Laid-off Skullgirls team forms Lab Zero Games; continues Skullgirls work

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.

No reason was given for Reverge’s decision to dismiss the team, but XBLA Fans has reached out to Lab Zero and Reverge Labs in search of some further clarification. Skullgirls maintains a very respectable Metacritic average of 78 on XBLA and 82 on PSN — for the record, XBLA Fans was quite smitten with the game, awarding it a “Buy it” score in our review. Those aren’t exactly the kind of scores that will put the fighter in too many Game of the Year conversations, but they are solid. Furthermore, Autumn Games was so pleased with the game’s initial 10-day sales figures that it had no problems tweeting about the news that the game had exceeded 50,000 purchases during that time period, despite only having had a “partial” release in Europe at that point. All but the most celebratory sales numbers are usually closely guarded by publishers, making it all the more odd that Skullgirls‘ makers were let go at some point in June, the month after those numbers were made public.

All signs point to an internal issue(s) of some sort between the Skullgirls team and the rest of Reverge Labs, but there is no way of knowing exactly what caused things to go south after the game’s strong April release and its creators’ June firings. Whatever it was, it didn’t prevent Autumn and what was assumed until now to be Reverge Labs from putting together a patch for the PSN version of the game that was released today. The existence of the patch was first revealed on the official Skullgirls Facebook page, which no longer had any ties to Reverge when the post was made last week, or so it would seem.

The fate of the studio whose name appears in the game’s credits is as interesting and cryptic as that of the studio that is now the game’s caretaker. Reverge was founded in 2010 in Marina Del Rey, CA, and Skullgirls was the first and only game it has released to date. If the entire team that worked on Skullgirls is no longer there, however, it raises questions as to who is left and what exactly they are doing over there. Well, the developer’s website states that it is in the planning stages of something called “Project OT,” which it describes as “an original IP concept for a 3D, socially-inclined action-RPG with online extensions.”

How is it that a fledgling indie developer that parted ways with what Lab Zero claims is the entirety of the team that worked on its only game is able to survive and work on another entirely original project? Perhaps only a skeleton crew is left over there, tossing around concepts while it works on recruiting new talent. Maybe an entirely new staff was brought in over the past five months to replace the departed. It’s even possible that Lab Zero did not literally cherry-pick every last human being who worked on Skullgirls. Unless representatives from one side or the other respond to requests for commentary, there is no way of knowing for certain.

What we do know is that a promising young team was shown the door and miraculously emerged on the other side of unemployment intact and with the ability to work on its creation. Though Skullgirls DLC has been “indefinitely delayed,” fans are still eventually going to get more content. Meanwhile, Reverge somehow remains alive, independent of those who made its sole game, and gamers may get another original work from the studio at some future date. Against all odds and traditional video game industry logic, this story appears on the surface to have a pretty damn happy ending, which is more than our review had to say about Skullgirls‘ ending.

Source: Lab Zero Games

(Thanks, @lifelower)

About Nick Santangelo

Nick has been a gamer since the 8-bit days and has been reporting on the games industry since 2011. He is not to be interrupted while questing his way through an RPG or desperately clinging to hope against all reason that his Philly sports teams will win any given game he may be watching. Find Nick Santangelo on Google+ and Twitter.