And Now, The Finger Pointing

Boston Magazine has a recap of the 38 Studios meltdown, cast as some kind of dinner theatre, with Curt Schilling the amiable and clueless family patriarch who just holds his head in his hands sadly at a kid’s softball game wondering

and the just and the unjust alike were trapped in the onslaught of taxpayer funding

why his company blew up.

No really. That’s not from the dinner theatre metaphor, that’s from the actual story.

Back at the softball field in Dracut, Schilling is still having trouble fathoming what happened. “I’ll find myself in the middle of the day, just aching,” he says. He concedes that he’d promised his employees 60 days’ warning if the money ever looked like it was going to run out, but argues that the situation was moving too fast for him to keep sending updates. “It wasn’t that I didn’t want to tell anyone,” he says, “it’s I didn’t know what to say.”

Note to Curt: being in that position is why your job title was Chairman and not, say, Director of Responsibility-Free Fun Stuff.

No new actual material facts in the piece, but lots and lots of context: the author of the infamous “it is in the company’s interests that we fire everyone immediately, get out” letter turns out to be Curt’s uncle, for example. And surprisingly a lot of ex-38 Studios execs talked to the author, on and off the record, mainly to point out that Curt Schilling did not have the most realistic expectations. (You don’t say.)

The most damning part, however, came from Hamlet-On-The-Softball-Pitch himself:

“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.

Most outside the industry will read that and think “well, damn. It wasn’t fun, they failed!”

Most inside the industry will read that and think that Curt Schilling knows so little about making games that he actually expects people who work on a game for 12 hours a day to play it – even though it’s unfinished and most projects don’t actually become fun until the last sprint of development – on their one free non-working hour.

  • Reddotmist

    WoW was, once upon a time, fun for most of it’s entire 8 month beta.

    GW2 was fun over a year ago when I first played it.

    I think companies think like you just said, that you can add fun in later.  And that’s just not true.  You can add content, you can add incentives later, the things that keep people going.  But if the fundamental interaction the player has with the game (hint, the fundamental action in AAA MMOs is usually the combat) isn’t compelling, then there’s no point in trying to dress it up with a bunch of mechanics and incentives designed to disguise the fact that you’re playing a boring game.

  • “It wasn’t that I didn’t want to tell anyone,” he says, “it’s I didn’t know what to say.”
    How about: “We do not have funds past 60 days.”
    Maybe better: “we stopped paying your health insurance,” or “we have decided not to make those mortgage payments we said we would.”

    The spirit of the promise was “taking care of employees is more important to me than saving face in a bad situation.” That doesn’t require explanation, or hand-wringing, or anything but simple honesty. The spirit of what actually happened was “taking care of employees is the lowest priority, well below saving face in a bad situation.”

  • Sanya

    I remember when I would say, with a hint of scorn, “They obviously don’t even play their own game, or they would know XYZ.” Hell, I remember a certain expose on crafting in UO that had that as a leitmotif 😉

    The difference between me/that long ago ranter, and this guy, is that the only one depending on me at the time was a dog. Also, after six years of working on the same game, I knew better.

  • I don’t know — I think it’s a pretty reasonable expectation to think that some percentage of your employees would be enjoying the game that they are working on when you walk through the office.   Honestly, the only studio I’ve worked in where this was an issue was at NC on Blighted, and there were a smorgasbord of reasons why. 

    Three things that give me pause here, though, are:

    — Wait, the game was in development for 6 years and you’re just now realizing nobody wants to play it? 

    —  Wait, it took you 6 years for the game tech to get done to a point where you could find out if it was worth playing?  And you’re shocked about how it went wrong?  Maybe you were shooting too high here?

    — Wait, the only way you gauge the morale and enthusiasm of your team is by wandering through the office at lunchtime?

    Despite all of these jaw-droppers, as Matthew points out, the most reprehensible part of the 38 saga is the way they allowed the ship to crash and injure many of their employees, when the icebergs were visible months beforehand and there was plenty of time to do the right thing. 

  •  Yeah, while a game doesn’t  have to be orgasmic fun 100% of the time, you should have glimmers of fun along the way.  A skilled designer should be able to play the game and diagnose the problems, and a skilled leader should direct people to toward that goal of having fun.

    I  think this shows  how 38 Studios in the personage of Mr. Schilling, really didn’t understand how to make a game, rather they were simply copying what others have done.

    It really is a shame, because this has had a very negative effect on the rest of us trying to find resources to do innovative things.  Investors we were talking to about Storybricks walked away the week that this news came out.   And, of course, you have the hundreds of employees who are affected in multitudes of ways recounted in these articles.

    In a way, I feel for Curt Schilling.  I know what it’s like to have that burning desire.  But, I’ve spent time learning how to accomplish my goals.  I’ve learned how to program, how to design, how to run a business.  I know I’m not always the smartest person in every field in the room, so I know how to STFU and listen when necessary.  And, I know what it’s like to look at the end of your company but still give people who were depending on you warning to land on their feet and shut it down gracefully.  Even if it wasn’t an entirely happy ending.

    I’m sorry that the story had to end like that, but given all the details and context, I can’t see how it could have ended any other way…

  • With 20+ years in development and three startups under my belt, my actual first thought was “They have a lunch hour?”  Maybe eating at your desk while you keep working is just a Silicon Valley startup thing.

    One startup I worked for was a bit like what the story described.  It was what I would call a “planning for success” venture.  No expense was spared because we were all going to be rich soon.  There was lots of investment in infrastructure and process and a sales and marketing staff .  Lunch was catered daily and the whole dev team ate together (which became a defacto status meeting… so again, lunch hour?). 

    That all cascaded fast when the plan failed to meet its first sales goal. But at least we shipped!

  • Rich Weil

    To be fair.. we have seen “industry veterans” commit the same drastic mistakes of self-delusion as Schilling.  Let’s not pretend that 38 Studios’ disaster was solely because of lack of industry experience.

    •  Sure, but usually you don’t have ignorance of business, ignorance of game development, and dysfunction quite on this  scale and with this much coverage.  Billy-bob game designer’s ego trip that sinks quietly into oblivion doesn’t usually make the front page.  Unfortunately, it’s that publicity that has made investors more skittish than usual when dealing with game startups. :/

      • Ajt312

        I don’t know? Asside from leaving tax payers on the hook, isn’t this story and company arc almost exactly the same as that of experienced industry insider Brad McQuaid’s debacle with Sigil? 

  • Just out of curiosity,  why isn’t there criminal liability for people who withhold insurance money from a paycheck, but then don’t pay the insurance company?