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AGDC: Interview with Brett Close, CEO of Curt Schilling's 38 Studios

Kevin Kelly

It's no secret that baseballer Curt Schilling is a huge MMO fan, but you might not know much about his 38 Studios game development company, formed with artist Todd McFarlane and fantasy writer R.A. Salvatore. They've been working on a massive MMO code-named Copernicus, which they haven't said too much about yet. This week at Austin GDC, Vivox announced that it would be providing the voice application inside the game, and five pieces of key concept art were released at Comic-Con earlier this summer.

We sat down with CEO Brett Close in Austin to find out what we could about Copernicus, and what's in store for the new company. Check out the full interview after the break.

Gallery: 38 Studios' Copernicus MMO | 5 Photos

So, how long have you been at 38?

Almost two years now.

When was it founded? Two years ago?

Conceptually? Let's say about three years ago in Curt's head of, "I want to do this thing." On paper it was about October of '06, and then I came on directly after that. Curt formed the company and knew that this was going to work, and began amassing talent and finding people that could help him amass talent. He literally picked up the phone and called me one night after probing the industry and hearing about a few different people, and I was one of those.

He called me in. We had a very long discussion about a lot of different things; baseball and video game development and people and teams; and integrity and creativity, and what's wrong with the industry and what's right with the industry; and how we could get the best people together to channel all the rightness and try to keep the wrongness out.

Where did you come from before that? Where have you been before 38?

I was running the Midway Austin studio here in Austin. I signed onto Midway because I was very attracted to the comeback story, and was very excited to do that. We actually built that studio, and built out the space, aggregated that team. We went from about 40 people when it was inevitable to close to 200 after we built that up fully. I was there for about two years before I took the call and decided to come out to 38 Studios and start this up.

Prior to that, I was at EA Los Angeles, in charge of the Senior Development Director of the EA Los Angeles studio in charge of the Medal of Honor franchise. Prior to that I was at a company called VR 1, which is a startup in Colorado. Prior to that I was at another gaming startup in Colorado called Devil's Thumb Entertainment, which was actually part of DMA North America. I've gone from being a software engineer, I have a Master's in Computer Science, literally writing code and being a tech director and an architect, to really applying some old problem solving techniques in organizational and corporate.

Building companies and organizations and figuring out the best way to make them keep teams happy and channel creativity; and build and structure companies so you can do something amazing and we don't have to destroy families and ruin the cultural fabric and things like that.

What sort of things are 38 working on? I know you're working on this MMO codenamed Copernicus that you haven't said too much about, but there was this big announcement you guys are working with Vivox for the voice component of that game.

Absolutely. It's exciting.

I don't know how much you can say about that. Has anything else come out yet?

We have not released anything yet. We are an entertainment company. We classify ourselves as an entertainment company with the marquee names, Curt obviously being a founder but Todd McFarlane is the sort of pop culture icon visionary art director on an executive level, and then Bob Salvatore, a New York Times bestselling author on the creative and design side in terms of creative director creating new intellectual property. We also have Thom Ang as the in house art director. He is very hands-on and driving that vision on a daily basis, and Jason Roberts, who serves as the director of design and works closely with Bob to translate the higher level story vision into the design aspects of the game.

That was always one thing Curt and I agreed on from the very beginning. If you can do it, creating new IP is much more industry disruptive than just going in and coming off some existing IP and doing a "Me Too" thing. It's hard, which is why one of the risk mitigation factors was to get people who repeatedly created great IP from scratch, and not only do this from an expertise standpoint but also from an audience attachment perspective.

If I'm one of the 150 different countries, somebody in one of these countries who's read one of Bob Salvatore's novels, and I see this product come out; this game, this online product; and see the toys and see the trading card games, and see the cellular apps and see the video on demand media as well as the novel prequels, all that, I'm going to want to roll over and get involved in the online presence, and be able to live that story. To be able to get involved with my friends and actually watch that story unfold, interact as that story unfolds.

So, we have a variety of products that I can talk about. I just listed the toys, cell products, potentially console products, novel prequel, etc. There are a couple of things that I can't really talk about. There's a web product that actually we did acquire a company called Mentor Media that has a customized, personalized newsletter based on a patent pending technology that generates a newsletter for World of Warcraft players, and releasing that as a fan site very soon. That's called The Azeroth Advisor, that's a very interesting product that we're actually revamping at this point. There are a number of things in the pipe that we don't really talk about because we're really closed about what we're doing until we're ready to announce things.

Is that the case with Copernicus, you're not coming out and saying what it's about or anything?

We say very little about Copernicus. We just took a huge step in even releasing some of the art, concept art for the environments. We're huge believers in not showing things until we're really ready to show things, and giving people that critical reveal so that they're satisfied with it. Once you open that, you can't really go back. What we're doing is huge and impressive and incredible fun, but it's our baby and we're not going to let it out of the house until we're absolutely ready for that.

I'm sure with Curt being such a famous EverQuest player; it's going to have to be big both in scale and quality. Now when you talk about a project like Copernicus and you talk about Todd McFarlane and Bob Salvatore, are they involved from the ground floor on all these properties?

Absolutely. Very much so. Bob Salvatore actually lives in Leominster, Massachusetts, and that's about thirty minutes away. He's in the office at least twice a week, works directly with the content team and the designers in crafting the story. The story's actually complete but we're continually working on how that integrates on the mechanics side and the content side. And so, he's working with the team every day. He's done an amazing job, not just in the writing sense that Salvatore's so well known for, but in franchising himself out across the team and building the leaders in the team into the visionaries that he is about the story so that they can evangelize, and they can resonate as the design continues to evolve and mature.

His vision is really engendered into the team, and that's critical because you don't want to have him there all the time saying, "Is this what should happen?" The guys have actually really drunk the Salvatore Kool Aid in a good way and it's really impressive. We've got this huge staff, essentially, of designers and content mechanics. Designers who are continuing to perpetuate that on the design side. On the art side Todd McFarlane actually is in about every four to six weeks. He's based in Phoenix. When he's not in, at least on a weekly basis, we have a Cintiq video set up. A Cintiq is an interactive tablet monitor, a beautiful piece of technology. Our guys can actually sit in a room with a large monitor up on the wall and Todd, when he's in Phoenix, is in there with the same setup. They put a piece of art up and you have all the artists in the room, and they can sit there and interactively draw.

They can say, "Here's what I would do with the wings, and see how the horns do this. Do you want this kind of profile; do you want the thing to read at a distance? Here's the kind of thing you should go for." And so he's literally art directing remotely, even though he's not in house. On that particular moment he's delivering a lot of value.

So, as far as Curt is involved, is he involved day to day or does he check in weekly?

Curt's very involved. He's involved day to day. He's an avid gamer, as you might have heard. He's involved very much in that obviously this is a huge source of passion and satisfaction, and it gets right to the core of one of the things Curt loves, which is why he decided to do this. He loves being involved, but he also understands that he hired these guys, me, and we built this team to build a game. There's a very clear line that Curt understands and that we operate on in terms of him being able to have a sample of the soup to taste, but not just walking into the kitchen whenever he feels like it and directing things.

He's in very frequently and has great ideas as an avid gamer. It's always good to have somebody like that whose so passionate to say, "Why can't we do this? Why can't we do that? Would this work?" and really just continue to throw it at the wall and see if it sticks.

So, the announcement with Vivox, what's that about?

So, that was about a couple different pieces: 38 Studios is all about very strong partnerships. Smart, strategic partnerships that allow us to deliver the absolute best for the customer, but also allow us to free our hands up to focus on building what we do best, which is building the game. Creating IP and building the game. We are licensing engine technologies like the Unreal engine and Big World, and in a similar way VoIP is nothing that you want to take lightly.

There's a big operation there. I'm an ex software engineer, I know how it works. You can go write some basic VoIP but there's so much more than just the protocol and transferring those packets. Vivox is the best of breed in the market for both the feature set, the technology, the business model and the operational model of us being able to offload the bandwidth and server demand to their servers. They offer incredible security solutions. Voice fonts allow one of the biggest and most exciting pieces to come together.

It's always been if Andrea's a giant orc and I'm playing a little human woman, and we start chatting it's going to sound really silly. So, I can start applying voice fonts that make her sound like some big orc and make me sound like a little human female. There are so many things that they are doing right to deliver that kind of solution that it's just easy, plug and play, we just want it. It delivers the best for us and it delivers the best for the customer.
Andrea: The community building aspect was obviously a major point for you.

Community is key. This isn't just a product, it's a service that you're delivering to the community and continuing to build and perpetuate and cultivate that community. This is a key piece of delivering something that continues to enrich the community.

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