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.

Whatever the dysfunction at the executive level, most employees at 38 Studios were unaware of it, and remained happy at the beginning of 2012. There was great excitement in February when the company released Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning, a single-player title produced by Big Huge Games. It did well, selling 1.3 million copies.

Schilling, meanwhile, kept up his free-spending ways. This past Christmas, he personally bought every staffer a computer tote bag with the 38 Studios logo. Add in the company’s high staffing levels, frequent gratis lunches and dinners, and big travel budget, and it was easy to forget the whole thing was a startup. “We never had that sense of urgency or panic,” Schilling tells me. “I think there was a sense of invulnerability — I don’t want to say invulnerability, but I think we were comfortable.”

Deadlines were frequently missed, something for which staffers say Schilling rarely held anyone accountable. The ex-pitcher had a bigger concern. “The game wasn’t fun,” he says, unprompted, beside the softball field. “It was my biggest gripe for probably the past eight to 12 months.” Visually, Copernicus was stunning, but the actual things you could do in the game weren’t engaging enough. The combat aspects especially lagged. Schilling — who never wavered in his belief that the game would be great — says the MMO was improving, but after six years, it still wasn’t there. When Schilling walked around during lunch hour, he says, nobody was playing Copernicus’s internal demos. They were all on some other game.

By mid-March, a year and a half after moving to Rhode Island, 38 Studios had received $50 million from the state and had burned through nearly all of it. Because of the way the deal was structured, that would be all they ever got. So Schilling put up $5 million worth of gold coins as collateral for another loan, this one from Bank Rhode Island. Despite the money crunch, however, he brought in two new executives in March, one of whom moved from Texas. That same month, 38 Studios stopped paying vendors like Blue Cross Blue Shield. It had already been ignoring bills from Atlas Van Lines for some time.

Adding to March’s chaos, CEO Jen MacLean, who’d been feuding with Schilling, suddenly went on leave. Her colleagues — and the press — were led to believe it was because of her pregnancy (she was roughly six months in), but according to a company source, MacLean’s departure was not for medical reasons.

38 Studios was at its most desperate juncture yet. On May 1, a $1.125 million fee payment on the loan from Rhode Island was set to come due. And both the company and Schilling were all but tapped.