38 Studios

Project Copernicus (38 Studios) [PC – Cancelled]

Project Copernicus is a cancelled PC MMO that was in development by 38 Studios (AKA Green Monster Games) between 2006 and 2012, an overly ambitious project that got their creators to fail in bankruptcy in a long and painful venture. This would have been their first project: the company was conceived precisely to develop a new, profitable Massive Multiplayer Online Game, a “World of Warcraft killer”.

As we can read from an in-depth article by Tech Raptor:

“In 2006, baseball pitcher Curt Schilling announced he would continue working in a new field: video games. After speaking with several friends and family members, he would found Green Monster Gaming with one goal in mind: create a new MMO.

Schilling himself was an avid fan of MMORPGs,  playing the likes of World of Warcraft in the off-seasons and wanted to add to the market a passion project of his own design. Schilling was not alone in this passion. Two of his biggest backers to Green Monster Gaming, famous fantasy author R.A Salvatore and conceptual artists Todd McFarlane, were also gung-ho on the potential of any projects the studio could create.

This is in part to Schilling himself, who stated in an interview just after his studio closed, “If it wasn’t an MMO, I wouldn’t have done it. 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.”

Some of the big names to join the company would include Travis McGeathy, the lead designer of the MMO Everquest; and Jennifer MacLean, former chairperson of the International Game Developers Association (IGDA) and the VP General Manager of Games at Comcast. ”

There is not much info on Copernicus’ gameplay, but we know they heavily invested into its settings and lore, with a 10,000 year game-history created by R.A. Salvatore and art direction by Todd McFarlane. After the team failed to gather interest and funds from investors to complete their MMO, they decided to acquire Big Huge Games from THQ.

Their plan was to release a less ambitious single player action RPG: the result was Kingdoms of Amalur, a game that merged a project already in development by BHG with part of Copernicus’ settings and lore. As we can read on RPG Fans:

“For three and a half years, we had the Amalur universe in 38 Studios,” Schilling said. “The IP is being led by this team of very passionate people, we’re making this MMO, we’ve got a roadmap – and in a 24 hour span, we add 90 employees who now all of a sudden are taking the baby being created in Boston. There’s 90 people we don’t know and we’re handing off this multi-billion dollar, multi year project… to who?”

But perhaps it wasn’t so crazy. As it turns out, Big Huge Games had already been laying the groundwork for their own single player RPG project under lead designer Ken Rolston, of Morrowind and Oblivion fame.

“They had been shopping this fantasy game for a long time,” said Schilling. “From a tech perspective and a game design perspective, there was a solid foundation. But they were missing the story – the thing that makes a great RPG. We had that. It was a match made in heaven, because not long after the partnership, when Bob [Salvatore] and Ken [Rolston] and the creative team sat down together, there was a lot of magic going on.”

Unfortunately even Kingdoms of Amalur did not sell enough to keep 38 Studios alive and without being able to keep their MMO in development, the company closed for bankruptcy in 2012:

“38 Studios went to Delaware’s bankruptcy court this afternoon beginning the arduous process of salvaging what it can in the face of a $270 million debt.  The hearing marked the first opportunity since the studio filed for bankruptcy for creditors to question the company’s executives. According to the Boston Globe, creditors and employees who have gone unpaid since May will likely receive nothing through the proceedings as the studio takes the first steps towards liquidation.”

“Kingdoms of Amalur would go on to be a modest success for 38 Studios. Published by Electronic Arts, as a part of their EA Partners program, Kingdoms of Amalur would see 1.3 million copies sold in three months, which for a new IP was respectable. Schilling, and later Chafee, would note that the game needed to hit around 3 million units sold to break even on development costs and turn a profit.”

We don’t know exactly how much of Project Copernicus was done before its cancellation, but enough footage and screenshots were leaked online to have a good idea of how it would have looked like. Unfortunately, from what Curt Schilling said, his dream MMO was not fun to play:

“The money was only a secondary concern to Schilling. “The game wasn’t fun… It was my biggest gripe for probably the past eight to 12 months.” Evidently the combat lagged and no one seemed to be playing it around the office.”

“As the studio collapsed, employees were left in the dark. Worse, their health insurance was shut off without notice – which one pregnant woman only discovered upon going to a doctor’s appointment. The company that was supposed to handle relocation fees didn’t finish the job, leaving several employees stuck with mortgages on their old homes as well, and bills that were supposed to have been handled through management hadn’t been.”

Thanks to Daniel Nicaise for the contribution!




Ascendant (Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning) [X360/PS3/PC – Prototype]

Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning is a fantasy action-RPG game developed by Big Huge Games and published by 38 Studios and Electronic Arts in 2012, for the PC, PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360 systems. The game is set in the world of Amalur where players follow the story of a resurrected person named The Fateless One, who have to explore the open world of Amalur, fighting enemies in dungeons and completing quests, while trying to stop divine forces wanted to destroy mortal races.

But before being released as such, Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning was known as Ascendant, and was going to be published by THQ. Development of Ascendant started in February 2007 with Lead Designer Ken Rolston on board, as we can read on TotalGaming:

Big Huge Games has managed to get the lead designer of Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind and Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion to put off retirement and join their company as lead designer of a new RPG title. Ken Rolston, a 25 year game industry veteran has joined the creators of the Rise of Nations RTS with the hopes of putting out another award-winning title.

In May of the same year, a deal with THQ was signed, and the project was, back then, planned for a release in 2009:

THQ and Big Huge Games have announced a new development deal which will see the publisher bringing BHG’s newly announced RPG from Ken Rolston to market for PC, PS3 and Xbox360 in 2009. Rolston whom only joined the company in February will be leading the project and so far has liked what he has seen at BHG.

Rolston said the following about the development team behind Rise of Nations, “I’m flabbergasted by the talent, craft and boundless energy of the Big Huge Games team. In such splendid company, I’m privileged to embark on a bold pilgrimage to create a refreshingly original RPG experience. I know eager game fans will share our excitement as we reveal further details in the coming months.”

COO of Big Huge Games Timothy Train commented that “We’ve wanted to do an RPG for years and I think we have a great direction that will knock everyone’s socks off.”

In January 2008, Big Huge Games was acquired by THQ:

Eight months ago THQ announced a deal with Big Huge Games to work on an unnamed role-playing game. The agreement marked a new direction for the Maryland-based independent developer, which has won numerous awards for series of real-time strategy titles.

But while all Big Huge Games’ past titles were published by Microsoft Game Studios, all its future games will have the THQ stick on the box. Today, the Smackdown! publisher made a Big Huge announcement: It has bought Big Huge Games outright for an undisclosed sum. However, Oppenheimer & Co. analyst Shawn Milne estimated “the acquisition was in the $20 million to $40 million range given the size (100 developers) and quality of the studio.”

“The acquisition of Big Huge Games is a big win for THQ as we continue to expand both our internal development capabilities and our portfolio of owned intellectual properties,” said Jack Sorensen, THQ’s executive vice president of worldwide studios.

Though the THQ announcement didn’t reveal any new details about Big Huge Games’ new RPG, it did offer some hints about the studio’s future direction. Nowhere in the release was there any mention of the RTS titles that put Big Huge Games on the map. Instead, Big Huge Games is described as “a leading development studio focused on the role-playing-game (RPG) genre.”

THQ’s release also revealed that BHG is working on “additional console projects based on their proprietary technology” besides its mystery RPG. The unnamed Xbox 360, PlayStation 3, and PC title is the first multiplatform title from the studio, which also developed the Xbox Live Arcade version of the strategy board game Catan.

However, in March 2009, more than 2 years after the beginning of Ascendant’s development and following the 2008 economical crisis and the Great Recession that followed, THQ planned to shutdown Big Huge Games as we can read on Kotaku:

Publisher THQ announced in February that it would be cutting back substantially, axing jobs and shuttering studios after losing $191.8 million last quarter. Today, we learn that developer Big Huge Games is due to close.

Sources close to the studio say that Big Huge Games, developer of the Rise of Nations series and Catan for Xbox Live Arcade, has been given notice by THQ, which has intentions to close the studio within 60 days. Official response from THQ is that the publisher informed the Timonium, Maryland-based Big Huge Games that it plans to close the studio if a buyer is not found “in the near future.”

Big Huge Games was working on an unannounced Wii game and a role-playing game designed by former The Elder Scrolls: Oblivion designer Ken Rolston.

Fortunately, THQ managed to sell Big Huge Games to 38 Studios, formerly Green Monster Games, as Gamesindustry pointed out:

38 Studios has acquired internal THQ outfit Big Huge Games, including all of its intellectual property, tools, technology, assets and work-in-progress.

The company said the acquisition is a “critical step” to creating a broad range of products based on 38 Studios original fantasy project, codenamed Copernicus.

“The acquisition of Big Huge Games will be tremendously beneficial to the growth, market position, financial stability, and long-term success of 38 Studios,” commented Brett Close, CEO and President of 38 Studios.

“BHG’s cross-platform RTS/RPG engine will accelerate the realisation of our online entertainment experience for the Copernicus IP. The acquisition enables us to develop and deliver top-quality games in multiple genres that are based in a shared world, ultimately maximising the value of our Copernicus MMOG and the intellectual property as a whole.”

Big Huge Games was founded in 2000 and developed Rise of Nations. The team is currently developing a role-playing game for the Xbox 360, PlayStation 3 and PC.

Troubled publisher THQ had been seeking a sale of Big Huge Games since March, and in April was forced to lay off a number of staff.

38 Studios’ Copernicus is being created with the help of fantasy author R.A. Salvatore and comic book artist Todd McFarlane, and is intended to span videogame, comic, novel, toy, movie and TV formats.

“The highly regarded developers at BHG, including leading role-playing and real-time strategy design teams led by Ken Rolston, are a perfect complement to 38 Studios’ staggering array of talent. Big Huge Games is a phenomenal team and, culturally, a natural fit,” added Curt Schilling, founder of 38 Studios.

From this point on, the title known as Ascendant was no more. 38 Studios was working since 2006 on Project Copernicus, and buying Big Huge Games alongside Ascendant was for them a way to introduce players to the lore of Copernicus. The game known as Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning was born. This information was first shared in August 2011 by Gamasutra with an interview of Lead Designer Ian Frazier:

“It’s a long and crazy tale … Around the time of the sale, THQ was not in a good place financially and they decided, ‘No, we’re not going to keep Big Huge. No, RPGs are expensive.'”

“There’s always a mixture of fear and anger when something like that comes up,” Frazier said candidly. “And certainly we had gotten some messaging from THQ not long before [the sale] about how much they wanted to pour more resources and more energy into their new IPs and triple-A titles.”

“So we obviously felt a little bit less than thrilled that that direction took a sharp turn to, ‘No actually, we’re not going to do that,'” said Frazier. “We were kind of cut off there, so basically [the feelings in the studio at the time were] what you’d expect. People were afraid, people were to some extent angry, but I guess THQ has to do what it has to do.”

But Big Huge, with its technical and creative talent, and well-underway RPG, wasn’t on the market for long.

By the end of May 2009, 38 Studios, the young, startup game development studio founded by former Major League Baseball star pitcher and self-professed World of Warcraft geek Curt Schilling, announced that it would buy Big Huge.

Now called Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning, the single-player RPG formerly called Crucible almost magically fit into the same universe of the in-progress fantasy MMORPG already in development at 38 Studios, codenamed Copernicus.

Still on Gamasutra, it was also mentionned in a postmortem dedicated to Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning in April 2012:

(…) At first, our RPG project was named “Crucible” and was being published by THQ. We were making great progress on it, and THQ was happy enough with the progress that they purchased us outright; and we became an internal THQ studio. Around that time we switched some of the key features of the game and renamed the project “Ascendant.” We were part of the THQ network of studios for a short period of time right up to the point that THQ started running out of money. Our big, juicy, unproven-in-the-genre studio was a prime target for them to try to sell.

With literally days left on the “close the doors” timer at the studio, THQ sold us to Curt Schilling’s 38 Studios, which has R.A. Salvatore as “creator of worlds.” It became clear pretty quickly that we would need to change the universe and some of the game features yet again to take advantage of Robert’s genius. We changed the project name to “Mercury,” which later was given the final shipping name of Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning.

For those keeping track at home, in five years we were bought and sold twice and changed the name and core features of the project three times. Needless to say, it’s been a long, strange trip.

Comparing Ascendant and Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning, it is easy to see that the changes only concern the artistic direction of the title: enemies, characters and locations were re-designed, but the core gameplay remained intact from 2009 until the title’s release in February 2012. The game received “favorable” reviews by the press.

38 Studios shutted down in May 2012, after the budget of Copernicus overun, alongside the above average sales of Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning. Copernicus was cancelled and Big Huge Games was temporarily closed before being resurrected in 2013. A remastered version subtitled Kingdoms of Amalur: Re-Reckoning was released in 2020 by THQ Nordic, which also owns the assets of Project Copernicus.

Article updated by Daniel Nicaise