The Rise of Nations game that might have saved 38 Studios

Combing through the ones and zeroes on remnant servers before the delayed auction, the auctioneers at HGP rediscovered a game.

38 Studios was long gone. There wasn't much left to do with the remains of the Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning developer other than litigate its former executives and sell what was left behind after it declared bankruptcy in June 2012, and developers working on all sorts of projects, including the never released massively multiplayer online game codenamed Project Copernicus, lost their jobs. But the jobs weren't the only things lost in developer's inglorious fall.

On the same day the studio became officially insolvent, the U.S. Attorney's office and the FBI declared a formal investigation into former Boston Red Sox pitcher Curt Schilling's video game company.

By November 2012, Rhode Island filed suit against Schilling, former executives and advisors over the $75 million loan guarantee the state provided to the developer. Depositions in that trial began in late October 2013.

While the lawsuit progressed update by update, Heritage Global partners was taking stock. The San Diego-based company announced in September 2013 that it would hold an auction to liquidate 38 Studios and Big Huge Games' remaining assets. Originally planned for mid-November, it was delayed to December because of greater than expected demand.

An October 2013 auction already disposed of the former studio's mundane remnants: chairs, commuters, microwaves, refrigerators, staplers and the like. The next event would put the projects that former developers spent years creating on the auction block. Near intangibles like the intellectual property rights to the Kingdoms of Amalur franchise and Rise of Nations franchises, as well as Helios, a platform that handled multiplayer and social media, would be available on the open market.

Though nobody knew it at the time, the auction would also include a game that had quietly wound its way through the studio as a pet project that was created, abandoned, resurrected and then, finally, forgotten again with the demise of 38 Studios.

Combing through the ones and zeroes on remnant servers before the delayed auction, the auctioneers at HGP rediscovered the game. In mid-November, HGP executive vice president Nick Jimenez heralded the discovery with a press release, announcing a erroneously described as a "completed, but unreleased game," for Macs.

In fact, Rise of Nations: Tactics was an iOS game that chugged through the 38 Studios machinery for years before disappearing and reappearing before the auction. Polygon spoke with two former employees of 38 Studios to learn about the game's history, why it was never released and how, in a final Hail Mary not long before bankruptcy, apparently desperate executives at the developer thought that Rise of Nations: Tactics could have saved the dying company.

"Rise of Nations: Tactics was the first project that I really got traction on in my new position."

Stuart Jeff joined Big Huge Games as employee 24 in 2003. He left the studio in mid-2011 to co-found Sparkypants Studios. Before he did, though, he spent years as a programmer, until 2009, when Big Huge Games was acquired by 38 Studios. His job title changed when he proposed a new kind of development style at the studio - one that would lead directly to Rise of Nations: Tactics.

"Rise of Nations: Tactics was the first project that I really got traction on in my new position," Jeff told Polygon in a recent interview. "I wanted to capture what I loved about the original Rise of Nations and present it in a way that would play to what I saw as the strengths of mobile gaming at the time. It was designed to be enjoyed in short bursts on the go. It drew a lot of inspiration from Advance Wars and it was created as a turn-based strategy game but its core design came from Rise of Nations. It featured an asynchronous multiplayer component inspired by Words with Friends as well. I created the design and wrote all of the code for the game. I repurposed the art and sound assets from the original Rise of Nations or created my own assets as needed."

According to Jeff, Rise of Nations: Tactics was "roughly" complete by Spring 2011. He'd created the game in Unity 3D for iOS, but he also had higher hopes. Jeff had written a "database-driven server system to operate the multiplayer mode of the game" which he hoped would make cross-platform play possible on Android, OS X, Web and Windows ports. That's where 38 Studios' internally developed multiplayer/social network Helios would come in.

"During that time at 38 Studios, the Helios team in Rhode Island was very focused on delivering the infrastructure needed to power the MMO," he said. "They had the know-how and the experience to help but asking them to do so would have been too much of a potential distraction from their core mission. I had hoped that down the line their time would become more available and we could launch the game. As I mentioned earlier, I had the opportunity to start a new studio that I could not turn down so I left the company before I was able to find out."

Based on Polygon's interviews and research, it appears that development on Rise of Nations: Tactics halted with Jeff's exit, but it got a second chance about a year later.

Andy Johnson joined 38 Studios in January 2012 as a localization director. That meant that it was his job to direct the translation of games into different languages, specifically the Project Copernicus MMO. He'd done similar work at THQ.

The original plan was for Johnson to assemble a team to help with localization, but about a month after he joined 38 Studios, the developer instituted a hiring freeze, which meant that he couldn't do the thing he was hired to do. Despite that, he put together a localization schedule based on the information that he had, to determine where the studio stood.

"Some BHG guys had been working on an iOS/Droid game that ... was nearly complete."

"It put them way behind where they thought they were at," Johnson told Polygon.

"It was much further behind than they thought they were at, and there was lots of panic over the schedule that I put together."

Hired to do a job he couldn't do, Johnson began asking around to see who needed help. At first, he started helping the web production team, creating community and new websites. At some point, he'd heard that Big Huge Games had been working on a mobile game.

"Some BHG guys had been working on an iOS/Droid game that wasn't quite there, but was nearly complete," he said "and they needed someone to bring it in so that it could be launched."

That unfinished game was Rise of Nations: Tactics. It ran on iPhones and iPads when he took over the project in early 2012, and some code existed for an Android version as well, likely the fruit of Stuart Jeff's forward thinking design.

Johnson began working with a designer to get the game ready for release. The problem was that 38 Studios was imploding, a situation the former THQ employee was already familiar with.

"In the last month and a half [or] two months [of 38 Studios], I was high enough to be able to see behind the curtain at 38 Studios, and not high enough to know the details. Having come from THQ, which was on a very slow downward slide, I could see a ton of issues happening, and it felt to me like people were pretty much like Titanic [survivors] clamoring at driftwood, trying to get ahold of things. It got more and more manic as time went on."

As he'd done with the localization of Project Copernicus, Johnson put together a timeline to bring the game to market, including monetization, a release plan and the size of the development team. He and the designer worked together for a couple of months before he got a sudden surprise.

"It got more and more manic as time went on."

"We no longer need this anymore," they said. "We're going to pull you off this project. It's done. We can't do anything with it in the time that we've got."

Rise of Nations: Tactics was dead again. Johnson was told to put his concentration back on web development. At about the same time, the designer left the studio.

Then, two weeks to a month later, there was another course reversal.

"There was a big thing at Providence 38 with SVPs and biz dev people jumping up and down, saying 'We need a build! We need a build sent to iTunes, to Apple!'"

Johnson explained that the only other person who'd worked on the game recently had left. He persuaded the executives and the designer to allow them to work on the game together.

Johnson said that he made it clear that the game needed "three months of proper dev time" to be launchable, plus additional time for monetization. But executives just wanted a build sent to Apple.

"That was in the last week or two of 38," he said.

In mid-December 2013, Heritage Global Partners held the auction for the remaining assets of 38 Studios and Big Huge Games. According to a statement from court-appointed Receiver Richard J. Land, he did not receive "acceptable offers" for Project Copernicus or Helios. But assets for the Rise of Nations games and their associated intellectual property were sold to an unknown bidder.

There are countless what if scenarios throughout the fall of 38 Studios, of which Rise of Nations: Tactics is just one. According to Johnson, there was a solid game nearly ready for release, but time and dire financial straights prevented its release and at least some kind of revenue stream for the dying studio.

"Whoever got it, I think, got a semi-decent game," Johnson said. "The IP is good, but I think at the time, had it been released in 2012, the iOS and Android marketplaces weren't at the maturity point that they are now. They could have made some decent money off that game and monetized it.

"I don't know if it would have been enough money to keep the company afloat. They kind of needed a whole lot more money. But it definitely would have brought some more money in."

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