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Editorial: Learning from the 38 Studios disaster

Shawn Schuster

The closure of 38 Studios and Big Huge Games yesterday sparked a series of interesting events that make me both sad and proud to be a part of the greater gamer community. Job offers were overflowing from current game companies looking to snatch up some of 38's talented designers, and a Twitter hashtag was even created to spread the word and get new jobs for those affected by the layoffs. I am proud of the outreach and camaraderie of the game development community, but the hate being thrown at Curt Schilling isn't going to solve anything.

The most important thing we can do at this point is to tape off the crime scene, look at the evidence, and figure out what went wrong.

1. If we don't learn from this, MMOs are doomed. I know it's been said by thousands of MMO-hating commenters on most big gaming sites, but they're right. It's not about what MMOs are at this point; it's about how they're perceived. No one will want to invest in an MMO if these types of failures keep happening. I'm actually surprised that studios are still investing in MMOs, but that desire to be the next World of Warcraft is powerful. There will never be another World of Warcraft in the tired format of World of Warcraft, but we can still find light at the end of the massively multiplayer tunnel by being smart and open-minded. Riot Games proved that last year and continues to prove it.

2. But this is not the fault of MMOs collectively. The genre itself didn't create the problems that closed 38 Studios. Sure, a good chunk of the blame lies on Curt Schilling's go-in-guns-blazing enthusiasm for creating a successful business from his (second?) favorite hobby, but we don't know the specifics of the entire situation yet, and I don't imagine we will unless the records become public. Blaming one person is not the right answer, even if it's the easy answer. The guy had his famous name plastered all over the game, but people were hired to do the managerial mumbo jumbo for him. The studio didn't close because of Curt Schilling. The studio didn't close because "MMOs are dying." The studio closed because the entire formula was bad.

"There will never be another World of Warcraft in the tired format of World of Warcraft."

3. Big budget is out. It's said that Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning needed to sell three million copies for the studio to break even on its investment, but we all know that's not practical because even the best games rarely reach that number quickly enough to pay back a government loan less than three months after launch. Bethesda and Blizzard aside, selling three million copies of a game to break even is quite a risk for any studio. That's literally gambling on the livelihoods of hundreds of people working on that project. You can't take risks at that level of investment, which is exactly why small indie studios are thriving right now. People don't care as much about pretty graphics and realistic voice-overs as they did five years ago. People want to have fun. The end.

4. Too many chefs in the kitchen is a recipe for disaster. I want to see a show of hands for those of you who winced when you heard about all the impressive talent being hired by 38 Studios to create Reckoning and Project Copernicus. R.A Salvatore, Todd McFarlane, Travis McGeathy and many other top talent were brought on to make one of the most highly anticipated games of the last five years. But that's not a sustainable plan. Sure, it builds positive hype, but you can't maintain that type of payroll with a management team that has no experience launching games.

I'm no financial expert, and I've never created a game in my life, but I've been around the block in my nearly 37 years and think I can speak for common sense a bit here. I appreciate that Curt Schilling is a gamer and wanted nothing more than to use his well-deserved baseball earnings to build the best game he's ever played, but it's just not that easy. You can hire the most talented people on the planet to create an amazing work of art, but if you want to make that art into a business, you need a whole new approach. Creativity and mathematical business savvy are on opposing sides of the human brain for a reason, and it takes much more than good ideas to get that synergy working.

It's a shame, too, because Reckoning is a really good game. It didn't fail by any stretch of the imagination and is said to have sold 1.2 million copies already. Project Copernicus could very well have been the best MMO we've ever played, but we may never know at this point, and not because MMOs don't work but because MMOs are harder work than they seem.

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