Friday, May 25, 2012

No Re-Spawn For 38 Studios

There was disappointing news from Rhode Island today as it become known that troubled developer 38 Studios had laid off its entire workforce (that's 379 employees including those from subsidiary Big Huge Games) in an attempt to stave off bankruptcy.

For those unaware, 38 Studios has an interesting history behind it.  Founded by former professional baseball player Curt Schilling in 2006, the company received a $75,000,000 loan from the state of Rhode Island to relocate from Massachusetts; in theory bringing jobs and economic resources into Providence where they would move.

38 Studios had ambitious plans to parallel-develop two games, one a traditional RPG and the other an MMORPG (codenamed Project Copernicus) set in the same universe as the single-player RPG.  The single-player game, Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning, was released in February of this year (readers may recall it made my list of the top 10 games to watch for in 2012) to generally favourable reviews (it currently has a rating of 81 over on Metacritic which I would say is a solid score for a new IP from a rookie studio).  With people such as R.A. Salvatore and Todd McFarlane in the mix it seemed like a sure-fire hit.  Indeed, it has sold approximately 1.2m copies to date, which, again, for a brand-new IP I would say is impressive.

News of problems began to swirl a couple of weeks ago, when the first installment of 38 Studios' loan repayment to the state of Rhode Island became due.  They missed the initial payment date, and only through not making payroll (i.e. not paying their employees) were they able to subsequently correct this and make the first payment a few days past due.  Clearly, not making payroll was a problem and the rumour mill continued to swirl for the past week, indicating the company was in dire financial straits as well as revealing that several top-level executives had left.  This culminated in the news today that all of 38 Studios' employees had been terminated with immediate effect.

At this point it seems that 38 Studios is very close to bankruptcy, and although they are not there yet it may only be a matter of time, especially since they now have no employees with which to further develop assets.  The terms of the loan from Rhode Island dictate that if the developer defaults on the loan (as it seems very likely to do when the second payment becomes due) then all of 38 Studios' IP is transferred to Rhode Island, and the state will essentially own both Reckoning and Copernicus.  This is a novel situation, and I can't really think of anything to compare it to in recent history.

So what next?  Well it seems that there will likely be no more DLC for KOAR since there is no-one left to develop it.  What happens to the MMORPG is a little more murky.  In theory if the company somehow manages to remain solvent it could perhaps sell the entire IP for both games to a third-party, and then presumably use the revenue received from the sale to help pay back the loan to Rhode Island.  The problem there is that at least one industry analyst (the ever-quotable Michael Pachter) believes that the IP is worth perhaps $20m at best, leaving quite a shortfall on the loan.

The other, and probably more likely option, is that 38 Studios defaults on the loan and the IP is then transferred over to the state of Rhode Island.  At that point they would likely auction it off to the highest bidder (in order to try and recoup some of their losses) and you would then end up with the same outcome of the IP belonging to a new third party.  Hopefully this would be someone who was committed to continuing to develop Copernicus, and indeed they may even turn around and hire some of 38 Studios' former employees to help complete the game in a similar way to what happened when Realtime Worlds exploded and APB was sold to K2 then later retooled as "APB Reloaded" (which is apparently doing quite well now).

Either way, it's a sad day for gamers and in particular MMO gamers.  Copernicus was one of the last big-budget blockbuster MMOs, and its failure is only going to encourage publishers and developers to either scale back their projects or perhaps just not make them in the first place.  Indeed, a brief teaser video was released for Copernicus just a few days ago showing some impressive visuals if nothing else (this is embedded below).

The Governor of Rhode Island, Lincoln Chafee, other than having an awesome name, was quoted as saying that KOAR needed to sell 3m copies just to break even, and the fact that it did not meet this requirement meant that "the game failed".  In today's economy, a brand-new IP from an unproven studio selling 3m copies is simply unrealistic.  Indeed, I am surprised that it has sold the 1.2m copies that it has to date, as those are very respectable numbers for a new game.  Needing to get 3m though?  That was never going to happen.  The fact that 38 Studios gambled on that - and lost - is a substantial failure that most people familiar with the gaming industry would have been able to predict.  Certainly it's easy to look back on these events with hindsight, but still you get the feeling that there were perhaps some misguided decisions by upper management at 38 Studios if their entire business plan essentially came down to a bet on Reckoning.

Perhaps in some parallel universe we are all busy driving our flying cars, discussing the 17th season of Firefly and marvelling over the 12m copies that Reckoning has sold to date, but somehow I doubt it.

As promised, the short teaser for Copernicus is embedded below.  It certainly looks nice enough, and I hope that in the fullness of time it winds up at a developer able to give it the finishing touches it needs.

I can hope, right?

Thursday, May 17, 2012

Diablo III Internet IV

Blizzard's next money machine Diablo III was released on Tuesday, and I'm guessing most (all?) people reading this have already bought it.  It's a decent game and seems like it has the potential for a lot of fun, but it's not perfect.

Diablo III, for those who have been living under Dwayne Johnson for the past few years, has no offline mode and you are required to be connected to Blizzard's online service at all times.  While Blizzard played up the social and gameplay-enhancing aspects of this, the biggest aspect and the elephant in the room is that it is DRM so that rampant cheating and hacking which happened in the first two Diablos won't happen in the third, as well as flat-out theft of the game itself.

While possibly, possibly, an acceptable reason, the practice has been far from perfect.  Diablo III was originally meant to be available on Tuesday morning at 12:01am Pacific.  If, like me, you actually tried to login at that time, you would likely have received one of the myriad of errors that was throwing out around that time.  My particular favourite was #37 which denoted that the servers were too busy to process your login, but there were several others other people were getting, with the upshot of not being able to play the game.

These initial problems were fixed around 90 minutes later and I was actually able to get on and play for a time without issue.  The next day yielded a game-breaking bug which meant that the servers had to be brought down for several hours in the afternoon (don't forget, thanks to the integration you could not play your legally-purchased single-player game during this time).  There were further issues later that evening which prevented logins, and also the day after that (each outage lasting several hours).

I mean really?  Blizzard, owned by Activision and one of the last remaining bastions of PC gaming could not get it right?  Over seven years running World of Warcraft did not give them enough experience in backend server management to be able to launch a non-MMO on their online service?

The whole mess represents everything that is wrong about DRM.  It starts off as a company trying to protect their product and ends up by disrupting legitimate customers (who have already bought the game) and pissing people off.  Blizzard knew exactly how many pre-orders they have sold, through their own service and retailers like Amazon and GameStop, and so had plenty of time in order to arrange to have the appropriate capacity to be able to let everyone play when they said they would be able to.  Instead we end up with this byzantine hodgepodge of error messages and downtime which makes people unable to play their single-player game.

If someone like Blizzard can't get it right, what hope is there for smaller developers and publishers (basically everyone else)?

I like Blizzard as a company and I will usually back them in most situations because of their reputation of excellence and "when it's ready" approach to development, but this was a mess and there is no way around that.  Diablo III should have had some kind of offline mode built in, so that even if things like this happened then players could still be able to play the game which they have legitimately purchased.  For whatever reason, always-on DRM is never implemented well (looking at you Ubisoft) and I would even go as far as to say it is anti-gamer.

Blizzard, I get that you want to protect your product, but forcing this upon your customers is not right.  Make it an option, even give us inducements to use it if you want (coughSteamcough), but making us have to use it and then failing at it from your end is just going to make people angry.  The apology they put out today is a useful acknowledgement of their shortcomings over the matter, but nothing will really change in the long-run.

I've said it before and will say it again: ALWAYS-ON DRM IS ANTI-CONSUMER.  It should be resisted by all gamers.

DRM punishes legitimate players to the point where maybe they don't want to play your games at the end of it, which would be disappointing because on pure gameplay Diablo III is a decent game.  I am part of the problem though because I bought Diablo III fully knowing that this system was in place, but overrode myself on the basis that this was Blizzard and they would not fail me.  I was mistaken.  I have not bought any Ubisoft game since they introduced their ridiculous DRM and I should have stuck to my guns and done the same with Diablo III.

You're on notice Blizzard, and the next move is up to you.

Sunday, May 13, 2012

With Honours

I wanted to write about a game which is really not getting a lot of buzz right now but at first glance looks to be something worth keeping an eye on, namely Dishonored (this is a one-time occasion where I will forgo the "u" because it's a direct game title; cherish this event).

Dishonored looks to be a mash-up between BioShock, Hitman, Deux Ex and Thief.  Harvey Smith, one of the original developers of the first Deus Ex game is the lead developer of Dishonored, so this should not be a surprise.  Dishonored is an FPS comprised of a set of linear missions, but you can choose to complete them however you want:  stealth, all guns blazing, persuasion, divide and conquer; whatever floats your particular boat.

The game is set in an original steampunk world, and sees you play as Corvo, bodyguard to the Empress who winds up dead with you being framed for her murder.  As your head nears the chopping block you are rescued and freed by persons unknown who also imbue you with supernatural powers, such as the ability to slow down time (stop me if you've heard this one before), teleport or even possess people or animals for a brief time.  How you choose to complete each mission is up to you, so multiple playthroughs to test out various scenarios would seem to be the order of the day, with the ultimate aim of clearing your name and exposing those behind the conspiracy.

The developer is Arkane Studios, a Zenimax-owned studio based in France but with a US presence in Austin, Texas.  Their previous works include Arx Fatalis, an open-world RPG released a decade ago, and they were also one of the myriad of developers who worked on BioShock 2, specifically in design, artwork and animation.  While their pedigree is not tremendously strong, they were aquired by ZeniMax in 2010 and another ZeniMax company that we are all familiar with, Bethesda, will be publishing the title.

There is not a tremendous amount of information out there about the gameplay, which is somewhat surprising considering the release date is slated for October of this year, but it could well be that they are planning a big push from E3 and beyond in the run-up to launch.  With BioShock Infinite being pushed back until February of 2013 then there would seem to be a gap in the market for a solid single-player, multi-platform title like Dishonored.

Be sure to check out the teaser trailer linked at the end of this post, and keep your eyes glued for more Dishonored information since this could be something very impressive if all goes according to plan.