, senior director of engineering (Riot) Oct 2021
- Alex Leonard, senior gameplay engineer (Treyarch) Nov 2021
- Michaela Cristina-Faith, game engineer Dec 2021
- Peter Santoki, senior graphics engineer (2K) Jan 2022
- Heather Jackett, senior level designer (The Coalition) Feb 2022
- LJ Duey, writing assistant Feb 2022