38 Studios: Requiem for a Lost Virtual World

by Wolfshead on June 30, 2012

The recent drama and subsequent bankruptcy of Curt Schilling’s 38 Studios has haunted me these past few weeks. Although I was just a bystander, I was living somewhat vicariously through Curt and his dreams to create a revolutionary fantasy virtual world. With his celebrity status, myriad of connections and considerable wealth, I figured if someone could make my perfect MMO it would most likely be Curt.

When it all came crashing down, the not only did the dreams of Curt and his employees end, it had the side effect of forcing me to confront my own dreams of creating a MMO. Most game designer have a secret video game project that they guard in their heart of hearts; designing a MMO was mine. It is these dreams that are the inspirational fuel that keeps us going when we are involved in video game projects we don’t particularly like.

What happened to 38 Studios was a jolting reality check for all aspiring MMO developers because it forced us all to ask a crucial question:

If a multi-millionaire celebrity with all of his resources and hired talent can’t even finish a MMO after spending over $150 million dollars, realistically, what hope is there for the rest of us who share similar dreams?

MMO Dreams

Since becoming an avid player of MMORPG’s like EverQuest, I have had a dream to make my own virtual fantasy world. Creating things was more enjoyable than playing things. When I played EQ I would always marvel at how things worked behind the scenes. There was always something vocational about wanting to create a living breathing world albeit virtual.

When I would take the Bartle test I would get scores that were similar to other virtual world creators such as Raph Koster. I felt that my aptitude and dreams were in good company.

While I was never quite satisfied with the virtual worlds I had experienced; I saw immense potential in the genre and wanted more. I always knew I could do better job.

Dissatisfaction Fuels Innovation

Often, it is that nagging dissatisfaction that is the wellspring of inspiration that fuels many new business startups that creates the new products that saturate our culture. Starbucks found a way to elevate a simple cup of coffee into a cultural experience. Other companies have taken similar simple concepts and transformed them into something special and unique. Who could ever imagine that a simple web interface that enables friends to “like” and “share” would create a multi-billion dollar company with 900 million users like Facebook?

For many of us who believed that revolutionary virtual worlds like Ultima Online and EverQuest could be improved upon and taken to the next level, it was only natural to put our faith in the vision of fellow travelers like Curt Schilling and R.A. Salvatore. If World of Warcraft took EverQuest to the next level of polish, then 38 Studios could take EverQuest to the next level using a different tangent with community and a dynamic virtual world as its goal.

At least that is what we thought…

But the dream is over for 38 Studios. While the assets could be purchased by another MMO company, without R.A. Salvatore on board and without former 38 Studios employees to decipher them, it’s hard to believe that the world of Amalur could ever be authentically salvaged. Assets lack meaning, without a specific design and purpose behind them. A highly prized musical instrument like a Stradivarius violin cannot play itself.

So all we are left with is the aftermath of failure. What can we learn to prevent future disasters?

The 38 Studios Spouse Speaks Out

The MMO industry is a small world. People who work there dare not speak out against former employers lest they get blacklisted by future employers. It’s doubtful that many ex-38 Studios will ever come forward and tell the truth about what happened for fear of never working again in this industry. So it is left to spouses to come foward and expose the seedy underbelly of an industry that often abuses its employees by treating them like slaves and making them work endless 16 hour days and weekends. Welcome to the glamorous video game industry!

Enter the 38 Studios spouse who put a human face on the disaster that impacted the families of 38 Studios employees with a heart wrenching tale.

Like the 38 Studios spouse, some days I feel angry at Curt Schilling and other days I feel empathy for him. The fact that he didn’t pay his employees and left them in the dark was deplorable and appalling. Countless articles have been written attacking Curt in the past month for his inadequacies and failures. I can’t think of anyone that has been attacked so viciously for failing.

Live By the Sword and Die by the Sword

Given Curt’s outspoken opinions and bravado, many have relished the day when Curt would fail. I must admit there were days that I was wishing for him to fall on his ass due to his over-confident nature. Nothing exemplifies the 38 Studios cockiness better than the outrageous “World Domination Through Gaming” slogan that seems so pathetic and laughable in retrospect.

However, the attacks on his Christian faith and his conservative politics — which have nothing to do with this issue — are reprehensible. Remove the overblown baseball personality from the equation and Curt seems like a genuinely good and decent person that valued his employees and did much to help various charities and causes. His employees seemed to really admire him — even after the company declared bankruptcy. And it’s easy to see why when you consider Curt spent 6 years of his life and lost most of his personal fortune with 38 Studios.

Businesses fail every day and it should not be crime for a business to fail.

On 38 Studio’s Inept Marketing and Bizarre Public Events

One thing that always troubled me about Curt as a MMO impresario was that he had an insatiable and near pathological desire for attention. He seemed like a modern-day incarnation of self-promoter P.T. Barnum and loved to bask in the spotlight. I always used to bristle that no matter where you saw Curt he would talk incessantly about the caliber of the team at 38 Studios but would never release details about the MMO or even its name. Even the members of his team behaved the same way with excessive and dubious appearances and interviews at trade shows, conventions and colleges.

For someone who had nothing to show, he sure had a lot to say. I was not the only person that was puzzled by this bizarre behavior on the part of Curt and some of his staff at 38 Studios. Jeff Holis has penned an outstanding article at TORWARS chronicling the strange public relations approach used by the studio.

Unfortunately, there were some odd problems from the very beginning.  At the highest levels, management at 38 Studios was very unorthodox. The management principles of 38 Studios, at least the ones that the public could see, were noticeably different from other, more established studios. In fact, the studio appeared to focus on conveying three messages to the public. One, embarrassingly unprofessional, attention-seeking behaviors are perfectly acceptable forms of PR. Two, the public will be very interested to know how really, really cool it is to work at 38 Studios. Three, 38 Studios is not going to tell you jack about the game, even after six years.

Jeff goes on to comment in great detail about other perplexing public appearances by Curt and his team. There is no doubt in my mind, that when all is said and done, the blundering of Curt and the leadership of 38 Studios were a big part of the failure of their company.

Curt Talks

Curt finally broke his long silence in recent interview with The Denis & Callahan Morning show on Boston Radio station WEEI on June 22, 2012. It’s about time, considering the field day commentators and pundits have had without any rebuttal from 38 Studios. At last Curt gave his own account of what happened and what went wrong. The biggest reason for the failure of 38 Studios is that they failed get anyone to invest in their MMO project:

Curt Schilling: We did not raise private capital.

This might partly explain why Curt felt he had to maintain such a ubiquitous public persona appearing at multiple gaming conventions and trade shows. He was probably trying to attract investors by creating a hyper awareness of his company by leveraging his sports celebrity status. It’s just too bad he had nothing to promote except himself.


Perhaps seasoned investors knew that Curt and his team lacked credibility. This might explain why 38 Studios purchased Big Huge Games as a way to instantly increase their credibility with a product (Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning) they could easily reskin and ship.

Perhaps he didn’t have enough of the cutthroat nature that is required to be successful in business. Curt was just too nice and didn’t demand enough accountability and productivity from his employees. It’s truly mind-boggling that after 6 years, 38 Studios could not produce a MMO for the $150 million that they spent. Consider that Blizzard spent $63 million to create WoW in only 4 years.

Dancing with the Devil

If he is guilty of anything it is that he wanted his dream to succeed at all costs and made a deal with the devil in the form of the government of Rhode Island. The devil is a cruel taskmaster. Curt even alluded to the EDC acting in bad faith during his recent WEEI interview:

Curt Schilling: Somebody is doing something very evil here….they (EDC) were playing a poker game…the representative at EDC hung the phone up.

After listening to the interview on WEEI, it becomes clear that in Curt’s mind, Governor Chafee and the EDC decided to sabotage 38 Studios for political reasons. From what I know about politics and the culture of Rhode Island I am not surprised in the least. Someday the truth will come out.

Further Research: For those wanting to glean some useful insight on how Rhode Island government works with systemic corruption and backroom deals, I invite you to watch the acclaimed Showtime series The Brotherhood written by New England raised Blake Masters. It’s all about the fictional struggles of a modern Irish American family — one brother is a politician; the other brother is a gangster. Watch episode 4 and you’ll see how “tax credits” (a big part of the 38 Studios story) play a huge role as the “juice” on how things get done in Rhode Island. Too bad Curt didn’t watch the series and learn these lessons.

Curt the Optimist

In his defense, Curt seemed very positive at a recent PaxEast panel in March of 2012. Till the end, it seemed he was a true believer in Copernicus MMO. This is hardly the demeanor of someone who knew the company was doomed. If he did know it, then there would be no reason for him to waste his time there.

There are many theories of how and why 38 Studios failed. Some claim that Curt was too stubborn and he could not get investors because he didn’t want to give away ownership in his company.  My best guess is that at some point the numbers just didn’t add up but he kept making gamble after gamble hoping that new money would come in to pay the $4 million dollar monthly expenses of keeping 38 Studios going.

Curt was all in.

In the end, it was the employees and their families who suffered the most with cancelled health insurance, unpaid wages and other problems as Curt’s heroic gamble failed. To learn more about Curt’s tragic character flaw, check out former 38 Studios Creative Director Steve Danuser’s latest article.

Perfect is the Enemy of Good

There are so many ways to fail at making a MMO and precious few ways to succeed. 38 Studios seemed to have the bases of failure loaded.

Many have theorized that “feature creep” killed Copernicus MMO. Feature creep (when you keep adding new features to a video game without accounting for how you will produce them and how much time it takes to integrate them)  has killed many video games and is a common newbie game designer mistake.

Andrew Dobbs replying to Steve Danuser’s recent article on 38 Studios said it best:

If we had played to get on base instead of swinging for the fences, we wouldn’t have struck out.

Well said. Too bad that 38 Studios didn’t have the kind of open culture where somebody like Andrew could speak up and have the management listen. How many times have we heard of similar stories where the workers in the trenches knew what the problems are but the insular people at the top refused to listen?

Old 38 Studios Videos

Here are two old video gems from the IGDA 2008 Leadership Forum. The first is Curt Schilling’s Leadership in the Game Space talk. The second is Studios Heads on the Hotseat which features future 38 Studios CEO Jen MacLean (she is drinking wine in the video and this caused a bit of controversy given the “quality of life” issues that were in the news at the time) and then current CEO Brett Close.

Now that 38 Studios has gone bankrupt, going back and listening to old interviews with Curt Schilling and other team members is painful. It seemed they spent more time talking about their qualifications and MMO than actually making their MMO. Walking the walk is much harder than talking the talk.

38 Studios: The Book?

I hope someday the truth will come out about what really happened to Curt Schilling and 38 Studios in the form of a book. This book would have it all: celebrity, political corruption, misdeeds, nepotism, favoritism, incompetent executives, office drama, betrayed employees — you can’t make this kind of stuff up.

The video game industry needs a proper post-mortem analysis of arguably one of the most tragic and disastrous events of its short and colorful history. If anything can be salvaged from this fiasco it should be that valuable lessons can be taught in business and design schools as a warning to future travelers embarking on similar bold and risky ventures.

I think the best candidate for writing such a book is Steve Danuser. He was there with Curt from the beginning and was his first hire back when 38 Studios was called Green Monster Games. With his English degree and writing skills, he seems uniquely qualified for such a task. Once enough time has elapsed and he has distanced himself from the aura of Curt’s influence, I think he could offer the world with a rare insight into Curt Schilling and what really happened at 38 Studios. Nobody would blame him for taking on such a valuable and cathartic task.

Plaza of Broken Dreams

During a recent trip to the East Coast of the U.S.A., I happened to be in Providence, Rhode Island. While staying there, I figured I’d visit the 38 Studios headquarters. It was only a few minutes walk from the Hilton Hotel (apparently according to the bankruptcy 38 Studios owes the Hilton in Providence money). When we arrived at the green ivy adorned entrance of One Empire Street, all we found was a security guard, some chalk scribbling on the adjacent courtyard where the “occupy 38 studios” demonstration was held the night before.

Standing there on that sweltering June day, I tried to imagine what it must have been like to walk through those doors everyday thinking that you were involved with a MMO that would make history. I wondered how many hopes and dreams that building used to house only to vanish into the mists of time when the money ran out.

The starkness and the silence was sobering. No flowers, no candles, no vigils, no shrine, no monument, no epitaph to what once was 38 Studios.

Epilogue

One of the hidden tragedies in all of this is that an unknown and still unnamed virtual world that consumed the creative life force of hundreds of employees working 6 years will probably be lost. This loss is more common than is generally known to the public as often video game projects just run out of funding or are cancelled for other reasons. How many other fantasy worlds that live in the minds of their creators are conceived but never born?

Let’s not forget the loss for the fans and the fan web sites. Although not as tragic as the loss for the families, the impact of Copernicus MMO being shelved has affected many of the faithful cheering silently on the sidelines. It’s such a shame that Curt and his merry band of top talent never bothered to share anything substantial with their fans. A highly motivated fan base could have made all the difference in the world but 38 Studios chose to disrespect their fans by not including them.

If there are any silver linings in all of this, it is this: the failure of 38 Studios’s Copernicus has given me a strange new appreciation for existing MMOs due to the fact that somehow they came into being from sheer force of will and many thousands of hours of intensive labor. Like baby turtles born on the Galapagos Islands, virtual worlds are delicate organisms and many if not most will die.

As I mentioned in my previous article (incidentally released before some of the big players in the MMO blogosphere echoed similar sentiments), I think the days of the big budget AAA+ MMO are over. The decline of the current MMO let’s make another World of Warcraft paradigm is clear for all to see. Perhaps someday the cost of creating a MMO will decrease and democratize to the point that someone with the imagination of J.K. Rowling can create a virtual world without having to spend hundreds of millions of dollars.

I used to think there would someday be a great MMO that would come on the scene that would dethrone World of Warcraft and get this genre back on a righteous track. I no longer believe it will happen anytime soon. I think the entire banal MMO industry will slowly slide into obscurity and oblivion. Thanks to the clever money men in suits, MMOs have lost their distinctiveness and have become McHappy Meal pedestrian fare. This is what happens when something you love becomes a fad; you can kiss it goodbye.

Goodbye Copernicus, we hardly knew you.

-Wolfshead

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