Farewell 38 Studios

I’ve mentioned a time or two here that I’m a big R.A. Salvatore fan, and I recently wrote about a game, Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning, that a company he helped form released earlier this year. Frankly, I enjoy the game very much and I had thought it very successful, even if it was being overshadowed by Skyrim. A few days ago, 38 Studios released some footage from what I believed to be the MMO follow up in Amalur, Project Copernicus, and it, too, looks amazing! Possibly the World of Warcraft killer that people have been trying to make for the last 5-6 years…!

But alas, it is not to be apparently… Today, all the staff of 38 Studios and Big Huge Games were laid off, and Rhode Island’s governor has been quoted as having said that the game, Reckoning, failed. It’s possible that Copernicus will eventually see the light of day still, but without the talent to deliver strong and compelling storylines and inspire us with amazing artwork, the game will never be what was once envisioned.

The worst thing is that people will forever claim that Reckoning failed. That’s the part I can’t live with. The game only failed in one area: generating enough revenue to keep the companies afloat. What it did do, however, is manage to be a completed project of a pair or amazing dreamers, Todd MacFarlane and R.A. Salvatore, and a future hall of farmer, Curt Schilling. What it did do was sell hundreds of thousands of copies at a time when Elder Scrolls: Skyrim was still on the tip of many people’s tongue! What it did do was provide steady employment for over 300 people for a period of years during a major recession. What it did do was draw me into the game at a point when I was so stressed out over my final college semester that I didn’t care about gaming at all, barely tried to do any creative writing, did no reading for pleasure, and honestly thought that death would be a sweet release!

No, I don’t see Reckoning as a failure considering that there are so many games that are developed every year that never see the light of day, let alone reach the hands of a consumer… I’m something of an “almost insider” with the game industry. One of my two best friends has worked in the industry for 15+ years at some of the big companies. I’ve talked and eaten with a lot of his coworkers over the years, and I’ve seen first hand  projects that never even got close to being finished, let alone released with a major publisher. Developing games is hard work, but the real work is in the post development phase: finding a publisher and working out a deal, finding a marketing company and working out a deal, getting a deal with a distributor, and ultimately getting the attention of gamers to actually convince them to buy the game. I’m going to go out on a limb here and say that despite the vast number of games that do reach consumers, the vast majority never do. If for no other reason than that, Reckoning did not fail.

So to all employees and family members of 38 Studios, I want to say thank you for your work, dedication, and sacrifices that you’ve made to bring me this game, and for working to bring me Copernicus! I wish there was more that I could do to show you my appreciation!

Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning

Whether you’ve heard of this game or not, it comes out Tuesday and the demo has been available for a week or more. If you’re a gamer or a geek, chances are you’ve heard of it and have been anxious to get your grubby little hands on it for quite some time. I am such a geek, though I’ll confess I’ve only had a wait and see attitude regarding Kingdoms of Amalur for quite some time.

The reason is kind of simple. Despite the creative genius behind 38 Studios, I’ve usually found that people that are good at one thing are seldom good at anything else. I’ve been a fan of R. A. Salvatore for the last 20 years, and I’ve respected
Todd MacFarlane as a comic and toy genius for almost as long. Add in a baseball player (sorry! I can’t recall his name and I’m too focused to look it up right now) and I figure that they might make great figureheads for a company seeking investors. But what do they know about video games?

Before I give you my answer, I’ll tell you that in principle, Kingdoms sounded intriguing from the very beginning. It’s a completely new property, unburdened with intellectual property rights of any of the past works of the company’s top name talent. Launching a new world is risky business even for the top talent and established developers. That’s why Activision keeps going back to the Modern Warfare cash cow, and even Blizzard takes a long time to launch new products within their proven franchises and is slowly, almost reluctantly prepping this new one, project Titan. So three guys famous for doing other stuff getting together to first form a new video game company and launch it with a completely original title is pretty fucking ballsy if you ask me.

That said, Kingdoms isn’t perfect. I played the demo all the way through twice last night on my PC, and most of the way through on both Xbox 360 and PS3 today, and I found a few rough edges that need to be polished, especially on the PS3 version. (Most notably the load times are longer and the particle glow effects seem to be toned down on the Sony system.) The PC version ran well on my nearly uber modern PC (AMD FX-8150, 16 GB RAM, and, wait for it, Radeon HD 4870!) but the control scheme felt like it was adapted from the console version and only recently someone said “Wait a minute guys! We have a fucking keyboard!” I never did get comfortable with the Xbox controller so I have to say that the PS3 seems to have the most precise and comfortable control scheme. Of course, it might also have to do with the fact that I played that version last… But there was something missing with that version… As I played the other two versions, there was a sense of smoothness to the animation that I just didn’t get on the PS3, though the animations and artwork were virtually identical to my untrained eyes. It took me trying to describe it to one of my best friends to figure out a possible suspect as to what it was; my video card, the Radon HD 4870 is about 4 years old, and the 360 is at least 6 years old… I think the gpu in those beasts were straining at some points giving the game a feel of smoothness that wasn’t really there. The PS3, though no youngster itself, seemed to just power through the graphically intense game as if it were walking through air instead of a river. At least I think that is it…

In any event, I have to say that I like the game very much. I love that it’s an original fantasy story that’s displacing, at least for now, some of the old familiar faces in the fantasy genre. Though there’s a race called the Fae that is probably akin to the various interpretations of the elf, in the demo, at least, elves are no where to be found. Neither are dwarves. Humans are present as are gnomes, but I’m not entirely sure what the species the player characters are. In some ways they appear to be elves t with their pointed ears, but that’s about where the resemblance ends. I personally kept getting drawn to select a female character of the bottom most subspecies because I found them gorgeous. And I love how the actual customized character model, utilizing the correct equipped equipment, is used in the cut scenes instead of being either left out or made generic.

The magic system is different from the traditional implementations in fantasy, and I love the idea that the character can alter the path of the world’s destiny [in theory]. The game’s mythology is also unique and engaging to the point that, despite intending to stop playing as the night grew long, I kept finding myself wanting to play for just another few minutes. Even now, without touching the game in 12 hours, I want to play it. The more I think about Kingdoms the more convinced I am that it’s what I’ve been seeking in an RPG for a long time.

I never got into Fallout 3. I’ve played Oblivion and I got lost rather quickly, and fear the same from Skyrim. I do play World of Warcraft but sometimes I feel like I’m just grinding away with little or no fulfillment; I sometimes play merely for some social interaction with people that I’ve known in-game for years. Star Trek Online has improved considerably in the last two years, but I still hate anything that has to do with an away mission, and I wouldn’t call any of it a role playing game. I haven’t played a Final Fantasy in 10 years and Fable, while amazing, is more of a technology demonstrator than a game to me. Kingdoms of Amalur brings me back to the old school computer role playing games that are long gone and yet manages to satisfy my hardcore gamer itch.

It’s not perfect, but it’s a pretty great game in my opinion.