38 Studios – The Legend, The Myth, The End

Live fast, die young, leave a good-looking corpse

John Derek in Knock on Any Door (1949)

Well, I cannot speak to whether or not 38 Studios lived fast, and six years can be a long time in technology, so you can argue that the company did not die young.

But they left a good looking, if sparse, corpse in the form of a three pictures and a less than two minute fly through video of their planned virtual world.

Somewhere in Copernicus

Legends have been created out of less.

And now nobody will ever say that Copernicus, their as yet unnamed flagship game, to which the main effort of the company had been devoted for almost six year, sucks.

Nobody will complain about unbalanced classes or broken game mechanics or servers being down or sever queues being too long or any of the thousand other things that we find to pick on when it comes to MMOs.

Copernicus is pristine, a blurry mirage doomed to ever been in the distance, on which some will overlay their hopes and dreams for the future of MMO gaming.  I’ve seen it already, with some bloggers mourning not just the fact that we will now never see this game come into full bloom, but that it somehow represented our last, best hope to return greatness to the genre.  Some future games will find themselves compared to Copernicus that might have been.  It was to be the holy grail game that brought joy back to fantasy MMOs.

Which is a tune I have heard before.

It was the sort of thing some of our guild members were saying about Vanguard in 2005 when we were playing EverQuest II and it had fully sunk in that the game really wasn’t a sequel to the EverQuest experience.  And so Vanguard became the dream, the game destined to be the true successor to EverQuest.

And, well… we know how that turned out.  Sigil Games, facing their own financial woes, opted to go to market early with a game clearly not ready for prime time.

In one of those twists of timing, it was just five years ago this month that Sigil folded up shop with the now infamous parking lot layoff, sans Brad McQuaid.  But we got the word from Smed that SOE was swooping in to save the day.  SOE was a hero for the moment, but I wondered how long they would remain a hero.  Not very long, it seemed, as soon all the problems with Vanguard became SOE’s problems, and SOE’s fault for not fixing them fast enough.

It makes me wonder what image Vanguard would have ended up with had Brad opted to run out of money before launching the game.

Alas, there will be no SOE white knight to rescue Copernicus.  Those days are clearly done.  Back when SOE was under Sony Pictures, which I am convinced really didn’t know, and didn’t care, what was going on in San Diego so long as the money was coming in, was able to collect orphaned MMOs like Vanguard and The Matrix Online.  Now though, under the PlayStation people, who clearly want to hear about things that sell PlayStation hardware when they aren’t being evil, things have been trimmed back substantially.

There was an estimate that the assets of 38 Studios might be worth up to $20 million, though that sort of talk denies the reality of software development.  If you buy a software company with no people, you have pretty much bought nothing.  The people who write the software, they are the assets.  Without them you have some source code, which can be interesting, but is tough to make your own.  You can bring in your own people to try.  I’ve been down that path.  If you just want to be able to build the software and maybe make some small fixes, it can even be viable.  But if you want to own the software and be able to use it to its full, you have to know it well, which is hard work.  And the first thing that will happen is the devs will start saying that it is easier to rewrite some section of code from scratch than figure out what is really going on, and that way lies madness and repetition of the same mistakes to gain the same knowledge as the original authors of the code.

And then there is the outside influence of Star Wars: The Old Republic which, according to analyst Michael Pachter, has killed off interest in investing in MMO projects.  To quote the money line:

Nobody is buying MMOs after Star Wars fizzled

So yeah, we can blame SWTOR!  Because if EA can’t get MMOs right, then it is clearly some sort of once-in-a-lifetime black art not worth exploring.

Life in the big money lane.

I feel a bit sorry for Curt Schilling for not getting to live out his dream of creating a great MMO.  But only a bit.  I mean the guy had fame, fortune, and three world series wins coming into this deal, all while deliberately and maliciously being younger than me.  He can go back to that.  Maybe he can be a champion for small studios that reflect some of the things he was trying to bring to MMOs.

But I identify more with the team at 38 Studios, the worker bees who have to scramble to find another gig to pay the mortgage.  I’ve been down that path a few times.  The joy of Silicon Valley start ups, here today, gone tomorrow.  I worked for eight different companies in the 90s, and only one still exists.   I was there twice for the “everybody go home” company meeting.  It doesn’t get easier with repetition.

I do want to throw out a minor “screw you” to 38 Studios for buying and shutting down the Azeroth Advisor.  Grudge holding… we have that here at TAGN.

But other than that, I am sorry to see things turn out as they did.  We won’t ever see Copernicus now, and so I will be denied the privilege of playing it while complaining about insignificant details that annoy me.

Addendum: And then there is the industry insider view of this debacle from the newly returned to blogging Lum and how it is killing the very concept of massively multiplayer online gaming.

Further Addendum: And there are always methods to make a bad situation worse.

R. A. Salvatore says Copernicus was awesome, but can’t actually back that up.  He was right on one thing in that comment, he shouldn’t be commenting.  More for the myth and legend department.

Steve Danuser puts the blame on the governor of Rhode Island.

It looks like 38 Studios may have screwed some employees worse than others.  Was that the governor of Rhode Island’s fault as well?

Everybody wants to know where the money went.

Of course, there is Curt.

And then Derek Smart chimes in with a dump truck load of reality.  Refreshing to see him poking at a subject that needs it.

11 thoughts on “38 Studios – The Legend, The Myth, The End

  1. An anon

    I feel sorry for the shareholders of Rhode Island, who got sucked into guaranteeing the loan by their chuckleheaded government badly pretending to be venture capitalists.


  2. Genda

    I have several friends who worked there. So this makes me doubly sad.

    I echo your comparison to Sigil. Startup led by a visionary with no real industry experience in managing this kind of project, who had an all-star lineup and spent through a ton of cash while not having an idea on how to ship short of “hope for the best” or “there will be more money.” It ended badly. The difference is that Brad at least had the industry cache (friendship with Smed) that allowed SOE to swoop in and let the thing get finished. EA, from all accounts, is washing it’s hands of 38s.

    The reality of a startup in this business is however much money you have is how much you have. And you are going to spend AT LEAST 150% of what you think.

    Plan accordingly.


  3. Keen

    This whole debacle ate me up inside when the realization hit a week ago that we probably will never see this game. Now that the dust is settling, my business side wants to know what happened. Who screwed up? A lot of people are pointing at Curt, but as a Chairman and Founder he still had a CEO, COO, CFO, 2 GM’s, and a management team with decent enough experience to run a company. Was it a lack of experience in the high velocity gaming industry? These are the questions eating away at me now.


  4. Wilhelm Arcturus Post author

    @Genda – “The reality of a startup in this business is however much money you have is how much you have. And you are going to spend AT LEAST 150% of what you think.”

    Amen, I have lived through that. And that is a “planning for failure” start up. When you plan for success, it is more like 400%.

    And that reality means I am waiting for some of these Kickstarter funding events to come to naught. Sure, Steve Jackson Games is good for the money, and Jason Scott will film his documentaries, but funding a game studio start-up? Another path to madness methinks.


  5. bhagpuss

    Maybe Derek Smart will buy Copernicus.

    Oh, and your guildies were right about Vanguard. It was, and remains, the real sequel to Everquest.


  6. Wilhelm Arcturus Post author

    @Bhagpuss – Derek Smart… he is arrogant and has show poor judgement in what shit he stirs up in public… but he is no fool. Once you have scattered staff to the winds, a project like that is pretty much done.

    As for my guildies… for all that talk about how great Vanguard was going to be… and all the scorn they poured on WoW… they all went off and played WoW in the end, at least through Burning Crusade.

    It turned out that for raiding, which is what most of them were into in EQ, WoW was the real sequel. Which makes sense, since Blizz spent a lot of time working with EQ raiding guilds to develop their approach to raiding.


  7. mrrx

    I don’t know about the IP being worth nothing. All those years attempting to create something meta, a Lord-Of-The-Rings updated for the gaming age, which would let them spin games off right and left – that might be worth something. It would either work, or seem like fluffy and foolish ivory tower speculation, and all I can do about it is speculate.

    Will Wright seems to be in the same spot with his meta project – I understand Stupid Fun Club has a TV show and nothing else is popping up in the gaming media. Either that, or it’ll move on from the meta-project idea to something equally “Wow that’s awesome !”


  8. Toldain

    Beautifully written post, sir. Heartfelt. I too, have been there twice for an “everybody go home” meeting. Oddly enough, it was more or less the same company, so I’m not sure whether it’s fair to count it twice. But it happened twice.

    Maybe this will be rock bottom. There are still some things that are true. People want to go online and play games together. They want to tackle difficult things, and they want to express themselves. Therefore, there will be games that capture this desire, but in a new form.


  9. jokeefe

    As always thanks for the kind(?) words about Azeroth Advisor. As one of the founders, it was tough to see it shut down but without significantly investing in the Advisor, at the expense of the MMO, it really didn’t make much sense continuing on with it “as is.”


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