Grant Rants

Whatever became of Silicon Knights?

- November 6th, 2012

Greetings web denizens, heathens, zealots and the rest of you!

I’m not ashamed to say I am a geek of sorts. I’ve always been a fan of mythology, in particular Greek and Norse mythology. I suppose because, beyond their fantastical settings and adventures, they are stories about human life writ large. The triumph of it, the tragedy of it, the sexuality of it, the ridiculousness of it….it’s all there in starkly human terms.

It’s probably why some forms of science fiction and fantasy appeal to my literary sense – particularly classic stuff like H.G. Wells and Tolkien. Stories that play with the mythological themes that seem to be archetypal to the human experience.  This extends beyond books and films and reaches to some video games – particularly  narrative heavy stuff (Mass Effect, Alan Wake, Heavy Rain etc). I’m a writer after all.

So a few years back my inner geek roared with glee when local video game developer Silicon Knights released Too Human, a high minded idea that blended Norse mythology with an almost cyber punk sensibility.  The game, its narrative and use of Norse myth was a bold attempt, but deeply flawed (although not as horrible as some reviews said it was). In part because of the game mechanics, in part because it barely touches the surface of its source material, in part because of its storytelling.

Too Human was supposed to be the launch vehicle for a trilogy of games and the future of SK, then billed as one of the bright economic lights of St. Catharines. But things didn’t turn out that way. Too Human did not do nearly as well as hoped, certainly not well enough to put SK onto the same playing field as Canadian video game  giants  Bioware of Edmonton (makes of Mass Effect) and Ubi Soft in Montreal (makes of Deus Ex).

What followed the cool market reception of Too Human was a long period of silence from SK, which managed to acquire millions in government funding from both Queen’s Park and Ottawa. The funding, the press was told, was to hire people and position SK for the future. The only game the company produced since Too Human was X-Men:Destiny for Activision, a game that was an immediate critical and commercial flop upon release.

At the same time, SK was embroiled in a lawsuit with American video game company Epic Games. SK lost that lawsuit, and owes Epic some $4.5 million as a result. In 2013, it also has to pay back $4 million in federal loans. Another $2.5 million in provincial funding that was supposed to flow to the company never did when MPPs balked at giving tax dollars to SK when the company laid off 45 people.

No commercial success, massive debts and no word of anything coming in the pipeline that might reverse the fortunes of Silicon Knights, which has largely declined to speak publicly about any of these issues.

Now, writer Andrew McMillen over at Kotkau has published an “inside” look at what happened to SK during the production of the X-Men game.

McMillen’s narrative – which paints a picture of a chaotic, often dysfunctional company – is based upon interviews with anonymous ex-SK employees,  which always make investigative journalism problematic. Speaking only for myself, while I understand that granting anonymity to interview subjects is sometimes necessary, it’s something I try to avoid.  It’s always easy to criticize someone from the safety of the shadows, where you don’t have to take responsibility for your words. And it often leaves the journalist in the difficult position of attempting to confirm accusations that don’t have a great deal of corroborating evidence. Basing a story on an anonymous source is always a risk.

McMillen is up front about this and acknowledges this issue in his piece, I should note, and it’s not his preference either. However, he goes on to say none of the eight ex-staffers he spoke to would go on the record unless they were granted anonymity, although he confirmed they worked for SK.  It’s also worth noting that no one from SK would grant McMillen an interview. But then, SK has been all but silent for sometime now, not granting interviews to reporters and only issues short statements.

So keep that caveat in mind when you read his piece. If it’s accurate, the story is somewhat grim reading for SK fans and, when combined with the millions it owes the federal government and Epic Games, the once bright future of SK seems seriously in doubt.

Categories: News, politics, video games

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2 comments

  1. Banjo says:

    I know a former employee of Silicon Knights, all I can say is that I would never want to work there based on what he’ve told me about that place.

  2. Anon says:

    I have heard that some game companies have very strict confidentiality terms in their contracts. SK, as a ‘guild’, likely has such clauses. So if the sources were not protecting their identities, SK would likely have grounds to sue.

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