Tobold's Blog
Tuesday, July 24, 2012
Inside the Destruction of Curt Schillings' 38 Studios

Boston Magazine has a detailed great article on the failure of 38 Studios. For anybody who still thinks that Project Copernicus would have been a great game if only 38 Studios hadn't run out of money, I'd like to draw your attention to the following quote from Curt Schilling himself:
The ex-pitcher had a bigger concern. “The game wasn’t fun,” he says, unprompted, beside the softball field. “It was my biggest gripe for probably the past eight to 12 months.” Visually, Copernicus was stunning, but the actual things you could do in the game weren’t engaging enough. The combat aspects especially lagged. Schilling — who never wavered in his belief that the game would be great — says the MMO was improving, but after six years, it still wasn’t there. When Schilling walked around during lunch hour, he says, nobody was playing Copernicus’s internal demos. They were all on some other game.
Endless optimism only ever gets you so far, it can neither create a great game, nor make a $150 million project succeed on its own.

Having worked in startups, you learn to trust your gut feelings and if you don't see how the company is going to be profitable, chances are it is on the ropes and you need to be ready with your own exit plan.

I do feel bad for the guys who got landed with 2 mortgages though. Not so much for Curt, who really should have listened to advice.
"All too often, entrepreneurs fall in love with their product or technology, they ignore negative feedback from customers, and they spend years building a product based on a vision that no one else shares..."

(From my college business textbook I'm reading).

You know what a good MMO should do? Iterative development. Start with a tiny, free, alpha-version and make sure that even the most basic features are what they want. Build up version after version, with actual player feedback along the way (not just internal playtesting).

Then, and ONLY then, when you already know it's what people want... start marketing it. Public betas, release final product for profit, etc, etc...

This way you can also try out new ideas without much risk, because it's still in alpha, and no one is following it in the news. And get live feedback!
But it can't really be a MMORPG if it's tiny! You need some sort of huge alternative reality. A start-up could go with procedural generation, but that is already a commitment in a specific direction.
This is by-the-book titled "how not to get into the games industry". I mean even your most unexperienced indie dev these days starts with a prototype that is actually "fun" to play. How can a multimillion dollar, couple of hundred people and six year production result in "The game wasn’t fun"? Seriously, even the drug- fueled Vanguard fail wasn't even close to be this epic.
How can Curt expect his developers, who worked for a living developing the game, to then play it (in its unfinished state) in their one free hour in the middle of the day (lunch time)? I like Curt as a person, but if that was an honest statement, then he was really clueless and naive. Not the strongest characteristics a business owner should have.
The stupid thing is though, that other company Schilling is 1/3 owner off (and which I have bought quite a bit of stuff from) is not doing badly. It's not a billion-dollar company by far, but it does work.


@1000damage: That's actually kind of how EVE started out. It has expanded its playerbase by a couple orders of magnitude and is, by most standards, considered 'successful', even if it's not playing in the same ballpark as WoW and co.

And you know what? That's OK. Everyone involved is happy with that. The game can never really get much larger than it already is because the market it's targeting (sociopathic assholes and/or people who can tolerate them) isn't that large. And that's OK. They're doing alternative things to expand their revenue base - Dust514 for starters. Good on them.

I'd like to see more narrow markets being targeted. I'd like them to see EVE-level population/revenues, and for that to be considered rewarding and successful and 'enough', instead of everyone chasing the multi-million player mark because WoW set unrealistic expectations.

As it is, without knowing anything at all about Project Copernicus, I'm going to hazard a guess:

I'm guessing it had 3rd-person avatars engaging in tab-targeting hotbar-based combat that lasted roughly 20sec per mob/pack encounter.

Also guessing at class+level-locked skill progression, fetch/kill/escort questing across hubs located in themed zones, graded by level difficulty, ending with maybe a couple entry-level 5-player dungeons relying on trinity party composition, and one 20'ish-player raid featuring higher-quality gear rewards, and a tacked-on gathering/crafting system that produced gear results that were rarely level-appropriate without grinding, and were always inferior to same-level dungeon/raid drops.

Maybe some queueable, fixed-size teams for battlegrounds PVP, and maybe one free-for-all zone, just on the side.

Just at a guess.

Drinking game: Take a shot every time you can think of an MMO which the above description applies to. Have a friend nearby to call the hospital to get your stomach pumped.
@cam Well, that's how Eve started leaving out that the publisher Simon and Schuster Interactive paid for it then sold it back to CCP for what everyone assumes was pennies on the dollar.
Judging by Curt's comments, the game excelled in all aspects that are predictable results from 6 years of production like 3D models, line of code, etc.

Unfortunately, WoW has network effects and there's no way to beat them with production assets like these.
@Numtini: Except these days, replace a publisher's start-up capital injection with a kickstarter.
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