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SxSW: Spark Unlimited’s Allen On The Age Of Access

SxSW: Spark Unlimited’s Allen On The Age Of Access

March 27, 2007 | By N. Evan Van Zelfden

March 27, 2007 | By N. Evan Van Zelfden
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Continuing our ongoing coverage of the South by Southwest festival and conference in Austin, TX, Gamasutra sat down with Craig Allen, CEO of independent developer Spark Unlimited to discuss where game development is headed with digital distribution, the shift that publishers are undergoing, and how film history gives us a hint at the future of games.

Spark Unlimited is located in Sherman Oaks, with a staff of 110, and is developing three new IPs. But in the end, what Allen finds most compelling are the social ramification of games, how a high-octane experience can start to carry a message...

Start by telling us a little bit about Spark Unlimited.

Craig Allen: Spark Unlimited is a creative community of creative game developers that are focused on making high-quality, AAA game experiences for mass-market audiences.

Have you got a structure where employees vote on the projects you work on?

CA: We are an employee owned company, which I think is kind of unique, in that we set up the organization – kind of like we were saying in the digital distribution panel, I really think you’re going to have an evolution into much more diversified market structures.

Our games are fifty to a hundred people to make these next generation game experiences, but you’re going to have marketplace opportunities that could be served by an individual of a few individuals. Having a company structure that allows us to incentivize everyone to participate was really important. And over time, we’re hopefully going to be able to empower people to create games for many different marketplaces. And that are more personal than kind of what we do right now.

Are any of your employees working remotely?

CA: Not right now, no. Part of what we are looking to do is we’ve been talking to some people about opening up some other locations.

How did the company get started?

CA: We started, really, with a desire to create a different kind of creative community. I spent a number of years at the Walt Disney Company, with Disney Interactive. I went and worked at the Jim Henson Company and kind of headed up their digital initiative.

The thing that I could see was there were a lot of great game companies, there were studios that understood media, broadly speaking, but the media studios had really divided their business lines according to platform, or ‘outlet for a consumer.’ For example, you have publishing for books, you have television, you have film, you have online, you have new technologies, you have educational publishing, the video game segment.

What digital consumers really want is a content lifestyle. They don’t necessarily want to recognize a specific device as being the transactional source of the experience. What was happening was you could have some really great experiences in one category, because it was well funded and well subsidized, but the political dynamics and compensation structures created not necessarily as much support for a digital audience in other platforms, if any, because you have all the things you get when you segment a business along lines of business.

What I felt was really missing was a business focused on content creation, independent of a specific method of distribution. We don’t think of ourselves as a game company. We think of ourselves as a content company that’s anchored by gaming.

When our games succeed, we look to find and work with partners that can expand that experience so that a digital can find something meaningful wherever they travel across the brand value.

Although financially, it’s very hard to be independent of platforms, isn’t it? Don’t you have to be tied to a publisher?

CA: It is. But again, that’s one of the shifts we’re seeing. Game publishers right now really understand the game business. They don’t really understand as well a media business. I think you’re starting to see some publishers try to expand their definition to include a media business.

It’s a very different framework of evaluation. If you’re doing a game, what you really care about is that it works, it’s fun, maybe there’s technology risks that you’re mitigating through the production process, and you’re kind of obsessively looking for the player control and the uniqueness of the experience in terms of the product.

Is this like Lorne Lanning, only you’re trying to do Call of Duty? Is that what the company is?

CA: You know, it’s about creating drivers of content. Lorne Lanning I think is taking a step further than we have. If you think of kind of the television model, Jerry Bruckheimer doesn’t keep a thousand people on staff. He creates an opportunity of creative business, that when it’s invested in, and there’s secure distribution, they staff up to a thousand people and they do Pirates of the Caribbean. Our industry doesn’t really have that because the value driver has historically been the team.

As production values in our industry start to standardize, and when you have budgets that require different groups working together along lines of specialization, we’re starting to have more flexibility in how projects a structured and how they’re run.

Lorne is a good example of someone who’s trying to drive forward and saying, ‘Hey, let me create the framework of value, get the investors, and then we’ll figure out who makes it, but it’s not necessarily Oddworld.’

For that to work, are you doing new IP?

CA: We are. Call of Duty wasn’t Call of Duty when we started working on it. It became that as we worked through the process. We’ve announced another title that we’re working on with Codemasters called Turning Point: Fall of Liberty, which is another new IP. And then we’ve got a third IP with is going to launch – at least from a public awareness perspective – in a few months.

So you’re doing three projects at a time, and they’re staggered?

CA: Yeah. We’re about to start our third property, which be able to move us more toward the episodic gaming direction.

Are you doing any work on Call of Duty now?

CA: No... we leave that with Activision.

Now I notice Gamasutra has run an article going through...

CA: Contracts, and everything else. Yeah, that’s pretty cool.

Is that the word to describe it, cool?

CA: [laughs] I don’t know. I certainly don’t wish anyone the legal experience that comes from such things.

Is it common for an independent developer to have legal troubles with publishers, or..?

CA: You know, there’re certainly, in our industry, other cases that have had legal issues that have surfaced from time to time. I think you can find a lot of case studies and case history if you do some research in that front. It’s not an atypical thing to have a contract dispute.

I think one of the things that’s really changed, and why you’re going to see more litigation in our industry as we move forward is just the numbers have gotten so big. If you had three guys in a barn, and a contact, and they felt they weren’t treated fairly under the agreement, the damages from those three individuals would probably be less than the cost of actually having a facilitated legal dialog, because the cost of litigation is so high.

If you have a hundred people with a contract and you have the cost of damages from a contract dispute, [it] could be significant. There’s much more of a basis to say, ‘okay, let’s figure out who’s right, who’s wrong.’ I think as our industry has matured to kind of a blockbuster status, look at Peter Jackson and Lord of the Rings, right?

Creators invest enormously in the content they’re creating, under a framework where if there’s success, rewards should follow, according to a certain plan. If that plan and commitment isn’t followed – for whatever reason isn’t followed, or things change and there’s ambiguity…a more structured conversation is usually the result.

You talked about Elevation Partners in your panel discussion. Have you gotten to work with them at all?

CA: We’ve had dialog with Elevation. We haven’t worked with them, but we’re certainly interested in where they’re going, and alternative financing. Again, much like in film, when the budgets get high enough, it creates specialization. Not just with the development talent, but also with the structure of what people bring to the table. If I’m a publisher today, [I] do it all.

Think about the film industry. Studios used to do it all. They had thousands of people under contract, they had wardrobe, they had costumes, because their systems supported this all-under-one-roof structure. As the business landscape changed, they really started to focus on what they are today – primarily – which is funding sources, marketing sources.

They let people like independent production companies really drive the creative and look after production. And they let other groups do the advertising or distribution with retail. I think publishers in the game industry today have a bit of hybrid model, but I think they’re going to be pushed more and more towards saying, ‘okay, let’s focus on what we do really well.’

Which is the marketing, packaging, and distribution?

CA: Right. I think you’re in that transition place where you’re stating to see the rise of independent financing, and direct distribution is only going to accelerate that as it becomes a lot more attractive to investors.

If I try to raise capital as an independent developer, and they say, ‘how are you going to get the money back for me?’ and I say, ‘well, I work through these other people you don’t know, that I don’t know what they’re going to do,’ well, that doesn’t sound very cool.

But if I say, ‘we’re going to go out and get direct market distribution and we know we can get a certain amount of conversion rate, based on our awareness spectrum.’ Now I control that value chain, I can start bringing in capital.

So that brings about the Age of Access you mentioned during the panel discussion?

CA: Yeah. Again, I think it’s one of the most exciting times to be creating content. The big challenge is there’s still a lot of static in the channel about who’s really going to win. Is it GameTap, is it Xbox Live, is it PlaySation broadband? How do I make sure that my message isn’t lost in the noise?

That’s how you get your content to people. Is there anything that you see on the content creation side? Are there things developers should be doing for the next innovation on that side?

CA: The thing I love about the content creation side is that things like Epic’s Unreal Engine are starting to emerge as more [of] platforms. Like Microsoft’s XNA, too -- just being able to have a tool kit.

Again, it’s similar if you were to map film and technology. Film started out as a technology based industry. People created lenses, they created cameras. They created a framework of language with editing. In the early days of film, it was all about experimentation, just finding out how to do a close-up, and tell narrative was a big challenge.

Walt Disney, which is one of my favorite casebook studies, Mickey Mouse came out of synchronized sound. Putting sound to image, and that was a big deal. Then you look at this amazing progress of technology and then it flattens out, and you go years and years and years before you get to, oh, stereo. It wasn’t too long ago that theaters said ‘now in stereo.’

Games have been on this incredible arc of evolution and technology change, and you’re starting to now see a flattening of expectation from a consumer. A consumer goes into Wal-Mart, and they expect everything to have high production values. They expect everything to work. So it starts to be about ‘what are the content choices? What is my creative proposition that excites me about entering into this world?’

So what content choices excite you? What games do you look forward to creating?

CA: The thing I’m looking forward to is when we can mature past the point of having to be just about – I look at is as a 'This is Cinerama' kind of time in the industry. If you look at film that kind of started out experimental, that was like our arcade era. Then they kind of standardized, and they had a framework. They had their blockbuster era. And then when they got color and ‘This is Cinemascope,’ it became about the epic era.

We’re kind of in that epic era right now, where we’ve gone through the rudimentary ‘how does it work?’…and now we’re in these big epic experiences. Call of Duty, Medal of Honor, Gears of War, these are big production values. You hear about game budgets being over $20 million, and it’s just wow, that’s a crazy thing.

What I’m looking for – if you look at film after 'This is Cinerama,' they went into the sixties and seventies and they had production values, but really a chance to explore social commentary in the medium, experimentation in the medium, different frameworks about the medium.

I think with games, I think we’re about to enter into a time, in a few years, where we can really have some interesting social things to say about the world we live in.

Games are a participation. You have a dialog with the user. How do you reflect that? Not just in some of the games like Black and White, or Spore that Will Wright’s working on -- that user participation actually frames and changes the experience and allows you to reflect commentary about how do you play, who am I when I play, what does that mean about me as a person.

There’s going to be some really, really interesting things that come out of social-wide gaming. That’s the stuff that I’m really excited about. I think the thing that’s been holding us back from really exploring that is if you’re at the retail marketplace, there’s only so much of that you can do.

As soon as you open up this viral, peer-to-peer social gaming, digital distribution, I think you’re also going to really open up experimentation, and some crazy, crazy new dynamics in terms of what a game is all about.

What are some of the messages that you’re interested in telling? Are they political, or social...

CA: For me personally – and again, our organization is a bit of a collaborative collective, so we try to be diversified in the message, but I think at our core, the things we look to find are how can you create an exciting experience but still comment on a universal theme of ‘what’s humanity? What choices do you make? How do you define yourself?’

Games, I think, are a great place to experiment and discover more about you than maybe you knew, by offering choice, by offering a way to sample other lifestyles, other points of view, other decisions.

The thing I hope our games do over time is yes give you high-octane entertainment, but also underneath that something that encourages you to think differently about yourself and the world we live in.


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