The Week The Music Died

It’s hard to overstate how difficult this week was for what remains of the MMO industry.

First off,  Bioware took an axe to the Old Republic team. No official numbers on how many were let go, but most people I’ve talked to put the total bloodletting at somewhere in the neighborhood 0f 200 people… 40% of the studio.  This after EA went through contortion after contortion trying to first boost then mask subscriber numbers (at one point giving most players a free month of time) finally coming out and saying that the most expensive game ever produced (my initial estimate of $150m  was at least $50m low) wasn’t really that important and why are you people so interested in it anyway? So, a retrenchment of the team, which never really underwent the usual post-launch pruning, was inevitable.

You’d think the loss of 40% of the team working on the highest profile MMO release of the year would be hard to top, but hand it to Curt Schilling, he stepped up to the plate without fanfare, knocked it out of the park, into the bleachers, and  straight into the record books with a company explosion so painfully drawn out and mismanaged that it may have poisoned the well for anyone ever considering investing in an MMO company. Lest you think I’m exaggerating, let me direct you to a press conference by the esteemed Governor of Rhode Island trying to explain the mystery of role playing game sell-through, team burn rate, and why those games are so sexy and violent, anyway. Or just check any media source in Rhode Island or Massachusetts, with people with no connection to gaming other than, you know, paying taxes, furious that they, through the state, apparently now are on the hook for $90 million dollars to pay, among other things, a cool $1.4 million to R. A. Salvatore to come up with synonyms for the word “drow”. (At least, until the company collapsed, at which point Salvatore, as a stakeholder along with Rhode Island taxpayers, lost any hope of being paid.) Coincidentally, that is also close to what 38 Studios paid the state of Rhode Island this month in lieu of paying the people who worked there.

While all this was happening, 38Studios employees were kept completely in the dark. Their first warning was when payroll checks stopped showing up in their bank accounts. The final warning was a dismissal letter showing all the compassion of Ayn Rand towards welfare recipients.

And that’s just what’s on the public record so far. The rumors that have been surrounding this total collapse/clusterbomb have made the above look like a case study in business management. Insurance plans unpaid for months (and literally uncovered by pregnant women informed by their doctor that their insurance expired) ensuring that the newly laid off employees are disqualified for COBRA and liable for pre-existing conditions with new plans, relocation/home sales packages so badly mismanaged that ‘beneficiaries’ turned out to be liable for two mortgages and back taxes due to lack of payment, the list goes on.

Through all this, the 38Studios employees have shown an unbelievable loyalty to Curt Schilling himself. From everything I’ve heard, publicly and privately, Curt Schilling is a great guy, generous to a fault, and a gamer way back before it was ever considered cool much less a path to wealth, and has sunk over $30m of his own cash into the company.

However, Schilling is also a very wealthy man (over $114m over the length of his career), and a political conservative who has consistently demanded that government not be involved in the private sphere, except where he is involved. There is a word for that and it isn’t “great” or “generous”, it is “ragingly hypocritical“. But even beyond that, Schilling failed the 400 people who depended on him.

I’m told that most of the people affected by the Old Republic layoffs had plenty of warning what was about to happen, specifically because during a company meeting Greg Zeschuk, one of Bioware’s founders and the studio head, was honest and forthright about the challenges facing the company and what his people could probably expect. When faced with the prospect of failure, he stepped up and said hard things that no doubt hurt him deeply and personally, because his people were owed that much.

Schilling did not. Instead he continued to squander what little operating capital the company had left to it trying to continue drawing public taxpayer money into what by that point could almost be considered a Ponzi scheme, while keeping the vast majority of his employees completely unaware of how final the situation was.

Loyalty matters, but character also matters. And in this case, Schilling’s failure of character has damaged an industry, to the point where it may be years before we see another investment in MMOs. I am loathe to link to anything said by the possibly sentient Michael Pachter, but even a stopped watch is right twice a day. The MMO industry in general is in deep trouble this year, and Schilling this month pile-drived it even further into the concrete.

I have nothing but sympathy for the now-unemployed former colleagues of Schilling at 38, and I know from my own time working in the trenches that many of them will violently object to much of what I have said here. But I think the direction that our industry is going – the incredible amount of money wasted by EA on what was essentially a roll of the dice that came up 2 and 3, and the even more incredible display of massive hubris and utter incompetence on the part of Schilling and his management team, is killing the very concept of massively multiplayer gaming.

Addendum: Steve “Moorgard” Danuser, creative director and the self-described “Czar of Amalur” has a different perspective: it’s all the Governor’s fault.

We just needed a little more help, and we thought the state would have our backs on that,” said Steve Danuser, one of the creative minds at Curt Schillings 38 Studios.  “We thought the governor was an ally. It didn’t turn out that way.”

“We’ve really loved it here…we bought homes, we’ve helped the businesses in the area,” said Danuser.

“The governor has turned his back on a lot of taxpaying Rhode Island citizens who work here and it’s unfortunate because we had a lot of great people who wanted to contribute to Rhode Island and now they can’t.”

The “Czar of Amalur” says he has a few questions for the governor.

“Why did you do it? Why didn’t you help us?” asked Danuser. “He (the governor) said a lot of things, he’s broken confidentiality. He’s done a lot of things to materially hurt us and I don’t understand it.”

My comment on the above: Um.

Old Republic Has More Subscribers Than You Do (Unless Your Name Is Bobby Kotick)

Industry analysts expressed surprise at this news

It’s official: per CFO Eric Brown, during an earnings conference call, SWTOR is making a lot of money, with 1.7m subscribers (which Brown went to an unusual effort to quantify correctly as a mix of paying customers and customers with billing information entered but still on free trial) and over 2m sell-through (copies sold to actual customers as opposed to sitting on store shelves).

Brown said EA was actually able to add a lot more users on a per-server basis, thanks to some technical improvements. He also noted that about 40% of the units of the game sold during the quarter went over the company’s Origin digital-distribution channel, which is not tracked by market researchers such as NPD.

“This has been the most rapid scaling of an MMO ever, based on our research,” Brown commented.

EA stock rose sharply as a result, pleasing Hutts everywhere. SWTOR is now firmly in place as the #2 MMO, in both earnings and subscribers. It’s now up to Bioware to follow through on that with retention.

Rumor: WH40K MMO Cancelled, THQ Prepares For Liquidation Sale

Nothing more than rumor at this point.

Kotaku detailing above leak:

The Vigil-developed THQ-published MMO has had a very long and by all accounts troubled development history but was closing in on eventual release. However it’s rapidly becoming clear that the space for sub-$100M budget releases by large publishers is becoming very tiny indeed.

Update: THQ denies the rumor.

The Quarter To Three Refugee Camp

tl;dr: If you’re looking for The Banned Of Lum the Mad Tom Chick forum it’s over here.

Quarter to Three is a forum I have posted on quite often over the past decade (yes, that long). It’s a forum loosely based on gaming with a literate group of followers, founded by two fairly clueful gaming writers, Mark Asher and Tom Chick. Mark eventually drifted away and Tom took over full time.

There was the usual drama, as often goes with such things. Earlier this year Tom had clearly had enough and turned the forum essentially unmoderated.  A lot of previously unbanned users came back, and some people took advantage of the Lord of the Flies atmosphere to run riot.

Obviously this was unsustainable for an enterprise that actually costs someone a non-zero amount of money to host, so Tom announced that he would be returning to moderator status, and then today posted a thread that said in so many words, “Yep, I’m back, and a lot of you are on notice, and this gaggle of people that can’t stand my moderation are gone period.” Some were surprised by this list, both by its inclusions (some apparently were only included for vocally disagreeing with choices Tom had made) and its exclusions (the worst offenders of the previous months of unmoderation were pointedly not in the “You’re gone NOW” list). The obvious conclusion was that Tom’s first action was to simply get rid of the people that got on his nerves, a conclusion that Tom later tried, with some effort but not complete success, to disprove.

It’s safe to say I would do things differently – and I suspect the suspects complaining would complain more with my method, which is less soul-searching “look, here’s all the people I don’t like, let’s talk about it here” and more “while you weren’t looking yesterday three people were shot in the head. MOVE ON CITIZEN”. Like Tom, I am a firm believer in the This-Is-My-Living-Room-You-Yutz theory of forum moderation – if I don’t want you around, you’re not around, and no, you don’t get a vote. If you don’t like it, well, you know, you do have a living room.

So given all that, why did I make a refugee camp for people recently banned and looking for shelter? Well, mainly because it was needed and I had a forum I wasn’t using. I agreed with some of the names on Tom’s list of People Shot In The Head, disagreed with others. This is entirely normal, given that my name isn’t Tom and it’s not my forum. And again, while I believe I would have handled things differently, I don’t disagree that’s entirely his prerogative to handle things the way in which he deems best.

As one of the admins of Quarter to Three put it, “I find it endlessly ironic that Lum himself is setting up a “banned of lum the mad” type-site. It’s the circle of life!” And so it is. As I said, I mainly did this as a short term favor for people hit by surprise by The Great Bannination Of 2012. I just got word that Matt Gallant (another Banned of Tom the Chick whom I respect and whose contributions I valued far more than others left standing) is setting up his own refugee camp of sorts at his own site. I certainly have better things to do than hold the hands of whiny forum babies, maybe he’s not that busy!

In any event, it’s a series of events rich with irony, pathos, and unintended humor, much like Rick Santorum winning a caucus.

My Utterly Predictable Top Ten Games Of 2011 List

10: Catherine

Catherine was a game whose core gameplay was awful (essentially a very twiddly platform game). And you didn’t care because the game itself was so compelling. Japan is a society that takes adult games seriously (and by that I mean games with mature themes, not Jenna Jameson Modern Warfare 4) and thus we get games like Catherine, which start as a rumination on love and regret and veers into very weird places. Pity about the actual gameplay!

9: Fallout: New Vegas

Fallout 3 was very awesome – as someone who lived in the DC area for a few years it was pretty nifty actually recognizing the post-apocalyptic wreckage of many places I was familiar with,  not to mention just being a great game in general. But it was very much apart from the canon established by Fallout and Fallout 2. Fallout: NV, on the other hand, very much was Fallout 3 in all but name. The only two problems with it: wacky instability when it shipped, and the fact that the timeline has moved so far in the future that Fallout 4 is kind of pointless without some sort of license reboot.

8: Hatoful Boyfriend

Hatoful Boyfriend is a romance simulator where you compete for the attention of pigeons. I don’t need to go any further.

7: Bastion

Lum added Bastion as number 8 on this list. Lum didn’t know what else to say other than it was a really good game and that adding a dynamic narrator to a rogue-like was a work of genius. Thank you, Lum.

6: Portal 2

Like any sequel it wasn’t as OMG WHAT as the original and the gameplay itself started to drag near the end but it still had great writing and the best rant ever put into a video game.

5: Dungeons of Dredmor

Best Use Of Necronomiconomics As A Gameplay Mechanic 2011. This is a very silly game that you should be playing. It’s fun! It’s hardcore! You need the lutefisk for the lutefisk god!

4:  Kaiserreich for Darkest Hour

This will take some explanation. Darkest Hour is a fan-made iteration of the ever-Lum-praised Hearts of Iron 2. Part of its feature set is support for fan mods. The most well-concieved mod for Darkest Hour is a game called Kaiserreich. Kaiserreich postulates a 1936 world where – stop me if I lose you – Germany wins World War 1, the Whites win the Russian Civil War, Communist revolutions overthrow the governments of France (who takes refuge in Algeria) and Britain (who takes refuge in Canada), Hermann Goering sets up a petit empire in the former Belgian Congo Mittlelafrika, Austria-Hungary is finally about to fall apart, the United States is about to be riven in dueling revolutions between the Communists of Jack Reed, the Fascists of Huey Long, and the military coup led by Douglas MacArthur, and Russia can go in any of four different wild directions from a Communist takeover to a Czarist revival. And it works.

3: All The Games I Should Have Played But Didn’t Have Time But Heard Were Really Good.

You know, Dark Souls, Arkham City, Saints Row 3. I’ll get to them. Eventually.

2: Skyrim

Skyrim is the latest version of The Bethesda Game – you know, the one they keep making ever since Daggerfall (trivia: my first foray into games writing was a walkthrough/support site for Daggerfall). This one, they got right. Skyrim really is a non-linear fantasy simulator that is utterly epic in every way and there is almost no wasted space. It really should be the #1 entry in this list and they really are pretty interchangeable at this point.

1: Star Wars: The Old Republic

Yes, the developers and inside baseball commenters will be debating throughout 2012 whether EA has literally moved the barrier of entry into MMO development into the level of small countries’ gross national product with the sheer thunderclap scale of investment that SWTOR represented. But let’s not let that detract from what SWTOR accomplished: storytelling in an MMO that works as the center point of the game. Also, lightsabers. SWTOR is fun. SWTOR is incredible amounts of fun, while redefining what an MMO is. Is it really an MMO when a game essentially is a Star Wars game that millions of people are playing at the same time? Who cares… it’s fun. Games are supposed to be fun, and SWTOR gets that – a point too many MMO developers have forgotten.