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Curt Schilling is one of the legends of Major League Baseball. The six-time All-Star pitcher of the Boston Red Sox and two-time World Series champ has revealed his closet passion for video games. For years, he has played fantasy games such as EverQuest and World of Warcraft avidly. And he’s out to prove that he’s not just a dumb athlete but can cross over to become a success in another field.
Schilling has started 38 Studios (named after his number) to build a new video game franchise that includes a massively multiplayer online fantasy role-playing game. The fantasy game, code-named Copernicus, is not scheduled to be released until 2010. But Schilling has revealed that its characters are being created by famous comic book creator Todd McFarlane and its story and universe are being done by sci-fi serial novelist R.A. Salvatore.
I spent some time with him recently and found that he’s passionate about gaming and plans on a “deep throw” with a new entertainment property — with comics, toys, and other things preceding the release of the game itself. The company has humbly called this ambitious effort a “New World Order” in entertainment and has licensed the Big World engine for back-end services. Schilling, chairman and founder, has hired former Electronic Arts developer Brett Close as his CEO but remains intimately involved in everything the company is doing. After this season, Schilling is planning on retiring from baseball to work on the game full time.
They have hired away talent from the biggest names in the industry, from EA to Sony Online Entertainment. It’s all happening in an old brick building in Maynard, Mass., dubbed The Mill. The company raised $10 million in an angel round and is now seeking Series B funding.
Three top investment pros open up about what it takes to get your video game funded.
An interview with Schilling follows, below.
Q: What was the reaction you got when you said you were going to make a fantasy massively multiplayer online game?
A: There is nobody on the planet, especially in this industry, that looks at this and says this is a normal transition. They look at me and go “What?” Whatever, dude. You’re a frigging celebrity athlete who is a gamer and you want to make games? OK. Todd McFarlane, R.A. Salvatore and I understood very early this is not about Todd’s great art work or R.A.’s great story or me doing the leadership. This is about people who know how to make games making a kick-ass product. Ultimately, the job that falls on the shoulders of Brett Close and I is to provide a forum for talented people to do what they do best. There are misconceptions. The only rules that we have at this company are the same as Tito’s: “be on time” and “bust your ass.” If you hire talented people, then the rest takes care of itself. I’ve had to adjust the whole “be on time” thing. The core hours are 10 to 4. I have people who refuse to be at work until 10:02. They will not be early. But the same guy is at the desk at 8:15 pm and meets every milestone.
Q: How did you present to the financial community?
A: When the company got announced, there were venture capitalists lined up from Maynard to Boston. I knew I could open the doors and people would come to us. When you sit across from the VCs, they don’t care how good Todd and R.A. are. They want to see a line-item budget. They want to see a team that will put a game out. It’s all about return on investment. As we look at early partnerships, we could have closed multiple rounds with multiple partners and given away a pound of flesh at every turn. It hasn’t happened. There were plenty of people to write checks. We promised we would spend every penny they gave us. At the end of the day, we asked the financial people how they would make this company better. What did they bring strategically? ROI isn’t the end-all determining factor for why they should want to be with us. With VCs, that’s not always the way it works. It’s nice that they are ramping up in games. They came to us with people from game companies who are just brilliant people. The revenue of the industry is staggering.
Q: What could go wrong?
A: The only way we can fail is if we find a way to screw this up in an epic way internally. To me, because I know these people. If you talk about who on your team made great games, we can do that. We’ve got a guy from the Medal of Honor franchise at Electronic Arts that is one of the most successful franchises. Everybody on this development team has been on one or more MMOs. They’ve turned out AAA titles for multiple companies.
Q: What are the odds of an internal breakdown?
A: That’s not an option as long as I’m part of this. The beauty of the self-funding aspect of this and retaining control of the intellectual property and control of the company is that the launch date is very Blizzard-like. This game won’t go out until it’s ready. In the MMO space, it’s like Hollywood. You’re talking about multiple-year projects and budgets in the $50 million to $75 million range. That is very realistic. We won’t launch until it’s ready. We will get it out there. We have an amazing amount of stuff happening before that. Look at Blizzard with World of Warcraft. The amount of IP is massive, with deals with MasterCard and Toyota after the game shipped. We have it in reverse. We have a huge variety of IP-related product that we will put out to brand the IP well ahead of launch. You can see the potential risk of the IP, like what if people don’t like it. We’ll have the ability to adjust to what people want. We’re talking about toys, comics, video on demand, videos – with people who have done it. Todd McFarlane is one of the most successful people in comics on the planet. He has branded fantasy worlds his whole life. R.A. can an iconic character the way I throw a fastball. From the risk standpoint, we’re doing it with experienced people.
Q: Is this a little like Michael Jordan wanting to become a baseball player and making an impact beyond basketball?
A: I want to be the best in the world at something else. Absolutely. That’s the challenge. I’m no different from you or other gamers. I want to make a cool game. But we’re talking about relocating people from around the world to be with us. We’re responsible for their wife and family and their future.
Q: Do you personally interview every person you hire?
A: Absolutely. I put as much effort into that as everything else in the company. Brett is the person who makes the decision on whether the person fits with us. It ultimately has to be someone I’m comfortable with.
Q: Do you fire people?
A: Yes. That was one of the hardest things in the first year and a half of the company. I had to fire two people.
Q: You’ve never done that?
A: Hell no. One was a key member of the company and another was very famous in the industry for what they do. It was hard because these people were very close friends of mine. I knew their wives and kids. But I have a responsibility to everybody on this team and company to do what is right for the company. It could have happened without my involvement. But that’s not who I am. It’s not the ethics and morals that I’ve espoused.
Q: Why do an MMO if you could start more conservatively with a single-player game?
A: That’s what it was from the beginning. That is what I wanted to do. We have been told a lot of times that if you’re smart, you do something a whole lot smaller for a whole lot less money and a whole lot faster. I’m not smart. If I was smart, I’d be trying to win the World Series.
Q: Could you have bankrolled something yourself?
A: Not this. But there will be product out before we launch this game. It will be other products than the game. The venture companies asked if we could do something for half the price and half the time. We said you’d get half the product. That’s a challenge. The people who are coming in alongside me with the money get it. At the end of the day, the ROI is going to be massive. The concern of others is you guys have never done this before. But we say, “Yeah, we’re going to do it.” You can go back and forth. At some point, somebody has to make a leap of faith.
Q: Has the VC feedback altered your view?
A: Absolutely not. We have a very comfortable amount of time before other money is potentially needed. A new B round closing is going to allow us to make decisions where, if it’s not ready, we’re going to need another couple of months.
Q: What is your World of Warcraft character?
A: A 70 Hunter and a 68 Shaman.
Q: How many hours of playing have you put into it?
A: I will not publicly admit that.
Q: There are not a lot of pro athletes of your stature blogging. What did you learn?
A: At the beginning of the process, the long-term goal was to get some word out about 38 Studios. Using what I do for a living now to create awareness outside of the game field is a good thing. I’ve learned that I don’t have any more of a filter typing as I do talking. I have said things on the blog where I go, Oh crap, why did I say that. I am what I am. I never had a problem with people calling me on the mat for saying something stupid. It’s interesting. I’m surprised at the volume of traffic, right around 7 million unique visitors over 10 months. Radio and blogging are the only places you can be unfiltered.
Q: Who have you endorsed for the presidential race?
A: I’ve been for Senator McCain.
Q: What are you playing?
A: WoW, obviously. Guild Wars. Tabula Rasa. Hellgate: London. EverQuest II a little. We play all of the MMO stuff to keep up.
Q: Did you like Tabula Rasa?
A: I did. I’m not a sci-fi guy but I really like the things they did. I met with Richard Garriott. He’s a nice guy. It’s one of those things. I frigging played with Cal Ripken. Who’s Richard Garriott?
Q: There’s your sound bite!
A: What I mean is that’s one of those things that the engineers are the stars of this industry. Fame is relative. I played with Manny Ramirez, Cal Ripken and Dale Murphy. Coming into this company, you’re only going to be so famous. This is not going to be about any one person. I don’t care how good you are at what you do. If we don’t do what we’re supposed to do, the game will suck.
Q: What if you have to give up gaming to run this company?
A: There would be no reason that would ever happen. One of the prerequisites for bringing people in is you need to be a gamer. Someone made the point that if you are going to make a Batman movie, you have a choice. One team will say OK. The other will come in with a stack of comic books. You know who will make a better movie. You have to be passionate about gaming.
Q: Did you play MMOs with the other Red Sox players?
A: No. I don’t know how they looked at it. Everybody has a laptop now. Most use it as a most expensive DVD player. I was using my computer in my profession 12 years ago and had a company do all of my pre-game scouting work on the computer.
Q: What do you think of sports games?
A: I will tell you this. If you took the four majors, basketball would be at the bottom of my list. But NBA 2K08 is by far the best sports game I’ve ever played. My son got it for the Xbox 360. Playing the game is like watching ESPN. I thought it was unbelievable.
Q: Does it matter that some of the games won’t have the pro athletes because Electronic Arts has the lock on the licenses like the NFL?
A: I don’t know. First of all, I don’t play baseball games. I play the real thing. When you show me a game where it is as hard to hit as it is in real life, then I’ll play it. That ain’t going to happen. I love Madden football. I can’t think of one that I play that doesn’t have a license. Down the road, I will at some point, through a partnership or with our company, be a part of producing baseball games. I will be intimately involved in a baseball game not because I’m an athlete but because I’m a sports gamer.
Q: What do you think of the Nintendo Wii?
A: I love the Wii. I love to see things like that happen. Where Nintendo sticks to what they do best. Everyone says whatever. Then it kicks everybody’s ass. That’s fun for me. I think somebody will take that to the next level.
Q: Did that make you think you should do games in that direction rather than make the games you are making?
A: No. Nothing ever made me think we made a mistake. People have asked what is the genre of our game. Are you serious? Well, we have Todd and R.A. What do they do? What are they great at?
Q: What do you think of different business models? Can you capitalize on new trends like social media?
A: Yes. There is a certain point where you lock down and stop the feature creep. We are not at that date yet. We are very close to it. Those new things are not just on the periphery. We have core game design components that incorporate a massive amount of different media, from television to the cell phone. Gamers have proved they will pay you. The big debate now is how. The revenue generation model of the MMO in the U.S. is subscription based. We think it will move away from subscriptions. We think it will move to transactions. I don’t think this industry is going to be the first one to find a method to get less money from their customers in the next four years. They will figure out ways to maximize monetization. Whatever happens there, we will do it. It’s not a matter of dollars and sense anymore. It’s time. If you give a gamer five hours of sleep, there are 19 hours in the day. Why are they going to play our game? That comes back to basics. That first 30-minute experience with us, buying a game, opening the box, creating an account – if you don’t say Holy Shit at least three or four times in the first 30 minutes, you’re going to play something else. We know that because we do the same thing now. The fact of the matter is there is too much stuff out there. If you don’t make me go wow, this is fricking cool, you lose. Like WoW. You could be up and play and it’s fun just like that. I’m surprised that with all the product coming out now, it’s still a pain in the ass to get games online sometimes. It shows there are a lot of stupid people.
Q: How hard is it to get the infrastructure for an MMO?
A: It’s no mystery that the middleware and hosting space has a lot of business there. There are a ton of companies with server space for you. That’s a big growing business over the next four or five years. We aren’t going to build out our own infrastructure. Why add a $250 million expense when you can find someone to do it 10 times better than you can? It would be a partnership. You’re talking about a global launch. That part of the puzzle needs to be very confidently with the hosting service and partner. You need redundancy 10 times over. The days of the EverQuest launch – when you waited six hours to get online and when it did it froze – are over.
Q: Has anything happened from testifying before Congress?
A: No. I took a massive amount of heat for that. I was seen as the anti-steroids guy and then when my minute to speak came up, I froze up. I didn’t have anything to say. The comment that got me hauled in front of Congress was an off-the-cuff remark in the locker room to a reporter doing an article. You will be in a situation where everything is off the record until it’s not. The media is in our locker room all of the time. I said there are a ton of guys who use steroids. That comment got reported. When you go in front of Congress and you take an oath, and you haven’t seen anyone inject themselves, then anything you put in front of them is pure speculation. You’re ruining someone’s life.
Q: Will you have sex and blood?
A: You don’t need sex and you don’t need blood to make a great game.
Q: What lessons have you learned?
A: It’s been fun. It’s been an incredible lesson for me. In addition to being the dumbest guy in my marriage, I realize now I don’t know half of what I don’t know. I sit in the room. When I started the company, my attitude was don’t have so many meetings. Make the fricking game and shut up. But I’m in a meeting every minute of every day and it’s all relevant. I was amazed at the amount of managers on these projects. I found a lot of art directors have never done art. Artists don’t want to be directed by someone who doesn’t know the craft. I get that. There are five levels of managers above them before you get to the talent. The reason is when you hire that many people and you don’t invest in your process, and have that much going on, they can’t manage themselves. If one team meets a milestone, they then go look for someone else who needs help. That’s one of things that comes across from sports. They’re invested in each other.
Q: Have you found things that were busted in the video game industry?
A: Oh yes. We heard a lot of complaints. Some of it you take with a grain of salt. You watch. When the Electronic Arts overtime thing broke, you’re talking about six months of 60 hour to 70 hour works that were mandatory and not working Saturdays was an exception. That’s a company that is telling you we really don’t care about you.
Q: How many people have you got from EA?
A: Our CEO, Brett Close. Our chief technical officer. Our vice president of development. A couple of people who were in and out of it. The great thing about them is that, one of the reasons this was so attractive to them, is they are in positions to make sure that EA overtime thing never happens again.
Q: I thought you were going to say it’s great because they work Saturdays.
A: We are going to put a game out at or near the date without ruining people’s lives. Yeah. But the onus is on them. I’m good with that.
Q: So it’s not out until 2010?
A: It will be interesting after this season is over and it becomes a full-year thing. I think the hard stuff of getting it up and running is done. There is a leadership aspect. We have a Monday morning all hands every week for 15 minutes. We say where we are at and boom, let’s go. Don’t come in at 9 and then get charged up by noon. Let’s go. Remember, I stitched up my frigging ankle and kept playing. So let’s go.
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