Archive for January, 2013

I wanted to issue a correction to a piece I published on January 24, 2013, entitled “The smiles and sadness of THQ’s final hours.”

In that piece, I stated that there were no overbids during the process and that each high bid was awarded the assets on which they were bidding. It turns out that I was mistaken. According to a story run by MCV today, there was a bidding war for Volition, Saints Row and Metro. The opposing party was none other than Clearlake, the group that had attempted a $60 million takeover of the entirety of THQ. Koch Media, which eventually secured all three assets, opened with a bid of $20.5 million for Volition and Saints Row. Clearlake pushed them up to the final amount of $22.3 million. The next highest rival publisher was Ubisoft at $5.4 million.

The same was true of Koch’s initial offer for Metro. Clearlake bid them up from $4.5 million to $5.8 million. To the best of my understanding, these were the only instances of counterbidding. I apologize for my previous error.

Yesterday brought some much-needed good news for some of the 80 or so Vigil Games employees laid off in the wake of last week’s THQ asset auction. Gamasutra broke the news that Crytek is expanding into the United States with a new studio based in Austin, Texas. Not only does Austin have a significant pool of developer talent, but it also happens to be where Vigil Games was located. The staff of 35 for Crytek US has been built, in part, from former Darksiders development team members, as well as others already located in the area. It’s important to note that this isn’t the entire Vigil team. When THQ laid off staff in March after the change to Warhammer 40,000: Dark Millennium Onlineit was estimated that the loss of 79 jobs amounted to half of Vigil’s employment. Assuming that numbers did not fluctuate greatly over the remainder of 2012, there are still approximately 40 – 50 people laid off last week that won’t be included in Crytek’s US plans.

Among those names is Haydn Dalton, Lead Designer on Darksiders II. Dalton tweeted last night,

“I’m not involved in the Crytek Austin team, but I wish them all the best in whatever they do next.”

It is unclear at this time whether this was his decision.

It’s important to realize that Crytek’s move into Austin, while cleverly timed, is not an acquisition of Vigil Games. There was no purchase of assets involved. The key intellectual properties for which Vigil was responsible (Darksiders and the title codenamed “Crawler“) are still slated for sale with the rest of the back catalog and assets that weren’t transferred in the auction. Jason Rubin confirmed as much yesterday via Twitter.

In fact, The Escapist received comment from Crytek indicating that its new US studio will not work on Darksiders at all, leaving the fate of that IP still unknown. Had Crytek gone through the auction process to acquire the talent and IPs, they would have likely had to spend far more than they are, and they would probably have had to lay off some individuals. If their bid had been too low, it could have faced a successful shareholder objection, which could have led to a higher purchase price or straight out abandonment of the deal.

While Crytek doesn’t have access to any of the work that the ex-Vigil staff were engaged in at time of THQ’s demise, their timely expansion does accomplish two things. First, the talent pool in Austin is currently ripe. There is no shortage of skilled developers in the area, giving Crytek their pick for the best possible team without having to spend a dime on relocation. Second, they’ve navigated some dicey public relations waters. Since Crytek may have had to lay off some staff post-acquisition (had they gone through the auction process), there was risk for bad press. By creating a new studio and hiring on a great number of now-unemployed developers, they appear to be unequivocal saviors.

Crytek’s move into the US is good news that comes at a time when we could all use some, but we cannot lose sight that there are still many Vigil Games and THQ corporate staff that find themselves out of work. Here’s hoping that those individuals get their good news soon.

Update: I wanted to issue a correction. I stated that there were no overbids during the process and that each high bid was awarded the assets on which they were bidding. It turns out that I was mistaken. According to a story run by MCV today, there was a bidding war for Volition, Saints Row and Metro. The opposing party was none other than Clearlake, the group that had attempted a $60 million takeover of the entirety of THQ. Koch Media, which eventually secured all three assets, opened with a bid of $20.5 million for Volition and Saints Row. Clearlake pushed them up to the final amount of $22.3 million. The next highest rival publisher was Ubisoft at $5.4 million.

The same was true of Koch’s initial offer for Metro. Clearlake bid them up from $4.5 million to $5.8 million. To the best of my understanding, these were the only instances of counterbidding. I apologize for my previous error.

The past 72 hours have been filled with emotion as gamers, media and employees awaited news on the fate of THQ’s holdings. To view the proceedings as nothing more than business transactions would be a terrible error. Sealed in the envelope with every bid was a possible future. I am fond of using Shrodinger’s Cat as an analogy, and it seems especially appropriate here. Between 9 AM on January 22, 2013, when bids were submitted in Delaware until approximately 3 PM the following day, the path forward for nearly every THQ employee had been set in motion. In the intervening 30 hours, the amazing staff at Volition, Vigil and Relic found themselves in the strangest of places. They knew that something was going to change. They just didn’t know exactly how or what.

So, many of them did the only thing they could. Pictures posted on Twitter show that they laughed and celebrated the fantastic work done over the years living under THQ’s roof. They enjoyed each others company, some for the last time as a team. As the sun rose on January 23, 2013, social media networks were abuzz, anxious for the scheduled 9:30 AM hearing in Wilmington. The tension was to be prolonged, with presiding Judge Mary Walrath dismissing court attendees, as the auction had not yet been completed.

The process, though rife with stipulations and assurances, amounted to simple sealed bidding. Each interested party was required to put forward their best offer. If a bidder were interested in improving its chances after initial proposals were revealed, the best qualified bid would serve as an opening amount for further discussion and haggling. Increases would be entertained at no less than $250,000.

At approximately 3:35 PM, court reconvened. It wasn’t long after that we started seeing tweets pop up from employees at all three studios. The first hint that things were moving came via a tweet from a Relic employee. Sega had picked up the Company of Heroes and Dawn of War studio. Shortly thereafter, a variety of outlets started sharing concrete details. The overview painted a picture of hope. Volition, Relic, THQ Montreal, the titles those studios were working on (including Patrice Désilet’s upcoming project), Obsidian’s South Park: The Stick of Truth, 4A Games’ Metro series, Turtle Rock’s Evolved and Crytek’s Homefront 2 had found homes. Noticeably absent was any mention of Vigil Games, home of the Darksiders franchise. 

While we’re still waiting on the full transcripts of the proceedings, according to Ilene Slatko of Delaware Shareholder Services who was in the courtroom, there were no overbids.  You can read all of Ilene’s notes on the events, which include shareholder objections, right here. The full court document with winning and runner up bids, as well as cure amounts (monies that must be paid out to settle outstanding debts related to the acquisitions) can be found here.

While all the numbers are certainly of interest, one stands out. Crytek’s acquisition of Homefront 2 for $544,000 is brilliant. While under contract with THQ, the studio had been paid for their services (no doubt in the millions beginning before the project was officially announced in September 2011). Payments received do not include the $1 million cure amount listed in the filing. For the cost of forgoing the $1 million owed plus the outlay of $544,000, Crytek now owns all of the work they had already been paid to create outright. Typically in a work for hire situation, contractors do not own their work during production or when finished (though CryEngine 3, on which Homefront 2 is being constructed, is a different matter). For Crytek to have reaped payments and then also own the finished project positions them quite well. While they will need to work with a publisher in order to bring the game to market, their existing relationship with EA should facilitate that process. EA offers a suite of co-publishing services available through contractual arrangement. It also bears mentioning that games published through this program are not required to include an online pass.

Another significant transaction in this process is Koch Media/Deep Silver’s acquisition of Volition and Saints Row. Many gamers know Deep Silver for Dead Island and the Risen series, and those that aren’t tuned into the behind-the-scenes aspects of the business might have been a bit surprised by the media excitement over this turn of events.  While it takes many people on the publishing side to get a game into the hands of consumers, one individual in particular in this case is cause for enthusiasm. Aubrey Norris, Manager of Marketing and PR, is well-loved for her quirky communiques and upbeat approach to her work. Everything she does is full of personality, helping the projects she is involved with stand out in a crowded environment. There is no better fit for the over-the-top Saints Row series than Aubrey Norris, and the social media feeds of dozens of other journalists will back me up.

While there were certainly bright moments yesterday, a glaring omission on the list of purchases was Vigil Games. The studio brought in no bidders, which immediately signaled mass layoffs. As the news started to sink in, employees started sharing their thoughts with the world. Of note, Darksiders series Lead Designer Haydn Dalton simply tweeted, “It’s a wrap.” Ben Cureton, Lead Combat Designer on Darksiders II took to NeoGAF to offer a heartfelt message of disappointment, but more importantly, gratitude.

“I can only say thank you to the fans of Vigil games… You are the reason we made Darksiders 1 & 2…and you are the reason we will continue to make games.”

You can read the entire statement here (via Game Informer).

The departure of studio Founder and Creative Director Joe Madrureira in October 2012 was an unexpected blow. It was, in part, his art style that drove adoration for Darksiders. Additionally, Vigil had just completed the second game in that series and was working on a new IP. According to THQ CEO Jason Rubin in an interview this week with Game Informer, this put the studio furthest from title completion of any of the publisher’s holdings. The fact that they were also working on a new property, codenamed Crawler, meant even more risk for a potential suitor. A confluence of timing and staffing changes made it difficult to find another publisher interested in the studio, though I retain hope that someone will rescue both staff and series.

I greatly enjoyed Darksiders (Metacritic: 83), and Darksiders II (Metacritic: 84) was the first game I’ve ever awarded a 10 out of 10. That this might be the end of the road for the Horsemen is a tragedy for gamers. The hints that Platinum Games might be interested in acquiring Darksiders when the back catalog goes up for sale are hopeful, especially if it means that some of the fine people that were at Vigil are brought on. Haydn Dalton shared some hints at the direction in which the series was heading, and the concepts he spoke of leave me longing for good news about the future of the franchise.

In the face of so much change, a lot of it for the worse, an opportunity was presented for the gaming industry to rally support for those in need. Publishers and developers did not let that moment slip by, as dozens of studios chimed in with information on open positions, including some opportunities for staff that didn’t have a direct hand in development (public relations, community development, human resources and more). Journalist Alex Rubens has compiled and shared a growing list of companies currently hiring, as he did following the collapse of 38 Studios.

As the media cycle wound down, Deep Silver and Ubisoft, who now controls former employee Patrice Désilets’ team at THQ Montreal as well as the publishing rights for South Park: The Stick of Truth, officially confirmed their acquisitions. (Note: whether Désilets will follow his team and projects to Ubisoft is unknown at this time.) Sega issued a press release regarding their purchase of Relic the next day. On January 24, 2013, the purchases were approved by the court, but this story is far from over.

Over the coming weeks and months, we will learn more about how the former THQ studios are settling into their new relationships. We’ll hear about the fate of THQ’s back catalog, changes in release dates (or, better yet, that those previously announced are still in place), new projects and altered directions for some of those already in progress. The most interesting stories aren’t going to be about the games, though. The real news is the human impact and the way the industry stepped forward to take care of its own.

To those of you who were at THQ and its studios, thank you for all of the wonderful experiences you’ve given us over the years. For those currently seeking new employment, our thoughts and hopes for a brief and fruitful search are with you.

Following the tragedy in Newtown, Connecticut, video games have been front of mind for many Americans. Unfortunately, the focus has been almost exclusively on violence (even those titles are only minimally focused on firearms). EA put a smile on my face yesterday when they announced that the upcoming SimCity, one of my favorite titles from E3 2012, would be utilized for more than a solid entertainment experience. Specifically, Maxis and EA will be using the ambitious urban planning game to support STEM education initiatives. 

STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) is designed to ensure that America’s students have the tools to compete and lead in innovation-focused fields in the 21st century. Traditional education funding is focused largely on classroom learning, but STEM advocates believe that extracurricular activities are crucial, providing a different setting and tone for learning and applying concepts. The United States Government is on board with the program, as it aligns with much of what President Obama and Department of Education Secretary Arne Duncan have been saying for years.

In 2009, the Administration launched the $4.35 billion “Race to the Top” grant program, placing emphasis on those proposals that included planned improvements in STEM education. Later that year, the “Educate to Innovate” campaign added $260 million to the effort to improve student learning in these areas. Of note, was the following initiative:

Five public-private partnerships that harness the power of media, interactive games, hands-on learning, and 100,000 volunteers to reach more than 10 million students over the next four years, inspiring them to be the next generation of makers, discoverers, and innovators.  These partnerships represent a combined commitment of over $260 million in financial and in-kind support.

One of the private “Educate to Innovate” partners, the MacArthur Foundation, has put its support behind GlassLab (The Games, Learning and Assessment Lab), located at EA’s Redwood Shores campus and also funded by The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. The program was announced in June 2012 as a partnership between those organizations, the Entertainment Software Association (ESA) and the Institute of Play, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit formed by a number of Gamelab game designers.  It is not easy to secure funding from either the MacArthur Foundation or the Gates Foundation. Both have rigorous review processes, and the fact that both have shown confidence in use of interactive gaming as a mechanism to further education in the areas of science, technology, engineering and mathematics is significant.

EA will be participating in two events that will demonstrate how interactive entertainment can play a role in furthering STEM education and, specifically, how SimCity will be used to promote civic engagement. EA’s Senior Director for Government Affairs, Craig Hagan, will be participating on a panel with the MacArthur Foundation’s Director of Education Connie Yowell and Special Assistant to the President for Education Policy Roberto Rodriguez. The session, entitled “Learn. Build. Create.: Connected Learning Over the Next 4 Years” will be moderated by Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter. Later on, EA will be conducting demos and explaining more about the GlassLab partnership.

Opportunities to evidence the broad diversity and impact of interactive entertainment are crucial, especially right now. Video games have more to offer than a soundbite for 24-hour news networks, and partnerships like GlassLab should be held up as shining examples of the good that comes from the industry. I look forward to the expansion of this conversation and the day that SimCity, Civilization and others like them are required playing in schools.

The Newsroom – A Quote for Right Now

Posted: January 17, 2013 in Opinion
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I just finished watching the third episode of The Newsroom, entitled “112th Congress.” Here’s the setup for a quote I’ve found so relevant to this week’s Dead Island Riptide human torso collector’s edition debacle. Sam Waterston’s character, Charlie Skinner, has been called to meet with the network owner, Leona Lansing (Jane Fonda). It seems that Jeff Daniels’ character, Will McAvoy, has been making life difficult for management by plainly stating some inconvenient facts about Tea Party candidates.

Charlie:  “Facts are the center.  Facts.  We don’t pretend that certain facts are in dispute to give the appearance of fairness to people who don’t believe them.  Balance is irrelevant to me.  It doesn’t have anything to do with truth, logic or reality.  He didn’t go on the air telling people to give peace a chance, but evolution?  The jury’s back on that one.”

One day, the jury will be back on sexism in the videogame industry once and for all. Until then, if this is “balance,” I don’t want it. There might be another side to the sexism conversation, and if there is one, there must be someone else more eloquent to put the best argument forward. The piece I linked isn’t it.

I shopped for a gun.

Posted: January 16, 2013 in Opinion
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One of my Twitter followers responded to my piece about the gaming industry and gun violence, letting me know that he thought I was fanatical. While I took steps to balance my emotional response with hard facts, it seems that for some, I didn’t go far enough. I think it’s important to make one thing very clear: I am not opposed to gun ownership. A decade ago, I almost became a gun owner.

My wife and I were living in Cincinnati, Ohio during the 2001 riots. She came home the day after they started and told me that one of her classmates, on his way to soccer practice, had been nearly pulled from his car. He was surrounded by angry, violent protestors, and in an attempt to honor his oath to do no harm, he waited until the last possible moment to accelerate through the throng. My then-fiancee’s route between our apartment and school took her through the same neighborhood.

She grew up around guns and was taught proper safety. We were afraid for her well-being, and we didn’t know how long the violence in our city was going to continue. After a long conversation, we decided to go shopping. Business was booming at the small gun shop where we began (and ended) our search. We looked at a Taurus .38 with a fully enclosed hammer. I remember holding it in my hand, feeling the weight and discussing the pros and cons of purchasing this particular item (after getting the proper permitting, gun safe and trigger lock). We took the necessary paperwork home, and after sleeping on it, decided it wasn’t the right choice for us.

We were afraid, and it wasn’t the right time to buy a gun. We were in the wrong frame of mind. Ultimately, the deciding factor was that we knew we would want to get rid of it when we eventually had children (which didn’t end up being too many years later). Any number of these factors could have gone the other way, though. We could have decided that it was necessary. We may have opted for confidence in a safe and trigger lock. We went back and forth on all of these points, and it was as hard a decision to say “no” as it would have been to bring a firearm into the house.

I do not begrudge law-abiding citizens their firearm ownership. Hunting rifles, handguns and other types of weapons have their place. I object to the idea that high-capacity magazines are necessary. I find it absurd that anyone would object to background checks and stringent regulation of purchases at gun shows and conventions. Yet, the NRA has pushed and shoved against any attempt to even discuss restrictions.

I believe that we need watchdog groups. Our government is built on checks and balances, and non-governmental agencies that exist to help safeguard our freedoms are vital. The NRA is not the organization that should be tasked with protecting the second amendment. Their interests are fueled by funding from the gun manufacturers, and not the letter or spirit of this important passage in the Bill of the Rights. My hope is that the break between membership and the NRA leadership spurs the creation of a new, more centrist advocacy group.

Today, President Obama signed 23 executive orders designed to spur conversation and action on the gun violence epidemic. These include health care concerns, further funding for enforcement of and greater information availability for background checks and a CDC study on the causes of gun violence. These are common sense measures that pull in a broad range of sectors to help combat this problem. It isn’t about “taking away all the guns.” There is no vilification of violent media (though it should and will be studied by the CDC). These first steps are focused on the well-being of our society. This conversation is only just beginning, and it’s about time.

Pity the NRA Leadership

Posted: January 14, 2013 in Opinion
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Over the past month, our country has been trying desperately to comprehend the tragedy that occurred in Newtown, Connecticut. As I sat at my dining room table on the evening of December 14, 2012, my wife and I struggled to explain to our daughter how a man could enter a school and commit such a terrible act. It was, for us, the hardest moment of our healing process.

Perhaps that is why when the NRA pointed the finger everywhere except at themselves, I was outraged. The video game industry has been good to me. It has been the genesis of so many wonderful experiences, the first connection with amazing individuals from across the globe and even one way to bring my family together. How dare they lay the guilt at the doorstep of the entertainment industry while absolving themselves of any responsibility? How could any rational person advocate for more real guns in schools while decrying the fantastical depiction of firearms in adult-oriented media?

Then I realized something important. NRA CEO Wayne LaPierre and the other members of that group’s leadership simply are not acting rationally. My anger subsided, and it was replaced by something else.

Mr. LaPierre, I pity you. I am sad for you. For all of the guns you and your friends own, you live in perpetual fear. You are so terrified of the populace of the United States deciding to reinstate common sense restrictions on firearms that you cannot even risk a moment of introspection. You quiver, clutching your assault rifle close, because of some imagined specter looming just out of view.

As you waved your arms, demonizing film, video games and even the mentally ill, you created negative space. You colored in the picture so completely that what was left untouched could only draw attention. The prevalence of firearms in our country could have been shaded in just a bit, but you chose to leave a gaping void, with the podium from which you spoke at the center. Were you truly seeking a solution that benefits our society, you would have called for a broad investigation in which nothing was held sacred. As has been your tactic for ages, you positioned this important discussion as a life-and-death decision.

You might be surprised to find that I agree with you, Mr. LaPierre. This is a matter of life and death. According to the Centers for Disease Control, in 2010, 31,347 people in the United States died due to firearms (including 11,493 due to homicide and 18,735 due to suicide). The next highest was India with 6,219 total gun deaths. (Data courtesy of The Sydney School of Public Health, The University of Sydney and GunPolicy.org.)

Click for more information.

Click for more information.

As a comparison, here’s a chart of gun ownership for those same countries. I’d suggest clicking on the image for a better look.

Click for more detail.

Click for more detail.

It doesn’t take a genius to see that there is correlation, if not causation, between the availability of firearms and gun-related deaths. However, it would be silly to consider this an open and shut case. There are lives at stake in this conversation, and we owe it to ourselves to make a full examination of the obsession we have with guns. This includes the film and video game industries rising to the challenge posed by the NRA.

Unfortunately, so many of us are looking at this the wrong way, even in the language we choose when discussing this issue. I’ve heard my peers—intelligent people—say that our hobby is “under fire.” We are “in a battle” with the NRA. The greatest hyperbole is that we are “fighting for our lives.” While much of our medium deals with fantasy violence (and, yes, I include Call of Duty in that), we need not resort to embracing these metaphors. Language matters, and we’re making the wrong choices.

We need not feel threatened by the NRA. Their motives are suspect, and they no longer faithfully represent the average American gun owner. A recent piece in the Washington Post illustrates a deep break between the leadership of that organization and its alleged constituency. The speech given by Wayne LaPierre in response to the tragedy in Newtown was no more than a child lashing out in fear. In this case, it was the stark terror of losing the significant portion of its $200 million annual revenue supplied by gun manufacturers (as indicated by New York Times columnist Gail Collins, on March 21, 2012, less than a month after unarmed Trayvon Martin was shot and killed in Florida by George Zimmerman).

While it is understandable that the video game industry and pundits, myself included, became defensive, it’s the wrong reaction. Just as with any infant throwing a temper tantrum, we should not stoop to the NRA’s level. We must, however, educate those whom the association hopes to sway with their smear campaign.

A reasoned, thoughtful and respectful education effort is critical. The video game industry and retailers have good mechanisms in place. The ESRB rating system is immensely useful, and an effort to make even more people aware of its existence and how it works is critical. Retailers are enforcing the ESRB ratings, but they can take a greater role in education, especially around the holidays and when it is clear that parents are purchasing M-rated titles for younger children. Ultimately, parents must be given a choice, but an understanding of the options will help. These tools can be improved, and involving a diverse range of consumers in the conversation will be invaluable.

I don’t claim to have all the answers, but I do know that we need to be open to conversation. Our communication must come from a place of confidence. We have the research to back up our statements about a disconnect between video games and real violence. We have intelligent people able to have calm discussions. We need not be afraid.