The story of Skullgirls‘ development, release and post-release support just may have more twists to it than its top-heavy characters have curves on their pixelated bodies. It started with two men, each with a skill, a passion and an idea. In 2009, longtime fighting game fan and tournament player Mike “Mike Z” Zaimont began programming a fighting game of his own. Elsewhere, unbeknownst to Zaimont at the time, artist Alex “o_8” Ahad was drawing a new fighting game universe of his own into existence, complete with characters to populate it. Eventually the two were introduced and merged their pet projects together at Reverge Labs into the game that released on XBLA and PSN in April of last year as Skullgirls.
Critics generally gave the game a favorable reception, with its combined XBLA and PSN score averaging 80% on Metacritic. Gamers gave it a fairly warm reception, too. The developer was excited when Skullgirls sold 50,000 copies in its first 10 days on the market. Although the development team informed XBLAFans on Thursday that Skullgirls has failed to turn a profit to date, we were also informed that the game has performed well enough that publisher Autumn Games is interested in green-lighting a sequel if it can successfully dodge the sticks and stones City National Bank has thrown its way.
With a PC version, DLC characters and multiple sequels in the plans, things were looking up for Zaimont, Ahad and the rest of the crew at Reverge. Then everything went quiet. Months went by without a single update on the port, downloadable content or the sequel. It was eventually revealed that the Skullgirls team had been let go by Reverge Labs in June of 2012 after developer and publisher allowed their contract to expire without agreeing upon a new one. More sticks. More stones.
Whether it was the entire team that was let go or some fraction of it has been a matter that was up for some debate. Reverge blogged that it was some of the team, while the displaced developers once said it was “the entire” team. When questioned repeatedly by XBLAFans over the past couple of months, neither of those factions nor Autumn has been willing to go on record to clear the air. The one thing that has been abundantly clear, though, is that the contract expiration effectively brought about a game over screen for future Skullgirls content and its would-be creators.
Or did it?
It was revealed last week that “the entire” team responsible for Reverge Labs’ XBLA and PSN fighting game, Skullgirls, had been laid off this past June. In an interesting twist — and a welcome one for the displaced developers — publisher Autumn Games was revealed to be in possession of the IP and the publisher decided to bring together the team responsible for it under a new banner, Lab Zero Games.
Upon hearing the news, XBLA Fans reached out to Reverge, Autumn and Lab Zero in search of clarification as to the nature of the split and the current state of the studios and the Skullgirls property. Though multiple requests for comment from the Autumn/Lab Zero camp have gone unanswered as of publication time, Reverge Labs CEO Richard Wyckoff was willing to briefly talk about the lay-offs last week.
“I can’t say much except that Reverge completed the Skullgirls contract with Autumn Games when we shipped the game in April and we aren’t currently engaged by Autumn for any other Skullgirls work,” Wyckoff told XBLA Fans via email. “Because of this we did have to lay off some of the Skullgirls team.”
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The video game industry, like most entertainment industries, can be a cold business. It’s not uncommon for a few bad reviews of a game or debut sales numbers that fail to reach blockbuster heights to lead to massive studio layoffs, with the ax sometimes falling on entire teams or studios. As if that wasn’t depressing enough, layoffs can even occur when a release garners strong sales and decent review scores. Though gamers are just hearing about it now, five months ago that became the fate of the team at Reverge Labs responsible for developing XBLA’s Skullgirls.
In June, “the entire” group that developed the XBLA and PSN fighting game was laid off by developer Reverge Labs. Members of the development staff were gagged during the intervening months, but they have just recently been able to open up about the matter. In an introductory post on its new website, the team briefly discussed its severance from Reverge and revealed that it’s not all bad news: Lab Zero Games, a new studio comprised of the former Reverge employees, has been founded in Los Angeles. What’s more, Lab Zero is doing “everything in [its] power and then some” to return to working on a planned Skullgirls DLC character and a PC port “as soon as possible.”
It’s an unlikely development in the team’s saga, made possible by the fact that Reverge never owned the IP. Publisher Autumn Games apparently retains full rights to all things Skullgirls, and it “is fully behind the new studio,” according to Lab Zero. The two sides are going to continue collaborating on future content for the game thanks to Autumn’s support of the developer. More merchandise and “a few other things” are in the works on top of the previously mentioned DLC and PC version.
IP battles between developers and publishers have been well-documented over the years. Both parties traditionally seek to secure the rights to a game franchise and deals are regularly signed or passed upon based on insistence of ownership by one side, the other or both. This case is unique in that the creators of a new IP actually benefited by not being granted ownership of it. Had Reverge seized control, Lab Zero would obviously not be in a position to continue working on the game today.
Skullgirls was developed by Reverge Labs and published by Autumn Games and Konami. It was released on April 11, 2012 for 1200 MSP. A copy was purchased by the reviewer.
What happens when a talented artist with tons of characters designs and a fighting game pro with a character-less fighting engine meet up? Skullgirls happens, that’s what! Skullgirls, a true labor of love, set out to defy expectations of fighting games and provide a solid engine. Fighting games have given birth to a number of strange mechanics over the years, and a lot of the games themselves are strange. For instance, Skullgirls lets you view hitbox and hitstun data in training mode, which you can access straight form versus mode! Variable team sizes are balanced, and it’s impossible to accidentally hit the pause button mid-fight.
Skullgirls takes place in The Canopy Kingdom which is home to the Skull Heart, and the tournament for its acquisition. There’s evidence of a very deep, rich story and environment, though only the surface is touched in the game. Each character has a different reason to go for the Skull Heart, which, if acquired, grants one wish. However, if the wish is even slightly impure, it comes out corrupted, and the wisher becomes the Skullgirl.
Suffice to say the story is actually pretty cool, and props to Reverge for actually telling one, but that’s not the focus. Skullgirls is all about the fighting, casual or competitive, so let’s see if it stands up to the greats.
Update: Autumn Games says that this is isn’t the correct release date and aren’t sure how official the date is. We’ll keep you up to date on its release.