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Vicarious Existence

To blog about what is going on in the MMO genre from a casual MMO player's viewpoint.

Author: UnSub

Cheyenne Mountain Entertainment: What's Comin' Round the Mountain Next?

Posted by UnSub Thursday January 29 2009 at 4:29AM
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Cheyenne Mountain Entertainment (CME) have been on a heck of a ride, especially for a studio that still hasn't released a title. Coming out publicly in July 2005 with the hiring of Joe Ybarra, the real surprise came in January 2006 when CME announced that Stargate Worlds (SGW) was being developed. As an IP SGW held a strong potential fit for a MMO, with its visiting distant multiple worlds and mix of action and exploration. Despite taking about 7 months to formally announce SGW, the name of CME comes from the Stargate series - Cheyenne Mountain being the home base for the original series - so some things had been planned for a while.

Development of SGW continued with announcements of BigWorld and the Unreal Engine 3 being commissioned for the game. In theory, buying off-the-shelf applications such as these should have helped reduce the time take to develop SGW, although this won't really be known until SGW launches. Assuming it launches.

Things get interesting in April 2008, when CME announces the formation of FireSky, a publisher for SGW and other online titles. Although not widely noted at the time, the official press release mentioned "the development and publishing of games for Social Networks At Play™ (SNAPs), a unified theory of online gaming that combines social interaction, economies and game play across a variety of titles" and "Project: Ascension". To be fair, it probably wasn't noted because no-one knew what the hell that particular collection of buzzwords meant.

FireSky went on to announce in May 2008 the formation of Superstition Studios under Shane Hensley (whom I strongly believe are working on a Deadlands MMO) and Handcranked Games (which appears to be the love child of some senior CME developer people - no announced projects, a lot of employment vacancies but a "top priority is putting the Social into SNAP games"). (I can't find it announced separately anywhere, but Mass Illusions pops up as a FireSky studio on some people's info.) For a studio without a title to its name, self-publishing is risky; it's even riskier when you are supporting three or more studios without a revenue stream.

The SGW beta started late April 2008. August saw a number of interesting (at best) and questionable (at worst) publicity stunts - taking over a train station and having a custom fleet of hummers at the Leipzig Games Convention - that would have cost a bomb for minimum return on investment. This didn't look very good in September when claims were made that CME was in cashflow trouble, which the studio admitted to but downplayed.

The rumours of cashflow problems re-emerged in December, when an anonymous website claimed that CME hadn't paid its employees for an extended period (at the time of launch it was around 21 days; now it is up to 77 days). Again, CME acknowledged the problem but downplayed it. Some employees commented on the impact of not being paid, so it wasn't a fake story.

The most recent twist to the tale is CME's founder and chairman, Gary Whiting, being linked to a multi-level marketing (MLM) scheme that leveraged off SGW and other CME properties (and older Whiting properties such as ItzYourMall) in a bid to raise US $50 million. Although Ten Ton Hammer backed off (while ironically being challenged by some people in hating CME / SGW after just having done a charity collection for CME employees) the fact is that when the Chairman of your company is trading on your best know product to market an incentivised social network (a social network at play, perhaps?) then there are some very big problems going on. Regardless of  the non-existence of a contractual relationship, the founder is, from the same building, running an organisation that is potentially damaging a variety of CME's brands.

And all of this is happening without any indication of SGW coming out at all. A cash strapped company, a founder who is potentially doing some questionable marketing-related activities, a publisher with multiple studios but no published titles, all set in an economy that appears certainly aimed at a recession. It will certainly be interesting to see what comes around the mountain next for CME.

UPDATE: fixed a spelling error, added in a dollar amount for the multi-level marketing attempt, added in a link to back up a point,  clean up at the end since I had to rush off when writing the original article.

Also, it appears that Steve Williams, he who wasn't paid by CME and could have very easily missed out on seeing his kids at Christmas, has left CME and gone to Carbine Studios. He may have also been paid recently, though whether the money came from CME or Carbine isn't clear (although I'd suspect it would have to be from CME, unless Carbine pre-pays employees for a month's work).

Final point: I find it very interesting that the MLM scheme latched onto the Social Networks at Play angle of CME / FireSky. It's a buzz-phrase for sure, but it is very thoroughly integrated into the whole MLM scheme. So, here's the controversial bit: this MLM has had a lot of planning and lead time put into it, going back to at least April 2008 when FireSky launched and Social Networks at Play started getting thrown around by CME / FireSky. Look at the definition given of a Social Network at Play: "a unified theory of online gaming that combines social interaction, economies and game play across a variety of titles". It fits exactly with the MLM scheme as presented.

It is pretty unlikely that this MLM scheme was thrown together at the last minute. The campaign rollout shows a lot of coordination and organisation. Someone is responsible for getting Social Networks at Play into press releases for CME and FireSky. Groundwork was laid all over for something like the MLM to be rolled out in order to attract revenue. The original idea might not have been an MLM - it might have been closer to a Steam / Station Pass set-up together with a gamer social network tying gamers to CME / FireSky, or even something else that would fit that definition - but a MLM is what the public got after CME continually ran into cashflow problems. 

It is certainly an issue for CME / FireSky that has Gary Whiting's face on it, but the MLM has been tied longer to SGW than a number of people want to realise.

Infalible writes:

This is a brilliant article. Well worth the read. It should put a number of parties in their place pretty convincingly.

Don't be surprised if you get trolled by those same individuals who hated on TTH though. They've been lurking on the forums here ;D

Excellent! Well done!

Thu Jan 29 2009 5:29AM Report
Lisentia writes:

It puts no one in their place. The website is inaccurate because it fails to reflect that the employees have been paid.

and Unsub you incorrectly labeled TTH as having done a charity collection without also mentioning their membership sales.

Thu Jan 29 2009 5:37AM Report
Infalible writes:

TTH made a DONATION to CME, in the form of giving the money they made from subscription sign ups to CME AFTER matching it from their own pocket. On top of that, several employees gave money out of their own pockets to CME. No return was expected on that donation, so it was a chairty collection because NO PROFIT WAS MADE.

mmkay?

Thu Jan 29 2009 5:44AM Report
UnSub writes:

Lisentia: My understanding of CME's payment to employees is that not everyone is back up to square with what they're owed. I can't produce a tangible link to that, but if you want to point out a link that shows every CME employee is fully paid up, I'll update the entry.

Also, as was repeatedly pointed out to you by the TTH staff on the matter, they donated $850 to CME collected purely from donations, some of which came from TTH staff. On top of that, 10 premium TTH accounts were bought so TTH donated an additional (10 x $20) $200 to CME for a total of $1050. So, the 10 extra premium accounts TTH got from the charity drive netted them no financial gain. So yeah, I call it a charity collection.

Thu Jan 29 2009 8:42AM Report
UnSub writes:

Sorry - should have linked TTH's official note about the donations drive: http://www.tentonhammer.com/node/50642

Thu Jan 29 2009 8:43AM Report
Kainis writes:

Crazy good and well researched article. I love the studio for trying to put in place a great mmo. However, early beta was not as promising as it could've been. Also it seems that in the months since said beta, more and more news has come out that a number of heads have been infected by the Ori. I mean, what else can explain the irrational approach they have taken things? I truly feel sorry for the employees.

Thu Jan 29 2009 12:52PM Report
Gscully writes:

If CME could have done something similar to Station pass then I'd play, but the MLM stuff is beyond silly, in that they think people would be willing to do it. I'm still confused about all those badly written posts by people trying to sell this junk. It appeared that another company was trying to profit off of CME's troubles.

Oh well, still a few other scifi games coming out soon.

Thu Jan 29 2009 4:32PM Report
junzo316 writes:

Interesting article.  Thank you for the information.

Thu Jan 29 2009 7:33PM Report
jetnitro writes:

Ive B/t'ed the game(no longer in or participating), im going to go on record and say this thing product is totally and unequivenetely broken. CME/Firesky has lost my respect with this recent stunt, esp with getting involved in an MLM, which is no better than running a ponzi scheme on their own employees. If MGM was smart, they'd pull the license ASAP and get a company who has the money (EA, Sony, Atari) to buy the rights and continue developing this game, maybe even look like something you'd see in a current/nextgen game.

Thu Jan 29 2009 8:52PM Report
UnSub writes:

I don't believe for one second that all the employees of CME / FireSky were aware of the MLM, or support it. Unfortunately at least one key person at the top did and now that CME / FireSky is cash strapped the board likely can't afford lengthy legal action to stop it.

Thu Jan 29 2009 11:44PM Report
Player_420 writes:

you are a casual player? damn man you musta spent more time this week doing blogging and comments then playing MMO's....

so in a way, are you really a casual player? NO your not, you are addicted like the rest of us....so to label yourself as casual is silly to me.

Fri Jan 30 2009 11:54AM Report
UnSub writes:

I might play a MMO for up to 10 hours a week, but that would be all my gaming time. I've been blogging a lot more in January because I've felt a need to write and there have been topics that have interested me. Also, I can blog at work (January has had a few quiet patches), but certainly can't play games there. :-)

It all depends: what's "casual"? I certainly don't powergame, I don't have the ability to spend a full day on a gaming session and tend to lag behind others when leveling. I feel I'm casual because I'm certainly not hardcore.

But I really do like MMOs as concept, so perhaps "casually addicted"?

Sat Jan 31 2009 9:08AM Report
Player_420 writes:

good answer :)

Tue Feb 03 2009 4:18PM Report
sancher36 writes:

Kainis what do you expect at the beginning stages of a beta, too many went into beta so I heard expecting a fully playable game for testing. I have been in many betas of the past and what you should expect in beginning stages is mainly server stress testing and yes limited play to a degree.

As for this article I only agree with half of it sorry to say and no I'm in no way supporting CME for current things that have come to light over last 2-3 months.

Wed Mar 04 2009 6:43PM Report

MMORPG.com writes:
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