It was with a heavy heart that I read the news about the total staff layoff at 38 Studios earlier today. For those unfamiliar with the particulars, 38 Studios was headed up and largely funded by Curt Schilling (of Red Sox pitcher fame). 38 Studios was founded with a dream of creating the ultimate MMO, and Curt managed to recruit some fantastic talent in pursuit of that vision –the brilliant fantasy writer R.A. Salvatore among them. 38 Studios didn’t manage to make that MMO, but they did release Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning, a game I considered pretty fantastic.
Perhaps 38 Studios will get it’s feet under it, there’s a lot of people with a vested interest in the company, but things are looking pretty grim. It’s a sad tale, but it underscores why so much talent has flooded out of the traditional hardcore markets and into social and mobile.
I’ve watched 38 Studios for a long time. It was founded 6 years ago, and it’s the product of an enormous amount of passion, blood, sweat, and tears. Rumor has it that Curt invested a significant chunk of his personal fortune in 38 Studios, a bold gambit for a person inexperienced in the rigors of game development. At this point, 38 Studios has absorbed a tremendous amount of funding, but it hasn’t realized its vision. I can emphathize with Curt, I know what it’s like to be possessed with an idea, and not reaching the goal is the emotional equivalent of having someone taking your fluffly puppy and giving it to the bully who pushed you down the stairs in 7th grade.
This was a foreseeable outcome, but it’s pretty fricking tragic. The simple fact is that MMOs are seen as pretty bad business nowadays. The optics are just ugly: huge time investment, enormous cash requirements, and speculative market opportunity. Against this we had Curt, who possessed vision but not experience. The road was made even more difficult by the fact that there really hasn’t been an outsize success in the MMO space other than World of Warcraft. Certain niche games, like Eve Online, have managed to thrive on the periphery, but history is strewn with the corpses of those who tried for the holy grail and failed. Under those circumstances, funding is a lot harder to come by and passion just isn’t going to be enough.
Passion is the molten core but great games are built upon pragmatism. As I’ve spent more and more time doing game design, I’ve begun to realize that what’s cool rarely matches up with what is “best” for the game. Having a vision doesn’t matter if you can’t translate it to cognizable and cohesive systems. This often involves compromise, which is likely at odds with the passion inspiring the project. This tension needs resolution, and only the best developers manage to handle this process well. Lean too much toward passion, and the project gets feature creep and never launches. Too much on the practical side and the game will gety clone-y and lack heart. It’s a tough road.
I often think social and mobile has lured so many people because it gives people the opportunity to walk the road multiple times. One failed MMO is enough to tank a developer, but a social/mobile developer can get multiple whacks at the apple (Rovio was into the dozens of games by the time Angry Birds came around). Mobile and social give you a chance to grow and learn from mistakes with direct feedback from the users. Of course, you lose the opportunity for true immersive depth on the mobile/social side (we’re working on it, but we’ve got a ways to go), but the rapid iteration is an awesome education on what works.
I really hope Curt finds some way to ressurect 38 Studios and get it to the finish line. Odds are against it, but I’m desperate to get a peek at the world they envisioned. Indies are often the source of some truly compelling advancements in games, and there are vew few in the MMO game these days. Even if 38 Studios never makes it back, I certainly hope that a few mobile and social company avail themselves of the amazing talent assembled there.
JM: This is incredibly sad to me. EA Partners published Reckoning, we signed it because it was and is a fantastic game. We knew many of the key staff before they joined 38, and were thrilled to meet many more in working on that game. I don’t agree that the MMO was doomed from inception, that’s a very easy thing to say. Many factors play into that, but certainly building smaller games faster has far less risk attached. To the 38 Studios team, we salute your passion, talent, and contribution in moving the game industry forward.