End Game: Curt Schilling and the Destruction of 38 Studios

Curt Schilling set out to build the greatest video-game company the world had ever seen, and to get rich — Bill Gates rich — doing it. Instead, the whole thing exploded in his face. Drawing on exclusive interviews with the Red Sox legend and his former employees, Jason Schwartz takes us inside the chaos, arrogance, and mistakes that led to the destruction of 38 Studios and the loss of $75 million in taxpayer money.

With the fate of 38 Studios hanging in the balance, Curt Schilling walks out of a May 16 meeting with Rhode Island Governor Lincoln Chafee and state economic development officials. (Photo by AP Images)

By 2006, Curt Schilling had earned more than $90 million playing baseball, not including endorsements. But what he really aspired to was being “Bill Gates rich.” He admired the global impact the Microsoft founder had made through his philanthropy, and wanted to do the same. Schilling, who has an autistic son, imagined providing $200 million to open the Shonda Schilling Center for Autism Research.

Creating a video game would be what catapulted him to that wealth. More specifically, he would build a massively multiplayer online game (or, blessedly abbreviated, an MMO) — the type that allows people from across the world to play with and against one another. As a kid, Schilling had been obsessed with computers (his first was an Apple II), and during his baseball career, rather than go out carousing, he spent his time playing MMOs. A favorite of his was the industry leader, World of Warcraft, a vast fantasy landscape filled with wizards, elves, and warriors that has more than 10 million paying subscribers.

Successful MMOs are incredibly lucrative, but they’re also the hardest type of game to build. You’re programming not just a game, explains Dan Scherlis, the first CEO of Turbine, a maker of MMOs, but a complex social system for thousands, if not millions, of users. A normal video game might require a couple of years to develop, but an MMO takes at least twice as long. Because of that, many gaming entrepreneurs start small, working their way up from something simple for a mobile device, or perhaps a single-player game for PlayStation or Xbox. But Schilling had grander ideas. He was going to challenge World of Warcraft. His fantasy world would be similar (you want elves and wizards, you’ve got elves and wizards), but he envisioned deeper plot lines and more-striking visuals. He persuaded R. A. Salvatore, the bestselling novelist from Leominster, to dream up the fictional universe, and the famed comic artist Todd McFarlane, a noted baseball fan, to conceive its artistic vision.

Industry experts often compare making video games to filming movies, given their similarly long production cycles and hit-or-miss nature. In movie terms, then, Schilling was attempting to start a studio from scratch, but instead of beginning with a low-budget indie flick, he was going straight for the summer blockbuster. His first time behind the camera, he was going to make Avatar.

“If it wasn’t an MMO, I wouldn’t have done it,” Schilling tells me. “If you look at the game space now, if you want to build something that’s a billion-dollar company, the only game to do that with is an MMO.”

Schilling founded his company, originally called Green Monster Games, in August 2006, and set up shop in Maynard. (The name was changed a few months later on account of some other guys already owning the trademark on “Green Monster.”) He code-named his game Project Copernicus, and set out to make it richer, more beautiful, and, in sum, more lovingly created than any before it. Copernicus’s world would be deep enough to support a network of related products: toys, books, and other video games and media. Schilling calculated that it would cost $40 to $50 million to produce the MMO, of which he’d front about 10 percent. “I told my wife I was going to take $5 million and try it out,” he says. The rest of the money would come from investors. He projected that Copernicus would debut by 2010, or in four years — an aggressive timeline for even an established video-game studio.

To industry observers, Schilling’s quest seemed overwhelmingly difficult. To Schilling, it was just another opportunity to prove the naysayers wrong. “I had to beat the Yankees three times in nine days,” he tells me, referring to when he led Arizona to the 2001 World Series title. “I never doubted I was going to do it. My whole life was spent doing things that people didn’t believe were possible, because God blessed me with the ability to throw a baseball. And I carried that same mentality into everything I did here.”