Posted at September 12, 2020

Whatever Happned to “Kingdoms of Amalur’s” Original Developer?

The remaster of Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning came out on Tuesday to generally positive reviews. Some people were hoping for something more substantial than better graphics and quality of life improvements. Frankly, I’m just happy to see Kingdoms of Amalur rescued from the dustbin, even if I think Re-Reckoning is a really stupid title.

But if Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning was such a great game, why has the franchise been dead for nearly a decade. That is an interesting story in its own right—the tale of a washed-up baseball player and the State of Rhode Island.

But let’s begin at the beginning. In 2005, baseball player Kurt Shilling, then a pitcher for the Boston Red Sox, pitched an idea to his wife’s uncle, Bill Thomas. Shilling, you see, was a fan of MMOs and dreamed of creating his own, although it’s more accurate to say he dreamed of being fabulously wealthy, and thought that game development would get him there.

Now, Shilling was an expert ball thrower but had no idea how to run a business or develop a video game. He allegedly needed to have the concept of a 40-hour workweek explained to him. Thomas, at least, was familiar with running a business. Still, Shilling would need to find others to fill in the development side of things.

Those others ended up including Jon Laff, formally of Electronic Arts, and Travis McGeathy, who had been the lead designer of the MMO EverQuest. Adding to the roster were author R. A. Salvatore and Spawn creator Todd McFarlane. They would serve as the lead writer and art director, respectively. And just to make sure he had as much talent as possible, Shilling went and bought Rise of Nations Big Huge Games from THQ.

This, however, is where the trouble began. You see, Kurt had a lot of faith in his project, but seemed largely unaware of the financial risk involved. MMO”s are big and expensive, often taking twice as long to develop as other games with no guarantee they will turn a profit.

Most first-time developers might have started with something smaller, but Shilling was adamant that it was an MMO or nothing. “If you look at the game space now,” he told a Boston Globe reporter in 2012, “if you want to build something that’s a billion-dollar company, the only game to do that with is an MMO.”

To his credit, Shilling knew that if he was going to compete against World of Warcraft, it was go big or go home. He didn’t hire Salvatore and McFarlane because they were great dinner guests, after all. His game would be the greatest MMO in history, a launching pad for an entire franchise of games, movies, books, and toys. He just needed about $50 million to make it happen.

Unfortunately, Shilling didn’t quite grasp what it meant to be a startup, spending money on expensive offices and company cars. Unfortunately, cash is exactly what he didn’t have. Investors wouldn’t touch 38 Studios with a 10-foot pole, and the company’s expenses were mounting.

Enter Rhode Island Governor Don Carcieri, a man who knows precisely one thing about the gaming industry, it made money. And in 2010, money was something his state lacked. He had a dream of turning Providence into the North East’s answer to Silicon Valley. To him, baseball legend Kurt Shilling seemed to be the perfect person to get the ball rolling. All the better if it meant sticking it to Massachusetts. So, despite his financial advisors’ objection, the Governor offered Shilling a $75 million loan if he relocated his company to Rhode Island.

But the move to Rhode Island only made things worse. In order to keep his part of the deal, Shilling undertook what the Bostin Globe called a “hiring binge” and started handing out management positions like autographs. This soon led to infighting, and any sense of cohesion quickly evaporated. Kurt himself wasn’t helping, appointing relatives to important positions and undermining his own managers’ authority. He also developed a reputation for ignoring his own game industry experts.

Still, things could be worse. EA had agreed to distribute what would become Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning. The game was an offline and heavily cut down version of his original vision. While there is no shame in recognizing your own limitations, this was not that. Shilling saw Reckoning as a means to an end. It would get him the money he needed to continue working on his MMO project, which was still under development.

Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning was released in February of 2012 and sold a respectable 1.2 million copies over the first three months. Most first-time developers would been thrilled with those kinds of numbers. Unfortunately, it was nowhere near the projected 3 million in sales they needed to cover development costs.

Meanwhile, Shilling’s MMO project, codenamed Copernicus, was going nowhere fast. They were behind schedule and way over budget, having burned through the $50 million Rhode Island had given them so far. By March, 38 Studios was missing payments to vendors. By May, the company couldn’t even afford to pay its employees. By June, they were filing for bankruptcy.

After that, all that remained was to point fingers. Most of them ended up pointed at Kurt Shilling.

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