Grand Theft Adaptation

Grand Theft Adaptation
Licensing: Live With It

Allen Varney | 16 Aug 2005 12:02
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"The biggest names in Hollywood want to get into games," says Warren Spector. "Movies aren't showing double-digit annual growth any more, the way the game industry does. People in Hollywood say, 'Okay, four out of five games lose money, just like movies - but if I get a hit like Halo or Grand Theft Auto I can make, what, a hundred million, 200 million? And making a game costs way less than making a movie? Wow!' So I've been meeting with lots of people - they're flying me around first class - it's just nuts."

Hollywood is interested in Warren Spector. When he's not running his new Junction Point Studios in Austin, Texas, the designer/producer is meeting with SoCal industry bigwigs who can write nine-figure checks. The execs know how to talk with him; Spector has a master's degree in Radio-TV-Film from the University of Texas - Austin, where he wrote his thesis on Warner Brothers cartoons and taught courses on film production. "I know just enough to be dangerous."

But more to the point, he has what they want. With 16 years of experience producing computer games, first for Origin (Ultima VI: The False Prophet, Ultima VII Part 2: Serpent Isle, Ultima Underworld 1 and 2, System Shock, and many more), then Looking Glass Technologies and ION Storm Austin (Deus Ex, Thief: Deadly Shadows), Spector offers what the studios prize: a track record.

"At these Hollywood meetings, the same thing has happened to me more than once, with multiple people," he says. "I describe the game I want to do. I tell them, 'I can deliver you a triple-A title for this cost.'" Spector names a high figure; no one has ever yet written a check that big. "They think it over. Then they say, 'What could you do with twice as much money?'

"I think the big media players may be here to stay this time. The Hollywood establishment mostly isn't setting up game publishing and development arms the way they have in the past; they seem more interested in partnering with people in the game business, using our expertise instead of assuming theirs translates over. It isn't just movie studios looking to get into games, it's the media conglomerates that own the movie studios. Also, the major agencies - CAA, ICM, and others - are moving into the game space, bringing their clout and packaging prowess. There's a more integrated approach to things that makes me think this time it's for real. It might even succeed."

So we'll continue to see publishers licensing movies and TV for adaptation as games. Is this syndrome, as some argue, strangling the industry? Does it mean the death of creative game design?

Not to Spector. More than perhaps anyone in the game business, Warren Spector sees licensing as an opportunity.

Betting Safe
If you write much about the electronic game industry, you can save time by defining certain phrases as macros in your word processor: "risk-averse publishers," "spiraling development costs," "studios caught in the middle," and more. The terms pepper every discussion of the benighted state of electronic gaming. Production costs rise faster than sales, so it grows ever more expensive for newcomers to enter the market. Out of thousands of games released every year, major retailers stock fewer than 200. A game may have a shelf life measured in weeks, and the top 20 titles capture the bulk of the profits. Most of the rest fail disastrously.

In this environment, the few remaining game publishers seek the known, the reliable. They seek licenses, which bring pre-sold audiences. They want developers to work on licensed games, not new concepts. "The irony," observes Spector (among many others!), "is that The Sims wasn't a licensed property, Grand Theft Auto wasn't licensed, Diablo... The big hits are the original properties. But licenses are the safe bets."

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