IT Director Brandon Franks (left) and CEO Brett Close view 38 Studios as a total entertainment company.
Aug 21 2008

Game Time: A Look at the Technology Powering 38 Studios

Backed by an all-star lineup, 38 Studios squares off against the Goliaths in the booming PC game industry.

What do Red Sox pitcher Curt Schilling, comic book creator and toy designer Todd McFarlane and New York Times best-selling fantasy novelist R.A. Salvatore have in common?

Successful in their respective fields, they’ve teamed up to strike it big in the video game industry, forming 38 Studios, a startup that’s generating online buzz within the gaming community even though its first PC game is more than two years from release.

Schilling, an avid gamer for years, formed the company in late 2006, recruiting McFarlane to provide artistic direction and Salvatore to drive the creative vision. 38 Studios has since amassed more than 50 artists, designers, programmers, writers and other game and entertainment company veterans. The team’s goal is to develop an innovative multiplayer online game.

“Our core focus is developing a connected entertainment experience that will deliver an epic story in a revolutionary way,” says 38 Studios president and CEO Brett Close.

“It’s a Hollywood-esque, movie-like experience where you get to be the hero,” he says. “There are epic battles, factions and subplots that unfold as you play through this online entertainment experience. It’s about having fun with your friends online as you navigate through an incredible world created by world-renowned directors of storytelling and visuals, R.A. Salvatore and Todd McFarlane.”

38 Studios is entering an exploding market for video and PC games. In 2007 the industry reported $18.8 billion in U.S. retail sales alone, a 40 percent increase from 2006, according to the NPD Group. Although the field is crowded with established PC game publishers, such as Activision Blizzard, Electronic Arts and Sony Online Entertainment, analysts say the market opportunity is huge. This is especially true in the fast-growing, massively multiplayer online gaming (MMOG) market that 38 Studios is entering. World of Warcraft, for example, earned more than $1 billion in revenue in 2007 and boasts 10 million subscribers worldwide, according to analyst firm DFC Intelligence.

Read our exclusive interview with Curt Schilling.

38 Studios executives have visions beyond the lucrative gaming market. Once it releases its online adventure game, the company plans to extend its brand to other revenue-producing properties, including novels, toys, collectible trading-card games, products for video game consoles and wireless mobile devices, and possibly a movie.

“We’re an entertainment company, creating and developing a new intellectual property, delivered in a broad variety of ways,” says Close. “It’s about providing as many touch points to the audience as possible,” adds Close, who previously oversaw global production for Midway Games and managed its game development studio in Austin, Texas.

A Tech Focus

38 Studios is relying heavily on technology to reach its goals. In two years, the company has invested more than $500,000 in information technology equipment to help run the company’s administrative operations and equip the game developers with the tools they’ll need to produce the company’s first game.

“It’s just not smart to be penny-wise, pound-foolish with technology,” Close says.

“In the short run, it may seem like you’re saving $1,000 here or $10,000 there, but the truth is, if it doesn’t do the job, you’ve increased the risk and burned more money,” Close says, adding that it’s like giving a great mechanic bad tools to fix a car.

“They’re breaking off bolts and stripping out screw heads. It will take longer. The result is a substandard product, and the mechanic will probably get frustrated and find another job,” Close says.

Starting From Scratch

Gamers will explore a medieval fantasy theme set in a reimagined world.

When Brandon Franks, director of IT, joined 38 Studios in its formative stages in 2006, he walked into the company’s empty 30,000-square-foot headquarters in Maynard, Mass., and realized he was working with a clean slate — no phones, no fax machines and not a single computer.

Franks, who worked as an IT administrator for an engineering consulting firm in Arkansas before joining 38 Studios, spent the first several months creating the technology infrastructure. He installed a digital phone system; set up e-mail, file and directory servers; and built a network.

To meet the company’s bandwidth needs for the next several years, Franks installed Gigabit Ethernet connections to the desktop. The increased bandwidth lets developers access and share large art and video files.

Franks was surprised to learn from his new colleagues that some gaming companies still use Fast Ethernet, which transfers data at 100 megabits per second. With Gigabit Ethernet, which provides a ten-fold increase in speed, employees don’t have to wait as long to upload or download files. “Our basic infrastructure is similar to any company our size, but maybe we’re more aggressive,” he says.

Tools of the Gaming Trade

Most of the developers standardize on workstations because of their graphics-intensive computing needs. The 64-bit workstations feature dual-core or quad-core Intel Xeon processors and RAID storage for better performance and reliability. Some artists use tablet computers, which let them sketch on their screens. Executives who travel frequently use small, lightweight notebook computers.

As for software, Close says the company prefers to buy available commercial software instead of building in-house solutions. Rather than reinvent the wheel, 38 Studios licensed the BigWorld MMO Technology Suite, which provides excellent server-side tools for creating MMOG games. It also licensed Epic Games’ Unreal Engine 3, an engine that serves as the underlying software used to develop and run games.

The engineering team modifies and extends these technologies to suit the product’s needs. The company also uses Autodesk’s 3ds Max and Maya, software for 3D modeling, animation and rendering.

The total PC game market reached $11.3 billion in worldwide sales in 2007 and is expected to reach $19 billion by 2013.
Source: DFC Intelligence

The company uses five blade servers and a blade chassis to house the game’s development process, including the game engine, says Franks, who works collaboratively with the staff to make technology-purchasing decisions. The IT staff also purchased two additional rack-mounted servers: one for bug tracking software and the other for asset management and revision control software, which helps developers manage different versions of their source code.

38 Studios uses several collaboration tools, including wikis, videoconferencing and smartphones. The wiki holds storyboards, general design concepts and other documentation. Employees have documented many of McFarlane and Salvatore’s ideas, so they can consult the wiki regularly. The wiki also functions as the company’s intranet.

Franks purchased two videoconferencing devices so that McFarlane, who is based in Arizona, can meet with artists in the Massachusetts office every week. The artists view McFarlane on a 30-inch LCD. Executives also are each given a Palm Treo so they can stay in touch and check e-mail.

This flexible approach to work is importmant to 38 Studios. CEO Close says gaming companies are notorious for pushing unreasonable development schedules and expecting employees to work long days, all in the name of profit. 38 Studios doesn’t believe that’s the way to develop a positive corporate culture.

“We encourage longer, healthier development cycles and believe that’s critical and integral to creating a good team environment,” says Close.

Securing Intellectual Property

Protecting intellectual property is critical in the gaming industry. To safeguard the company’s investment, Franks has installed multiple layers of security, including firewalls, intrusion detection tools and e-mail-scanning spam filters on the network, as well as antivirus and antispam software on employees’ computers. He also uses data encryption on notebook computers and has purchased some notebooks with biometric fingerprint scanners. Franks also built a wireless network with security in mind. The company provides Wi-Fi for visitors, but the wireless network is separate from the company’s LAN, so guests can’t snoop and try to steal data.

The company has outgrown its server for data storage and recently purchased a storage area network that features 5.3 terabytes of storage, half of which is already filled. For disaster recovery, the company backs up its data every night to a 24-tape library that is stored offsite, Franks says.

With the technology in place, 38 Studios’ development team is methodically working toward a ship date of late 2010. The company continues to hire at a rapid pace, growing from an initial dozen employees to more than 50 this past summer.

As the deadline closes in for the game to go live, Close expects the company to grow to about 140 people to help with quality control and customer support. Franks and his four technicians spend a lot of time equipping new employees with the computers and applications they need and providing help-desk support. He recently installed an electronic ticketing system to streamline the help desk.

38 Studios’ motto is “World Domination Through Gaming.” And CEO Close is confident that 38 Studios will succeed in its quest to create a game that offers a quantum leap forward in MMOG play. He says he feels no pressure from the high expectations the company has thrust on itself.

“We have fantastic talent and unparalleled ideas,” he says. “There’s no one in the industry doing what we are doing.”

Christopher Navin