Jul 14, 2022 - Technology

Scoop: Unearthing Knights of Decayden, a long lost Xbox exclusive

Axios has rediscovered a long-lost exclusive release for the original Xbox, which was developed by the team behind a series of acclaimed Star Wars games and quietly canceled by Microsoft two decades ago.

Why it matters: Knights of Decayden (sometimes spelled as Decadyn) has been largely unknown to the public until now and helps highlight a hidden part of early Xbox history.

Details: The game went by many names, including Knights of Utu, when it was pitched in 2000 to Sony as a PlayStation 2 game.

  • It was then called Archipelago early in its development at Xbox, where the name was changed to Knights of Decayden.
  • The team behind it, Totally Games, was best known for Star Wars: X-Wing and a series of sequels.
  • Decayden also focused on flight combat but set in an original fantasy world.

Trading X-Wings for flying beasts: Players controlled a knight on a flying seahorse and engaged in ranged combat against other knights and monsters, lance-based slow-motion jousting and diving underwater to fight sea creatures.

  • From the pitch to Sony: “​​Imagine jousting high in the air amid skyscraper-like islands soaring above a sparkling sea.”
  • Plans called for a single-player story mode and multiplayer.

Alternate history: Decayden was to be an Xbox exclusive, releasing within a year of the system’s late 2001 launch.

  • It would be a signature release from an operation called Studio X that focused on partnerships between Microsoft and outside game teams.
  • Instead, it was canceled in early 2002, an early casualty in Microsoft’s effort to enter the console market and create games to rival the output of PlayStation, Nintendo and Sega.

What they’re saying: Totally Games founder Larry Holland remembers the project as “incredibly ambitious and sort of foolish in equal measures.”

  • Holland said the process of creating a brand new world and crafting unique flight combat proved overwhelming.
  • Worse, though, was a time crunch. “I agreed to a very aggressive schedule,” he said, “probably more for financial reasons and to keep my organization and company not having to lay off a bunch of people.”
  • That put the team perpetually in a squeeze, while trying to please early Microsoft game managers who Holland said didn’t have much experience trusting developers. (One boss, he recalled, had previously managed the Excel spreadsheet program.)

No surprise: Holland acknowledges that the game was still rough when it was canceled in early 2002.

  • “We hadn’t ironed out all of the issues with regard to scale and speed and melee.”
  • He described the cancellation as “demoralizing” but expected: “I learned a lot about what to attempt and what not to in terms of sort of risk-taking and at least balancing the risk-taking with the schedule.”

Today’s spotlight on Knights of Decayden exists because of a passing remark from longtime Microsoft gaming executive Phil Spencer.

First hints: Spencer walked Axios through his career at Xbox for our profile of him, and noted that the first assignment he had when he joined the Xbox gaming team was to “cancel Larry Holland’s game.”

  • In 2001, Xbox executives had tapped the enterprising Spencer, who was already a Microsoft veteran and known gamer, to oversee Studio X.
  • He didn’t know Holland and hadn’t canceled a game before.
  • During our interview, Spencer briefly uttered the name “Knights of Decayden,” but didn’t spell it. A Microsoft PR person spelled the game’s last word as “Decadyn.”

Chasing it down: There is barely any information online about the game.

  • When we searched “Knights of Decadyn” after the Spencer chat, it returned a single result in Google in the signature of a user posting to an Xbox forum in May 2002. The user listed the game as one of dozens of “sweet upcoming Xbox games.”
  • Weeks after our Spencer interview, Holland, who now designs games for Asylum Labs, happily shared more details with Axios. He revealed that he’s awash in notes and files from his decades of game development and even had an executable for Dacayden but hadn’t been able to run it yet.
  • He sent over a pitch document, talked about the game in detail and shared a video. “Technology has advanced quite a bit,” he said after screening it again.

One previous glimpse: In 2009, the game was added to a compendium of canceled games called Unseen 64, under the spelling Knights of Decayden.

  • The listing includes a few pieces of concept art scraped from artists’ online portfolios, a logo and several vague screenshots.

The bottom line: As Holland put it to Axios: “We're probably the only two people in the last two decades to talk about this.”

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