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Interview: 38 Studios CEO on Big Huge Games acquisition

Is something in the air? While this week saw ZeniMax's acquisition of industry legend id Software, last month saw newcomer 38 Studios' acquisition of Big Huge Games, THQ's troubled developer that, like id, has rockstar status of its own. We had a chance to talk with 38 Studios' CEO Brett Close shortly after the announcement last month. On the plate: What will Big Huge be working on now? What's happening to the two titles BHG was working on for THQ? And when could we see something Copernicus-themed from Big Huge Games?

Joystiq: Why Big Huge games? And were you looking or considering any other developers to bring into the 38 Studios family?

Brett Close: Well, we've got 36 studios to go, of course.

"It's definitely a merger. They're, as I said, incredible veteran talent."

... That's a joke. The situation with Big Huge became evident to us obviously. Everybody knows about the THQ posture and economic status. And we actually have a relationship with Big Huge just in terms of personal developer history. And we became aware of that when it became reasonably legal public knowledge regarding what was going on with THQ. So once we became aware of that, and recognized the capabilities of the studio, which we already knew, but we knew the talent, 38 Studios has always been about gathering great talent together to do incredible things. So, it's an incredible studio. And once that situation arose it was just evident that we needed to figure out a way to turn those lemons into lemonade, right? Turn that opportunity around and add them to the portfolio. It's definitely a merger. They're, as I said, incredible veteran talent that, the more we examine the situation, the more it was a hand-in-glove fit just in terms of the cross-compatibility, the cultural fit, the technology fit, and just the philosophy of how we approach things in terms of development and intellectual properties. So, you know, it's sort of made its own gravy. The more we looked at it the more we decided to move forward with it.

So was it more of an opportunistic acquisition -- i.e., you weren't necessarily in the market for a developer but the Big Huge opportunity was too significant to pass up?

That would ... that would make us sound like a pretty funny company. I guess if you looked at it that way. That's not entirely true though. I will tell you that we have always, as part of our vision, viewed the Copernicus IP to be frankly too small to lay out over one channel, as it were. We never reviewed it as purely an MMO intellectual property. We've always talked about that. For what little we say, we have said it will be in the R. A. Salvatore books. It will be in graphic novels. It will be on the MMO. And it will be on a variety of other platforms and delivery mechanisms. So the fact that this facilitated and materialized our vision of getting Copernicus as an IP out over more product platforms, more channels, and the fact that this studio is just a great fit. It's just flat out a great fit for 38 Studios in terms of technology and team. And increases our choices. Increases our product portfolio. Allows us capabilities with their product back-catalog. It just creates more choices and more opportunities for 38 Studios.

So the Copernicus franchise, I know in the press release, I think it was you, pretty clearly said, that the acquisition would be used to extend that IP into new genres. So a couple questions on that front: Number one, it also stipulated that Big Huge Games was working on an unnamed RPG for 360, PS3, and PC. Is that the unnamed RPG that they had been working on under THQ?

"They are working on an unannounced RPG for THQ which is an original intellectual property. And development on that will not stop."

Yes. They are working on an unannounced RPG for THQ, which is an original intellectual property. And development on that will not stop. But as I said the common interest in terms of technology and the fact that they're building an RPG. And their proprietary Mercury Engine. And just the talent -- Ken Rolston -- you know, people at that studio who know RPGs and understand what we're building. The fit. In terms of talent, technology, were something that we couldn't ignore.

And THQ is going to continue to serve as publisher for that unnamed RPG?

Currently no. As in the wake of the acquisition, there are a number of things that we need to examine. So saying that THQ would not, is not accurate. And saying that THQ would, is not accurate. Reevaluating what is going to be the, in terms of the publishing, deals for any of our products is, frankly at this point, something that we haven't announced yet. And is [to be determined] in the case of the intellectual property at Big Huge Games.

Big Huge Games was rumored to be working on a Wii title called "God the Game" and that was not mentioned in the press release. Any insight or knowledge into that title, and if ownership of that came over as part of the acquisition?

"Ownership [of the Wii title] was brought over as a part of the acquisition. "

Ownership was brought over as a part of the acquisition. We acquired the talent, the intellectual property, the -- as you mentioned -- RPG and that Wii title as well as technology and various licenses. So that exists. In terms of where development will go with that very interesting property is -- as are all of the pieces in the portfolio -- specifically what we will do with that is TBD at this point in time.

I can tell you that it's a very interesting product and they did some great work on it and it's yet another piece of the reason why we view that as a value point.

In today's climate, companies like THQ, Midway, etc. are all down-sizing or getting rid of studios. Why is this the right climate and the right time for a company like 38 Studios to expand?

It makes sense in terms of going back to the points that I brought up earlier: the veteran talent there. It sounds cliched at this point but it can't be over-emphasized that this talent is what builds these amazing products and there is absolutely nothing we will hedge on to build the quality of products and the type of products that we're building. Given the economic climate and the circumstances under which the deal happened and things like that -- you know we're a privately held company and I can't disclose those points -- but obviously it says what our vision is and what our business strategy is. So all the way around it just solidifies the vision of how we're going to see the market with our flagship products, with the Copernicus MMO RPG and with a broad diversity of products we can release based on Big Huge's capabilities.

Broadening the genre of games you work on with this acquisition: so the company is still very much focused around making Copernicus-themed games or games that take place in the Copernicus IP or world, I guess with the exception of these two games that were already in development at Big Huge. With these two games out of the way or once they're finished, will all of Big Huge's development resources be put into making games that fit the Copernicus IP?

"Rise of Nations, etc. -- we're obviously not going to ignore those or relegate those to a dusty closet somewhere."

That is something that we are balancing right now but I can tell you that based on the portfolio -- that's the back catalog of intellectual property, their original intellectual property as well as the other pieces we talked about, Rise of Nations, etc. -- we're obviously not going to ignore those or relegate those to a dusty closet somewhere. So there is plenty that we can do with that in the wake of the acquisition; there's a significant amount of specifics in terms of how we're going to balance those resources. So we'll give you details about that those particular pieces at a later time.

The Mercury Engine, you also pointed out in the press release, was a significant contributor to your decision to acquire Big Huge Games. Are you guys going to use that engine in other products being developed outside of Big Huge, specifically at 38 Studios proper?

The value of that engine is something that can't be ignored. Technology, across the industry, you see the expense goes into the expertise of both technology, especially cross-platform technology. So the technology is impressive. It provides 38 Studios with greater ability overall for the MMO as well as for other products and that's not just ... it's tools; platform; content integration technology. They've got a very rich toolset that they've been working on for a number of years, which again goes back to the talent of that studio and what they've done. How we're going to use that, we'll give you specific details at a later time. So I would look for some key future announcements in terms of what products comes out based on that technology.

For the MMO specifically, which has been in development for awhile, I imagine it wouldn't be easy to retrofit a different engine or toolset into the development of that. Am I incorrect there?

No but we are the type of company that ... we're always willing to go buy the wheel rather than reinvent it when possible. And again, this technology provided us more flexibility in solving all the problems and doing all the things we want to do with the MMO, as well as a variety of other products. So, we'll release more details about that in the future.

Since the Mercury Engine is cross platform, are there plans or will this acquisition facilitate your ability to bring the Copernicus MMO to other platforms, like consoles?

Certainly because of their capability, it certainly gives us options as I said. It gives us more choices about what we want do there. But in terms of any announcement or specifically what we are going to do with that, we will give you more details at a later date.

Is 38 looking to acquire any other development studios in the near future?

Well, that's why I joked earlier about we've got 36 more to go. Please do take that as a joke! Currently no, we have no other acquisitions in process or specifically that we're planning right now. And as I said, we're a privately owned company so we keep that stuff pretty close to the vest.

This is sort of a big picture questions, just to set the stage for the Copernicus MMO: seeing uas how you're now branching out into different genres and obviously you have the books and the comics and everything else. But the major linchpin of the IP is still going to be this MMO. So another fantasy MMO. What is going to make Copernicus so special or different?

That is something that you will have to see when we release the specifics of the product. When we actually start doing product releases and letting people see more about the specifics of what's going on there. Our secret sauce, obviously some of it is the tie-ins that we have involved in terms of R.A., Todd [McFarlane] and the talent and experience that have built MMOs before on this team, as well as variety of other products. What I will tell you rather than drilling into details about why this is going to give people something that they have never experienced before, give them a type of product that they never played in an online experience, that they have never had -- what I will tell you is that it's simply based on that talent and based on our approach and our experience in building these products. There's nothing like it out there right now. And I don't believe that there's anybody working on anything like this right now. So beyond that, we keep specifics of what we're building extremely tight because we simply are strong believers in the arc of the hype curve regarding letting you know what we're building at the right time and it's not time to release that.

So last question, with this acquisition happening now, with games already in development at Big Huge, when is the first time that you think we'll see one these new IPS, one of the Copernicus games, out of Big Huge?

That's TBD. We're actually not releasing any information yet as I have said specifically what resources are directed towards what products -- those are the things that we are allocating right now, but in terms of any product release schedules or announcements, those will come and I would direct you to keep your eyes open because we'll certainly be disclosing that information over the next number of months.

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