This has been percolating for about a week now, but it’s official – Epic Mickey creator Junction Point Studios has been shut down by parent company Disney, putting Warren Spector and about 140 others out of work. Coming as it does so quickly on the also-anticipated-but-also-sad THQ fire sale, one can’t help but feel that attrition seems awfully high for early 2013. Hopefully it’s not a harbinger of things to come.
Epic Mickey never did as well as Disney had hoped, though I think the company’s desires for the franchise may have been a little unrealistic. The first one shipped in 2007 as a Wii exclusive, moving around 1.3 million units. That’s not too bad for a platform-specific title, and honestly it’s more than I would have expected for a Mickey Mouse game. Spector’s (of Deus Ex and System Shock fame) involvement surely didn’t hurt; he did his Master’s thesis on old cartoons and is a serious Disney historian. Unfortunately Epic Mickey was apparently plagued by bad camera controls and never fared that well in the critical world. 2012’s sequel shipped for multiple platforms but didn’t perform; according to Joystiq it sold about 530,000 units due in large part to massive price cuts during Black Friday, the post-Thanksgiving American shopping binge where you can buy an island for eleven cents.
Spector has spoken of retirement for a while now. As far back as the first Epic Mickey he said he only had a handful of games left in him; five years later he’s 56 years old and one of the longest-lasting and best-respected developers in the business. With the shuttering of his most recent studio it wouldn’t surprise me if he calls it a day, either fully retiring or perhaps phasing into a more comfortable, flexible consultancy role. It’d be a pity to lose him in either case, but you can’t fault the man’s dedication to the industry. I’m sad that Junction Point is no more, but in the end I’m not that surprised. Disney is making a lot of corporate changes. The good news is that Austin, Texas, Junction Point’s former home, is a pretty good ecosystem for game development, and the studio’s personnel should be able to find work. I wish them the best.
The other, bigger collapse is that of publisher THQ. They’d been struggling forever. The beleaguered firm owned or had rights to a handful of pretty good IPs – Saints Row, Company of Heroes, Metro, Darksiders - but a catastrophically stupid foray into semi-tablets (or whatever the hell the uDraw was) essentially sealed the company’s fate two years ago. What they were thinking getting into peripherals, and limited-use, limited-audience peripherals at that, is completely beyond me. Sometimes decisions are made for indescribably foolish reasons; sometimes the company leadership is actually misguided enough to believe it’ll work.
The high-profile failure of Kaos Studios’ Homefront (also not a surprise to me, though I could reasonably be accused of Monday morning quarterbacking at this point) didn’t help matters. Kaos was never in a position to develop a shooter intended to compete with Call of Duty, and I commend them for doing as well as they did. Their story is proof that THQ leadership is heavily responsible for the fall of the once-strong publisher. EVP Danny Bilson caused interminable chaos at Kaos, among other things insisting on a seemingly-minor story change to Homefront that utterly ruined the game’s credibility. While Kaos employees are quick to admit that the game’s failure was more their fault than Bilson’s, it’s further proof that THQ leadership was making decisions that weren’t for the good of its properties.
They’d hoped to hold together, perhaps even emerging from bankruptcy or getting bought, but it wasn’t to be. Instead the publisher’s assets were sold at auction last week, and frankly, a lot of other companies in the business made out like bandits. Germany’s Crytek, inexplicably working on Homefront 2, picked up the Homefront IP for half a million dollars. Ubi got South Park and a studio, THQ Montreal, for about six million. SEGA nabbed Company of Heroes and Homeworld developer Relic, perhaps THQ’s most valuable property, for $26M. And Koch Media, AKA European publisher Deep Silver, bought the Metro franchise and Saints Row creator Volition for just under $30M.
Rather surprisingly, Darksiders developer Vigil Games not only didn’t get sold, it didn’t get any bids – meaning the studio was to be shut down. It now looks like Crytek is going to head off that problem by opening a new studio in Austin (eh? eh? Austin?), one that will apparently employ pretty much everyone who once worked at Vigil. Where this leaves the Darksiders property is unclear.
Game studios shut down all the time; publishers much less often. THQ was once one of the biggest American publishers, but it’s been in decline for a decade and a series of missteps doomed it. Junction Point, a studio, just didn’t sell enough games – that’s the usual reason developers go under. Much has been made of the apparently endless consolidation going on in the games industry right now, yet developers seem to spring up as rapidly as they go down, and despite that consolidation I still see a landscape with a reasonable number of publishers. The rise of super-indies, Steam Greenlight, and Kickstarter projects may yet redefine the face of game development, forcing major publishers to reevaluate production values and perhaps quit valorizing graphics at the expense of original ideas. It’s far too early to say, however, and in the meantime it’s just kind of sad news. These days whenever a studio or publisher goes down I find myself thinking not of the games that are in limbo, but the people who’ll inevitably wind up in unemployment lines. The human cost tends to be greater than the creative one, and 2013 is showing no signs of being less than a bloodthirsty year.
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