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A perfect pitch

38 Studios founder Curt Schilling and CEO Brett Close discuss entering the MMO market

When you think of sports stars and videogames your mind initially wonders towards tie-in promotional sports titles. Shawn White's Snowboarding, Madden, Tiger Woods PGA Tour, the list goes on. However, Red Sox pitcher Curt Schilling didn't want to make a game about his life's work, he wanted to delve into his life's passion: MMOs. So he established his own company, 38 Studios, and begun work on his own MMO, Copernicus. spoke with Schilling and 38 Studio's CEO, Brett Close, about the challenges of starting out in the MMO-sphere, the next step in customer service and creating touch points into new IP. How is work on your MMO, Copernicus, going?
Brett Close

It's going great. We are in, what we call, prototype phase. We’ve licensed two major pieces of technology: the Big World Engine as our backend and service platform and then you have the Unreal Engine on our client side - we've married those two technologies and they're up and running. Why choose an MMO as an initial project isn't there a risk you've bitten too much off, even Blizzard itself worked on before it took on something like World of Warcraft?
Curt Schilling

Yeah because I'm stupid… There are a myriad of ways we could have gone, at the end of the day when you're building a business off of one project to begin with it was my belief I had to have as much passion for that thing as anything I've ever had and that's always been MMOs for me. That's been the game space I've lived in for the last decade and was passionate about. We as a company have a vision of being a worldwide leader in delivering online entertainment and I don't see any rout or clearer path than doing an MMO.

Obviously if you know anything about us, or heard anything about the Copernicus project, then you know that RA [Salvatore] is involved intimately, Todd [McFarlane] is involved intimately - we're talking about much more than just a massively multiplayer online game. We're talking about, in some cases, redefining the way you deliver that online entertainment experience and making the touch point into our product, into our IP, stand the breadth and width of media and devices. It is challenging, but so what? I enjoy that. That's part of the challenge to stand up and say I'm going to do something and actually do it. There are a lot of other things we could have done and there are a lot of things we're doing.

Brett Close

Curt's masochism aside, the 38 Studio's vision was really looking at not only what our personal passion was, you have to be careful about making the game that you want, but more importantly where is the next place this industry and entertainment should go and needs to go. There are a lot of people who would love to do what we're doing but they can't.

Not to say it's not risky, but it's less about risk and as much about opportunity. People don't have the opportunity or the capability that Curt has afforded us to with this incredibly revolutionary project that we're putting out there. What we're doing is looking beyond other MMOs and looking at the connected online entertainment experience and delivering a great cinematic, story driven experience, that no body else has delivered to date. You mentioned Todd McFarlane and RA Salvatore, were they taken on board to position yourselves against titles like Warhammer Online and World of Warcraft which have an established IP with a large fan base?
Curt Schilling

I would love to tell you that I was that forward thinking but no. Originally they were brought on because when I sat down to work through the beginnings of this I had the story initially in mind, artistically I had no idea, but part of building this out was getting people that do things better than anybody else in the world. I looked at RA [Salvatore] as the premiere fantasy writer on the planet and I looked at Todd [McFarlane] as this independent incredibly talented visionary. I couldn't think of two better people to be in those positions - so I early on pitched both of them about the business idea and the content idea.

Todd and I have been friends for about seven or eight years now, I knew Todd when I was in Arizona. RA was someone I reached out to, cold called, and actually came to find out that he lives about 40 minuets from where our company is located and is a huge Boston Red Sox fan, so we hit it off immediately. RA is a very hardcore MMO player in addition to this. He had a lot of interest in finding out what the next step was for the writer in today's entertainment, today's media.

Both of them jumped in with both feet and they're both intimately involved in this project. RA is in the office multiple times a week, working with our content creation team, working with our lead and his team. Todd is in Arizona so there is a physical location issue that is solved by having Todd technically hook up with our team once or twice a week. You mentioned that you were looking to expand the reach of your IP across media and gaming devices, would this look like how Spore was released on multiple platforms or how Dead Space had an animated movie and a comic series?
Curt Schilling

Yeah. We’re competing for time, and there's only 24 hours in a day. Generally it's very hard to get involved and immersed in more than one or two MMOs at one time. So it becomes a matter of creating touch points that don't exist that allow people to be as immersed as they want to be - we're not building an MMO for the iPhone, we're not building an MMO for the DS but there's no reason we can't create applications that allow players to remain involved and in communication with their communities when they're not in front of their computers.

Brett Close

Consumers are becoming accustomed to a steady diet of getting what they want on different platforms and on different mediums, so whether or not its playing a console product, or getting online and playing an MMO on their PC, or playing a flash game, or playing a game on their cell phone, or iPhone, or picking up great book, or watching a movie or video on demand, they have choices about how they consume this stuff. The critical piece here though is no body has really done a great job on delivering that for a full product, as the full rollout for that intellectual property.

It's not 'hey you're going to play an MMO for your iPhone,' it's giving as many choices as you can in how interact with this intellectual property, starting with the following of RA Salvatore and the existing customer base there. He's actually working on a novel prequel that will come out just before the game goes live. It's just another example of jazzing people up, energising them, giving different levels of interest. If you're a fan of the Salvatore novels, you're going to read that book and think 'man I've got to get online and check out this cool IP because I had a great time reading the book'. Many developers with the financial clout of a company such as EA struggle to launch MMOs, how can a smaller company hope to compete in the same field?
Curt Schilling

It depends on your perspective. For the next two years until we launch our game we're competing with ourselves. I mean, we have to deliver internally and meet internal expectations. If you're a company with any kind of long-term vision the barriers, the goals, the hurdles you have to overcome are far more significant internally than they'll ever be externally.

If you stay focused on what it is you're trying to deliver and you are true to that focus and you have incredibly talented people you're going to create something special. I think the key behind any good product in any market is the passion and the investment that the company puts into the product. At the end of the day our goal is to provide the best user experience from product purchase to account creation, to game experience we can possibly create and we have incredibly talented people who have done that already.

Brett Close

Another piece of that are partnerships. What we're focusing on is building the game, there are things that we don't want to get caught up in… there are a number of areas that frankly we don't have any business being involved in and we're not going to and we will find partners that will help us with that. We have a number of conversations in play with very interesting partners who can help us… Why did you decide to buy the Azeroth Advisor and make it free?
Curt Schilling

Well the simple answer is because I was a customer. I'm obviously a hardcore WoW player who came across a service that was being offered WoW players everywhere. It was a monthly subscription but I felt that there was value enough to pay for it. I was a huge fan of the product. I showed it to Brett and he loved it, we contacted mentor media… because in our initial development on Copernicus we recognised that one of the most important aspect of an MMO is the community. This was a community management, community service tool, that didn't fit in the game space.

It's very simple and it's incredibly well made product with enhancing the user experience as its goal. At the end of the day when you evaluate what it truly is, it is the next step in customer service. It's a living breathing play guide that is tailored specifically for the character you're currently playing. Looking at that it also seems like you bought yourselves a powerful database too, because it's basically made up of a lot of players of World of Warcraft. I was wondering do you intend to use that database to leverage your own MMO?
Curt Schilling

We never set out with the intention of corralling another company's customers and disguising what we were delivering for them as a way to get them brainwashed into loving Copernicus. The fact is Copernicus is going to live and die on its own legs.

It really is our first product so to speak and hopefully the quality of the product, the depth of the service, begins to make players understand how important we view them as they key part to this puzzle.

Curt Schilling is the founder of 38 Studios and Brett Close is its CEO. Interview by James Lee.

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