We don’t usually cover games industry news at Tap-Repeatedly, because most visitors likely visit other sites to get that stuff. So I’m guessing most of you know about former Red Sox pitcher Curt Schilling and his newly-failed game developer 38 Studios, which collapsed in May in one of the most spectacularly your-leadership-deserved-it-and-I-still-haven’t-heard-that-leadership-say-boo-about-what-it-did-to-its-people implosions since Hellgate London’s Flagship Studios folded. Thus I give you my commentary on that, in the form of this month’s Culture Clash column for the International Game Developers Association.
I say some pretty nasty things about people in this one. I’m at my best when I’m being nasty so hopefully you’ll enjoy it, and ponder in silence how gently you should all treat me, lest I say nasty things about you!
It Might Be Fun to Run a Newspaper
By Matthew Sakey
Originally published by the International Game Developers Association
Sometimes it seems that games will never get any respect. Despite all the years and billions of dollars, the immense advances gaming has driven in technology, despite the careers it’s built and the happiness it’s brought, for some reason much of the world still sees the medium and the industry as insignificant, as weightless. As something that doesn’t need to be taken seriously. As something anyone could do, with no knowledge, caution, preparation, or qualification.
Curt Schilling likes World of Warcraft, so he ruined 379 lives. Before that he threw balls for a living. In no way does throwing a ball qualify someone to run a game company, as pointed out by Kevin Dent in this blistering editorial; why, then, did this come to pass? How?
When Schilling founded 38 Studios there was dubiousness, of course. A lot of people in the industry saw the ex-Red Soxer as a dilettante biting off more than he could chew. As time went by and the studio seared through money, doubts intensified. Schilling seemed content to pack his company full of MacFarlanes and Salvatores, high-priced creative stars with zero industry experience. I like to imagine that one day someone suddenly realized that 38 Studios had no idea how to actually make a video game, so the company solved that problem by acquiring Big Huge Games and getting them to make Kingdoms of Amalur. It’s like Schilling and 38 Studios never really thought that they should take it slow and learn how to make games; after all, why do that when games are so easy? Why go to trouble? It’s not serious! It’s only video games! A monkey could do it! Just buy success!
And that’s the rub right there. There’s no reason anyone who wants to get into games shouldn’t be allowed to try. Heck, the industry should embrace the idea of wealthy gamers acting as patrons for development. But you still have to take it seriously. Instead, Schilling likes video games and it apparently never occurred to him that enjoying playing games is not the same thing as being able to successfully make them. The approach smacks of the rich nonentity who spends a few thousand bucks for a level 80 WoW character but has no idea how to play the game.
The leadership of 38 Studios isn’t alone in shouldering blame. Indeed, Schilling is only guilty of being an arrogant fool. It was Rhode Island’s economic development corporation that promised a neophyte game studio $75 million; not to mention lord knows how many VCs and investors who wrote checks to the fledgling company. Most new studios wouldn’t get a hundredth of what 38 got, even if they were run by industry veterans with proven track records. Why? Perception. Stars in their eyes. Curt Schilling’s a baseball hero, of course he can make a video game. Meanwhile anyone who actually knows anything about this business or its products could fill a phone book with examples of 38 Studios’ mistakes, misjudgments, and mismanagement.
It got nearly every aspect of its existence wrong. It expanded way too fast, and quickly into a market – MMOs – where anyone should fear to tread. It hired the wrong people at the top levels, ensuring that the many excellent people below those levels were doomed from the start. It burned through such a staggering sum of money that even an incompetent developer should have been able to produce three or four top-shelf games with the same sum. 38 Studios surely knew it had a million-dollar bill coming but apparently did nothing to prepare for it. Once the payment was overdue and the studio’s precariousness was exposed, leadership inexplicably elected to skip payroll in order to make a miniscule payment on a loan that any fool could by that time see was going to be defaulted on. By the end its employees hadn’t been paid and the loan was a bust, so it laid everyone off by email in a manner so cold and unceremonious that even Mitt Romney would probably say it’s a bad way to fire people.
Do I need to go on? The CEO jumped ship by going on maternity leave and never coming back. Employees who’d moved to Rhode Island had been promised that the company would sell their old homes, but it didn’t actually do it; so along with being unemployed, these people are now re-saddled with loans they’d thought they were free of. Meanwhile Schilling himself still doesn’t comprehend the gravity of what he’s done. He’s tweeting that Amalur was a success and issuing statements about how the governor of Rhode Island is mean.
If I told Curt Schilling that I enjoy baseball and therefore want to be a major league pitcher, at best he’d gently explain that there’s a lot more to it than that. More likely he’d be offended, because by suggesting that anyone who likes baseball is automatically qualified to play it professionally, I’m essentially demeaning him and his accomplishments. Yet he didn’t see making video games at all the same way. To him and his investors, liking World of Warcraft was more than sufficient to bet millions on success. Now others are going to pay the price.
I would have loved nothing more than to see 38 Studios succeed. Contrary to how it may sound, I have no personal animosity toward Curt Schilling. If I had millions of dollars I’d consider investing in the business. But there’s a right way and a wrong way to do that, and the right way starts with showing some modicum of respect for the industry behind the medium you claim to enjoy so much. What Curt Schilling did is the opposite of that; he and his investors never stopped to contemplate that there may be more to it than a fondness for games. Like the title character of Citizen Kane, who upon coming into his fortune ordered all his assets liquidated except for one newspaper – not because he knew anything about journalism but because he thought “it might be fun to run a newspaper.” Well, running a studio might have been fun for Schilling, but business is business, even if it’s the business of fun. Someone who once played a different game for a living would, you’d have thought, understood that.
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This content appears under the author’s copyright at the International Game Developers Association (IGDA).Views expressed herein are the author’s and do not necessarily reflect those of the IGDA or its members.
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I was hoping you’d have some analysis of this. Fascinating read… but very sad for the employees who have to pick everything up again.
Unfortunately I think the problem is not necessarily that people underestimate how hard it is to make good games (though they do), but rather they underestimate the discernment of the gaming public. We see this in major movies a lot, too: lots of money dumped into something that nobody in their right mind could think is a good movie, but they sure as hell think it might turn a profit. And there’s plenty of times that terrible movies and terrible games do pretty okay, especially when there’s some license or star-power attached (even if it is star power from some other place). I mean, look at how successful Star Wars games have been over the years: even with over-saturation and the fact that two-thirds of them have been mediocre at best, they sell because of the title on the box. Heck, I wouldn’t mind getting an investor’s share on a crap Star Wars game.
More stories of mismanagement in the form of a 38 Studios Spouse message. Le sigh.
I had heard of the 38 Studios situation but I hadn’t heard of the 38 Studios situation. That’s a pretty damning couple of final paragraphs you got there: well done.
I’d never heard of the 38 Studios situation, period. Wow, just wow.
What really impresses me is the way that 38 Studios seems to have carefully set up the moving expenses and second mortgages so as to leave their employees holding the bag in case of the company’s failure. I can’t imagine that these parts of the cost were so great that they couldn’t have paid the companies up front if they’d been planning to succeed as a company. What was the scenario where putting off the relocation payments for six months would’ve been the difference between success and failure?
By the way, I’ve got animus against Curt Schilling. Fuck Curt Schilling.
[…] Some angry stuff about the 38 Studios’ collapse, and it’s pretty angry. […]
The rich get reacher – it’s wonderful how 38 execs covered their own asses and let the employees take the blame for them. I think Curt Schilling’s every fucking penny shall be taken away and all his organs harvested and sold to compensate for the losses; maybe then, and only then the next bored wealthy man would think twice before doing something this lowly.
Other than the mortgage thing, how exactly did Curt Schilling “ruin 379 lives”. Didn’t he in fact provide employment for these people for several years? Would it be more accurate to say that Curt Schilling provided temporary improvement to 379 lives and that of their families?
The mortgage thing sounds like an absolute disgrace. As for whether that’s on Curt’s part or the employee’s part depends on how these things usually work (I can’t imagine, personally, just tralaala-ing my mortgage over to some company and not bothering to follow up what happened).
I guess it depends on how you look at it. It’s true, your argument that 38 Studios temporarily employed all those people is definitely valid. However, my reasoning for the language I used is based in how Schilling and other studio leadership failed to run the company in a sustainable way, thereby dooming all those people despite having briefly employed them. The more we learn about 38’s collapse, the more and more evident it becomes that the studio never really had a chance. Thus, to my mind, Schilling – in liking World of Warcraft and deciding to make games without ever considering how to do it – ruined those lives. Sure, “ruin” is a tough word and I’m betting all those people will eventually recover, but there can be no argument that his careless, ignorant arrogance did a lot of people a very bad turn.
I don’t know much about the mortgage situation aside from what’s been reported. Presumably employees were given reason to have faith in the system they were offered. Unfortunately, near the end it does look like 38 Studios got increasingly deceptive with its own employees (note the “38 Studios Spouse” letter linked in above comments) – about the status of payroll, the status of health insurance, the status of the company itself. Employees may have been suspicious or may not have, but it’s fairly clear that by the end they weren’t getting the whole story on that or anything else.
Thanks for the comment!
Melf — I’d also suspect that most of those people had employment before 38 Studios hired them, which they have now lost. So even if their employment with 38 Studios was a temporary improvement, which is dubious seeing as how they weren’t paid at the end, they are now worse off than they would have been if they stayed at their own jobs.
Also, as Steerpike alluded to, read the 38 Studios Spouse letter carefully. One of the employees’ wives learned during a prenatal checkup that her insurance would be canceled in two days, because 38 Studios chose not to pay the premiums for several months without informing their employees of this fact. They also chose not to pay the moving expenses they had promised — and there are more examples of how they left their employees in the lurch.
[…] happened at 38 Studios or how it collapsed, taking with it the all-too-promising Big Huge Games. Over at Tap Repeatedly, there’s a somewhat snark-filled column that pokes rather hard at the idea that a Major League pitcher could run a successful game […]