Microsoft Destroyed Arkane Austin but the Studio’s Soul Is Indestructible

15 minutes into Prey, the 2017 sci-fi thriller directed by Arkane Austin, protagonist Morgan Yu breaks his apartment window with a wrench. As hundreds of shards of glass fall, a newly revealed truth changes Morgan’s life forever. This truly shocking, perspective-swinging opening is one of the most incredible introductions to a gaming world ever made.

Seven days into May 2024, Microsoft took its own metaphorical wrench and broke Arkane Austin. A veteran of immersive simulations – those highly interactive first-person games where RPG, simulation and action systems interweave – he was one of the victims of Xbox’s brutal dismemberment of Bethesda Softworks.

It’s a heartbreaking situation. Arkane Austin’s laid-off staff have been thrust into the most difficult conditions the games industry has ever faced. But if you allow me to seek the light in this darkness, the soul of the studio has already demonstrated incredible resilience. This isn’t the first time financial and parent companies have dictated the course of immersive simulation in Austin, Texas. Despite multiple challenges, the genre still finds a way to survive in this city.

Dishonored's Brigmore Witches DLC doubled down on the weird and weird.
Dishonored’s Brigmore Witches DLC doubled down on the weird and weird.

First, let’s think about what was taken. The messy and misguided co-op shooter Redfall may be Arkane Austin’s most recent release, but the studio is building on a rich history of single-player innovation. He created two timeless classics: the supernatural stealth sim Dishonored (built in cooperation with surviving Lyon studio Arkane) and Prey, a modern reinterpretation of the brilliant System Shock. And according to Bloomberg, before Microsoft’s guillotine fell, Arkane Austin was already drawing up plans for a new single-player game drawing on the team’s proven skills.

It’s impossible to know what this game would be, but if Dishonored and Prey are proof of anything, then we’ve lost something with incredible potential. Dishonored demonstrates Arkane Austin’s talent for deeply interactive game worlds that respect and reflect player experimentation. Prey’s expansive space station, meanwhile, is a testament to the team’s vision for environment and campaign structure. Its roguelike DLC Mooncrash, with its overlapping stories of five protagonists, allows for inspired use of a single space depending on both who you play as and the order in which you play their stories. Both games also showcase Arkane’s unrivaled art design and its fierce, anti-injustice narrative prowess – strengths that even Redfall benefits from.

The soul of Arkane Austin is a community; a growing collective of immersive simulation designers who have endured success and hardship in the city of Austin for three decades.

Arkane Austin’s approach to game design was truly beautiful – an elegance matched by few other studios. And, in a desire to count soulless business numbers, Microsoft destroyed it.

In Microsoft’s multi-part documentary Power On: The Story of Xbox, a segment discussing the company’s mistreatment of Lionhead Studios saw Phil Spencer say, “You acquire a studio for what they’re good at now, and your job is to help them. speed up how they do what they do, not them speeding up what you do.

We could then assume that Xbox would want to favor Arkane Austin. To help it overcome the failure of Redfall and get back to – to quote Xbox’s Matt Booty – “creating impactful and innovative games”. But if a very profitable company worth more than 3 trillion dollars has no interest in absorbing a mistake and finding a way to guide its artists to success, so one thing is clear: this promise to help studios “accelerate” what they are good at is empty.

Arkane Austin may be gone, but people still stay. And that brings me back to the soul of the studio. This soul is a community; a growing collective of immersive simulation designers who have endured success and hardship in the city of Austin for nearly three decades.

Redfall's online and open-world ambitions may have faltered, but its art never wavered.
Redfall’s online and open-world ambitions may have faltered, but its art never wavered.

The connection between the city and immersive simulations began in 1995. Looking Glass Studios, the East Coast-based creator of the genre’s formative trio – Ultima Underworld, System Shock and Thief – commissioned System Shock producer Warren Spector to to open a new office in Austin, Texas. . But even though the Looking Glass games were critically successful, financial difficulties ultimately led the company to collapse in 2000. The design language it had established, however, proved indestructible and had already fled the nest .

Spector had been cajoled by John Romero, the rockstar designer of Doom. Recently laid off by id Software, Romero had started his own studio, Ion Storm, and he wanted Spector to take over the Austin office to do just about anything he wanted. That project was the historical immersive simulation Deus Ex. Designers Harvey Smith, Steve Powers, Monte Martinez, and Ricardo Bare were hired to help Spector create this conspiracy thriller.

This new Austin studio has not only kept the recipe for immersive simulation. When Looking Glass collapsed, Ion Storm’s parent company, Eidos Interactive, obtained the rights to Thief and helped Spector move many former Looking Glass employees to its Austin studio to continue working on the franchise. But this second home for immersive simulation was not going to last. In 2005, Eidos’ financial difficulties condemned Ion Storm to the same fate as its spiritual predecessor.

Good art transcends boardroom statistics. And against all odds, immersive simulation has still found a way to flourish in Austin.

Ion Storm’s demise could have been the end of the road for Austin’s immersive simulation community. Worse still, the genre was in danger. Few other studios were interested in this style of game. Arkane was one, however. French studio founded by Raphaël Colantonio, its first title, Arx Fatalis, was a love letter to Ultima Underworld. And in 2006, Arkane expanded to the United States. Austin was an obvious choice.

Arkane Austin has become a rallying point to bring together key members of the Ion Storm team. Colantonio hired Harvey Smith as co-creative director, and he was soon followed by Powers, Martinez and Bare. Once again, the city of Austin had another studio in which to foster and develop the creativity and ingenuity that began at Looking Glass Studios.

Thanks to Arkane’s two-studio system, the spirit of immersive simulation that has called Austin home now extends across continents. At Arkane Lyon, thankfully unscathed, visionaries such as Dinga Bakaba, Sébastien Mitton and Dana Nightingale keep the values ​​of the genre alive, even if many of them have no direct links to Ion Storm or Looking Glass. Meanwhile, Raphaël Colantonio’s new company, WolfEye Studios (created in 2019 following his departure from Arkane after leading Prey) is made up of a variety of immersive simulation veterans, including Monte Martinez, as well as new enthusiastic arrivals. And beyond these flagship developers, a host of indie games inspired by Arkane’s lineage, such as Gloomwood and Ctrl Alt Ego, are adding new voices to the fold. The genre endures because good art transcends boardroom statistics.

But what about Austin and its long-standing immersive simulation community? Harvey Smith, Steve Powers and Ricardo Bare, creatives who have seen the city’s studios live and die, were all at Arkane Austin the day Microsoft’s destruction order was passed. Of course, things are different this time. Arkane Austin’s closure was not due to the so-called “curse of immersive simulation” of the genre doomed to commercial failure. When a 3 trillion dollars The company won’t even support a studio whose game is a success “in all key metrics and expectations,” so it’s not about the money. Unfortunately, this is nothing more than cultural vandalism on the part of capitalism, which constitutes something of a new obstacle for immersive simulations to overcome.

But, as I said earlier, good art transcends boardroom statistics. And against all odds, immersive simulation has still found a way to flourish in Austin. In a thread on of games that I am required to create in terms of team size? » Finding that sweet spot could be the first step towards what comes next.

We cannot ignore that 2024 is the worst time in history for video game creators, and Arkane Austin’s former staff faces an uphill battle that cannot be resolved by simple faith in the resilience of gender. Nevertheless, Arkane Austin’s soul has roots that have proven to be seemingly indestructible. And history has a way of repeating itself.

Matt Purslow is IGN’s senior features editor.
Header illustration: Fred Augis, Arkane Studios / Bethesda

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