From panels to pixels with Joe Madureira
Airship Syndicate CEO and creative director Joe Madureira reflects on his journey from Marvel Comics to launching Darksiders and now resurrecting his own comic series Battle Chasers in videogame form
[Interview originally published in games™ 188, June 2017]
So, to start off could you tell us a little about your background? We understand you got your start in comics at a pretty young age.
I was going to a high school in New York City called the High School of Art and Design and they had an internship program that you can do in your third year; your junior year. They had various publishers throughout the city and one of them was Marvel Comics – and DC actually – and because I was at the time so into comics and making up my own characters and stories and stuff, people were like “you gotta do this internship at Marvel Comics.” At that time I was planning on going to college and all this stuff, and I had to get my grades up, so the internship was really not a good idea for me, but I did it anyway. I just met a lot of editors and artists when I was working there and they would look at my work and gave me some little jobs like a back cover or pin-up or something. I was still in high school when my work was being published at Marvel and they said, “Whenever you graduate we’re going to hire you,” and I was like “sure.” It was all very surreal at the time and then sure enough after high school they gave me the Deadpool four-issue mini series. Not long after that I got on Uncanny X-Men, which was crazy to me. It was one of the books that I always followed as a child, no matter what artist or writer was on it. It was just the best. I did not feel worthy at all to follow in their footsteps. It was very surreal. I did X-Men for a while and then I left to do my own thing, Battle Chasers, and I did that for nine issues and then I got into the games industry.
Did starting the comics imprint label Cliffhanger with J. Scott Campbell and Humberto Ramos stem from a desire to be your own boss?
It was that, yes. It was the fact that I wanted to do a fantasy book and there wasn’t really a place for that at Marvel or any of the other publishers. They were doing Conan and stuff, but it wasn’t anything like the weird, anime, JRPG fantasy that I was into at the time. At some point, as a creator, you wonder, can I do this on my own? Rather than making money for other people, can I make money for myself doing this? And so it was an exciting time, because we were all doing our books at around the same time. It was actually Jim Lee who said, “Why don’t you guys all just release them at the same time under this imprint, Cliffhanger.” I mean, it took us forever to come up with that name, but the general idea was discussed pretty early on and it worked out. All of our books were pretty successful and it generated a lot of buzz. I actually just hung out with those two guys again in Mexico a few weeks ago for a Cliffhanger reunion panel. So that was pretty fun.
That would have been to mark the 20th anniversary?
Yeah. We’re never together in one place, so that was pretty rare and really cool.
Was getting into games always an ambition of yours or something that crept into your thinking over time?
It kind of crept in. I’ve played games since I got my Atari 2600 when I was five years old and I was always a huge gamer. I bought every console. I even had 3DO and Neo Geo, the weird ones, Jaguar too. So I was a huge gamer, but I never really thought about the job aspect of it. I never thought about who makes them or how or anything. I was just so into it and over the years I would meet, through doing comics, people who would be like, “This guy works at Disney and he wants to meet you and this guy works at Sony and they love Battle Chasers,” and it’s like, “What!? Weird. Really?” So I started to make contacts in the games industry and eventually I would talk to so many guys who said, “You have so many fans at the studio, you should work in the games industry,” and I thought, “Hmm, this is interesting.” And eventually there was just an opportunity that I couldn’t pass up. I had been doing comics for a decent amount of time at that point and I just wanted to do something new. So, I took the jump.
Again, was there an element of being in control of your own destiny and starting your own company rather than just taking contract work?
Yeah, but I would have done anything to work in the games industry at that point. I would do covers for PSM Magazine and that was the closest that I came. “A Metal Gear cover! A Resident Evil cover! What?” I was so excited to draw those characters and be somewhat touching on the games industry, so when I was able to get in, I would have taken a salaried job for sure as an artist anywhere. It just so happened that some guys that I knew were doing a startup and they were like, “Do you want to be our art director?” and I said yes. And that failed. But I managed to stay in the games industry and I did work as an employee. Whenever the opportunity presents itself to do a startup I always jump at it. I like being in at the beginning and I like building teams. All of that stuff is really exciting to me.
If it wasn’t for my career in comics I definitely wouldn’t have had those opportunities in the games industry. So, ironically people were like, “How could you leave comics for games?” and it is comics that opened that door to the gaming world for me.
In all of the years of Darksiders was the most common question that was fired at you “when are you bringing back Battle Chasers”?
Yes. I would get that all of the time. We would be doing press tours and someone in the audience would always be like, “When are you finishing Battle Chasers?” and the room would laugh. It was a thing. Strangely enough, now that we’re doing this, all people ask is “are you working on Darksiders 3?” and “when’s the next Darksiders?” The game was recently announced and I’m not on that development team, so people had strong reactions to that. It’s been pretty interesting. I don’t know what they’re going to ask me about now, once the game comes out. “Where’s the comic?” maybe. I’ve got to get on that.
“When are you going back to X-Men?” maybe?
We saw that you tweeted around the time that Darksiders 3 was announced in defence of the design of its lead character, Fury. Did you find the backlash to be strange?
I think that a lot of people that are reacting to her design are really reacting to the art direction. You can have three or four artists work off the same concept and they’ll do completely different things with it. So, usually it’s not just a matter of you do a drawing and hand it off, especially on Battle Chasers. I’ll work with the 3D artist pretty extensively. It’s like a back and forth, because once you see something in 3D it needs some fine-tuning. We’ll do paint-overs and things and rotate the model around. We’ll make changes after and so in that particular case, with Fury, I did just basically hand off the drawing and I didn’t see it again until I saw the game recently. I was like, “Oh, wow. That’s what she looks like.” I didn’t know how they were going to do the hair for instance. When you’re on a team and you’re actively working on something you can fine-tune it as you go and I was not involved in that part of the character’s creation. I can kind of see why people say “it doesn’t look like your stuff” and it is my stuff, under there, it’s just that I wasn’t as involved in it all of the way through like I was with the other horsemen. That might be it.
Was it a no-brainer that this would be the project to move onto next given how often it came up?
There were other ideas. I felt partially that because the series was so old that people would either not care or have a negative reaction to it, like, “Ugh, I want to see something new,” and I didn’t want it to feel like damaged goods or something because I had never finished the comic series. I felt for sure that people would be angry about it. So, I was a little hesitant and we did start taking a stab at creating a new fantasy world, but it had some technology and I was basically doing Battle Chasers again and I realised “maybe we should just do Battle Chasers”, because it has all of these elements already. It does have a following that’s pretty vocal that I see at every show that I go to. And as we would tell people about the project that we were working on, friends of the studio, that didn’t know what we were doing, they would say, “You guys are making a Battle Chasers game, right? It’s a no-brainer. You have to.” And we were like, “Damn it! Why does everyone keep saying that? I guess we should.” So, when we announced it and it got the support that it did it was a huge relief. Now I’m really glad that we did. It’s so fun working on these characters again. But at first I was pretty nervous about it.
What was the whole Kickstarter process like for you?
It was so nerve-wracking. It was so stressful. The month leading up to it and then that whole month after. With Kickstarter you blow up the first couple of days and then it just goes down and it’s stuck in that trough for weeks. There’s no movement and we thought, “What’s going on?”
How did you find managing the campaign, in terms of creating a gameplay demo, managing rewards and keeping things updated? Some developers find it hard.
People tend to overdo it too. You’ll do anything for a pledge so you’ll offer all kinds of stuff and then you’ll have to fulfill it at the end. Luckily we had some friends that had done them. We talked to guys like Redhook who did Darkest Dungeon, the Banner Saga guys, so we had friends that warned us: “Don’t do this, do that. Not this!” And so even with all of the warnings, it is a huge time constraint. We had a very small team at that time; only four or five people. It took, probably, two people out of commission almost full-time for a straight month, just getting everything set up and getting the art for the page and all of that. And like you said, we did have a playable chunk of the game so we could show actual footage, which helped a lot. It wasn’t just a concept of “look how cool this could be.” I really think it is important to have something to show of the actual game, not smoke and mirrors. I think that helped us a lot too.
When THQ Nordic came onboard as publisher, did you experience any backlash about that from Kickstarter backers?
We were worried about it, actually, how it would be perceived, but I think because we pretty clearly explained what was going to come of that and why, and what we were going to be able to add to the game, because of their involvement, people were like, “Cool. More stuff!” There might have been a couple of angry people, but it was not a backlash at all. It was more like, “Cool, the game is going to be even bigger and give more stuff.”
How much of the Battle Chasers world was already there and planned from the comics before heading into Nightwar?
Pretty much the only thing that has carried over from the comics are the heroes. The world itself, it’s deliberately a side adventure that’s in an area that I’ve never mentioned in the comics before. It’s completely off on its own, so all of that stuff was developed just for the game, but the heroes are ones that you know from the comics. There are some strange gamey modifications that we had to make, like Gully has the most powerful gauntlets ever from her father, but then you can get weapon upgrades from the store that are better [laughs]. Stuff like that. Or you’ll get a rusty broadsword that has higher stats than Garrison’s legendary blade. Although we do something cool with those weapons later on in the end game, so they do become important. There’s just gamey stuff like that you’re like, “Why is Calibretto the healer? He has big guns! This doesn’t make sense.” But you need the combat roles. Luckily I’m a pretty easy IP holder. “Approved!” “Is Gully going to wear new gloves? That doesn’t make sense.” “Yeah, whatever, we’ll just do it.” It’s good for the game.
How did you ultimately settle on the genre and style of game, a turn-based RPG?
First of all, we’re all just fans of RPGs. It’s one of our favourites. I would say that RPGs and Metroidvania games are the two we knew we had to do one of. Because of our team size we definitely wanted to keep the studio pretty small and especially at the beginning, we didn’t have a choice. We just had the people we had. You can make a really good turn-based game with really high production values much more easily than you can make an action game, especially if it’s party based. We have three playable heroes, so if it were an action game it would be really different. It would have probably focused more on a single character and it’s just way, way more expensive. It helped us scale the game to what it is now. Scoping things is one of the hardest challenges. When we initially pitched Darksiders way back in the day, the first concept was that it would be a four-player co-op, third-person action game, and luckily THQ said, “Erm, you guys, if you make one fun character you’ll be lucky. Stop being crazy.” We were a new studio and we were still building the team and the technology, so that was a good call in hindsight. We didn’t know; we just wanted to make the craziest thing ever and we were way over-scoping. That was something that we’ve learned over the years. If you scope beyond what you can do, well, it’s just a mess.
What has it been like being able to see the characters you created all that time ago be fully explored and show off everything they can do on screen where they couldn’t on the page?
Yeah, it’s been so surreal. There’s stuff that I just never even thought about. Like, what is that “Hmmzzt” thing that Calibretto says? What does that sounds like, when he talks? Does he have an accent? Does Knolan have a British accent or does he speak like an American? It’s weird, because the voices that I’ve heard in my head are like [pointing] American, American, British for some strange reason. And just how they move and how quickly does Garrison attack? Is he kind of like a ninja with quick slashes or is his sword really heavy and big? It’s just, wow, I just draw him slashing stuff, but now I have to think about all these things. It was really interesting. What does Gully’s voice sound like? It’s been crazy. I love it.
Now that you’ve got Battle Chasers happening and it’s coming together, are you even beginning to think about the future and your hopes for the studio?
We have and we are. We’re already planning the next thing because, as a game is wrapping, the next thing needs to start rolling for people to move onto. It’s very exciting. There are a couple of different things we’re looking at. One scenario is if Battle Chasers does really well, what is that going to lead to? How is that going to affect our plans? People have asked, will there be a sequel or add-ons? And it really is very dependent on how the game does. That’s the X-factor and then aside from that we do have our plans we can’t talk about yet. I’ll just say, we’re excited about the next thing.