Talk to our agent

Talk to our agent: By Howard Wen. In the rapidly consolidating world of computer gaming, you need more than a good idea to get ahead.

Published September 28, 1998 7:00PM (EDT)

The computer-game industry has a reputation for informality. It's a funky, fun world in which all you need to make your name is a great idea and some programming chops. Right?

Maybe not. The game industry, thanks to its own success and the wave of corporate consolidation that has recently swept over it, is becoming more like the rock 'n' roll business. Making video games is a group effort, requiring the talents of programmers, graphic artists and designers. And much like garage bands just starting out, game-developer startups aiming for the big time are increasingly needing to seek talent representation -- that is, agents.

"The industry is composed of large, well-funded, well-managed publishers and small, under-capitalized and often poorly managed developers," says game software agent Bob Jacob. "These parties can hardly talk to one another, let alone understand one another."

"From the publisher's point of view, we may be seen as an acceptable component of the process or even as an unnecessary evil," says Jacob's fellow agent and business partner, Clyde Grossman. "But our role is to present a coherent package of game concept, resources, time and budget to the appropriate publisher. Some (enlightened) publishers understand that our involvement benefits them, and that we work with our clients to lessen the likelihood of unexpected schedule delays or budget over-runs."

Says Steve Chan, president of Revenant, a game developer that uses the services of a game agent: "Who you know and how well you know them and their track records is primary to how you do business. By having close connections and ties to various key individuals in the industry, an agent is able to get your product seen by those individuals who ultimately make the decisions. Moving past the first tier of assistant producers, etc. as quickly as possible, is one of the most important things in getting a decision made on your product."

Software agents emphasize that they aren't following a Hollywood model in their industry. "Like [agents representing bands in] the music industry, game agents represent teams," says Susan Lewis, Revenant's agent, who founded her own game software agency, ThinkBIG, in San Francisco a year ago and currently represents a roster of five development teams. "This is probably one of the reasons Hollywood agents have been unable to make much progress in the game industry -- it's a less familiar model to them."

Skim through the latest issues of one of the popular video game magazines -- Next Generation or GamePro, for example -- and you'll see Lewis' point: It's not unusual now for a development team's names to be mentioned as frequently and prominently as information about the games themselves.

However, it's not game developers' growing celebrity status that's creating the need for agency representation but a more practical, money-related one: "Budgets are growing larger and larger (average $1.5 million for one [video game console] title), and the key contacts are constantly changing," Lewis says. "The developers need someone on their side who knows the key players, what to expect from a deal, what to watch out for in the contracts -- [someone who] will be persuasive and persistent (and tactful) enough to get the deal signed."

Upon graduating from Brandeis University, Lewis went to work as a technical recruiter in Massachusetts and then in the Bay Area, mostly for the game software industry. Anticipating the business opportunity in representing talented unknowns in video and computer game development, she formed ThinkBIG. Her most notable representation to date was for BMI Interactive's "Grand Theft Auto" -- a game in which players steal cars and resell them while evading the law, which caused quite a stir in the media earlier this year.

"I see my profession being as critical to the game industry as agents are to Hollywood, the music industry, book publishing and every other entertainment industry," Lewis says. "The demand is certainly going to increase, and that will mean room for more agents."

So will most developers in the near future need formal representation? Martin Walfisz, president of Novastorm, a game developer that is another of Lewis' clients, says it all depends. "Inexperienced developers without a track record will probably always benefit from an agent -- this industry is very hit-driven, and without a proven track-record it's almost impossible to attract attention. Experienced and well-known developers mostly don't need an agent to get in front of the right people, but having an agent on their side might perhaps get them a better deal. It also depends on how involved the developer wants to be in the negotiation process -- just focusing on development (which is what the developer is good at anyway) and having an agent take care of the negotiations might be preferable for some developers."

Do game-industry agents have much influence on the creative product?

"We are extremely involved during the concept phase -- before the publisher has seen anything," Grossman says. "We work extensively with our clients on their presentation, even suggesting concepts, story lines and game play ideas. And we work with our clients on their proposal, reviewing the resource plan, schedule and budget."

But, Grossman adds, "Once a project is under way, it's our job to get out of the way. During the development process, we actively monitor the progress and offer suggestions and counsel but only step in if a problem arises. It's our experience that alerts us to potential problems, and our goal is to solve problems before the publisher even knows they exist."

It's also becoming more difficult for the new or unpublished game developer to grab the attention of a major game label like Electronic Arts or Activision. As the industry continues to grow, publishers are merging or buying up smaller competitors, and seasonal gluts of look-alikes (witness all the spin-offs and clones inspired by "Quake" and "Deer Hunter") compete for limited shelf space.

"There are indeed a limited number of publishers with very strong distribution," Lewis says. "It's not that little guys are squeezed out; it's that you want to grab the attention of a rapidly consolidating group of key publishers. Going with a [smaller] publisher means less shelf space and, likely, drastically lower sales."

All of this micromanaging and hand-holding for game developers may sound a bit overdone. But it's just a sign that things have gotten scarier and more financially risky in the game business. The Interactive Digital Software Association, the industry's trade organization, estimates $5.1 billion in total earnings last year from the sales of game software for both personal computers and video game consoles. But, as players' expectations from the latest in video and computer gaming hardware increase, game production costs have gone up dramatically in just the past few years.

"Personally, I'm much more interested in game play," says Lewis. "Unfortunately, many U.S. publishers are more concerned with technology. The European market -- the U.K. in particular -- tends to be the opposite. Most of the great games have already been made -- I realize this whenever I play old '80s coin-ops. They were fun because they had to focus on game play. Technology was so basic at the time."

Today, then, both technology and quality of game play must make room for one more element in the game industry: clout. For game developers, the word "player" now has more than one meaning.

By Howard Wen

Howard Wen writes frequently for Salon Technology.

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