Q&A: High Moon's John Rowe

Rising from the ashes of Sammy Studios is High Moon Studios, helmed by a game biz vet who draws on a history of hits. But will it be enough to right the listing ship that was Sammy?

Industry veteran John Rowe, who has spent more than 20 years in the game industry at companies including SNK Corp., Midway Home Entertainment, and Tradewest, is up to something new.

Rowe is taking what might be his biggest career move yet--trying to breath new life into the former Sammy Studios enterprise. With a group of investors, Rowe last month bought the struggling venture from its owners, Japan-based Sammy Corp., the Japanese pachinko behemoth with designs on the game space.

In 2002, Sammy Corp. established its US beachhead, but the Carlsbad, CA-based studio struggled to find its niche. At one time, it opened a Century City, CA location with hopes of forging ties with Hollywood. But those hopes were never realized.

A round of layoffs in late January of this year was followed by a listless few weeks, until March 7, when it was announced Sammy Corp. had sold the operation to Rowe.

GameSpot spoke recently with the media-shy president and CEO of the now-named High Moon Studios to see what the future holds.

GameSpot: After the turbulent history of Sammy Studios, I think it's fair to say the industry doesn't know too much about the new High Moon business model. What can you tell me about your goals with High Moon?

John Rowe: First of all, our expertise has historically been within the console space. We have recently been working on PlayStation 2 and Xbox, but we're also developing a game for next-gen consoles as well. So, we're looking forward to exploiting anything we possibly can, using our current technology and the current generation, but also looking forward to the power and the experience that we anticipate in next gen.

GS: Any focus or allocation of resources toward PSP or the DS?

JR: I hope we have a chance to take Darkwatch to PSP, but that's not something that we have in development now. However, we're very interested in pursuing that opportunity if a publisher thinks it's viable. Probably not the DS.

GS: Where do you see the greatest opportunity for High Moon?

JR: We have about 100 people here in this studio. I think if you want to understand our talent and capabilities, the first place to start is at Darkwatch.com. I think that speaks a lot to our design, to the fact that we're about creating original IP, original characters, original stories.

But it has to be based in really good gameplay. I mean, gameplay and the entertainment rush that you get from playing games that you are emotionally invested in. It's something that I first experienced playing Pong. And it happened with Asteroids, and it's happened over the years in different games. One game that I made a long time ago for the arcades was John Elway Quarterback, a football game, one of the first football games. This is before Madden--it was in the arcades and it was using superstar athletes. We had Offroad after that. We've done Mortal Kombat and all these games, and [Midway] brought them to the home platform.

Those types of experiences are just phenomenal. And so creating new characters, creating new worlds based in that gameplay experience, it causes you to swear and gets you all twisted while you're playing a game. It's exactly what we want to do. We're looking to twist people up.

GS: Do you have other games besides Darkwatch in development, and if so, can you comment about those games?

JR: I can tell you that we're working on a game for next-generation systems, but I can't announce today what the name is, or what it's about. We are finishing up Darkwatch. We're looking forward to getting started on the Darkwatch sequel. And we're also looking for a third project with a new publisher. Soon we will be able to announce decisions that we've made and partners we've chosen to work with in the future.

GS: I take it that development will be 100 percent internal.

JR: Absolutely. High Moon Studios is all about it being a self-contained internal development studio. We'll do it all right here.

GS: Are there any remaining ties to Sammy Corp.?

JR: No.

GS: What's it take to negotiate the terms to buy a US subsidiary from a Japan-based company?

JR: Lots of tequila.

Seriously, Sammy was a great partner. They invested a tremendous amount of money to establish and build their studio. I have nothing but kind words for Mr. Satomi, the chairman of Sammy. They are an established and successful [Pachinko] slot machine company. They're going to do like a billion dollars in pretax profit in that area this year. They elected to acquire Sega, and as such will pursue video game opportunities through Sega Japan. What their strategy will be, and how they are going to go forward is something that really Sega has to answer; I have no idea. So, Sega will go down their road. This whole thing has afforded us a great opportunity to become independent.

GS: And what can you tell me about the group behind the purchase--your investors?

JR: Well, you know, we've got private support. I am the principal behind that group, and that's about all I can say.

GS: Will that group forever remain a mystery?

JR: Probably. At least at this time. These are individual investors--they're not necessarily high profile within the video game community.

GS: There was a time when Sammy Studios talked up opportunities in the context of closer ties with Hollywood. Is that part of the agenda today, or are we back to original IP only?

JR: I think our strength really is in creating original IP. And that's what I believe sets us apart.

To that end, we want to try and be just a little more creative, a little more technically savvy. Darkwatch is a great example of how we used RenderWare. You look at Darkwatch and we blow people away when we tell them it's on RenderWare; they've never seen anything like that.

The reason that it looks like that is because what our programmers were able to do to modify RenderWare to give the look and feel that our artists needed. It's not just about the creative and the art, it's also about what's under the hood.

GS: Any impediments ahead given EA's acquisition of that technology?

JR: Well, there are different options for the future, for next gen. Unreal has a very interesting solution with 3.0. You can certainly pursue your own technology if you choose to. And I'd rather not speak to the strengths and weaknesses of the various solutions, but there are three right there--there's RenderWare, there's Unreal, and there's roll your own. And each one has its risks for sure.

GS: Any development studios out there that offer an excellent model to follow, one that you might have observed and that you're basing the High Moon model on?

JR: I think certainly there have been a lot of different studios over the years that have done quite well. Fortunately, or unfortunately, depending on which way you look at it, there are fewer and fewer large independent studios. I think that that's an unfortunate thing.

There are still a handful. Pandemic is one. I think that you could probably go down a list of a half-dozen names, but so many have been swallowed up. I'm not saying that that couldn't happen to us, but that's not at the top of our agenda; it's not necessarily something that we want.

We don't have aspirations to do an IPO or to be acquired by a publisher; we simply want to do what we do well, and succeed at that. We want to make games. We want to focus on doing that internally, we don't want to have external [support], we don't want to have the publishing side of it.

So that's our model. At this particular juncture, it is a very difficult environment we're in. Publishers are afraid to invest in new IP. But yet there's not a whole hell of a lot of great licenses that are available out there.

What you asked earlier about a Hollywood model of licensing great IP...the reality is if you're a big Hollywood studio and you've got the next Harry Potter, the first company you'd call is EA. And then maybe Activision and one or two others. And if that IP is a great one, it's not going to get much further than the first two or three [publishers].

So what do all the other publishers do? If EA takes it, what does Activision do, what does THQ do, what does Ubi do, what does Atari do? And Lucas? You can go on and on and on. So, if they hold out for the great license they may have a long wait.

If they focus only on trying to reinvent their existing IPs, that's fine, but how long can they ride that? I don't know. At some point in time that will probably wear out, so they've got to do some investment in creating original IP.

At the same time they've got a tremendous challenge with that jump to next generation. How quickly do you jump into next-generation development and how much of an investment do you make? These are decisions that these guys are making every day, and it's not easy. It's a hell of a discussion, because games going forward, on next gen, are going to cost a lot of money to make.

That's just the reality of it, because of the art resources and the power and the capabilities of these new machines. We're also seeing more and more of the whole licensing opportunity reversing. If a video game publisher has a great IP, for example--the Doom movie that's coming out in August with The Rock.

I mean, that's great to see. Finally this synergy is starting to happen; something that Trip Hawkins was talking about 12 years ago.

GS: Thanks, John. And good luck with High Moon.

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