Companies close. People are laid off. Families are displaced. Careers are lost. With all of capitalism’s successes, there is a dark side to failure that can affect us all in ways that are incredibly intimate. It’s simply part of the game. In 2006, former Major League Baseball pitcher and board game/MMO enthusiast Curt Schilling founded Green Monster Games (later 38 Studios) to produce games that he wanted to play. Six years later, the company was closed abruptly with nearly four hundred jobs lost in a debacle that has the entire gaming industry buzzing. So what went wrong?
Originally headquartered in Maynard, Massachusetts, 38 Studios began working on two games: a single-player RPG called Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning and an MMORPG game in the same style as EverQuest or World of Warcraft tentatively called “Project Copernicus”. Despite being a staunch conservative politically, Schilling accepted a $75 million loan from the state of Rhode Island to create 450 jobs by the end of 2012 and, naturally, put Rhode Island on the map as a hub for game development. The studio had previously purchased Big Huge Games from THQ, which served as a satellite office in Baltimore, Maryland, and brought on talent like writer R.A. Salvatore and game designer Ken Rolston (formerly from Bethesda) to work on Amalur, creating a rich back story for the universe, the first in a future, massive franchise. The studio moved roughly 160 employees from their homes in Massachusetts to new spots in Rhode Island, offering to pay down their previous mortgages as transition assistance.
Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning released in February to a decent aggregate score (roughly 82% per platform), but ultimately only selling 1.3 million copies around the world (a mere 330,000 in the US alone). No one knew about the troubles at 38 Studios until a $1.125 million loan was missed, and when the check finally arrived, bounced. Things quickly spun out of control as it became obvious that 38 Studios had banked their entire future on Kingdoms of Amalur selling like gangbusters – Rhode Island governor Lincoln Chafee stated that the studio needed to push closer to 3 million copies to stay solvent. Schilling and his executives bargained for an expansion to their loan from America’s smallest state, but Chafee was not convinced that there was a viable future for 38 Studios.
In the afternoon of Thursday, May 24th, the employees of 38 Studios in both Baltimore and Rhode Island were given the same curt e-mail:
The Company is experiencing an economic downturn. To avoid further losses and possibility of retrenchment, the Company has decided that a companywide lay off is absolutely necessary.
These layoffs are non-voluntary and non-disciplinary.
This is your official notice of lay off, effective today, Thursday, May 24th, 2012.
And with that, 379 people lost their jobs without any warning. Employees who had been assisted in their move to Rhode Island are now finding themselves with a second mortgage payment because 38 Studios had failed to pay on them. The state of Rhode Island was also not informed of these arrangements, either the layoffs or the relocation arrangements, and will find the company in further default of their agreement.
So what exactly was Curt Schilling really planning to do?
- Amalur Obviously Didn’t Sell Enough, Wasn’t Imaginative Enough. From the first cinematic reveal, everything about 38’s big game reeked of yet another generic fantasy role-playing game. To their credit, the game turned out okay, but Schilling merging every trope and traipse of those genres and then throwing some talent on the project simply wasn’t a good enough move. This was obviously not the best first game to launch a studio on.
- Project Copernicus Should’ve Been The Front Runner. 38 Studios purchased Big Huge Games for this title, which had been in development for some time but didn’t have much of a future under THQ’s umbrella. 38 Studios took the existing Amalur lore and rebuilt the game under it. It’s an interesting move, but 38 Studios was obviously reaching beyond their grasp in the hopes that this new Amalur single-player title would be a hit, spending much of their capital and attention in the process.
- There Were No Contingency Plans. With Copernicus still over a year away (with a prescribed July 2013 release date), it’s obvious that there were no plans to continue the studio if Amalur didn’t push the numbers they wanted. It seems that Schilling was automatically going to ask Rhode Island for more cash to develop the game that was housed in their state. Perhaps the goal of Amalur was to drum up money and mindshare for Copernicus, whichsounds like a very risky business plan. If true, it’s unfortunate that so many people signed off on it.
We at FleshEatingZipper wish the best to former 38 Studios employees in their effort to find new jobs and ultimately, new lives after this dreadful mess.
Curt Schilling, on the other hand, has a lot to answer for.