DICE 2008: Assholes and Non-Assholes, the Story of Massive Black

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“[Massive Black] was started as an idea that if we put together the greatest group of creative talent, the industry would have no choice but to work with us,” said Jason Manley, CEO of Massive Black, exemplifying Verbinski’s madness to the Nth degree.

Manley started at the legendary Black Isle Studios, then started his own creative venture, conceptart.org, in 2002. He calls conceptart.org “a way for artists to post their works, get input, etc.” It’s a community-driven site with over 100,000 members, serving 9 million page views per month. And it’s all about artists helping artists make art. The kind of Utopian ideal only an artist could dream up, and only the internet can support.

Manley founded Massive Black in a fit of madness, using conceptart.org, non-profit art schools founded in places like San Francisco and Austin, and creative conferences held in Shanghai and Seattle to create awareness of his company, their vision and talent, and inspire up-and-coming artists to be the best they can be.

Massive Black makes concept art and other visual assets for their clients – mostly game studios – allowing those companies to focus on what they do best and still provide their internal teams with the best possible artistic samples to inspire their work – outsourcing, in other words, artistic genius. Listening to Manley describe the workings of his operation, it seems as if his business plan must be crafted in blood, spelling only one word: madness.

Manley refused an offer of venture capital funding that would have subsidized Massive Black for perhaps years, and left him with 100 percent control of the company. All he’d have to give up was 100 percent of the IP on the project he was being hired for. What sounded like a dream come true turned out to be a nightmare, as his entire creative team, one by one, revealed they hated the project. It didn’t fit with the company’s identity, or the brand they were trying to build. There was money, but no joy. A day before the project was due, Manley called his would-be investors and told them they could keep their money. It’s not about money, he says. It’s about not becoming old, cynical and jaded.

But wait, there’s more.

The company would later walk away from an acquisition deal that promised to dramatically increase the size of the operation, and its profits. Turns out Manley just didn’t see eye to eye with the game publisher seeking to acquire him and his team, so after months of rapid build up, working in an office under construction, and laboring to bring the project to fruition, Massive Black walked away from the deal. He says they still work with the publisher in question, they just aren’t owned by them.

And still, there’s more.

According to Manley, 80 percent of the companies seeking to “acquire” start-ups fall into the first of what he calls the four categories of such suitors, those who aim to “look up your skirt, learn as much as they can about what you do, and then go and try to do as much as they can without you.”

The second group just wants to buy you outright for as little as they can get away with, usually for the price of your payroll. They’ll make the offer sound sweet, freeing you of the burden of finding the cash to pay your employees each month, but in reality these offers almost always undervalue your organization, and selling under those circumstances can be fatal.

Manley’s most terrifying horror story of start-up creative work involved the third category of acquisition, a deal he almost entered into that not only went sour, but gutted his company in the process. He says friends and colleagues warned him about negotiating with the potential suitor, telling him he was an artist, not a businessman, and the people he was dealing with were jackals. But he didn’t listen until he was sent portions of an email discussing the deal – an email he wasn’t supposed to see – characterizing the management of Massive Black as “the head” and saying if they cut that off, the body would follow. But it was too late. He says they ultimately poached his key management.

The fourth type of company, Manley says wistfully – as if speaking of unicorns, creatures beautiful, but hard to believe are real – are those “that want to acquire, have the money and will pay it because they have no other choice.” Manley says dealing with those people is the position you want to be in as a start-up company. He divides the game industry into two types of people “assholes, and non-assholes. I want to work with the non-assholes.”

It’s hard to tell, listening to Manley’s horror stories, if his is a story of good or of evil, of right or of wrong. You can see the passion in his eyes as he talks about his company, founded from the ashes of Black Isle Studios, and nurtured on a diet of gumption and dreams. But it’s not clear his path is a path any sane man would follow. Madness, it would seem, sometimes has a price. Which is why, I suppose, so many people stay sane.

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