Given how outspoken ESPN baseball analyst (and former Boston Red Sox pitcher) Curt Schilling can be on the air, it’s not all that surprising that he’s come out fervently blasting the government of Rhode Island in the wake of his video-game company, 38 Studios, laying off its entire staff Friday. If anything, the more notable element is that it’s taken Schilling so long to talk about this; he was cited as “unavailable for comment” in just about every report on 38 Studios last week. Despite the delay from the news to his reaction, it’s still worth relaying some of what what Schilling had to say Tuesday, which mostly focused on blaming governor Lincoln Chafee for hurting the company’s public image:
“The governor is not operating in the best interest of the company by any stretch, or the taxpayers, or the state,’’ Schilling told the Providence Journal, Rhode Island’s largest newspaper. “We’re trying to save this company and we’re working 24/7. The public commentary has been as big a piece of what’s happening to us as anything out there.’’ The former baseball star also disclosed that he has invested some $50 million of his own money into 38 Studios, and he risks losing it all. “To be clear, I’ve never taken a penny out of this company,’’ Schilling told the newspaper. “If this company fails, I will be financially devastated, and so will other people.’’
Of course, Chafee doesn’t exactly concur: Late Tuesday Chafee rebutted Schilling’s accusations, in particular that his pessimistic statements about the viability of 38 Studios deterred outsiders from saving the company:
“Investors are not going to be scared away by some governor’s comments,” Chafee said at a news conference at the State House. “It just defies logic. Investors look at the bottom line: ‘Can I make money.’”
Without being on the inside, it’s tough to properly judge who deserves how much blame, but both sides have a few points. Chaffee’s comments don’t entirely ring true; if a state governor, and one whose state is as closely financially tied to a company as Rhode Island was to 38 Studios, is publicly raising questions about their solvency and announcing to the world that their checks aren’t clearing, it doesn’t defy logic at all that said comments will make outside investors wary. Moreover, the government’s handling of the situation doesn’t exactly speak to maximizing the remaining value of their investment; with a little less public indigination and a little more behind-the-scenes work, they might have negotiated a sale of 38 Studios to another industry company and received at least a substantial portion of their money back.
Still, Schilling appears far from blameless here, and his management of the situation screams of ineptitude. When you’re engaged in a criticial series of negotiations with government, sending bad checks and suddenly laying off all your employees without telling one of your largest creditors seems like a problematic idea. Similarly, staying completely behind the scenes and remaining unwilling to comment until after the situation’s already reached its breaking point isn’t the greatest example of crisis management in history, especially for a prominent media personality like Schilling who should have a better idea of how his silence would be seen.
By the way, an interesting sports media note here: if you do an ESPN search for “Curt Schilling”, everything from May 14 and earlier (radio appearances with Colin Cowherd and ESPN Boston, etc) bills him as as “Current ESPN analyst and former Red Sox pitcher Curt Schilling” or “ESPN MLB analyst Curt Schilling, but everything from May 16 on (mostly news service reports) bills him as “former Red Sox pitcher Curt Schilling”. Maybe that’s just a difference in how ESPN handles internal versus wire-service stories, but it does make for a remarkable contrast.
Schilling’s leadership of the company before this is questionable, too. They had a modest hit with their first project, the single-player action/role-playing game title Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning which involved such notable personages as writer R.A. Salvatore and artist Todd McFarlane, but their second game, a massively-multiplayer online RPG tentatively titled Project Copernicus, seemed flawed from the start. MMORPGs can be a cash cow if properly executed, as their initial cost plus monthly subscription fees can mean developers get large amounts of revenue from each gamer, but those same high costs and the emphasis on involving a lot of people means only a subset of gamers are willing to shell out every month for MMORPGS, and most of those will only play one or two different titles. That’s led to a vast amount of centralization, with games like World of Warcraft growing massive user bases, but just about everything else struggling; even titles like Star Wars: The Old Republic, which has the incredible advantages of a hugely popular license, a basis in previously successful games (the Knights of the Old Republic single-player RPGs), and a world-renowned developer (BioWare), are shedding subscribers like flies. The gaming world in general seems to be moving away from launching new MMORPGs, and if a veteran studio with a strong reputation like BioWare can’t pull in people for a Star Wars title, how would a new developer like 38 Studios ever draw enough people to an original MMORPG to make it work?
From this corner, a lot of the issues here seem to come from Schilling’s hubris. In baseball, he was a massive star and one who always pulled in plenty of attention, so perhaps he figured that people would flock to his game in record numbers and give him the next World of Warcraft. Moreover, his dealings with Rhode Island seem to smack of the willingness to directly challenge batters he frequently showed on the mound; not everyone’s going to back down from a fastball, though. Gaming’s a different arena than pitching, and although Schilling managed to hire a lot of talented people, secure massive government funding and even launch a modest-selling game, his overall time at 38 Studios certainly can’t be classified as a perfect game or even a quality start. In fact, the way the 38 Studios saga has gone down is perhaps more reminiscent of another recent spectacular implosion, one by a team Schilling used to play for. Here, though, the fights aren’t about chicken and beer, but rather about massive amounts of money, and it’s peoples’ livelihoods and a state’s fiscal health at stake, not who makes it to the playoffs. This time, there may be blood on more than just Schilling’s sock.