When four-time World Series pitcher Curt Schilling started his video game company in 2006, some took it as a sign that the American League right-hander was simply indulging in an expensive hobby.
“People saw it as a vanity project,” Schilling said during an interview, spitting tobacco juice into a paper cup between words. “I get it. There’s not a long track record of people leaving professional sports to become a software developer.”
Last week, the world got to find out just how serious the former Phillies, Diamondbacks and Red Sox hurler was. After spending tens of millions of dollars of his own money, he and his company, 38 Studios, shipped their first game — a lavish fantasy title called Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning.
Although it’s too early to tell how well the $59.99 title is selling, critics have given it solid marks. One reviewer at the website Joystiq called the game “immaculately crafted and beautiful.”
For the 6-foot-4, 45-year-old Schilling, Amalur is a milestone in a long, arduous journey.
As a teenager growing up in Arizona, Schilling fell in love with two things: baseball and a computer game called Wizardry. That gave way to sword and sorcery games such as Bard’s Tale, Ultima Online and EverQuest.
In the early 1990s, as a pitcher for the Philadelphia Phillies, Schilling was never without a 15-pound PC.
“I had the perfect job for a gamer,” Schilling said. “From February to October, I’d get up at 7 in the morning with nothing to do but play games until I had to be at the park around 1 or 2 o’clock. When I got back after the game, I played until 3 or 4 in the morning.”
While some players requested fancy cars in their baseball contracts, Schilling wanted high-end gaming laptops and guaranteed Internet access in his hotel rooms when his teams were on the road.
The transition from passionate gamer to game developer began in 2000, when Schilling and his wife, Shonda, a skin cancer survivor, met with their financial advisor to discuss what he would do once he retired from baseball. The advisor told him to find his passion.
“Short of baseball and my family, it was gaming,” Schilling recalled. “And gaming is a $20-million to $200-million multi-year effort. It’s an insane, stupid and utterly irresponsible act. But I did it.”
Schilling footed much of the bill and retained more than 82% of the company, with expenses running in excess of $15 million, according to a Harvard Business School case study. To get additional cash flow, he moved his company last year from Maynard, Mass., to Providence, R.I., in exchange for a $75-million loan from the state.
Schilling was bursting with ideas and wanted to be involved in every detail — a trait that sometimes exasperated his collaborators.
“He’s like a 5-year-old boy,” said Todd McFarlane, a comic book artist whom Schilling recruited to be his art director. “We would have dinner together, and he’d stay up until 3 a.m. talking about games like we were having a slumber party. I had to beg him to go to sleep.”
Schilling found out the toll he was having on his company when he suggested to his developers that they could make pigs fly.
“I wanted mounted combat on flying pigs,” Schilling said.
The studio’s executive producer, Jason Roberts, calmly told his imposing boss, “I will never tell you no. I will only tell you how much it will cost.”
“It was an eye-opener,” Schilling said. “I realized all these emails I kept sending out cost me money. So I backed off. When it comes to making games, these guys were the pro athletes. I am not.”
Among them were McFarlane and R.A. Salvatore — both legends in the worlds of comics and fantasy literature. Salvatore’s science fiction books have sold more than 10 million copies, and McFarlane’s art work in the “Spider-Man” and “Spawn” comics have won him numerous awards and a die-hard following.
Salvatore crafted a mythological world for Schilling’s game, with 10,000 years of history taking up 90 dense pages of type, and compiled details on the Amalur races, their languages and cultures. McFarlane turned Salvatore’s words into images, crafting a dynamic world set amid lush environments.
“If we’re going to have a wizard casting a spell, let’s make it look crazy,” McFarlane said. “The cape needs to fly. The wind needs to be blowing. It should just feel alive.”
Their work paid off. A game reviewer at IGN said, “Amalur demands your attention.” Overall, the game, which is playable on the Xbox 360, PlayStation 3 and computers, scored a respectable 80 to 86 points out of 100 among 85 game critics surveyed by the website Metacritic. And the title is in the top three games for Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 sold by GameStop as of Wednesday, eight days after its launch. On Amazon.com, Amalur was the 19th-best-selling game.
But the main event for Schilling is yet to come. As a single-player game, Amalur is the flashy prelude to the game that Schilling set out to make six years ago — a multi-player online game with the code name Project Copernicus that’s expected to be released this year.
Set in the same fantasy world as Reckoning, Copernicus represents everything Schilling wanted as a gamer who’s spent about as much time playing video games as he has playing baseball. That game is still shrouded in mystery, with the company reluctant to give away details.
For now, Schilling is content to have created a team capable of making games and proving his skeptics wrong.
“I’ve helped create over 400 jobs in the worst economy of my lifetime,” Schilling said. “That’s cool.”
— Alex Pham
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