Q&A: John Rowe on VU Games' acquisition of High Moon Studios

The Darkwatch developer's president and CEO discusses what led to the deal and sheds light on how it will affect the company's stance on creating new properties.

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With word of Vivendi Universal Games' acquisition of High Moon Studios breaking, High Moon president and CEO John Rowe took the time to answer a few questions for GameSpot. Last March, Rowe purchased the company (then known as Sammy Studios) from Sammy Corp. after a round of layoffs left people speculating that a full closure of the developer was imminent. Renamed High Moon Studios, the company's focus became the creation of original intellectual properties (IP). Last fall it shipped its first new IP, the vampiric Western Darkwatch, for the PlayStation 2 and Xbox.

Rowe took time today to answer a few questions for GameSpot about why his company traded in its status as an independent developer for the protection of a corporate steward, as well as about the difficulties and importance of establishing new IP in the current game industry climate.

GameSpot: What led to High Moon Studios coming under the VU Games umbrella? Considering that you haven't shipped a game with the publisher, how did you convince them the acquisition was a solid investment?

John Rowe: Having a strategic alliance is important in this transitional environment into next-generation. For High Moon to reach our primary goal of becoming one of the top developers we need the resources of a major publisher. As we met with various potential partners and explored the opportunities of the console video game space over the next several years, we identified VUG as the best alliance for our studio. As far as VUG's investment in our studio, they've had an opportunity to be exposed to more of our work than is public, and they understand that we're doing some impressive work on next-generation both technically and artistically.

GS: How much of the studios' autonomy is being given up? What do you see as the biggest benefits you'll reap in return?

JR: I am optimistic that the culture of High Moon will continue to flourish within the same mold that we've established, and the studio will keep growing. Among the benefits to working with VUG is the fact that they are a major company with the resources to establish and create opportunities for original IP in the entertainment industry. And their expertise and success in the online video game space speaks for itself. VUG is in position today to be an industry leader.

GS: Having operated under Sammy before forming as High Moon, your team must be familiar with the different pressures associated with developing games under the watchful eye of a larger corporation as well as those associated with getting by as an independent developer. What are the biggest differences between the two, and what convinced you to go back to development as part of a larger publisher?

JR: Whether you're independent or part of a large company, either way the bottom line is making good games. Whether we're working with a publishing partner as we did with Capcom, or with VUG as part of their internal organization, we are only as good as the product we ship. Our goal isn't to focus on issues relating to corporate structure, instead we want to concentrate our entire energy on the games that we're currently developing, on understanding next-generation technology, and doing everything we can to create products that are competitive.

GS: High Moon's focus is currently on original intellectual properties for next-generation systems, a combination that conventional wisdom would say increases both the risk and development costs of your projects. What's the key to putting out a game that justifies both of those increases?

JR: The creation of original and new IP is always a challenge and has risks. You have to balance that risk with proven properties, and as our studio grows we hope to do a mix of both original and established ones. With that said, the best time to introduce new IP is at the start of a hardware cycle. If publishers and developers never took chances, there would never have been a Pac-Man, a GTA, or a Halo. It may take two or more versions of a game before you establish a major new franchise, but when you're successful, then you've created the best scenario for success in this business: the creation and ownership of a new original franchise.

GS: How will being part of Vivendi affect your ability to pursue these entirely new and potentially costly projects?

JR: While VUG understands that one of our core competencies is the creation of original properties through compelling characters, environments, and gameplay, there still has to be a pragmatic approach to the business and a balance between original and established IP. VUG has proven to be very savvy in the way they invest in new and proven properties. I have confidence that they will strike the proper balance while recognizing where our core competency lies.

GS: Vivendi's acquisition includes the rights to the Darkwatch property. If a sequel is to be made, would you want it made by High Moon (which would seem to go against the stated focus of working on new IPs), or would you prefer it be handed off to another Vivendi studio?

JR: I guess my feeling is that when we talk about original IP, we're not just talking about the first iteration but rather establishing a new and original franchise that will evolve and grow. As far as Darkwatch is concerned, we feel like we've just scratched the surface and would love the opportunity to further develop it. The franchise has tremendous potential in games, and even beyond.

GS: Will the acquisition entail any change in the number or size of development teams at work at High Moon?

JR: My hope is that High Moon will continue to grow, both in size and its influence in the industry.

GS: So far, all you've said about future projects is that you're working on multiple next-generation titles. How long until we get some details?

JR: I would like nothing more than to tell you about it right now. I hope that sometime between now and E3 we will.

GS:Thanks for your time.

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