Like most game companies, Cryptic Studios began as an idea. Ever imagined an MMORPG built around a world of superheroes? Rick Dakan imagined just such a thing. He played and admired Everquest, but dreamed of something different, something outside the realm of fantasy. In short, Rick had what might be called a vision. But he didn’t have the means to bring it to life. So he approached Michael Lewis, an old high school buddy, with the idea, and Michael ponied up the initial start-up cash. We call that kind of capital angel-money and like the biblical archangel from the Book of Daniel, Michael delivered. He not only provided the early cash, he recruited Silicon Valley entrepreneurs Cameron Petty, Matt Harvey and Bruce Rogers – three Atari veterans with some serious production chops – to come on board. Boom. Just like that, Cryptic Studios was born.
Of course, it wasn’t that simple or that easy. We all know that the road that begins with “What if?” often ends in “WTF?”. But Rick Dakan’s inspiration for a super-hero themed MMORPG became City of Heroes, a brilliant idea that did lead to a watershed game. However, between his early musings and the final product was a lot of pain, a lot of uncertainty and a lot of hard work. The founders pitched the game everywhere, but it was not an easy sell. Eventually they signed with NCSoft, home of the legendary Garriot brothers, who had the background to help shepherd such an ambitious project through to completion. But even under the care and guidance of NCSoft, the road was still rocky. Several months into development, City of Heroes was entirely scrapped and rewritten from the ground up. Two of the original founders left and things were looking grim.
Building a great game and keeping a studio going through the hard times is a Herculean effort beset with pitfalls, nasty surprises and tough choices. But greatness is born of adversity and Cryptic rallied. Michael Lewis, the angel investor who was so instrumental in Cryptic’s formation, stepped in as CEO. The company scaled from a dozen employees to several dozen, and City of Heroes launched to overwhelming critical and financial success. So much so that a year later, they quickly followed it up with City of Villains, a bookend product launched with much fanfare and also to great success. If you think that all would be lollipops and unicorns for Cryptic at this point, then you haven’t spent much time in the trenches of the game business.
On the heels of the wildly popular superhero-based MMOs, Cryptic partnered with Microsoft to create Marvel Universe Online. This was a dream project for Cryptic. On paper, it was a match made in Heaven, the perfect marriage of a world class IP with a proven technology and production pipeline. But after more than a year working on MUO, Microsoft inexplicably killed the game. Cryptic was emotionally crushed. But like true heroes themselves, they rallied once again. They took Microsoft’s lemons and eventually turned them into a fine sorbet with Champions Online for PC. But hold on, not so fast.
Cryptic needed capital to fund the publishing of Champions and to develop Star Trek Online, a license they acquired from a then ailing Perpetual Entertainment. Next, they hired industry vet John Needham as CEO to help raise funds. But it was hard going. They wound up having to sell City of Heroes back to NCSoft, yet that wasn’t nearly enough to fund both Star Trek and Champions. That’s when the poop really hit the fan. There was that minor inconvenience of the financial meltdown in 2008, when Silicon Valley became Death Valley overnight in terms of investment dollars. There was nothing cryptic about it, Cryptic had to sell their shirts in order to survive.
After being courted by many potential suitors, Cryptic agreed to be acquired by Atari, who was looking to pivot into an all-digital future. Champions Online launched in October 2009, under this venerable old-school gaming brand. But the game didn’t perform as hoped. At this time, the industry was making a subtle, but steady shift from subscriptions to micro-transactions. The things that worked for City of Heroes and City of Villains simply didn’t work anymore. They launched Star Trek Online six months later and had a great deal more success. Then they flipped the switch and turned Champions into a F2P game. Then they got bought. Again. Perfect World, a publicly traded Chinese publisher of F2P MMORPG’s, acquired Cryptic from Atari in 2011.
Under the guidance of Perfect World, Cryptic turned Star Trek Online into a F2P game and expanded the universe, making it bigger than City of Heroes. Their latest MMORPG, Neverwinter, is a Dungeons and Dragons-inspired universe that just entered open beta. It’s already bigger than all of Cryptic’s previous games combined, and word is it’s their best, most advanced game to date. Cryptic credits Perfect World with giving them the freedom and the guidance to make what they see is their best game ever. In fact, they have been generous in their praise of NCSoft and Atari too, giving each credit for helping Cryptic to grow and evolve during crucial periods of their history.
Cryptic Studios is a well-seasoned survivor in a landscape dotted with the corpses of many also-rans. Through various phases of their growth, they’ve somehow managed to bend and adjust as market conditions changed, and what’s truly amazing is that they’ve always put out quality product. They are the poster-child for adaptation and resourcefulness, and a true inspiration to anybody who has a wild idea about making a great game. I’ve heard it said that ideas themselves are a dime a dozen. The real value is in a team. It’s the will and know-how to get an idea made that matters most. Nothing cryptic about that. But the rubber does not often meet the road, and many small studios skid off into trees. Not Cryptic. They’re still driving above the speed limit.