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The Sad Song of 38 Studios

Posted on May 29, 2012 AT 08:22am

Say what you will about former Red Sox pitcher Curt Schilling, but you cannot deny the man is a dreamer.

As a child getting his hands on a baseball for the first time, he probably dreamt he would one day win the World Series.

And as millions of gamers around the world, he too dreamt he would one day own his own video game studio.

The latter came true six years ago with the founding of Green Monster Games, soon renamed 38 Studios. Their grand intent: bring together the best artists, designers, and programmers in the industry to work on an MMORPG. It’s a gamer’s ultimate fantasy, with a celebrity at the helm and most importantly, a nice cash injection to get the ball rolling. While everything was kept nicely under wraps and not much was known besides the occasional rumor, the addition of fantasy legends R.A Salvatore and Todd McFarlane to the creative team spoke louder than any overhyped press release.

38 Studios’ game, whatever it was, would be abso-f***ing-lutely huge.

After being lured out of Massachusetts by Rhode Island in exchange for a steady line of credit, the studio now had the talent, vision, and financial backing to ensure the development of what became known as Project Copernicus. In the meanwhile, they acquired Maryland-based Big Huge Games from troubled parent THQ and a seemingly perfect alliance was born: while the core staff at 38 Studios would continue working on Copernicus, Big Huge Games would dedicate itself to the development of Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning.

It was shortly after the first public show of KoA: Reckoning at PAX East 2011 that I found out a close friend of mine had been one of the very first developers ever hired by 38 Studios. Along with this, I also discovered that friendship and copious attempts at bribing won’t make a game developer break a Non-Disclosure Agreement, but I digress. Over the following months we spoke of Amalur as details were slowly made known to the public, and we spoke of his experience while he worked at 38 Studios.

If you have been fortunate to speak with game devs on a personal level, you know they come in two flavors. Much like in any other industry:

1) Those who go through the daily grind waiting for the next paycheck.

2) Those who live, breathe, and love the game they’re working on, and would continue to work on it if it involved a minimum salary and a diet of ramen until release date.

Since this is no story with a cliffhanger, you’ve already guessed my friend was in the second category, but that wouldn’t even begin to describe it. Whenever the topic of Amalur came up, he could go on about it for a solid hour uninterrupted, like a child that has just learned how to count to ten and won’t stop repeating the sequence until you pleaded. His eyes would sparkle and the biggest, happiest smile would come to his face as he remembered the time he spent at 38 Studios. “One, two, three, four, FIVE, SIX, SEVEN, EIGHT, the mythology is SO DEEP and Reckoning is but a grain of sand in the sea of this HUGE WORLD that is being created and if only I could tell you… but I’m still under NDA”.

Schilling’s dream was apparently highly contagious for anyone that came close enough to it.

The dream came to a sudden halt in the last month as the studio failed to meet a payment deadline and Rhode Island’s loans stopped, effectively reducing their operating budget to zero. Schilling’s fame, which had initially been a guarantee for bringing big names to the fold is now the perfect bull’s-eye for a shit storm that risks putting the entire gaming industry under intense media scrutiny. I hope it won’t be the case, but making the front page of the Boston Globe leaves little room for optimism.

A quick timeline for the tl;dr crowd:

_2006: 38 Studios is founded in Maynard, Massachusetts.

_2009: 38 Studios acquires Big Huge Games from THQ.

_2010, March: Curt Schilling meets Rhode Island Governor Donald Carcieri (R). After an amiable chat, Carcieri suggests an incentives package to move 38 Studios to the economically-troubled state.

_2010, July : the deal is approved by the Rhode Island Board of Economic Development. Besides bringing 430 jobs to the state by the end of 2012, 38 Studios is bound to pay a hefty interest on the loans for years to come.

_2010, November 2nd: Rhode Island elects a new governor. The winner of the election is Lincoln Chafee (I), who was highly critical of the deal with 38 Studios during his campaign.

_2010, November 3rd: the deal is signed and 38 Studios will move to Providence the following year.

Quick pause!!! I hate being the cynical asshole I usually am, but the last two dates smell of roadkill. It would be one of the last agreements finalized by governor Carcieri before Chafee took office the following January. If 38 Studios succeeded, Carcieri would have left his mark on the state’s tech industry. If it failed… well, shit, it would be another governor’s job to take care of the mess!

_2011, April: 38 Studios moves and begins operations in Providence.

_2012, February: Reckoning is released, moving approximately 1.2 million copies according to VGChartz.

_2012, May 1st: 38 Studios fails to make a payment of $1.125 million (presumably principal+interest). Meetings are held between state officials and the studio to discuss their fiscal future.

_2012, May 18th: the payment is finally made at the expense of payroll.

_2012, May 24th: the staff of 38 Studios and Big Huge Games, a total of 379 of the industry’s finest, is laid off en masse with the following email:

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.

That email was sent to less than 400 people, and I didn’t know a single one of them. That didn’t stop me from feeling a lump in my throat and muttering a string of incoherent curses under my breath as I realized that one of the most promising IPs ever created not just in the gaming industry but in the fantasy world at large would remain unfinished. It shouldn’t be any different from the hundreds of projects that get shelved after years of work, but this one struck too close to home.

I died once.

And I was resurrected by a gnome named Fomorous Hughes before another attempt on my life was made by the Tuatha. I soon learned that my death had sent shockwaves through the world by unraveling the threads of fate as I traveled from Dalendarth to Alabastra. I was confused at first by the balance between the Summer and Winter Courts, their songs and legends, and the importance of my mission finally dawned on me when it was explained by Alin Shyr, who managed to get my attention through her words rather than her curves. All told, I spent over 100 hours playing Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning and there are still dozens of side quests I want to finish because they give me all the more reason to spend several hours in this huge, detailed world. It wasn’t technically groundbreaking and far from perfect, but it never failed to transmit the love that had been put into it by its creators.

And that world may just cease to exist. Just like that.

On the day that email was sent out, Creative Director Steve Danuser had some rage-fueled words for governor Chafee during an NECN interview.

“Why did you do it? Why did you not help us?”

Governor Chafee never believed in the success of 38 Studios or the $75 million loan was a burden he had inherited from the previous administration. When a person or a company makes an investment, they do so knowing full well there’s a risk of loss involved. In this case, however, the governor can easily shift blame to his predecessor as a bad investor, to 38 Studios allegedly failing to meet sales expectations, and pulling the financial plug will certainly help put Chafee in a good light as a man who mitigated the loss to taxpayers’ dollars.

Political cycles last 4 years, and investments more often than not take much longer than that to become profitable. 38 Studios was not seen by the current Rhode Island administration as an investment that could yield future profits, but instead as an immediate political liability.

And on a larger scale this is what worries me about the fate of 38 Studios being linked to taxpayer moneys. The political world is full of machinations that not even the most complex of RPGs have been able to emulate, and this article on the Boston Globe ought to give an idea how messy the entire process was that led to the approval of 38 Studios’ loan. The same way that Curt Schilling’s well-known name made 38 Studios grab headlines with little to no effort, I can’t help but fear it will do so negatively as time progresses.

An election is coming in November that will hinge heavily on the pros and cons of government subsidies, tax breaks, and incentives for private industry. I say it twice, and I say it thrice: don’t be surprised if the gaming industry as a whole will be under heavy scrutiny as candidates across the country use the story of 38 Studios to their own benefit in the coming months.

I was musing over these implications a couple of days ago when got word from my friend. He linked me to a Facebook note by Jesse Smith, one of the content designers that had been working on Project Copernicus for the past several years.

I am absolutely heartbroken. I have given nearly 4 years of my life to Copernicus. I, along with every other member of the 38 Studios family have given their heart and soul to Amalur. I was simply blown away every single day how gorgeous this game truly was. It was so hard to not scream from the rooftops just how special this project was. And you know what? It wasn’t just the art, as beautiful as it is. It wasn’t just the audio, which was awe-inspiring and ground breaking. It wasn’t even the design, no matter how fun the gameplay was. It was all about the 38 Studios family. Curt put together the finest assemblage of talent in this industry. I mentioned family, that is no lie. We were not just a team or a company, we were a family. All for one, one for all. I do not have enough superlatives to describe how amazing the last 4 years of my life have been. While I am sad I may never get to launch my client and run through this gorgeous world populated with breathtaking zones, quests that run the spectrum from light-hearted and fun to touching and at times heart wrenching. I’m even more sad that you folks may never get to experience the magic of Amalur. When I say magic, I don’t mean spells or mana, I mean the soul of this game. The thing that gave it life and set it apart from anything that has come before it. While they can take us away from the world of Amalur, they cannot take Amalur from within us. We fostered something very special here and no matter where we end up, we will be sure to put a tiny little piece of Amalur into everything else we do.

And this was all that was needed to bring me down from the clouds and see the forest for the trees. The saga of 38 Studios will grab headlines, and more information will be made public as lawyers figure out the status of NDA and company assets. We’ll be attracted to the sordid details like vultures to carrion, and mouth anonymously on message boards until our fingers cramp at the keyboard, but…


We can be better than that.

The industry has already rallied in support of the former staff of 38 Studios and Big Huge Games, who are among the top talent to be found anywhere in the world. Let us, the gamers, do our part. Let us imagine the monsters we could have slain, the quests we could have spent hours completing, and the memorable characters we could have met. All that could have been, and we’ll likely never see in its full form: concepts by writers, modeled by 3D artists, brought to life by animators, and interacting with each other thanks to programmers.

The IP itself is hanging in legal limbo and I hope, nay, I pray for a knight in shining armor to save the day. The same way Amalur cannot be taken away from within the dozens and dozens of people who worked on it, its magic will not be taken away from the hundreds of thousands of people who spent days and days immersed in Reckoning. It may have been a brief glimpse of a world we’ll never fully see, but damn, it was beautiful.

UPDATE: Curt Schilling uploaded some images from Project Copernicus earlier today on his Facebook account. As far as we can tell, these are all in-game, and each one more beautiful than the last. You can see them here:

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