Goodbye Catalyst?

So, in the past couple of days, a lot of news and speculation has broke out regarding Catalyst Games and its licenses, particularly Shadowrun. It all started on Dumpshock before spreading out to EN World and RPGNet, fueled by some twitters and blog posts of authors leaving Catalyst. The main post has some pretty dire info on the company’s stability:

OK, as you may well have been able to surmise from release schedules, Catalyst Game Labs is in a bit of a financial pickle, and it is somewhat unlikely that they will retain the license to make Shadowrun products. This is not because Shadowrun hasn’t been selling enough to cover expenses, but merely because a significant quantity of money is missing outright. Reliable sources put this figure at roughly $850,000. Which sounds like a lot, and it is. It is roughly 40% of Catalyst’s entire sales for last year, missing over a three year period. There will of course be lawsuits, and there are already people drawing up legal documents accusing Loren Coleman of having hired people to construct an extension on his house through the company as “freelance writers” and somehow reporting an estimated $100,000 of convention sales as $6,000. Whether that is actually true or not is – of course – a matter for the courts to decide. And decide they presumably will.

But what that means for Catalyst as a company is pretty bad. It costs several dollars to print a book even when the pdfs are finished and ready for publication. A print run of say, 50,000 books (like the print run of Runner Havens) would cost somewhere between $150,000 and $250,000 to print and ship to distributors. And while it eventually sold to distributors at ~$15 a book (a total take home of $750,000), it did so over a period of three years, during which time they were paying interest on loans and paying for storage, and advertisement and so on and so forth. A book like that isn’t actually taking home half a million in profits. Which is a bad thing, because it means that even if there was a complete book printed and ready to sell, even a total and rapid sell through would not pull the company out of the financial hole it is in – and the shortfall means that it does not have the cash on hand to start the ball rolling with a new major printing.

The tiny amount of drachmas that are left in the coffers are being used to print up tiny print runs of books that have sold through – another 3,000 books of Runner’s Companion for example (~$15,000 to start up, maybe $30-40k towards paying creditors if it sells out). There simply is not the startup cash to bring upcoming books like the SR4 sixth world almanac or corporate guide forward. The writing is there, but the printing costs are not. Beyond that, the freelancers have not been paid, and some of them are withholding copyright until they are – meaning that even a tiny print run of these new materials is simply not possible.

Many SR writers are quitting, have already quit, or have handed in notices contingent on demands which – word on the street – will not be met. And CGL does not even own Shadowrun, it leases the intellectual property from Topps. It seems unlikely that they will be able to make their licensing payment when the contract comes up for renewal – in a couple of months. At that time, CGL will cease being able to print Shadowrun or Battletech materials (they would presumably keep the license to Cthulhutech and Eclipse Phase for at least a little while longer, because those are separate contracts).

So what does this mean for the future of Shadowrun? It probably means that someone else will create a company and start making Shadowrun again. After all, freelancers work for very little, and a well selling book can bring in tens of thousands of dollars in profits. $850,000 of embezzlement is seemingly enough to sink the company (whoever ended up with the credsticks), but I must point out that there was indeed eight hundred and fifty thousand dollars to steal, so Shadowrun is not – as a concept – insoluble. And I also point out that something similar happened to Shadowrun before. Indeed, twice before, as both FanPro and FASA before it collapsed under the weight of people not paying debts and having bags with dollar bill signs vanish mysteriously in the middle of the night. It’s somewhat… poetic considering the subject matter of the game itself.

It is entirely probable indeed that when a new company comes to take the licence, many familiar faces will appear in the new company as if they had never left. Certainly back when FanPro collapsed back when I was working for the company, I simply started working for the new company as if nothing had changed. This happened back when FASA collapsed as well – those members of the team that were not extracted by Microsoft simply started turning in writing assignments to the new boss.

And yeah, I regularly go on shadowruns against Catalyst to find out what new releases are in store. Don’t you?

-Frank

Things didn’t really improve when Catalyst came out with an official press release detailing the state of the company and its financial woes:

For Immediate Release

Catalyst Game Labs recently completed a detailed financial review of the company. We learned that over the past several years the company has achieved dramatic growth in terms of demand, increased total revenues and strong sales with an increasing market share in the gaming industry, despite a lackluster economy. We are thrilled by that news and are eager to move forward with our upcoming original game Leviathans, along with our other new casual games. We also remain committed to plans for our beloved licensed games: Shadowrun, BattleTech, Eclipse Phase, and CthuluTech.

While we wish the review had only uncovered positive news, we also discovered our accounting procedures had not been updated as the company continued to grow. The result was that business funds had been co-mingled with the personal funds of one of the owners. We believe the missing funds were the result of bad habits that began alongside the creation of the company, which was initially a small hobby group. Upon further investigation, in which the owner has willingly participated, the owner in question now owes the company a significant balance and is working to help rectify the situation.

The current group of owners was presented with this information on Monday. Administrative organization for the company is under review, and accounting procedures have been restructured, to correct the situation and provide more stringent oversight. We feel the management team at Catalyst did the responsible thing by seeking this financial review and we will continue to restructure as needed. We are in discussions with our partners and freelancers to remedy any back payments that may also be due as a result of this review.

We are embarrassed that this situation did occur but we hope our eagerness to make these changes, along with our reputation for making great games, will encourage you to stand by us. We understand that for a few employees the news was too stressful and we wish them all the best in their new endeavors. However, the majority of the team remains and will continue to bring great entertainment to you all. We appreciate the support our friends, freelancers, and fans have provided us in the past and look forward to a successful future.

Honestly, I guess this explains why Catalyst’s releases have become more and more sporadic. Eclipse Phase has been the last big one of note, Shadowrun’s been languishing since the 20th Anniversary edition, and the CthulhuTech companion, Vade Macum, has been out of stock and hard to find for months now. I can’t comment on the BattleTech supplements, but for the other licenses, things have been looking grim for a while now.  The Eclipse Phase and CthulhuTech licenses are too awesome to vanish.

It’s sad to see such a fantastic company with high production values and great licenses so close to the edge. But it’s not like the licenses haven’t already drifted around in the past: when FASA went under, they went to FanPro after Microsoft took the best parts, and when FanPro collapsed, Catalyst took up the banner. I have to assume the Shadowrun license is cursed or something.


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