Feature: Kingdoms of Nevermore

Curt Schilling was a very successful baseball player. He poured this drive and by all accounts his entire $50m fortune in Green Monster Games, later 38 Games. Ultimately despite a relatively popular debut title, he turned out to be a less successful video game producer. Bankruptcy aside this venture almost cost him his life.

The saga of 38 Games continues with the Security & Exchange Commission levying fraud charges against Rhode Island Economic Development Corporation and Well Fargo over misleading investors. But what about the saga of the excellent Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning (KoA:R), a game I’m currently revisiting.

All Star Cast

The first (and only) title out of 38 Games would be the fantasy action-RPG, KoA:R. Colon signalling the potential future series as did the games all star credits. R.A. Salvatore, award-winning high fantasy novelist crafted a land of mortals and never-ending Fae, putting the player in charge of the Fateless personal protagonist in a world whose denizens futures are ruled by personal destiny. The Fae lean heavily on folklore much like the Mike Mignola’s Hell Boy universe and its clear that Salvatore had as much understanding of this rich mythology as Big Red’s creator.

Character design and visual realisation were left to Todd McFarlane. Many today would know him from his nightmarish action figures. But before this game and aforementioned toy line, he was a rock star of early nineties comics and one of the fathers of the medium in its current form. The games visuals, as with other features, have been compared to those of the World of Warcraft and its strategy precursors.

This is an unfair comparison given that the cartoonish art Blizzard flagship is clearly inspired by medium which owes a debt to McFarlane and whose works predates the entire Warcraft series. McFarlane and Salvatore were joined by Grant Kirkhope, responsible for the game’s musical score. Often overlooked in much of media, music is as much about creation of atmosphere as visuals or story. Kirkhope has a resume to rival the best particularly across N64 titles, his work on KoA:R was rewarded by similar accolades.

The Other Game

Game production had an equally strong dramatis personæ. Schilling’s passion for gaming and this project twinned with his network of friends meant that when it came to gameplay he’d also recruit the best. Looking to develop a premier RPG experience; 38 Games brought on Travis McGeathy and Ken Rolston respectively – their pedigree’s being Everquest and Elder Scrolls III & IV respectively.

This impressive collection of human capital was to put to work not only on KoA:R; but also Project Copernicus (PC) – which would be the studios second release and a far more ambitious project. PC would reuse the assets of the debut release and mold them into a MMORPG to rival the ever-present WoW, which inspires some of the gameplay decisions. This explains the extensive lore written by Salvatore and in fact the criticism levied at KoA:R that it was a single player version of WoW. The initial games release would establish the future franchise; form to skeleton of the second release; and provide the finances to complete the larger project.

PC was meant to put 38 Studios on the map; instead it buried the company. Beyond recycling KoA:R assets, the studio planned for a visually arresting world augmenting the initial release. In order for PC to see completion and released it required KoA:R to shift 3m units. This much was baked into financing plans of which 38 Games was dependent on for future credit. Was this obtainable? Out of the gate, the title shifted 330,000 in its first month in the US. After another 60 days it rose to 1.2m copies sold, outstripping the distributors expectations.

World of Warcraft Series

Enter Chafee

Lincoln Chafee, Rhode Island State Governor had publicly opposed the $75m unsecured loan to 38 Studios approved by his predecessor. The first installments were paid back to 38 Studios two months prior to Chafee being appointed to public office. Outside of court-mandated payments this would be the last money the state would receive voluntarily. 60 days after release and with over a million copies sold, the studio defaulted on a $1m payment. In the next fortnight funds would emerge for the state at cost of payroll and then the studio folded.

For the states governor with no interest in gaming, baseball or an white elephant early in his term, took no prisoners and gave no quarter. In Chafee’s eyes 38 Studios wasn’t going to get a pass, as he felt it should never have been financed by the state in the first place. Schilling and his game studio may not have been popular with the governor, but neither was he when it came to the electorate. Its also been suggested that his fervor scared potential investors of Amalur’s assets and a potential sequel to be published by Take-Two.

Could KoA:R made it to 3m units, broken even and been a more profitable investment for the state of Rhode Island? It was an ambitious title; multi-platform and in saturated market fantasy action RPG market. Given gameplay, release dates and platforms. and genre-setting; KoA:R new IP peers include EA’s Dragon Age: Origins (DA:O); Dragon’s Dogma and NeverSoft’s first Souls title. All of these games, much like KoA:R, are critical darlings; least successful being Dragon’s Dogma took 400 days to hit what KoA:R made in a month, excluding its free to play offering.

Fairing better than Dragon’s Dogma and KoA:R was Dark Souls, but despite its own pedigree and its sadomasochistic badge of honor amongst ‘true gamers’; it was still  600,000 shy of 3m after a year and a half of release. DA:O made it to 3.2m sales at the four month mark and in its first week exceeded what KoA:R sold in its first month. 38 Games would have struggled to hit 3m, particularly with the bulk of the studio re-tooling for the MMORPG. Although in fairness, the title was supported after release with two sets of Downloadable Content (DLC).

Turning in the Quest

Schilling et al had an ambitious plan and make no mistake he was not only the studios biggest champion but also the individual with most on the line. Alas ambition, talent and money is by no means a guarantee for success. 38 Games released a strong first game, but it was this admirable ambition along with a change in politics and a biased new state governor that buried the studio. Despite how much I like KoA:R, 38 Games and Schilling – in my opinion $75m in state support of the bat, was obscene.

Even with a happy ending, make no mistake bringing PC to fruition would have eclipsed the challenges of KoA:R: Commercially versus WoW and astronomical infrastructure costs to support the sophomore release. THQ, a far bigger and more experienced publisher was brought to its knees trying to bring the Warhammer IP online. The story of 38 Studios clearly has lessons; but much like Icarus soaring high, such as with strong first game, is fantastic for gamers (and commentators): But its going to hurt when you hit the earth.

@MegaAlligator


Featured image is a screenshot from the cancelled Knights of Amalur game codenamed ‘Project Copernicus’  sourced from a gallery on Kotaku .

Image used without permission, please contact squareblind (at) email (dot) com if you are the copyright holder and wish this to be removed.

For all other content, squareblind.co.uk is the content creator and should be credited as such.

 

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