Hollywood Is Not the Answer

21 03 2006

Former Eidos Interactive President talks to GameDaily about the way the game industry should not be looking to Hollywood for answers or vice versa.

“I keep reading these articles about ”Hollywood and Games“ and every conference includes at least one panel addressing ”the convergence of Hollywood and Games.“ As you can see from this quote, the discussion is years old and every generation of development believes they have the answer:

THE HOT TICKET two weeks ago was to Francis Ford Coppola’s hacienda in Napa. Fred Fuchs, head of Coppola’s American Zoetrope, pulled 50 people to the 1,600 -acre estate for a weekend summit on multimedia, complete with five meals and a tour of the vineyard.

After Saturday morning intros, the afternoon was taken up with demos from companies like Virgin Games and Spectrum HoloByte. ”We’re interested in getting into this in a big way,“ Fuchs said. ”We met a lot of fantastic people.“ The future isn’t in licensing and adapting feature films, it’s creating new characters and stories for the interactive marketplace. That’s what we’re interested in. The time has come.” — Variety, May 13, 1993.

The time obviously did not come in 1993, or any year since then. The problem lies not in the search for the answer, but in the question itself. Every panel, every article, every discussion looks for the relevant formula to solve the issue of generic Hollywood meets generic video games. There is no such thing as “Hollywood.” The game industry looks to “Hollywood” to fix story and character issues. However, even “Hollywood” does not look to “Hollywood.” “Hollywood” is a generalization for the industry, which makes linear entertainment. People who make linear entertainment look to individual artists, who based on reputation and work product prove themselves to be relevant to the task at hand. When the game industry references “Hollywood” positively or negatively, the discussion is about the industry as a whole, not the individuals. Why would we look to a generalist to address very specific problems? Do you go to the world’s leading neurosurgeon for a colon scan? The neurosurgeon is a brilliant doctor, probably got higher grades in medical school and definitely makes more money than a proctologist. Unfortunately, he does not know the first thing about looking in your a**hole. Nor does he care to look up there because he can make more money working on the other end. Why then do we look to the most successful people in film and television to make games? When they turn out to bore quickly, or continuously make suggestions, which are irrelevant to our media, why are we surprised? Shouldn’t we drill down and find the people who really know what they are doing, and know the industry?

It sounds obvious, but let me get it out on the table. Linear and interactive entertainment exist in completely different media. Everyone is now saying they know this, but just hear me out. When we think about game producers and game designers, we parse and segment and compartmentalize into genres and gameplay and designs. I do not think id [Software] is trying to figure out how to bring Will Wright in as a lead designer on their next FPS franchise. But the industry is perfectly willing to not only cross genre, but cross media, and grab successful people from Hollywood, regardless of their level of commitment or knowledge, based only on the fact they wrote or directed a cool movie. Over and over again I hear “the guy loves games and really wants to do something.” Well, so does my ten-year-old son, and despite my son’s superior knowledge of the industry and the demographic, he does not have a game deal.

I decided to write this after I sat in yet another panel about Hollywood and Games at D.I.C.E. this year. I wanted to say something about it, but could not think of why it was so disturbing. Then I realized, it was the generalist approach. Because David Franzoni wrote a great film and because Lorenzo de Bonaventura is very successful and well respected in the film business they talked about how they could make the game business better. Rather than a useful panel in which they could have talked about their media and why they are successful, or what their media looks for in games—in other words things they know about—they chose to tell the most successful collective of designers and developers in the fastest growing entertainment sector, what they are doing wrong.

Mr. Franzoni chose to address the lack of emotion in games (again, a recurring theme, but too much to address in this space). He pointed to the pitfalls of trying to design gameplay prior to story. He felt this was counterproductive and would be like “shooting the third or fourth Star Wars movie before the first.” I think he was serious and so did most of the audience who tittered, respectfully, but in disbelief. This disconnect with the relevant audience was only exacerbated by his invitation to gamers to see a dance of a performance of a certain ballet in which the depiction of death was more terrorizing than anything in games. Is he right? Perhaps. Is it the wrong audience? Definitely. Should he be writing games? Only with someone who is willing to endure a steep learning curve. Does this mean no writers are good for games? Absolutely not. Did this lead the portion of the audience who has not yet worked with produced writers to believe they never should? Absolutely. These types of statements lead the game industry to paint linear talent with a broad brush and dismiss the idea of working together.

It is incumbent upon the game industry to do its homework and identify [the right talent], not the guy who made last year’s biggest movie or the guy who wrote the movie you loved since you were a kid. Talk to the representatives and find out if the people know about games and live for them—like everyone working at the developer and publisher—or are intrigued by the prospect of working in games. Find out if the person knows the work schedule, which is very different from what they are used to, and are willing to commit. Then read their work. If it looks good, sit down and talk to them. Tell them what is going to happen and listen to them. Are they preaching, or conversing? Do they understand what you are saying? If the representative is honest with you, he will tell you whether the person you want is right for the job. If he is not, do not ever speak to the dishonest bastard again.

Mr. DeBonaventura addressed games to film. Another area littered with failures, which lead to broad generalizations. I did not want to make a Tomb Raider movie. Even after the films I cannot think of a single economic or financial reason to make a film. My boss, Charles Cornwall wanted to make one. Once the decision was made, I led a team of people committed to making a film happen. I did not write the last sentence because I believe the films were a failure. By the standards of the studio and the industry in which it exists, the films were a success. One film was very profitable and both made their money back. From a game industry perspective, they were not successful. The core audience members were not fans of the film. Mr. DeBonaventura’s statement to the audience was very honest and slices directly to the core of the issue. When asked if there was one thing he would do differently on the Doom film he said, “I would not listen as much to the developers.” He is right.

Once again, film and games are different media. We all agree on that. However, we fail to acknowledge the different ways the industries measure success. In one of the last general meetings I attended at ICM one of the agents was addressing the opening of The Grudge. “What is wrong with America? $40 million opening weekend.” She could not understand why The Grudge outperformed the latest Sundance winning Oscar contending black and white, shaky camera film about the one legged mentally challenged lesbian. This measure was reflected by the industry in this year’s Oscar race. None of this year’s nominees for best film outperformed March of the Penguins at the box office. One measure of success is peer recognition. Like the game business, much of the film business makes films for themselves.

Another measure of success is box office performance. This is like the film business, but a different audience. Taking a look at Halo, we love to throw out game sales numbers. Halo 2’s launch was the largest single day media event of 2004. On November 9, it generated $125 million on sales of 2.38 million units. This is a fantastic performance in any media and should be respected by all media as a model of success. However, it is dramatic underperformance for a tent pole film. If Halo were a film, appealing only to those fans, November 9 would have been a disappointment.

When translating a game to film the producer and studio must determine how to make the film which will appeal to the largest audience. While they will all give a nod to the game, and some will even make efforts to go beyond a mere nod, the very elements which make a game compelling to its core audience can be repellant to the mass market film audience. One of the producers on Tomb Raider once told me the studio was entrusting him with a lot of money; he was not making his movie, he was making the movie which would appeal to the largest audience. Mr. DeBonaventura was right. He should not listen to the developers. They are very successful in the media of games, not film. He is successful in film and he should trust his instinct.

Those are two measures applied on a daily basis. No one ever says, “Box office was low and we will never get an award, but it sure was true to the game.” When the property owner is looking to make a film, they should not ask whether the producer is the guy who can make the best movie, they should ask whether they should make a movie at all. At the end of the day they may get a great movie, and destroy their franchise.

Let’s stop discussing convergence and let’s start talking about specific individuals and specific disciplines which make our industries better.

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Electronic Arts looking at Innovation

21 03 2006

Report from Gamedaily:

Electronic Arts, known lately for its big movie licenses and sports franchises, wants to bring more creativity to the industry. Execs at EA would like to see less dependence on licenses and sports and more effort put into developing original titles. EA could potentially become more dominant than ever before.

For the longest time the strategy for leading video game publisher Electronic Arts has been to rely on big licenses, such as Harry Potter, James Bond and Lord of the Rings, as well as top sports franchises like Madden or Tiger Woods. A tough console transition and sluggish sales—EA has lowered or missed its earnings guidance for the past six quarters—have caused the video game juggernaut to rethink its strategy, however, according to a report in BusinessWeek Online.

The goal apparently is to create more innovative and unique experiences like industry legend Will Wright’s Spore while at the same time reducing the publisher’s heavy reliance on big movie franchises and sports.

This will pose quite a challenge to Paul Lee, EA’s president of Worldwide Studios. EA, like most publishers, is often reluctant to take risks on new and original properties. Lee has said that he would like the number of games based on internally created concepts to go above 50 percent of EA’s total portfolio in the next 12 to 18 months (from about 30% today), and he wants to see the publisher develop a minimum of one new franchise a year.

Part of this initiative involves targeting key talent to help with development, such as award-winning game designer Doug Church or movie director Steven Spielberg, who partnered with EA to consult on the story lines of three original games. Furthermore, EA has never been a company to shy away from acquisitions, and with $3 billion in cash, you can expect them to snatch up talented development studios as needed. The company has also begun building a new studio in Montreal whose focus will be to incubate original ideas for games.

Another part of the initiative may involve changing the publisher’s approach to development. Unlike developers that rely on a small group for a game from start to finish, EA often rotates projects among hundreds of workers to ensure that deadlines are met and that more games can be released annually. The problem with the EA model, however, is that it’s not conducive to creativity among game designers.

“What I’m trying to build is a studio of gamemakers,” said Neil Young, GM of EALA. “I don’t want people focused on building the 90th tree or the 70th truck.” To reinforce the positive, teams with the best/most innovative developments in their games will see their work featured on TV screens placed throughout the studio. “It creates the feeling that you are swimming in a sea of small inventions,” Young explained.

Deadlines also will apparently be more flexible. Working on original properties instead of movie licenses or sports franchises allows the designers to fully flesh out their ideas without worrying as much about the timing of the release. “In the past we have committed to ship dates with large development teams before we had a game design,” said Lee. “That is changing….We’re going to have the best games and release them when they are ready.”

Next Generation – Molyneux Talks Job Cuts

8 03 2006

In a frank and honest (exclusive) interview with Next Generation, Lionhead boss Peter Molyneux has talked about the job cuts at his development house Lionhead, and the challenges facing game industry employers.

More here

Ingenious Media to invest £50 million in games developments

7 03 2006


One of the first large investment funds for the games industry at a time many are refusing to invest. The interesting question is where these investments will be made, £50 Million is only 10-15 games, or 2 MMORG’s !

Specialist media investment firm, Ingenious Media, has announced the launch of a new venture with plans to invest up to £50 million in the interactive entertainment industry.

The company is set to establish Ingenious Games, which will become one of the largest single sources of finance for the industry, partnering with developers, publishers and merchandisers to bring a wide portfolio of games to market internationally.

Building on Ingenious’ existing investment in the sector, which includes a stake in Lionhead Studios (creators of Black & White, and Fable), the company is looking to drastically expand its presence in the videogames market.

Ingenious Games will enable individuals to invest in a portfolio of video games across a range of genres and platforms, including PC, current and next-generation consoles, online gaming and mobile. The investments will be spread across development, porting, licensing, marketing and prototyping, in line with other Ingenious investments in the media industry.

Duncan Reid, Ingenious’ commercial director, commented: “Now is an excellent time to invest in the games sector. The introduction of a number of new consoles later this year and increasing software sales are projected to contribute to rapid growth in the industry. We anticipate strong demand for quality games content as broadband and mobile expansion widens the appeal of games to new age groups.”

Entry Level Producers Underpaid ?

7 03 2006

David Edery over at MIT has spotted perhaps the most important reason games are underperformig:

“I’ve been chatting with a few undergraduate MIT students who already have full-time offers from video game companies. 

Students who applied for engineering jobs seem to be getting offers in the 70s — in some cases, the high 70s. The same students got offers approximately 10K higher from companies in other industries; i.e. Oracle, Microsoft, etc. So the gap between game company offers and non-game company offers appears to be narrowing for engineers. 

On the other hand, students who applied for production jobs seem to be getting offers in the 30s. Are talented entry-level producers really worth only half the equivalent engineer? Even when they have the same academic training? 

I think this exposes one of the industry’s most fundamental flaws. Producers are expected to keep game development on schedule and under budget. They are expected to act as the bridge between the various development groups, the mouthpiece to the outside world, and the interface to marketing and sales. They facilitate (and in many cases participate in) the creative design process. In other words, producers are the oil that keeps the machine running smoothly — indeed, keeps it running period. If entry-level salaries are any indication of how much (or how little) the industry values its producers, it’s no wonder so many games run over schedule and over budget!

Speakers announced for UK Serious Games conference // GamesIndustry.biz

7 03 2006

With less than three months to go until the Apply Serious Games conference kicks off in London, the organisers have announced that two more industry figures have joined the list of those scheduled to speak.
The event will open with a keynote speech by Steve Molyneux, director of the LearningLab and ADL Partnership Lab (UK). Molyneux has previous held chairs with Microsoft, IBM and Asymetrix. Game designer Ernest Adams will also host a design workshop during ASG.
Other presentations slated to take place at the conference will focus on subjects such as experiential and informal learning, sustainable communities, effective team-building, developing leadership skills and promoting performance support.
The Apply Serious Games conference will take place at the Society of Chemical Industry in London on May 25th.
To register for a place, visit the event website – early bird discounts are available until April 15th.

Juice Games bought by THQ

6 03 2006

Speaking to GamesIndustry.biz today, THQ has confirmed that it has acquired Warrington-based Juice Games, the studio behind last year’s hit PC, PS2 and Xbox street racer, Juiced.

The THQ-published title, which was released last summer, took on rivals such as Need for Speed and Midnight Club to eventually top the charts. A PSP game, Juiced: Eliminator, is currently in development and due for a release in June.

The long term future of the franchise now looks assured – according to the Juice Games website, the developer is currently working on titles for “a new generation of console platforms”, and Juiced’s high sales figures make it a likely candidate.

Juiced was formed in 2003 by a group of designers, programmers and artists formerly employed by Rage. The studio’s portfolio includes a range of THQ-published games for mobile phones. 

Carnegie Mellon University Teams with EA

6 03 2006

Carnegie Mellon University and Electronic Arts today announced a special collaboration. This new alliance will “revolutionize how computer programming is taught,” according to the two partners. The way that EA and Carnegie Mellon plan on doing that is via the Alice programming software.

“Instead of manipulating numbers and code, the Alice programming language lets students drag and drop 3-D characters – people, houses or animals – into scenes on the computer screen, move them around and tell stories as the student is learning the basics of programming,” said the release by EA. “A great strength lies in making abstract concepts concrete in the eyes of first-time programmers. The numbers of students studying computer science in U.S. colleges and universities has dropped 50 percent in the last five years.

Lionhead Layoffs

6 03 2006

Reports on the Internet have recently suggested that developer Lionhead has reduced the number of development teams it has from two to three. This would cut the amount of staffers by nearly 100. If the layoffs are true, poor performance of Black & White 2 and The Movies last year may be the primary culprit.

In response to the layoff talks, Lionhead employee Van Tillburgh offered this somewhat cryptic response on the company’s message boards, “Over the last few months Lionhead has been working on plans for a new AAA world class game. As work on a number of its titles draws to a close, a pool of 100 super talented developers at Lionhead are available to create a new super team at Lionhead. This will be in addition to an existing team which is working on an amazing next generation title. This strategy was presented to Lionhead this morning in a company meeting but sadly it will mean some redundancies.

ELSPA boss blasts MP’s "utter nonsense" violent games speech

3 03 2006

Keith Vaz’ proposed amendments to rating laws are labelled as “Nanny Stateism”
Roger Bennett, director general of UK videogames publisher trade body ELSPA, has labelled as “complete and utter nonsense” a speech made in parliament yesterday by Labour MP Keith Vaz proposing new laws relating to videogame ratings.
“The fact of the matter is that it was complete and utter nonsense,” Bennett told GamesIndustry.biz today. “His whole thrust with this proposed bill was about labelling, which he got utterly and completely wrong, in that he hasn’t got up to speed with what has happened over the last three or four years.”
Vaz was proposing an amendment to the Video Recordings Act 1984, which would make it mandatory for videogames to receive content ratings in the same way that films do – a role currently fulfilled by the voluntary PEGI ratings system.
He argued in Parliament that the current system, which sees the PEGI ratings being complemented by a rating from the British Board of Film Classification for the small number of titles which are rated 18, is “very confusing”, and used a quote from Bennett in his speech to back up this point.
However, the quote in question was from an article in Readers Digest magazine in 2002 – four years ago – and pre-dates the introduction of the PEGI ratings system across Europe in 2003, which brought a standardised system with large, clear ratings on game boxes and advertising to the industry.
“There’s a perfectly well-established and robust system of ratings which appear on both the front and the back of the boxes, which he was totally confused about, clearly,” Bennett commented. “Not only that, but they appear in all advertising.”
“The fact of the matter is that we’re one of only two countries in the whole of the 27 states of the European Union who have mandatory ratings,” Bennett explained. “Everywhere else in Europe , the ratings are on the boxes – the PEGI ratings – and they make informed decisions for their kids. The more you take the responsibility away from parents, the less responsibility they’ll take. As soon as you take responsibility away from people, then they rely on others to do it for them.”
Bennett is adamant that the proposed amendment represents little threat to the industry.