The videogame media covers a lot. Mostly they cover games. Sometimes they cover platforms, or game accessories, and they’ll do the occasional riff on geek culture. But they hardly ever talk about people. That’s pretty weird. In virtually every other field, coverage of people dominates the media: Imagine business journalism that discussed the market but didn’t mention CEOs and corporate leaders. Imagine movie journalism that reviewed films but didn’t talk about the actors, directors, and producers, music journalism that covered songs without talking about the singers and songwriters. It’s hard to imagine.
In fact, most of the time, the media is so focused on talking about people that they will ignore, say, mass revolutions against oppressive theocracies, in order to have more time to talk about dead pop stars. But not gaming: We never talk about people if we can help it. It’s like there’s some dark and terrible secret about videogames: “they’re made by people! Videogames are made by PEOPLE!” (Apologies to Charlton Heston.)
Videogames are made by people, and people are what we’re going to talk about today – important, interesting people in the game industry, people that you should know about. It’s a particularly good time to talk about people in gaming right now. It’s a time of turmoil, a Great Recession. Videogame companies are cutting staff with a chain-gun, even as top people are walking away from positions of power to try brave new things.
My friend Greg Costikyan wrote an eloquent screed about people and games over 15 years ago, decrying the fact that game companies wouldn’t talk about the people behind their games. As in most things, Costikyan was ahead of the curve in calling this out. So I’ll start my discussion of people in the games industry by talking about Greg Costikyan.
Just last month, Costikyan shut down his most recent venture, Manifesto Games. Manifesto began in September 2005; Costikyan literally announced the vision and business model of Manifesto in The Escapist, in his seminal article “Death to the Games Industry!” Costikyan was spot- on in his vision, though too early to the market with Manifesto. This wasn’t the first time – the man who gave us Paranoia, Toon, and the Star Wars RPG also did the first million player online game, micropayment mini-games before Runescape, and mobile games before iPhone. Whatever Costikyan’s next move is, it’s a safe bet that that it’ll be where gaming is headed, too.
Costikyan’s not the only creative genius ready for a new engagement. Three others come to mind. Mark DeLoura is the former EIC of Game Developer Magazine, the Editor of the Game Programming Gems series of books (which sit on a lot of developer book shelves across the world), serves on the advisory board of GDC and on the board of the IGDA, and has been in technical direction and developer relations since the Nintendo 64 era. With his former employer, GreenScreen Interactive, having been crushed by the 2008 recession, DeLoura is certain to step into another high profile role soon.
Scott Foe, formerly profiled on The Escapist as one of “the next generation of top gamemakers,” has left his executive producer position at Nokia. Foe’s most recent game, Reset Generation, was the best-reviewed and best-selling game on the new N-Gage platform; his prior game, Pocket Kingdom, was the best-reviewed and most-played multiplayer game on the old N-Gage. Succeeding with N-Gage proves Foe is the Quentin Tarantino of videogames; indie, intelligent, edgy – and able to make art from dross. Watch for him to take over a new game project end-to-end and score another “10.”.
A good role player knows that it’s not who starts the game, but who finishes it that counts. That’s Wolfgang Engel, the man who wrote the book on graphics programming – literally, he wrote the ShaderX series of books. As the Lead Graphics Programmer for R*’s core technology group, he most-recently helped to ship GTAIV. Engel brings you points in the paint: What is it worth to have a guy that can single-handedly raise your review score by one point (for pretty)? It’s worth everything – making Wolfgang Engel a “rock star” in his own right. Engel is currently taking a sabbatical to do research into next-gen graphics programming, but stay tuned for his next move.
Some major players have already made their moves: Jay Cohen, Laura Fryer, and of course Will Wright. Jay Cohen was Ubisoft’s masterful Vice President of US Publishing, and had a hand in selling almost every game that Ubi introduced in the US since 1999, including recent commercial hits like Assassin’s Creed. (And had you heard of Ubisoft before 1999?) Now Cohen works for Jerry Bruckheimer. When Hollywood moguls try to make games, they usually fail. Whether or not Bruckheimer’s games will prove to be world-class will rely largely on Cohen’s ability to deliver on the promise of exciting new intellectual property development. If Cohen’s scorecard from Ubi is any indication, Bruckheimer made a great pick-up.
Executive producer Laura Fryer had been with Microsoft since 1995, and saw in the creation of Microsoft Zone.com, Xbox, and Xbox 360; as executive producer she was responsible for shipping Gears of War and Gears of War 2. Earlier this year, Fryer was recruited by Warner Brothers as general manager of its Seattle studios. Watch for titles under her supervision to ship from Warner Brothers Interactive in the next thirty-six months.
And then of course there’s the biggest move of all: Will Wright departed Electronics Arts to dedicate full time to Stupid Fun Club, his “entertainment think tank.” Will Wright is the Tiger Woods of game development: With a career that spans from SimCity to Spore, and includes the best-selling PC franchise of all time, The Sims, Will Wright is the most-celebrated creative director the games industry has ever known. He’s both a Developer’s Choice Lifetime Achievement Award winner and an Academy of Interactive Arts and Sciences Hall of Fame inductee, and he could conceivably be making games for another thirty years: Our industry is going to have a hard time coming up with new trophies with which to honor him. While EA is an investor in Stupid Fun Club, Wright’s departure sent EA’s stock into a temporary nose dive, although it soon recovered.
Wall Street can’t seem to remember that games are made by people, either I guess. Maybe this will help them remember.
Alexander Macris is co-founder and publisher of The Escapist, as well as president and CEO of its parent company, Themis Media. He has also written two tabletop wargames, conceived and edited the book “MMORPGs for Dummies,” and designed the award-winning web game “Heroes Mini.” After hours, he serves as president of Triangle Game Initiative, the Raleigh-Durham area’s game industry association, and runs a weekly tabletop roleplaying game campaign of concentrated awesomeness.