Former workers rise up from 38 Studios’ ashes
Ex-workers turn creativity toward new jobs, even starting new companies
From the ashes of Curt Schilling’s failed video game company 38 Studios comes Fart Cat.
It’s a simple, irreverent game played on an iPhone involving a cantankerous cat, and is one of the first commercial products made by former employees of 38 Studios after the company’s spectacular collapse in May that put some 400 people out of work.
Stunned and devastated at the time, many of the designers, artists, producers, and computer engineers who worked for Schilling have since rebounded. Some joined similar companies in Massachusetts, adding to the state’s growing game sector; others took offers from big West Coast game studios. And a few, such as the creators of Fart Cat, built new companies from scratch.
“The sky was falling, we expected a little bit more money to be in our bank accounts, and we didn’t have health insurance,” said Rich Gallup, 33, a former 38 Studios lead producer and co-creator of Fart Cat. “We were just trying to figure out what was next.”
The collapse of 38 Studios was particularly noteworthy because of the celebrity status of its founder, and for dealing a blow to the efforts by Rhode Island, which guaranteed $75 million loans to the company, to foster a video game industry around it. But within the volatile video game business, what happened to 38 Studios — during and after — is not that unusual. Big studios that invest millions of dollars and years of work building elaborate games usually don’t survive if the results aren’t a big hit.
When they fail, rivals in the competitive game industry move swiftly to snatch up top talent; and other former employees are choosing to strike out on their own for now.
“We’re starting to see some sprouts,” said Timothy Loew, executive director of the Massachusetts Digital Games Institute, known as MassDiGI, a state-sponsored game development center at Becker College in Worcester.
For Gallup and about 25 of his former colleagues, the early days of unemployment were spent in a Providence apartment, where they convened to vent, network, and, ultimately, begin making another game. After working for years on a massive online fantasy game known as Copernicus, they wanted something simple and silly — and done quickly.
The result was a 99 cent mobile app, released in September, and the formation of a start-up called Summer Camp Studios — a riff on their unexpected employment status. And since making that one app, many Summer Camp developers again moved on, to full-time jobs at established studios, as the fraternity of former 38 Studios employees continues to spread across the country.
“Many companies have benefited from the talent from 38 Studios,” said Jamie Gotch, chief executive of the small Cambridge game maker Subatomic Studios, which created the hit smartphone game Fieldrunners. “I grabbed two engineers and one of the designers there.”
Other alums from 38 Studios can be found at major game-makers Turbine Inc. in Needham, which is owned by Warner Bros. Interactive Entertainment, Irrational Games in Quincy, and GSN Digital in Waltham, the interactive division of the Game Show Network. They’ve also been picked up by small firms such as Demiurge Studios in Cambridge and Crate Entertainment, which used some of the $537,000 it recently raised on the crowd-funding website Kickstarter to hire five former 38 Studios employees.
Kamil Marczewski was a game designer at 38 Studios when he donated to Crate’s Kickstarter campaign to help fund a fantasy, role-playing video game this past spring before trouble with Schilling’s company started. Then when 38 Studios folded, Marczewski reached out to Crate founder Arthur Bruno and got hired.
Unlike many of his colleagues, Marczewski, 25, remained in Rhode Island and is working out of his apartment in Cranston because his wife has a stable job with a local pharmaceutical company. He’s admittedly stung after his yearlong stint at 38 Studios, his first job in the game industry after graduate school in Illinois.
“I think that just about everybody was taken by surprise,” he said. But now, he said, “most people have found something at this point. It feels like the tone [among former 38 employees] has changed overall.”
The biggest start-up by former employees is Impossible Studios in Maryland, composed of 37 former employees from Big Huge Games, a video company that 38 Studios acquired in 2009. Closer to home, there is Summer Camp and another fledgling app maker, King Bee Digital Games.
“When things dissolved at the studio, I quickly realized that the industry is getting a lot smaller, and there are a lot of layoffs happening in general elsewhere,” said Geraldo Perez, who is running King Bee out of his East Providence home.
A computer technician by training, Perez, 37, doesn’t have as much experience as some of his former colleagues, and he is quickly burning through his savings. But, he said, “this is what I love, and I’m doing it in hopes that it will flourish.”
Many former 38 Studios employees stay in touch via Facebook, said Perez. And Schilling reaches out to them on the social network.
Among his former employees, there appears to be little ill will for the former Red Sox pitcher, who invested as much as $50 million of his own money into the company. 38 Studios is in bankruptcy court and owes as much as $150 million to creditors.
If anything, former workers are still wistful about working with Schilling.
“Even now with folks that have gone on to other jobs, you hear them say, ‘I like the new job, but it’s nothing like 38,’ ” said Perez.
Marc Mencher, chief executive of GameRecruiter.com, a Florida staffing agency, credits 38 Studios with helping its employees land other jobs by reaching out to firms within the industry. He said he was not aware of any of the company’s senior managers or more experienced employees who were still looking for work.
Schilling did not respond to a request for comment.
To be sure, some former employees still face an uncertain future. Rich Gallup of Summer Camp said he will soon need a full-time job and is weighing opportunities in the area. Even though Fart Cat sold well enough to briefly hit the top 20 among arcade games on the Apple App store, Gallup said it’s not earning “live-off-it money.”
His Summer Camp cofounder, Gavian Whishaw, previously general manager of 38 Studios, recently accepted a position with ArenaNet Inc., a Bellevue, Wash., game maker.
“One of the sad things is how much good talent was taken out of the area,” said Whishaw, 45, who moved from Vancouver to take a position at 38 Studios. “People really cared about making a positive impact in Rhode Island.”