Licensing: Live With It

“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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Some find this situation abominable. Not Spector. At the March 2003 Game Developers Conference in San Jose, CA, in his design keynote speech “Sequels & Adaptations: Design Innovation in a Risk-Averse World,” Spector took a pragmatic approach. Without addressing whether it was desirable to make licensed games, he argued that if developers can secure nothing but licensed projects, they should embrace the job and challenge themselves. Citing advantages a license gives, such as free marketing, fan buy-in, and “cool sandboxes to play in,” Spector advised developers to “find ways to innovate within [the] boundaries of player expectation and publisher need. Games are not driven by fiction, character or context. Games are driven by gameplay.”

Spector’s GDC keynote received strongly mixed reviews: “Half the audience reviled me for weeks after,” he says. “Half the audience hailed me as a hero. I figure that constituted a total success. I believe every word I said up on that stage, and [I] hoped to hell my beliefs would get people hopping mad and thinking.”

He got Greg Costikyan, anyway. A longtime industry gadfly and proponent of alternative ways to make and sell games – and Spector’s old prep-school buddy at the Horace Mann School in New York City – Costikyan posted a lengthy rebuttal on his blog. “[There’s] nothing wrong with sequels and licensed products – in moderation. The problem […] is that they’re beginning to overwhelm original work. Here we are, like Balboa, shocked with wild surmise as we face a vast unknown Pacific of enormous creative possibility – and all we can do is licensed drivel?”

Blogless himself, Spector responded on Costikyan’s home turf: “I hold up my own career as an example of the ability to do original work in someone else’s sandbox.” He observed that, apart from System Shock and Deus Ex, “every computer/videogame I’ve worked on has been a sequel or derivative. On every one of them, I had to negotiate to find my own creative space and on every one of them, I feel I succeeded.”

Spector said, “I firmly believe that, if developer and licensor (and publisher) get on the same page about what people expect – a dialogue that clearly has to be driven primarily by the licensor, I admit – you can still do creative work in someone else’s universe.”

Ironically, when he wrote this, Spector had never done an actual licensed computer game.

Two years later, he still hasn’t. But he might.

Open to Possibilities
Two years on, licensing dominates gaming even more heavily. At the Free Play independent games conference in Melbourne last month, Costikyan addressed developers in a rabble-rousing keynote speech called “Death to the Games Industry (Long Live Games)“: “We’ve explored only a tiny portion of the possible in games. [There are] doubtless dozens of commercially feasible styles not yet discovered. Innovative novels [are] published every year, and that’s a medium 300 years old.” But unless the industry changes “we’re all going to be doing nothing but making nicer road textures and better-lit car models for games with the same gameplay as *Pole Position* for all eternity.”

At Junction Point Studio, Spector is hiring his team for an unannounced fantasy game. It’s his own concept, not licensed. But he’d definitely consider a license; in fact, he looks downright wistful.

Still, all he says aloud is, “Sure, I’m interested. The right license gives you a good shot at reaching an audience that already wants — and may already have paid for something like — what you’re trying to give them.”

Is this just the musing of a startup boss looking for more funding?

Possibly. And why not? Unlike many developers, Spector can make pretty much the game he wants. Over the years, working with many designers at Origin, Looking Glass, and ION Storm, Spector has chosen a gameplay style — defined it, really — that is (as he said at the GDC) not driven by fiction, character or context. His games are affected no more by a license, or lack of it, than by the color of their CD’s jewel case.

After he designed and produced *Deus Ex* in 2000, gaming magazines and web sites started calling Spector “legendary.” He rolls his eyes at the term, but he does cop to a different and perhaps more important label: “I’m a brand.”

A Warren Spector-brand game is a story-driven roleplaying game in a highly interactive setting with a large solution space. His “immersive sims” are not about deducing the designer’s defined solutions to puzzles, but about creating rich environments where each player can try different tactics to achieve a defined goal. Every player charts a unique path through the game, and situations are carefully balanced to reward different play styles equally. It’s all about “sharing authorship of the gameplay experience with our collaborators – our players.”

This sort of approach works as well in a borrowed world as in an original. “A cool universe or a marketable character [are] almost irrelevant to the gameplay experience I think players want and deserve.”

Of course, Spector acknowledges not every property can make a good game – though in many cases this is simply because the hardware isn’t there yet. “Suppose you were running a film company in 1925 [the silent era]. Irving Berlin writes a terrific Broadway musical. Making a movie of that show would be a terrible idea, because what makes it great isn’t the ‘boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy gets girl’ story – it’s Irving Berlin’s music! That’s where we are in the game industry.” He means current game tech hasn’t yet matured even to the talking-picture stage. “For every project, we have to invent the camera all over again. And then we have to invent lighting and sound and all the characters …”

Spector thinks a lot in film terms, which is one reason the Hollywood executives like him. Another reason may possibly be his current openness to a licensing deal. He’s not saying anything about that right now. Yet as he wrote to Greg Costikyan, “A game concept occasionally crosses over to the other side of the media divide, but […] it’s far more common for content to travel the other way. With costs and schedules and risks going up, I think we’re stuck in that world for the foreseeable future, so we have to make the most of it.”

Allen Varney is a freelance writer and game designer based in Austin, Texas. His published work includes six books, three board games, and nearly two dozen role-playing game supplements.

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