With the internet a steady source of leaks, rumors, and previews, it’s rare for any truly big surprises to come out of E3 in any given year. Gamers were nonetheless caught off guard last summer, when Microsoft announced that a new Phantom Dust game was in the works for the Xbox One. Phantom Dust was a card-based action/strategy game that involved constructing “arsenals” (decks), combating other players, and taking on missions to discover why the surface of the Earth has become a dust-shrouded wasteland.
Phantom Dust earned a cult following after its North American release back in 2005, but it didn’t sell terribly well. It’s not the sort of game fans were expecting to see more from a decade later, even though Dust creator Yukio Futatsugi was talking about Kickstarting a sequel a year before Microsoft announced the project for Xbox One.
Unfortunately, the new Phantom Dust hit a wall last month when Microsoft announced that developer Darkside Games was being closed, and that work on the game would continue under a different team. Now insiders close to the situation have provided details of what brought Darkside’s Phantom Dust reboot down.
Kotaku spoke with multiple former Darkside employees, who recalled the project collapsing after a February 2015 meeting where the developer asked Microsoft to increase the game’s budget — not for the first time. Darkside was working with a $5 million budget but was convinced they needed at least $7 or $8 million to do Phantom Dust right. Instead, Microsoft decided to pull the plug.
Things had started out with much promise only a year earlier, with Darkside offered the chance to help resurrect a dormant Microsoft property, choosing from a list that also included Perfect Dark and Battletoads. Microsoft had already been publicly mulling the possibility of a Phantom Dust reboot since at least December 2013, and it was the one that caught Darkside’s collective eye. After negotiations in spring 2014, Darkside signed on to create a multiplayer-only reboot of Phantom Dust, designed to compete with the likes of Hearthstone and League of Legends.
Some at Darkside were leery of leaving behind the original Phantom Dust‘s single-player mode, but it was a major opportunity for the small company. Soon, however, Microsoft changed its tune.
According to former Darkside employees interviewed by Kotaku, Microsoft decided the Phantom Dust reboot needed a single-player campaign after all. There was just one problem. As one Darkside vet recalled, “They weren’t going to change the budget or the timeframe.” The developer decided the best way to handle the situation was to build a playable section of the game as a proof of concept to try and convince Microsoft to up the budget.
Things took a weird turn at E3 2014, when the Phantom Dust Xbox One reboot was officially confirmed for the world. Unfortunately, it was confirmed using a pre-rendered trailer the Darkside team knew nothing about ahead of time. One ex-Darkside employee recalled, “…all of a sudden there’s that two-minute CG trailer. And we were like, ‘That’s amazing.’ But at the same time, they didn’t use any of our assets, they didn’t use any of our card packs, nothing. Basically what they showed had nothing to do with the game whatsoever.”
To make matters worse, the big E3 announcement also didn’t mention Darkside at all, nor was the developer allowed to discuss their involvement in the project. Another former Darkside employee revealed, “It was very sad. It showed a lack of confidence in us.”
Things didn’t get better from there. Microsoft kept trying to ramp up the game’s size and features, but still without willingness for a commensurate budget increase. Darkside kept insisting they couldn’t make it happen without more money. The developer focused on completing a playable “vertical slice” of the game, and the prototype was eventually well received, but in the end it wasn’t enough. Darkside doubled down on needing more resources to do the reboot justice, and Microsoft hit the brakes.
Officially, Phantom Dust isn’t dead; it’s just in limbo. As part of last month’s cancellation announcement, a Microsoft spokesperson said, “While we do not have anything new to share on Phantom Dust at this time, we can confirm that development of the title continues.” However, one source said they’d be “shocked” if Microsoft actually moved forward with the project.
The disconnect between the game Microsoft wants and the money they’re willing to spend presumably isn’t going to change, so any new developer would presumably have to figure out how to do more for less than Darkside could. It’s a sad story, but hardly a unique one in the tumultuous world of game development.