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Thief reboot impeded by office politics, high-level departures

Chris Plante co-founded Polygon in 2012 and is now editor-in-chief. He co-hosts The Besties, is a board member of the Frida Cinema, and created NYU’s first games journalism course.

All is not well in Montreal.

The reboot of the medieval stealth franchise Thief has been in production at Eidos Montreal for five years. According to anonymous sources familiar with the studio, corporate politics, creative confusion and a lack of publisher oversight have inflated production costs, impeded the game's creation and led to the departures of numerous senior and junior team members. Now, after half a decade, publisher Square Enix is hoping to release Thief on the next generation of consoles and PCs.

The Thief reboot began in 2008, first as a series of conceptual meetings, then as a vertical slice from a team within Eidos Montreal. "Vertical slice" is industry terminology for a condensed demonstration of a game's potential art, design, gameplay and tone. A vertical slice is made by small team and helps the publisher decide whether a project should enter full production.

Around the same time and in the same building, a different Eidos Montreal team began production on Deus Ex: Human Revolution, which would go on to be a critical and financial success. In early 2009, Square Enix acquired Eidos Interactive and its numerous brands, including Thief and Deus Ex. Ensuring the completion and promotion of Deus Ex: Human Revolution demanded much of Square Enix's attention, so the Thief team created its vertical slice relatively free of supervision. After nine months, the project was finished. Happy with the result, Square Enix greenlit Thief.

Thief's vertical slice took nine months to complete

Backed by a large AAA budget, the Thief team expanded rapidly. While the project attracted a few designers, programmers and artists from across the globe, many came from other Montreal studios. A number of senior team members previously worked together at Ubisoft Montreal, and were quick to recruit local colleagues. According to one source, collegial favoritism began to divide the office.

The lead and senior design roles were fluid, with some team members departing after less than two years. According to one source, each new lead and senior designer would come with a new vision for the game. Old ideas — including stages and mechanics — would be rebuilt or scrapped. In March of this year, the same month as the game's publicity push on the cover of Game Informer magazine, Lead Game Designer Dominic Fleury left the studio.

Sources emphasized the high level of talent and enthusiasm of team members, many of whom came to work on Thief because of their love of the franchise. Those same sources cited team politics and conflicting visions as cause for many departures and setbacks.

Due to a need to hit promotional deadlines, the latter part of 2012 and early 2013 was focused on creating press demos, the first of which was shown for the Game Informer cover and also at last month's Game Developers Conference. According to a source, the demo took nearly 10 months of development time, roughly six of which required the participation of nearly every content creator on the team. The level, which takes place in part inside a brothel, apparently featured "Cinemax-level" sex sequences at one point that some animators were uncomfortable creating.

The studio has seen a number of high-level departures

Over the past few years, Square Enix has become increasingly concerned with the status of the game, now half a decade into development. A source says Eidos Montreal turned to a German investment firm for additional funds, something superiors within the studio claimed to be a common strategy in the industry and not cause for concern.

The current version of Thief barely resembles the initial concept, says a source. The vertical slice doesn't load inside Thief's current heavily modified version of Unreal Engine 3. Many programming tricks were necessary to run the current demonstration, like turning off non-playable character AI — the engine has trouble when too many characters are on screen.


Thief's development troubles come at a difficult time for Square Enix. This year, the company shipped 3.4 million copies of its Tomb Raider reboot, but failed to meet the company's expectations of 5 million to 6 million copies. Last year, the company's stealth-action game Hitman: Absolution and open-world crime game Sleeping Dogs also underperformed, despite selling millions of copies. For the fiscal year ending March 31, 2013, Square Enix originally predicted a net profit of 3.5 billion yen ($37 million), but recently expected to report a net loss of 13 billion yen ($138 million). In reaction to what the company called an "extraordinary loss," company president Yoichi Wada has stepped down and will be replaced by CFO Yosuke Matsuda in June.

The vertical slice no longer runs in the game's engine.

We were shown the long-in-development Thief demo at the Game Developers Conference last month, and noted both the game's impressive technology and curious design choices. Footage from the demo was originally intended to be shared with the public, but a source says those plans were recently scrapped due to internal unhappiness with the quality of the captured footage.

We've heard that Eidos will show the game publicly for the first time at this year's E3 in June.

Ed's Note: Half a year later we caught up with the team to discuss how things had changed.

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