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38 Studios’ Copernicus could be a losing battle

The ambitious game could conceivably be revived even if the company dies. But time and technology are working against it.

Massively multiplayer online games such as 38 Studios’ next product, Project Copernicus, have a reputation for taking heavy investment and lots of testing before they can be released. Many never ship, ship late, or never catch on with users.

38 Studios

Massively multiplayer online games such as 38 Studios’ next product, Project Copernicus, have a reputation for taking heavy investment and lots of testing before they can be released. Many never ship, ship late, or never catch on with users.

Veteran video game designer Aubrey Hodges says the best work he ever did was for 38 Studios LLC’s Project Copernicus, Curt Schilling’s ambitious effort to develop the next blockbuster game. “It looked stunning. It sounded great. That’s the heartbreak,” said Hodges, a former audio director at 38 Studios.

Now, with the company all but shut down, Hodges hopes his work will somehow survive. “When you have something that amazing, you want people to share in it,” he said.

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The fate of Copernicus remains uncertain as Schilling tries to save his company, looking for potential investors who could rescue it from financial ruin. If he can’t revive 38 Studios, the best hope for Copernicus is for the unfinished game to be sold to another company, analysts say.

Released in February, the company’s first game, Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning, sold an estimated 1.14 million units in the first 90 days at $59 per game, which means it could have generated in excess of $60 million in sales.

Globe Staff/File

Released in February, the company’s first game, Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning, sold an estimated 1.14 million units in the first 90 days at $59 per game, which means it could have generated in excess of $60 million in sales.

But time is short. “Someone would have to move swiftly to rescue the game,” said Michael Dornbrook, former chief operating officer of video game company Harmonix Music Systems Inc. in Cambridge. Wait too long, and the team that built Copernicus will be scooped up by competitors, he said.

Copernicus could also become technologically obsolete if it doesn’t get to market quickly, warned Timothy Loew, executive director of the Massachusetts Digital Games Institute, a state-sponsored game development center at Becker College in Worcester. “What if this process takes two years? You know how many generations of tech that is?” Loew said. “They can’t launch a game in 2014 that is based on 2011 technology.”

There are only a few game companies big enough to take on Copernicus, analysts said, including Electronic Arts Inc., which published Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning, the one release so far from 38 Studios; Activision Blizzard Inc.; and Turbine Inc. of Needham, a division of Time Warner Inc. and one of the the largest video game companies in Massachusetts. “I don’t see any of those guys jumping at this, unless they saw a way of picking it up for a song,” Dornbrook said.

Neither Electronic Arts, Activision, nor Turbine responded to requests for comment, but they wouldn’t be the first to revive an orphaned game. Looking Glass Studios, a highly respected Cambridge game company, had a major success in the late 1990s with its Thief series of adventure games. When the studio shut down in 2000, its publisher, Eidos Interactive Ltd., purchased the rights to Thief. Eidos has released one Thief game and is working on another.

More recently, the Scottish company Realtime Worlds went broke in 2010 after only 130,000 people subscribed to its online game APB. A California company, K2 Network Inc., bought the rights and relaunched APB last year as a free game, where players could choose to purchase additional online features. In December, K2 claimed that it had signed up 3 million players.

The question is whether Copernicus could follow the same path. Thief was already a successful franchise when Looking Glass collapsed, and APB was up and running when K2 bought it. By contrast, Rhode Island Governor Lincoln Chafee said last week that Copernicus won’t be ready until June 2013.

Schilling counted heavily on Copernicus for his company’s future. He enlisted top talent to build the world in which Kingdoms of Amalur and Copernicus were set, including famed comics artist Todd McFarlane and best-selling fantasy author R.A. Salvatore, a Leominster native. He hired experienced video game designers, and paid them well. Beyond the $75 million in loan guarantees given his company by the state of Rhode Island, where he moved 38 Studios last year, Schilling told the Providence Journal he personally invested $50 million in the company. But last week, 38 Studios laid off every one of its more than 400 employees.

Fans got a hint of what Copernicus might be like in Kingdoms of Amalur, but that was was a relatively simple, single-player game, largely developed at Big Huge Games, a Maryland company that Schilling acquired in 2009.

Copernicus, on the other hand, was to be the signature release from 38 Studios, which Schilling once boasted would grow into a billion-dollar entertainment giant. A new investor would not only have to finish the game, but deploy it on a costly server network, managed around the clock by highly skilled, highly paid technicians.

Given the millions of dollars it could take to complete Copernicus, Dornbrook said, the prospects are not good. “My best guess is that it’s just going to die,” he said.

Terrence Masson, director of creative industries at Northeastern University, said most US game companies are too busy with their own projects to bother about Copernicus. “Every team, every developer, every company that’s out there is already working on their own [intellectual property], and already booked to capacity,” Masson said.

But Schilling could look to Asia. After Maynard game developer Iron Lore Entertainment closed in 2008, the Chinese Internet company Tencent Holdings Ltd. acquired much of Iron Lore’s technology. Tencent today has an office in Concord, and is working to expand its presence in the US market.

Buying Copernicus could be a shortcut for any Chinese company with that goal. “They could take the technology and put it together at a lower cost” than developing from scratch, said Iron Lore founder Brian Sullivan, now a visiting artist at Northeastern University.

Hank Howie, a veteran Boston game developer and chief executive of Beach Cooler Games LLC, said there’s one more challenge: There are already plenty of sword-and-sorcery games, including the popular World of Warcraft and last year’s hit, The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim.

Copernicus, Howie said, is “another game with dwarves and elves and men in tights. There are a million games like it.”

Hiawatha Bray can be reached at bray@globe.com; Michael B. Farrell at michael.farrell@globe.com.
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