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Dungeons & debtors in the video game industry

What really slew Curt Schilling’s 38 Studios

Illustration by John Jay Cabuay

“A LOT OF PEOPLE WERE LIKE ‘You have no idea what you’re getting into.’ I hope that after this people will think of me a little differently.” That’s what former Red Sox ace Curt Schilling told me back in January, just before his company, 38 Studios, was poised to release its first product, a swords and sorcery-themed video game called Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning. Unfortunately, after the spectacular implosion of 38 Studios over the last two months, those words have taken on new shades of meaning.

In May, 38 Studios defaulted on a $1.125 million loan payment, then laid off hundreds of employees. On June 7, it declared bankruptcy, owing nearly $151 million (not including the debts of the Maryland company it bought in 2009). Then came news of a federal investigation and lawsuit by a lender.

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Epic fail. The game Schilling hoped would become a Lord of the Rings-size franchise — “The next fantasy Middle-earth property,” as he told me — now returns to the creative fires whence it came.

And, lo, from every mountaintop of the media and dungeon of the Internet, the fingers jab. Who’s to blame? Former Rhode Island governor Donald Carcieri, for agreeing to back the company with a $75 million loan guarantee? Financial mismanagement? A lackluster product?

To be sure, Reckoning was no game changer. Its eye-popping landscapes of enchanted elvish forests and eerie green-lit caverns were lovely to look at, but the quests and monster slayings did not radically depart from existing fantasy games like the hot-selling The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim.

And yet Reckoning, designed for the Xbox et al., sold more than 1.2 million units. “For a new intellectual property, that’s actually really good,” says Alexander Sliwinski, news editor for gaming site Joystiq.

Sliwinski and other industry experts point to the true money-suck: Schilling’s original pipe dream, Project Copernicus, a massive multi-player online (MMO) game six years in the making. “The streets are littered with dead MMOs,” says Frank Lee, co-director of Drexel University’s Game Design Program. If MMOs by the biggest game companies in the world fail, he adds, “why in the world would you think a new company would fare better?” Copernicus was never released.

Curt Schilling is a sports hero, and for good reason. He helped bring a World Series to a land long deprived of glory. That goes a long way around here. He also loves video games. Yet winning on the mound does not translate to winning in others realms, real or imaginary. I like baseball, I play softball, but no one thinks I should run the Red Sox.

 Call the errors of 38 Studios’ “naive ambition and financial mismanagement,” as Sliwinski does. Or call them by another word: hubris. I think Schilling, who assembled a dream team of highly paid employees and advisers, including Leominster native and best-selling fantasy author R.A. Salvatore, simply dreamed too big. Too big became too fast became too out of control.

 Still, I tip my battle helmet to Schilling. Yes, taxpayers may soon storm his castle, but he put his money where his mouth was: He stands to lose at least $50 million of his own fortune. As collateral for one loan, he even offered up some $5 million in actual gold coins, booty perhaps from some dragon-slaying adventure.

The world of Amalur will probably fade into legend. For now, it lingers as digital fragments. On his Facebook page, Schilling recently praised his team’s work. “The entire world, everywhere you saw, every point you could see, as far as the eye could see, you could go,” he wrote. “Many dark and terrifying places as well.”

Perhaps one day someone will have the courage — and treasure — to plumb those depths again.

Ethan Gilsdorf is the author of Fantasy Freaks and Gaming Geeks. Send comments to magazine@globe.com.

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