E3 Panel: Publishers defend scarcity of original games

Panelists insist on their support for original games in spite of their conspicuous absence on the shelves.

A morning session on the first day of the E3 Conference program had representatives of two industry publishers in strong support of new creative content in the video games industry, in spite of the fact that not many of these games are completed.

The workshop panel was a diverse bunch. Moderated by Jason Della Rocca, executive director of the International Game Developers Association (IGDA), the panel consisted of developers as well as publishers: Chris Charla, senior producer at Backbone Entertainment; Steve Reid, managing director of Red Storm Entertainment; Patrick Soderlund, CEO of Digital Illusions (DICE); Dusty Welch, vice president of global brand management at Activision; and Philippe Erwin, vice president of production at Warner Bros. Interactive Entertainment.

The workshop, titled "From Original IP to Powerhouse Franchise: How Publishers Judge a Game's Potential," intended to discuss the problem of how developers might think proactively about pitching their original game as franchise material, and to address the paucity of nonsequels and original creative video games.

Della Rocca was insistent that the session, as a workshop, should be an interactive one, but he often guided discussion through his own questions. Reid, Soderlund, and Charla occasionally contributed to the discussion, but it was Welch and Erwin--the publishers--who dominated the two-hour session.

The discussion about the lack of video games with original IP (intellectual property---that is, new characters, settings, and plots unseen in other media) began with statistics: 2002 saw only two games in the top 25 with original IP, and 2003 saw only one.

The reason for this scarcity, the panelists seemed to think, has its root in the rising cost of video game development and, accordingly, in increasingly risk-averse publishers. The days of coming to a publisher merely with a crazy idea ("think Halo meets Grand Theft Auto") are over. Profitability is paramount, and qualitative and quantitative metrics are commonly being used to evaluate the feasibility of a game concept. (Welch, in fact, carries with him a laminated sheet detailing his 10-stage process for greenlighting video games.) Developers have to come in with polished ideas, detailed budgets, scheduled milestones, demos, a finalized roster of the development team, and, perhaps most importantly, an extensive resume.

But what about the developers who don't have any published games on their CV? Though obviously some succeed, "good luck" seemed to be the general sentiment--portraying a virgin developer's first greenlit game as a rite of passage based more on luck, persistence, sequel-minded narratives, and who you know than creativity and passion.

Still, the speakers tried to be as helpful and encouraging as possible, scattering a considerable amount of advice to developers throughout the two-hour workshop on how to perfect the pitch to the publisher: Think about IP that could surround the video game (for example, films and comic books), know your publisher, have a complete idea, assemble a solid team, and cite the unique niche you will fill.

Philippe Erwin admitted that in spite of publishers' insistence on quantitative metrics, creativity can screw things up. "We all know the process that publishers go through with respect to licensed IP," he said. "You look at the numbers, you look at the franchise--it's a very methodical process. All of a sudden you throw something creative in there, that's original--whoa, we don't have a process."

"That's scary," responded Della Rocca.

Erwin suggested that it was to be expected that there would be fewer original-IP video games, given the history of cinema. When the expense of producing films suddenly began to skyrocket, "they had a few choices. One was to not make any more movies. [The other was to] find creative financial solutions."

Welch echoed this, reassuring indie developers that there were indeed more and more ways for new developers to get the funding they needed to put together a game or a game concept, such as banks, consulting firms, or European funds that have recently become aware of the profit of the global gaming industry.

The next-gen consoles, while allowing for more creative and more visually stunning games, will require considerably more expensive production costs, furthering the problem of the small development company. Welch was confident that this wouldn't slow creativity in the industry at all. Charla jokingly commented that shouldering some of the production costs of Death Jr. forced some tough decisions, like better textures in lieu of free sodas at work.

There was an almost defensive insistence--particularly by Activision's Dusty Welch--that original IP is constantly being proposed and considered. "There isn't a day in the week that someone is not inside Activision making a presentation or a pitch for a new IP," said Walsh. "In the end we have limited resources, both in capital and in development talent around the globe. It is tough to put a lot of chips on new IP versus some proven franchise." Nonetheless, Welch asserted that last year there were at least 10 games with original IP that were greenlit but did not make it all the way to the shelves.

Charla said that in his experience the amount of energy that the publisher's marketing division puts behind a video game is directly proportional to how well they think it will do. Accordingly, unproven franchises often fall victim to a self-fulfilling prophecy where they don't do well because publishers don't promote them for fear that they won't do well.

Reid thought that Ubisoft had taken the most risks with new IP (Beyond Good and Evil, for example) and that the gaming community had applauded the company for it. He reinforced Welch's suggestion that game companies are supporting original IP but that the projects often die or end up with weak sales: "You need to realize that the companies do take the risk, but you're not paying a lot of attention to a lot of the products that slip into the discount bin, because there are just so many of them out there."

All speakers asserted that original IP was now just a piece of a video game publisher's portfolio. Said Reid, "You have to accept that if you want to be a progressive company--if you really want to gather in the new IP--that you have to balance out your catalog with probably some licensed goods and probably some established, internal franchise so a portion of your portfolio is a safety net so you can fund those new properties."

But how much original IP should be fully funded? Is the industry doing enough to support innovation and creativity?

Welch named four original-IP games in the top 25 for 2004--including Call of Duty, Fable, and Fight Night 2004--and insisted that this was a good number. Charla agreed, reminding the audience that this was an increase over previous years.

Skeptical, Della Rocca immediately polled the audience to see if they thought that four games with original IP were enough.

"Who thinks it's too few?" Nearly all of the hands shot up in the room.

"Who thinks it's too many? Anyone?" he offered. Not one hand was raised.

"Well, you don't have a lot of supporters there," he said. With an audience consisting primarily of game developers, it was, perhaps, unsurprising.

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