GDCE 2004 Panel: Four biz titans talk shop

In London, Peter Molyneux, Karl Jeffery, Rory Armes, and the one and only Seamus Blackley discuss the future of game development.

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LONDON--While the ECTS expo may be in decline, its sister event, the Game Developers Conference Europe, continues to attract leading lights in the game industry. The event's drawing power was on display earlier this week when a quartet of marquee names got together for the GDCE Business Keynote Panel. On hand were Peter Molyneux, managing director of Fable-creator Lionhead Studios; Karl Jeffery, CEO of MotoGP-maker the Climax Group; Rory Armes, founder of Radical Designs and current head and managing director of EA European Studios; and Seamus Blackley, the famous--some would say infamous--cocreator of the Xbox and current game-talent agent at Hollywood powerbroker Creative Artists Agency.

Between the four of them, Molyneux, Armes, Jeffery, and Blackley have well over a half-century of experience. So who better to gauge "The Future of Development in an Expanding Entertainment Industry," the subject of the GDCE panel. Looking relaxed and casually trading jibes, the foursome sat down in front of a nearly full conference room in the Earls Court convention center in West London. Moderating the panel was Tim Christian, founder of the UK game-royalty consultancy Media Forensics, who set the tone for the debate with a lengthy introduction.

Tim Christian: I’ve been in this industry for about 13 years, and the same question always comes up: So do you think it’s going to be an interesting year? Well, I think the fact that so many of us have been in the industry for so many years is testimony to the fact that we haven’t had a dull year yet, and nothing seems to be changing. The industry’s growing, bringing more opportunities and, I think, more and more challenges. So the purpose of this panel really is to discuss over the next hour what we think is going to be happening and where the opportunities might be.

So firstly, to talk about this ever-expanding industry: I think for those of us that have been in the industry for some time, we’ve seen 15 to 20 percent year-over-year growth for just about as long as we can remember. I think back into the early ‘90s, when games were taking three or four months to develop and had teams of maybe five or six people, and if a game slipped by a third of its project life cycle--which might have been a month--nobody was really bothered too much. Things are much different these days, obviously. We’ve got teams of 20, 30, 40, up to 100 people at times, and the implications for project slippage are immense. As the industry expands, the projects become bigger and the consolidation among its publishers and its developers continues. I’m one of those relatively sad people who probably stays at the end of the movie and watches all of the credits go down, and I am consistently amazed by just how many people there are and their jobs in developing a movie. I think that we’re getting to the size of teams now, on games as well, where we are seeing that kind of spread of techniques, spread of job, spread of skills that makes up these huge teams.

So, in many ways, the expanding entertainment market is a friend and a foe. On the one hand, it has huge opportunities, and on the other hand, it's more and more difficult to get into. Karl, from a development perspective you’re seeing these much larger teams. What effect is that having on your business, and how do you see your business going forward?

Karl Jeffrey: Bigger teams also mean bigger budgets and more risks. That means the possibility that fewer games are going to be made.

Tim Christian: OK, now from the publisher perspective. Rory?

Rory Armes: Well, I consider myself more of a developer than a publisher, and being on the making side not the selling. I have to pitch my game no different than when I was a developer inside EA. One of the things I’m looking at is maybe there’s a better way to figure out our system. A big one for me as we move forward is that the processes of making a creative game have to change, and by piling people on we’re not changing them, we’re just adding people and cost to the same old process. So I think we look at it and learn from other industries. They’ve learned how to evolve themselves, that’s what I’m trying to figure out, is how to evolve game making so it’s more creative and less rewriting, less re-rendering every single time we’re going through the process.

Tim Christian: OK. Seamus, looking at it from a slightly different perspective.

Seamus Blackley: You mean from the perspective of an insane man. [Laughter] There are so many things to talk about with regard to games and taking things from Hollywood. Being immersed in Hollywood, I've learned several really, really salient points that never even occurred to me when I was in the industry. Again, one of them is that you have this enormously long list of people who work on a picture, even a television show, but they’re not all working at the same time. In point of fact, probably the most crucial time during the development of a motion picture happens in two phases. The first is development, which is very different from what we think of development in the [game] industry, in which the writer is working on the screenplay. That’s an act of creation which is sort of unfettered by the commercial pressures and management pressures that we enjoy in the industry. The second is post-production, where you have the director and a couple of other people working together to really craft all that they’ve done. So you have a fairly rational process for developing this entire thing that makes good use of that large number of people and actually builds an economy around the creative ideas. I think what’s Rory is talking about trying to do, and which I regard as very smart, in the sense that we’re building a business around the creativity instead of trying to shove the creativity into our business model. From my perspective, that’s absolutely the most crucial thing that any of us can be thinking about for the next five years.

Rory Armes: Well, this is a challenge for our industry. We are growing and have grown from tiny little teams, three-person teams when I first started to up to 60, 70, 80, 100 plus teams.I cannot run my business with the creative turmoil that we used to work with. I used to sit in a team and I’d have 20 people at work around me and I was able to look at them every day and walk up to them every day and that’s one way of developing a game. That is completely different now. It’s all about making sure that you get the steps right in introducing a game. The first step is the concept, getting that right with a small select number of creative people. Then the design, getting that right with a slightly larger set of people. Then the process of getting that right and not moving on to production before you know what you’re doing. Unless we get this revolutionized now, we just simply will not be in business, it’s as simple as that. We have a genius of making computer games and it needs to come as much from production as it does from creativity and with those two parts working together in harmony and each understanding the other’s needs is the way that we’re going to move into the future.

Tim Christian: OK, so to go back slightly, let's talk about the growth of computer games going forward. That’s going to change even more as we move forward, so in terms of the economics of the market. [To Peter] How do you see your business coping with that? Do you see consolidation amongst developers? There’s certainly consolidation amongst publishers, so arguably there are fewer places to go to sell your particular project. How do you think that’s going to carry on in the future?

Peter Molyneux: You know, I think we’re in a difficult time for developers at the moment. It’s been a hard few years, for the independent developers especially and for the studio developers as well because exactly the same thing applies to them. I think that the key is for those projects that we know, or have some confidence in, [will become] a triple-A product that can sell exceptionally well, we have to put a lot of effort behind that. We have to put a lot of love and a lot of care and a lot of money behind those projects because they are going to be the blockbusters that carry on growing this business by 10 or 20 percent every year. But, the only slight snag with that is that we need an undercurrent of creativity to still be there, especially in the next-generation platforms. At the moment, what I’m worrying about is that a lot of the small developers whose ideas are still blossoming are being strangled by the financial environment, [as well as] finding it difficult to ramp up to the size that [they] need to be. There’s almost 300 people at Lionhead now working on a reasonably small number of products, and that is a lot of people. So I think there is this transition that we will get through. I think on the other end of that transition is having a number of small developers specializing in certain things. They are not trying to take on the whole of the game development process, they’re trying to specialize in little areas again and develop those, trying to become smaller studios that are special and unique rather than trying to do everything.

Tim Christian: So this really comes back to the idea of having the niche players who are very good at certain parts of the development also.

Peter Molyneux: Yes, and those ones that can try and put themselves into that, the quicker they can do it, the quicker I think that people will turn to them and say, "Well we need this bit for our game," or "We need that specialty." That is far more likely to be interesting to a lot of people.

Tim Christian: Seamus Blackley, from a CAA perspective, if you’re going to be representing talent, how are you going to nurture the smaller creative?

Seamus Blackley: It’s a systematic problem. There’s a reason why I left what was arguably one of the best jobs in the world at Xbox, which was that problems were growing with regard to taking creativity forward in the gaming industry. Incidentally, when we [at CAA] take game designers and game creators and put them in front of the film people, put them in front of a Bob Zemeckis and a Guy Ritchie, they’re blown away. That's because in games we just naturally think about 40 or 50 hours of story, character and music, and just naturally think of that. You’re taking that to people who think about an hour and a half and spend two years on an hour and a half of a single story over which they have complete control over the camera and all the characters. It’s stunning to them that we can do it at all, and we should be in some sense proud and not feel so guilty that we don’t have it as down as Hollywood. Remember, Hollywood’s been screwing this up more or less for 80 years. But they’ve been learning by screwing up for a long time, and there are some good processes in place. It’s not that Hollywood has arrived at the production process because there are super geniuses driving this, it’s regular guys just like anybody else. And that’s really the basis to make any of this work.

Now, all of the things that Peter says are brilliant things. We have to become good at building the business of games around the creative concept, allowing the development of concept into a prototype, and then go into production. To be natural, I’m not trying to shoehorn it into a process that doesn’t really support it. We have to find a way on the other end: the studio end, the publisher end, to remove ourselves somehow from the pressures of the investors and reporting cycles and making numbers. Realize that Hollywood has to do the same thing, and make no mistake, the Hollywood business people are incredibly sharp people, some of the smartest people I’ve ever met. They understand their business essentially perfectly, and they have the mold and mechanisms to build projects up around individual creative people, and to use those creative people not only to make the product, but in the marketing of it and the branding of it, etc. And it’s not that there are no ego issues involved. Believe me, with $150 million in play from three studios--that’s what it cost for Master and Commander--ego plays absolutely no part. It’s shrewd business decisions about how you promote something and how you actually build it to work. If we can find a way to modify those mechanisms and learn from them, so that we can at the same time nurture that creative process while satisfying the demands of the business, then we are going to be really, really changing. Until the business changes to support the creativity and we start doing that, all of the goals that Peter mentioned, we really can’t reach.

So, to answer your question, instead of talking around it, what I spend my time doing is meeting with a huge number of business people, people in Hollywood, and people in the games industry and publishers everywhere, trying to find ways that we can use that leverage and that lubrication from Hollywood to help make that happen. I think the other very important thing to keep in mind is that it’s so ridiculous for us to be sitting here talking up the trouble in the industry, how hard it is to do projects, the risk profiles, etc. when games are the only medium in history that have earned a consistent 13 to 17 percent [growth] each year. So there has never been more money, there have never been more people buying games.

Rory Armes: Is it my turn? Oviously, EA’s a publisher, but ultimately I’m holding to my theory that I’m truly just a small developer, so I plan to keep to that consistently through this. I think the challenge is that anybody with an idea he truly believes in can walk in anybody’s door and say, "Here’s my game, why don’t you fund it and why don’t you make it." I mean, ultimately, these things are really hard to make. All of us spend a lot of time working in pre-production. So really, the key for me is, "When do you sell your game?" I think one of the evolutions is that you used to walk into a meeting and you’d have a screenshot, and you’d have a hand drawing. I’d draw a stick man on the table going, "See, he moves like this, and then he kicks the ball, and it’s a soccer game!" But that doesn’t work anymore. So in a sense, when we think of publishers, when we think of anybody, they’re not going to invest $10 million in a stick man anymore. So even internally, what we’re trying to do is think what is that key concept? What’s that key idea? How do we sell it? How do we get somebody to say, "Yeah, we’ll go ahead and put $10 million into this and make it a hit." I haven’t got that answer yet, that’s what I’m trying to figure out, but certainly, what we’re trying to do is change the philosophy that every single person that comes into the studio gets to make an original hit, because that just isn’t going to happen.

Seamus Blackley: It’s weird, and I’m sorry to interrupt, but I have a really salient story here. Because in Hollywood, you know $200 million projects start with a pitch. For instance, the Starsky and Hutch movie, which was foul, but you know, perhaps the result of this, the pitch for Starsky and Hutch was literally Ben Stiller going to a studio executive and saying, "Me. Owen. Starsky and Hutch. $70 million." So that’s the other end, with this piece of paper, essentially in Hollywood this script, of course it went through a lot of revision, but this movie got greenlighted based on the talent which was attached. And it is an amazing difference now because we’re moving to a place where to make wise bets and gains it seems that we have to build an incredible amount of quality applications.

Tim Christian: Karl, as far as you’re concerned, do you have small developers coming to you saying, "I thought this was a great idea but I need a bigger company to help me with it?"

Karl Jeffrey: I think that what’s one thing that’s happened is as the EAs in the world have got bigger, and I understand, less risk averse, the world is reversed; they’ve grown, and in fact they’re taking greater risks and therefore want to avoid some risky projects. I think it gets really hard for a small developer to walk in with a piece of paper and a concept and ask for $10 million. You have to walk in there with at the very least a really good demo that shows the game. I also think, increasingly, a developer is going to have to put together the components of a package; increasingly, they’re looking for script writing, voiceovers, and such, to bring in the license and a take it to the publisher.

Tim Christian: Peter, you’ve had some of the most successful computer games ever, some of the biggest selling titles of all time. What do you think has made those titles so successful?

Peter Molyneux: What we really try to do is think how can we make games that lots of little boys play. It’s also very, very easy to get obsessed about making games that you want to play, but actually I think that can lead you down a blind alley. Just think about very, very accessible games that lots of people will enjoy and as many people as possible can finish. I think some games are too long and hard, especially some of more niche ones. So I think for me, my obsession absolutely is getting as many people as possible to play the games that I make. It’s fantastic to get the hardcore gamers to be able to play this game, but if nobody else ends up playing it, as you know, it’s a horrible experience. So it’s just thinking of that mass market from the very concept to the very end execution. We’re working on something like Black and White II, for example, which is a sequel to Black and White, which was enormously successful. We just try and think how we can make it so that even more people actually end up playing that game. It’s something like The Movies, which is absolutely designed so that as many people as possible can enjoy it. I’m really being dedicated to that sort of vision. I mean, I would love to give my mind its full creative lead and do some really wacky, crazy concepts, but you know that’s not going to make the money.

Tim Christian: It is going to come as no surprise to you that Seamus is itching to jump in.

Peter Molyneux: Is he itching? Did you want to say something?

Seamus Blackley: No, I’m frantically struggling not to say something that’s going to embarrass myself, which is impossible. One of the big struggles, again, running through all of this, is that there’s an appalling lack of experienced people on the banking side, with the publisher or whoever, who can look at a game concept or even necessarily a prototype and tell if it actually is going to be any good. Through Peter and his studio that simple idea comes through, but for someone else, it may not come through. Again, just sort of walking into Hollywood’s most powerful talent agency like I was looking for the toilet, and sitting on a desk I noticed this incredible wonderful thing that they have in music and television and movies and even in theatre, in which the producers have grown up through production. So they can take a screenplay and tell whether or not some writer is awful or an idiot or has some sort of bizarre taste for gophers or something. They know how to read a script and tell, on a very primal level, if it’s crap or not. And I can tell you quite honestly that with very, very few exceptions, it's hard to find anyone like that today in a position of power [in the game industry] who has the ability to green light something. It always has to go through a committee, because of the business pressures--and you have to take them into account. But at some point, inevitably, enough people coming out of game development will get into those positions at the distributors, doing finance. They’ll [then] have an educated audience for your pitch, and that’s just going to sort of automatically change a lot.

Tim Christian: Actually, Karl, when the smallest studios come to you or people come to you with ideas, what’s your mechanism you know for saying, "I’m sorry, but that’s crap."

Karl Jeffrey: For us it’s very simple. It’s whether we can sell it. If we don’t believe we can get a publisher interested in it, we’re not in a position to take it on.

Seamus Blackley: [Interrupting] That essentially means that you're pushing the problem down a step, because if you don’t think that we can convince the guy on the marketing team that this will sell shampoo, then you're not even going to take it.

Tim Christian: I think one good question that we're all wondering is, can developers improve their revenue share and how? There seems to be a mood in the development community that if you bring a finished game to a publisher, you’re going to get a load more money for it because it’s finished and therefore there’s no risk. Now many years ago...

Seamus Blackley: [Interrupting] I think one thing that needs to be said is that I’ve very rarely run into a developer who has the faintest idea what the publishing business is or what a finished game is, or what the risk profile really is. If we bring a finished game to you, great, but it doesn’t help that much. You have all sorts of money that you need to spend before it even goes into manufacturing, that has nothing to do with the development, which may or may not be inconsequential. Sorry to interrupt.

Tim Christian: That’s OK.

Voice from audience: Now we’re stuck, Seamus. You don’t know when to shut up. [Laughter]

Peter Molyneux: If I may, there’s no easy answer to this. Karl was mentioning the more work you can do for the publisher, the more you can expose what the game’s going to be about and keep the marketing department’s confidence, the more likely it is you’re going to get a better deal. But one of the things that is really important is who provides the IP. Now, this is an incredibly contentious issue, but it is very, very important to negotiate a deal where you end up hanging onto the IP. Let me just say a couple of things about that. One is, is it used to be in this industry, about five or ten years ago, that you were ashamed to do a sequel, you were ashamed to start off these things called franchises that would go on to sequel one, sequel two, sequel three. Nowadays, I think you can go to somebody and say, you know our ambition is to create a game which is going to go on to have a second sequel, a third sequel and is going to grow each time. Obviously then, I think, publishers and everybody involved with the product can see that this is more than one just finely encapsulated thing which is going to sell two or three million units and then go off the radar. Having a clear idea of the future of that particular game and that particular property, where that future’s going and how you’re going to exploit it, the ability to try to keep it coming out on time, making sure that it gets in the marketplace, I think that’s where you start to see a little bit more interest.

Tim Christian: Seamus, in terms of your area, how do you go about pulling teams of creative people together who can look at a franchise over a long term basis? And the other question is, do you think we’re ever going to get to a situation where, like the production of the Lord of the Rings movies, where you actually had three movies filmed almost at the same time and released separately. Is that ever going to happen in gaming?

Seamus Blackley: Well, the reason that the entertainment industry exists and is so profitable in general is because creative people find something that’s magical, that people must have, and that they love, and they make it part of their lives. Everyone up here has shipped games that are going to become part of people’s lives, and some of us have shipped games that they’ll receive death threats over. But the core is that sort of creative spark in the production process, and everything we talk about really is designed to minimize the distance between the audience and that creative idea. This is something that people in Hollywood, in the movie industry, talk about all the time, but the topic of conversation is more rare in the games business. From my standpoint, what I try to do every day is to be with the creatives. It’s easy at CAA because the entire business is predicated upon giving creative people the opportunity to do the best possible projects and helping create an insulated bubble around them that lets them do that. Because as Peter said, the most profitable thing you can do in entertainment is to create a new franchise. The most profitable thing is not to do a big license title, not only because you know you’re really not going to set an audience on fire in the way that a Black and White does, or in the way that a Terminator does, with something that they’ve seen before in another medium already. Also, you’re not going to be paying back these huge licensing royalties, you’re not going to be burdened creatively by having to work with this franchise. You’re going to do the thing that’s most natural to your medium.

The more efficiently you can take your creative idea and build a business around it, the better you can be, and I think that’s the sort of optimization goal that Hollywood is always going for, more or less--although they screw up massively and beautifully.

Tim Christian: So Rory, Electronics Arts, the largest games publisher in the world, some would say king of the licensed title, king of the sports franchise and sports sequel, kind of goes a bit against what Seamus is saying. What’s EA’s view on looking at product sequels going forward?

Rory Armes: Well, one of the things we’re trying to do, if you look at the UK studio particularly, we’ve gone from probably three licensed properties to the objective: we keep Harry Potter because I think it’s nice. I mean I like book IPs personally. I think they create a world and I think the consumer understands that world when they get into it, like Lord of the Rings. I think we challenged ourselves to make a great Lord of the Rings game, but we always wanted to. So I think the direction of the company is: we look at the right license and we make it if we can make it well. We can make mistakes on it just like everybody else, but ultimately, we [have to] also like it.

So I think that one of the things we’re looking at is, how do we create great games. If it’s got a license on it, awesome. If it doesn’t, awesome. The question is still how do you make great games. Sports is more a rented IP, I guess--you need the license to bring authenticity to it. Personally, I like franchises. I always have. I always think [that relative to] my first game out, the next one [can be] even better, I can fix all the mistakes. I hate the idea of doing a single game and then never coming back to it. I keep bugging people in EA, where’s Command and Conquer? I love the franchise, I would buy it every single year, I love it, and when you do it well, it’s fun. But it isn’t really the IP--it’s actually the development team that makes the game.

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