The Hamlet of Game Development

Curt Schilling was on WEEI radio this morning giving his side of 38 Studios’ demise. I would hope that anyone who’s been following the media’s presentation of this story will take the time to listen to Curt’s perspective. He deserves the chance to be heard.

I’ve had reporters and others ask me about how this situation has affected my feelings toward Curt. That’s an intensely personal question, but today’s events have moved me to answer it in broad terms–and I’d rather do it on my own blog than in someone else’s story.

First, a bit of perspective. Since the early days of the company, I’ve considered Curt a friend. Not a “Hey, come over and hang out this weekend” type of friend–rich people exist in an entirely different realm of everyday life than you or me. But he and I have spent an awful lot of time together discussing both work matters and some very personal topics, and he has confided in me on many occasions during our time together. He’s been generous and kind to my family, and as I mentioned in my previous post, he was beside me through some really tough times, helping out in direct and tangible ways. I’ll never truly be able to repay him for those kindnesses.

That said, Curt has a flaw so classically Shakespearean that it’s possible only an old English major like myself can fully appreciate it: For better or for worse, he won’t quit until the last out is played. He has absolute confidence in his ability to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat, and doubting that belief, even for an instant, would mean quitting in his eyes–and as he’s told us many times, the only way to fail is if you quit.

To be fair, this attitude has served him well in the past. It fits the athlete’s mentality perfectly: no matter what the score, no matter how strong the opposing team, if a group of athletes come together and really push through, they can do astonishing things. The Red Sox’s 2004 World Series win is proof of that. And when you work for a guy who has done things in his life that are–literally–almost statistically impossible, you begin to believe that you can do anything too, especially when you’re surrounded by talented and passionate people.

The problem is, that same never-quit attitude just doesn’t work in the business world. Unlike the ball field, which has a finite set of variables, the business world has many factors that are out of your control. No matter how hard the team worked or how well we did our jobs, there were issues–business climate, investor trends, competition in the market, etc.–that we were helpless to affect.

(That’s not to say everything was perfect with the development of the MMO. There were many reasons Copernicus wasn’t finished, and though the natural inclination is to intertwine the game’s demise with that of the studio, each merits its own autopsy.)

38 Studios didn’t die on May 14 or May 24. It was dead when we were down to our final millions some weeks earlier. It was at that point that our company officers and board members should have ended things in a responsible way–laying off most or all of the employees, extending our health benefits for a reasonable time, and giving everyone the chance to bow out gracefully. But that Shakespearean flaw of Curt’s wouldn’t let him see this. I think that, to him, closing down with money in the bank was quitting. He believed that something good would happen at the last minute to make it all work out, as had happened on other occasions in the past. Well, this time it didn’t, and now all of us are paying the price.

Let me clarify something else: it’s not all Curt’s fault. Despite his insistence on sticking it out, the company officers and board members should have overruled him and given employees the humane closure they deserved. I have no idea why this didn’t happen, and I think that’s the biggest piece of the puzzle I’d still like to understand.

(Note that I’m not using the all-inclusive term “executives” here. Those at the VP level were largely kept in the dark about this stuff, and they are just as frustrated as the rest of us by what happened. So please, remember that not everyone with a big title next to their names had the same degree of culpability.)

Maybe all of this helps you understand how I can say that, despite it all, I still love Curt like a brother. Can you hate Hamlet for his flaws, or Othello, or Macbeth? No, their flaws are part of who they are, so you take the bad along with the good. As hard as this current situation is–trust me, it’s scary as hell–I know I’ll be okay eventually. But Curt will bear the scars of this for a lot longer. To make another reference to the Bard: “The evil that men do lives after them; the good is oft interrĂ©d with their bones.” I would be heartbroken if Curt’s legacy is that of a failed businessman whose hubris devastated a great team and impacted the taxpayers of an entire state. It’s my hope that he overcomes all this and finds happiness and success again.

I don’t excuse what happened. I’m still hurt and angry. But even so, “He was my friend, faithful and just to me.” And yeah, he still is.

Whether that makes me a good friend, an idealist, or a fool, I leave to you to decide.

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Steve Danuser, also known as Moorgard, is a a writer, editor, and game designer.

2 thoughts on “The Hamlet of Game Development”

  1. I worked directly under Steve, and Curt also demonstrated personally to me that he is a caring and passionate leader. Realistically, we should have had major layoffs months before this event. And legally, the company was obligated to warn the staff ahead of time. It’s almost unfathomable how poorly 38 Studios’ demise was handled by whoever had insight into the financial situation.

    I don’t know who screwed up or not besides Curt, and I don’t want to play that game. We just don’t know exactly what happened. It was a great job while it lasted, but it’s going to take years for some of us to recover financially and shift our careers. If we had played to get on base instead of swinging for the fences, we wouldn’t have struck out.

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