The videogame industry is going through an identity crisis. Make that an anonymity crisis.
It may be easy for many to rattle off the films that Steven Spielberg has directed or those that Tom Cruise has starred in, but when it comes to bestselling gaming franchises, the creatives behind them remain virtually unknown.
Jason Rubin (“Jak and Daxter”), Lorne Lanning (“Oddworld: Munch’s Oddysee”), Ray Muzyka (“Baldur’s Gate”) and Alex Seropian (“Halo”), among many others, may have a following among hardcore gamers, but their names aren’t immediately recognizable among the rest of the entertainment biz, let alone most consumers.
Instead, gamers may be able to identify Rock Star Games as having produced the “Grand Theft Auto” franchise, id Software for the “Doom” actioners and EA Sports for making the “Madden Football” games.
That is beginning to trouble a lot of top developers as the vidgame industry has exploded over the years to become an $11 billion-a-year biz, topping films’ take at the domestic theatrical B.O. There are signs all that may soon change as videogames become a bigger force in the entertainment world.
“We’re still a new industry and we’re not that well understood outside of the gaming industry,” says Naughty Dog co-prexy Jason Rubin, which developed the “Jak and Daxter” and “Crash Bandicoot” franchises for Sony’s PlayStation. “There hasn’t been much noise in the world before to attract attention to us. The attention is out there now.”
Developers like Rubin are starting to make noise at conferences with speeches proclaiming that they’re not getting the respect they deserve from the game publishers that hire them.
And gaming vets like Will Wright, the creator of the wildly successful “Sims” franchise, which has generated $1 billion in sales for Electronic Arts, are being courted by Hollywood to develop film and television properties.
But why are game designers making so much noise now?
The videogame biz is still a young industry — Sony introduced its first PlayStation console in 1994. But since then, the major game publishers have been forced to keep up with an explosion of interest from consumers, who are spending more time playing games and less watching TV or movies. The need to keep up with gamers’ expectations has forced publishers to create more innovative games and take advantage of advanced consoles. In the process, they’ve evolved from hardware and software companies to entertainment businesses whose most valuable assets walk out the door each day.
“The business now is all about the talent,” says CAA agent and Xbox co-creator Seamus Blackley. “The talent really is key.”
But gamemakers complain about talent not being credited on a game’s packaging, not being allowed to speak at conferences or take credit for even having worked on a game. Others say they’re not invited to the launch parties for the games they spent three years creating. “I don’t know of a single team that doesn’t want their name put on the box,” Rubin says. “That team has a value. The consumer needs to know who they are.”
Gamemakers do not have the support of a guild like the Directors Guild of America. Developers are starting to make the first moves to create one, but hesitate because most game developers are employed by publishers.
Publishers say they have a reason for not spotlighting individual game designers or even teams: They fear their employees may be hired away by competitors. “There are very few talented people in our industry,” Rubin says. “There’s an attempt to keep them.”
Instead of promoting talent, publishers have invested in branding their various divisions, with the idea that a popular label will help sell both good and bad games. For example, Electronic Arts has its sports arm, EA Sports; EA Big, for what it terms “adrenaline” rushes; and EA Games for sci-fi and simulations.
And that’s what players in the gaming industry want to see change. “Will Wright and Lorne Lanning have followings,” Blackley says. “If we can help everyone monetize that and build a better business around that, we’ll see a change. You don’t change that by having developers storm the castle saying they want their names on the box.”
Developers admit that behemoths like Electronic Arts are starting to take notice of their talent’s needs. The company’s luxurious new L.A. studio symbolizes not only the need for increased room within publishers for creative talent, but the growing competition for them, particularly as the skills necessary to design a game cross over more with other media like the special f/x and animation industries.
“The publishers are at a crossroads,” says CAA agent Larry Shapiro, who is focusing primarily on vidgames. “They’re starting to understand and build into their infrastructure ways to deal with and create talent.”
But designers say they’re not doing enough. Because publishers are starting to resemble Hollywood studios and greenlight only sequels to successful franchises rather than originals, some top gamemakers are launching studios to create the games they want to make. They’re also seeking independent financing to fund them.
There are signs that game designers are becoming more recognizable in Hollywood. The major talent agencies, like CAA, UTA, ICM, Endeavor and William Morris, for example, have actively started to rep more gamemakers and are looking for ways to leverage their storytelling talents and cross them over to the film and TV arenas.
“We’re in the courting stage,” Shapiro says. “We’re still trying to get (the two industries) to date.”
The deals are coming.
A number of feature film and television screenwriters have made the move to publishers to create games — Danny Bilson and Bruce Fierstein worked on the most recent James Bond actioner, “Everything or Nothing.”
But vets of the games biz are only just starting to cross over to traditional entertainment.
Wright, for example, inked a first-look development deal last summer with Fox to develop TV projects for the network. Jordan Mechner, who created Ubisoft’s “Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time” is now adapting the game as a pic for Jerry Bruckheimer Films.
“Talent is at the center of it all,” Blackley says. “Every time you go to someone and say here’s a radical way your business can be better, you have to be able to prove that it works. It can’t be based on ego.”