Bonus Level Unlocked
This week marks the release of Jason Schreier’s Press Reset, an incredibly well-researched book on catastrophic business failure in the gaming industry. Jason’s a good dude, and there’s an excerpt here if you want to check it out. Sadly, game companies going belly-up is such a common occurrence that he couldn’t possibly include them all, and one of the stories left out due to space constraints is one that I happen to be personally familiar with. So, I figured I’d tell it here.
I began working at Acclaim Studios Austin as a sound designer in January of 2000. It was a tumultuous period for the company, including a recent rebranding from their former studio name, “Iguana Entertainment,” and a related, ongoing lawsuit from the ex-founder of Iguana. There were a fair number of ghosts hanging around—the creative director’s license plate read IGUANA, which he never changed, and one of the meeting rooms held a large, empty terrarium—but the studio had actually been owned on paper by Acclaim since 1995, and I didn’t notice any conflicting loyalties. Everyone acted as if we always had been, and always would be, Acclaim employees.
Over the next few years I worked on a respectable array of triple-A titles, including Quarterback Club 2002, Turok: Evolution, and All-Star Baseball 2002 through 2005. (Should it be “All-Stars Baseball,” like attorneys general? Or perhaps a term of venery, like “a zodiac of All-Star Baseball.”) At any rate, it was a fun place to work, and a platformer of hijinks ensued.
But let’s skip to the cutscene. The truth is that none of us in the trenches suspected the end was near until it was absolutely imminent. Yes, Turok: Evolution and Vexx had underperformed, especially when stacked against the cost of development, but games flop in the retail market all the time. And, yes, Showdown: Legends of Wrestling had been hustled out the door before it was ready for reasons no one would explain, and the New York studio’s release of a BMX game featuring unlockable live-action stripper footage had been an incredibly weird marketing ploy for what should have been a straightforward racing title. (Other desperate gimmicks around this time included a £6,000 prize for UK parents who would name their baby “Turok,” an offer to pay off speeding tickets to promote Burnout 2 that quickly proved illegal, and an attempt to buy advertising space on actual tombstones for a Shadow Man sequel.)
But the baseball franchise was an annual moneymaker, and our studio had teams well into development on two major new licenses, 100 Bullets and The Red Star. Enthusiasm was on the upswing. Perhaps I should have paid closer attention when voice actors started calling me to complain that they hadn’t been paid, but at the time it seemed more like a bureaucratic failure than an actual money shortage—and frankly, it was a little naïve of them to expect net-30 in the first place. Industry standard was, like, net-90 at best. So I was told.
Then one Friday afternoon, a few department managers got word that we’d kind of maybe been skipping out on the building lease for let’s-not-admit-how-many months. By Monday morning, everyone’s key cards had been deactivated.
It's a little odd to arrive at work and find a hundred-plus people milling around outside—even odder, I suppose, if your company is not the one being evicted. Acclaim folks mostly just rolled their eyes and debated whether to cut our losses and head to lunch now, while employees of other companies would look dumbfounded and fearful before being encouraged to push their way through the crowd and demonstrate their still-valid key card to the security guard. Finally, the General Manager (hired only a few months earlier, and with a hefty relocation bonus to accommodate his houseboat) announced that we should go home for the day and await news. Several of our coworkers were veterans of the layoff process—like I said, game companies go under a lot—and one of them had already created a Yahoo group to communicate with each other on the assumption that we’d lose access to our work email. A whisper of “get on the VPN and download while you can” rippled through the crowd.
But the real shift in tone came after someone asked about a quick trip inside for personal items, and the answer was a hard, universal “no.” We may have been too busy or ignorant to glance up at any wall-writing, but the building management had not been: they were anticipating a full bankruptcy of the entire company. In that situation, all creditors have equal standing to divide up a company's assets in lengthy court battles, and most get a fraction of what they’re owed. But if the landlords had seized our office contents in lieu of rent before the bankruptcy was declared, they reasoned, then a judge might rule that they had gotten to the treasure chest first, and could lay claim to everything inside as separate from the upcoming asset liquidation.
Ultimately, their gambit failed, but the ruling took a month to settle. In the meantime, knick knacks gathered dust, delivered packages piled up, food rotted on desks, and fish tanks became graveyards. Despite raucous protest from every angle—the office pets alone generated numerous threats of animal cruelty charges—only one employee managed to get in during this time, and only under police escort. He was a British citizen on a work visa, and his paperwork happened to be sitting on his desk, due to expire. Without it, he was facing literal deportation. Fortunately, a uniformed officer took his side (or perhaps just pre-responded to what was clearly a misdemeanor assault in ovo,) and after some tense discussion, the building manager relented, on the condition that the employee touch absolutely nothing beyond the paperwork in question. The forms could go, but the photos of his children would remain.
It’s also a little odd, by the way, to arrive at the unemployment office and find every plastic chair occupied by someone you know. Even odder, I suppose, if you’re actually a former employee of Acclaim Studios Salt Lake, which had shut down only a month or two earlier, and you just uprooted your wife and kids to a whole new city on the assurance that you were one of the lucky ones who got to stay employed. Some of them hadn’t even finished unpacking.
Eventually, we were allowed to enter the old office building one at a time and box up our things under the watchful eye of a court appointee, but by then our list of grievances made the landlords’ ploy seem almost quaint by comparison (except for the animals, which remains un-fucking-forgivable.) We had learned, for example, that in the weeks prior to the bankruptcy, our primary lender had made an offer of $15 million—enough to keep us solvent through our next batch of releases, two of which had already exited playtesting and were ready to be burned and shipped. The only catch was that the head of the board, company founder Greg Fischbach, would have to step down. This was apparently too much of an insult for him to stomach, and he decided that he'd rather see everything burn to the ground. The loan was refused.
Other “way worse than we thought” details included gratuitous self-dealing to vendors owned by board members, the disappearance of expensive art from the New York offices just before closure, and the theft of our last two paychecks. For UK employees, it was even more appalling: Acclaim had, for who knows how long, been withdrawing money from UK paychecks for their government-required pension funds, but never actually putting the money into the retirement accounts. They had stolen tens of thousands of dollars directly from each worker.
Though I generally reside somewhere between mellow and complete doormat on the emotional spectrum, I did get riled enough to send out one bitter email—not to anyone in corporate, but to the creators of a popular webcomic called Penny Arcade, who, in the wake of Acclaim’s bankruptcy announcement, published a milquetoast jibe about Midway’s upcoming Area 51. I told Jerry (a.k.a. “Tycho”) that I was frankly disappointed in their lack of cruelty, and aired as much dirty laundry as I was privy to at the time.
“Surely you can find a comedic gem hidden somewhere in all of this!” I wrote. “Our inevitable mocking on PA has been a small light at the end of a very dark, very long tunnel. Please at least allow us the dignity of having a smile on our faces while we wait in line for food stamps.”
Two days later, a suitably grim comic did appear, implying the existence of a new release from Acclaim whose objective was to run your game company into the ground. In the accompanying news post, Tycho wrote:
“We couldn’t let the Acclaim bankruptcy go without comment, though we initially let it slide thinking about the ordinary gamers who lost their jobs there. They don’t have anything to do with Acclaim’s malevolent Public Relations mongrels, and it wasn’t they who hatched the Titty Bike genre either. Then, we remembered that we have absolutely zero social conscience and love to say mean things.”
Another odd experience, by the way, is digging up a 16-year-old complaint to a webcomic creator for nostalgic reference when you offer that same creator a promotional copy of the gaming memoir you just co-wrote with Sid Meier. Even odder, I suppose, to realize that the original non-Acclaim comic had been about Area 51, which you actually were hired to work on yourself soon after the Acclaim debacle.*
As is often the case in complex bankruptcies, the asset liquidation took another six years to fully stagger its way through court—but in 2010, we did, surprisingly, get the ancient paychecks we were owed, plus an extra $1,700-ish for the company’s apparent violation of the WARN Act. By then, I had two kids and a very different life, for which the money was admittedly helpful. Sadly, Acclaim’s implosion probably isn’t even the most egregious one on record. Our sins were, to my knowledge, all money-related, and at least no one was ever sexually assaulted in our office building. Again, to my knowledge. On the other hand, I’m pretty sure we remain the only historical incident of corporate pet murder. The iguana got out just in time.
*Area 51’s main character was voiced by David Duchovny, and he actually got paid—which was lucky for him, because three years later, Midway also declared bankruptcy.
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