Project Copernicus and the Rise and Fall of 38 Studios

Published: February 11, 2017 9:00 AM /


Project Copernicus 38 Studios

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.

Unfortunately, Schilling’s dreams, which saw him invest nearly $50 million of his own funds to finance his studio and his ambitions, would ultimately unravel in one of the most infamous studio closures in gaming history.

The rise and fall of 38 Studios is a fascinating case study of poor planning, passion, and pride. Schilling, a rookie businessman, would do everything in his power to help his team achieve the impossible, a “WoW killer” that can challenge the king of the MMO market. Like many studios before and after it, the path to dethroning WoW, even in its current, more weakened state, is a boulevard of broken dreams.

Schilling would sadly learn the hard way that his ambitions would be locked in a state of limbo, like Sisyphus pushing a boulder up a hill.  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.”

The story would also start off well for Schilling, occupying a 30,000 square foot office space in Maynard Massachusetts and having several developers already under his thumb. With the help of Salvatore and McFarlane, Schilling would already have a leg up on concepts for his dream project, code named Project Copernicus. The only minor setback was the change to his studio’s name, as Green Monster Gaming already had a trademark. The new name would be based off Schilling’s jersey number, 38, leading to the birth of 38 Studios.

The time in Massachusetts would see 38 Studios see some important staff changes and promising growth as Project Copernicus was worked on. 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. The biggest acquirement would be a subsidiary studio, Rise of Nations Developer Big Huge Games, from THQ in 2009.

Schilling himself was considered a practical cheerleader and down to earth leader. He was also thankful for his team’s hard work and dedication, to the point of swelling with tears during staff meetings as early development of Project Copernicus began to take shape. Schilling also spared no expense for his team, spending nearly $2.5 million out of his own pocket to provide for his growing studio. By 2008, the 60+ person team were all granted premium health care, 401(k)’s, free gym memberships, and even Christmas gifts such as laptops and for one employee, a new puppy after their pet Rottweiler passed away.

Despite his admirable qualities and more casual leadership, his inexperience did shine through during this time. As one former employee noted, “It never had the culture of a startup, the message was being sent … that there was plenty of money.” Schilling would spend over $700,000 on “travel and entertainment” costs, trying to provide company cars and cell phones for his entire staff. He was informal with most of his staff and board members, many of which were close friends and family which, by all accounts, did admirable jobs while working at the studio. He also struggled with providing stock options for the entire team and board of officers, originally wanted to offer prospective hires a 50-50 stake in the profits, which baffled many potential job seekers.

This also made it hard for Schilling to secure further funding. Early attempts at luring outside investors in Massachusetts were met with trepidation. One potential investor, Boston’s Spark Capital, recalled the entire concept of Project Copernicus to be too risky to participate in, simply due to the overspending, lack of experienced hands at creating a MMO, and even Schilling himself being overconfident in the project’s success.

This kind of bravado was always present with Schilling. As Jason Schwartz of Boston Magazine stated:

Time and again, though, Schilling emerged from meetings like this one thinking he’d hit a home run. “There was never a single one that he didn’t walk out of saying he absolutely killed it,” says a former employee who attended a number of investor meetings. But over and over, there was no investment. Still, Schilling remained optimistic. “Curt sincerely believed that Copernicus was the best thing since sliced bread,” the former employee says. He “could not imagine a scenario where other people would not see the same potential he did. His attitude is always, This is gonna happen, the deal is going to close.”

“Absolutely,” Schilling tells me when I run that quote by him. “And that’s the way I’m built. I think it’s one of the reasons I was able to do what I did playing baseball. And it’s not fake. I’ve been around situations where you can make people believe something they don’t believe.”

The problem’s, however, would persist until 2010, the year Schilling hoped to release Project Copernicus. The game was far from completion and after the purchase of Big Huge Games, little money was coming in for the company. Big Huge Games would take some of the concepts of Project Copernicus and re-tool them into a smaller title, which the studio was working on for THQ at the time. Big Huge Games was responsible for most of the development, with minimal help from 38 Studios proper, but the result would be the first, and ultimately only title created by the team, Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning.

Schilling, however, remained cocksure that the company would be able to strike a deal to continue funding his dream project, and he would get his savior, and destroyer, in the hands of the state of Rhode Island. Then Governor of Rhode Island, Donald Carcieri, would meet Schilling at a fundraiser regarding 38 Studios. Carcieri wanted to bring in new jobs to his state and try to revitalize the tech sector of Rhode Island. After teaming up with the executive director of the Economic Development Corporation’s Keith Stokes, $125 million in economic developments for the state was approved.

The deal with the EDC was widely criticized by Lincoln Chafee, a Rhode Island politician who would run for Governor of the state and replace Carcieri in January of 2011. Within a month of the deal, which was passed in June 11th, 2010, the EDC with the backing of Carcieri would write up a loan for 38 Studios by offering the company $75 million in funds to complete their project, on the condition that 38 Studios provides Rhode Island with ample jobs for the state.

The milestones in the deal would add over 250 jobs to the company by 2011, which made 38 Studios eligible for $25.5 million in much needed capital. Schilling himself, ever hopeful, felt that his company would be okay after the entire team transitioned to Rhode Island by mid-2011, using Kingdoms of Amalur as a preview of what his studio was working on, while mentioning that his goal of a new MMO was being planned for a future release.

The hiring binge afterwards to meet the demands of the deal were initially successful, but management at the top was in crisis right out of the gate. Schilling, who fully admitted he was not well versed in the inner workings of a developer studio, often stepped on toes by requesting several changes to Project Copernicus that contradicted the vision he had. Some former employees alleged that Schilling himself was overly stubborn, even turning on several executives at the top, a charge he flatly denies.

Other problems, often red flags for a game studio, went unnoticed by much of the staff below the executive offices. Schilling continued to overspend for his employees, despite missing deadlines for Project Copernicus and staff members received mixed messages for the games direction. With Kingdoms of Amalur near completion, many members of the team took cues from the title to help them push further into the development of the fledgling MMO, but Schilling himself was worried about the project because, in his words, his MMO wasn’t fun to play yet.

Very little has been shown of Project Copernicus, save for one short video showcasing the in-game locations of the expansive world. While this was the only official video by 38 Studios, a few videos of the MMO’s gameplay were posted on YouTube after the studio closed, showing the game in an advanced alpha state. This is one of the only videos showing the potential of Project Copernicus, which after the release of Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning in February of 2012, would be cancelled completely.

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.

Despite this, and working on two DLC packs for Kingdoms of Amalur, 38 Studios were in major financial debt. The problems boiled down to Schilling himself failing to give up on Project Copernicus and summarily ignoring the writing on the wall. Many of the executives at the top, including MacLean, who left 38 Studios months before the company went under, testify that executives “brought their issues up many times and were largely ignored.” Schilling himself denies that as being true, but with nearly $50 million in the hole, combined with nearly $50 million owed to the state of Rhode Island by March of 2012, the game was up for the company.

In short order, from March to June of 2012, 38 Studios would slowly waste away into bankruptcy. Employees would continue working, sometimes without being paid, while Schilling tried to secure deals with other studios for financial capital. After talking to Korean MMO studios and even Take-Two Interactive, nothing came to fruition, as the new Governor of Rhode Island, Lincoln Chafee, would call in the debts of the company a few months after the release of Kingdoms of Amalur.

The aftermath of 38 Studios has been well-documented, with the state of Rhode Island on the hook for nearly $28.2 million as of 2016. Governor Lincoln Chafee went on record for saying the deal with 38 Studios was “the worst investment that has ever been made, I think, in the history of Rhode Island.” He is not far from the truth, as the original deal was a massive gamble by Carcieri and EDC. It is estimated that even the $75 million promised would not be enough to complete Project Copernicus on time and on budget, meaning the MMO was doomed from the start.

Schilling has since taken a lot of the blame for the failure of 38 Studios and admits it is in part his fault the team would close. He stated in an op-ed back in 2016, “The company went bankrupt, and that will always be on me, as the founder and chairman. My failure to raise the final tranche of money to complete Copernicus was, in the end, our death blow, and I will take that to the grave."

Some blame is also given to Lincoln Chafee for the close of the studio, a fact that Schilling still contends to this day. Schilling contends that Chafee had given up on the studio nearly from the get go, attributing his opposition to the deal made by Carcieri to be a contributing factor to the company’s eventual bankruptcy. Per Schilling:

“There was never any grey area about where we stood financially. No state officials were ever in the dark unless they chose to be. Had we reported even one wrong fact during the entire time, you can bet that would have been presented to the public as a "failure" or "lie" on our part or been something any federal agency looking into this would have called out, pursued, and prosecuted.

But it was very obvious at the first meeting of the Economic Development Corporation that Governor Chafee attended that he had neither seen nor heard about anything relating to our reports. He had been provided everything he could have wanted or needed to be informed, yet beyond of the name of our company he knew nothing.”

While it is easy to lay blame on Chafee, Schilling, and others for the failures of 38 Studios, the ultimate demise of the company and Project Copernicus was likely set in stone years before. The extra spending and over-zealous ambition of Schilling certainly contributed to the fall of the company, but the end-goal was nearly impossible to achieve right from the start. Project Copernicus now serves as a cautionary tale for new developers, and the rise and fall of 38 Studios a curious moment of gaming history. As for Kingdoms of Amalur, it is the only doorway into Schilling’s vision and now serves as a lasting legacy of a failed game company.


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More Info About This Game
Learn more about Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning
38 Studios
Electronic Arts
PC, Xbox 360, Playstation 3
Release Date
February 7, 2012 (Calendar)
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