Epic Mickey Junction Point closure

Following rumors that began to circulate yesterday, the news was made official today: Junction Point Studios is the latest game development studio to be shut down. While far from outright shocking, considering the moves its parent company had made in recent years, this does call attention to how quickly things can go south for a developer, even one with a name like Warren Spector at the helm.

Spector, who is best known for his earlier work on games like System Shock and Deus Ex, founded the studio in 2005. It was acquired in 2007, joining the likes of Propaganda Games under the Disney Interactive Studios label. It was responsible for the release of two games: Epic Mickey in 2010 and Epic Mickey 2: The Power of Two just last year. The former was a fairly well-received game that sold 1.3 million units in the U.S. during its first month of availability, according to NPD Group numbers reported by the L.A. Times. That was a solid figure for a third-party Wii game released at that point in time. Its flawed sequel, despite being available on Xbox 360, PlayStation 3, and Wii U, in addition to Wii, sold a small fraction of that, moving only 270,000 units in a similar window. Update: Joystiq reports the game ended up selling 529,000 units in the U.S. during November and December, though keep in mind the game was heavily discounted during and after Black Friday.

With that kind of uninspiring performance, plans Spector had for a potential third game pretty much went out the window. Polygon reported today a source indicated the developer’s staff was on paid leave since finishing work on the game. Even before a meeting that took place this morning, it seemed clear that some kind of staff reduction was coming; it was only unclear whether or not the studio would be shut down entirely, which sadly turned out to be the case.

Regardless of Epic Mickey 2′s sales, examined within the context of what Disney has been doing with its videogame division, the closure is no major surprise. Although it has deeply invested in videogames, as evidenced by what it’s doing with Disney Infinity, the sort of games it’s focusing on are not what Junction Point makes. While last decade it was purchasing developers like Junction Point, Propaganda, and Black Rock, its more recent acquisitions have the likes of Tapulous, the developer of the Tap Tap Revenge series on iOS, and social game developer Playdom.

Those descriptions should begin to reveal the sort of direction Disney is looking to take. It’s one less interested in core games like Split Second or Epic Mickey, and more so in looking to capitalize on the social and mobile gaming boom (along with something like Infinity, which, if handled correctly, could end up essentially being a license to print money). Two years ago this month, wide-ranging layoffs hit a number of Disney’s core game studios, Junction Point among them. The move came shortly after Propaganda was shut down, and about six months before Black Rock suffered the same fate. Had it not been for the success of the first Epic Mickey, it seems possible Junction Point, too, could have joined the list then rather than now.

Epic Mickey 2

It’s difficult to hear about any studio closure right now and not immediately think of what happened with THQ last week. After struggling mightily for some time, its assets were auctioned off — or, rather, some of its assets were auctioned off. Notably, Darksiders developer Vigil Games (along with the Darksiders IP) were not able to attract even a single bid, leaving its staff jobless. Although their respective parent companies are in dramatically different positions, Vigil and Junction Point do share at least two things in common. Each was the developer of a single series, each of which saw a second entry in the series underperform at retail last year (Darksiders II shipped, not sold, 1.4 million units between its launch in mid-August and September 30).

Now, with the costs of game development being what they are, the two companies serve as prime examples that studios of their size can’t afford to bear mediocre (or worse) sales of their games, at least not without having serious backing from a publisher or a guaranteed money-maker to fall back on. That’s something neither studio had — Vigil’s new IP, good as it may have looked, was not a guaranteed big seller — whereas, say, the EA-owned DICE could go back to Battlefield and developing the Frostbite engine after Mirror’s Edge failed to become a huge seller.

What makes the almost simultaneous closures of Vigil and Junction Point even more unfortunate than they otherwise would be is the fact that they were both located in Austin, Texas. That makes finding a new job in the area even more difficult for all of the people who have found themselves out of work this month, a situation that is not helped by the fact that layoffs were seen at fellow Austin-based studios LightBox Interactive and BioWare Austin within the last year. If there’s any bright side in all of this, it would be the fact that Crytek, which purchased the Homefront IP from THQ (undoubtedly because it was the one developing Homefront 2), has founded a new studio in Austin called Crytek USA. Among its staff are 35 former Vigil employees, as well as Vigil co-founder David Adams. Hopefully it will soon be able to count some former Junction Point employees among its staff, too.

As for Warren Spector’s future, we only know that he isn’t staying with Disney, Polygon reports. His LinkedIn profile invites others to get in touch to talk, suggesting he doesn’t already have a specific destination in mind. His former studio, Ion Storm, went out of business in 2005. It, too, was based in Texas. It’s no doubt wishful thinking on my part as a Deus Ex fan, but I would love to see him reunited with fellow Deus Ex designer Harvey Smith at Dishonored developer Arkane Studios, which has a presence in Texas. Looking back at his comments from last year’s E3 regarding his belief that “the ultraviolence has to stop,” however, suggest that may not be the direction Spector is headed in unless Arkane’s next game is much different than its last one.

By Chris Pereira