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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.