Q&A: Warner Bros. IE's $500M game deal

What do you get when you cross a half-billion dollars and a growing game arm of multimedia multinational? WBIE SVP Samantha Ryan explains.

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Earlier this month, Time magazine ran an article called "Welcome to Du-buy? " It outlined the cavalcade of multibillion dollar investments being made by various Persian Gulf states in Western companies such as Apple, Dell, Microsoft, and Yahoo.

One Gulf sheikdom, Abu Dhabi, recently announced it, too, was making a major investment in a major Western multinational, TimeWarner. Specifically, the deal was a "long-term, multi-faceted strategic alliance calling for the creation of a theme park and hotel, jointly owned multiplex cinemas [and] a co-finance agreement covering feature film production" between Abu Dhabi Media Company and Warner Bros. Entertainment.

The deal also provided financing to Warner Bros. Interactive Entertainment for the "development and publication of video games." The amount of funds in question? $500 million, the same figure Viacom is pumping into its MTV Games unit and about two-thirds the amount Electronic Arts dropped to purchase BioWare/Pandemic.

So what does a growing publisher do with a half-billion dollars? Samantha Ryan, who became senior vice president of development and production of WBIE in February, sat down with GameSpot to explain her company's strategy for well-funded growth.

GameSpot: So when this deal was announced, it seemed like a more general agreement just geared toward Warner Bros. entertainment as a whole...

Samantha Ryan: This is a huge deal for Warner Bros. Interactive Entertainment, because $500 million of the fund is dedicated to games.

GS: Did it come with any strings attached? Did the Abu Dhabi Media Company want any specific games made?

SR: No, it's just for the development and publishing of games, period. It's going to fund a lot of products. We're madly looking for development partners, we're looking at acquisitions, and we're green-lighting projects. We've got theatrical projects like Speed Racer, which we've already announced, and we've got original IP in the works. So we're here to stay.

GS: Well, with that kind of bankroll I would hope so! This reminds me a lot of the announcement by Viacom, one of WBIE parent Time Warner's corporate rivals, that it is pumping $500 million into MTV Games, which is developing and publishing Rock Band. Will WBIE's focus be on original IP as well, or are you going to try and focus more on existing licenses?

SR: We're gonna do both. We're going to operate as any large publisher would, and any large publisher has a portfolio with both original and licensed games. So we'll be in both spaces across all platforms.

GS: Yeah, but you guys are in the enviable position of being part of a company which has dozens of properties that could translate into games, particularly in the case of Warner Bros. films. However, you're also in the unenviable position of having many of these licenses in the hands of other publishers, such as Electronic Arts owning the Batman film license. Are you guys planning to bring these properties back in-house as deals with external publishers expire?

SR: I think it's too early to say what the future will bring, but we're always going to be licensing some properties. We really like to operate on a product-by-product case. I don't think you can make a sweeping statement about any property--it's really on a case-by-case basis. There are great partnerships we have right now and those folks are doing great jobs making those games, and I say, "Let 'em go!" There are other properties where, in the future, we'll want to eventually take control.

GS: Now you said you're perfectly happy with the work some of your partners are doing. Give me an example of one of the best games based on a Warner Bros. film being made by an outside publisher.

SR: Well, I think Electronic Arts has been doing a great job with Harry Potter. It's a great franchise for Warner Bros., it's beloved around the world, and I think EA does a great job with it.

GS: It also sells OK too...

SR: [Laughing] Yeah, maybe two or three units here and there. But there's a great example of a partnership that works really well which we wouldn't want to change. As for the future, I wish I could tell you more. We've got 12 titles in development, and only two or three of which are public knowledge. We've got some great licenses and we also have some great IP which I can't wait to show folks next year.

GS: So what, specifically, are you spending this $500 million on?

SR: We're not just investing in the games I just mentioned. We're also investing in the infrastructure to bring these games to market. We're starting a new production studio in the Seattle area which will run all of these projects. So we'll have over 30 positions opening up in the next 12 months. We're hiring producers, artists, designers, to staff the huge infrastructure we have to build to house and run $500 million worth of product.

GS: So a lot of this will be spent on internal development as well?

SR: Absolutely. I'm very bullish on internal development. I strongly believe in acquisition, and would like to see Warner Bros. acquire more developers over time. I also believe strongly in building an internal support structure. Developers need care and attention from publishers in order to bring a good product to market. They need services like QA, they need localization help, they need marketing help. They also need design, art, and engineering help on occasion.

GS: Well, you come from an independent development background at Monolith, which Warner Bros. bought and made the backbone of WBIE's internal development structure...

SR: Yes, currently Monolith is the only internal studio we have, and Monolith is awesome in the first-person shooter space. But I need other developers as well. I need great Wii developers, I need great Kids' developers, I need great developers that work on licenses, I need great DS...well, gosh, what don't I need! So our goal over the next few years is to either acquire or partner long-term to fill all the other niches we need as well.

GS: Well I know Monolith so far has released games on the PC, Xbox 360, and PlayStation 3. Do you plan on ramping up your Wii and DS development?

SR: Absolutely. Warner Bros intends on being a true, full-fledged publisher. If you look at EA and Activision, they're in all the genres, they're on all the platforms. That's where we want to be. I want Monolith to keep doing what they're doing, but I also want to get someone that can make a game for a 10-year-old girl looking for a DS game.

GS: Do you think TimeWarner's massive corporate structure will hinder your attempts to acquire and expand development talent quickly?

SR: Well $500 million is a lot of cash to throw around. Just since I came on board eight months ago, we've put 12 products in the pipeline. I'd say that's pretty darn fast! So so far, Warner Bros. has proven pretty nimble, and they've naturally proven to be an asset. We're doing things with their other departments like film, TV, animation, and direct-to-video. I don't think I could do all that at another publisher.

GS: OK, one of those 12 products in development we know of is Project Origin--aka the game formerly known as F.E.A.R. 2. I know Vivendi Games owns the name, but other than that, how will it be different from F.E.A.R.?

SR: It won't. The stories the same, we still own all the assets. We didn't have to deviate at all beyond the name change.

GS: But Monolith is also developing Condemned 2, correct?

SR: Yes, they are.

GS: So, other than the fact your main internal developer is making the game, what is WBIE's involvement in the game?

SR: We have none.

GS: OK. And as far as Speed Racer goes, how involved are Larry and Andy Wachowski, the directors?

SR: The Wachowskis have been awesome. They've lent us many of the art assets from the film, and...well, I can't really say anymore.

GS: So earlier you mentioned genre. Besides the shooters that Monolith makes and the kids' DS games you expressed a desire to make, what genres are you interested in?

SR: Everything.

GS: Does that include massively multiplayer online role-playing games? I know Monolith's sole MMORPG, the Matrix Online, didn't go as well as planned...

SR: Well, you never know what the future will bring, but it's not a high priority for me right now. There are so many other high priorities. The Wii is hot, handhelds are huge. So it's not a big priority for me right now.

GS: Well, the reason I ask is because one of the main reasons EA bought BioWare was to get the rights to its still-unnamed MMORPG. So WBIE has no similar interests or plans down the line?

SR: [Pause] I doubt it, but I understand why they're excited about it. Let me just say I'm a very product-oriented woman and if it was the right product, I would go there.

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