Curt Schilling may have been a fan of video games, but he was certainly no visionary when it came to creating them. That much would have been obvious to anyone with some background in the gaming industry when the former Boston Red Sox pitcher first laid out his vision for an MMORPG set in a fantasy world known as Amalur.
Unfortunately for the taxpayers of Rhode Island, former Gov. Donald Carcieri apparently didn’t have that background. Had he, he likely would have thought twice about backing up $75 million in loans for Schilling’s game company, 38 Studios, to relocate to The Ocean State and continue developing a gaming empire centered on this fictional world.
The results of this deal so far? 38 Studios has folded just three months after releasing its first game, Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning (not an MMORPG, by the way, but an offline role-playing adventure). Three hundred and seventy-nine employees are out of work for the moment. The company has made only a single payment of $1.125 million to the Rhode Island Economic Development Corporation, the issuer of the loan. As a guarantor of said loan, the state of Rhode Island is now on the hook to pay the balance. And, the good people of Rhode Island could, for all intents and purposes, become the proud owners of the Amalur intellectual property if the government can’t find a way to keep 38 solvent.
Obviously things could have gone better. But what exactly went wrong?
The problem with this whole deal was two-fold.
For one, Schilling’s creative ideas for Amalur were uninspired relative to what already existed out there for fantasy MMORPGs. Not even Todd McFarlane’s and R.A. Salvatore’s hackneyed talents creating the look and story, respectively, of the game could save it from blending in to the fantasy gaming landscape.
Secondly, the conditions for Rhode Island’s financial backing of 38 Studios – that it create 450 new jobs within three years – would have ultimately made the company’s business model unsustainable in an era where game companies are slashing jobs left and right to stay competitive.
Neither Schilling nor the state seemed to be equipped with such foresight. In gamer terms, they were a couple of “noobs” dreaming big about making their mark in a tough industry.
I was struck by a passage I read on one of The Verge’s articles about Schilling and his goal for 38 Studios:
“His (Schilling’s) goal wasn’t just to build a game, but to change the landscape of online gaming. The company’s motto: If you can’t do it better than it’s ever been done before, work for someone else.”
Having read that, I’m surprised 38 Studios introduced gamers to Amalur not through some paradigm-shifting MMORPG but through a fairly standard single-player game that looked a little like World of Warcraft and was structured like Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim. Maybe it was my own fatigue from weeks of playing Skyrim that did it, but I lost interest in Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning about 12 hours in.
Reckoning, which was published and released by EA Games in February, sold 1.2 million copies in its first 90 days. Current R.I. Gov. Lincoln Chafee told the media the game needed to sell at least 3 million for 38 Studios to break even. He characterized it as a failure, though who knows whether this governor’s bead on the gaming industry is any better than his predecessor’s to make that kind of call.
One thing is for certain – 38 Studios appears dead in the water after only one game set in a world that was supposed to be the next big thing in MMORPGs. Amalur, to hear Schilling tell it, was the anchor for an entire franchise of entertainment.
For Rhode Island, it was supposed to be the birth of a new tech-driven industry. Now, it’s a dark mark for the state and probably for the gaming industry too. It’s easy to imagine in this economy angry taxpayers criticize government officials for pouring so much public money into something as “childish” as a video game.
A few days before 38 Studios folded, a video reel for a future game from the company with a working title of “Project Copernicus” hit the Internet. It showed sweeping but empty vistas of places of what most people assumed was an expanded Amalur universe. This was likely to be the MMORPG Schilling talked about, and it may yet find the light of day. For now, the world’s emptiness gives one the eerie feeling it’s a realm that’s been abandoned and awaits better days.