Inside PlayMagic, the Studio Behind the Disastrous XIII Remake

On November 13th 2020, publisher Microids and developer PlayMagic put out a statement apologizing for their recent remake of XIIIFans had been eagerly anticipating the remake of Ubisoft Paris’s cult first-person-shooter — itself based on a Belgian graphic novel of the same name. But when it launched, frustrated players took to social media to voice their dissatisfaction, criticizing the game’s bugs and disappointing downgrades from the original. In their joint statement, PlayMagic and Microids blamed the pandemic and working from home for the poor quality of the game at launch. However, former PlayMagic employees claim there were other issues going on behind the scenes. 

Commenting anonymously to avoid retaliation from PlayMagic, these employees told me that XIII’s development suffered from poor project management, a lack of staff, and low morale due to a toxic company culture. They claimed these issues went beyond just XIII, saying that staff at PlayMagic regularly crunched to hit milestones on work-for-hire projects, frequently butted heads with the CEO and creative director Giuseppe Crugliano, and often struggled to pay bills due to late payments from the developer. In order for things to improve at PlayMagic, they argue, Crugliano needs to delegate more, be realistic about the scope of the projects he takes on, and better safeguard his employees from the company’s ups and downs. 

Responding to these allegations over a call, Crugliano denied that PlayMagic had a toxic culture. He admitted to a problem with late payments, but claimed they were the result of cash flow problems from project cancellations and unpaid fees from clients. He also argued that staff at PlayMagic rarely worked additional hours, but several of his former employees have disagreed.


The Mobile VR Project

From May 2016 to June 2018, PlayMagic worked on a mobile VR adaptation of 4A Games’ first-person sci-fi shooter Arktika.1 for Oculus Go and Gear VR — a game that casts the player as a survivor scavenging in the aftermath of a new ice age. My sources say this project experienced many of the same issues as the XIII remake, with staff working overtime to hit “unrealistic” milestones. 

PlayMagic allegedly dedicated little time to pre-production or planning, despite the technical challenges of working in VR, and the team on the project consisted mostly of interns and juniors. Some more experienced developers joined the studio in 2017, but by this point, many saw the game as “a house of cards,” arguing that poor decision-making early on had led to constant changes to try and salvage it. 

One former employee told me, “It was always the same situation — working with inexperienced people. Those that would join with a little bit more experience were very frustrated because of the fact he [Crugliano] would make unrealistic promises to publishers… we were just lying to clients. That was the reality.”

Former PlayMagic staff told me they spent late nights testing and fixing the game. They say that Crugliano presented overtime to them as optional, but that most of the staff felt they had no choice but to do it, due to the company having to hit milestones in order to pay out salaries. As a result, some recall barely seeing their friends and family during this period. PlayMagic offered a one-off fee as compensation for overtime, but those I spoke to said it was not reflective of the hours worked and was conditional upon hitting milestones. 

“Every month we had to achieve milestones so the company would get paid — so crunch and overtime was a norm,” says one former employee. “At peak we were doing 100+ hours a week — I think my record was around 120. With every single delivery on Fridays, we were often up until midnight and very often till 1-2 AM fighting with bugs or design changes.” 

“We were working late at night every day, including weekends,” says another former employee. “I remember at one time we were working until two in the morning at the office trying to fix issues. You hear this a lot in game development. That wasn’t the biggest issue. The issue was Giuseppe was [manipulating people into doing that]. Every day. Without any real planning. The way he was tricking people into working more was by not paying them on time.” 

Crugliano denied forcing anyone to do overtime, but told me: “We never had commercial control. We never had PR control or marketing control. This is work-for-hire. We had to obey to a contract, reach milestones, or not getting paid means closed business.”

He later added, “We are not Team17, we are not EA, we are an independent developer… and if you have only one client and this client doesn’t pay you, then you have trouble. If a team doesn’t deliver or fails a milestone, there are consequences. Things may happen, and we try to fix these things as best as possible, because it would be bad for every entrepreneur to treat badly the team.”


One Step Forward, Two Steps Back

PlayMagic hired studio director Jim Brown (formerly of Codemasters and Codemasters Malta) in February 2018 to address some of these issues. Former employees claim PlayMagic made the decision to bring Arktika.1 back on track with the publisher and get salary payments under control. But they say it only led to some temporary improvements within the company. 

“[The studio director] was hindered and not able to work at full-capacity because Giuseppe had the final say,” says one former employee. “Project times. Project budgets. Salary payments. And on and on and on. In my opinion, Giuseppe would have been happier offloading a lot of the work to other people to then just lay back and enjoy the good results… but he never delegated and that caused problems.”

In June 2018, 4A Games cancelled the port, allegedly over disagreements regarding its progress. Former PlayMagic employees remember working on Arktika.1 as one of the most difficult periods of the company’s history, due to the late payments, late nights, and high employee turnover. When I spoke to Crugliano, he confirmed that there were late payments from July 2018 to October 2018 and admitted that prior to putting together his current team the running of the company wasn’t the smoothest. But he believes these issues are now a thing of the past with his current team.

“We are in a much better position to mitigate the risk,” says Crugliano. “We’re trying to make things better, and we’re trying to improve things as much as we can. We don’t have the power of a big company. So you know, it’s a start-up essentially with all the ups and downs. We’re still here. We went through the storm. I have people that went through the storm. We went together. We made it together. And it’s been like four or five years.” 

Crugliano referenced the shared sacrifices the team had to make together, and argued that he doesn’t treat his employees as “resources”, allegedly offering them help in times of need. However, former employees were critical of PlayMagic’s “family” mentality. They say that those who left the studio were often criticized, with Crugliano referring to them internally as “quitters”.

“It was always the typical conversation of ‘We are a family here, I’m so proud of our family, and my hustlers,’” one source told me. “There was a time where people were leaving and [Giuseppe] was like, ‘They’re quitters, you guys are the real hustlers, I trust you’. There was always like a dangling carrot in front of everyone. Always. Constantly. Like after we reach this point, we will update salaries and everyone will be getting a raise. Or after this, everything is going to be okay. Then we’d reach that point and the goalposts would be moved.” 

From Remaster to Remake

In October 2018, PlayMagic began talks with the French publisher Microids to make a remaster of Ubisoft Paris’s cult shooter XIII, for Xbox One, PlayStation 4, Nintendo Switch, and PC. XIII follows the exploits of an amnesiac character who is searching for answers after waking up on Brighton Beach in New York. With only a bank deposit key and a tattoo of the roman numerals “XIII” to go on, the character must evade a mysterious group of hitmen working for a figure called the Mongoose, and find out more about his past. Though XIII got middling reviews when it first released in 2003, it has gained somewhat of a cult following in the years since. 

According to my sources, Crugliano initially only wanted to remaster the original game in three months using Unity plug-ins. But soon it became clear that the team at PlayMagic didn’t have access to anything beyond PNG files for the UI and the original audio recordings. Three months became six months, which became a year, with the project gradually changing scope to a full-blown remake. Many of my sources claim PlayMagic was ill-equipped to handle these changes. 

“A lot of people left after the VR project, and we started XIII with just a small number of people,” says one former employee. “We did more pre-production that time with XIII, but it was pretty fast pre-production. At the start, [Giuseppe] wanted us to find ways to get the original assets from the game. We couldn’t do it. The engine was too old. So the project transformed from a remaster to a remake as the contract wasn’t set in stone.”

This change in scope forced PlayMagic to make one of the most controversial decisions of the project. Rather than try and match the comic-book look of the predecessor, with its thick marker-like outline and flat-shading, the game opted for stylized 3D models that fans and critics have disparagingly compared to Fortnite. Some characters from the original game also underwent controversial redesigns, which were intended to bring the characters closer to their appearance from the comic book.

It wasn’t just the character designs that were redone, however. PlayMagic also had to remake levels, assets, cutscenes, and animations. As a result, Crugliano needed to scale up the team dramatically during production, hiring new staff and outsourcing different disciplines to external studios. Sources, for instance, told me that the production started with no character animators, and that it wasn’t until more than halfway into the development schedule that some eventually joined the project. Crugliano allegedly told the team the reason it was difficult to hire new people was the struggle of getting them to move to Malta. But various former employees and recruiters told me that Crugliano had been blacklisted from recruitment agencies for non-payment, a claim which he disputes. 

On April 19, 2019, Microids and PlayMagic released the official teaser trailer for the XIII remake. This short clip showed a recreation of the presidential assassination from the opening of the original game, as well as vignettes of other memorable scenes. At the end, the teaser gave a release date, November 13, 2019, but behind the scenes the game was still nowhere close to being done.  

“One of the biggest mistakes was the announcement that was on the teaser trailer,” says a former PlayMagic employee. “Putting that date there was what killed the project. We were given an extension of a year because there was no way we could reach the date that was set on the teaser trailer. We were not even halfway through the game just trying to make all the props, all the levels, all the code from scratch. Everything was made from scratch. And of course, when that date kept coming closer and closer, they released a statement delaying the release until November 2020.” 

In this statement, released in August 2019, Microids’ head of production Francois Coulon justified this additional time by saying: “We are thrilled with PlayMagic’s work so far. This additional development time is needed to reach the level of polish we’re aiming for.” But former PlayMagic employees claim this statement was misleading about the progress of the project, which was still nowhere near finished. I reached out to Microids for comment, but did not receive a reply by the time of publication.  


A Tale of Two Timelines 

Given the pressures, you might think it was all hands on deck to get XIII made. But in December 2019, eagle-eyed players spotted another game on the PlayMagic CEO’s LinkedIn page: a “Disney’s IP action game remake for Xbox One, PS4, Nintendo Switch, PC, Mac”. Many publications assumed this project was an Epic Mickey remake, due to the mention of Disney, but according to former staff it was actually a remake of Stubbs the Zombie for the publisher Aspyr. Multiple former staff members told me that they couldn’t believe PlayMagic had taken on another project, especially given the troubles they were having with XIII and the lack of personnel.  

“We got this new project out of nowhere,” said one of me sources. “We did design, prototypes, and we started the first few milestones. Everyone received a paper on their desk with both timelines for the releases. Of both projects. And they were overworking completely. We were already short-staffed on XIII, and then like three or four people go to another project to work just to get a few milestones and get the money.”

According to another source, PlayMagic didn’t get to work too long on the Stubbs remake.  

“We did one working level and the publisher was not pleased by the progress over time, because we were also working on XIII,” a former employee told me. “Management expected us to work on two or maybe three projects, because at the same time we did another mini game. We would switch between these three projects. They were expecting everything to go okay, but people were doing tons of overtime.” 

Aspyr eventually cancelled the remake after roughly half a year of work, deciding to release a port of the game themselves on modern consoles instead. PlayMagic, meanwhile, continued development on XIII, racing against the clock to get the animations and the cinematics finished with the help of outsourcing companies and some new hires. 

“We had no time on XIII,” one source tells me. “At the end of the game, we were really near to the release and there was like paper on the wall with all the percentage of how complete or incomplete things were. Cinematics and animation were all red [and incomplete].” 

To add to this workload, PlayMagic also had no dedicated QA department, with the leadership expecting programmers to test the code themselves. Microids supplied some additional testers, but former PlayMagic employees claim they needed more resources in order to properly fix the issues that emerged. 

On November 10th, 2020, PlayMagic and Microids released XIII on Xbox One, PlayStation 4, and PC to terrible reviews. Critics savaged the game, tearing into the glitches and the changes from the original. Some told their audience to simply avoid it outright and others claimed it was one of the worst games they had ever played. The game did so poorly that, according to the UK Digital Charts, the original game actually sold more copies than the remake (first spotted by Game Industry.Biz’s Christopher Dring). It also now sits at an aggregate rating of “overwhelmingly negative” on Steam based on user reviews. Some of the developers are just as devastated as the players for what happened and also believe they deserved better from PlayMagic. 

“Reading through what they were writing was kind of painful,” says one former employee. “They were lied to. They were expecting a polished remake of a game they loved for years. You’d expect the fans to be treated properly — especially such a hardcore fandom of a seventeen-year-old game.”

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What Happened Next

After XIII released, over a quarter of the credited staff who worked on it left PlayMagic. Microids and PlayMagic released a number of updates to try and address the most severe issues, but eventually the two came to terms on a way to end their working relationship. Microids have since been silent about the fate of the planned Nintendo Switch port and talks of a potential PlayMagic sequel to address XIII’s cliffhanger ending have also been dropped. According to my sources, PlayMagic is now working on other work-for-hire projects, as well as trying to develop its own original IP. 

Some of the employees who left PlayMagic, meanwhile, claim to have received harassment from their former employer. They say they’ve received threatening messages regarding their future in the industry, allegations about their behavior at the company, and remarks to their current employers.

“[Giuseppe] actually contacted my new employer basically saying a lot of bad things about me for the simple reason that I left the company,” one former employee told me. “There was another guy who [left] and the day after he went to the new studio, he said ‘Why are you hiring this guy? He’s no good.’ That’s one of the reasons why I think people are actually scared of leaving.”

“When he was contacting me, it was like ‘I know your boss, I know everyone, I’m very well connected in this industry, you are just starting’,” says another source. 

When I asked Crugliano about these messages, he said he was responding to people who had been trying to poach his staff and who had been badmouthing the company since leaving on anonymous websites like Glassdoor. He argues that these people were likely upset over not receiving promotions or salaries, and are now misleading people about their time at the company. 

“Because they didn’t get a promotion, because they didn’t get their salary, everything was personal,” he tells me. “Some people probably see me — there’s some cultural things, some cultural bias. It’s like you see your employers as the capitalist enemy who exploit you, instead of seeing… the sacrifices you do to get where I’m now with PlayMagic, or what I went through. I started this company with one Mac. I left Italy with just a few thousands Euros in my pocket, with my wife, with my daughter, and my cat.”

He told me that the future of PlayMagic was now stable and that employees were happy at the company. He also invited me to talk to his current staff and studio director Jim Brown in order to prove this, and even described a potential revenue sharing scheme that he would be introducing to better reward employees in the future. However, two days after our conversation ended, Crugliano sent me an email threatening to take legal action if I was to go ahead with an article about these allegations. 

Those who spoke to me about their grievances with the company say that their intention in speaking to the press isn’t to damage PlayMagic — they only want to ensure that PlayMagic’s culture improves and becomes a more stable workplace. In order to achieve this, they believe that PlayMagic needs to become more realistic about what they can achieve with the resources they have. And crucially, Crugliano needs to get better at protecting his employees against project cancellations and late payments.