AGDC 07: 38 Studios Interview with Brett Close

The announcement that Boston Red Sox pitcher Curt Schilling, fantasy novelist R.A. Salvatore and comic artist Todd McFarlane had teamed up to create an MMO studio was a shot in the arm for the MMO genre, but it also raised a lot of questions. On one hand, this could be three talented, high-profile people who want to make a good product. On the other, it could become a vanity project that gives the genre as much bad press as good. At AGDC, 38 Studios President/CEO Brett Close spoke to WarCry about the company, why it is in no way a vanity project and what to expect from them.

The game remains roughly three years away from market, so the details are obviously hard to come by. Close explained their desire to manage the hype. He did however give a few things away.

While he wouldn’t come out and say it, he more or less confirmed that the game will be a fantasy title. We talked about the saturation of the fantasy market, but Close pointed out the involvement of Salvatore as a reason for them to go that route.

“We have an unfair advantage,” he said in reference to presence of Salvatore on the team and added simply, “if you do it right, people will love it.”

To that end, they’ve also made strides to ensure that the game blends story into gameplay in a way that MMOs have so far failed to do.

“Current MMOs have some [story], but its like shooters in 1996,” he explained. “Everyone was doing Doom, then came Half-Life. They realized story makes for compelling gameplay.”

He hopes that their project – the name of which we won’t hear for quite some time – can fill that void. He wants to move beyond the mechanics and give people a reason to play, which is a tough challenge for any studio.

Somewhat paradoxically though, he told us that they also do not want to violate the MMO experience people know and love. Story events will often be in opt-in instances, so as not to catch people up in an unwanted whirlwind. He believes they need to give players the freedom to choose their own level of involvement and it’s up to them as game designers to provide enough hooks that they engage as many people as possible.

This is a noble goal and one that has been talked about by a number of companies, but never pulled off on any kind of scale. Close wouldn’t get into details on how they hope to pull off relevant, consistent story in a game that is likely to span multiple instances on different servers on a scale that engages enough people to justify the investment. He did though insist they think this is a challenge their company is prepared to tackle.

Close then explained his opinions on the eternal war between “revolution and evolution” in MMO design. 38 Studios seems to be charted towards what I’ll call cautious revolution, which is to say, somewhere in the middle.

Sid Meier – of Civilization fame – operates by a 33/33/33 rule, Close told us. In that there is 33% of a genre/game that is essential and must be held over, lest the game be too radical. Another 33% is good, but needs tweaking. The final 33% should be brand new. Close firmly agrees with this ideal and applies it to 38 Studios. Revolution, he told us, is great for game designers, but at a certain level can become self-indulgent.

The words of their President show that 38 Studios clearly has the ambition to really move the genre forward.

“You name a standard and I guarantee we’re going to exceed it,” he said with confidence.

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So what about the worry that this might be some kind of vanity project or dampened by the involvement of three people who while extremely talented in each of their fields, are not game developers? I put the question out there point blank. Emphatically, Close told us that they would not have those problems and explained the roles of each of the three big names to illustrate his point.

Schilling, McFarlane and Salvatore are all essentially executive level contributors to the project and each has a full time, in-house person below them. Schilling is the head of the company, but Close runs the day-to-day operations of the company. Likewise, both Salvatore and McFarlane have in-house developers under them who handle the day-to-day development of the game.

Curt Schilling is a high profile person who loves games – specifically his highly public support of SOE’s EverQuest II – but he also realizes his limitations, Close told us. During the season, Schilling concentrates primarily on pitching for the Boston Red Sox. Outside of that, Close tells us that Schilling believes firmly in hiring good people and “getting out of their way”. For example, often the designers will debate something through email. Schilling does not hesitate to chime in with thoughts or ideas and sometimes they’re good, sometimes they’re not. Close added that Schilling does have a “good design sense”. However, when it comes down to the decision, the designers make the choice.

R.A. Salvatore lives near their Maynard, MA office and comes into work three days a week. There, he contributes to the overall story of the game and how it is weaved in, but again, there is a full time employee on site who handles the nitty-gritty details and makes sure people work.

The same goes for Todd McFarlane. He works from Phoenix and comes by the office each month. They even set up a video link, complete with tablet support, so he can sketch things for the team. He sets the high level artistic goals and vision of the project, but an in-house art lead manages the day-to-day operations.

Beyond the big three, 38 Studios had also raised some eyebrows by hiring a series of EverQuest II developers, such as former community manager Ryan Shwayder, designer Steve Danuser and others. Close didn’t try to hide that they had many ex-SOE developers on staff, but said that they had been no concentrated effort to approach people from that staff. They receive resumes, like most companies from all over, and in this case, Schilling’s personal relationships ran especially deep with SOE. The hires shouldn’t indicate to people, he added, that they’re making some kind of EQII clone, nor that their relationship with SOE is anything other than friendly

So far, 38 Studios has been a lot of hype. There are some big names and some big expectations, but it’s the developers who will ultimately dictate success or failure. AGDC gave us that first peek inside what the studio is really all about and so far it seems like they’re on the right track.

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