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Going Green With 38 Studios: RA Salvatore, Brett Close On The House Curt Schilling Built

Baseball legend and MMO fan Curt Schilling is behind the founding of Boston-based 38 Studios, alongside Todd McFarlane and author R.A. Salvatore, and Gamasutra caught up with Salvatore and CEO Brett Close to discuss the company's 'broad media' aspirations and "standing on the shoulders" of World Of Warcraft.

It was first revealed in late 2006 that baseball legend and avid MMO fan Curt Schilling was forming a new Boston-based video game company, Green Monster Games, with Spawn creator Todd McFarlane and noted sci-fi/fantasy author R.A. Salvatore, to create what it describes as "industry-changing games", .

The company added Brett Close as president and CEO in February 2007 - the exec is a former Midway, EA, and VR1 staff member, having been involved in titles such as Medal of Honor: Rising Sun, Medal of Honor: Frontline, and debuting Nightcaster: Defeat the Darkness for Xbox launch.

Following the renaming of the company to 38 Studios, the firm has announced that one of the forthcoming titles that will "explore the new intellectual property being developed by 38 Studios" will be a massively multiplayer game that will feature the art and vision of McFarlane as well as the storytelling of Salvatore. We caught up with Close and Salvatore recently to chat about the company's 'broad media' aspirations, Schilling's involvement in the company, and "standing on the shoulders" of World Of Warcraft.

Can you both introduce yourselves?

Brett Close: I’m Brett Close, president and CEO of 38 Studios.

R.A. Salvatore: I’m Bob Salvatore, creator of worlds for 38 Studios.

Creator of worlds?

RS: That’s my title. I’m the COW. [laughs]

Do you do that on purpose?

RS: No, I was in the car with my wife on the way into the office, and a friend that runs the printing press near the studios was doing our cards called me in a panic. We'd just hired a creative director, and he thought that was my title. He asked “well, what do I call him” and my wife said “just call him 'creator of worlds.'" It was just a joke, but then sure enough, the cards showed up at door as “creator of worlds.”

BC: Well, you are creating a world, so…

RS: And it stuck!

Everyone’s exciting titles aside, can you just give a bit of an explanation about where you guys are coming from? You were somebody else before, right?

BC: We were somebody else. And now we still are somebody, but it’s not the same somebody that we were before. So we were Green Monster Games, but we rebranded ourselves because, right about the time I came in, we started talking about the focus and vision and direction of the company. The primary point -- with people like Bob involved, with Todd involved, with this higher level vision and direction from these guys that were building the world based on an original IP -- we’re building more than just videogames.

This is going to spin off into ancillary products that support that. It actually blurs over into various other media, like video on demand, like the online presence, like Todd’s figurines, like graphical novels, and Bob’s vignettes, and various writing releases that we can do, as well as full blown novels. You know, wireless hand-held consoles, cross-platform, etc.

So it’s a very broad media play at presenting this world in a number of different ways that culminate in this online product, and that’s the multiplayer online episodic game. So, that being the case, Green Monster Games didn’t really encompass the nature of what we were doing, and we started looking at being a bigger entertainment company, and we started looking at names that reflected that more accurately.

We obviously came up with 38 Studios. The idea of that was Curt’s jersey. Curt's number was 38, and being the founder, star pitcher of the Boston Red Sox -- there’s a lot of his vision and passion and integrity in the construction of the studio and the formation of the company. It's about how we’re treating people, too, how we’re taking a fresh look at how to build these products, and not doing the standard game industry grind. Looking at new distribution models, looking at, frankly, just new processes, and new efficiencies, and new ways to do videogame products, and media products in general, entertainment products, and doing it in a way that attracts and retains talent like no other studio there.

RS: Is that really why we changed the name? Cool, I thought it was just that our old Green Monster Games T-shirts would be worth more on eBay.

BC: That’s a good point.

RS: I’ve got mine all ready to go, I wanna wait a couple of years.

BC: Yeah, a little more time.


How does someone make a baseball to game development career move?

BC: Well, he hasn’t entirely yet. Obviously he’s still doing both to some degree, although not at the same time. So while he’s doing his day job, as we like to say, he’s very focused on baseball. Those two worlds do not collide. He’s very specific -- especially on days that he’s pitching -- that he cannot be bothered, he has to remain focused on his baseball career.

The way that he looked at this, he’s been a passionate video gamer for years, pretty much his whole life. So, he had some stuff associated with Sony Online, and Everquest and Everquest II. Actually was associated with a 3D0 baseball game. He’s been kind of a little bit behind the scenes in the industry for a long time.

RS: Plus he’s got paper gaming.

BC: A paper and board game business, associated with Advanced Squad Leader. He's a very, very avid gamer. Instead of looking at “someday I’m actually going to transition out of my sporting career”, he said “how can I pull together the next greatest entertainment products company, frankly, in the world.”

That's how Curt thinks, that’s how we all like to think. He started to think about who he’d want to pull in to do that. And now he’s in that phase where he’s still very focused on baseball, and when the season’s off he plays a very strong role in the studio. Right now he is still very focused on baseball.

RS: Curt called me up last August out of the blue. The way he presented it to me was that he was putting together the 1927 Yankees, and he wanted me in his batting order. He had been friends with Todd [McFarlane] for a while, because Todd does baseball things as well, and he wanted me to come in and work on the story, Todd for the art, and then, when our names came on board, then the real talent came in. Guys from the industry.

Curt knew a lot of a people behind the scenes in the industry, so he would go up to people that he knew and respected, and would say “if you were hiring anyone in the industry for this position, who would it be?” Then he would call them up -- he’s a pretty persuasive guy -- and his batting average is pretty good on the people he pulled in. He got pretty much most of the people he wanted. They came out and people would buy into the vision, and the idea that we’re putting together this team and we’re gonna work from the ground up together and build an IP.

You mentioned it’s not going to be the same development grind. How are you going to ensure that?

BC: There are a lot ways we’ll ensure that. First and foremost: my background is Electronic Arts, Midway, I was running the the old Midway Austin studio, and then a number of little startups… There’s a lot of process and management and fresh takes on how development can occur, and taking a more rigorous approach about building videogames and entertainment products, applying software engineering approaches, being more structured about specifications, scheduling, clarity about what the team can accomplish, driving the risk out up front, and not releasing the product before it’s ready.

There’s a whole secret sauce associated with that that is hugely important and has to happen as a top down philosophy, at any place. When you have other companies, and I’m not going to name them, where you literally have class action lawsuits, because they are just beating their people to the point where they’re not only losing, but that’s turning into a massive financial liability, not to mention that it just sucks. I mean, all that equity that you put into people – and they’re great people and you love working with them, and all that – and then you work them to death, and destroy families, and they leave, and you have to pull somebody else in and retrain them.

It has to be a top down vision of how we’re going to do this better than any other place else that’s done it, and make sure that it’s a quality place to work, and a place to work with integrity, where people love coming into work. You attract that kind of talent, and they attract even more of that kind of talent. You get better and better at that model of how you start to release products. I’m not saying that it’s easy to do that, but I’m saying that the industry is right for somebody to make the commitment to do that the right way and stick to it.


Are you looking at agile development?

BC: Absolutely, we’re strong in agile development. I personally have my own hybrid secret sauce, a mixture of agile development and a couple of other things. I have a lot of theories about what works and what doesn’t. A lot of that is all about empowering the team and strong developers from the bottom up to be able to make their decisions, rather than top down, heavy-handed management decisions that aren’t even connected to what the guys are doing on the ground floor level.

Where are you from, because there's a lot of proponents of scrum and agile development here in San Diego?

BC: We’re in Maynard, Massachusetts, and as a side note, that we’re based in Boston is very interesting, because I see Boston as the next major hub for a game development city. There are actually a ton of tiny developers out there -- there's us, there's Irrational [2K Boston], Turbine, Blue Fang, Harmonix, and then you’ve got MIT, who’s actually got a game development program and is churning out a ton of engineers.

There’s a huge amount of fresh young talent out there that are very familiar with a lot of these new things that, frankly, a lot of these old game developers aren’t used to.

Do you actually think that people coming out of these game development programs are good hires? Some people feel like they’re learning game development like how people learn SATs. They learn to take the test.

BC: It depends on the university. MIT’s program is great, Carnegie Mellon’s program is great…

RS: Harvard's program is great.

BC: You obviously have to look at the candidate and that goes down to your interviewing process and how you’re sorting people out, and if they have a formulaic approach versus if they’re just a smart person. That’s a tricky filter.

Will you be able to eliminate crunch times with what you’re doing?

BC: You have to have a strong commitment to how you are setting up that linkage between expectations of what you’re delivering and the timelines of how you’re delivering it with the team. I’m not going to make an embarrassing statement to say that, for example, we’re not going to hold people to a deadline. I think that any company, in terms of being responsible about what you’re doing, you have to stick to your deadline.

I think there’s a big difference, there’s a chasm of difference, between sticking to a deadline and your guys being responsible developers, and crunch time, where you’re driving people for months on end, working ridiculous hours. There’s a lot that can be done, both from an ethical, and a smart development perspective, to make sure we don’t fall into that hazard.


What's the company’s creative goal right now? It sounds like you’re creating a world, and then moving the pieces out into game bits and franchise bits and things like that.

RS: I don’t think I’d put it that way. The way I like to think of it is that we’re taking all of these threads, and we’re building and winding people up. My job now is to take all of these talented people and get the content, and mechanics, and the artists, and make sure that we’re all on the same canvas, so we’re painting the same picture. We're trying to build a world that is consistent, and makes sense, that’s rich, and it’s deep, and has a long, long history, and also has an overarching story that we’re going to look at and say “this world is dynamic, it’s moving.”

The one thing that I’m always very aware of in an MMO type of setting, or whatever -- when I write a book, I take a group of characters and I send them on a journey, and you vicariously go on that journey, that adventure, with the characters. In an MMO, that would never work. In a computer game that doesn’t work. You want to write the book.

“You” as the user.

RS: You as the user, the player. That’s the character that’s important. It’s the one you create, it’s the user. So from the creative point of view, what we’re trying to do right now, is just build a world that has so many of those threads behind the canvas, that it’s so rich and so real and consistent, that people want to live there, and want to play there.


Renowned artist and toy designer Todd McFarlane

If the MMO is the main target there, how do you extend that to handhelds?

BC: We’re building a world that is founded on this intellectual property that Bob is helping to drive, and Todd’s artistic direction. That blurs out into a ton of different areas. The culmination of it? Approximately a year from now we’re going to start releasing tidbits of that intellectual property, either through graphic novel stuff, Todd’s figurines, things like that. A couple of videos-on-demand. People will start to get a glimpse of what this is all about. What the intellectual property is all about. What the style is going to be, things like that.

Then it’ll explode when we actually release the massively multiplayer online product. But there are a ton of different ways that will blur out into, whether or not it’s cross-platform, console, PC, you’ll see presence as far as web-based, on your TV, video-on-demand, wireless, cell phone. There are a multitude of directions that we’re already looking at taking it.

Back to your question, we’re in the concept phase. We’re starting to solidify the artistic style, as Bob said, we’re solidifying the literary translation from his high-level tapestry, high-level story landscape, down into the gameplay aspects, and pretty soon we’ll go into prototype stages and start validating a lot of those things.

RS: How many times do you see a company come out with a computer game, and then it does fairly well, or it does really well, and then two years later they say, “boy, we should start a book line”. We’re never going to have that problem. We’re tying all those knots early, to figure out how do we want to approach this from the ground up.

BC: Another thing is that if you look at the other products out there, and look at our IP, and our entertainment products -- specifically the MMO -- we’re uniquely positioned. The MMO products out there right now are essentially grinders where people get in, they level up, that’s one aspect of it, and they get hooked up with their friends, and that’s what they do. It’s those two main things.

There’s nothing out there that really has this story overlay that keeps sucking you further and further through the experience, that presents this larger entertainment experience that keeps you engaged. You still have the other two: you still go wanna hook up with your friends, you’re still going to grind a little bit – although, there won’t be grinding in ours – but the larger pieces present an entertainment experience, with the story that unfolds as you interact with it. You’re going to see changes that impact the story, you’re going to see the story in a larger scope of what’s going on in the world, so you have context to get what you’re doing. Nobody’s doing that. It’s sort of the difference between basic 3D shooters, and say, Half-Life 2.

Andrea Schneider, 38 Studios PR: The way I’ve been explaining it to people when I’m talking is the company’s creating this IP, which is kind of like the nucleus, and then orbiting around it are all these different mediums, with the MMO really being the big orbit. Then you have all these other little things, but the IP is really the nucleus, not actually the MMO.


How do you integrate story into MMO’s? It seems like a really difficult thing to tackle, and in general, people kind of don’t outside of, say, single player quests. It's very hard to actually have people feel like they’re affecting the world.

BC: It’s a tough job.

RS: It is.

BC: And that’s it. [laughs]

RS: The way I’m beginning to understand what’s going to happen -- because, a lot of this is a learning experience for me -- I never realized –

BC: Actually, be careful not to say too much here.

RS: – is I’m learning is I really shouldn’t say too much, and so we’re gonna leave it at that.[laughs] I can say that one of the things that’s helping is taking different characters, and different parts of the world, and writing little short stories about them. I have a friend, the printer friend, who's printing one copy, a leather bound short story, of a character in our world. That copy circulates through everybody in the office. The goal is that the art team, the design team, all of the people will have the feel of that area, of that character. Then they can work from there, and build it bigger and better.

It’s great to have the time to be able to do that, but most people don’t have that luxury.

RS: We’ve had a long pre-production phase. [laughs]

BC: We’re privately funded. We’re in a spectacular position, this combination of being able to have the freedom to create the intellectual property, and choose how we want to present it. We're not be driven by a publisher that’s breathing down your neck, and can be very careful about – back to your point – how you do this right, how to avoid crunch. We're driving a lot of that risk up front by taking a long preproduction cycle to figure out what you’re going to build before you build it. I apologize for cutting him off earlier, but you’re kind of getting into one of our “secret sauce” areas, which is critical.

This all seems very character focused both from your side, and with Todd McFarlane creating things for the universe as well, it sounds at least very character driven. Is that true?

RS: No, I wouldn’t say that. I would say that it’s going to be character focused in the manner that it’s going to be focused on the character you create, but you want to have iconic characters. You want to have people in the world that you know, or you get to know, and can say “hey cool, I just read about this guy”, or whatever, “and here he is!”

I’ve been playing MMO’s for years, I love them, and the one thing I know as a player is that I don’t want anyone to hold my hand and walk me through something. I want to write my own books with my character. I would never – as a dungeon master and as now a game designer – I would never want to take that away from the player.

BC: If anything I’d say it’s maybe event-focused. In terms of the larger world what’s important to the –

RS: I’ll just cut you right off here, he’s getting into areas we really don’t want to discuss. [laughs]

I don’t know if this is too “secret sauce” oriented, but how are you going to make a game that is not trying to compete with World of Warcraft. How do make it in a different arena? Because obviously you can’t compete with World of Warcraft, right?

RS: Oooh, ooh, ooh. How do I write a book that's not going to compete with J R R Tolkien?

Well, that’s a good point, and maybe that's impossible, but it seems with MMOs, it is possible.

RS: We always look at everything that’s out there as the giants upon whose shoulders we will stand. Not the grave we’re gonna dance on, the giant whose shoulders we’re gonna stand upon. I have an attitude about it, when other games do something that’s really amazing, there are two things I like about that. One, I get to play it. And two, it makes us feel better.

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