THE COLLAPSE OF COPERNICUS
Bloomberg Businessweek|April 26 - May 03, 2021 (Double Issue)
The implosion of Curt Schilling’s video game empire was a $150 million reminder that the industry’s workers are always on the verge of disaster
Jason Schreier

38 Studios was the type of company a teenager might dream up when fantasizing about what it’d be like to make video games for a living. The company was building a wildly ambitious game to compete with the megahit World of Warcraft and appeared to be flush with cash. Employees received top-notch health benefits, gym memberships, and personalized high-end gaming laptops worth thousands of dollars. There were free meals, lavish travel expenses, and Timbuk2 bags customized with an illustration of the world map for their in-progress video game, code-named Copernicus. The man behind 38 Studios was Curt Schilling, the retired pitcher best known for his time with the Boston Red Sox. Schilling was a legend, famous for his performance on the field and his combativeness off it. In the 2004 playoffs, he’d pitched two games with an ankle that had been injured so badly it soaked his sock in blood. The performance helped the team win its first World Series in almost a century, and Schilling’s bloody socks earned a place in baseball lore.

During his playing career, Schilling had been a star, and he thought the people building Copernicus should be stars, too, says Thom Ang, an artist who’d done work for Disney on The Lion King and Toy Story, along with stints at big-name games companies such as Sony, Electronic Arts, and THQ. “He said, ‘That’s how I want my team to feel. I’m going to attract the best, and I’m going to treat them as if they’re the best.’ And he did.”

Ang was skeptical when he first got a call from a 38 Studios recruiter in 2008. But the role-playing game looked fantastic, and the company offered him a hefty relocation package, so he moved from Southern California to become its art director. Sure, the studio hadn’t made a lot of progress in the two years it had been operating, and its timeline to finish the game by the fall of 2011 did seem a little unrealistic, but Ang didn’t think that was a problem. He’d seen how slowly things could move at the beginning of a project. And Ang knew he didn’t have to worry about 38 Studios’ finances or wonder where the money was coming from. After all, Schilling had earned in excess of $114 million over his two decades in baseball.

Video games are big business, generating more than $150 billion in annual sales. The biggest hits account for a disproportionate amount of that revenue, which is why Schilling had said publicly he thought he could get “Bill Gates rich” by building his own blockbuster. But volatility is also the status quo in gaming. Too many companies struggle to provide stable, healthy environments for their workers. All it takes is one flop or sloppy business decision to lead a billion-dollar game publisher to enact a mass layoff or shut down a studio, no matter how much money it made in a given year.

In 2017 the nonprofit International Game Developers Association asked approximately 1,000 game workers how many employers they’d had in the previous five years. Among those who worked full time, the average was 2.2 employers; for freelancers it was 3.6. James Batchelor, a reporter at GamesIndustry.biz, counted up all the jobs lost to studio closures in the 12 months ended September 2018—a time when the industry was thriving—and found the number was over 1,000.

Job listings for big game publishers like Take-Two Interactive Software Inc. and EA advertise careers, not temporary gigs. But there’s actually a high level of instability. Developers who accept the pleasure of creating art for a living must also acknowledge that it might all fall apart without much notice. “With all the layoffs I’ve dealt with, I get a PTSD-type thing whenever there is an email for an all-hands meeting in an office,” says Sean McLaughlin, an artist who has worked in gaming since 2006. “I no longer put more things on my desk than I can carry out in one bag.”

Ang and others at 38 Studios thought this company would be different, and they were right in one sense. Video game studios collapse all the time, but rarely with the kind of star power and political controversy that surrounded its demise.

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