GDC panel goes Hollywood

Panelists disagree on how to fix the emerging Hollywood-game-industry business model; all agree that it's broken.


SAN FRANCISCO--A diverse array of speakers assembled at the Game Developers Conference on Wednesday to discuss the interaction between the game industry and Hollywood. The panel, titled "Production and Producers: Hollywood Joins the Game," was composed of Philippe Erwin (VP of production for Warner Bros. Interactive Entertainment), Ames Kirshen (director of game development for Marvel Enterprises), talent agent Larry Shapiro (creator and cohead of the game department at the Creative Artists Agency), Neil Young (VP and general manager of EA Los Angeles), and moderator Kelly Turner (executive producer at Eidos and a member of the Board of Governors for the Producer's Guild of America's New Media Council).

Nearly all panel members had outspoken opinions on the relationship between Hollywood and the game industry, which led to a constant stream of sometimes competing ideas that often had panelists vociferously talking over one another. As moderator, Turner barely had any chance to lead.

All seemed to agree on the fact that the current business models are inconsistent and broken, as well as on the potent potential to make great games from licensed content. But they disagreed heartily on how to go about it. The panelists' industrial roles revealed themselves, leaving the audience a bit bewildered about the best model for the future.

Just as the mobile panelists earlier in the week highlighted the problem that the notoriously reluctant mobile carriers are the "gatekeepers" in developing mobile games, Erwin similarly argued, "The movie guys tell you how it's gonna be." They're the ones investing the big dollar signs in the movie franchise. Until a new business model appears, he said, "the studio system is the dog and the game market is the tail."

Occasionally Erwin seemed to blame the broken business model on developers. "There's supposed to be this incredible area of creative activity where you can say, 'I want to take that and develop it,'" he chided. "I guarantee you--if someone put the same care as Grand Theft Auto or Zelda into a Batman, that would be a top-10 game, no problem."

For this reason he saw ways for licensors to form partnerships with publishers so that the latter would use what he called the "triple-A development team" on the game to generate real hits.

Kirshen seemed confused by the idea that there were publishers not using their best development teams to develope licensed content. Given the dollars that are at stake on all sides, he suggested that publishers had no choice but to employ their best.

Erwin went on to lament that typically the only films that are made into games are those that are expected to generate enormous box-office revenue. He postulated that there's a huge market for films that don't have block-busting mass-market appeal.

EALA general manager Neil Young disagreed. "There are very few products in the world worth licensing," he asserted, and he suggested that this was evident in the lack of success in most games with licensed intellectual property (IP). "We're still a ways away from a 20-million-unit title," he said.

He maintained optimism, however, regarding the future quality of Hollywood-based games, citing their advantages in development: "By having a property that's well defined, you can actually focus your creative cycles against the things that are really going to make a difference." By this he meant core gameplay, and he emphasized that while such development might not save you time, it may improve quality.

Young, among others, acknowledged the creative difficulties in working with someone else's IP, citing his own experience with the Lord of the Rings franchise and discussing the necessity to "embrace the property" and remember the fundamental responsibility in trying to push someone else's vision even further.

Erwin also said that some of the problems in creating good licensed game content rest with Hollywood and its ages-old practices. Unlike the process- and product-oriented game industry, highly centered around timelines, milestones, and accountability, Hollywood does not base itself on a similar contractual logic. "[An actor] was sick one day, who was going to do a voice-over… Well, you know what? His agent represents two other people who gotta film with us over here." Such entrenched networking within Hollywood makes game development quite difficult at times. The solution? Pick your battles--the movie studios are still the gatekeepers.

"I think we're just going to have to reinvent Hollywood," Young joked.

Ames Kirshen from Marvel thematically praised the developers with whom he has worked, seeming to subscribe to an opinion that EA pushed in the '80s when marketing their games: "They're the rock stars in this business." When he talks about the games that Marvel is working on, he said, he always brags about the teams that are working on them. He asserted at the beginning of the session that in his line of work, it was all about finding the right partners and ensuring that the property will be treated properly.

"Aside from our movies and TV, games are quickly becoming the most important thing to Marvel at this time," he stated.

Kirshen echoed Erwin's frustrations regarding the film industry and, accordingly, the talent--Shapiro's domain. He said that when movie deals are signed with the talent, game production is still only a distant concern.

But Shapiro agreed. He was baffled by the fact that many movie studios relegate games to their "consumer products" division. "That is insane!" he cried. What are games, he demanded, but enormously rich and time-consuming virtual-world experiences? "And they're handled by the lunchbox folks?"

But Kirshen's concerns were also with the talent itself. In particular, he cited an incident that occurred when working on a game with non-movie-licensed IP. "We went to a movie concept artist. He wanted points! To do concept art! I was like, 'Are you smoking crack?'"

Shapiro acknowledged that there were unrealistic expectations but argued that they were on both sides of the negotiating table. He heartily advised against the practice of using actors to promote games. He simply didn't think the business model was there--at least not yet. "Let's not go there," he pleaded.

Young echoed this, saying that there's a consumer expectation that the talent will remain constant from one medium to another: If you see Viggo Mortensen in the film, you're going to hear him in the game. But if the price isn't right, it's simply not going to happen.

Shapiro insisted that the two industries focus instead on getting the writers and directors from Hollywood involved with and educated about the games industry--they know about creating compelling worlds and characters and can thus help developers create more-immersive experiences.

In spite of this opinion, Shapiro was confident that a business model to include talent would settle out in the future.

An astute questioner at the end of the session noted the conspicuous absence of third-party developers on the panel. While the panelists didn't dispute this, those who responded affirmed the important role that developers would play in the ever-expanding relationship between Hollywood and the games industry. "You're in the pole position for the future," Erwin encouraged the developers in the audience. Similarly, Shapiro observed that with more studios entering the game business, there would be enormous opportunities for developers.

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