Big Huge Acquisition for 38 Studios Will Boost Its Copernicus Project

5/27/09Follow @wroush

38 Studios, the Maynard, MA-based video game company founded by Boston Red Sox star Curt Schilling, has filled a gap in its lineup. The company said today that it has nearly doubled its size by acquiring Big Huge Games, a Maryland-based company that’s behind such role-playing and strategy games as Rise of Nations and Age of Empires III.

Big Huge Games (BHG), whose lead designer Ken Rolston was the co-creator of an extremely popular Xbox game called Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion, was founded in 2000 and has been bouncing around a lot of late. Just over a year ago, in January 2008, it was acquired by PC and console game publisher THQ of Agoura Hills, CA. But this March, according to the video game news site Crispy Gamer, THQ said it would be forced to sell BHG due to deteriorating economic conditions–and that if it couldn’t find a buyer, it would shut the studio down.

So 38 Studios is a bit of a white knight for the older company. After a round of layoffs instigated by THQ last year, BHG has about 70 employees, compared to 38 Studio’s complement of 75. The acquisition won’t lead to any further job cuts: “All necessary layoffs at BHG occurred before the acquisition,” a 38 Studios spokesperson tells Xconomy. “Retained staff has been planned according to project planning and future product delivery.”

BHG’s jump from THQ to 38 Studios immediately launches the Massachusetts company into the console game market, given that the purchase includes all of Big Huge Games’ technology, intellectual property, and games-in-progress. That includes an as-yet-unnamed role-playing game being developed for the Xbox 360 and Playstation 3 platforms; when it was originally unveiled in a joint announcement with THQ in 2007, that game was scheduled for delivery this year.

Big Huge Games' Xbox Live Arcade version of Settlers of CatanBringing in a group that has such extensive experience designing fantasy-based, 3D game worlds—not to mention the software to run them— should help 38 Studios advance its own multi-year effort to create a massively multiplayer online game (MMOG), code named Copernicus. With Big Huge Games’ real-time strategy engine, 38 Studios will be able to “accelerate the realization” of Copernicus and publish it on multiple platforms, 38 Studios CEO Brett Close said in a statement.

Close also tells Xconomy that the BHG acquisition should translate into a boost for the region’s video game cluster. “New England enjoys a unique intersection of exceptional universities, incredible talent, and innovative companies, which makes this area a prominent industry hub for game development,” says Close. “Acquiring BHG further extends and diversifies our capabilities and creates a conduit between the two studios to capitalize on the talents and advantages of both areas. The whole is greater than the parts, which only enhances what and how we can contribute to the business fabric of the New England area.”

At bottom, though, the acquisition may be a sign of a growing realization at 38 Studios that it needs a larger team if it’s going to deliver the ambitious Copernicus property on schedule in 2011. The Copernicus game world, being designed under the direction of noted comic-book artist Todd McFarlane and fantasy author R. A. Salvatore, will reportedly be the foundation for a cross-media extravaganza, encompassing a console game, an online game, movies, comics, toys, books, and a TV show.

It’s not the first time 38 Studios has turned to established video game companies for help with Copernicus: last year, for example, it hired Travis McGeathy, former lead designer of Sony Online Entertainment’s Everquest franchise, to lead systems design for the property.

The core team at Big Huge Games, including Jason Coleman, David Inscore, and Kerry Wilkinson, as well as Train and Rolston, has a huge list of games on its collective resume, including Catan XBLA (pictured above), Sid Meier’s Civilization, Civilization II, Alpha Centauri, Rise of Legends, European Air War, Magic: The Gathering, and Elder Scrolls III and IV.

Big Huge Games won’t leave its current location in Timonium, MD, a suburb of Baltimore, 38 Studios said. Tim Train, the CEO of Big Huge Games and one of its four founders, said in the acquisition announcement that the two companies “share a common vision—to deliver the most engaging, compelling, original experiences possible…Joining the 38 Studios family allows us to continue translating our passions into great games.”

Schilling himself, a longtime gamer, called Big Huge Games “a phenomenal team and, culturally, a natural fit” with 38 Studios.

Wade Roush is a contributing editor at Xconomy. Follow @wroush

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