Icarus Studios, who is behind-but-set-Fallen-Earth-LLC-as-a-separate-entity-to-develop-Fallen-Earth, has announced a dramatic restructuring of its internal personnel. If you take Icarus’ LinkedIn as accurate, they used to have about 110 employees, which is now down to 28 core staff members plus customer service / GM staff. (Comments that “80% of staff have been laid off” often depend on how you count staff – full-time or part-time? “Core” or otherwise? In short: it’s a significant part of the company that have gone.) Some early reports were that Icarus was going to close, but they came back to say they weren’t, although it seems quirky at the very least to say they are slashing people from Icarus but “subscriptions are going well”.
It’s not clear. The former lead developer on Fallen Earth was Lee Hammock, but he’d gone across to work for Gargantuan Studios (probably on the Marvel MMO they are developing) before this news hit.
A quick skim through LinkedIn profiles indicates that some of Icarus’ executive team – Jeff Strief, the Executive Vice President, and Judah Graham, Vice President, Creative Services and Client Relations – now work for a company set-up by Graham called HandZAP and will be developing mobile phone applications. It’s possible that both still work for Icarus, but also have other projects they work on. However, I’m pretty sure that LinkedIn can have you work for more than one company in your profile, and that since Icarus is in the ‘Past’ section, Graham and Strief are no longer at Icarus. (Exactly when they left isn’t clear, but their bios are still up under the Icarus Executive Team page, so I’d suspect it was a recent move.)
The other wrinkle is that Fallen Earth LLC is structured to be a different company to Icarus – the LinkedIn profile for Fallen Earth LLC says it has 55 employees. Now, it certainly appears that people from both Icarus and Fallen Earth LLC have been let go, determining the line is very hard based on public information. It’s entirely possible that more people were let go on Icarus’ side than on Fallen Earth’s LLC, although at least one comment from someone who claims to have worked on Fallen Earth suggests that those left working on the title are going to have to deal with a substantial reduction in resources.
Doing Two Things At Onc… Oops
It’s hard to say at this point what is going on and if Fallen Earth is really endangered as a title. Making indie MMOs is hard and given that Fallen Earth LLC formed in 2003 (although arguably Fallen Earth has been worked on since at least 2001) but didn’t release the title until 2009, that’s an extended period of time to fund production. Plus few players give indie MMOs much slack – it must be as good as a title with 6x the budget – especially if they charge the same $15 a month subscription fee. One big part of Icarus’ offer has always been that its MMO toolset was to be licensed out to other MMO developers, but this just increases the complexity of developing the toolset – it has to have a greater scope than if it was developed with just one MMO in mind.
Over time Icarus has announced various partnerships and ventures that would leverage their MMO tools, but it is extremely hard to judge how those deals have gone. To date the only concrete things that it appears Icarus has put out (to earn direct revenue from, at least) are Fallen Earth and the Dexter iPhone app (which isn’t a MMO, in case you didn’t get that). There may be other deals I’m unaware of, but it certainly appears that Icarus has made numerous announcements for not-that-much payoff.
And this is the issue of developing a MMO toolset / engine for third parties to use – it eats up development time from the MMO that should be the showcase example of what the toolset can do. Other companies who have promised third party MMO toolsets / engines like the Hero Engine, BigWorld Technology and the Perpetual Engine have seen a lot of claims about what they can do, but little in the way of successful MMO launches. In these cases, the original title they were meant to be used for – Hero’s Journey, Citizen Zero and Gods and Heroes, respectively – have all been non-starters. Icarus at least got Fallen Earth out, but it ate up a lot of time (and hence: money) to do so.
Although it makes sense to develop a MMO toolset / engine that can be licensed to other companies while also developing your first MMO, to date the reality has been that you can do one well but not both. So perhaps the lay-offs are more a case of Icarus focusing on the development of Fallen Earth moving forward rather than also trying to on-sell their toolsets and engines to others. The alternative is that Fallen Earth just isn’t bringing in enough revenue to cover all those costs arising from its development and this restructure is an attempt to make Fallen Earth LLC profitable. Of course, player confidence is eroded from seeing a lot of staff laid off and it is arguable that coming back from an unprofitable position is hard for any MMO to do.
Welcome to the Apocalypse
If Fallen Earth closes, it’ll be disappointing from a diversity point-of-view – MMOs really do need some new ideas and Fallen Earth at least tried to push things in a bit of a different direction. It wasn’t a game for me, but that doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be around.
Fallout from this restructuring will occur over the next month or so; it’ll be interesting to see where things end up.